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What a Hall!

From Roy Orbison’s sunglasses to Don Henley’s drum set, there’s an awful lot of Texas in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Take your own magical history tour.

By January 1997Comments

NEED PROOF THAT THE GREAT STATE OF TEXAS has played a rich, influential role in American musical history? Why, just look at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, where one of the first things you encounter is a mini-exhibit called “Don’t Knock the Rock.” This cheeky retrospective of society’s various attempts to condemn, censor, and destroy rock and roll begins with a quote reprinted in giant type on a floor-to-ceiling panel: “‘The First Amendment should not apply to rock and roll’—San Antonio Councilman, 1985.”

1985? Wasn’t that the year the third Butthole Surfers record was released?

Of course, after this bit of anonymous demagoguery, Texas is represented throughout the Rock Hall in somewhat nobler fashion. While conventional wisdom decrees that we were never, say, Memphis in the fifties, there are plenty of Lone Star legends on display, from our inductees (natives T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Roy Orbison, Sly Stone, Carl Gardner and Billy Guy of the Coasters, and Otis Williams of the Temptations, plus transplants Bobby “Blue” Bland and Jimmie Rodgers) to miscellaneous non-inductees, both significant (Bob Wills, ZZ Top) and evanescent (psychedelic trailblazers Bubblepuppy, consigned to a section on one-hit wonders). Now is the time to see it all. With Southwest Airlines flying to Cleveland, it’s a more accessible weekend getaway than ever. And since the museum plans to unveil a massive psychedelia exhibit in May, you’ll want to get there soon, before some of the current displays are mothballed.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum opened in September 1995 after nine years as an institution without a home. During that period, the Hall held an annual induction dinner, so by the time architect I. M. Pei’s design was realized, there were already more than one hundred honorees. Artists become eligible for induction 25 years from the date of their first record. Elvis Presley, James Brown, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan were among those inducted in the first few years, while more recently, bands like the Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin, and the Grateful Dead have joined the rolls; the honorees for 1997 include Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, both of which featured Dallas’ Stephen Stills. And rockers aren’t the only ones in the Hall—there are also non-performers (deejays, journalists, songwriters, producers, and executives) and early influences (non-rock artists). Inductees are nominated by a committee of rock historians and voted on by a one-thousand-plus body of journalists, artists, and music industry professionals.

With 50,000 square feet of exhibition space in a pyramid that looks like it fell off the cover of a Pink Floyd album, the Hall of Fame is actually just a tiny part of the 150,000-square-foot Rock Hall. The main attraction is the museum, a treasure trove of records, memorabilia, costumes, artwork, and historical information that is mostly displayed in the gigantic ground-floor Ahmet Ertegun Exhibition Hall (which counts Fort Worth’s Sid and Mercedes Bass among its benefactors). Here you’ll find everything from John Lennon’s Sgt. Pepper uniform to Run DMC’s Adidas sneakers, but your first stop is a tiny movie theater that shows a pair of introductory films. Mystery Train covers the thirties, forties, and fifties and includes scenes of Rodgers, Wills, Orbison, and Holly, while Kick Out the Jams, covers the sixties through the nineties. The latter excerpts a Joplin appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in which the Port Arthur-born vocalist gripes about repressive small towns. “They laughed me out of class, out of town, and out of the state—so now I’m going home,” she cracks.

After that, it’s time to explore the vastness of the Ertegun Hall. The “early influences” are showcased first, with a wall of old photos that includes snapshots of Walker and Rodgers. After this modest nod to the past, the present takes over in the form of computer terminals that allow fans to pose the question every music journalist tries to avoid: “So, like, what are your influences?” This interactive game uses music, video, and text to make historical connections: Rodgers with Carl Perkins, Joplin with Big Mama Thornton, Holly with Bo Diddley. (For instance, the computer plays the famous “Bo Diddley beat,” then cranks out Holly’s “Not Fade Away” to show how it was applied.) You can easily lose track of time playing with this stuff: It’s like the World Wide Web, only with better sound and faster video.

On another wall there’s another bank of computer monitors, this one allowing users to explore “The 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” Texas choices include Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover,” and Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day,” which, the accompanying biographical data helpfully mentions, was a line of dialogue from The Searchers. Wills, Rodgers, and Charlie Christian are also accounted for. Again, you could spend half a day here, though this particular feature would be even more fun and truly interactive if you could point and click on the guys who chose the five hundred songs that shaped rock—and then let the arguments fly.

Following the aforementioned “Don’t Knock the Rock” wall is “U Got the Look,” a Stephen Sprouse-curated style showcase that gives Holly’s geek look equal weight with Madonna’s cone bra. Then comes a large area known as “Rockin’ All Over the World,” a multipart tribute to pivotal rock and roll cities like Memphis, New Orleans, and Detroit—in other words, every other place the Rock Hall might have been built. It’s here that you’ll find the first significant slice of Texana, for while Roy Orbison’s home was the West Texas town of Wink and his biggest hits were with Monument Records, the shaded crooner gets his due for his early days with the Memphis-Sun Records crowd. There’s sheet music, old 45’s, a black jacket he wore while touring with the Beatles, an autographed guitar from his 1988 tribute concert (the pick guard is signed by Iggy Pop, the Band’s Levon Helm, and actor Harry Dean Stanton), and naturally, a pair of sunglasses. Best of all is a copy of the Wink High School yearbook, class of 1953. Orbison already looks forty, but he’s wearing normal glasses, so he’s barely recognizable.

