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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2001/05/21
by Jesse Jarnow

BRAIN TUBA: A Day In The Life

1. Rock and Roll
The morning jabbed harshly at my eyelids. The night before had been a
ginseng and marijuana-fueled orgy of guitar playing, improv theater, and
general lunacy during which I ricocheted back and forth across campus,
ending with a sunrise listening to "American Beauty" in the kitchen of my
house. Rock and roll, baby. I only say this because the last thing I did
before passing into a half-sleep at around 8 was to set my alarm clock for
11, so I could get up for a free ride and ticket to the Rock and Roll Hall
of Fame and Museum at noon. The irony wasn’t lost on me.
I accidentally set the alarm for 10, though, and – after it went off – I lay
in bed, unable to fall back asleep, and feeling like absolute shit. My eyes
traced the sunlight pouring into the room through the high windows. On my
ceiling, I noticed a rainbow over my desk — not a prism, but a full-on,
arced rainbow. I stared for a while in disbelief. Not knowing what
phenomenon of nature might be causing it, I drowsily grabbed for my
Polaroid, which happened to be sitting on the bookshelf next to my bed, and
took a picture. I marveled at the rainbow for a while longer and waited for
the photo to develop. The rainbow didn’t come out.
By that point, some of the magic of the situation had worn off and curiosity
had kicked in. The rainbow hadn’t moved, so it was obviously coming from a
somewhat stable source besides the sunlight. I padded over to the spot and
looked around. I quickly found the culprit: a CD lying upside down atop my
ZIP drive. I flipped the CD over to see what it was. The Disco Biscuits:
March 27, 1999. My first encounter with the show, a year and a half ago,
involved seeing a magnificent double rainbow reveal itself over the
industrial wilds of New Jersey while we stood in the parking lot of a
shopping mall and listened to Magellan. This was not an insignificant
encounter and the version became known to us as "the Rainbow
Magellan.
The coincidence startled me, and I slumped into my desk chair to write an
email to my friend about it. Before I did so, I instinctively clicked on
"get mail." One of the first pieces I received was a two-line email from the
same friend, wishing Magellan a happy birthday — the Biscuits had
premiered two years ago on that very day, April 22nd. Strange things were
afoot, and – theoretically – I was prepared.
2. Tropical Hot Dog Night
The first thing I saw when I walked into the Rock and Hall of Fame and
Museum, hanging from the ceiling in front of the entryway, was the Phish hot
dog. The hot dog was used by the band on December 31, 1994 and again on
December 31, 1999 as part of their New Year’s Eve celebrations. On the first
occasion, at the old Boston Garden, the band climbed into the hot dog with
their instruments and played Auld Lang Syne as the hot dog lifted off
the stage and flew over the crowd.
On the second occasion, just before midnight at the Big Cypress Indian
Reservation in Florida, the band rode from the back of the crowd in a giant
replica of an airboat (whose image had been used extensively in advance
promotion of the event). As they got closer to the stage, the sides of the
airboat suddenly fell away to reveal the hot dog underneath. Predictably,
the crowd went berserk. It was a moment of history relived for those who had
missed it the first time as well as for those who had been there in 1994.
The hot dog itself was undoubtedly a symbol of Phish’s history, often
invoked in arguments between heads, but it was one without a fixed meaning.
For people who claimed that the band was losing its sense of humor, the hot
dog became the benchmark of pranksterdom, with many arguing that the things
the band had done after that never lived up to it. For others, the hot dog
was symbolic of the band’s increasing visibility, and an omen of things to
come so far as the scale of things went.
Pretty much all of these interpretations were utterly ignored by the Rock
Hall — which is really perfectly okay. Sometimes a hot dog is just a hot
dog, even if four grown men do climb into it from time to time and play
phallic instruments. By its placement in a museum context, though, it has
become indisputably something more than a silly stunt the band pulled. Just
as Phishheads claim the hot dog for their historical needs, so does the – er – "official" institution of rock and roll.
3. Liberation Station
I hadn’t been to the Rock Hall in about two years. My initial impressions of
the place were negative, though probably for no more articulate a reason
than because it seemed the sensible position to hold. This time around – the
trip was with a history seminar about museums and the construction of
knowledge – my discontent was a little more realized. In short: the Rock and
Hall of Fame should be laughed at by any serious historian.
