Stars Partied and Played for Rock's Hall of Fame...but After Six Years of Planning, Where the Heck Is It?

updated 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was the music business at its brightest. Newcomers such as Bobby Brown and Tracy Chapman honoring rock pioneers Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, John Lee Hooker, and the Impressions. The Byrds reuniting to sing their classic version of "Mr. Tambourine Man." And everybody from LaVern Baker to Bruce Springsteen taking the stage for a final jam session to end the sixth annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

Trouble is, fans of those inducted will have to wait to see their heroes' likenesses enshrined. After almost six years of fund-raising, planning and black-tie inductions, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum doesn't even exist—except as a windswept, vacant lot on the edge of Lake Erie in Cleveland.

"It's pretty embarrassing," says longtime Cleveland disc jockey John Lanigan. "After a while it's like. 'Whatever happened to it?' "

Conceived in 1985, the hall was intended to honor rock's originators and to "show that there is. musically and sociologically, a serious point of view that can be taken about this music." says Atlantic Records Chairman Ahmet Ertegun. granddaddy of the project. But its cost, first estimated at $15 million, has now soared to $65 million-plus, and some of the hall's critics are gelling cranky. "You have to wonder why there's such a problem." concedes rock-promoter Bill Graham, who sits on the board of the New York City-based Rock and Roll Hall of lame Foundation. "I there it is, years later, and we still haven't broken ground."

When plans for a museum were first announced, cities across the U.S.—including Detroit. Philadelphia. Memphis and New York—began lobbying to land the project. Cleveland got the nod after 110,000 local rock fans responded to a USA Today call-in poll (only some 7.000 cast votes for runner-up Memphis). Cleveland, local boosters proudly noted, was the home of famed deejay Alan Freed, the man who is reputed to have first used the term "rock and roll" to describe the music. (No matter, of course, that Ireed went on to greater fame in the payola scandals of the late 1950s.)

To the Hall of Fame Foundation, however, cash counted even more than call-in votes. The truth was, Cleveland businessmen and local politicians simply promised the most money toward construction of the Hall of Fame and Museum complex. Says Ertegun: "Their bid was far more attractive than anybody else's." By 1987 land had been donated by a local developer, and I.M. Pci was hired to design a structure. He concocted a soaring glass pyramid connected to an 18-story building that would house exhibit space, archives, a recording studio, artifacts, even a disc jockey booth from which radio shows could be broadcast. "We wanted something really spectacular." says Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner. a foundation board member and a key supporter of the project.

But all did not go smoothly. Designs for the hall's interior layout, not done by Pei, were termed "too glitzy," and revised plans pointed up a lack of space at the proposed site. Supporters started looking for a new location, Pei and the design teams went back to the drawing board, and cost estimates began to rise.

Meanwhile, the splashy induction dinners continued year after year at the Waldorf. This month, as usual, some 1,000 guests paid up to $1,250 apiece to attend. What few apparently knew, however, was that the dinners, brimming with rock stars and record-company executives, were contributing almost nothing toward the Hall of Fame itself. Of the $50 million raised for the project so far, only $1.25 million has come from the dinners' sponsors, the Hall of Fame Foundation. The bulk has come from Cleveland via corporate sponsors and public funding.

"The dinner was never intended to be a fund-raiser," says Suzan Evans, the foundation's executive director. "The costs are enormous. We fly everybody in, put them up and arrange for transportation. The dinners pay for themselves."

"That's bordering on being fraudulent." snaps Joyce McCrea, a talent manager and producer who works to help financially strapped R&B artists. "They're milking the fame of these people to have a party for themselves." McCrea, among others, argues that any money raised would be better spent on indigent, aging musicians rather than on shrines. Ex-rocker Joey Dee, of "Peppermint Twist" fame, agrees. Dee, 50, now heads the Foundation for the Love of Rock 'n' Roll, which provides aid to down-and-out musicians. "They're building a wonderful edifice, and that should be done." he says of the museum's supporters. "But taking care of people is more important than another plaque to Mick Jagger. Tributes are nice, but they don't feed people."

They do feed egos, however, at least according to Albert Goldman, author of the controversial biographies Elvis and The Lives of John Lennon. The real beneficiaries of the induction dinners, claims Goldman, are record-company executives. "They do the dinner to congratulate themselves." he says. "The hype for them is worth $1,200 a plate." As for the aging honorees, "Everyone is sitting there like old-time Broadway comics in their tuxedos, toasting each other as if they were at a Friar's roast. Rock and roll is supposed to be wild and anarchic. To turn it into a grand institution in the style of Hollywood is just ludicrous."

And that, of course, raises another question: Does music grounded in rebellion even belong in a museum, of all things? If so, what are its ancient artifacts? So far, the only one purchased—for $15.000—is a handwritten copy of Jimi Hcndrix's "Purple Haze" lyrics. Now what? Madonna's nose-cone brassieres? Michael Jackson's makeup kit?

To meet the ever-growing costs of the project, those artifacts will have to draw nearly 700,000 visitors a year, about equal to the annual attendance at Graceland. Many doubt it can. "Graceland's the site of a religion," snorts one rock critic. "It's like comparing Mecca to Disneyland."

Even so, neither the Cleveland boosters nor the Hall of Fame Foundation seem discouraged. A new site has been chosen, a search is under way for a museum curator, and ground may actually be broken this year. The project, says Cleveland Mayor Michael White, "will be on time and on budget. And ultimately the induction ceremony will be here."

As for critics who would rather see the money spent otherwise, Jann Wenner is quick to reply. "Does the Metropolitan Museum run homes for the indigent?" he asks. "We're putting on one of the most interesting and enjoyable, nonexploitive dinners that the music business has ever seen. We are reviving careers. We are honoring people that have been forgotten. We are putting together a repository for the history of this music. None of this has been done before."

And so, like a long-playing record, the project spins on. Despite the delays, dollars and design problems, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum just may open, according to the latest schedule, in early 1994, enshrining a once proudly renegade art form in a glass tower for tourists. That, says Wenner, is as it should be. After all, he says, "sooner or later, everything ends up in a museum."

—Cynthia Sanz, Robin Micheli in Los Angeles and Cleveland

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