CLEVELAND - More than half a century ago, some wise observer of popular Western culture - or perhaps it was Danny & the Juniors - first suggested that "rock and roll is here to stay." And as surely as Elvis gave way to the Beatles, who gave way to the Grateful Dead, who gave way to, er, whoever it is the kids are listening to nowadays, rock has proved to be an evolving but enduring cultural institution. Just as every generation adds its own twist to rock 'n' roll by adapting and updating the venerable art form (did you ever imagine back in junior high that rock could someday be called venerable?), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recently saw the need to update its offerings.
CLEVELAND — More than half a century ago, some wise observer of popular Western culture — or perhaps it was Danny & the Juniors — first suggested that “rock and roll is here to stay.”
And as surely as Elvis gave way to the Beatles, who gave way to the Grateful Dead, who gave way to, er, whoever it is the kids are listening to nowadays, rock has proved to be an evolving but enduring cultural institution.
Just as every generation adds its own twist to rock ’n’ roll by adapting and updating the venerable art form (did you ever imagine back in junior high that rock could someday be called venerable?), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recently saw the need to update its offerings.
A $7.2 million renovation completed last spring incorporates the latest in audio technology, adds new displays on rock variants such as heavy metal, and expands exhibits on old masters such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.
“We didn’t set out to completely change what we do,” said Christie Lucco, the museum’s director of exhibitions. “It was really just fine-tuning.
“It’s been about 15 years since the museum opened, and we wanted to go back and take a look at our exhibits, refresh them from an aesthetic and technological point of view,” she said. “And our collection has grown, so we wanted to incorporate some of that in our displays.”
Infrequent visitors to the rock hall probably won’t even notice the differences. But as I found on my latest visit, the changes add subtly to the experience.
Although the main exhibit hall on the lower level used to be a bit of a labyrinth, new signage and removable dividers now help direct visitors through the displays in a logical and more chronological order than before.
More and new memorabilia, such as Paul McCartney’s handwritten arrangement for Birthday, are on display. But the old favorites are still very much in evidence.
I’ve always enjoyed the costume exhibit, for example, and was happy to see that David Bowie and George Clinton are still well-represented. (I can never decide whether, given the chance, I’d rather take the stage dressed as Ziggy Stardust or in full Parliament-Funkadelic regalia.)
But I also enjoyed a new exhibit on rock in the Midwest, called “Kick Out the Jams,” which includes posters, programs, instruments and other mementos of performers who started out in places such as Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis. (Cleveland bands merit their own “Cleveland Rocks” exhibit.)
And I was captivated by an expanded Beatles exhibit that includes a fun documentary that takes a chronological, album-by-album look at the band. The full documentary lasts 40 minutes, but visitors can check a display that lights up the currently featured album and listen to just their favorites. (I got hooked and sat through Meet the Beatles! to Abbey Road inclusive. Yes, that includes the making of Yellow Submarine.)
For me, a visit to the rock hall is primarily an auditory experience. With different exhibits all playing different soundtracks, a visit to the rock hall is, perhaps unavoidably, cacophonous. But the update takes advantage of the latest audio technology to better isolate listeners at any one exhibit from all the other sounds going on around them.
I made a long stop at the new “Early Influences” exhibit, which audibly traces the musical heritage of some of rock’s biggest stars.
Six interactive kiosks allow visitors to don headsets and hear and compare the music of later performers with their early influences.
I especially enjoyed playing performances of the same song back to back, such as Blue Moon of Kentucky as done by Bill Monroe and later by Elvis Presley; or A Good Year for the Roses as performed by George Jones and later by Elvis Costello.
I also grooved on an updated “On the Air: Rock and Roll and Radio” exhibit, which features audio of the early radio disc jockeys who, in rock’s infancy, did as much to sell the genre as any musician. My own rock experience was born well after the complete musical hegemony of FM radio — no static at all!
But these old recordings — complete, in many cases, with layers of pops and hiss clinging to AM waves streaming from some distant 50,000-watt tower — seemed to dredge up long-hidden memories of Alan Freed spinning Buddy Holly, memories that I assume were genetically passed down from my father. See, that’s how powerful rock is.
Featured temporary exhibits are housed at the top of the museum on Level 5 and, up a circular staircase, Level 6, which I always think of as the attic of some crazy rock ’n’ roll grandma. The Dead is the current attic dwellers, through the end of 2012. I’m not a huge fan of the iconic group, although I do appreciate some of the bluegrass-influenced licks. A Deadhead friend, though, said he and his teenage daughter both enjoyed the exhibit tremendously.
As usual in the attic, a large screen played continual concert footage of the featured performers. However, the lack of a certain aroma, based only partly on patchouli, belied the complete authenticity of the scene. (Perhaps scratch and sniff cards would have been appropriate?)
The actual Hall of Fame section of the museum, where inductees are honored, has also been spiffed up with new signage, a red carpet and new audio and video technology. Videos highlight past induction ceremonies and combine concert footage, interviews, animation and more to tell the stories of the inductees.
But my favorite parts of the Hall of Fame per se are the “jukeboxes” — computer touch screens fitted with headphones. The display allows visitors to call up and listen to almost every song ever recorded by most of the inductees — inductees so varied as to seemingly encompass every musical taste, so long as said taste rocks.
You want Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire or the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the U.K. or Roy Orbison’s You Got It or Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies? You got it, babies.
And that, my rockin’ friends, is why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is here to stay.