in Frieze | 11 SEP 95
Featured in
Issue 25

Rock of Ages

Visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

in Frieze | 11 SEP 95

In a sound piece of civic boosterism, the Cleveland fathers have scheduled the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to coincide with Labor Day, the US August Bank Holiday. Downtown is at a standstill, music blaring on every corner. It takes me an hour to travel two miles to the West Flats, where the museum is situated. Now a theme park of restaurants, galleries and milling crowds, the district no longer resembles the industrial area apotheosised by Pere Ubu in 1976 as 'blank spaces and empty places'.

These celebrations represent a considerable coup for a much-maligned conurbation - which, according to local author Thomas Kelly, has suffered a 'forty year winter' of 'defeat and disaster. Plummeting population and rising unemployment. Burning rivers and burning mayors. Disdain and ridicule.' The Plain Dealer, a local paper, spells it out in its editorial: the 'opening ... will pump $36 million into the area's economy. But the rock hall stands to be more than a one-hit wonder. It promises to keep bringing tourists and dollars into this region for decades.' So far, so familiar: like Manchester, a city of similar size and a similar level of industrial detritus, Cleveland is regenerating through culture and tourism.

Except that this time, rock'n'roll - as Americans insist on calling pop music - is at the heart of civic policy: the city is a major investor in the museum. To be queasy about this fact, as many are, seems to miss the point: people have museums about everything, so why not pop? Bearing in mind that there exist Halls of Fame for topics as diverse as Burlesque and Chewing Gum, having one for rock'n'roll merely seems respectful of Cleveland's own part in pop history: this is the city where DJ Alan Freed first popularised the phrase 'rock'n'roll' (1952), and where, two years later, Elvis Presley first broke above the Mason-Dixie line.

Maybe it's the weather - blinding sunlight zooming off Lake Erie, accentuating the white stone of key downtown buildings like the Terminal Tower - but I.M. Pei's twisted pyramid of white metal and glass looks terrific. The city's gamble has worked, as the crowds wait in line for entry. The $92 million building is airy, with open space for five of six stories, leaving nooks and crannies for vitrines and TV monitors: standouts include the gallery of Stephen Shore's 1966 Factory/Velvet Underground photos, and the Alan Freed exhibit, which includes the extraordinary Peter Hastings photograph from the March 1952 Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena - an all black crowd on the point of rioting, awestruck at finding its own power.

The meat of the collection is to be found in an enclosed, theatre-sized area called 'The Ahmet Ertegun Exhibit Hall'. The inside is broken down into a satisfying environment of sequential vitrines which tell a chronological history of pop from the late 40s to the present day, broken up with videos, interactive CD-Rom areas and mannequinned tableaux. Despite the inherent problem in displaying old costumes - the charity shop syndrome - the curators have done a good job of assembling enough totems to keep popcult pervs like myself happy: Jim Morrison's report card, shards from the Otis Redding death plane, a whole vitrine of early hip hop ephemera.

There are lacunae, which speak of showbiz power politics. A paltry Michael Jackson exhibit - three stage costumes - is credited thanks to MJ, 'King of Pop': a tacky piece of self-aggrandisement. The Beatles are represented almost exclusively by John Lennon memorabilia - fascinating, but it's as if Paul McCartney never existed. There is no Motown ephemera: the corporation is setting up a franchise of diners, and want all the material available. Indeed, far from being the authoritative collection, the museum is competing with other pop memory palaces - most obviously the Hard Rock Café chain - and, without a purchase budget, is doing so at a disadvantage: everything is on loan or donated. The fact that it goes a long way towards being an authentic shrine is a tribute to museum director Dennis Barrie and his staff.

Nor is there any contemporary Rap. (90s white boy rebel music is represented by a Seattle vitrine and a cheesy Stephen Sprouse tableau called 'All The Young Dudes'.) Bearing in mind that senior members of the Time/Warner hierarchy are museum players, this could be construed as a public lack of confidence in their subsidiary, Dr Dre's Interscope, and thus artists like Snoop Doggy Dog, 2Pac and Nine Inch Nails. Dre certainly thinks so: together with Snoop, he pulls out of his appearance in the inaugural concert at the last minute, for reasons that have to do with lack of representation in the overall exhibit.

This leaves a gaping hole in the show at the Cleveland Stadium which, despite some incendiary performances from Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde, Lou Reed, Al Green and Aretha Franklin, is drenched in 60s syrup: entertainment is bad when it shows its manipulations and after endless references to the Beatles and the Stones (video clips, awful covers by the Gin Blossoms and Sheryl Crow), I get resentful at being so stroked. Sure they were great, now can everyone please get over it?

Here is the problem in trying to recapture the past of something that is and was so much concerned with the present: how can you enact the sheer life-changing strangeness of, say, hearing Chuck Berry in 1955? Seeing him bond onstage with Bruce Springsteen is not the answer: it may satisfy the American mania for authenticity - a real person really singing his song with real instruments - bit it refers to little else than a mid-80s celebrity matrix: those awful, always filmed, rockstar jams with icons cluttering up the stage and nothing being said.

The most electric performance all weekend occurs directly east of the museum, at the Burke Lakefront Airport: an air show with stunts, wing-walking, a Stealth Bomber. As the Flying Eagles stall and swoop in the crystal air, they reflect the pure popcult thrill: pushing the body to its limit in the quest to make the present eternal, chasing that everlasting now! In a time when the past bleeds into the present on every level, authenticity is not enough.