New York City: This Museum Rocks

Photo by Matthew Peyton
Photo by Matthew Peyton

NOTE: The Rock & Rock Hall of Fame Annex has announced that it will close as of Jan. 3, 2010.

The urinal encased behind glass at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex in New York may not have the artistic cachet of one by French Dadaist Duchamp. But this particular piece of porcelain has a punk rock pedigree of the highest order: It was taken from CBGB, the now defunct club on New York’s Lower East Side that helped launch the careers of the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and Talking Heads.

The presence of a toilet among more recognizable pop-rock touchstones — one of Eric Clapton’s guitars, a beaded glove that belonged to Michael Jackson, a bustier of Madonna’s from the early ‘90s — adds an appropriately irreverent tone to the proceedings at the SoHo-based annex.

This year-old offshoot of the Hall of Fame’s main museum in Cleveland, however, doesn’t even try to represent all the greats. David Bowie, for example, barely gets a mention. Like a good jukebox, there’s plenty of stuff worthy of a spin, including a decent overview of the genre’s roots and history, and a section giving props to Manhattan’s preeminent role in making rock stars of ordinary musicians.

The current special exhibit, “John Lennon: The New York City Years,” which has a tentative January closing date, goes a bit deeper by offering a fascinating — and moving — window on the ex-Beatles’ last decade. By Lennon’s own account, his time living in the Dakota on Manhattan’s Central Park West was one of the happiest periods of his life, and it included the birth of his son, Sean, and a musical comeback with the album, “Double Fantasy.”

The Lennon section, which was co-created by Yoko Ono, covers matters personal, political and artistic, and ends on a heartbreaking note with the brown bag used for Lennon’s personal effects from when he was killed by a crazed fan outside his apartment building in December 1980.

Both in the Lennon exhibit and the main collection, music is integral to the Annex experience. Each visit starts off with a multimedia introduction to rock, replete with archival footage and surround sound. Included with the cost of admission is an individual headset that triggers various song snippets as you stroll among the exhibits.

The biggest — and perhaps the best — set piece is built around Bruce Springsteen’s 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible, his ride during the recording of “Born to Run.” The play list cues up the album cut “Thunder Road,” conjuring images of the young Springsteen cruising the streets of Jersey before he came to be known as The Boss.

From this famous musical native son of the Garden State, it’s just a short hop to “New York Rocks,” an interactive 3-D map spotlighting the city’s role in nurturing talent, as well as some of the excesses of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. You can push a button to see the location of two dozen main sites, as well as 20 other locations, and get a Wikipedia-like overview of who played — or partied — there.

Early rock keystones like Midtown’s Brill Building, where songwriters such as Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Neil Diamond churned out hits in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and the RCA studio where Elvis recorded “Don’t Be Cruel” b/w “Hound Dog, are highlighted, as are Andy Warhol’s original Factory on East 47th Street, and the Bottom Line, a key early venue for Springsteen, as well as DEVO, the Police and Elvis Costello.

Both “New York Rocks” and the Lennon exhibit serve as reminders of the world of music — and the real sights that nurtured it — that await just around the corner in New York.

Unfortunately, many have been razed or suffered the fate of CBGB, which closed in 2006. The spot, like so many grungy landmarks of our time, has gone upscale, as a John Varvatos designer boutique.

35 replies on “New York City: This Museum Rocks”

  1. Fantastic article! Thanks for covering this. I’ve been planning to visit the R&R annex, and heard very positive things about the John Lennon exhibit. Thanks to your description, my husband & I are definitely putting it on our “must see” list before the end of the year! If only we could still go to CBGB for a drink afterwards…

  2. My love affair with NYC reads like a gothic romance. I moved there from Philadelphia for a job in the fashion biz at the age of twenty-six, determined not to fall for the Big Apple. Living on the Upper West Side just a few blocks from John and Yoko, I discovered that New York City is more than Broadway, the Empire State Building and Greenwich Village. It is a city of seductive neighborhoods, each one with its own unique soundtrack, foods and local color. Every night, I walked from my apartment at 83rd and Central Park West down to 68th Street and returned via Columbus Avenue. Every night, I fell in love. With the architecture, the skyline over Central Park, the sidewalk cafes on Columbus, the boutiques and the people. Ethnically, the Upper West Side is a former Jewish neighborhood that absorbed Cuban immigrants, then wave upon wave of actors, dancers and academics. You want the best bagel in Manhattan? Go to H&aH at 80th & Broadway. Want to mingle with the Glitterati and get a side of slaw? Try Zabar’s on a Saturday or Sunday morning.

