ARTS A HOUSE THAT ROCK BUILT
After 10 years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is nearing completion. From September, visitors to Cleveland, Ohio, will be able to pay homage to Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and, er, Joe Walsh
Sunday 02 April 1995
The RARHOFAM is $92m of refined idol worship, and when it opens in September it will occupy 150,000 square feet on the shores of Lake Erie. It is designed by IM Pei, the architect best known for his pyramid at the Louvre. It is championed by many influential figures in the music industry. It is the first, the best, the only, the ultimate. Everyone I met up there talked of it as a legacy and a repository: a legacy to the memory of the greats, a legacy to the way pop music has shaped our culture, a repository of the artefacts it has inspired, a legacy to the songs we adore. "Could it also be a huge disaster?" I asked. Hardly, they say, "it's a valuable repository".
I was taken on a hard-hat tour of the foundations by Tim Moore, the communications director. Moore has been in public relations for about 10 years, so he knows how to sell a product (his ansaphone message signs off with "Keep rocking!"). Here, he points, will be a section on what it's like to be on tour with the Rolling Stones; here is an exhibit devoted to one-hit wonders; here's something called "Little Richard's House of Style"; here's a wall provisionally and terribly titled "Don't Knock the Rock", about the wall of hostility music has faced over the years; and there's an area dedicated to Seattle in the Nineties. Also, I am told, people will be able to "Forrest Gump and morph into historic footage. They will be able to jump on stage with Elvis, and then jump on stage with the Supremes." On our way out, we pass an area reserved for four Trabant cars used on U2's Zoo TV tour. There will be much, much more of this kind of thing, most groaning under a mass of multimedia whipples, many with names like "artist driven platforms", "performer focus units" and "social experience exhibits".
That's the Museum. Above it will sit a hallowed and hushed place, far less brash, dedicated to a peculiarly American concept - the Hall of Fame. For the past 10 years famous musicians have been inducted at a private party, held most years at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. The stars sing and play as they are inducted, often in black tie, and there then follows one almighty jam session, at which figures who have previously expressed great loathing for each other link arms and sing "Melting Pot" and "Ebony and Ivory". There have been about 120 inductees so far, including all the people you'd expect, like the Beatles and the Stones and Bob Dylan, and a few you might not - Bobby "Blue" Bland, Ruth Brown, The Impressions.
Each year these luminaries blah about how honoured they are, and how great it will be when the Hall of Fame is built. But only last January could they hold any conviction that it would be built, such has been its troubled history.
In 1985, Ahmet Ertegun, chairman of Atlantic Records, talked of an "obligation" to recognise the great contributions people had made to American culture, not least those black musicians who had received scant recognition in the past. He spoke of how rock music was seldom taken seriously as popular art because it was too successful. And he proposed a hall of fame similar to those that honoured American sports. He hoped it would be built the following year.
Seven cities submitted tenders to host this institution: Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco, New Or-leans, Chicago, New York and Mem-phis. Cleveland soon emerged as the front runner, not least because the city fathers promised giant heaps of cash.
Before he took on his present job, Tim Moore ran the PR for the state of Ohio, and he still has the power to pull even the most reluctant tourists here. "Cleveland has been treated so unfairly," he says, referring to the commonly held New York view that his city is the crotch of the world. Randy Newman wrote an ironic song about how the capital of the rust belt had turned into "the city of light". "We've been the butt of so many jokes," Moore says, "but we've come through and we're now vibrant." When the steel industry bottomed out in the late Seventies the economy diversified to include the headquarters of many finance and oil companies; BP has its American headquarters in the main square.
But still: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland? Oh yes, Moore says, Cleveland already has many crowd-pleasing attractions. There is the world-famous Cleveland orchestra, the only Sea World park in the Midwest, and the pro-Football Hall of Fame is only 45 minutes away.
I suggested to Moore that Cleve-land wasn't everyone's idea of a rock'n' roll town. He said: "It should be, it will be!" He smiled wide, and began reeling off the list. This begins with Alan Freed, the man said to have coined the phrase rock'n'roll when he was working at the local radio station. During that time the Cleveland Arena hosted what was called the first rock'n'roll concert, the Moondog's Coronation Ball. Then there was Upbeat, the Sixties rock'n'roll TV show, syndicated from Cleveland to 99 cities; and the first concert that Elvis ever did north of the Mason-Dixon line; and the fact that WMMS Radio in Cleveland was voted the Number One rock'n'roll radio station in Rolling Stone for seven years in a row, before someone at the magazine found that the station had been rigging the ballot. Moore says: "Stars like Bobby Womack, Joe Walsh and Nine Inch Nails are from the Cleveland area. [Joe Walsh! Believe it!] And Otis Redding was leaving here when his plane crashed."
