The City Whose River Caught Fire
Cleveland Ohio was initially established in 1796. It remained a relatively sleepy community until the 1832 completion of the Ohio and Erie Canal which terminated there. Within five years of the Canal’s completion, the population had grown tenfold, largely by a surge in immigrants. This transformed the small port into a major shipping and industrial city. It became one of the largest oil (John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil), auto, iron, and steel producers in the country.
This also made Cleveland one of the country’s most crime-ridden and polluted cities. Its pollution and lack of environmental controls were poignantly evidenced on June 22, 1969, when the Cuyahoga River (actually it was an oil spill on the river) caught fire. The fire and similar events turned the city into a national joke and a symbol of the nation’s pollution problem. But it also helped spur the city to action.
Cleveland Rebuilds Its Image
Today, Cleveland is a very different city. On our 2022 visit, we found a much more pleasant city than we had expected. Its downtown was clean, modern, and pretty. And from what we saw, its neighborhoods looked very pleasant and welcoming. These include some, like the waterfront (at least near downtown) and the warehouse district, that were directly impacted by the city’s industrial past. For example:
- The downtown waterfront has new buildings, park, and attractions to draw people to the area. been reborn. For example, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Great Lake Science Center, and the Cleveland Browns football stadium.
- The Warehouse District which is a historic district with many 19th century buildings, now serves as the city’s primary restaurant, entertainment, and gallery district.
- University Circle is home to the huge Rockefeller Park and many of the city’s most important education (including Case Western Reserve), health (such as the Cleveland Clinic), and cultural (its history and art museums, symphony orchestra, and botanical gardens) institutions.
Our primary focus for our visit to Cleveland, however, was to explore the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an I.M. Pei building that houses the nation’s largest permanent (and hosts many temporary) collections of rock and roll memorabilia. Most of the exhibits are organized around themes including the precedents of Rock and Roll, the cities that became incubators for Rock music and the artists who had the greatest impact on the genre.
We started our tour at the Roots of Rock exhibit which uses a video, supported by panels to discuss specific artists and displays of memorabilia. It used voice and clips of songs from key artists of each genre to explain the influence of each type of sound on rock and roll.
- The Blues, with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Water
- Gospel from Mahalia Jackson
- Country and Folk with artists such as the Carter Family, Lead Belly, and Hank Williams
- Jazz with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, etc.
- Erythema and Blues from Johnny Otis, Chuck Berry, and Elvis.
Protests Against Rock and Roll
Rock was not embraced by everyone initially. Educational panels and film clips portrayed the many condemnations of the music. Music critics, religious zealots, political figures, the police, and others charged that rock included satanic influences, public lewdness, drugs, and had a negative impact on children. They used public taunting, record burnings, U.S. Senate hearings, and police harassment to try to bring down rock.
All Rock Is Not the Same
Other exhibits gave overviews of the creative milieu that developed in different cities at different times to take rock into new directions. Each exhibit combined informative panels with memorabilia, music, and especially video clips. These included a number of cities and regions that became magnets for talented musicians. Example include:
- Memphis in the 50s drew a combination of blues, gospel, and jazz groups that later spawned Elvis and became the birthplace of Rock and Roll.
- The South was the birthplace of soul which was driven by artists including Ray Charles, San Cooke, James Brown, and of course, Aretha Franklin.
- Detroit in the early 60s drew thousands of Southern Blacks (in the Great Migration) and their music which Berry Gordy corralled an unprecedented number of star performers under his Motown label.
- London and Liverpool in the late 50s had the Beatles launching the “British Invasion”, followed by dozens of other groups from the Dave Clark Five to the Kinks, and the Animals.
- San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in the counterculture sixties was home to such breakthrough groups as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
- Los Angles in the mid-to-late 60s had the Beach Boys launching the surfer music craze. This was followed by more avante-guard artists and socially-conscious folk-rock artists like Roger McGuinn and David Crosby (who formed The Byrds). Then came many who were nurtured in music clubs (especially the Troubadour) and were promoted by star producers Phil Spector and Lou Adler. Examples are Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Neil Young, and Steve Nash.
- London, New York, and Los Angeles in the mid-70s were the cradles for the emergence of aggressive Punk and New Wave music as by the Sex Pistols.
- Seattle in the 80s and 90s was the birthplace of Grunge with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, et al.
- And then there was the ear-shattering volume and distorted guitar chords of Heavy Metal groups including Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple.
Paying Tribute to Specific Artists
Other exhibits focused on specific artists, especially those who had particularly large impacts on rock.
Elvis combined Blues, Gospel, and Soul into a new form of music that effectively launched Rock and Roll. The extensive exhibit played extensive clips of his performances and movies, discussed his increasingly troubled personal life, and attempted to explain how a combination of his music, hip-swiveling performances, the soul that he put into his songs, and his personal attributes (modestly, charisma, etc.) made him such a breakthrough star.
