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.