Last week, I wrapped up a quick trip to Cleveland to visit some friends. I was staying a hotel a short walk away from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and with the Browns out of town, the Indians out of the postseason and Mr. James famously taking his talents to South Beach, the Rock Hall was on the top of my list of places to visit.
My friend had warned me that it was overpriced — admittedly, $22 is a bit much in more ways than one — so I opted to explore it on my own terms before hopping an afternoon flight home. In the three or so hours that I spent in its Louvre-like structure, I was, for the most part, pleasantly surprised by what I witnessed.
Artifacts are the top draw on the basement level, where you’re encouraged to start before you work your way up to the top. During my visit, entire basement wings were dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
The report card for 12-year-old John Lennon was fascinating; good marks for art and Latin, but the assessment of “singing” was curiously blank. Aretha Franklin’s giant-bowed hat from President Obama’s inauguration was also a sight/site unto itself. And there was something sweet yet oddly disconcerting about reading Jim Morrison’s childhood note to his mother, back when he was a mere Lizard Prince.
Artifacts run the gamut of the aesthetically astounding — John Lennon’s green suit worn for the cover of the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album — while others were a bit less impressive. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised someone affiliated with Wings donated his/her Grammy.
Surprisingly engaging were the scribbled lyric sheets, presumably the original scrawls that became some of the biggest rock hits of all time. There’s something satisfying, particularly as a writer, in seeing Billy Joel’s original “We Didn’t Start The Fire” lyric sheet, with its original title (“Jolene”) atop the page, and “Pasternak” replacing a crossed-out “white and black” in the lyrics beneath. On the top floor, in the featured Bruce Springsteen exhibit, the last two words in the title of his original lyric sheet for “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” have squiggly, shivery lines. And I couldn’t help but admire the minimalist typewriter strikes and pen-marked revisions of several legendary Lennon-McCartney tunes.
I skipped the food court, which sold “Mac the Cheese,” a pun I found far more offensive than the $22 admission price. As my sister noted, “Fleetwood Mac & Cheese” would have been far better or worse, depending on your perspective.
Throughout the building, rock, soul, R&B, pop and rap audibly overlap. The experience may be jarring to older visitors, but I found it appropriate for a medium that constantly influences itself.
The least engaging floor celebrates the “Early Years.” Perhaps it was due to my flight-related time limit, but given my preference for music stemming from the ’60s and later, it went mostly unexplored. My apologies to the genre’s architects.
Two things I skipped that I would have enjoyed: A looping 15-minute presentation of music videos through the ages — since I lived through MTV’s literal age, I didn’t necessarily need a recap of videos I’d practically memorized — and a U2 concert movie in 3D, but given the time constraints and the fact I’d already seen them live in person, it didn’t make the cut.
Then came the moment of truth: Viewing the names of the inductees. The inductee wall’s reminiscent of Vietnam Memorial in the sense that visitors walk along a path to view white names on a sprawling black background — except, obviously, the Hall of Fame wall is a lot less somber. It’s well done. The names, arranged in alphabetical order, are backlit with accompanying signatures, whenever possible. Pete Seeger’s signature was accompanied by a drawing of a banjo. Metallica’s James Hetfield drew a devilish, interconnecting “JH.” And Stevie Wonder’s block print gives one pause.
The only real gripe I had with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was at the end of my visit. The gift shop, which all visitors are led through en route to the exit, is packed full of the expected museum merchandise — that part is forgivable — but also littered with posters and trinkets plastered with images of Justin Bieber, who appears to be an honorary inductee. Understanding that the gift shop is designed to make money, I can’t blame them. Wait, I can and will. Especially since admission was $22.
Despite the occasional wonky artifact and the infestation of Bieber Fever, to which even the Rock Hall is not immune, I’d recommend the Rock Hall to any true music fan. Now excuse me, Mr. Bieber, while I go blast some “Back in Black.”