    I moved back to Philly after five years, but my love affair with the Upper West Side lingers on. Whenever I’m in the city, I find an excuse to return to Columbus Avenue, to wander through its flea markets, its throbbing sidewalks and rediscover my first Big City romance.

  3. Hubby and I had a weekend away from the kids and were excited to see as much of NYC as we possibly could. Yet, once we stepped into MoMA, we just couldn’t leave! We saw more of MoMA than anything else in NYC and still don’t regret it.

  4. Just a few weeks ago I fell in love with NY all over again after walking down 28th Street through the wholesale flower market, a riot of activity, color and fragrance that made my whole day wonderful.

  5. In his essay “Reflections on Journalism,” H. L. Mencken wrote, “Looking back over a dull life, mainly devoted to futilities, I can discern three gaudy and gorgeous years…” He was describing his time as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore. My “gaudy and gorgeous years” took place in New York City where I lived, working as a freelance writer, for several years.

    I knew I’d miss Manhattan when I left—movies at the Film Forum, Pollock at the Guggenheim, Titian at the Met, BLT’s at Fanelli Café. What took me by surprise were my acute longings for my writing-related activities: the poetry readings I participated in at the Cornelia Street Café, sitting in on lectures at the Cherry Lane Theatre and trekking across town to workshop with my writer’s group. I didn’t see these opportunities as gaudy and gorgeous at the time, but as I have settled into a life in the over-hyped bling of South Beach, I have come to realize how superb they truly were.

  6. I love crossing the Manhattan Bridge at night by subway or car. The lights of the skyline on the other side, the energy emanating from both sides of the river, the pulsating feeling of “Anything can happen!”… It always reminds me of why I love (and sometimes hate) this city and why, ten years later, I cannot leave.

  7. I am a native New Yorker born and raised in The Bronx. Although I’m now living in Bucks County PA I haven’t forgotten my New York ways and mannerism. I still try to order a coffee light in Starbucks and all corner grocery stores are bodegas.

    One of the things I love the best are the smells of the city. I know, sounds a bit strange but walking near Herald Square heading downtown on a summer’s evening and you are magically transported to Korean. Even the diry water hotdog stands (as my father insisted on calling them) and the guys roasting chestnuts makes me nostalgic.

    And, can I get a shout out for black and white cookies?

  8. Devo at The Bottom Line conjures up all sorts of memories, while capturing what NYC rock ‘n roll was all about. For this former NYU student, The Bottom Line was in my backyard and waiting on line for Devo tickets — with some beer in tow — was a big part of the experience. Crazy Devo kicked ass on stage, delivering catchy, offbeat rock. Running all over the joint, the band, decked out in its crazy costumes, captivated the audience which felt it was witnessing a new phenomenon — a freak show even by NY standards. I know it’ll make me sound like a graybeard, but to this former Village denizen, The Bottom Line and the wonderfully awful CBGBs represented the best of times, for me and for NYC rock ‘n roll.

    1. Hear ye! Hear ye! The Bottom Line and CBGB’s– and don’t forget the Palladium! — remind me of the whole ’80s NYU/Village scene. Blondie. Talking Heads. The Ramones. And, the great used record shops on Bleecker Street. And pickup basketball near The Waverly. And… sigh.

  9. I love living in NYC and have yet to tire of playing tourist. A few weeks ago, a young cousin and I walked through the Central Park Zoo in the rain. We had the place pretty much to ourselves. By sheer dumb luck, we timed things well: saw the sea lions and penguins fed, and the Delacorte musical clock as it struck 4. We were eager to pet some animals, so went to the children’s zoo as well. I hadn’t been to either zoo in a long time and found the exhibits much improved. More natural settings and more room for the animals.

