My mind is Tiffany-twisted, I got the Mercedes-bends. Seriously, I have not recovered from yesterday’s press preview for “Play it Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll” (opening April 8 through “Rocktober” 1) in which Don Felder, original member of The Eagles picked up his white double-neck guitar and serenaded us with his iconic solo from “Hotel California.” The musician who’s played stadiums with hundreds of thousands of people admitted to being much more nervous for this intimate crowd of press! The notes hung in the rarefied yet humid air — among the Greek and Roman statues in the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Garden – a far cry from my memories of the beach in Ocean City, New Jersey during high school Shore Week.
In all fairness I had seen the clip on CBS Sunday Morning and just had that sneaking suspicion that Felder was our “special guest” for this first major exhibition in an art museum dedicated entirely to the iconic instruments of rock and roll. These 130 items date from 1939-2017 and include so many legendary artists from Chuck Berry to Prince, from Don Everly to Eric Clapton, from Muddy Waters to Keith Richards, from Elvis to The Beatles and The Who.
But that wasn’t all – be still my boomer heart — Steve Miller of The Steve Miller Band and Jimmy Page (JIMMY freaking PAGE!!! The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), Tina Weymouth (bassist and founding member of Talking Heads and TomTom Club with her drummer husband Chris Frantz) were also in attendance and spoke although they did not play guitar. Cue one of my favorite John Cougar Mellencamp lyrics: “All women around the world want a phony rock star who plays guitar.” Call me an old groupie — I can appreciate the wimmins who rock (they tried to be inclusive here featuring Joan Jett, Sheryl Crow, Patti Smith ,Nancy Wilson, Kim Gordon, Wanda Jackson, Kate Pierson, St. Vincent, Lady Gaga, and others ) but there’s just something about a guy with a guitar! Actually, drummers and keyboardists aren’t so bad either.
“When I was 11 or 12 years old I used to take my guitar to school – I’d have it confiscated until the end of the day. That’s the kind of respect that a guitar got then,” said Miller who added that with this exhibition he’d like to show those educators a thing or two now. “This day today is something that I would never have dreamed of. I’m stunned by the power and elegance” of the instruments on display and “the wisdom of The Met” who sought to do this exhibition (in conjunction with Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) after musician’s instruments faced “years of trivialization.” The “Fly like an Eagle” artist (what is it with musicians and birds?) remarked that Jayson Kerr Dobney, Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge of the Department of Musical Instruments, had a good eye when choosing objects to display. “I have about 400 guitars and Jayson came in and picked out the best ones,” he said using this moment to bequeath a 1961 Les Paul painted by surfboard artist Bob Cantell to the museum “when I’m done with it.” So hopefully not for a looong time!
For his part, Jimmy Page spoke of coming to New York City in 1968 and staying among the “treacherous looking junkies” on Horatio Street in the Meatpacking District before it was gentrified. One of the first things he did was visit The Met to escape — “that was 50 years ago. This is the most amazing press conference ever!” I’ll second that – Rock on!
The exhibition itself is a well curated mini-R&R HOF featuring rooms devoted to each type of instrument, videos, costumes, posters, as well as an insulated foam padded wall room displaying the touring rigs of Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page and Keith Richards. It’s something to see Page in a video in his current incarnation as a mature white haired gent strumming the chords to “Stairway to Heaven” and other iconic hits and then see him in another gallery room strutting all over the stage in his dragon costume and guitar — both also on display here.
Richards is endlessly entertaining – referring to his Telecaster electric (“we’re all made up of electromagnetic energy ”) guitar known as “Micawber” which is “kind of beat up like I am.” Showing a Les Paul custom 1957 guitar which he’s decorated in electric colors he starts to explain that it represents the moon coming up and the sun going down, eventually shaking his head trying to explain the colorful swirls. “Nah, it’s probably the acid,” he laughs.
There are so many cool things in the exhibition – if you’re like me prepare to spend a while “fangirling out.” Don’t miss Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Moog synthesizer setup with wires protruding everywhere (it looks like a telephone operator switchboard) that he somehow toured with, right next to his Hammond L-100 organ or “stunt instrument. During improvisations, he would stick knives between its keys to hold down notes, jump on it, and pull it on top of himself.” Is it any wonder that it had to be retired after it burst into flames during a performance?
Keith Moon’s drum kit “Pictures of Lily” , Eric Clapton’s “Blackie,” Eddie Van Halen’s “Frankenstein,” Jerry Garcia’s “Wolf,” Joan Jett’s “Melody Maker,” plus Lady Gaga’s Artpop piano and the Ludwig drum set that Ringo Starr used on The Beatles 1964 Ed Sullivan show appearance, are just a few highlights. There’s so much more to take in that it makes my head spin – I will have to revisit when it opens.
Interestingly, there is a big market in recreations of storied guitars and other instruments: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-electrifying-stories-behind-rocks-most-famous-guitars-11553711505 – some are even on sale here in the gift shop. To quote from the Wall Street Journal article: “They’re great guitars, and we worked really hard to get my signature model right,” explained Mr. Beck, whose Stratocaster replica is one of Fender’s most successful models. “But you can have the same guitar, the same pedals, the same amp – you’re still not going to sound like me.”
Not nice to rub that in, Mr. Beck! I prefer the immortal words of AC/DC, “For those about to rock, we salute you.”