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The Boss–from Cleveland to Philly


You might have heard about the Bruce Springsteen exhibit now up at the National Constitution Center about a year ago on Artblog. I saw From Asbury Park to the Promised Land at its organizing institution the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland. I am republishing the entire post here; you can find what I said about the exhibit half-way down the post:

Philadelphia and Cleveland have a lot in common in part because they each are eclipsed by a nearby major, international metropolitan area–New York and Chicago respectively. When our host (we were in Cleveland at the beginning of February) heard I admired Cleveland, she seemed truly thrilled. So for natives of both cities there’s a diffidence, a disbelief that someone would recognize the charms of the adored, much maligned hometown.

Therefore, well may you ask with some humor, what were you doing in Cleveland?

We flew into a blizzard in Cleveland.

I might reply with equal humor that we were kicking off Murray and Dan’s national tour to promote their book. So far the tour consists of Cleveland, with Charleston next! But we still have hope that interest in the book, which seems to me like an important, grand-scale re-evaluation of civil rights history in our country, will keep on growing. All right, I’m the wife, so maybe I can’t be trusted, but trust me.

Initial C detail Excised for a Choral Book: Saint Anthony with Antonite Friars, about 1400-1440, Tempera and gold on vellum, Venice, Italy

I also could reply that I was super excited to be visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I also made it to the art museum where I found gorgeous Greek pottery and a Medieval illuminated manuscripts exhibition full gems. It set me thinking of armies of monks painting with chilly paws in freezing abbeys across Europe. And we braved some dispirited picketers who told us we were going to hell for attending a local production of Jerry Springer: The Opera. We should have redirected them to the tv show; the opera was a raunchy parody–with a hilarious Greek chorus “audience” of low-life hecklers.

The trip (end of February) seemed ill-fated at the start. Murray was so distracted by his brother’s unexpected death that he didn’t tip the redcap in Philly. So my bag missed the plane (at least that’s my version of the story explaining why my bag got lost in airplane hell). Yes, it was U.S. Airways. The bums.

Murray signing books after his talk at the Cleveland City Club

Then, while in the air, we learned a blizzard was expected to blow in overnight. It did.

We stayed with old friends of Dan and Cindy–Jan and David–not far from Lake Erie and woke up to the snow. Dan, Cindy and David, all used to work at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. We slip-slid our way by slushy highway to Murray and Dan’s speaking engagement at the Cleveland City Club. For getting us there safely Cindy deserves a pair of bronzed baby snow tires to hang from her rear view mirror. Miraculously, more than 30 of the expected 100 guests made it to the talk–for which Jan did the intro. If the event were in Philly it probably would have been canceled altogether. The Cleveland City Club, holds weekly talks that draw speakers of all stripes, from Bill Clinton to Julian Bond to Antonin Scalia. The post-talk Q&A session is notable for its vigor and seriousness.

The guys sold some books! And the talk was broadcast via radio and tv. So snow and Dan and Murray took Cleveland by storm!

John Rogers Cox, Gray and Gold, 1942, oil on canvas, one of the paintings I admired at the Cleveland Museum of Art

At the Cleveland Museum of Art, the new addition to the building is only partly done, so getting from one completed part of the museum to another is daunting right now. (Timothy Rub was expected to see the addition through to completion; instead, he bolted for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and yes, Cleveland is bitter). Imagine our surprise finding Moe Brooker in the collection among the Cleveland Prize winners–a prize that goes to artists with Cleveland connections. I guess we have to add Moe Brooker to the list of assets Philadelphia and Cleveland have in common.

In the lobby of the Rock Hall. Phish rode in to one of its shows on the hot dog.

But for me the big event–something that belongs to Cleveland and nowhere else–was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Thanks to a tv tape of his 1968 comeback I finally fell for Elvis. He was riveting, and charming as he joked around with his backup group. I have no recollection of his being either one–riveting or charming. What rock did I live under?

We barely missed Bruce Springsteen in person by a few hours! An exhibit From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen was in its last day. On our way out, the curator (another old friend of Dan and Dave) told us that Springsteen was going to stop in after the museum closed because his mom said that the exhibit had moved her to tears. While the exhibit didn’t move me to tears, it did offer a glimpse into Springsteen’s pre-Boss days, when he was an aspiring musician struggling to make it, his music not quite ripe but already reaching for something special and big. He was vulnerable and earnest–and sooo young. Vitrines held photos, and instruments and manuscripts of lyrics with lines crossed out and rewritten. He seemed so close, almost there in person. Uncanny.

bruce springsteen
Source for this young Springsteen image–

The rest of the Rock Hall is also chock-a-block with amazing material to hear and see (no pictures allowed upstairs in the museum, alas).

The day we were there, the theater was showing a U2 concert taped in Buenos Aires in a huge soccer stadium teeming with bodies. Better yet, the video was 3-D! The entire audience, for whom English is most likely a second language, seemed to know all the lyrics!

But my favorite exhibits delved into the music-historical past. I listened to recordings from Leadbelly and Jimmy Rogers to Johnny Cash and Patti Smith and thought about how the music evolved and and seemed to embrace every popular form that preceded it–cowboy music, swing, jazz, pop, bluegrass, you name it.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

I saw a Janis Joplin letter to her mom about finally getting a job with a band–like any other kid trying to get a toehold–and I saw her manuscripts of lyrics. I examined a note by Big Bill Broonzy to a pawn broker to redeem his watch for $15. I admired an Elmore James guitar from 1948–an old acoustic beater of an instrument jury-rigged for electric with an ordinary wire hanging off. James played with Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Johnson. Just across the aisle, was a vitrine full of sleek Fender Stratocasters, including one from 1950 owned by Eldon Shamblin. How could two such different instruments be practically coeval, I wondered.

We spent more than a couple of hours there, but we could have tripled our time. If you have no other reason for going to Cleveland, the Rock Hall is reason enough. With exhibits that remind you of the times in your life when you heard each song, you can relive your personal Wildwood Days there. I could go back to Cleveland just for that–

Roberley Bell, Flower Blob # 880, 2009 (left) pigmented fiberglass and resin, artificial flowers, butterflies–Pentimenti Gallery

–or to visit the art in Philly’s airport.

Stanley Clockworks, 25 feet long, 300 beer bottles

Roberley Bell’s bubbly pop sculptures look exuberant in the gray airport Terminal A. And right nearby, a giant mechanized sculpture by Stanley Clockworks features beer bottles and turning wheels. The juxtaposition was pure Coney Island, with the mechanical wizardry of the Wonder Wheel and the Parachute Jump surrounded by the beachy, Salvador Dali’s Dream of Venus, and honky-tonk advertisements for midway games and geek shows.