The $23 admission to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland seemed steep, but I shelled out the bucks for my partner Bette and me and grumbled about it until we got inside.
I had followed Bette on her business trip, and then we went to the museum only expecting to spend a little time there. We stayed six hours. It was unlike most museums, where people quietly view art and other exhibits. The rock museum — like the music itself — was noisy with videos of interviews, musicians performing, crowds reacting and folks like us walking through the six levels of the hall of fame soaking it up in awe.
Music industry leaders established the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation in 1983 to recognize major contributions of rock artists. Rock itself wasn’t but about 30 years old then. Who knew it would last so long?
It also evolved to even include grunge and rap. The first inductees into the hall of fame — only eligible 25 years after the release of their first recording — didn’t occur until 1986. The museum replays U.S. history, but it’s also deeply personal as the soundtrack of our lives.
I told Bette all through the museum that my mom would’ve adored this place. Mom was 62 when she died in 1994. She was a young adult in rock’s early days enjoying artists like Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Elvis, all inducted in the hall of fame in 1986. Mom like my siblings and me loved Marvin Gaye, inducted in 1987; The Supremes, 1988; The Temptations, 1989; The Platters, 1990; Gladys Knight and the Pips, 1996; Isaac Hayes, 2002; and The Miracles, 2012.
Dad, who was 15 years older than mom, used to yell at us for playing rock on the radio while we worked at his St. Louis chemical company. The volume was always cranked up so we could hear the tunes over production equipment noise.
My older brother, David, in the early 1960s tested into the gifted program and went to a nearly all white Wade Elementary, leaving our sister, Renee, and me at the nearly all black Marquette Elementary.
Renee and I listened to R&B like the rest of the black kids. David exposed us to the white artists that he picked up from his classmates. The museum included that racial blend and told of America’s resistance.
One exhibit quoted the North Alabama White Citizens Council, saying in 1956: “Rock and roll is a means of pulling the white man down to the level of the Negro. It is a plot to undermine the morals of the youth of our nation.”
The John Birch Society in 1966 called the Beatles “long-haired slobs who twang, screech and thump in a mixture of unrelated noise.” But the museum — filled with guitars, flashy clothes and other keepsakes from the artists — was right to explain that rock “spoke to the more disenfranchised elements of American society — African Americans and poor whites.”
The exhibits brought back memories of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and protests during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. In the music we also remembered the women’s movement, the Chicano movement, the farm workers movement, the American Indian Movement and the gay rights movement.
In addition to reliving our history, the music took us back to our kids’ birth, teen years and them as young adults. I’ll never forget my daughter Adrianne, now 33, jumping around like a rock star when she got a toy guitar as a toddler. Music from Michael Jackson, inducted in 1997 with the Jackson 5 and 2001 as a solo artist, always made Adrianne and her sister Leslie dance when they were little girls.
Songs in the museum only played a few seconds, but they ignited a lifetime of memories. When we left, Bette said it felt as if we’d been to a concert. It was that and more and definitely worth the price of admission.