The people who put Eminem’s underwear on display and keep watch over the lyrics to ‘Purple Haze’
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the Library and Archives are home to thousands of artifacts relating to all things rock ‘n’ roll. At the Rock Hall, you can see the hand-painted Porsche that Janis Joplin drove between Los Angeles and San Francisco back in the ’60s. And at the Archives you’ll find everything from the hand-written lyrics to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” to an Elvis Presley set list from the ’70s. Both places are treasure troves for scholars and fans alike. We met up with assistant curator Meredith Rutledge, who works at the Rock Hall, and the director of library and archives Andy Leach, who works at the Archives, to get a behind-the-scenes look at how the Rock Hall keeps up its collection.
Jeff Niesel: Do you process new items on a daily basis?
Meredith Rutledge: Yes. Just today, I got a cold call from somebody who has “something” that they think we might have an interest in. Every day we get calls from people offering stuff or wanting to know what things are worth, which we cannot do. We don’t do appraisals. Things come in everyday and especially now in front of the induction ceremony we’ve had inductees coming in. [Blackhearts bassist] Gary Ryan came in last week and was so excited by what he saw that he came back and donated a few things. The next day, he brought a shirt he’s wearing on the back cover of the I Love Rock N Roll album.
JN: What would you consider to be some of the most sacred items at the Rock Hall?
MR: One of the most obvious is Janis Joplin’s Porsche. That’s one of the biggest, most tangible items. It’s been here since the beginning. It goes off display because it’s popular with museums all over the country. It’s intrinsically valuable because of what it is. It’s a 1965 Porsche. The artwork adds to it. John Lennon’s bed-in guitar is an incredibly iconic instrument. Wanda Jackson’s guitar. It’s a Martin guitar that’s a vintage. They’re incredibly prized instruments. The Alice Cooper guillotine head, just for shock value. It’s a great thing visually. John Paul Jones’ outfit from The Song Remains the Same. It’s beautiful. It’s a collage jacket and a beautiful piece of art.
Andy Leach: The most popular thing and maybe the most valuable thing in the building is the original hand-written lyrics for “Purple Haze.” We don’t provide direct access to that. We have them digitized and provide a print facsimile. It’s on exhibit at the museum as a facsimile.
JN: Which exhibits are the most popular?
AL: We have an Elvis Presley set list from 1974 that people get a kick out of. The [late Plain Dealer rock writer] Jane Scott collection is something that people are excited about. We haven’t made it available yet, but we received it after her death. Within the past month, we received a grant from the History Ohio Connection to process it and digitize portions of it. It’s all of the notebooks she saved from interviews or from reviewing shows. There are photographs and clippings of all her stories. We have her record collection. Her first music gig was covering the Beatles. She has four loose pages that each have a Beatle’s autograph on them.
JN: Have you ever received something that really shocked you?
MR: Eminem’s underwear. He sent us a whole outfit. He didn’t just send his underwear. It was everything from a raincoat to a full outfit and the underwear and socks were in the bag too. We don’t wash the clothes that come in because whatever bodily stuff is on them is part of the artifact. We would only alter something if it presented a danger to itself or other artifacts. For instance, if there was a mold problem. Or if an artifact was unsound and it needed to be stabilized before it was exhibited. Anything we do has to be reversible. If we put a super structure under an outfit to hang on a form, it has to be done in such a way that it can be taken out. We’ve got [Green Day singer] Billie Joe Armstrong’s complete outfit from Woodstock ’94. He started this mud fight with the chant, “I don’t care what you do. I don’t want to be a mud hippy like you.” [Bassist] Mike Dirnt lost three teeth. We have Billie Joe’s tie, which has a shadow of mud on it. The shoes we kept in a bag.
AL: You get used to seeing some crazy things in collections. In one collection we have here, we found an almost-empty bottle of vodka in the bottom of a box. It was in the Art Collins collection. He was Iggy Pop’s manager. We also found marijuana leaves pressed in a book. That’s not exactly shocking but it was surprising.
JN: Do you ever interact directly with the artists?
MR: Rarely. I will never forgot when I picked up my phone and Debbie Harry was on the other end asking about a dress she had worn. That was a huge thrill but a real exception. I don’t often speak directly to the artists. I mostly deal directly with agents, managers and lawyers. I always say that moms are the curator’s friends. They’re usually very proud and keep everything and are eager to share.
JN: Not that you would ever steal anything, but what’s one item you would want to own?
AL: I’m more of a book and record guy. The two things I won’t buy on my own but would be cool to own are the two box sets that Paramount put out. I’ll show you them. They’re beautiful historic reissues. Each compiles 800 recordings from the Paramount label from the ’20s and ’30s. They’re great but I can’ t pull the trigger to purchase them on my own.
JN: Many of the artifacts are notepads containing lyrics and studio equipment. Given that we live in a world when few people use a pen and paper and few artists record their albums in studios, is a curatorial crisis looming?
MR: We’ve started getting hard drives from some of the DJs. In our festivals exhibit, we had a couple of laptops. Skrillex gave us a laptop. They’re not as visually interesting. Visitors love seeing hand written lyrics. Now that the writing is going on on laptops, it makes it a challenge to replicate that experience for visitors. It’s a challenge we embrace.
AL: The question that I really worry about it is whether in 50 years, if someone wanted to write a full-length biography or study of a very important artist, what raw materials would they have? We have the Eddie Cochran collection and you can see lyrics and contracts and receipts and letters and all these things. These things have become digital. Not to mention the recordings are digital and the information that people write about them is becoming more and more digital. How is all that going to be preserved? It’s very complicated. I worry that it just won’t exist and won’t be as easy to organize as paper and other things.