The Weasel

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The opalescent spring sunshine trembled on the mirror-like water. A bulk carrier, rendered toy-like by distance, inched its way across the distant horizon. Lolling on the gritty beach, with the tideless water refreshing our tootsies, we might have been in St Tropez, except that the water was salt-free and the moral code a sight more stringent. I was forcibly reminded about the delicate sensibilities of the citizens of Cleveland, Ohio, the moment that I attempted to remove my clothes for a quick dip in Lake Erie.

Though I believed I was adequately preserving my modesty behind a towel as I began to exchange trousers and underpants for swimming trunks, my American host nearly blew a gasket. "My gahd!" he spluttered. "You can't do that here! It's against the law." Since our host (like almost everyone else we met in Cleveland) was a lawyer, I took these words seriously and headed for the protection of a nearby bush. "Not there!" warned our hostess, "that's poison ivy. You mean you haven't got that in England?" After climbing approximately 7,000 steps and performing an ungainly ballet in a less- than-fragrant toilet, I was finally allowed to take my plunge. If anyone has the initiative to introduce the bathing machine to this prudish littoral, a fortune is guaranteed.

Cleveland's biggest draw is the Rock & Roll Museum and Hall of Fame. Though die-hards might feel that the genre's natural habitat is a sweaty, marijuana-fogged cellar rather than a pounds 60m glass pyramid designed by I M Pei, this glitzy attraction has proved immensely popular since it opened two years ago. (A couple of hours before our visit, the two-millionth visitor was rewarded by a cache of prizes including a motorbike and a Fender Stratocaster.) Four or five gaudily decorated Trabant cars, mementos from a U2 tour, dangle in the void.

In order to retain a scintilla of authenticity, the museum displays most of its riches in a raucous basement. An introductory section explored rock antecedents, including yodelling cowpoke Jimmie "The Singing Brakeman" Rodgers and T-Bone Walker (he would be banned in Britain these days). Though the first item on show was Janis Joplin's psychedelically enhanced 1965 Porsche (which gives the lie to her prayer for a Mercedes-Benz), many of the artefacts gathered here were strikingly tacky, ranging from Richie Valens's rollerskates to Rod Stewart's stripey blazer. Alongside the sheet music for Carl Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes" ("a Foxtrot") and a somewhat sanitised account of Jerry Lee Lewis ("embodying the most reckless and high spirited impulse of Rock and Roll"), the Elvis section contained his Aloha from Hawaii cape, with a note: "Worn a number of times in 1972 for performances in Las Vegas". Nearby, was the Gibson Doubleneck Guitar strummed by the King in his 1966 cinematic masterpiece, Spinout. "It's Elvis with his foot on the gas. And no brakes on the fun!!!" Visitors tutted that the mannequins lounging around ZZ Top's 1933 Ford were incongruously clean-shaven and that the model displaying Tina Turner's Versace stage dress was so diminutive that the garment became demurely knee-length. Other treasures included John Lennon's decaying leather jacket from Hamburg, Mick Jagger's minuscule pin-striped stage suit, a ludicrous ethnic cape worn by Sting and the battered remains of Keith Moon's drum-kit, which "exploded too violently and prompted Pete Townshend's loss of hearing". Among numerous loans from Mrs Morrison, there was her son Jim's school report describing his effort as "excellent" and posture as "good".

The Hall of Fame - fortunately, this grisly concept has not yet taken root on this side of the Atlantic - is housed in an extension at the top of the pyramid. It turned out to be little more than a huge cinema screen displaying momentary snippets of "inductees". Under the rules, these giants of rock are obliged to have had their first hit at least 25 years prior to induction, so they tend not to be in the first flush of youth. (As you might expect in an industry with a notoriously high casualty rate, a large number of inductions have been made posthumously.) But to be honest, the majority of visitors are scarcely spring chickens themselves. After glancing at a homely remembrance of things past - a poster for "Fabulous recording stars The Who at the Town Hall, Torquay, Saturday 17 July 1965" - we tottered out into the afternoon dazzle of downtown Cleveland.

The upmarket (the odd adjective "tony" is used in the US) suburbs fringing Lake Erie are a mid-western version of Beverley Hills eclecticism. Set in mini-estates of perfectly manicured herbage are French chateaux, ante- bellum Southern mansions and extravagant English manor houses. A seminal event occurred in one of these sedate lakeside communities called Bay Village, when the wife of a neurosurgeon was bludgeoned to death on 4 July 1954. Claiming to have struggled with a bushy-haired (rather than single-armed) intruder, Dr Sam Shepard was the real-life original to Dr Richard Kimble, otherwise The Fugitive. After a decade in gaol, he was acquitted following a retrial. (His attorney, F Lee Bailey, was one of the legion of jurists in OJ's defence team.) However, neither the long- running TV series nor the recent film version informed us what happened to the unfortunate specialist once he regained his freedom. The Weasel can reveal that, in an unusual career shift, Dr Shepard became a professional wrestler. Sadly, the medic-turned-grappler died at the age of 46.

I was reminded of another legendary figure by the startling sign "De Lorean" over a car showroom towards the centre of the city. But it turned out not to be the silver-tongued charmer who prised a few hundred million quid out of the UK government a few years ago. Apparently, Cleveland's leading Cadillac dealer is John's brother. For all I know his business may be exemplary in all respects, but I should be surprised if he gets much trade from British expats in the area.

In the quarter of a century since I was last in Cleveland, the city has much improved. Its Cayahoga River, whose occasional flammability was immortalised by Randy Newman, has been cleaned up. A bristling eruption of new skyscrapers is dominated by the tower of BP America. The city centre boasts tempting restaurants, high-style shops, micro-breweries (a boom industry in the US, now catching on here, as my colleague Michael Jackson relates on page 61) and relaxed music haunts. As we left the cheerful clamour of a blues club, a young, somewhat tipsy foursome in an open sports car stopped: "Could we ask a big, big favour?" They wanted their photo taken. All posed, white teeth glittering, the girls' slim brown legs waggling in the air.

"All of you or just the babes?" our hostess asked as she raised their expensive auto-focus. "All of us," they chorused. Driving off into the blur of tail-lights, one yelled back: "God bless you." The glossy, giggling quartet could have come from the pages of Scott Fitzgerald. But our brief spell amid the glamour of the post-industrial Rust Belt was drawing to a close. Time to make tracks for the untamed frontier, Next stop Manhattan

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