So you want to be a rock and roll star

Ringo Starr's Ludwig drum kit at the Met Museum. Photo: Jon Friedman
By Jon Friedman

You don’t come face to face with greatness too often. But there it was, right in front of my eyes: Ringo Starr’s iconic Ludwig drum kit from his days in The Beatles. A few feet away, I spied the guitar that Buddy Holly (probably) used to write “Everyday” and other hits.

Guitars played by the likes of Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia and Chuck Berry are on display as well. Musical instruments of all kinds — even a lone sitar — have found their way into the hallowed halls of Metropolitan Museum of Art for a new must-see exhibit entitled “Play It Loud.” In all, about 130 instruments are featured.

The exhibit — done in conjunction with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — grandly accomplishes a museum’s primary goals for both snobs and novices: educate, inform, inspire and entertain.

The central idea was for the Met to celebrate “the musical instruments that gave rock and roll its signature sound,” as an accompanying coffee-table book notes.

Like all ambitious exhibits, “Play It Loud” contains something for everyone. If you play an instrument in a serious way, you can appreciate the artistry of the pieces themselves and imagine yourself trying your hand on them. If you’re a cultural historian, you can learn about the origins of these figures. And if you’re a youngster who thinks Clapton is most famous for doing the song “Tears in Heaven” and John Lennon’s signature accomplishment was the Utopian anthem “Imagine,” you can begin to understand what the fuss was all about way back in the Sixties, and that the great guitar innovator of his time spelled his name with that curious style of “J-i-m-i,” as in “Hendrix.”

The exhibit’s most noteworthy achievement is offering up something special that is rich in nostalgia, without drowning us in it. The trip down memory lane is, at its core, fun. And that counts for a lot.

Still, not everyone is pleased. Dave Davies, the lead guitarist of The Kinks and the innovator behind the historic distorted guitar solo in “You Really Got Me,” loudly griped that he and his band had not been represented.

“I was very upset that they didn’t realize the potency and power of the Kinks,” Davies told a reporter. “It was a potent force in rock ‘n’ roll, and to leave out the Kinks and the lead-guitar sound was kind of regrettable.”

(The museum must’ve been thrilled to get the publicity, so if your rock and roll group was also left out, the museum encourages you to make your case all over social media.)

Also, in the Nobody’s Perfect Dept., I spotted a factual error. The exhibit displayed a guitar played by the beloved Jerry Garcia at the final Grateful Dead concert. But the museum mistakenly pointed out that the concert took place in 1996 — several months after Garcia died — instead of 1995, the proper year. (A spokesman for the museum assured me that it would fix the gaffe ASAP.)

According to the Met, the exhibition’s benefactors include the John Pritzker Family Fund, the Estate of Ralph L. Riehle, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, Diane Carol Brandt, the Paul L. Wattis Foundation, Kenneth and Anna Zankel, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Some might quibble, too, that the Met, one of the great names in all of New York City culture, might be the wrong place to house such an exhibit for the masses. They miss the point that rock and roll is by now bread for the establishment as well as the anthem of the world’s youth (or is that now the province of hip-hop?). People like Jerry Garcia and Eric Clapton have instant name recognition and are revered for their prowess and longevity. They are heroes all over the world. Their instruments are part of history.

Come to think of it, anybody who would criticize the Met for this terrific exhibit would seem to be out of touch with the popular culture’s rhythms (and, yes, blues) for the past six decades.