It would be a gross oversimplification to say, as many do, that this museum “lost” this museum and it should be in Memphis. There is a mythology that feeds the notion that somehow this was our museum, but we let it get away. Truthfully, Cleveland was chosen for the museum for the most non-melodic of reasons – hiring of internationally famous architect I.M. Pei and a financing plan that allowed a construction cost of almost $100 million.
In a way, the decision in favor of Cleveland was instructive of the oldest lesson of the music business. Music walks. Money talks. But equally important, Memphis was mired in its deepest feelings of unworthiness. We had the heritage and the cachet, but could not imagine that we were really good enough to be home to such a global attraction. We thought too small. We dreamed even smaller. But smallest of all was the amount of money we were willing to spend on the museum. It was the same feelings that led us to build a bargain basement arena shaped like a pyramid on the riverbank. We just didn’t deserve any better.
Arlo Guthrie, the thoughtful Massachusetts troubadour, once said in Memphis that we must be proud that music recorded here is heard all over the world, it is instantly recognizable and it has changed the lives of millions. He also told how he had been surprised at an outdoor music concert when tens of thousands of Eastern Europeans joined in singing a song by “the great American folk singer Elvis Presley.” Once banned by Communist governments, these rock and roll songs were more than music. They were sung openly as a badge of new freedoms.
All of this occurred to me as I walked through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and its ubiquitous exhibits and commentary about Memphis and the revolutionary music made here by a litany of artists who now hog the list of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
It gives you a sense of pride on two levels. One, it is indeed exciting to come from a city whose music means so much to the entire world. Two, it is good to live in a new Memphis which honors the outsiders who created this music and pays tribute to their legacy in ways far superior to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Civic pride aside, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum do better jobs of celebrating music generally and our music specifically. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems built as an exhibition hall of music memorabilia. The exhibits come first, the music second. As a result, the place is a cacophony with so much music blaring from so many directions, it is impossible to enjoy any of it. (This may be why its attendance projections have come up short and staff has been cut back.)
In fact, about halfway through, a visit to the Advil dispenser is a much-needed detour. It underscored the central truth about what a good job the Memphis museums have done in honoring our music traditions. Our museums are about the music, and both made sure that you enjoy the songs to their fullest. Stax’s “sound stations” are a breakthrough that the Hall of Fame should replicate immediately. A trip to Stax is much more enjoyable than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and at the Rock ‘n Soul Museum, the music has always been the star of the attraction with the exhibits cast in a supporting role. And that’s the way it should be. In Cleveland, you leave the Hall of Fame exhausted by the sensory overload, and in Memphis, you leave reenergized and upbeat. In a sense, nothing better represents the heart of Memphis Music in the first place.
If you haven’t been to the Stax Museum of American Soul or the Rock ‘n Soul Museums, do yourself a favor and go soon. It’s closer than Cleveland, and at the end of the day, both are far superior experiences than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.