  10. One of my absolute favorite memories of NY, comes from the late 1960s. When my father, a paint sprayer for Westinghouse, would come home from work early so we can pick up my mother at work at S. Klein’s on 14th Street at Union Square. We would drive over the 59th Street Bridge from Ridgewood–a neighborhood where we always had sight of the Empire State Building. My sister and I would pile into the black Comet back seat with roll down windows, of course, and with the directional signal noises so distinct. I remember taking some of the most restful naps to the ting-ting of the rhythmic signals on long rides. Any how, my memories of Kleins, as we called it, where my mother was a book keeper, is filled with sounds and smells of NY. Union Square was always busy. It was a circle of cars–mostly exhaust from the city buses and dirt. People would cross the busy intersection in every-which way ignoring lights and signals. We would park the car, sometimes at a meter, and run in to meet my mom. We would look at the shoes, the toys, the clothes, as we sped through the store. Kleins was a landmark at that time. Afterwards, we would go to the Automat. The food was in abundance here. I clearly remember the wall, where sandwiches and snacks were displayed in windowed boxes. I would be overwhelmed as a 6 year old…staring at all of the choices. “Should I get a grill cheese or a hot dog? …how did they do that? Who is putting all of those food items in those windows? And, look at how many of them there are.” I couldn’t even get my head around the concept. Afterwards, my mom liked to take us to Woolworth’s for a banana split. That was such a treat. We would sit at the luncheonette counter and be served always by a tired-looking, yet sassy lady with a hair net and an apron. Woolworth’s smelled of burned popcorn and grill cheese always when we walked in. Sometimes we would wander down the block and look at the dress stores. My sister and I would pick out the dresses and say “This is what I am going to wear when I grow up.” My dress was always fitted on top and had a full toole skirt–very Cinderella-like in appearance. The mannequins all looked like Barbie dolls. These are great memories. It always seemed like such an easy-going time for us as kids growing up in NY. I loved going to Union Square. Great memories…Donna

  11. There are lots of great things about NYC…but what really makes it special is the overall VIBE. It’s got enormous energy (as do London and Paris). And this is more important than any specific attraction in the city.

  12. Yesterday I took my five month old granddaughter for a two hour baby carriage tour
    of Brooklyn Heights with an architectural history focus. In my hand I had a xeroxed chapter on the sites and houses, and I read her the captions as we walked along. The biggest thrill was reaching the Promenade, where we could look across the East River, maybe a half mile, to the tall buildings of Lower Manhattan. We saw the orange Staten Island Ferry move slowly across the water in front of the Statue of Liberty, and I told Cordelia that some of my fondest memories of New York were riding the Staten Island Ferry. My immediate family moved 300 miles away when I was 7, and that only intensified my love of New York. During summers and holidays I would figure out a way to stay with family members, and come into the city. In college I began expand my exploration of New York with friends, and grew to love the Met, the MOMA, evening concerts at historic churches, eating a little restaurants on side streets, and walking up Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to the Met. Later I wrote about the literary sites and took a number of guided walks. In the past decade, I’ve discovered Central Park. If you are going from the East to West Side or vice versa, do take the winding drive that goes across the park near the Met. It’s gorgeous. Central Park is huge, and every weekend there’s a free walk through one of the sections. I’ve been on the “Dairy Farm” tour, but plan to take others. There’s so much to love that I could go on and on.

  13. What makes New York special is the unexpected. The everyday and quotidian
    don’t seem to exist here. You’re walking down Grove Street in the West
    Village and suddenly you spy a courtyard with homes behind an iron-wrought fence
    with smells of fried eggs wafting through. Or the guy standing in front of the 12th
    Street and Seventh Avenue subway stop is playing John Coltrane’s “Body and Soul”
    and that song haunts you through the day. And though that guy wasn’t Coltrane,
    it sparked Nighttrain’s memory. Or the guy next to you on line at Starbucks
    suddenly asks if you’re a Yankee or Mets fan, and when you say both,
    gets into an argument with you. Nothing in New York is repetitious; it’s one
    long spontaneous exercise in the improvisational moment.

