The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's kick-off was grand, but whether it please, pleases you depends on how you feel about the very idea of a rock museum

By David Browne
September 15, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

The difference between what the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is, and what it should also be but isn’t, was literally spelled out at the beginning of the Sept. 2 concert that celebrated the building’s opening. John Mellencamp and band were playing ”R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” — earnest, good-time music that all but guarantees Mellencamp’s future induction. Suddenly, a small plane whirred overhead, trailing a streamer that advertised Lenny Kravitz’s upcoming album. The move was a vulgar, obnoxious marketing ploy, but it was also spunky and defiant — two lovable attributes of rock & roll that, unfortunately, aren’t a terribly big part of the museum itself.

If there were any doubts left that rock has become feel-good, mainstream Americana, Cleveland’s celebration of the much-debated museum’s opening quashed them. Public buses carried ”Rock On!” signs, and Clevelanders waved American flags at the museum’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. A downtown parade featured, among others, giant Elvis and Madonna puppets, a marching band playing ”I Got You (I Feel Good),” a papier-maches ”Yellow Submarine,” a brigade of Volkswagen bugs (the Beatles, get it?), and little kids dressed as 45s or, in the case of one 13-year-old, representing the Velvet Underground (black garb, pasty makeup). ”There are some nice surreal touches,” remarked Greg Zawie, a 26-year-old insurance agent observing the parade. ”It’s very unusual.”

Surreal and unusual couldn’t even begin to describe both the parade and the museum itself. Located on Lake Erie, the six-story building, designed by I.M. Pei, is a gleaming, striking mesh of glass tent and white-tiled blocks. It feels like both a greenhouse and a mall, the latter encouraged by an HMV outlet located right in the lobby. (It’s a particularly expensive HMV, too: A CD of the new Alanis Morissette album costs $17.99.) The main exhibition floor is a rambling array of vintage costumes and instruments, photo exhibits, glass-encased memorabilia, and interactive screens that let you hear the ”500 Songs That Shaped Rock & Roll” (including everything from Beatles tunes to, strangely, M.C. Hammer’s ”U Can’t Touch This”) or major artists and their influences (punch up Metallica and you can hear a snippet of obscure ’70s rockers Diamond Head).

The museum can be overwhelming at times — you’re often surrounded by TV monitors blaring footage and music that sometimes cancel each other out. But anyone who has been inspired by rock, or found a voice through it, should enjoy the memorabilia: Jim Morrison’s Mother’s Day cards (”I will try to show my love always — James,” reads one, foreshadowing the oedipal angst of ”The End”), Bruce Springsteen’s junior-college lit-magazine poetry, George Clinton’s hilarious ”Atomic Dog” slippers, parts from Otis Redding’s crashed plane, Alice Cooper’s guillotine, a pair of Run-D.M.C. Adidas sneakers, Soundgarden’s handwritten 1987 contract with Sub Pop records, and, most eerily, a Bob Marley dreadlock. The museum’s top floor is a dark, silent den whose walls are engraved with signatures of Hall of Fame inductees — a flashier Vietnam Veterans Memorial. As with much of the museum, the tone is stiflingly reverent, as if one is in the presence of not mere talented humans but deities.