Rockin' This Town: The long and winding road to Cleveland's rock and roll museum

By Chris Willman
September 15, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

There have been misspellings as well as missteps along the duckwalk of fame — that is, the rocky road to Cleveland’s spanking new Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

”This is a great poster where Chuck Berry’s name is misspelled,” enthuses curator Jim Henke, pointing toward a banner for a mid-’50s concert that promises a certain Chuck Berryn. Turns out Berry himself added the extra letter: ”His family was very religious,” says the low-key Henke. ”And for a while he changed his last name so as not to associate [them] with something … unsavory.”

Little could the wary Berry family have foreseen just how savory rock would become. Forty increasingly r-e-s-p-e-c-table years later, rock’s journey from effrontery to self-flattery is immortalized in this freshly minted $92 million museum ($40 million came from Cleveland’s coffers, the rest from revenue bonds, record labels, and other sources), a musical mecca whose angular I.M. Pei design owes a lot less to the kitschy, jutting-guitar architecture of a Hard Rock Cafe than to the worshipful modernism of the Crystal Cathedral. ”In some ways it is a serious museum, but the subject matter does have a more playful side,” says Henke of the museum’s efforts to embrace the class and the crass of rock. ”It was always this fine line we’d walk.” Thus, while the 150,000-square-foot space takes a properly historical tack in outlining the roots of rock, stretching back to the ’20s, there is also an exhibit devoted to ”one-hit wonders,” allowing one to ponder the cultural impact both of blues legend Robert Johnson and of the Starland Vocal Band.

Most of the $92 million was lavished on the building and its myriad interactive installations, not, you can rest assured, on rounding up the close to 3,500 artifacts, including Keith Moon’s report card and Janis Joplin’s Porsche. ”One or two things were purchased, but then we made the decision not to go out and bid against the Hard Rock and other collectors. Our approaches are mainly to the artists,” says Henke, whose days as a Rolling Stone editor helped bring aboard luminaries he’d profiled, like U2.

With no precedent to look to, artists were initially wary of committing, ”not knowing if this would be the Smithsonian or Disney World,” says Henke. Yoko Ono broke the logjam by donating a huge John Lennon collection. Most difficult to convince was Elvis producer Sam Phillips, who eventually did turn over his original Sun Studio equipment.

Only a handful of stars declined to contribute, including late Dead frontman Jerry Garcia. Says Henke regretfully, Garcia worried that ”it was antithetical to what he was doing.” Other notable holdouts include Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and — no surprise — John Lydon. ”It should be titled the Hall of Shame,” hisses the artist formerly known as Rotten. ”Institutionalized rock is something to be ashamed of. We’re not here to be nice to the mums and dads. [Rock] is the only chance we get to say what we really mean.” The ex-Sex Pistol isn’t surprised most of his peers feel otherwise: ”Given the opportunity, they can’t wait to get into tuxedos.”