Orbison is also represented, along with scores of other artists, on another bank of computers devoted entirely to education—there are discographies, interviews, and essays from the The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. An audio sample finds Orbison explaining how he ended up with Sun: He didn’t like the work he’d done at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, and Memphis was closer than New York or Los Angeles. Other Texans on display here include Doug Sahm and Willie Nelson, who reminisces about the need to put up chicken wire at shows in Fort Worth as protection from the flying beer bottles.

Elsewhere in “Rockin’ All Over the World” is a glass case devoted to San Francisco in the sixties—prime Janis Joplin territory. Hippie mementos predominate here: a necklace, glass beads, scarves, a God’s eye. Along with an assortment of tickets, handbills, and psychedelic posters, there’s the famous R. Crumb-designed Cheap Thrills album cover and the equally famous R. Crumb-designed undipped blotter acid sheets. Around the corner is something that doesn’t fit in the glass case: Janis Joplin’s Porsche Cabriolet. Designed by David Richards in 1968, it features an image of Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company on the front left fender, along with various stars, suns, globes, mountains, eagles, butterflies, and eyes. The car has held up rather impressively: Over the years, it has been stolen, painted over, recovered, and restored several times, most recently in 1994.

“Rockin’ All Over the World” ends on a contemporary note, with showcases devoted to punk in New York and London in the seventies, New York rap and hip-hop in the eighties, and Seattle grunge in the nineties. The Seattle momentos include poster art by former Austinite Frank Kozik, and the museum’s official program mentions Austin proto-punks Scratch Acid as one of the bands the grunge generation took its inspiration from.

Just down the wall from the Seattle display is the Hall’s most idiosyncratic offering: the drumstick collection, numbering in the thousands, of one Peter Lavinger. Either Lavinger had eclectic taste or he was just an obsessive completist with a lot of free time; look closely and you’ll see, for starters, the autographed sticks of Texans or Texas exes Chris Layton (who has played with Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Arc Angels, and Storyville), Jimmy Carl Black (Mothers of Invention), Matt Chamberlain (New Bohemians), Steve Drozd (Flaming Lips), and King Coffey (Butthole Surfers).

The middle of the Ertegun room is given over to mannequins done up to resemble various bands, from the Allman Brothers to the most stylin’ combo there ever was, Parliament/Funkadelic. Running a close second to P/Funk in the garish department, however, is ZZ Top, whose stand-ins have fluorescent green guitars, hundred-gallon Stetsons, “Hot Rod Fire” jackets, and “Sasquatch Fur” drums. Lest we forget that the ZZ was (is?) also a pretty fair rock and roll band, the accompanying plaque mentions the trio’s role as contemporary analogues to T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

The Ertegun room is the Hall’s largest, most impressive asset, but there’s more to come farther up the pyramid. The second floor is dedicated to movies, TV, radio, and printed matter. Yet another computer area promises an archive of rock and roll flicks, but on the day I visited, the touch screens weren’t responding well, so there was no telling whether Roadie or Songwriter was among them (in fact, they are not). The computers work much better in the radio room—amid cases of old-fashioned receivers, the headphones crank out the sound of America’s greatest deejays, from New York’s WABC crew to Wolfman Jack (who broadcast out of Ciudad Acu�a one year). Through the decades of Texas radio we get Dallas’ Redbeard, Weird Beard, and Jimmie Rabbitt, as well as Houston’s Paul Berlin, San Antonio’s Sonny Melendez, and Austin’s Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Hurst. It’s an amazing exhibit because it’s so uncommon; anyone can read the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia or make his own tape of the greatest singles, but rock radio’s glory days are usually accessed only in memories. The second floor also features display cases with ephemera ranging from Don Henley’s old drum set to a poster for a 1977 appearance by the Byrds at the Austin Opry House. This is also where the Buddy Holly souvenirs are, including his Lubbock High School diploma and his tenor banjo.

The Hall’s third floor is a restaurant (called Eat to the Beat), and the fourth floor is a large movie theater (a short historical film is shown daily, and there are occasional screenings of full-length features). Both floors are adorned with various photos and rotating exhibits. Last fall, there was a heavy metal display. The fifth floor serves as the foyer to the actual hall of fame (you can see its star-studded induction ceremonies on video) and an area devoted to the most recent batch of inductees. A darkened stairway leads you to the sixth floor—the Hall itself. It looks like a planetarium, with high blue walls and dotted starlike lights. Instead of the usual tacky busts, its members are honored with backlit replicas of their autographs, along with small, understated video monitors that pump out facts, pictures, and quotes.

It’s actually kind of underwhelming after all that has come before it. It would almost be better to hit the top floor first; that way, you could find out who has actually gained admission to the Hall proper and then go downstairs to hear their music and learn their histories. This is just a minor complaint, however, and minor complaints are all the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum really engenders. Sure, you could play the old “why isn’t so-and-so or such-and-such represented” game (say, Roky Erickson or the independent labels that inspired Seattle’s Sub Pop), but that’s the nature of the beast. You could also spend a lot of time mulling over the paradigms of cultural documentation: the way “official versions” are shaped and historical judgments become “truth.” In fact, you could probably write a book or teach a university class on the subject. But then, that might distract you from noticing how cool the beards on the ZZ Top mannequins are. At the end of the day the Rock Hall is simply fun: It’s interesting and plenty educational, especially for the hundreds of thousands of visitors who don’t happen to be critics.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is located at One Key Plaza, Cleveland, Ohio 44114. For hours, admission prices, and directions, call 800-282-5393 or log onto the Rock Hall’s World Wide Web site, http://www.rockhall.com.

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