OHIO OR BUST
part 1 of 1
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.
Critical acclaim was no cinch. The nine years or so leading up to the structure's bow had been rough. Cracks had been made about the city, the hall's organizers and the wisdom of offering a scholarly salute to a musical art form that has been at its best when it's made many of the academics and highbrows who support museums profoundly uncomfortable. Even rocker David Bowie looked down on the scheme; he called it "ludicrous" and refused to be inducted into the hall. But Bowie's was a minority opinion; even onetime bad boys such as the Rolling Stones gave the project their blessing. Perhaps the times were a-changin'--and didn't Cleveland deserve a change for the better?
Certainly the Cleveland electronic press felt that way. Newscasts throughout the grand-opening weekend were dominated by Hall of Fame coverage, most of it breathless. One station opened its eleven o'clock broadcast on Thursday with footage of Bruce Springsteen arriving at the airport for an all-star concert to be staged at Cleveland's Memorial Stadium two days later in conjunction with the museum's grand opening. The visuals were accompanied by anchorman Judd Hambrick's exuberant narration: "It's a `Jungleland,' as the man `Born to Run' with a `Hungry Heart' gets set to relive his `Glory Days' on the `Backstreets' of Cleveland..."
Following Hambrick's spiel, the station switched to location sound. As Springsteen moved down a generic corridor surrounded by cameramen and reporters, someone shouted, "What do you think of Cleveland so far?"
The Boss looked bleary-eyed, shell-shocked. "Kinda crowded," he replied.
The Cleveland Convention Center was transformed into a media nexus for the hall's grand opening, and on Friday morning, volunteers appeared to know what they were doing as they directed reporters from one kiosk to another in search of credentials, press releases and the like. But behind the scenes, matters were considerably more confused.
A brand of catch-as-catch-can organization has been the hall's modus operandi since 1983, when a small cadre of music bigwigs, including Ahmet Ertegun, chairman/CEO of Atlantic Records, and Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner, brainstormed the concept of the Hall of Fame. These would-be visionaries subsequently conceived the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, which, according to the group, was "created both to honor the artists (and the nonperformers) who have shaped rock 'n' roll and to document the historical importance of the music itself."
The rub? Beyond these noble words, the hall didn't exist. That began changing in 1985, when K. Michael Benz, a Cleveland businessman, floated the idea of a museum to radio pros in the city. Upon learning about the foundation, he and a team that included then-Ohio governor Richard Celeste and Cleveland mayor (and current Ohio governor) George V. Voinovich flew to New York eager to convince Wenner and company that the hall should be built in Cleveland, the city where, in the 1950s, scandal-plagued disc jockey Alan Freed coined the term "rock and roll." Once word leaked out about the city's efforts, other communities entered the race for the museum. Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans and New York (the original favorite) expressed interest, but Cleveland was far and away the most ardent. More than 600,000 locals signed a petition in favor of the hall, and more than 110,000 voted for Cleveland in a 1986 USA Today poll about museum locations. Memphis, the runner-up, logged one-fifteenth that total.
But while enthusiasm was fine, money was better--and once Cleveland was awarded the hall in 1986, it promised to pony up plenty of it. First estimates predicted that the hall would cost $26 million, but those numbers soon went out the window due to inflation, the grandiosity of the design arrived upon by renowned architect I.M. Pei and the usual bureaucratic wrangling. The Hall of Fame Foundation eventually set a 1989 deadline for the city to either raise $40 million or lose the project entirely; Cleveland succeeded, barely, thanks to $8 million in state grants and $34 million in state-backed bonds. Final figures are tough to come by, but by some estimates, more than $65 million in public funds, plus $20 million from private sources, got the hall on its feet. Even so, it wasn't until after Chuck Berry and Pete Townshend helped break ground on the shore of Lake Erie in 1993 that it finally became clear that the embarrassing spectacle of annual induction ceremonies for a Hall of Fame that wasn't there (held in New York since 1986) would finally come to an end. At last, the damn thing was going to be built.
Still, not everything was running smoothly. After the groundbreaking, K. Michael Benz, who had earlier replaced Larry Thompson as museum director, was himself replaced by Dennis Barrie, former head of Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center. Barrie brought with him impeccable museum credentials, but he wasn't what you'd call a rock buff. Earlier this year, at a press conference intended to hype attendance at the September 2 concert, which boosters were frantic to pack, he told the gathered media that fans wouldn't want to miss the chance to see Aretha Franklin and Melissa Etheridge "heating up the stage together." When the reporters laughed at the image of out-front lesbian Etheridge heating things up with Franklin, Barrie was puzzled. "What?" he asked. "Did I say something funny?"
Meanwhile, people who'd bought museum memberships started making unhappy noises. Gripes that first-year memberships began in February 1995, months before the grand opening, fell on deaf ears until a local consumer reporter broke the story; only then did the museum declare that the memberships would be good for one year starting in September. Many of those who bought $250 "party packages" for the grand-opening weekend were similarly displeased, since the amount was supposed to cover tickets for two concerts, one of which was eventually canceled. Rather than refunding the money designated for the second ticket, though, the museum raised the price on the other and suggested that the difference be donated to the hall. Once again, this policy was changed after the boondoggle made the newspapers. In apologizing for these difficulties, public-relations director Tim Moore explained to the Cleveland Plain Dealer that mistakes were being made in part because a staff of three people was trying to look after a membership of 47,000.
