Just a few minutes into my visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, I stopped trying to keep a mental tally of the coolest items on display, because there were just too many to keep up. Was Elvis Presley’s jumpsuit the most amazing piece? How about Michael Jackson’s sequin glove? Joey Ramone’s leather jacket? Run DMC’s Adidas?
For music fans, this is the ultimate. I visited the Rock Hall once long ago, but I’d forgotten how amazing this place is – probably because I had no pictures to look back on.
For years, the Hall did not allow photography, but the facility recently changed its policy, to the delight of visitors (and quirky travel bloggers.) That makes this one of your first opportunities to get a substantial look inside.
Fifty photos can only capture a tiny fraction of what’s on display here. Each display case alone contains more than 50 artifacts, so the number of items in the entire museum is well into the thousands. The Rock Hall expertly documents the history of popular music from its earliest pioneers all the way to cutting-edge current acts like Skrillex, Bon Iver and the Black Keys, each of whom has instruments and memorabilia on display.
A ticket to the Hall allows you to exit and come back later during the day, which is exactly what I did, since the two hours I spent inside in the morning were not nearly enough to take in everything and to fully engage with the interactive exhibits. If you’re a real music fan, give yourself at least four hours here, which is roughly how long I spent by the time I finished my afternoon session.
Since everyone’s musical taste is different, chances are that when you visit, your top 50 sights will be completely different. Here are mine.
Note: I tried my best to eliminate glare from the glass cases but failed in a few cases, so pardon the occasional photographic faux pas. My visit to the Rock Hall was made possible by Positively Cleveland and Fahlgren Mortine.
Upon entering the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, you’ll start down in the basement and begin to follow the evolution of rock and roll, starting with some of the earliest roots music.
The Elvis Presley display includes a video performance reel, his actual 1975 Lincoln Continental, a shirt he wore on the documentary “That’s the Way It Is,” a Grammy he won in 1974 for Best Inspirational Performance, a jumpsuit he wore in concert, and other personal items from the King’s career.
Fans of gospel music have an entire display case highlighting Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Stingers, and many more. I got to see Mavis Staples live at Lollapalooza a couple years ago and was reminded of the power of great gospel songs.
Another case focuses on the British invasion, led by the Hollies and Herman’s Hermits. (What about the Beatles, you ask? They’re much too big for this case, so they have their own. Stay tuned.)
Little Richard wore this jumpsuit in 1970. Gotta give it up for the “Tutti Frutti” singer. Not many gentlemen could pull off this number back in those days. Woooooooooooo!
A collection of famous rock star gear: Stevie Wonder’s harmonica, Louis Jordan’s saxophone, Rick James’s bass guitar (super freak!), and Roy Orbison’s thick glasses.
Since so many famous musicians died young, a lot of the more fascinating pieces are associated with death. Here’s an invitation to Janis Joplin’s 1970 funeral, with the cheery greeting “Drinks are on Pearl.”
Jim Morrison’s last will and testament left everything to Pamela Courson, his girlfriend. She ended up dying in 1974, three years after Morrison, which led to a lengthy estate battle between the parents of Morrison and Courson over who rightfully owned his royalties and estate.
The San Francisco Haight-Ashbury exhibit is one of my favorites, full of memorabilia from the hippie era from bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas, and Santana.
Here’s a far-out guitar from Peter Albin of Big Brother and the Holding Company. If I played guitar, I’d want one that looks this trippy.
Jimi Hendrix has his own section that includes records, clothing, and even the Hendrix family couch from 1960, which Jimi used to sit on as he shredded.
Jimi liked a lot of ruffled blouses.
This case belonged to the road crew for the Rolling Stones, who used it to ship gear on airplanes. Notice the sticker declaring “Work-free drug place.”
Did you know the Stones had their own pinball game? This particular game was owned by Keith Richards. It plays portions of “Miss You,” “Satisfaction,” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
Ladies and gentlemen… the Beatles!
In the corner of that pic sits a piano used by John Lennon in 1979 while writing songs at a friend’s house. He penned some of the tunes from “Double Fantasy” on this piano. What’s really cool is that you can still see the candle wax that dripped on it while he played.
Who wouldn’t want to take John, Paul, George and Ringo to lunch?
John’s Sgt. Pepper coat is here.
So is this dapper pinstripe coat worn by George Harrison. Seriously, why did this kind of fashion ever go out of style?
Just to prove that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is capable of obtaining the most obscure and hard-to-get artifacts, they also display Lennon’s passport, green card, and famous round spectacles.
And we can’t forget the handwritten lyrics to the Beatles’ “In My Life,” which some critics consider the greatest song ever written. Seeing those words written in their original form on a faded sheet of paper is amazing.
Moving ahead in time, we’ve now reached the punk era era, represented here by Blondie, Talking Heads, the Sex Pistols, and Patti Smith, depicted in action figure form. I used to subscribe to Rolling Stone when I was a teen and couldn’t stand Patti Smith because it seemed like she was in every issue, for no apparent reason, even though she was completely irrelevant to me as a Top 40 pop music fan. Fortunately, I later came around to appreciate her music.
Joey Ramone’s leather jacket. I wanna be sedated.
The original handwritten lyrics for the Clash’s “London Calling.” This sheet of paper is history.
