CLEVELAND. Susan and Harvey Justmann had an hour or so to kill before the Indians game; so, they went for a walk to the I.M. Pei-designed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which will open to the public on Saturday.
“I’m in shock,” Harvey said as he gazed upon the structure, which is said to resemble a record turntable from above. “We did it! We actually did it!”
Susan, also a lifelong Clevelander, said, “I keep thinking that at midnight it’s all going to change back to the way it was, and Cleveland will once again be that city that everyone jokes about.”
This weekend, Cleveland tosses off its “rust belt” image to wear the kind of belt that champions wear.
The blue-collar town often referred to as “the mistake by the lake” is now the charmed Cinderella city, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the crowning jewel of its comeback. Exhibit designer Bruce Burdick of San Francisco said the often-confusing museum layout is all about “encountering and discovering.” City officials hope the estimated 600,000 to 1 million visitors the hall is expected to attract each year will encounter much more of Cleveland and discover that they really like the city previously best known for pollution (the Cuyahoga River actually caught fire in 1969) and pirogi.
With the Indians earning the best record in baseball in their wonderful new Jacobs Field ballpark and with Cleveland’s melodic rappers Bone Thugs N’ Harmony recently topping the charts, Cleveland’s self-esteem is at an all-time high. And then there’s the NFL football season starting Sunday, with the Browns being mentioned as a Super Bowl possibility.
This burg is absolutely dizzy with delight, and city leaders have even found a new slogan that taps into this upswing. They are calling Cleveland “The New American City,” and the New Cleveland Campaign has produced a video that states: “We have reinvented our city with determination, pluck and the sheer force of will. Cleveland is in the midst of a breathtaking renaissance that is a template for renewal worldwide.”
If the city didn’t build the Hall of Fame, and at times it looked like it wouldn’t, there would be no such claims.
“There was so much hoopla connected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that it seemed like all eyes were on Cleveland,” said Ohio Gov. George Voinovich. “We just had to pull together and follow through or we’d never improve our image.”
Early moves provide a foundation of rock
Voinovich was the mayor of Cleveland in 1985, when he and a group of Cleveland businessmen trekked to New York City to meet with legendary record executive Ahmet Ertegun and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who were instrumental in forming the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. The foundation had undertaken a nationwide search for a permanent home, and Cleveland made a massive pitch. Also in the running were Memphis, San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago.
“I thought we had an outside chance,” Voinovich said, “but the music industry wasn’t really on our side. They would’ve rather had it on the West Coast or the East Coast.”
In early 1986, USA Today conducted a phone poll asking which city deserved the hall, and Cleveland won easily, thanks to the efforts of area radio stations in getting out the vote. The city was also able to send the New York board a petition with 660,000 signatures asking for the hall. Perhaps swayed by this enthusiasm — or maybe because the other contending cities were already rich with landmarks — the foundation awarded Cleveland the project on May 5, 1986.
Early estimates were that the hall would cost a little more than $20 million, but in one year of fund raising, Cleveland was able to come up with only $300,000. The New York board started to question Cleveland’s commitment, and that’s when Voinovich held an emergency meeting of the Founder’s Club, which was in charge of raising the money. Voinovich uttered the “F” word — failure — and beat into those community leaders just how embarrassing it would be for Cleveland to lose the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“I gave the people in New York my word as a man that if they awarded us the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, we would build it,” Voinovich said. “But it wasn’t just my reputation that was at stake — it would also be bad for Cleveland’s reputation if we couldn’t get it done. I let them know at the meeting that it was time to take the bushel basket off the light bulb and let Cleveland shine.”
The assembled got the message, and the money soon started pouring in from the private sector, eventually reaching $20 million. After the New Yorkers hired internationally known architect I.M. Pei for $5 million and the site was moved from the riverfront to the North Coast Harbor area on the shores of Lake Erie, the estimated cost soared to $92 million.