The museum is clearly aimed towards fans, though the steep ticket price
(over $15) is undoubtedly a deterrent. Once inside, one enters a controlled
chaos. Though rock certainly has the power to move large groups of people,
the experience is still ultimately personal and intimate. Except at one or
two overcrowded kiosks, some live footage of Jimi Hendrix, and the John
Lennon exhibit (see below), I don’t think one has the opportunity to listen
to an entire song.
The constant bombardment of sounds and images prevents the visitor from
latching onto one narrative, either emotional or linear. A typical display
is packed ridiculously tight with artifacts. As one inspects them, no less
than half a dozen monitors and speakers constantly loop, attempting to draw
the viewer to them. There is hardly time or space for the viewer to
contemplate and digest what he is seeing. The idea that there is any thought
put into any of the music is quite absent.
Throughout the museum, the curators attempt to create a narrative of
liberation. It is the overriding theme in the label copy and presentation
method. There is something undoubtedly rebellious about rock and roll. The
items presented in the Rock Hall are then supposed to be interpreted as
such: deviations from the norm. Rock’s rebellions, like most art forms, come
in waves. The presentation of these waves was far more about spectacle than
any explanation of why the forms were dissident.
For example, an exploration of sexual meanings is something that has long
been apparent in rock, from the early criticism of the Beatles’ long hair as
feminine (as if it were a bad thing) to serious gender bending on the parts
of people like David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Mick Jagger. Of these, at least
Bowie and Jagger’s costumes lie behind glass cases in various spots – celebrated, for sure – but there is no serious exploration of the deviation.
Why, precisely, is this rebellious? What does it mean? Or is it just
the superficial glamour of it all?
The keynote was struck quite well by two short films that one watches
immediately upon entrance to the first level of exhibits. Each equated early
rock and roll with rebellion, but did so superficially, giving no more
detail or evidence than typically ironic footage of ’50s households. Nor
does the Rock Hall acknowledge that rock’s act of rebellion is, by
definition, incomplete. Punk, for example, was a rebellion against the
perceived failure and subsequent institutionalization of hippie idealism —
a connection left virtually unexplored in the museum’s nostalgia trip.
Allowing that the waves are somehow connected in terms of cause and effect
results in a more complex (and historically accurate) picture.
If the existence of the Rock Hall itself isn’t enough to suggest an
institutionalization (and commodification) of rebellion, then it is further
proved by the fact that the bulk of the items exhibited were donated by the
musicians themselves. David Bowie, for example, wasn’t represented before he
donated a series of costumes. Likewise, several undoubtedly important
figures who didn’t actively sanction the Hall’s program (such as Bob
Dylan) are nearly absent. Does this automatically ban "true" rebels who
refuse to even acknowledge a system of interpretation? Likewise, what does
it say that the musicians, in a sense, get to choose what it is represented?
4. Imagine
The centerpiece exhibit on John Lennon might not have literally been curated
by Yoko Ono, but it could’ve been. It seemed that every item on
display came from Yoko (and therefore concentrated mostly on Lennon’s
post-Beatles career). Likewise, the exhibit smacked of the John/Yoko
aesthetic: clean off-white walls with breathing room between the artifacts,
peace and love, and a mildly pranksterish sense of humor. This was, perhaps,
the only exhibit in the museum to employ one solid narrative voice.
This provokes the question of whether or not it’s better to have one strong
voice or one which represents a multiplicity of viewpoints. In the Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, employing Yoko’s voice and seeing it through
was perfectly refreshing. In what can only be called the shrine room, filled
with handwritten lyrics and bathed in a soothing angelic light, entire songs
played at comfortable volumes. Because it only presented one side of the
story, though, it also disregarded a significant part of the story: the fact
that John Lennon spent the bulk of the 1970s a paranoid alcoholic.
Perhaps that’s not the point.
