Rock and Roll Hall of Fame President and CEO Greg Harris Looks Back at the Past 20 Years
This week, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland celebrates 20 years in business. During the past two decades, the glass-enclosed lakefront space has curated more than 100 exhibits -- including elaborate historical examinations of the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, the Clash and, most recently, Paul Simon -- and welcomed 10 million visitors from all over the world. The Rock Hall’s attendance is up 17 percent since last year, too -- no doubt because of the new inductees exhibit (featuring artists such as Ringo Starr and Lou Reed) and a Herb Ritts photo exhibit featuring artists such as Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and David Bowie. (Believe it or not, this marks the first time the photographer’s snapshots have been exhibited in one place.)
Ultimate Classic Rock recently chatted with the hall's President and CEO, Greg Harris, who formerly worked at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and also ran a record store in Philadelphia. During the conversation, Harris discussed classic rock’s presence in the museum, and the role that deep, enduring musical connections have had in making the Rock Hall a popular destination since 1995.
For a classic rock fan, what are some of the new things they might be interested in seeing at the museum?
There’s a lot of great stuff that has been swapped in and out of our permanent exhibitions. Of course, we have a Wall from Pink Floyd, and inflatables from them. But there’s also a ton of great stuff relating to San Francisco. God, it’s the whole museum! [laughs] When I start going around, when you think of classic rock, any of the giants you think of -- whether it’s the Who, the Beatles, the Stones, Aerosmith, ZZ Top, the Allman Brothers --they’re all here.
You guys also have a lot of cool, unique memorabilia stored in the vaults. Tell me a little about that.
At any given time, we have roughly 3,000 artifacts on exhibit. In our storage vaults behind the scenes, we’ll have 30,000 items. We regularly cycle them out and change them out in the exhibits to keep it fresh and exciting. There are additional items from each of those artists [mentioned above] and others. At any given time, only 10 percent of our collection is on exhibition.
How do you decide what artifacts you want to switch in and out?
Our mission is to engage, teach and inspire through the power of rock and roll. And we want to exhibit artifacts that help do that, and help tell the full story of rock and roll to very broad audiences. The things we exhibit, we want them to be exciting and impactful. We don’t want to just exhibit a generic signed guitar; we need the actual guitar that was played on that specific song or that specific show. For us, that’s the important piece. So the John Lennon acoustic guitar that’s on exhibit is the one he used in the Bed-In to record “Give Peace A Chance” and also on the Help! albums. That’s the actual one. We strive for that whenever possible. For us, it’s really important that it’s authentic, and that it’s connected to those moments.
One thing I’ve noticed is how much of the younger generation is getting into classic rock music. What is the enduring appeal of classic rock across generations?
It’s great music; it’s the first real body of work in this canon. A great Doors song is a great Doors song. To be lucky enough to see younger artists -- and not-so-younger artists --interact with artifacts at the museum in our vault is incredible. To be with Trey [Anastasio] from Phish as he’s looking at Lowell George’s lyric books and notebooks [from Little Feat recording sessions], and to see his excitement? Artists are fans of other artists. To see their excitement and passion for classic rock is really wonderful.
We’re in the first generation that it’s okay for kids to like the same music as their parents. That certainly didn’t happen in the ’70s and ’80s in the same way at all. Younger people that are into Led Zeppelin, Rush, the Doors, the Beatles -- that’s pretty cool. We see that at the museum every day.
We like to tell the story by connecting yesterday and today. That’s when we’re at our very best, and that’s a big part of our future. We don’t just talk about, say, a band like the Black Keys. We talk about how they were influenced by Led Zeppelin. We connect those dots, so visitors can understand and connect those dots.
You also ran a record store back in the day. How did that time prepare you for working at the Rock Hall?
First of all, the store is now celebrating its 30th anniversary -- it’s still open. It’s in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Record Exchange. They’re still selling vinyl; it’s a great place. It’s a real community center for anybody in Philadelphia that’s into music.
It prepared me a couple of ways. One, you see first-hand how music connects people, and the passion they have. That’s really important for a museum to keep in mind: How do we connect with people? How do we tap into their passions? It gave me very, very broad taste in music, and an appreciation for lots of different styles and genres. It exposed me to a ton. It gave me a little bit of a sense of what the music business and the wider business was like, because of touring bands doing in-stores and the need for distributors and promotion and things like that. You don’t just look at it as a fan -- you look at it as a fan and as a related industry.
In the last 20 years, what do you think are the most notable examples of cultural impact the Rock Hall has had, not just in Cleveland but even nationally?
I firmly believe that everyone who walks through our front door has a reservoir of memories connected to rock and roll. The greatest road trip, high school heartbreak, a special moment -- [for the last couple generations] rock and roll is the soundtrack. And when they’re here, we trigger those pieces. When they’re walking around the museum and they see something from John Fogerty, they remember that Creedence [Clearwater Revival] song that they played over and over, that was always playing at that one time in their life. That’s the power of all this. It wasn’t just them -- it was thousands of other people that had the same reaction.
[The museum is also] a place that honors rock and roll, celebrates it through the induction. I think we’ve elevated it in a very positive way in the eyes of the public and of the world. It now means something when you see a listing: Bruce Springsteen, Hall of Fame inductee or Ozzy Osbourne, Hall of Fame inductee. That becomes this immediate connection. It really does elevate, I believe, and recognizes them for the great work.
A lot of it is local, but nationally, there’s no doubt that it means something to be inducted. Bands care [and] fans care, which is why they lobby so hard, and why they feel so passionate when the ballot comes out. If they didn’t, it would mean we weren’t relevant.
People love arguing about whether this or that is rock and roll, or whether this or that band should be inducted. Why is there an enduring fascination to argue about these things?
It means something. When this concept was launched 30 years ago, they thought it was great and important to the insiders. But 30 years later, it means a lot to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s immortality for you and your fans. It validates the fans’ passion and interest in their band.
The other part is, people have their favorites. And, again, it could’ve been the album or the band that really meant a lot to them at a really important time in their life -- and it could be for decades and decades -- or they’ve got this connection and they’ve spent so much time with the music, with the artist, with the lyrics, the way it felt. It just connects them so much, that they want to see that recognized and validated from the wider world.
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