Fifteen years ago this weekend, I was staying in Kent with some friends. Our Labor Day weekend events had been planned for a couple months, but it didn’t portend the extraordinary: dinners, hiking, bumming around town, and maybe even a ride out to Geauga Lake were the call of the day.
I hadn’t planned to be in Cleveland at all, despite my extensive concert going, pop music writing and acute awareness that The Concert for the Hall of Fame would happen there while I was absent. The final, all-star rock concert held at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium was the culmination of the Grand Opening weekend for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum - and it looked to be a doozy.
Chuck Berry. Bruce Springsteen. Johnny Cash. The Kinks. Aretha Franklin. Bob Dylan. The Allman Brothers Band. James Brown. Jerry Lee Lewis. Iggy Pop. Lou Reed. George Clinton. Little Richard. And dozens of others. A once in a lifetime event, to be sure.
Before the weekend arrived, I thought we’d just catch the tail-end of the simulcast on HBO. But as the weekend drew closer, I couldn’t bear the thought of missing one of the best concert line-ups Cleveland had ever seen - and in a stadium no less, one with its days decidedly numbered. By that Saturday morning, I had managed to undo the day’s plans. I dragged one of my friends back to Cleveland to score some tickets for the all-day (and all of the night) event. We piled into her gold 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and left Kent for Cleveland.
Much to her chagrin, I might add. They were her plans after all. But she was still a good sport about it.
It was a gorgeous Cleveland day. Couldn’t have been better in fact - as if Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Janis Joplin and the recently departed Jerry Garcia held sway with the weather gods. Rolling up I-77 and straight into town, the sun exposed a striking skyline, one that paired the Terminal Tower with Jacobs Field -offering a bit of foreshadowing on at least the marathon concert’s audience.
We parked near the gleaming Galleria - which, at the time, was a bustling new shopping venue with quite the buzz - and headed for the mall’s escalator facing East Ninth Street where a Ticketmaster counter was once installed underneath. Not surprisingly, all of the “cheap seats” were long gone. But by this time, I had made our decision for us and was not to be denied. My friend gasped as I dropped over $300.00 (a mere pittance, given the cost of rock spectacles these days) on a pair of great box seats in the upper deck. At the time, “comps” for the show were hard to come by, even for a working journalist like me who had previewed the opening weekend for Northern Ohio Live. I would later snag an Event Staff lanyard from a college friend who was working as an usher there.
This great 2 o’clock view gave us a clear shot of the stage, and our section was full. Our best guess was price didn’t keep people away. In the end, it was one of the greatest single-day investments I ever made. While the epic, 68-song concert on a famously rotating stage had its lags, the superstar pairings on stage during those six hours and 40 minutes would never be heard again.
Prior to show time, the grand dame of Lake Erie (Cleveland Municipal Stadium) looked and felt every bit of its 64 years. But when Berry, Springsteen and the E. Street Band kicked off the show with a spirited rendition of “Johnny B. Goode,” the stadium itself seemed to perk up.
While alternative rock was certainly king at the time, everyone in attendance knew they were witnessing history. With each new musical pairing, the stadium’s whole posture improved - the multi-generational crowd of some 65,000 rock fans following suit. John Mellencamp teaming with Martha Reeves for Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” had everyone standing up straight. The Band’s Robbie Robertson (with Sheryl Crow, Dr. John and Booker T & the MG’s) doing “The Weight” pushed everyone’s shoulders back. And Jackson Browne and Melissa Etheridge offering The Everly Brothers’ hit, “Wake Up, Little Susie” made everyone smile.
While the sound was very typical of any Municipal Stadium concert I had been to - with FM radio anthems careening around the cavernous, open-air marvel of the 1930s - the sight was expectedly grand and the talent on that stage seemed to rise to the occasion.
None of us knew it at the time, but this was an occasion bearing unusual gifts. The Rock Hall had gifted us with several personal artist goodbyes. The Concert for the Hall of Fame delivered the last meaningful stop for several marquee acts that graced the stage there. The Man in Black performed “Folsom Prison Blues” and a spirited “Ring of Fire” with Mellencamp, never to return here again. The Kinks managed “All Day and All of the Night” and “Lola” for the appreciative crowd before a 15-year disbanding that holds pat today. The dearly departed Godfather of Soul, who never made it back to Cleveland after Labor Day ’95, either, offered “Cold Sweat,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).”
A two-disc audio summary of the concert exists, and the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Live DVD (Time-Life) offers a Cliffs Notes version of it as well. Thanks to the magic of eBay, nothing will beat breaking out my bootleg DVD of the complete show as it was offered on HBO. At least it didn’t cost $300. Anyone remember that Jon Stewart hosted the special? He wasn’t so gray (or fashionable) back then. Watching those DVDs today, I still get chills. Franklin hasn’t belted out “Natural Woman” like that since. Eric Burdon rocking his Animals hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” with Bon Jovi revitalized the song with stunning, blue-collar life. Al Green never sang “Tired of Being Alone” better, and The Pretenders (led by Akron’s Chrissie Hynde) positively killed with “My City was Gone” and Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done.”
The concert seemed to exist outside of the alternative revolution we were all immersed in thanks to the late Kurt Cobain, who had died the year before. With last minute cancellations by Seattle grunge rockers Alice in Chains and rappers Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, the gig played out more like the end of an era than the beginning of a new one, and never really addressed the impact of Seattle or rap on the rock music happening at that time.
Intergenerational collaborating happened, for sure. We had Sheryl Crow, Soul Asylum, Gin Blossoms and Slash from Guns N’ Roses. But it never really felt like a baton handoff. It felt like living history. The weathered, smiling faces of rockers like Berry, Lewis, Dylan, Little Richard, John Fogerty and Gregg Allman seemed to bear this out. Even my once skeptical friend was caught up in the narrative by the end, reveling in the mystique of the day.
The epic night didn’t end with a rumored all-star jam. Chuck Berry did deliver a frayed “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” before the house lights came up at 2:13 am, but it was still memorable.
What has happened for the Rock Hall in the 15 years since has been far more impressive.
For one thing, the institution endures, just like the music. The Rock Hall just welcomed its eight millionth visitor, and the institution’s adjacent Foundation in New York just produced a $5 million endowment fund for the museum. Which means it will continue to endure. Future plans for on- and off-site expansion are under way, including a new 22,500-square-foot Library and Archives set to open later this year at the Cuyahoga Community College Metro Campus, two miles southeast of the Rock Hall. After years of complaining by long-suffering fans here, induction ceremonies were held here in 2009 and will happen in Cleveland every third year at Cleveland’s Public Auditorium, a legendary venue due for an $8 million expansion/ renovation through the Medical Mart/ Convention Center project.
Then there’s this weekend’s Rock Hall Ball, a 15th anniversary celebration with live music, libations and a VIP party honoring Senator George Voinovich for helping bring the Rock Hall to Cleveland. You can learn more about the shindig at www.rockhall.com.
Fifteen years already, though. Sheesh. We’ve lost Johnny Cash, James Brown and Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Hell, even that friendship of mine is long gone. But look at how far rock and roll, and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, has come. The institution that cemented this day, this music and experience in my heart and mind carries on.
As Hall of Famer Robert Clark “Bob” Seger once rasped, rock and roll never forgets.