This is probably my favorite piece in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: The handwritten lyrics to Joy Division’s 1979 hit “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Singer Ian Curtis was horribly depressed and committed suicide less than a year after writing the song; his downfall is documented in the excellent biopic “Control.” The dance-y rock track weds pained lyrics with an upbeat melody and remains a classic, one of the great songs of all-time.
Any musical museum must display lots of memorabilia from the King of Pop. Here’s the Grammy he won in 1984 for Album of the Year for “Thriller,” one of a record eight awards he captured that night, plus the loafers he wore on the Bad Tour.
One of his “Smooth Criminal” suits and the blue jacket he wore on the night of his big Grammy haul.
Behold! The iconic sequin glove, which sits on a turntable and spins around under glass to allow visitors to view it from all angles. Michael would appreciate the over-the-top display.
More classic song lyrics, this one written by Neil Young as he penned “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
There’s a huge room with clothing and instruments used by famous acts. You can take an up-close look at actual stage outfits worn by legends Stevie Nicks, David Bowie and Bootsy Collins.
An Aerosmith drum kit and an outfit worn by Steven Tyler years before he started unleashing his words of wisdom as an American Idol judge:
Nope, you don’t even have to be inducted into the Hall yet to have items on display. Releasing one classic album like “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is enough. Here’s a guitar and blazer from Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.
Here’s a music video classic: The waitress uniform worn by Donna Summer in “She Works Hard for the Money.”
A jacket worn by British singer Dusty Springfield. What have I… what have I… what have I done to deserve this?
The Reverend Al Green once went shirtless in leather pants on an album cover. These would be those colorful slacks.
The bearded drums and neon guitars of ZZ Top.
ZZ Top’s Eliminator coupe can be found in the lower lobby. That is one snazzy ride.
One of the best interactive exhibits in the Rock Hall is the collection of listening stations that allow guests to put on headphones and hear the entire library of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock N Roll.” These range from classic hits from the 1950s all the way through recent tracks. You can stand there for hours (believe me, I did) and get lost in all of this awesome music.
I was surprised to see that one of the 500 selections was “Time (Clock of the Heart),” a somewhat obscure song from the first record I ever bought, Culture Club’s “Kissing To Be Clever.” And you know time won’t give me time / And time makes lovers feel like they’ve got something real / But you and me, we know they got nothin’ but time.
Another amazing feature is the triple-screen video room that presents clips from every artist inducted in the Hall. The looped video package is presented in chronological order by year of induction. I watched nearly an hour and still didn’t make it through the entire thing.
Another room contains a 360-degree music video display that chronicles the history and evolution of the format.
Next to that is an autograph room displaying glowing signatures from most of the inducted artists.
Nirvana represents grunge with an autographed guitar on display, though I think the demo cassette tape from the late ’80s is more interesting. It features early versions of “In Bloom” and “Lithium.”
Hip-hop is a big part of the Hall, as it should be. Every year, people complain about non-rock performers getting inducted into the Hall, whether it’s disco acts like Donna Summer or pop singers like Madonna or rap artists like the Beastie Boys. But that criticism ignores the fact that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has always included artists from the entire spectrum of popular music, from blues to jazz to country to rockabilly. It has never been “just rock.”
So there’s a sizable rap section featuring lots of historic mementos from the world of phat beats and def jams.
Run DMC’s glasses and iconic Adidas sneakers!
Flavor Flav’s Nike jacket and giant clock!
Here’s a cool piece of history for anyone who remembers the censorship controversy surrounding Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” in 1992. After he refused to change the lyrics to the song, Sire Records released him from his contract via this letter. (Who knew that years later Ice-T would become a family-friendly tv star?)
Rage Against the Machine used to tour the country in a 1985 Chevy Astrovan. The entire van is here, with Rage’s old instruments inside. This would make a great road trip vehicle!
Here’s another cool piece of history that provides insight into an artist’s creative process. In 1975, as Bruce Springsteen was preparing to release his third album, he composed a list of dozens of possible album titles in a notebook. This is his list. Though “Born to Run” eventually won out, I like “Dark End of the Street,” “Surrender at the Citadel,” and “Strut.”
As little boys growing up in the 1940s, the Everly Brothers took tap dance lessons. I don’t know what possessed them or their parents to hang onto those old tap shoes, but they did. Their mom bought the shoes with ration stamps during World War II and sent them to Ideal Dancing School in Chicago.
The schoolboy outfit worn by Angus Young of AC/DC, next to a set of lyrics for Highway to Hell.”
Sheryl Crow will no doubt be inducted into the Rock Hall once she’s eligible. The former schoolteacher shows off her penmanship on these lyrics to “Run Baby Run,” perhaps her most underrated song. Go listen to it now. I’ll wait.
Finally, I find it amusing that they display the handwritten lyrics to John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” since that’s always been on my list of “Most Grammatically Incorrect Songs,” thanks to its hideous line, “I cannot forgot from where it is that I come from.”
Interestingly, as shown in this pic, the original lyric was slightly different, but still fails the grammar test: “I cannot forget from where I come from.” You’re using too many froms, John! Is that just your way of being down-to-earth and trying to connect with the average everyday folk?
Other memorable sights not pictured include: A studded leather jacket worn by Rob Halford of Judas Priest; a guitar smashed onstage by Mike McCready of Pearl Jam; KISS action figures; a local talent trophy won by U2 in 1978; and personal artifacts from some of the pioneers of rock and roll, like Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, and Carl Perkins.
I could go on and on, but you’re better off just visiting and seeing everything for yourself.