Rock and Roll Never Forgets 

Long-time readers of this column know that each May I take a journey to the backwoods of Western Pennsylvania, near the historic town of Ohiopyle, to hang with a few old friends and share lies and whiskey. This year, I added a little bonus trip.

It began with a couple of days in Pittsburgh, where I spent eight years as editor of Pittsburgh Magazine. I spent some time reuniting with a couple of former co-workers, but mostly I just drove around and marveled at the things that had changed. And the things that hadn't.

click to enlarge Hey hey, my my. Rock-and-roll can never die. - BRUCE VANWYNGARDEN
  • Bruce VanWyngarden
  • Hey hey, my my. Rock-and-roll can never die.

The iconic things hadn't changed — the Carnegie Museum, the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning (where I once taught undergrads how to write news features), the massive spires of PPG Place, and the rivers and bridges and countless green hills. What had changed is pretty predictable: Old neighborhoods like Lawrenceville are getting repopulated and redeveloped with those ubiquitous, glassy, boxy apartment buildings that seem to be the required urban redesign form these days. There were coffee shops where machine shops used to be. The infamous Sal's Salvage was nowhere to be seen, replaced by yoga studios and boutiques and hip-looking cafes. The old Steel Town ain't the same. It's mostly better.

The next day, I continued my tour of the upper Midwest by driving over to Cleveland, where my son's band, MGMT, was playing the Masonic Hall. I got to town before he did, so I did what you're supposed to do in Cleveland: I went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which sits on the very edge of Lake Erie, Downtown.

The building is a glassy pyramid (sound familiar?) designed by famed architect I.M. Pei, but it's much smaller than Memphis' Pyramid. Out in front is a long and linear (and Instagram-unfriendly) slogan: Long Live Rock. After backing up as far as could, I got a picture of "ONG LIVE ROCK."

I paid my $28 and started the tour. It begins below ground level, where you are first forced to walk past a photographer who tries to get you to hold a guitar while he takes your picture and then sells it to you. I bypassed the line of grandmas and geezers waiting for their chance to strike a pose, strolled under a neon sign reading "For Those About to Rock," and wandered into the dark room that begins the self-guided tour.

It starts with various historic exhibits meant to demonstrate the evolution of rock-and-roll — early blues artists, mostly. This area also includes musical artifacts and historic photos from the seminal rock cities, including Memphis (Furry Lewis' guitar, some old blues records and posters, etc.), Detroit, New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, etc. Notably, Cleveland is not among them. That would be because Cleveland's claim to be the birthplace of rock-and-roll is specious and overblown, at best. But that's another story.

The exhibits spiral from bottom to top, with lots of stair climbing from one exhibit level to another. One is forced to accept, after touring the six increasingly smaller floors (that pyramid construct has limitations), that rock-and-roll history is basically comprised of stage outfits and shoes worn by facsimile mannequins, old album covers, posters, vintage photos, music videos, and lots and lots and lots of guitars.

Major icons — Elvis, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Aretha, Springsteen, to name a few — are given individual displays. Michael Jackson, whom I suspect once had a place of prominence, has been downgraded to a single large photograph near an emergency exit — in case you have to beat it, I guess.

The history of hip-hop gets a nod, but not much else. This is a pretty caucasion kind of place, to be honest. As are most of the visitors.

As you leave, you are funneled — as you are in most museums, these days — into the gift shop, where a maze of over-priced T-shirts, guitar earrings, miniature pyramids, guitar picks, posters, snow globes, and other rock chotskies awaits. Meh.

They say rock-and-roll never forgets, but honestly, this place is, well, kinda forgettable.

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