"Play It Loud: Instruments Of Rock & Roll"
Photo credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
The Met, "Play It Loud" & New York City's Love Affair With The Electric Guitar
New York is not nice. It is unnatural and otherworldly. There are moments it can be sweet, but at its best, it is jarring. It can be distorted, loud, unpredictable and heavy. It can make you feel like you’re the only person in a crowded room. It can make you feel like you'll never be alone.
In his last interview, conducted during a long afternoon in his apartment on 6th avenue and 14th street, rock critic Lester Bangs was asked how he'd define good rock 'n' roll. He responded, "Rock 'n' roll is like an attitude, it's not a musical form of a strict sort. It's a way of doing things, of approaching things. Like, anything can be rock 'n' roll." He continued: "I mean, writing can be rock 'n' roll or a movie can be rock 'n' roll. It doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with music. It's just a way of living your life, a way of going about things."
By that very definition, a city can be rock 'n' roll, and there is no doubt in my siren-filled, crowded, and oft-broken down subway of a mind that that city is New York.
More recently, and further uptown on 5th avenue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art gave the genre an equally elusive definition: loud. Not "loud" as the description of a sound, however, but as the text narrates on the wall of the "Play it Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll" exhibit, "loud" as "an attitude." Manhattan's fine art institution has backed up that denotation with ample evidence consisting of more than 130 instruments, including rare guitars, bass, drum kits, keys and horns from more than 80 musicians, several rigs used in live performances, videos and even costumes that symbolically signify rock's showy sonics. Powered by five years of negotiations with almost 70 lenders, and a collaboration with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it’s the first major exhibition in an art museum dedicated entirely to instruments of rock 'n' roll.
As I told Jayson Kerr Dobney, the Met’s Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge of Musical Instruments, as we walked through the exhibition with Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower" soundtracking our conversation, that seemed like a hell of a lot of coordinating. He agreed, saying, "Rock 'n' roll has been a favorite art museum topic for years now, but not every art museum has a musical instrument department. We're one of a handful. And so I think it took a place like The Met, which has a department of musical instruments who could kind of leverage that knowledge and those relationships to look at what I think are the most personal and important objects for rock 'n' roll."
Kerr Dobney shared that he wanted to give us audience members, who are primarily used to seeing instruments on stage from very far away, a rare opportunity to examine these iconic objects up close. But that meant not only focusing on the instruments, but the stories behind the people playing them. "That was a new area for me to explore, because the musicianship and musicians are so important to this story."
Many of the instruments displayed are nearly as well-known as their players, garnering enough fame and folklore to gain their own monikers, like Hendrix's "Love Drops," Eric Clapton’s "Blackie," Eddie Van Halen’s "Frankenstein," Jerry Garcia’s "Wolf" and Joan Jett’s "Melody Maker."
"It had to be something very special and important, whether it came from the musician or from a collector, quite frankly," said Kerr Dobney. "That's what we do in the department of musical instruments: We think about instruments and all of their multifaceted ways. Yes, they are musical tools and they're technology, but they are visual icons. They are performance pieces. They are beloved. They inspire music creation."
The exhibit is organized thematically, setting the stage with the Gibson ES-350T Chuck Berry enlisted to record "Johnny B. Goode," and giving Berry earned credit for establishing the electric guitar as the primary voice of rock and roll. Then there’s a space that pays homage to iconic moments in rock ‘n’ roll and the instruments that helped define them like the Ludwig drum set Ringo Starr used to sync a million heartbeats when a little band from Liverpool called The Beatles made their US debut on the Ed Sullivan Show.
There’s a section dedicated to expanding the band that displays a host of instruments utilized in the studio that fall outside of the archetypal four-piece: two electric guitars, one electric bass, and a drum set. Then there’s a room dedicated to creating a sound focused on the electricity, technology and limitless options behind the texture, melodies, and tonal possibilities that make a signature sound possible. The gallery (where I spent an inordinate amount of time posing in front of a "Zoso" emblazoned amplifier) shows off rigs from four distinct guitarists—Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Eddie Van Halen, and Tom Morello—as they would be displayed onstage or in their recording studios.
Eddie Van Halen's red-and-white "Frankenstrat," a.k.a. "Frankenstein" sits front and center.
"It's about how these choices are so important to the musicianship," said Kerr Dobney. "That's the artistry. It's not just which guitar you play and what notes you play, but there's this whole thing about the timbres that you can create and the sounds that you can create and that's so much a part of rock."
Once we’d made the rounds through each theme, from the objects consecrated by '60s guitar gods to the Ernie Ball Music Man that accompanied St. Vincent on her 2017 MASSEDUCTION tour, I asked Kerr Dobney where he thought this whole rock 'n' roll thing was going to go next.
"I think in rock music especially, there's a lot of cycles. You look at the way punk came and took everything back to the original and then grunge came. It just always turns back and forth. I think we don't know, but I think it's exciting. I don't think there's an end to this story."
My favorite moment in the exhibition, another spot where I lingered for too long, then circled back for more, was Jimmy Page’s restored 1959 "Dragon Telecaster." Ash body, maple neck, rosewood fingerboard, and ornamented with a spiraling psychedelic dragon handpainted by Page himself; that alone made it gawk-worthy. However, it’s not what Page played but how he played it that kept me magnetized. First with The Yardbirds, then in the studio for Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut, and, of course, with a violin bow during an experimental and transcendent "Dazed and Confused" guitar solo at New York’s Filmore East in 1969.
See, that’s what I love about the way Page commands the electric guitar. It is not nice. It is unnatural and otherworldly. There are moments when it can be sweet, but at its best, it feels jarring. It can be distorted, loud, unpredictable and heavy. It can make you feel like you're the only person in a crowded room. It can make you feel like you'll never be alone.