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Cleveland: Where the Heart of Rock N’ Roll Is Still Beatin’

(October 2000)

Funny thing happened to me several years ago while I was waiting in line at the Musee’ d’Orsay in Paris. My husband and I were talking about cool museums and mentioned that we have to get to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. To our surprise, the man behind us excitedly said “Keevland” in his Dutch accent. He went on and on about the greatness of American rock and roll and that he was hoping to take a trip to Cleveland just to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

It’s amazing how appreciation for American rock and roll has extended to the rest of the world. And the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the place where fans from as far as the Netherlands and as close as its origin can come together to celebrate its evolving history.

Rock Solid Foundation

In 1983, the Rock Hall of Fame Foundation was established to honor performers, producers, songwriters, disc jockeys, and others who have greatly contributed to the shaping of rock and roll history. However, to truly honor these legends, a foundation wasn’t enough. There needed to be a physical place, a rock and roll Mecca if you will, where people could go to recapture the essence of this music at its best. And so the idea of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was born.

Not A Mistake On The Lake

After deciding to build the museum, the foundation’s next step was to decide where to put it. In the early 90’s, Cleveland, while not the most obvious candidate, impressively won a hotly contested bid over New York City and Memphis to host the museum. One of the deciding factors was the notion that Cleveland was the birthplace of the term “rock and roll,” which was popularized in 1951 by a local disk jockey named Alan Freed. Nevertheless, the ability to raise funds for the $92 million facility helped Cleveland far outpace its competition and win the honors.

Geometrical Sensation

In 1995, the museum opened with much fanfare. Legendary San Francisco architect, I.M. Pei, who designed the museum, stated that he wanted the structure “to echo the energy of rock and roll.” The museum boasts one of Pei’s trademark glass pyramids, which is similar to the one he designed for the Louvre in Paris. The museum is striking along the backdrop of Lake Erie, and is even more spectacular at night when it is lit up.

Hip and Happening History

The museum’s collection is the world’s definitive source for the preservation, interpretation, and celebration of the history of rock and roll. The collection charts the evolution of rock and roll from its roots in the 50’s, through its dramatic growth in the 60’s, and into today. What’s really cool is how the exhibits are designed to give visitors a unique, interactive experience. Exhibited in conjunction with films and interactive computer kiosks, the artifacts on display colorfully tell the stories of rock and roll’s great artists. The movie montage on Hall of Fame inductees is a real treat—it’s a 33-minute, toe-tapping journey back in time.

For me, the most fun aspect was the costume display. There was John Lennon’s Sgt. Pepper uniform, Michael Jackson’s wild outfits and studded glove, and Bruce Springsteen’s simple jeans and T-shirt. To the delight of my six-year-old, there was even a Britney Spears leather ensemble. When getting up close to the costumes, it’s amazing to see just how small these people are. The “Boss” seems bigger in concert, but his costumes show he’s just an “average Joe” in size.

To capture the ever-changing spirit of rock and roll, the collection also features some items on temporary display. Through these changing exhibitions, the museum can continually offer fresh rock and roll experiences to visitors.

In September, the museum hosted a massive exhibit featuring legendary guitarist and singer-songwriter, Jimi Hendrix. The exhibit featured a variety of artifacts, including two electric guitars, handwritten lyrics, and stage costumes that he wore for his historic Rainbow Bridge and Isle of Wright concerts. It’s interesting to note that the very first artifact acquired by the museum is the original manuscript of the lyrics he wrote for “Purple Haze.”

Recently, the museum unveiled its most substantive exhibition to date with a tribute to the life and work of John Lennon. The majority of the exhibit is made up of relics from the collection of Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono. Among the items on display are a leather jacket Lennon wore on the Beatles’ early Hamburg trips, the “Hair Peace” and “Bed Peace” signs that Ono and Lennon hung in their hotel room during their 1970 “bed-in,” and report cards from Lennon’s school days.

Behind The Music

From the exhibits, you learn to appreciate the “behind the scene” efforts it takes to become a rock star. Today’s hit music appears to be all about agents, publicists, choreographers, and stylists. There’s something to be said for the long, exhaustive, and character-building journey of rock and roll’s early days. I found the raw drafts of lyrics, hasty scribbling, and tormented notations fascinating. Interestingly, many lyrics were composed on hotel stationary. It’s clear that no matter where they go, many artists have a strong urge to write music that speaks to them.

Musical Déjà vu

By visiting the museum, you get a clear sense that legendary rock stars make music a part of their souls. The museum reminds you that there is really nothing quite like the power of music. It is amazing how a particular song can become such a part of the fabric of your soul, triggering special memories each time you hear it. For that experience alone, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is worth a visit.

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