Sam Cooke used to carry a small wooden ukulele with him on tour. As countless YouTube troubadours and Amanda Palmer have recently discovered, the four-stringed downsized guitars are sweet-sounding instruments that are easy to play and even easier to transport. I love the idea of the soul singer crooning “You Send Me” gently over plucked nylon strings, on a bus, in a hotel room, backstage before a show.
It’s an intimate image, an imagined moment of a deceased artist’s life that became partially real for me last weekend when I saw Cooke’s uke in the vault at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. It was one of many pieces of cultural history I got to witness, even touch, as exhibitions coordinator Shelby Morrison gave me a VIP tour of the climate-controlled room: Chrissie Hynde’s bicycle-club (not biker club) jacket, postcards from Patti Smith, the hat from Lady Gaga’s meat dress. On January 25, I spoke about the Runaways at the Hall of Fame’s Library and Archives (which is housed in a separate building from the museum). Yes, the boys club let the stone thrower in – more on that later.
But first, a word on the weightiness, and fetishization, of historical objects. As a scholar, I prize history but not nostalgia. I want to align our memories of events with how they actually happened, which is not necessarily the same – as I learned in writing Queens of Noise, sometimes to my own embarrassment – as we remember them. In fact, this was part of my topic Saturday. As I said then, “My task as the first non-partisan biographer of the Runaways – in other words, I was never a member of the band myself — was first and foremost to create a fair and balanced history, one that takes into account the sometimes conflicting perspectives of the various stakeholders (i.e., the band members and their business associates). This meant investigating the various narratives that had already been woven around the band and trying to ascertain their basis in real events versus their cohesion to, shall we say, useful myths. As critical theorists have been saying for years, narratives are created stories that answer yearnings for received meaning generally based on existing agendas – institutional, personal, political, economic, religious, etc., agendas.”
For me, the Rock Hall Museum and Library are not shrines to dead, or even living, celebrities: They are places to see the actual artifacts from which dreams have been made. The paper trail of documents I found while writing Queens was at least as useful as the numerous interviews I conducted. When the former contradicted the latter (for instance, a 1976 newspaper clipping in which Cherie Currie told the interviewer that she had been chasing Kim Fowley down, as opposed to the usual tale of him “discovering” her in a teen club), I questioned the remembered record of events. When the two accounts complemented each other (the 1976 letter from Cleveland promoter Joyce Halasa complaining about band mismanagement from the get-go), I felt the thrill of documenting something that could really actually — sorry postmodernists — be called truth.
I don’t give a damn about the hall of fame, really, or gold records on restaurant walls. But Queens discographer and Runaways archivist Omid Yamini and I were kids in a candy store as librarian Andy Leach gave us a tour of the storage areas: boxes of papers from dead hitmakers, a box full of old LA punk flyers, piles of BOMP! and Slash, live tapes, vinyl, etc. The two-year-old library is still just getting a handle on what they have, and making it accessible to the public. Anyone can sign up for a card and go through the Bikini Kill file in the Kill Rock Stars archive. I know I did.
I was eminently grateful that the Rock Hall – particularly the incredible Lauren Onkey – let me make the case for the long-overlooked Runaways, despite my sometimes grumblings. (I only kvetch because actually, I do give a damn.) I think the talk went well, although I spoke in front of a solid wall of windows that gave me a backdrop of a full-on Great Lakes blizzard. That morning the authorities were telling people not to go out, so the event whose advance reservations had made it standing-room only became merely decently attended. The visit was well worth it not only for getting to praise one of my favorite bands in that esteemed environment, but for getting to spend a weekend rummaging through rock’s back pages (to borrow a phrase). I can’t wait to get back and start researching the next book.