Dad is in his favorite chair, trying to read the newspaper. But he can't. He puts down the paper, turns toward some upstairs bedroom, and shouts: "TURN THAT NOISE DOWN!"
Moments like this seem to have taken place in every American home blessed with teenaged occupants. There is a flip side to them, however, and you'll find it at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, which is all noise, a ca-ca-ca-cophony of beats and musical moans and shouts. The sounds rise and rise as you move along a corridor of windowed displays, each representing a city, loaded with posters, record covers, costumes, instruments, and handwritten song lyrics. Video monitors blast out the sights and sounds of each city. From Memphis, there's Elvis Presley setting off the first waves of fan pandemonium. A few steps away you're in Detroit, where Martha Reeves and the Vandellas are dancing in the streets and pleading, "Don't forget the Motor City!" Then it's on to London, with clips of those pioneer bad boys, the Rolling Stones. And to San Francisco and Los Angeles for a heavy dose of California dreaming; up to Seattle (Smells Like Teen Spirit reads the sign above the display), and out to New York, where Patti Smith is blending punk and poetry.
Ironically, Cleveland gets no such display. Until the theme song from The Drew Carey Show began to burn itself into our consciousness, Cleveland was not known for rocking.
Salvation came from, of all people and places, a coterie of music executives and producers in New York City. They came up with the idea for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1983 and began inducting musical pioneers in 1986. The inaugural class included Chuck Berry, Little Richard, James Brown, and the King. After studying proposals from numerous cities hoping to host their museum, they picked Cleveland.
The city's leaders had made a big push. Cleveland, after all, was where Alan Freed, the pioneer disc jockey, discovered R&B music, dished it out to kids on his late-night radio show, called the music "rock and roll," and caused a ruckus with several concerts before he moved on to New York City.
The $92 million, 150,000-square-foot museum, a sleek and contemporary six-story showcase designed by the renowned architect I.M. Pei, opened in the fall of 1995. Early on, some questioned the idea of a museum for a rebel force like rock and roll. Rock, they feared, was getting respectable.
But that was the point of the museum: to pay rightful respect not only to rock, but also to the music—gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, country, and folk—that served as its foundation.
The Rock Hall, as locals call it, gets the job done. Now, I'm not entirely impartial. While at Rolling Stone, I interviewed many of the artists now enshrined here. My cover stories on the deaths of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix, and on the Jackson 5 phenomenon, are on display in the exhibit devoted to Rolling Stone magazine.
I find myself drawn to the Morrison exhibit, which includes the letter that his parents received from the U.S. embassy in Paris in July 1971, with the heading "Report on the Death of an American Citizen."
As a radio nut, I have fun punching up tapes of disc jockeys from around the country, ranging in time from the '40s into the '90s. I linger at the Sun Records studio exhibit, with the equipment used in the '40s and '50s to record Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and a young man by the name of Presley.
A young couple from New Haven, Conn., Adam and Susan Sendroff, tell me they are on their way home from a visit to Wisconsin and took a "southern route" just to see the museum.
"Since we had parents who were young in the '60s, rock and roll music was always in our house," Susan says. "If we come back with our parents, and when our daughter's a little older, we could have three generations totally enjoy it."
That is music to Jim Henke's ears. The former Rolling Stone editor and Cleveland native is the museum's vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs. He's appreciative of the Rock Hall's role in the revival of his hometown.
"When I left to go to Rolling Stone in the '70s, the city was pretty bad," Henke says. In the last decade, the downtown area has been rebuilt. But it's the Rock Hall that draws tourists. Its mix of education and entertainment, along with an ever-changing program of exhibits and seminars, caters to some 500,000 visitors a year, about two-thirds of whom are from out of town.
"That's one of the primary reasons Cleveland fought so hard to get this," Henke says. "They wanted this to put the city on the map."
Elsewhere, there's the brand-new Experience Music Project in Seattle, and Hard Rock Cafes around the world serve as minimuseums. The Rock Hall decided, early on, that it would not get into the business of bidding for artifacts. Most of its thousands of items—costumes, instruments, photographs—are on loan or are gifts from artists, estates, and collectors.
"Parents are a very good resource," Henke notes. The Jim Morrison items, he notes, came from his mother and father.
Morrison and the Doors were inducted in 1993, and they are in the Hall of Fame Wing on the third floor, represented, along with their fellow inductees, by their signatures, etched into and illuminated against black glass.
It is the museum's stateliest exhibit. But, no, it isn't quiet. The wall of signatures borders a theater, where a multimedia salute to the inductees plays Elvis and Little Richard; the Boss and the Queen of Soul, mixing R-E-S-P-E-C-T with a wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a wop-bam-boom. And all I can think is: TURN THAT NOISE UP!
You can reach the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum at (888) 764-7625. For event information, phone (216) 585-8444, or visit the hall online at www.rockhall.com.
Ben Fong-Torres, a former senior editor at Rolling Stone, is portrayed as himself in the movie Almost Famous. He is the author of several books, including Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to 20 Years of Rock & Roll.
Photography and illustration by André Jenny/Photo 20-20, Janet Century (2)
Although rock looms large in our look at some of the key places in American music, the West has many sites of interest to people with other musical tastes. A sampling:
- Liberace Museum, Las Vegas, Nev. Founded by Mr. Showmanship himself, the museum displays such Liberaciana as pianos, custom cars, jewelry, and his unsurpassed wardrobe. 1775 East Tropicana Avenue. (702) 798-5595.
- Lawrence Welk Museum, Escondido, Calif. The world's largest champagne glass, the Welk bandstand, and other memorabilia show that champagne music, wunnerful as it still is in reruns, had a lot of fizz for many, many years. 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive. (888) 802-7469.
- Bing Crosby Library, Spokane, Wash. The Old Groaner lived in Spokane as a boy and went to Gonzaga. The school has 24,000 Crosby items ranging from sheet music to monogrammed PJs. 502 East Boone. (509) 328-4220.
- Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah. Home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and an 11,623-pipe organ, the domelike building (completed in 1867) has wonderful acoustics. Its distinctive architecture supposedly resulted from Brigham Young's observation of an egg. The choir gives frequent recitals. Temple Square. (801) 240-2534
- Piper's Opera House, Virginia City, Nev. This 1885 theater/museum, in the middle of a well-preserved silver boom town, hosted an Ed Sullivanesque array of luminaries including Adelina Patti, Ignacy Paderewski, Enrico Caruso, and Marie Dressler. Exhibits recall the grand days; the house still is used for performances. (775) 847-0433.
- Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood, Calif. Leopold Stokowski, the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jolson, Jascha Heifetz, and Sergey Rachmaninoff are a few of the artists who have appeared at this California icon since its 1922 opening. There's a museum and store. 2301 N. Highland Avenue. (323) 850-2000.
- Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San Jose, Calif. The center describes itself as "the only institution in North America devoted solely to the life, works, and accomplishments of Beethoven." It houses early editions of Beethoven's music, original manuscripts, a fortepiano, books, records, sculpture, and other Beethoven-related items. It sponsors concerts and music competitions. Ninth Street Mall, Modular A. (408) 924-4590.
- Al Jolson Shrine, Culver City, Calif. Jolson died in San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel in 1950 and was buried in Culver City's Hillside Memorial Park. Even Jolson's healthy ego would be satisfied by the memorial: A white-pillared canopy towers over his grave. Terraced waterfalls, a mosaic of Moses holding the Commandments, and a bronze of Jolson in his characteristic down-on-one-knee pose cumulatively provide the grandeur appropriate to the Jazz Singer's self-image. 6001 West Centinela Avenue. (310) 641-0707.