Mick Jones’ Rock & Roll Museum (and the rest of the Hall of Fame Annex)

By one of those beautiful, unplanned coincidences that form the narrative for my life, I found myself attending the relatively new Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex in New York last week, only to discover that it is currently hosting a special exhibition on the Clash, entitled “Revolution Rock.” Coming just ten days after seeing Clash guitarist Mick Jones’ Rock’n’roll Public Library on display in London’s ChelseaSpace, it provided the perfect contrast in presentation.

As explained in my earlier review, almost all exhibits at Jones’ Public Library are within touching distance, and many of them can be picked up and examined. His long-term goal is for his extensive collection of pop ephemera to become a lending library, whereby people can borrow tapes and books, or get digital scans of relevant material.

Jones has also loaned items from his collection to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex, including his stenciled shirts, a beat-up Les Paul Junior among other guitars, and countless lyrics and set lists. In the room temporarily dedicated to the Clash, there are also video displays, album and single covers, posters and backstage passes galore, Joe Strummer’s scrapbook (similar to Mick’s in London in that he keenly collected all the good Melody Maker reviews), a Strummer guitar with set lists still taped to the side, and several other fascinating knick-knacks…

Revolution Rock at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex. All pictures from the Rock Annex Web Site

…All of which are behind glass, beyond reach. Nothing can be touched. There is no photography allowed. Writing about Jones’ loan to ChelseaSpace, I noted that “This is a library, not a museum.” Writing now about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex, I can only state that, “it is a museum, not a library.” The question as to whether rock’n’roll belongs in a museum or out on the streets, whether it’s a format that should be put on a pedestal rather or one that should be shared between users, is more important than ever in this rip-burn-text-friendly age, but it’s never asked by the Hall of Fame. Rather, the Annex takes your $26 – yep, almost three times the admission price for a movie, though my leisurely stroll through the entire exhibition took less time than the average Marx Brothers comedy – and treats you as another audience member. (Note: I got free entry. But I felt for the family of four I saw who dropped almost $100 on admission, and that before they got to the souvenir shop with its $44 tee-shirts.)

Some of the Annex’s artifacts – Elvis Presley’s personal Bible, complete with annotations, or Michael Jackson’s leather jacket, or, especially for me, the original Fender prototype electric guitar from 1946 – could never be safely left within public reach. I understand that and I’m delighted that they’re on show and yet safely behind glass. But still, the Annex is set up, from beginning to end, to perpetuate the distance that has too often existed between performer and audience. From our entry into a waiting room decorated by the autographs of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees, through a force-fed film of chronological live sets by inductees that’s as high on audience screams as on music, through to the endless displays of clothing, hand-written lyrics, and beaten-up old instruments set behind glass panels, we are encouraged to view the performers as stars, and ourselves as mere fans. There is very little about the context of the music, its sociological importance, its communal impact. Nothing that really explains how the songs came about, let alone the artists or the genres themselves. (A short film about R&B jumps from Parliament-Funkadelic to the Notorious B.I.G. without so much as pausing in the Bronx.) About the closest the Annex comes to interactivity is a 3-D scale model of Manhattan, and even then, for most of the places I called up on the map, I was encouraged to visit an NYC tourist web site for more info.

And yet, disproving the notion that rock stars have always been removed from their public, the Annex does display some letters by sixties rockers to their fans, including a handful by the Beatles of all icons. The most fascinating are from Brian Jones of the Stones to a certain Mary in North Yorkshire, all of which are variations on a comically tiring theme: Dear Mary, Thanks for the birthday card and gift. A man can never have enough after shave. I hope you enjoyed the last show you saw, though it was a long time ago now. Sorry to have been slow writing, we have been busy making our new record. I hope you like it. Thanks for your support and please write again soon. Love Brian. They’re touching, even from a distance, though one senses that Jones is simply buried under the weight of adulation and merely going through the corresponding motions. Still, they offer a valuable reminder of a period when longevity of popularity was so far from guaranteed that the same people who had their clothes ripped off their backs on the way to the studio spent their down time writing not just hit records but personal letters to secure their fans’ loyalty.

S The Boss’s Chevy.

For those who love their rock history, there are, indeed, some wonderful relics on display here. Pete Townshend’s Les Paul deluxe from 1972, Keith Moon’s blue platform shoes from the same era. Elvis Costello’s lyrics to “Red Shoes,” written on the timetable while taking a train from Liverpool-London. Dylan’s personal test-pressing of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, on which he crossed out two songs (the excellent “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” among them) and asked to replace them with “Girl from the North Country” and “Masters Of War.” One of the first 100 Gibson Les Pauls from 1952. Jeff Beck’s lovingly handled Stratocaster, which he used consistently from 1968-98. Bruce Springsteen’s Chevrolet that he was driving while he recorded Born To Run (and on which he painted hot rod stripes). His hand-written lyrics to “Thunder Road,” markedly different from the final recorded version. Oasis’ contract for Wetlands, their first New York show (if only because I attended and it was such a great gig). David Byrne’s lyrics to “Road To Nowhere” which are hilarious for the fact that, per his egghead reputation, they are neatly written out in capital letters, with arrows pointing to where different band members are to join in, so at odds with all the almost illegible scrawls of various Beatles, Stones, Madonna and Prince songs.

Probably the Annex’s greatest contribution to posterity is its wholesale purchase of CBGBs’ fixtures and fittings, from the beloved awning to the sound board, from tables and chairs to the phone booth through slices of the almost archeologically fascinating multi-postered walls and – a nice touch this – one of the graffiti’d urinals placed just outside the public mens’ room. It’s hardly the real thing, but sooner the club found a home in downtown Manhattan, as was rumored at the time of its demise, in Las Vegas.

CBGBs finds a safe home: just don’t touch.

And if the Annex offers one aspect that is perfectly 21st Century, it’s the headsets that, through infra-red rays, play music relevant to whichever exhibition or glass case you’re studying. Turn to face Brian Jones’ letters to Mary of Yorkshire and you’ll hear the Stones. Turn to Michael Jackson’s lyrics for “Billie Jean” and…. You get the picture, if not that’s not too much of a mixed metaphor. There’s no chat in these headphones; the Annex assumes its customers can read the exhibit’s accompanying notes. And the technology works better than you’d expect, though it is possible to confuse the poor machines by spinning around in circles.

The result is something inadvertently apt for the modern age: a bunch of consumers walking around what should be a communal experience each in their own bubble, each with their own individual ipods (of sorts). It’s the equivalent of gigs that are no longer experienced as a collective, but by a group of disassociated individuals all with digital cameras and telephones pointing at the stage, preserving the moment for their own private archives rather than enjoying it for what it is. There’s a ton of great music to be heard at the Annex, a lot of great visuals to be seen, and some truly fun pieces of ephemera. But when it came to that Clash exhibition, I wanted to call people away from the backstage passes and posters, from the lyrics, guitars and album sleeves, and lead them over to the footage of the Clash, in Manchester, in November 1977, the gig that ended up on Tony Wilson’s So It Goes, the one where Strummer falls over backwards at the end of, cracks his head on the corner of the drum riser, and Jones and Simonon barely give him a second glance to ensure he’s conscious before they launch into “Garageland.” That, my friends, I wanted to say, is rock’n’roll. But I didn’t. Everyone had their headsets on, and I didn’t dare interrupt them. So I stood there and watched it on my own.

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October 2021