But Cleveland was able to push for completion with $8 million in government grants and $34 million in state-backed bonds. Another $10 million to $15 million is expected to be raised from a superstar performance Saturday night billed as the “concert of the century,” with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Melissa Etheridge, Prince and such pioneers as Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Johnny Cash. HBO will televise five hours of the show live from Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Diehard rockers and proud of it
Before its new civic identity, this meat-eating, beer-drinking metropolis was tagged with a simpler motto: “Cleveland Rocks.” It comes from a 1979 Ian Hunter song of the same name and sums up the attitude of many rock ‘n’ roll musicians of the ’70s. While the rest of the country was doing the hustle and wearing gold chains, Cleveland remained a diehard rock ‘n’ roll town, and such concert sites as the Agora and the Music Hall attracted loud, wild audiences.
Of course, the city is also associated with “Hello, Cleveland,” the standard arena-rock salute from road-weary bands that was immortalized in Spinal Tap. And even with such favorite sons as the James Gang, the Raspberries, Pere Ubu and Nine Inch Nails, Cleveland’s live music legacy is nothing special.
What gives Cleveland its real claim to the Hall of Fame is that it was here in 1951 that WJW-AM disc jockey Alan Freed started attaching the words “rock and roll” to the black rhythm and blues music he played for a racially mixed audience. “Rock and roll” was blues jargon for sex; Freed didn’t invent the term, but he popularized it with the black and white teen-agers who scoured the bins, side by side, at the Record Rendezvous on Prospect Avenue, seeking out the latest hot wax from the likes of Roy Brown, T-Bone Walker and Big Mama Thornton.
Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball, held March 21, 1952, at the Cleveland Arena, is generally recognized as the first rock concert. It was also the first rock concert to be shut down by police. As a crowd of 10,000 inside the venue listened to Paul Williams and the Dominoes, at least 5,000 outside stormed the gates to try to get into the sold-out show.
Vindication for a DJ and his city
Sadly, Freed will not be part of the grand-opening festivities for the seven-floor Hall of Fame. He died in 1965, at age 43, soon after being fired and disgraced when a “payola” investigation revealed that, while a DJ at WABC in New York, he had taken bribes to play certain records. His contribution to the advent of rock ‘n’ roll is not forgotten in the new hall, however, as an entire wall is filled with black and white photos of him in his heyday.
Not only does the proud, new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum vindicate Freed’s improprieties, it turns back the decades-long abuse of Cleveland as a dull, smelly, factory town. All week the fireworks have been exploding in the sky over a rejuvenated and rejoicing Cleveland, which leads into the hall’s mazelike first-floor layout.
PART II (Opinion): It opens
Moments before Friday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the sound system blared a recording of Jimi Hendrix playing at Woodstock. As the song came to an end in a hail of simulated gunfire and explosions, three jet planes roared overhead in close formation, and the crowd of about 20,000 proud townies cheered wildly. It was a moving moment, but like so much of the proceedings at the much-publicized museum opening, the histrionics missed the point.
Hendrix’s rendition was one of anger against the Vietnam War. So to see the jets flying overhead as if Natalie Cole had just done the anthem honors gave a prime example of just how imposing are the spin doctors of posterity.
To go along with hype that engulfed every nook and cranny of Cleveland like nothing short of a garbagemen’s strike, you would believe that rock and roll (no longer “rock ‘n’ roll”) is the most vital force on the planet and not some antiquated term that describes widespread riff recycling. “You’ve changed the map of America! You’ve changed the map of the world!” Yoko Ono shouted at the opening ceremony, as if culling a museum full of artifacts from the wreckage of rock and roll was a feat much greater than causing the greatest band of all time to break up.
Since Cleveland in January is a little like Siberia with football and rubber dog’s noses, and tax dollars are currently the consistency of blood from a stone, there’s no chance of “the new American city” sponsoring the Super Bowl in a sequoia’s lifetime. So, in a way, the opening weekend of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was Cleveland’s Super Bowl-like opportunity to shimmy and shine.
