Correction to This Article
A previous version of this story misidentified the current use of Bottom Line, a former club. The location now holds New York University classroom and office space.

Museum Celebrates Rock's Roots in New York

By Robert DiGiacomo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 18, 2009

The urinal encased behind glass at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex in New York may not be of the artistic caliber of Duchamp's "Fountain," the landmark 1917 piece that was replicated and displayed in museums around the world. But this particular piece of porcelain has a punk rock pedigree of the highest order: It was taken from CBGB, the now-defunct club on Manhattan's Lower East Side that helped launch the careers of the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and the Talking Heads.

The presence of a urinal among more recognizable pop-rock touchstones -- one of Eric Clapton's guitars, a beaded glove that belonged to Michael Jackson, a bustier of Madonna's from the early '90s -- adds an appropriately irreverent tone to the proceedings at the SoHo annex.

This nearly year-old offshoot of the Hall of Fame's museum in Cleveland doesn't try to represent all the greats. David Bowie, for example, barely gets a mention. Like a good jukebox, though, the place features plenty of stuff worthy of a spin, including a decent overview of the genre's roots and history, and a section giving props to Manhattan's preeminent role in making rock stars out of ordinary musicians. But if you want to delve deeper, you'll need to do some further exploring and listening on your own.

As a fan, I loved having up-close access to the annex's collection, much of it donated by the performers. There are fashion accessories such as Elton John's oversize glasses, a white jumpsuit worn by Elvis Presley and a '70s-era wig that belonged to Tina Turner. Handwritten sheets from Jackson with lyrics for "We Are the World" and "Beat It" scrawled in marker bring you closer to the creative craft. A letter sent from summer camp from a 15-year-old Paul Simon to his buddy and future musical partner, Art Garfunkel, shows that even introspective singer-songwriters were once typical teens.

Despite the presence of such objects, music is front and center. Each visit starts with a multimedia introduction to rock, replete with archival footage and surround sound of seminal performers from John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters to the Beatles, from the Rolling Stones and the Who to Bruce Springsteen and the Clash.

Included with the cost of admission is an individual headset that triggers song snippets as you stroll among the exhibits. The biggest and perhaps best set piece is built around Springsteen's 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible, his ride during the recording of "Born to Run." The playlist cues up the album cut of "Thunder Road," conjuring images of the young Springsteen cruising the streets of Jersey before he became the Boss.

From this native son of the Garden State, it's a short hop to a major section dedicated to New York's musical history. It includes more from CBGB, notably a cash register with a sticker that reads "[Expletive] you, pay me," and a vintage phone booth. (The urinal is not in the exhibit space but located, appropriately enough, near the men's room.)

Nearby, an interactive 3-D map dubbed "New York Rocks" spotlights the city's role in nurturing talent as well as being the site for some of the excesses of the rock lifestyle. You can push a button to see the location of two dozen main sites, as well as 20 other locations, and get a Wikipedia-like overview of who played (or partied) there.

Early rock keystones appear: Midtown's Brill Building, a kind of songwriting factory where Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Neil Diamond churned out hits in the late '50s and early '60s; the RCA studio where Elvis recorded "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog"; Andy Warhol's original Factory on East 47th Street; the Bottom Line, a club that proved a key early venue for Springsteen, Devo, the Police and Elvis Costello.

Other treasures include one of David Byrne's oversize suits from his Talking Heads heyday (the group launched in New York) and the battered piano used by John Lennon at the Record Plant in the '70s. The latter serves as an appropriate transition to the special exhibit, "John Lennon: The New York City Years," a moving window on the ex-Beatle's last decade.

By Lennon's account, his time living in the Dakota apartment building on Central Park West was one of the happiest periods of his life; it included the birth of his son, Sean. Like so many who don't hail from the Big Apple, the Liverpool native came to consider himself a New Yorker and thought he could move freely about the city without being bothered by the public. When he was shot to death by a disturbed fan in December 1980, he had just released "Double Fantasy," which would turn out to be the biggest musical success of his solo career and provides much of the soundtrack for the exhibit.

The materials, which cover matters personal, political and artistic, end on a heartbreaking note: the brown bag in which Lennon's personal effects were delivered to his wife, Yoko Ono, by police after his death.

Both "New York Rocks" and the Lennon exhibit serve as a reminder of the world of music, and the real sites that nurtured it, only a subway ride away.

Some places remain as they were and hopefully won't change. The Hotel Chelsea's lobby appears to be populated by characters from central casting, and its one-of-a-kind rooms would seem to inspire a rock paean or two. The gargoyle-laden Dakota, to which access is limited to residents and their guests, seems as haunting now as the day Lennon was killed outside its door.

Other places, such as Madison Square Garden, are slated for complete renovation, so get there while you can. In May, I attended a 90th-birthday concert for iconic folk singer Pete Seeger at the Garden, and can attest to a certain lived-in feel not found in shiny new arenas, although the sightlines in the nosebleed seats were just as poor as any other big hall. Still others, like in the original Factory (torn down) or the Bottom Line (now New York University classroom and office space) have been lost to the relentless churn of development.

CBGB, which closed in 2006, has suffered the fate of so many grungy landmarks of our time: It's gone upscale, as a John Varvatos designer boutique.

Robert DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based writer.

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