To the population of the United States, Cleveland Ohio is merely an old steel city; which many of us must land in for our all too familiar layovers. There is a slight possibility that Cleveland hasn’t been regarded as high as it should.
Cleveland is a metropolis on the outskirts of Lake Erie; home to an exciting downtown district, The Cleveland Indians, and many famed restaurants and eateries. Cleveland also makes their mark offering a most positive experience in their thriving art’s and theater departments. So, why isn’t Cleveland a major tourist destination such as New York City, or Boston? Well we don’t know really, but some major rock artists — Elvis, Bruce Springsteen and even David Bowie — all made Cleveland Ohio the starting-point for their legendary careers.
Rock and roll didn’t begin in Seattle when the grunge scene was roaring in the early 90’s. Rock and roll didn’t happen in Los Angeles in some underground club reeking of watered down beer and cheap tattoos. It is Cleveland that takes the place for the birth rights of rock and roll.
Jim Henke tells us how Cleveland won the battle over virtually every other city in the United States. “At one point The USA Today did a poll, ‘where should the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame be?’ — And all of the radio and T.V. stations got everyone to call in, and Cleveland literally finished 1st place, they got like 100,000 more votes than anywhere else.”
In 1951 a disc jockey by the name of Alan Freed began broadcasting the term alongside the sounds of rhythm, blues, and country. Causing the idiom to become widespread and notably understood as what we now know as the largest pandemic of generalized music in America’s history.
So whether you consider Elvis Presley to be the hedge of rock and roll, or if you dig farther back to Hank Williams in the 1940’s with the song “Move it On Over.” It’s prevalent that rock music is unambiguously American, and has built such a reputation in our country that we needed to memorialize it.
For over 15 years, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH has recognized and commemorated some of music’s most famed and cherished artists as well as their legacy.
Still now, in 2010 we have an organized chance to experience such monumental displays of rock and roll history, some interactive, and others just downright awe inspiring.
This writer had a chance to sit down with Jim Henke (Curator and Vice President) in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame offices in Cleveland, OH to discuss past Hall of Fame stories, and upcoming news.
In your job as a curator over the past 17 years, what have you brought to the table? What are the main highlights’ of what you have done here at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
One of the things that we started out to do, that I wanted to do, that I thought was important, was never just focus on inductees, there is a Hall of Fame section, but the museum focuses on all aspects of rock and roll. And so we have a section on the roots of rhythm and blues, and there’s gospel, and folk and blue grass and all of that.
Then ten years ago we started a section called “Right Here, Right Now” it’s contemporary groups and stuff like that. Part of my thinking there was, it will be a lot easier to call someone and say “Hey do you have that guitar that you played at Lollapalooza last week!” rather than to wait 20 years to ask them for it. — But it’s also cool too, because when we first started out we had a lot of baby-boomers coming here. And then more and more now we see families, and it’s interesting because a lot of families will say that their kids asked them to come. But it’s cool when the families are going around, and we have this “Right Here, Right Now” section, you’ll see the kids talking to the parents and explaining to them which these things are.
About every year we do a large major exhibit, and right now it’s Bruce Springsteen. In terms of a quality exhibit, it might just be the best one I’ve put together. Basically what they did is, when he agreed to do the exhibit they appointed this guy who is his recording engineer, Toby Scott. He has a warehouse out in New Jersey and I went out there and sort of made a wish list; Toby would then send me an email and say “well I’ve got this…” And then they’ve also got their video guy, which presented some unreleased live footage as well. Basically the exhibit goes from when Bruce’s first band — when he was a teenager in high school –The Castiles and up to the present.
They actually found a tape of a show that The Castiles played back in the ‘60s, so that would have been a great exhibit; but what happened in this case, a month or two before the exhibit was supposed to open Bruce himself got personally involved, — so that just raptures it up a whole other level. His most famous guitar is the this Fender Esquire he has, he bought it right after he signed his first record deal and then he’s holding it on the cover of Born to Run. The guitar itself became so famous he would hold it up at shows and people would applaud it. And then one day I came into the office and I had an email from Toby saying “Jim we don’t believe this, and you’re not going to either but Bruce wants you guys to have the Esquire!”
Another thing that Bruce has done is add things that have happened since the exhibit’s been open. Like when he won the Kennedy Center Honor last year, which was on Sunday. I swear by the following Wednesday his award was on my desk and so we put that in.
We did one on John Lennon — Yoko Ono has actually been a very good friend to the museum. I had interviewed her once when I was at Rolling Stone, and Jann Wenner was actually friends with both her and John (when John was still alive). So she was one of the first people I went to visit, turns out I sort of surprised her; basically she has saved a lot of John’s stuff so we got his Sgt. Pepper uniform, and his school report cards and a lot of his hand written lyric manuscripts, stuff like that. Then in 2000, which would have been his 60th birthday, we did a special exhibit on him which was really good.
