OHIO OR BUST

THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM: GREAT IDEA OR SIGN THAT THE END IS NEAR?

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The display contained the kind of paperwork most of us accumulate as we move from conception to death. A birth certificate from 1943. A doctor's report on the newborn; under the heading "Shape of Head," a nurse had typed, "First day--Idaho potato." A hospital bill--it cost $95 to bring this lad into the world. A baby album complete with footprints and handprints.

The boy accumulated more totems as he grew. A shirt from a Cub Scout uniform. A Christmas card he made for his mother and father. (Across the bottom, a childish scrawl reads, "Sorry, this is all I could afford"; across the top: "You'd better get me something!") And a poem called "The Pony Express," written in 1954, when he'd reached age eleven: It began, "The Pony Express carried the mail/Over hill, over dale/Over rough rugged trails."

Before long the tone of the display items took on a darker tone. In a 1970 letter a Florida parole officer who'd been assigned to look after the young man (then a popular musician) following a conviction related to indecent exposure asked his father for information. In a reply, the man's father, a U.S. Navy admiral, revealed that he'd had virtually no contact with his son in five years, when his progeny was in his senior year at UCLA. According to the missive, the break between them came about because the father insisted upon "severely criticizing his behavior and strongly urging him to give up any idea of singing or any connection with a musical group because of what I considered to be a complete lack of talent in the direction." The father admitted that he felt a certain pride that his son had proved him wrong, however, and noted his sense that, in spite of his mistakes, there was still good in the boy.

Next to this statement was a notification of the young man's death in Paris, France, dated 1971, as well as a last will and testament that left the vast majority of his belongings to his wife, Pamela. The affecting documents put an exclamation point on the story of the Doors' Jim Morrison, a singer and poet whose journey from cradle to grave took less than 28 years. No doubt Morrison hadn't planned for his bones to rest in a cemetery in Paris. But he probably would have been even more surprised to discover that so much of his life would be collected in a glass case at something called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

Cleveland, city of light, city of magic
Cleveland, city of light, you're calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
'Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin' through my dreams
Burn on, big river, burn on
--from "Burn On," by Randy Newman, 1972

In the early Seventies, there was no more apt image for Cleveland than the Cuyahoga River, which traces a circuitous route from the shores of Lake Erie at the northern border of the city to its final resting place near Akron, a community best known as America's rubber capital. Pittsburgh and other rust-belt municipalities had allowed pollution from heavy industries to besmirch the local landscapes, too. But only Cleveland had the Cuyahoga, a waterway so choked with toxic muck that, on several occasions, it actually caught fire.

The Mistake by the Lake, people called it, and the insult stuck even after the Cuyahoga was no longer flammable. Clevelanders in general suffered from a deep insecurity that was mirrored by the futility of its major-league baseball franchise, the Indians. The club last won a pennant in 1954, and it spent most of the past thirty years foundering in front of sparse crowds at its vast, mausoleumlike headquarters, Memorial Stadium. During his days as a stand-up comic, Cleveland-bred actor Tom Hanks joked that Indians fans would let home-run balls hit by opponents pile up under outfield seats before bothering to collect them.

By the Eighties it became clear even to chamber of commerce types that the city (approximate metro-area population: 2 million) was in danger of economic collapse. What was needed, city mothers and fathers decided, were projects--big projects--that would create jobs, inspire additional investment and, as much as anything, make Cleveland natives start feeling good about themselves and their town. Hence Jacobs Field, a beautiful new ballpark that opened in 1993, just as the Indians were beginning to show promise again. Hence the Great Lakes Science Center, an enormous museum that's currently under construction on the lakefront. And hence the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, a $92 million endeavor intended to turn Cleveland into, of all things, a tourist destination.

The last goal was so ambitious, and so unlikely, that many of the 1,500 or so reporters who traveled to Cleveland for the Labor Day weekend opening of the Hall of Fame were expecting to find little more than a glorified Hard Rock Cafe smack-dab in the middle of a city trying to disguise its essential mediocrity with a smattering of glitz. But on Thursday, August 31, fate was smiling on the metropolis. That night, as I traveled from Cleveland's airport past Jacobs Field, the sky was alight with fireworks celebrating a game-winning round-tripper hit by slugger Albert Belle that pushed the Indians one step closer to the pennant. The crowd's ecstatic roar, audible out the car's window, seemed like the sound of people daring to believe in the impossible. It was a good time to be in Cleveland--and if the national media gave generous notices to the Hall of Fame, things would only improve.

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