Moore didn't mention that much of the information he was providing to the media was highly questionable. At the Friday morning press conference, for instance, he announced that a briefing by director Dennis Barrie would also feature appearances by Wenner and Ertegun; instead, it consisted primarily of a how-do from Governor Voinovich, a visit from three space shuttle astronauts and the opportunity to see Barrie present plaques to museum co-sponsors Radio Shack and Levi's.
Representatives from the HBO cable service, which had agreed to telecast the next night's concert live, were also present at the news conference, but they revealed little other than the names of the artists who had just pulled out of the showcase. These included some of the most intriguing names on the initial lineup: Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg (the only rappers slated), the artist formerly known as Prince, Alice in Chains, Carole King and Brian Wilson. When a few of the reporters grumbled, the HBO spokeswoman did her best to quiet them. "It's going to be a magical night, okay?" she snapped. "Magical."
Bombs away on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame...
Blow it up before Johnny Rotten gets in!
Blow it up before Paul Westerberg gets in!
Blow it up before Steve Albini makes a speech!
Blow it up! Blow it up!
--from "RnR Hall of Fame," by Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, 1995
At 11:30, a parade in honor of the hall moved down Superior Avenue, a few blocks from the museum itself. No oversized balloons were present, but there was a giant Elvis Presley, three giant women evidently intended to represent the Supremes, a giant ghost-figure standing in for dead bluesman Robert Johnson, and Robert Jr. Lockwood, a real live bluesman who cranked out riffs from the back of a flatbed truck. In the meantime, celebrities were congregating on a platform in front of the hall. One late arrival in the plaza asked, "Anybody interesting show up yet?"
"Yoko Ono," I responded.
"I said `interesting,' not `annoying,'" he replied.
Actually, the turnout did have some glitter. In addition to Cleveland businesspeople and civic leaders such as Mayor Michael White, the dais supported Little Richard, Ben E. King, Martha Reeves, Paul Shaffer and Ono, among others. Within moments, a velvet-voiced announcer asked dignitaries and attendees to stand for the national anthem as performed by Jimi Hendrix at the 1969 Woodstock festival. The rock luminaries listened piously to Hendrix's version of the anthem, which has been widely interpreted as a musical exploration of the conflicting emotions felt by American youth disgusted by their nation's participation in the Vietnam war. At its conclusion, two Marine Corps Harrier jets in town for the Cleveland National Air Show taking place nearby zoomed over the museum building in tribute. If any observers found this symbolism ironic, they didn't mention it.
Next, a procession of notables made their way to the microphone. Director Barrie complimented the people of Cleveland "who voted for and paid for" the hall. Ertegun vowed that "for the first time in the music industry, we are rewarding achievement regardless of stardom or record sales." Mayor White (who entered to the strains of Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City," seemingly unaware that the song is a biting attack on the urban experience) bellowed, "I remember all the days and all the times and all the jokes and all the comments that `I'm just not sure Cleveland has what it takes.' But we've got what it takes, and we're doing it." Governor Voinovich, providing an indication of his hipness, quoted from a Huey Lewis and the News song: "The heart of rock and roll is still beating--in Cleveland." And Ono managed an unexpectedly amusing line in reference to her late husband, John Lennon, much of whose memorabilia she'd donated to the museum. "I think John would have loved this," she claimed. "He would have loved the fact that he's here and not anymore in my closet."
Then came Wenner, who was plainly basking in the ritual's glow. Readers of author Robert Draper's 1990 work Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History no doubt understood Wenner's glee; after all, the book describes him as "the ultimate groupie" and includes his comment that he'd started Rolling Stone simply because he wanted to meet Lennon. In his remarks, Wenner proved his knowledge of rock history by quoting lyrics by Chuck Berry, the Grateful Dead and, on at least three occasions, Bob Dylan. (He also cited the assistance of his wife, Jane, whom he recently left for a man.) Then, to the strains of the Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock 'N Roll (But I Like It)," the celebrities cut a ribbon surrounding the platform amid a shower of colorful streamers shot from pipe launchers. Stamping the streamers with the date and the words "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" aided the cleanup immeasurably; they were instantly scooped up as souvenirs.
After the ribbon-cutting, the press and the public were supposed to be given a "sneak peak" preview of the hall. Too bad no one told blue-shirted museum staffers or security guards clad in black pants, black shirts and black berets (they looked like escapees from a Jean-Claude Van Damme film). The security contingent aggressively cleared the plaza and kept everyone at bay until the announcer asked over the public-address system, "Would anyone like a sneak peak of the museum?" The Blue Shirts and the Black Berets looked at each other, shrugged, and allowed the throng to move toward the front entrance of the museum.
There, after several more minutes of confusion exacerbated by the Black Berets' imitation of the Hell's Angels at Altamont, the masses were herded into the museum's main lobby, which is dominated by an information booth and several cars used as decor for U2's early Nineties Zoo-TV tour. But there wasn't much chance to look around: Staffers prodded us across the lobby, down an escalator, past some bathrooms and a water fountain and into a hallway that, we discovered too late, opened onto a loading dock stacked with plywood. Suddenly, we were out of the museum again--and anyone who tried to get back inside was firmly rebuffed. The exception was Ben E. King, who'd made the mistake of trying to use a bathroom too close to the rabble. He was promptly mobbed but so happy to be the center of attention that he smilingly turned away the Blue Shirts who came to rescue him. As long as the people were showering him with love, the loading dock was okay by him.
end of part 1
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