ROCK HOLIDAYS Move over Memphis, chill out Chicago, Cleveland is about to claim its dues as the place where white kids first heard black music. Simon Calder explores the city that once had a mission and is trying to step back from a modern nightmare withment to all things rock
How can I put this? Cleveland is awful, yet you must go there as soon as possible. And when you do, be sure to stay in the Comfort Inn; it may look like a characterless chain motel, but when you sleep here you sleep with a legend.

The largest city in Ohio is an ugly splodge on the otherwise inoffensive southern coastline of Lake Erie. Cleveland lies half-way between New York and Chicago. While those two megalopoli achieve greatness through sheer scale and arrogance, Cleveland provides terrifying evidence of how the average US city is doomed. As Cleveland approaches its 200th birthday next year, the American urban nightmare is approaching its ultimate conclusion.

The streets of the city centre are almost totally depopulated. Among the rust-red empty warehouses, and the rusting old iron bridges, signposts snap "Wrong Way - Do Not Enter". No one has ripped the heart out of Cleveland, it has just been allowed to stop beating. The only places you see local people gather in any numbers downtown are the hapless smokers gathered in sad little groups outside forbidding office blocks. Most wear dark reflecting glasses that merge into the opaque smoky glass in which the towers are clad.

A jagged glass pyramid in the shadow of these skyscrapers symbolises the reason you must visit the place. Cleveland has a legitimate claim to be the birthplace of rock and roll, and the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum represents a last attempt to resuscitate the city before everyone flees to the safety of the suburban malls. Friday should mark the day the music is brought back to life, when I M Pei's latest creation opens its doors to a generation of rock fans. Memphis and Chicago can stand aside: Cleveland is about to start claiming its dues for the role the city played in the birth of a musical revolution.

"Everyone played Cleveland when they wanted to get famous," says Jeff Alpern, owner of the building next to Record Rendezvous, the shop that began the revolution by bringing black music to white kids. "Elvis played a high school in Cleveland, The Who came to the shop to sign records, and there was a feeling that if you could get on the playlist in Cleveland you could make it nationwide." The two men responsible for this state of affairs were the store proprietor, Leo Mintz, and a disc jockey named Alan Freed. The latter is credited with coining the phrase "rock and roll", but locals maintain that the three words that launched a million careers were a joint creation by the two men in a cramped office above the shop at 300 Prospect Avenue. Since Mr Mintz's death, 300 Prospect Avenue has become a sportswear shop. No more rare 78s by Chuck Berry or Jackie Wilson.

The rock trail that begins here is a rarely fruitful trudge through a city centre whose musical heritage has been largely demolished. The world's first rock and roll concert took place at the Cleveland Arena on 21 March 1952. The Moondog Coronation Ball, as the event was called, rapidly turned into the world's first rock and roll riot and set the stage for decades of teenage rampages. But the venue at 3717 Euclid Avenue was demolished, and is now occupied by the Greater Cleveland Red Cross.

Most of the drugs these days are legitimate. Medicine is ascendant in Cleveland: the city is one of the chief beneficiaries of the financially obese American health industry. Billions are poured into research, development and treatment, and some of that is diverted to the Health Museum at 8911 Euclid Avenue. As soon as you get in the door, blood starts pumping ruddily through a model of the human heart. After you experience the sensory impairment exhibit, which simulates vision and hearing loss with age, you may hope you die before you get old. Disturbingly, the museum seems to be more to do with prolonging existence than celebrating life.

Further out along Euclid Avenue, La Cave (at the junction of East 107th Street) has become a parking lot. If you thought the demolition of the Cavern Club in Liverpool was an outrage, what about the destruction of a small and sweaty club that hosted Jeff Beck, Traffic and the Velvet Underground? Further out of town, the Musicarnival tent in Warrensville Heights has been taken down and left as a park, with nothing to suggest that Jim Morrison once played here with the Doors. Led Zeppelin played their first Cleveland gig here on 21 July 1969, but had to finish early so that the audience could go home and watch the first moon landing on television. Keith Moon also landed here, along with Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwhistle, when The Who played their first gig in the city.

