CLEVELAND — Normally, when we think of rock ’n’ roll we think of bright lights and amps cranked up to 11.
But inside the corridors, reading rooms, and storage spaces at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s spiffy new Library and Archives, the lights have UV shields and the atmosphere is whisper quiet.
The facility is a sacred temple for the artifacts of the art form. Fans, journalists, scholars, and educators can come to peruse — for free — a treasure trove of rare books, periodicals, audio and video recordings, and the papers, LP, and CD collections of many of rock ’n’ roll’s movers and shakers.
“It was always part of the original vision for the Rock Hall to have a library and archives,” says director, Andy Leach. “Initially, it was going to be in the museum in a pretty small area, but that became taken over by offices, which was probably a blessing because we now have this.”
“This” is a $12 million, four-story, state-of-the-art playground for rock aficionados, albeit a painstakingly cataloged playground, that houses everything from the record collection of legendary Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun to the papers of Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore to a complete run of Rolling Stone magazine in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment, complete with elaborate water-detection and surveillance systems. The library and archives is located on the Cuyahoga Community College metro campus, just 2 miles and a quick cab ride from the Rock Hall.
In the spring Leach led a guided tour and unveiled some of the goodies within.
The ground floor includes the main library with books, computer kiosks, and a small exhibit under glass, and then a special reading room to the right.
Here we saw a host of fun ephemera including a fan letter from Iggy Pop to Guns N’ Roses, some handwritten Jimi Hendrix lyrics, and correspondence between Clive Davis and Whitney Houston. The funniest sight was a scribbled missive from a sassy young Madonna to her label head Seymour Stein in which she was asking for help in finding a producer for her next album. “Here I am forced to choose a man once again. Help Me!!!” she implores.
While the upper floors — brimming with the bulk of the archives — are likely to hold more sway for educators and journalists, most of what is contained in the archives is available to the public once a free “researcher” card is obtained.
“I think the general public is interested,” says Leach. “We wouldn’t bring out these Hendrix lyrics to anyone who asks for them, but the majority of our archival collections are not priceless documents on their own, so they’re all here to be used — so we want to provide access to as many people as we can.”
Although several other institutions have dedicated space to rock ’n’ roll, the library and archives is the first of its kind in terms of the breadth and depth of its holdings, according to Leach, thanks to the many donors in the recording and touring industries and the media.
“It’s important because this is our cultural heritage and it needs to be preserved for future generations,” says Leach. “And in terms of the museum it really extends what we’re able to do on the educational level. I think it’s going to bring us to a new level of recognition as a world-class cultural institution.”
For curious Grateful Dead fans, now is the time to visit the museum. A two-floor exhibit, “Grateful Dead: The Long, Strange Trip,” is on display through March 24.
From a phalanx of Jerry Garcia’s guitars to the original artwork for the band’s famous album covers to the contracts it signed for its live shows, the exhibit covers a lot of bases.
In one corner, you can pick up a phone and hear the actual “hot line” answering machine recordings that informed fans of the seminal band’s upcoming shows. In another, you can see handwritten lyrics for songs like “Fire on the Mountain,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Box of Rain.” (Someone in the band had lovely penmanship.) The soundtrack as you meander includes songs by all 12 performance lineups of the group. Our favorite item? A “Grateful Dead High” letterman jacket.
“The goal always for a curator, at least for us, is for the aficionado to come away feeling like we got it and presented things they never could have seen elsewhere and for the novice to gain new knowledge and insight that they previously didn’t think was worth acquiring,” says Rock Hall curatorial director Howard Kramer. “With the Dead the story is so rich, there’s a lot to talk about. It’s like a Russian nesting doll, at the core of it is the band and then these things were around them.”
Kramer views the Grateful Dead “as a completely unique American invention. And that’s American with a capital A in the truest sense. They played American music: rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues and bluegrass and folk and country and a little bit of gospel underneath it and they presented it in a uniquely American context.”
In addition to the library and archives and the Grateful Dead exhibit, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum regularly hosts concerts and special events. Visit www.rockhall.com for a full listing of upcoming events.Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.