The Beatles had another very large section that was based on the 1970 Michael Lindsay-Hogg documentary, “Let it Be” and the 2021 Peter Jackson “Get Back” docu-series (which was compiled from footage shot, but not used by Lindsay-Hogg to tell a very different story). In addition to performances from these and other sources, the exhibit discusses the creation and role of Apple Studios and particularly important contributors to the Beatles’ success. These include George Martin (their manager sometimes referred to as the Fifth Beatle), Glynis John (who worked for the Stones, but on special request from Paul McCartney, helped produce some of the Beatles’ own movies), and long-time friend and collaborator Billy Preston.
Exhibits include some of their instruments, outfits, stories about specific songs (including Lucy in the Sky of Diamonds, which Lennon insisted came from a drawing his son created in school and had zero reference to LSD), and memorabilia such as Lennon’s glasses and driver’s license.
It also reviewed some of their incredible accomplishments:
- In 1962 when it had three of its first records in the top 20 (including numbers 1 and 2)
- 1964 when it had three number one records
- The launching of Beatlemania in the U.S. with their Ed Sullivan performance
- When they had all five of the Billboard Top Five singles songs of the year.
It also explained the evolution of the art, from the kiddie tunes of the early 60s, through the innovative Sergeant Pepper, through their soulful Rubber Soul and their continual experimentation with new instruments 9especially the sitar) and production techniques.
The Rolling Stones explained the history of the band. The exhibit played numerous clips of their blockbuster concerts, and showed Jager’s outrageous outfits and incomparably athletic prancing (including well into his 60s) that made the Stones the “greatest touring band of all time”.
Jimmy Hendrix started as an Army paratrooper before becoming a contract guitar player for recording artists. He later created his own group before his tragically premature drug-induced death.
We were surprised by no mention to why Bob Dylan was not included in august group, much less getting barely a passing mention in another exhibit, the Legends of Rock.
Other smaller tributes are paid to dozens of other artists.
- Bruce Springsteen with his songs about working-class America;
- The Doobie Brothers with their guitar-driven riffs, integration of folk and bluegrass into rock and roll;
- Allman Brothers with their new form of Southern rock that combines blues, jazz, country, and fork;
- David Bowie and his imaginative and engaging personas, costumes, and performances;
- The Supremes who were the quintessential female singing group and inspiration for dozens of other such groups to come;
- Janis Joplin had one of the most powerful and expressive voices of any female singer;
- Dozens of others include Earth Wind and Fire, ZZ Top, Def Leopard, Alice Cooper, and James Brown.
The section also had brief profiles of a few Rap and Hip-Hop performers.
The Legends of Rock Section
This section included brief profiles of, not to speak of impressive memorabilia from many other star musicians including Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Kurt Kobian, Jon Bon Jovi, Ian Anderson, Taylor Swift, and many others.
But Wait, There’s More
Among other sections and performances are:
- A section that honors recent Hall of Fame inductees with plaques, brief profiles, and audio interviews;
- An homage to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” with a scaled-down replica of the wall from the group’s famed Berlin concert, complete with some of the strange, foreboding fugues sitting atop the wall;
- A theater that shows a rotating list of short films. The one we saw was a tribute to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand with clips of songs by and shots of interviews with a number of star performers;
- A slickly produced seat-rattling (with 30 large woofers and 72 tweeters), 12-minute video of concert clips of dozens of star performers from many different musical genres;
- A live indoor concert by local groups;
- Rooms in which attendees can practice their own musical skills on a range of guitars, keyboards, and drums (the latter of which are in their own soundproof rooms) or their pinball skills on a number of music group-themed pinball machines.
- An outdoor stage that hosts daily free performances.
A Special Exhibit highlighted the digital art of Rock and Roll Legend Jerry Garcia (leader of the cult band, the Grateful Dead. Garcia, it seemed, was a born artist who when to art School (San Francisco Academy of Art) before becoming a musician. After his incredible music career, he refocused on his art, this time using new digital tools with which he creates accomplished figurative drawings in addition to the more psychedelic abstractions that you would expect from Garcia.
The museum also has you covered for lunch with a snack bar for sandwiches and three food and beverage trucks that specialize in barbeque and local craft beers.
- Rock and Fall Hall of Fame food trucks where we shared two handheld barbeque dishes for lunch: Smoked chicken tacos with lettuce and cheese and pulled pork sandwich with red cabbage slaw) and a piece of cornbread washed down with a Head Hunter Western-Style IPA. Both dishes made for a fast and decent, if not especially memorable lunch.
- Johnny’s Downtown is an Italian restaurant that specializes in veal in the Warehouse District. Tom partook in the baked veal chop (stuffed with asiago cheese and served with shitake mushrooms and a Chardonnay sauce). Joyce had the sautéed, potato-crusted grouper (thin fillets) with lemon butter. Although neither of the protein components was particularly flavorful, the sauces enhanced both dishes. Our wine was a 2017 Patz & Hall Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Although this restaurant is probably not worth a return visit, Blue Pointe (located one block away) was packed and had an interesting seafood-based menu.