Long Live Rock

Guitarist Don Felder with a Gibson double-neck guitar, which is featured in Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll (Courtesy Michael Helms)
One lesson from the Met exhibit is that rock matters — or at least that it mattered.

An exhibit devoted to artists’ tools seems beside the point; it’s the work that was produced with them that matters, isn’t it? We want to see Rembrandt’s paintings, not his paintbrushes. Nor would those brushes look much different from Picasso’s.

Ah, but the stories told by the objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll! Some of them are beautiful, some are strange, some are aggressively homely. But they’re not just objects. They’re also cultural signifiers. We know them not just for the music that came out of them but for the cultural freight they carry.

The instruments of Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, the Edge, Keith Richards, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, and many other rock musicians make for a thrilling collection (running through October 1) that has drawn upwards of 200,000 visitors to the Met. Curators were expecting the crowd to consist mainly of Baby Boomers but have been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm shown by young adults, teens, and even children. As I was departing on Wednesday, the galleries were filling with fascinated high-school students. None of them were looking at their phones. Rock is not dead.

The power of the display hits you straight away, as forcefully as the opening chords of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” The guitar upon which Berry played them serves as the introduction to the exhibition, mounted on a plinth that cheekily refers to the similar ones upon which the facing Roman statues rest in the adjacent hall. Berry, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix: contemporary analogues for the Roman gods. Here are the weapons with which they conquered civilizations: “Love Drops,” the Flying V Gibson upon which Hendrix played “All Along the Watchtower.” “Micawber,” the 1954 Fender Telecaster that Richards got as a 27th-birthday present from Clapton and played on Exile on Main Street, its E string removed and the remaining five tuned in open G to create a distinctive sound. “Frankenstein,” Eddie Van Halen’s jury-rigged monster, a hybrid of Gibson and Fender parts the musician cobbled together himself, decorated with spray paint and strips of tape. Bruce Springsteen’s 1953–54 Esquire Telecaster, the one slung behind him on the back cover of Born to Run. “Blackie,” the Stratocaster Clapton bought in Nashville in 1970, liking it so much he bought three more Stratocasters for his pals Pete Townshend, Steve Winwood and George Harrison. One of the songs Clapton recorded on Blackie was “Cocaine,” but he sold the instrument at auction to fund the Crossroads Centre — where people go to deal with their cocaine problems.

Individual items are chapters in the medium’s history: Here is the guitar upon which Bob Dylan famously went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. There is the Martin upon which Eric Clapton played his shocking acoustic version of “Layla,” on MTV Unplugged in 1992, inaugurating an era of contrarian reconsiderations of Baby Boomer classics. The sole surviving poster for a teen skiffle group called The Quarrymen, from 1959, takes its place on a wall of delightful artwork. Their successor band is represented by Ringo Starr’s drum kit and Harrison and John Lennon’s guitars from around the time the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show. McCartney’s bass from that era is not available; he’s still playing it.

That the musicians remain loyal to such ancient instruments down the decades brings up an intriguing detail: Despite all of its ex nihilo poses and Year One lyrics, rock is a medium of deep respect for the past. To a man, rockers venerate their elders, beginning with Berry and Muddy Waters, and so on across generations. Each of these musicians consciously added to the great palimpsest that is rock, instead of starting with a blank sheet. Even their acts of destruction were performative — show business. Sometimes they were gestures of respect: Here is a guitar Kurt Cobain played at a 1993 concert at which Van Halen was present. Cobain went backstage and had a tech drill holes in the instrument so he could smash it up on stage and in so doing impress the senior man. Rock’s anger was a marketing gimmick, just as diplomat’s son John Graham Mellor would assume the role of nihilist punk Joe Strummer. (The Clash founder’s 1966 Fender Telecaster, plastered with stickers, looks suitably like it was born in a junkyard.) Staging his guitar-demolishing act solely for the cold-blooded purposes of a promotional photo shoot, Townshend destroyed a Gibson SG Special as Annie Leibovitz snapped away for Rolling Stone in 1977. The bits have been put together and encased in a block of Lucite. Destruction gets honored by preservation.

One superfluous if understandable choice the Met has made is to play over its visitors’ heads snippets of classic rock. Hearing only a few seconds of each track is irritating, and in the poor acoustical environment it ventures close to being noise. Between two rooms I had the unpleasant sensation of hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Gimme Shelter” at the same time, each one clanging harshly against the other. The Museum should have left the soundtrack to the audio tour.

Yet the mystical power of some of these objects drowns out the racket. Here is a surviving fragment of the guitar Hendrix doused with lighter fluid and set on fire at the Monterey Pop festival in 1967, in a gesture intended to one-up Townshend’s guitar-ruination. Hendrix famously knelt in a pose of ecstatic worship behind the burning object, conjuring spirits from the vast deep. What was the meaning of that act? Hendrix was playing off the attraction of all things pagan for the hippie generation, but on a deeper level the ritual sacrifice cast rock as an art whose genuineness, hence its attractiveness, was tied up in its inability to control itself. Rock mesmerizes and destroys as fire does. To burn his own guitar showed Hendrix reveling in evanescence as not just the natural passing of youth but also a kind of death wish, an appetite for self-destruction. Like many of his peers Hendrix set fire to himself, and some part of it was performative, dutiful. Three years later he would be dead at 27.

It may be that the age of rock gods has already concluded, like the Jazz Age or the Big Band era. The youngest artists represented at the exhibit — Tom Morello, Lady Gaga, St. Vincent — seem unlikely to inspire veneration, or even much interest, circa 2049. Some alchemy of sound and performance on the one hand and societal tumult on the other made rock a leading cultural indicator, for a time. “You’ve left your fingerprints on the audience’s imagination,” Springsteen once said, “and they stick.” Rock matters, or at least mattered, and the Met’s imprimatur on the form is well justified.

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