Two items, both placed near the entrance to the exhibit, create a sense of
the whole Lennon piece as well as the strongest impressions in the entirety
of the Rock Hall. The first is the Yoko Phone. On top of a white table, next
to a white chair, is a white phone (keypad covered with a white panel). The
copy reads "when phone rings, please pick up receiver and talk to Yoko."
Apparently, Yoko Ono has a direct line to the phone and calls every now and
again. A guard told me that she will talk for as long as whoever picks up
the phone wants to.
The other item, right before the Yoko Phone, is the most powerful thing I
have ever seen in a museum. It is contained within a tall, monolithic
display case. One must lean in to see what is inside. What he sees is a bag
labeled "New York City Police Department." The label copy, by Yoko,
indicates that the bag contains the clothing that Lennon was wearing when he was murdered by Mark David Chapman outside the Dakota in New York City on
December 8, 1980. In a smaller window next to the bag are Lennon’s glasses,
streaked with his blood.
I should explain that I pretty much have only one recurring nightmare:
seeing John Lennon get shot. When the dream occurs, and it’s surfaced maybe
five or six times in the past five years, it happens in a loop. In one
version, I knew it was coming and ran away, only to see it happen
simultaneously on every street corner in sight. The shudder that ran through
me when I saw the glasses might be the most purely visceral experience I’ve
ever had — subconscious crashing to the surface and gasping for air.
5. Get Back
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not a museum in the intellectual sense,
though it may promote a sense of wonderment for those who have already been
affected profoundly and abstractly by the music. What does it accomplish,
then? If anything, the unfinished song clips left me hugely unsatisfied —
making me want to charge out and, if nothing else, listen to music (it’s
convenient that the escalator down to the main floor dumps one right into
the woefully pathetic and bloody expensive gift-cum-record shop).
More simply, though, I wanted some time alone with the music. While
celebrating rock’s historical legacy, the museum neglected to discuss
listener reception, nor did it even really ever consider the listener to
actually be a listener, as opposed to a consumer.
I’m not fundamentally opposed to the idea of a museum dedicated to rock and
roll. If done right – and, in some ways, the Lennon exhibit was done
right because it was done without apparent compromise – it can lead the
visitor to a better understanding of the art. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
and Museum only reinforces rock’s worst bombastic qualities without their
effects, either sociologically or individually. I’ve gotta say: Graceland
does it better.
Epilogue. Mystery Train
A few days later, I was in my housemate’s room. We were listening to
"Beggar’s Banquet" by the Rolling Stones. Or maybe it was "Let It Bleed."
One of the country albums. I marveled at what it might’ve been like to have
been a Stones’ fan in the late ’60s, or a music fan in general. The rock
press barely existed, and where it did it was still devoted far more to myth
making than myth breaking. Rock itself still held the promise of rebellion.
The sense of community around rock and roll, I think, was quite different.
People liked music, not so much specific bands. There was no Internet
and the amount of information available about a given group was scarce.
What would it have been like to know nothing about a group other than what
could be derived from new records released once or twice a year? "During the
time of Sgt. Pepper," David Bowman writes in "This Must Be The Place,"
"publicity photographs… showed the Beatles playing brass instruments. Many
American suburbanites, both children and their parents, assumed that these
photographs were for real, that the Beatles were so gifted they actually
played all the instruments that were recorded on their psychedelic albums.
We hadn’t yet heard of studio musicians (Bowman 21).
With 30 years of hindsight, that’s hilarious. There’s something quaint about
it: to know nothing about the music other than what one can infer from the
jacket or second-hand knowledge. Wonderment, baby. It also reinforces the
idea of rock and roll as fantasy. I remember listening to "Beggar’s Banquet"
when I was in junior high school and deriving creation myths for the songs,
fictional stories as to why Mick had done this and why Keith had done that.
In some ways, being able to go up and talk to a musician after a show – as
one can do at most jamband gigs – is nice, but it also removes a layer of
personality one can impose on the music. Knowing only the music, one must
make up the rest: meaning, circumstance, and reception. Seeing a gigantic
rock concert can be liberating because one is free to make up stories, to
speculate. Somewhat paradoxically, the music can become even more personal.
What does the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum do in all of this? The
worst possible thing: it reinforces myth without wonderment.
Jesse Jarnow just doesn’t
know anymore.

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