Raiders of the Rock Hall: Discovering the Hall's More Contentious Treasures

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[originally published in Cleveland Free Times, August 21-27, 2002]

It'd been a couple years since I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of Museum. So on an ozone-sozzled Tuesday (or perhaps Thursday) afternoon, I put on my "Hell Freezes Over" Eagles tour shirt, and took the Rapid to the Rock Hall. I zipped through my visit in under and hour and was blowing towards the exit when a thought gave me pause: at the very least, it was my civic duty to register my disappointment. I found the Visitor Services desk, but there was no one behind it – not a surprise, I suppose, considering the recent employee cutbacks.

Still, a cardboard box marked "Feedback" sat there beside a chained-down pencil. I couldn't find any forms, so I began to cast about for something to write on. I spied a slip of paper half sticking out of a nearby air vent. After a few determined tugs it came free, but as I set it on the counter, I realized this was no mere scrap of pulp, but the notarized original of Kurt and Courtney's prenup agreement! Yet, as that famous grunge koan goes, dear readers, I never promised you a Soundgarden, and so I shall the words I read there to my grave.

Feeling soiled to my soul, I began shoving the parching back into the vent when a funny thing happened – the vent's face-plate fell off. Crouching, I saw that the vent was actually a crawlspace, maybe 30 feet long, with a soft white light at its far end.

Once inside, I replaced the vent cover behind me. As I crept through the musty passage, I felt like the star of Being John Petkovic. Suddenly, I was sucked forward and rudely spat out the opening, landing smack-dab atop the oily saddle of a motorcycle. According to the plaque across its bent handlebars, this was the cherry-red Harley Davidson Sportster that folk phenom Richard Fariña had been riding at the time of his fatal accident, April 30, 1966. Beside it sat the Triumph 500 that Bobby Dylan wrecked on July 29 of that same year. I swallowed hard and dismounted.

You know that final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the Ark gets stashed alongside a skillion other wonders of the world in some nondescript warehouse? I had stumbled upon the rock 'n' roll equivalent, a storage facility long the subject of hushed after-the-afterparty yarns, but whose existence I'd figured for pure apocrypha. This was the Rock Hall's legendary Contentious Treasure Room, brimming with items acquired under significant expense that were considered too controversial to be put on display.

I plunged into the stacks, my febrile mind struggling to grasp what I was seeing. Beach Boys dad Murray Wilson's glass eye. The Afro Sheen-stained shower caps Bone Thugs-n-Harmony wore when they won their Grammy. Ozzy Osbourne's bitten-to-bits bat (sans head, natch). The bag twisty from the bread used to make the sandwich upon which Mama Cass choked to death. John Cale's hockey mask.

Sure, not every item was a winner. Faith Hill's first set of press-on nails, Neil Peart's high school copy of The Fountainhead, Sheryl Crow's favorite broom handle – these I passed over quickly. But the delight of seeing the Ramones' "Gabba Gabba Hey!" sign, the putrid dress worn by Bob Stinson on the Replacements' Tim tour, the oversized forceps used to birth Screaming Trees twins Van and Gary Conner, the brass knuckles with which Led Zep manager Peter Grant broke many a promoter's fact, the duffle bag where Paul McCartney had stashed seven ounces of marijuana before his 1980 Japan airport bust!

From shelf to shelf I worked methodically until, at the end of an aisle, I found an alcove containing a soldered shit ruby-inlaid silver box maked Syd Barrett's Sanity. From there, things grew increasingly ghoulish. A stanchion from the toppled lighting rig that crushed Curtis Mayfield's legs. An airtight plastic tub labeled Contents of D.Boon's Fridge at Time of Death. The eroded septum of Stevie Nicks, carefully wrapped in a lace glove and packed in a rusty snuff tin. David Crosby's liver, imprisoned in a translucent cube of amber like some sort of Damien Hirst wet dream.

Eyes occluding with the glaucoma of disbelief, I staggered towards the back of the tomb, where I came across a final, puzzling item whose presence I cannot explain: a shabby set of golf clubs once swung by free-jazz giant, Cleveland native, and tragic genius Albert Ayler. Up to that point, a sort of shock-induced restraint had prevented me from handling any of the items at length, but now I picked up Ayler's five iron, intending only to take a lay-up-short-of-the-water-hazard type practice swing. But after all these years, the grip on the old club was really no grip at all.

And it slipped. For a slow-motion moment the club went chopping through the air like a lawnmower rotor. Then it crashed into a large aquarium housing the severed arm of Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen. Amidst a shitstorm of fingernails and spraying glass, Allen's arm went flopping across the room, buffeted by a tsunami of formaldehyde. Plainly possessed, the Arm shoved over the pedestal supporting the cucumber from This Is Spinal Tap, which fell into a speaker cabinet, which fell into a shelving unit, creating a (Fats) domino effect, as the entire contents of the room careened crazily to the floor, imploding upon impact.

I made a beeline for the fire door, got out and away down a back alley, ran blindly for some blocks, at last taking refuge at Alice Coopers'town, in one of the pub's back booths. A friendly, saucy, redheaded waitress brought me a pitcher of Pride of Cleveland and some "School's Out" hot wings. When I caught my breath, I asked her when was the last time she'd been to the Rock Hall. Pretty recently, she said. In fact, until just a little while ago, she'd run the Visitor Services desk. 
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