Many people have not expressed such enthusiasm for the Hall of Fame and Museum. The most common complaint is that rock is - or should be - a living, screaming, rebellious thing, and that any monument necessarily ossifies it.
Most objections seem to come from British artists uninfected by the feverish American desire to constantly honour and salute. "I don't hold with all this Hall of Fame bullshit," Elvis Costello told Rolling Stone a few years ago. "This . . . nostalgia for things that are barely past us is very difficult for me. It's all a consequence of making rock'n'roll really important. America's the only country that thinks this way about rock 'n'roll. Everywhere else it's just pop music. Over here it's culture - because it's the only damn culture you've got."
David Bowie also called it bullshit. He was asked what he would do if included in the Hall, and he replied: "Screw 'em! I'm not even remotely interested. I know my own worth. I don't need a medal. Would I turn it down? Absolutely."
Mick Jagger has called it "the phantom temple of rock", such has been the delay in its construction. The nine lost years are blamed on a succession of ineffectual directors and the bad choice of original location (an adjunct to a shopping complex downtown). Cost has something to do with it too: the price of the enterprise has increased six-fold from the opening $15m.
IM Pei has been involved almost from the beginning, and alongside his trademark pyramid motif (called, for reasons unexplained, "a tent") he has included a plaza with a curved section that represents the tonearm of a record deck. As he says in the press pack, it was intended "to echo the energy" of the music it glorifies.
Not just anyone can enter his Hall of Fame. Despite the sniping, competition for inclusion is tough. There are two basic rules: an artist must have "changed the direction" of popular music, and they must have had their first record released at least 25 years ago - "to keep the influence of current politics at a minimum," Moore says. Each year between 12 and 15 nominees are selected by a committee of 30 music executives and critics. The nominations then go out to 900 people throughout the world - performers, producers, managers, writers, execs - and the top seven or eight vote- winners are inducted, alongside those considered important influences and "non-performers".
This is a serious business. American GQ has reported how 5,000 hopeful Moody Blues fans signed a petition requesting nomination. The petition was delivered to a meeting, and one of those present reported that "five minutes later, the Moody Blues were a dead issue".
But their fans should take heart. "Nights in White Satin" might still feature in the Museum. Now that the building is finally happening, the acquisitions people are vacuuming up material from all over. They can't believe their luck. "We have some really fabulous Sid Vicious and Sex Pistols items," says Ileen Sheppard Gallagher, the director of exhibitions who arrived from the Library of Congress in Washington DC. "We have some of the props from the movie The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle. We have the globe that was used at the beginning, and the Sid Vicious doll. We also have some great Patti Smith stuff, including some postcards she wrote to her mother when she was on tour with her band. We have a Patti Smith look-alike doll, which is going to marry the Sid Vicious doll. Then we have something from the Dictators - the boxing outfit and the cape that was worn on the cover of the first album."
Gallagher says she's a Sinatra fan, but is learning about rock music fast. She is also learning how tricky it can be dealing with the rock world. "We're not working with people who are used to dealing with museums. We're dealing with rock stars and their managers and record companies and their strange deadlines . . . Trying to get them to sign forms and send us material is a very, very involved process."
Gallagher says her museum will be neither Hard Rock Caf nor dusty Smithsonian. She promises something exciting and buzzy, but also something that will convey rock's social and cultural significance. "I think a lot of museums are really going to have to pick up speed and realise that unless they have more of a dialogue with their audience they're not going to survive."
What will the dialogue say? "Well, Stephen Sprouse is designing the mannequins for us, so the mannequins will have rock'n'roll poses and rock'n'roll gestures. They will have attitude. With those sorts of things we're really trying to pump up the volume."
Some of her prize exhibits include Sting's Synchonicity costume, Hen- drix's handwritten lyrics for "Purple Haze", Lennon's Rickenbacker, and Buddy Holly's high school diploma.
I asked what this last exhibit would tell us about the artist.
"Mmmmhmmm . . . that's a really good question. I don't think I could really address Buddy Holly's diploma, but I could address the Jim Morrison collection. This includes things from the day Morrison was born to the day he became a rock star. There are lots of diplomas and report cards and letters he wrote to his mother, and snapshots of him as a baby and growing up. It's a very poignant, meaningful collection. You really understand where he came from."
What you won't see in the Morrison exhibit, or indeed the Sid Vicious or Hendrix displays, is much reference to the influence of drugs. Nor will there be much about world music or reggae or any European bands outside Britain and Ireland: very little Nana, Nena, Demis, Plastic, Bjrn or Holger.
For the legacy in Cleveland will make a big gawping American noise, and it will not please the pedants. But it will almost certainly please the general fan, and it will positively thrill the chiropodists. "George Clinton?" asks Ileen Sheppard Gallagher. She consults a list. "They're his `Atomic Dog' shoes. They're definitely the ones to have." !
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