Photo credit Matt Peyton
A view of the memorabilia on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex.
A bowl of rock candy
Riffing on the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex
76 Mercer Street
By TODD SIMMONS
The newly christened Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex in Soho has the potential to establish itself as a lively alternative to the usual circuit of New York City tourist destinations. While pondering a soiled urinal behind glass, contemplating what Elvis Presley doodled in his road bible or soaking in the sounds of Black Sabbath may be disconcerting for the Whitney crowd, there will certainly be legions of music nuts who will dive right in and wallow in the sounds and memorabilia of this new satellite version of the original hall in Cleveland. And if being in the close proximity of John Lennon’s piano or Prince’s purple raincoat have you salivating, there are actually some items in the store that can be taken home with you. For a price.
Although the annual induction ceremony and concert has been holding court at the Waldorf Astoria for years, the flagship Hall is in Cleveland, Ohio. It is arguable how qualified Cleveland is to be the keeper of the entire history of rock and roll music and its offshoots, but if New York had a case to make, its opportunity has arrived. Then again, it seems that most of the inductees have their merit debated on a yearly basis anyway, so we may never settle this thing.
You don’t have to have a great interest in seeing Jimi Hendrix’s TWA travel bag from 1967 (one can only guess what he carried in there besides extra guitar picks) or Sylvain Sylvain’s cowhide chaps, going into the Annex. You don’t have to be compelled to gaze upon the glory of Madonna’s Keith Haring jacket or Bruce Springsteen’s ’57 Chevy convertible. But for the minutiae-obsessed music fan it is a treasure trove of gently worn and totally destroyed memorabilia. And a fair bit of music as well. The room dedicated to New York features CBGB artifacts, Ramones jackets, Talking Heads lyrics and Grandmaster Flash equipment but it could stand to be further fleshed out with more Lou Reed and Sonic Youth. Regardless, it is easy to spend a lot of time there.
The Annex is a 90-minute bowl of rock candy. Film clips can be seen throughout and the audio unit you wear as you go plays related sound samples. Unfortunately, the sounds can be triggered accidentally if you are standing too close to the wrong display but that can be ironed out later. Aside from the comprehensive tribute to The Clash at the end of the tour, the information distilled from the exhibits is somewhat general but intriguing nevertheless.
The clothing in the archive alone is astounding. From Elvis Presley’s peacock jumpsuit to David Byrne’s big suit from “Stop Making Sense” there are plenty of reminders that rock stars are mostly not just like us. Even the “anti-show biz” bands of the punk era had stylists. The Ramones had their matching leather jackets and The Clash had specially designed vests for the “Combat Rock” album cover. Let us not forget that the very “anti-establishment” Sex Pistols wore clothes designed by Vivienne Westwood.
Although it is still somewhat uneven, there is room to grow here and they have successfully laid the groundwork for a legitimate new tourist attraction in the city. One can only assume that if real estate were less of a hurdle they would have put the original museum here as well. Nothing against Cleveland or Alan Freed, but Cleveland doesn’t “rock” that hard.
From the Brill Building to the Fillmore East to Max’s Kansas City, this town has always been the top stage in rock and roll. Even London and Los Angeles understand that there is no more important room on earth than Madison Square Garden. Freed may have organized the first rock and roll concert and popularized the phrase “rock and roll” but Bill Haley and the Comets recorded “Rock Around the Clock” on the Upper West Side in the old Pythian Temple studio on West 70th Street, and it went on to become the first smash hit in rock history. Any questions? But New Yorkers are bound to have some questions about the Hall. Like, how did John Mellencamp make it in before Iggy and The Stooges? Or why are they featuring the band Televison in the exhibit but still haven’t bothered to induct them into the Hall? Why did they show the famous Michael Jackson performance on the Motown anniversary show but cut away before he debuts the ‘Moonwalk’? Or feature Coldplay instead of their biggest influence, Radiohead? To its credit, the Annex is always going to come up against these sort of subjective debates, but despite that they have put together a very good overview that will have something for everybody.
Early in the tour, you are whisked into a theater resembling a rock club with barstools to watch a riveting sound and vision montage history lesson that will have your heart racing. From John Lee Hooker and the early Bluesman through the British invasion to the recent past there is excellent, rarely seen concert footage that is worth a visit on its own. Through some sort of tech trick you actually find yourself in the audience of a Led Zeppelin concert. Not bad. It neatly captures the soul and the delirium of the art form with some fascinating quotes posted throughout such as Keith Richards’ proclamation that “If you don’t know the blues, there is no point in picking up a guitar to play rock and roll.”
When all is said and done and you need to take something home, there are options: T-shirts, downloads, mugs, etc. If that won’t suffice you could always put down $15,000 for John Lennon’s T-shirt or $125,000 for the Grammy that Johnny Cash won in 1969, courtesy of memorabilia company Gotta Have It!, who have a permanent booth set up in the gift shop. Or you could download some Sonic Youth and wonder why they are not better represented in a museum mere blocks from where they rehearse but we could go around and around on that. Once they do a more thorough job of featuring 90’s rock like Radiohead and Nirvana and foreshadowing future Hall of Fame inductees they will be a must “Hop-Off” stop on a NYC tour. But even now they are well worth a visit.