In view of the many disturbing events on the international scene, I recently decided that it was my duty, as a journalist, to visit Cleveland. My objective was to find out how they're coming along with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You "hep cats" out there may remember that back in 1986 there was a competition to see which city would be the site of the hall, and Cleveland won an upset victory over cities more associated in the public mind with the entertainment industry, such as New York, Los Angeles, Tehran, etc.
At the time, a lot of people were surprised. "Cleveland?" they said, in the same tone of voice they would later use to say, "Quayle?" Because let's face it, Cleveland has an image problem, largely because of the city's own inferiority complex, as reflected in its official motto ("Cleveland: What's the Point?"). But it just so happens that Cleveland has a strong claim to being the Birthplace of Rock. Consider these facts:
*The very term "rock and roll" was invented in Cleveland in 1704 by the famous exploring group of Lewis and Clark, who later recorded "My Boyfriend's Back."
*The Beatles came from Cleveland.
*Near the end there, Elvis was almost as big as Cleveland.
Anyway, the critics who scoffed at Cleveland in 1986 are eating their words today, because the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has turned out to be a raging success, with only one minor kink remaining to be ironed out, namely that the hall does not, in a physical sense, exist. There is, however, a real nice model of it, about the size of a harmonica, in the Hall of Fame office, which is located in a downtown Cleveland building.
I visited the office, and it wasn't what I expected. I expected it to be staffed by funky long-haired tattooed jitterbugging degenerates engaged in rock-and-roll-style office activities such as sing- ing into their Dictaphones, painting peace symbols on their faces with correction fluid and smoking typewriter ribbons.
But in fact the Hall of Fame office was very businesslike. The staff consisted of a secretary and a director, Larry Thompson, a 43-year-old suit-wearing short-haired attorney who told me that he never, not even in the '60s, played in a rock band. I believe he is one of only two 43-year-old men in the country who can make that statement, the other one being the vice president. Mr. Thompson was cordial but businesslike; the closest he came to really cutting loose was when he described his reaction to being offered the director's job.
"I said, 'Good golly, Miss Molly,' " he recalled.
Mr. Thompson said that the Hall of Fame had some problems in the early years but is now moving briskly ahead, with $44 million in donations and a site on scenic Lake Erie (motto: "Contains Some Actual Water"). They hope to break ground later this year for a building designed by noted rock-and-roll architect I. M. "Skeeter" Pei. Mr. Thompson said the building will include a museum containing important rock artifacts, such as the lyrics to "Purple Haze" in Jimi Hendrix's actual handwriting.
I asked Mr. Thompson if the whole project wasn't sort of contradictory -- to have a formal museum dedicated to a kind of music whose major historical moments tended to involve wide-pupiled men dropping their pants on the stages of municipal stadiums. But Mr. Thompson said the exhibits will serve an important education function.
"Younger people today don't understand anything about the roots of rock and roll," he pointed out.
Isn't that the truth. My 10-year-old son spends hours in his room listening to rap music, a proven killer of brain cells. "Robert!" I tell him. "Stop listening to that trash! Come out here and listen to 'Louie Louie!' "
Speaking of songs with mysterious lyrics, Mr. Thompson said there will be archives at the Hall of Fame, so that scholars will be able to come and study academic rock-and-roll issues. I'm very excited about this, because some questions have been bothering me for years, such as: What, exactly, do the Beach Boys sing in the first line of "Help Me Rhonda"? This is the line that goes, "Well, since she put me down [something something]." What it sounds like to me is:
"Well since she put me down,
There've been owls puking in my bed."
But this seems unlikely. I mean, you could imagine owls showing up in the beds of some bands, particularly the early Stones. You could even imagine small horses. But not with the Beach Boys. So this is a question I would definitely like to see some rock scholar clear up. Another one is: In the song "Land of 1,000 Dances," what do Cannibal and the Headhunters really mean when they sing, quote, "I said a na, na na na na, na na na na, na na na, na na na, na nana na"? This has bothered me for years. You know what I mean? You do? Pass me that typewriter ribbon.