Not everything in Cleveland is a demolition site waiting to happen. Suddenly you stumble upon University Circle, a green and pleasant interlude to the progression of gas stations and fast-food outlets. Across a confusingly English duckpond stands the classical Museum of Art. When rich Americans hear the word "culture", they reach for their wallets, and some of the best art that megabucks can buy is on display in the cool stone chambers.

Euclid Avenue lives up to the origins of its geometrical name as it carves an arrow-straight course through the eastern suburbs. Signs invite you to have Stolen Cars Rebuilt or Bad Credit Re-established, while the granite Calvary Presbyterian Church enables you to re-establish your spiritual credit.

The shortest distance between two points takes you back to the city's empty heart, Public Square. Restaurants such as John Q's Steakhouse have so far failed to attract many of the public back to town, but the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum might strike a chord.

This alien craft, come to rest on the waterside, looks worryingly out- of-place among the humdrum collage of street furniture, freeways and the city stadium. Don't bother trying to get in to the new museum before the official opening: the security at the moment is tighter than for a Rolling Stones concert. T-shirts worn by security staff proclaim it to be The House That Rock Built. Inside, rock fans are promised a feast of nostalgia with exhibits such as Robbie Robertson's original lyrics to "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", anthem to the great pop festivals. Another relic is the guitar Pete Townshend used for Tommy, though I am sure I watched him destroy it on stage several times in the early Seventies. Tellingly, the only place I saw a guitar in the city built on rock and roll was in the window of a pawn shop.

Not that I worried much, because having seen The House That Rock Built I was sleeping in The Hotel That Rock Wrecked. Swingo's Hotel, on Euclid Avenue at 18th Street, was where everyone from Elvis Presley to the Stones stayed. Cleveland's answer to Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel has since become the Comfort Inn, but the now-faceless fifth floor was the birthplace of another tradition. Room service doesn't call any more, and the televisions are bolted down. This was the place where Led Zeppelin began the practice of trashing hotel rooms. The band would order everything on the room service menu, then hurl most of it out the window along with any loose electrical appliances. I resisted the urge to follow suit, switched on MTV, switched off the light and dreamed.

Five US rock shrines

New York City 1: the Dakota Apartments, Central Park West and 72nd Street. John Lennon was shot on the steps of this opulent apartment building. The patch of Central Park directly opposite is called Strawberry Fields and dedicated to his memory.

New York City 2: the Chelsea Hotel, where Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen acted out the final stages of their tragic romance. This Bohemian landmark, where Bob Dylan wrote "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" and Leonard Cohen met Janis Joplin, is at 222 West 23rd Street. Like the immediate area, the hotel has seen better days.

Memphis: the family grave of the Presley family in Graceland. The only way you can see this tomb is to take the tour of Elvis's former home. All the leopard-skin sofas and countless televisions are countered by the quiet sorrowfulness of the plain grave, and the tour group subsides into silent, often tearful contemplation.

Seattle: the city's good die young, with Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain both meeting untimely deaths, self-inflicted in varying degrees. The memory of Hendrix is curiously marked by a plaque in the city zoo.

San Francisco: a shrine to the memory of Jerry Garcia, rock's latest casualty, has sprung up on the kerbside at the junction of Haight and Ashbury Streets, where flower power began. The collection of flowers, pictures and joss sticks is right outside Ben & Jerry's ice-cream parlour; inside, the Cherry Garcia flavour has sold out.

When to go

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (001 216 781 7625) opens 1 September: 10am-5.30pm daily except Mon, with late opening until 9pm on Weds. Admission: $10.90 (about pounds 7).

How to get there

Bridge The World (0171-911 0900) and USAirtours (0181-559 7709) are offering a midweek fare of pounds 371 (including tax) on BA/USAir via Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.

From Cleveland airport, frequent trains (fare $1.50) run to Tower City Center station, close to the Hall of Fame.

Where to stay

The Comfort Inn is at 1800 Euclid Avenue (001 216 861 0001). Simon Calder paid $68 (about pounds 44) per night.

Who to ask

The Convention & Visitors' Bureau of Greater Cleveland, 50 Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio (001 216 621 4110).

What to read

The best source of rock and roll heritage info is by Mike Olszewski of Cleveland TV News, available free from the studios on East 12th Street by Superior Avenue.