Like the Super Bowl, however, this “greatest show on earth” couldn’t live up to the buildup. There was such an oversaturation of media and such pressure to come up with something/anything newsworthy to report, that one local TV station even aired the set list (purloined from HBO during rehearsals) a day before the main event: a star-studded Concert for the Hall of Fame. The Plain-Dealer newspaper could only follow suit and print the pairings (Lou Reed with Soul Asylum, Jerry Lee Lewis with Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi with Eric Burden, Jackson Browne with Melissa Etheridge, etc.) the morning of the big concert.
In case you hadn’t been watching TV or reading the newspaper, the concert’s MC let everyone know that the show would open with Chuck Berry doing Johnny B. Goode with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. “So let’s see you go nuts! Let’s show the HBO cameras just how wild we are about rock and roll in Cleveland!” he cheered.
The crowd did indeed go nuts when Berry and Springsteen (who assumed the role of Willie at Farm Aid) walked on stage to open the concert, but after being prompted, the response seemed phony. Why do they always have to tell us what we’re about to see before we see it? And then why do they have to go on and on about what we just saw? This “concert of the century” was as thrilling as watching a videotape of a football game when you already know the final score. But as such, it was a fitting representation of the stale state of popular music. As rock and roll continues to skate the thin ice of Lake Flaccid, hoping to delay the inevitable until that big gig on Dec. 31, 1999, I wonder just how long it will be before we view rock musicians with the derision and disdain we now reserve for mimes. Today’s “modern rock” is so disposable that they’re even hawking a K-Tel-like ’90s retrospective CD on TV, featuring such “oldies” acts as Jesus Jones, EMF and Right Said Fred.
Greenbacks and goosebumps
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, designed by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei, is an impressive structure on the shores of Lake Erie. And it’s a fairly well-curated museum that uses well-placed parallels to sometimes create a strong message about this thing called rock. In a three-hour tour (which is about the average time to take it all in), I got goosebumps three times, which isn’t so bad:
Once reading the hand-printed lyrics of “Angel” and then being informed that they were written after Hendrix had a dream about being visited by his deceased mother.
I also got “chicken skin” in the 12-minute film Kick Out the Jams. Director Susan Steinberg bounced between Madonna making her “freedom of expression” speech on one side of the screen and Patti Smith’s recitation of her “I’m an American artist” poem. When Patti declared, “I have not sold my soul to God!” and then the band kicks in, the blood rushed to my head like a festival-seating crowd when the gates open.
That’s rock ‘n’ roll: the moment. It’s gotta hit you like a blast of good air.
The big concert packed little passion, which is what happens when you take away the element of surprise. Hell, even the secret of Bob Dylan’s “unnanounced” appearance proudly was trumpeted in the pages of the aptly named Plain-Dealer. Even worse, though, was the way the concert seemed to have been staged strictly for the benefit of HBO. The sound systems pumped weakly — a TV mix? — and the screens on the side of the stage were small and inadequate for a stadium crowd of 63,000.
But that’s the attitude of rock ‘n’ roll, excuse me, rock and roll these days. The fans are the money, so stroke them enough to get them to give up the green. But once you’ve got the scratch, it’s time to think about where the next dollars are coming from. Give them just enough of a show so they don’t grumble or (gulp) ask for their money back.
Success and spit
The most telling exhibit is the one that seems most out of place. It’s part of the stage setting for Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which dominates the fourth floor. But the writing on The Wall gave me goosebumps No. 3.
Roger Waters, the former Floydian who wrote most of The Wall, explains the inspiration for his often-disturbing “rock opera” (which was the basis for a truly incredible movie). Waters writes about a concert like so many others, during the peak of Pink Floyd’s popularity. The fans were going crazy, and one in particular was staring at Waters as he writhed to get closer. When the fan was mere feet from Waters and reaching up, the bassist spit right in his face. Afterward, Waters searched for an explanation on why he had reacted so repulsively and finally realized that gaudy rock success mixed with his own personal doubt had caused him to build a wall all around him.
And now rock and roll has some very expensive and fancy walls to call home. Cleveland is rejoicing, and the rock and roll community has rallied around this new shrine to its profession. This is the most overhyped and talked-about museum opening since the King Tut exhibit in the ’70s.
Which just goes to show you how fascinated the public is about seeing a mummy and all its knicknacks.