Also with U2, I was the first American journalist to ever write about U2; and actually, my biggest claim to fame is Bono and I used to exchange CD’s and books and stuff, and I sent him a book about Martin Luther King and he says’ that’s what prompted him to write “Pride in the Name of Love”. So I contacted them right after I was hired, and they were like “Oh well, we’re not inducted yet” and all that… And I said “It’s not just inductees.” Then I came up with an idea and said maybe we could do stuff pre-Joshua Tree that your fans may not be that familiar with; so we did a little exhibit on that. Then they actually came here in 2000 when the Lennon exhibit was up, and once they saw the exhibit they got it, — so we did a bigger U2 exhibit after that.
So we’ve done stuff like that, and the first major big exhibit we did was called “I Want to Take You Higher” and it was about kind of the psychedelic era. So we do those, and then we do smaller special exhibits too. Like actually one opened today that you’ll be able to see; it’s called “Elvis 1956”. It’s basically this photographer Alfred Wertheimer, RCA Records (after Elvis signed with them) hired him to do a photo shoot, and this is before Elvis was as famous as he got to be. So basically unprecedented access, he ended up hanging out with Elvis for a few weeks. So there’s pictures of him on stage, and there’s also pictures of him with girlfriends; there’s one where he’s tongue kissing a girl [chuckles].
Give me a little walk-through of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, through your eyes.
Basically there’s the main exhibit hall, and that’s on the lowest level. That starts the movie called Mystery Train and that’s about the roots of rock and roll up to Elvis. And then there’s’ the Elvis exhibit, [the regular Elvis artifacts] and then sort of next to that there is the gallery where the Elvis photo exhibit is. Then there’s a corridor you go down and one side of it is the roots of rock and roll stuff, and then the other side of it is different cities. It starts with Memphis in the ‘50s and Detroit during the Motown period, and then it goes up to Seattle for grunge.
Then we also on that level have a Beatles exhibit, a Rolling Stone exhibit, a Jimi Hendrix exhibit, Jim Morrison exhibit… Morrison’s stuff is cool because his parents basically kept everything related to him, so it goes to the hospital bill when his mother gave birth to him, and all of his school report cards. Notes he wrote his parents when he was a little kid, and actually in a Rolling Stone interview he had, they asked him, what was the first poem he ever wrote, and it was called “The Pony Express”; and they actually have the manuscript of that. So we actually have all this very early Jim Morrison stuff that’s excellent. Then there is a central section out there where we focus on different bands; U2’s out there, and David Bowie, and The Allman Brothers, Parliament Funkadelic, Zz Top.
On the 2nd floor we have a section that’s called “Architecture’s of Rock and Roll”. Focuses on Les Paul, Sam Phillips, and Alan Freed; one of our most unusual artifacts, we actually have Alan Freed’s ashes up there. What happened is they had been buried in upstate New York somewhere, and then his kids were actually working very close with us to get artifacts and stuff like that. And they said he was buried in upstate New York, and it didn’t make much sense because he actually began his career here in Cleveland. So they asked if they gave us his ashes would we put them on exhibit. So now we have Alan Freed’s ashes!
We also have a theater on our 4th floor called the Foster Theater, and we just upgraded that about a year ago; that has a 3-D screen and surround sound, that’s where The U2 Experience is playing right now. Then the top two floors are where the Springsteen exhibit is.
It seems like so many people just love what’s going on here, and love what this place is about, to get all of these great things. You obviously have all of these great connections.
What’s funny too, is when I first started these artists had no actual frame of reference; there most frame of references was the Hard Rock Café. And so I explained, no we don’t want an autographed guitar we want a guitar you played at a concert, or on an important record… something really meaningful.
So before the museum opened and bands would come through Cleveland, I would bring them down and sort of show them around the building and the blue-prints and try to explain it. Still till this day when bands come through we try to invite them down and once they see it they tend to get it more. Like I mentioned the song “Cleveland Rocks” Ian Hunter wrote that. He came through Cleveland a couple of years ago, and he came over and he goes “Oh by the way, I have the piano I wrote “Cleveland Rocks” on, would you like the piano?” So we still do bring bands down here.
There are certain people like John Mayor and Billy Joel who come here every time they’re in Cleveland and they just love it.
Does the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have anything new or groundbreaking in the works?
We’re preparing to open a library of archives; it’s about 10 minutes away from here on the college campus. The building’s been built; we have staff there right now working, trying to get stuff cataloged and stuff we’re trying to get collected for that. It has two levels, library thing for the general public with books and magazines and that sort of thing, also access to video. We do all sorts of events, and that stuff has all sort of been sitting in our vault so now we’re going to have a library to make that available.
So this is going to be a specific Rock and Roll library?
Yep! So it will be like that part, and then there will be the archives part. What we’re doing is we’re going to go to the musicians’ and producers, and record companies and all of that, and try to get all of their papers and personal stuff, contracts, lyrics manuscripts, set lists. Say you were doing something on whomever, and you could call and make an appointment and sit in with an archivist and go through this person’s papers and see stuff that really no one else has ever seen. That’s going to open in May; we’re in the works of collecting for that now.