I approached Cleveland via a boxed-in interstate that gave way to a tumble of squat, banged-up factory buildings. All of a sudden, at a stoplight, a mylar-shiny baseball stadium ballooned into view on the left. An afternoon game would soon be getting underway. A beefy crowd clotted at the crosswalk, then streamed across, more likely to aggravate a melanoma than see the Indians win. After driving just fifteen more blocks, I could see the Lake and, jesus, another stupendous stadium. Cleveland – city of light, city of magic.
The Hyatt Regency hotel had been retrofitted out of a grand nineteenth century structure called The Arcade. In its original configuration, the five-story atrium was surrounded by lower floors of retail and, on the upper ones, offices. Now it was all hotel. The atrium ran the length of a city block beneath a glass canopy, so that the space flooded with soft, saturated light. Cast-metal gargoyles circled the fourth floor, leaning balefully into the vastness every twenty or thirty feet, each with a small incandescent bulb in its mouth. It’s a breathtaking interior. I was to meet my friend, Chet, there. He had driven up from Dayton to join me at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A couple of phone calls and a knock on the door and there he was, lanky and gnomic, wearing jeans and a blue Indian-style shirt. Chet had flyaway white hair and a white beard that he tucked into the buttoned collar of his shirt for some odd reason. His features were large and well-formed; the ears had been pinned back many years ago, so it was up to his noble nose to give focus to the entire facial menagerie. He carried himself with the quiet aplomb of the professional actor. Chet was fond of me and I him. I offered him a seat and we proceeded to catch up – his search for community among the far-flung and long-lost, my writing process, the comings-and-goings of our children.
We adjourned for a dinner reservation nearby. A quick stroll along the ground floor canyon of The Arcade, out the back door, and soon we were seated in the noisy frat-bar front room of a highly regarded tavern. Though the decibels rose and fell insistently, we gabbed with enthusiasm. Chet recounted his curious method of decision-making, which involved a rubber cork on a length of chain that, held aloft, waggled one way for ‘yes’ and the opposite for ‘no.’ His technique had a friendly name I immediately forgot.
It developed that Chet had decided to forego the Federal Reserve Bank of Rock ’n Roll in favor of visiting an old friend from his days in the copy department of a greeting card company. His little rubber stopper jobber had advised him to alter his plans. I felt a twinge of abandonment, but quickly adjusted to the new normal. We agreed to meet for breakfast in the hotel and then proceed on with what the cosmos had in store.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has affixed itself to the shore of Lake Erie, a striking prism of glass, a bell jar of nostalgia and hype. A banner blazed across the marquee announcing THE ROLLING STONES, prematurely it turned out. First thing, the ticket guy proposed I take advantage of a photo opportunity by posing against a blue screen holding a red electric guitar with rockstar intention. At the end of the visit, 4×6 prints would be available for purchase. Oh, no thank you: not this time. I have posed as Elliot on his bike with ET in the front basket and nothing could ever possibly come close to the stupid magnificence of that.
Holy Shit! The Hall of Fame of Rock and Roll was a ridiculous, entertaining, exhausting place, crammed to the gills with minutiae, a lot like Ash U, but without the Republicans. In addition to a tsunami of ephemera, small print to squint at and presumably read, there was treasure – you could find pieces of the plane that took Otis Redding down, an ‘Otis’ fragment and a ‘Redding’ one; Jimi Hendrix’s sofa, an uncomfortable-looking section of a sectional; Michael Jackson’s glove revolving on a plexiglass pedestal, pinned by a spotlight, resplendent and dead as a butterfly; and CBGB’s awning that I used to see from my New York window until a couple years ago. The Hall of Fame sometimes had the feel of uniquely glamorous, museum-quality episode of Hoarders. The exhibit space in the basement was pitch dark, with labyrinthine, chronology-averse catwalks and cul-de-sacs that whipsaw you from Metal to Doo-Wop to Disco in an eyeblink. The whole thing was claustrophobic, over-reaching, and spectacular, like Aretha Franklin being squeezed into one of Diana Ross’ gowns.
On a higher floor, I stood in the back of a darkened theater and watched a compilation film of the famous inductees, beginning at the museum’s inception in 1986 with this bunch: Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Elvis. It played the soundtrack to my life. When it came The Band’s turn, they included a snippet of Levon Helm singing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. It lasted only a fraction of a second. Those seven words rang, my chest tightened, and my throat caught. I love this music. This place will always be just an attic full of stuff: fun, but really kind of beside the point.