  14. I miss my old friend (she was more than 40 years my senior), Helene Hanff, who wrote the wonderful “Apple of my Eye”, chronicling her adventures playing tourist in the city where she had lived since the 1930’s. I joined her to explore the then-new South Street Seaport, which she was including in her sequel. I still enjoy going down there when I am in New York (like Helene, I’m a native Philadelphian, but I still live in my old hometown), emerging from the tight visual cacophony of the Lower East side, through the stone sentries of Schermerhorn Row, into the openness of the Seaport riverfront, looking across to Brooklyn Heights. It’s a spot to view two centuries of New York’s physical history-the tall ships, the early nineteenth century commercial buildings, the Victorian triumph of the Brooklyn Bridge, the mid-twentieth century highway across the river, and the hundred year timeline to the present of the skyscrapers in the Financial District. Breathe deep, and drink in the sites while you breathe in the smell of fresh caught seafood for sale in the Market.

  15. I have only been there once as a child. I would love to go back. Many places to see that I haven’t been to. Plus great food!

  16. what makes NYC special is the so many things to see and do and of course so many restaurants to pick from. I’m in NJ and every month my fiance and I go into the city to see a broadway play which you can’t get the selection by me or the beautiful views and the different cultures all wrapped up in one beautiful city. I’ll never move far from the city and if i do i will make sure i go back every year since there is no where else like it in the world!

  17. I love taking my kids into the city, they have such a unique perspective. We always have one big planned event, but that is never the highlight. Things happen, we wander around, and stumble on some thing or some place that becomes one of the talked about memories. That’s so New York, the unexpected little surprises.

  18. On the plaza outside New York’s City Hall a band was performing wedding-reception standards before a lunchtime audience. The lead singer had a wireless microphone and as the band played on, he stepped from the stage into the crowd and began pushing the mic into people’s faces. He did this in turn to half a dozen or so people. Every single one of them took the cue and picked up the song in progress. What surprised me was that each could sing as well or better than the band. There was no reluctance. That was my first time in New York, long ago, and I left thinking the city was populated by vocalists who loved the spotlight. I loved that.

  19. New York City is the most amazing place in the world. I’m extremely proud to be able to say that I was born there. I just wish I could have grown up there. NYC has so many wonderful things for people to see and do. It’s the original and true melting pot of the US. You can experience so many cultures in one place. It’s just perfect.

  20. Film Forum
    Film Forum is Mecca for the world’s movie lovers. You can find movies here that you’ve read about online or in the New York Times. You’ll find provocative indie features, documentaries, and the best foreign films.

  21. Can anyone think of a reason why New York is not Special?
    What was special for me during the 5 years i spent there in the early 90’s?

    1. Skating at the Wollman Rink every New Years Day! My friends almost killed me one year when the wind chill was -20F! It was worth the 1hour wait at the gate!
    2. Eating Moshe’s Falafel on 46th Street at least once a week!
    3. Shakespeare in the Park! Every year!
    4. Paul Simon Concert in Central Park… cant remember if it was 1992 or 1993.
    5. My first Broadway Show – Cats! Couldn’t afford the Orchestra seats but when a visitor- friend offered to pay for it, i was overjoyed!
    6. The daily commute from Flushing Meadows to Mid-town Manhattan especially during USTA. Loved to witness the tennis matches with the comfortable feeling that we were just 10minutes away from our apartment!
    7. Bumping into a Spyrogyra Concert at South Street Seaport one year… don’t remember the year but the music still lingers on.
    8. Walking down 5th Avenue on a bright summer day watching the world go by…..
    9. Our first Ethiopian meal at an authentic Ethiopian Restaurant in the Village.
    10. My first Helicopter ride from 34th Street heliport which took us around the WTC and stood hovering right next to the ” Windows of the World”!
    11. My first induction into Jazz music at the Blue Note. Had never seen anything like it before.

    What i remember New York most for? I gave up smoking since there was not enough time for it!

  22. There are many things about New York that I love, but the most incredible thing there besides Wall Street, shopping, Broadway, etc., is the PIZZA!! New York has the best pizza of any place in the world.

    1. Unfortunately, it’s not a rumor! We’ve updated our article to reflect the Annex’ demise. — The Editors

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