Hope I Die Before I Get Old: The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

That stanza, famously sung by The Who’s front man Pete Townshend in their classic song “My Generation”, initially reflected the first-time experience I had with the slick, glamor-filled displays at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located along the lakefront in Cleveland, Ohio.

But as much as that attitude drives much of the greatest music within the fuzzy confines of this musical genre, the sad truth is that for our heroes, we don’t want them to die prematurely, as is the case with The Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, who passed away at the age of 50 just days after our visit and not even a year after his band was inducted into the very same hall of fame.

The Foo Fighters at their 2021 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction

The building housing Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with its design by famed architect I.M. Pei, dazzles you with its angles and lines both as you walk in and around, a feeling that really doesn’t let up as you stroll through the exhibits. This museum is not an information-heavy destination; you’re better off consulting a book or a documentary on the history of rock and roll or the history of a particular musical artist if you’re into that.

Rather, this is a place to get in touch with your own musical memories and grab a hint of what it’s like to be a rock star. Memorabilia from a slew of artists is plentiful, from written lyrics to clothing, from concert posters to iconic photographs. And oh yes, plenty of musical instruments are present, geared heavily towards the classic rock and roll icon – the electric guitar. Interestingly, the actual Hall of Fame area, which shows who was inducted and when, is actually one of the more understated parts of the museum, by my estimation.

My spouse had been here years before, and the garage exhibition, located on the second floor, was new to both of us. Here you don’t need video game guitars and drum sets – the real thing is there for us wannabes. Stages for those trying to make a living plying the trade are also in evidence – live music was definitely in the background as we ambled through six levels of displays and exhibits.

Also present was an exhibit about the recently released Peter Jackson documentary “The Beatles: Get Back”, which cobbled together footage of the band writing and rehearsing the 14 songs that would go into their first live show in two years, as well as a more nuanced picture of a band that at the time would not be together as such for too much longer. I’m not sure if the exhibit adds that much beyond that the documentary doesn’t already gives you, but it is fun to see the rooftop concert on a pseudo-theater sized screen vs. the average household flat screen TV.

As I viewed the origins section of exhibits, it made me think of the whole debate about what exactly rock and roll is and who and who doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. In a very oversimplified summary, modern rock and roll wouldn’t be here without the Blues and probably would have looked a lot different had Black artists had the same access to radio and recording companies.

An interesting development happened with this year’s ongoing voting, when country/pop music icon Dolly Parton did a very punk/rebel like thing (in the nicest way possible, mind you) by refusing her nomination, saying she has not done enough to merit inclusion. It brings to mind the tension that Nashville, the home of country music, has had with rock and roll, starting with bands The Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and progressing into bands like The Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, and perhaps the most popular of the bunch, The Eagles (not to mention how folk music has sort of straddled both genres.)

Mixed in there is the whole corporate nature being the antithesis to rock and roll – “selling out” has always been a bone of contention with many, and especially with Rock and Roll’s initial counter-culture reputation, both on the religious front (some people still do believe that the music is the product of some evil deity even now) and its later association with the protest movements of the 1960s, the punk movement in the 1970s, and the rise of rap and hip-hop in the 1980s into the 1990s. With that said, the independent side of the genre, which has earned their own special cred, garnered adoring support from a select but loyal set of fans, and keeps the rebel, grungy side of the genre alive were represented here as well.

Inherent in rock and roll is its disposable nature – one-hit and one-album wonders abound (a couple of listening booths were dedicated to these “right place, right time” acts) and very few musicians/bands remain durable enough to retain their popularity over a number of decades. In fact, Jefferson Airplane’s/Starship’s Grace Slick, who refused to show up at her band’s nomination ceremony, has stated that “all rock-and-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire.”

Maybe Taylor Hawkins’s death can put that notion partially out to pasture – no one seemed to think that either he or the Foo Fighters had lost any relevance as a band (front man Dave Grohl himself is 53 years old at the time of this post.) Or for that matter, many love to speculate what would’ve happened with superstars who never got a chance to get close to that age such as Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Jimi Hendrix.

Waiting to get inside the Connor Theater for “The Power of Rock Experience”

Perhaps the best argument about the value of maturity was found in the “The Power Of Rock Experience” inside the Connor Theater (the only place in the Hall where photography or video is not allowed, during typical visits.) Featuring acclaimed director Jonathan Demme (the Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense”, “Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia” among the highlights of a career that was ended prematurely by cancer), the film featured snippets of the best performances from past Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, accentuated by special effects from within the theater.

The last and most complete snippet came from the then 45-year-old Prince Rogers Nelson, who got his call to the Hall along with a solo George Harrison in 2004. Prince hadn’t had a top ten hit in roughly ten years (1994’s “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World), with the public now more in tune to folks like Usher, Outkast, Ludacris, and Beyonce. But a three-minute solo on a performance of George Harrison’s classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (featuring such luminaries as Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne, and George’s son, Dhani,) his Royal Badness reminded everyone that nothing had happened to his chops as he pulled out a mind-melting, blistering guitar solo for the song’s final three minutes. After his incredible performance, Prince simply sauntered off the stage almost incognito, leaving everyone to absorb what they just witnessed.

A refrain from Harrison’s song muses:

“I look at the world and I notice it’s turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps.”

For those who consider rock and roll a staple of their lives, they and their guitars, meager mockups made of air or vintage Fender Stratocasters and everything in between, will feel at home inside the glitzy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It would be awesome if the world’s mistakes could be cured by a splendiferous guitar solo by your favorite rock icon, but for a couple of hours, one can at least dream of that very thing.

The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame | 1100 Rock and Roll Boulevard, Cleveland, OH 44114 | Ph: 216.781.ROCK (7625) | IG: rockhall

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