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Rockin’ at the Met with “Play It Loud”: Guitar Action & My Copyright Infraction (with video)

The Eagles may have booted Don Felder out of the band, but he was the one who enjoyed a star turn at the Metropolitan Museum’s memorable press preview for Play it Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll, which opened yesterday (to Oct. 1). Following comments by several rock luminaries (see below), Felder strolled up to the microphone, picked up his trusty double-neck sidekick, and treated us to a bravura performance (backed by a recorded track) from the song that he can put aside any time he likes, but can never leave.

Don Felder, poised to play his double-neck guitar at the Met preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Although the lead vocal on the original recording of “Hotel California” was by Don Henley (who co-wrote the lyrics with the late Glenn Frey), it was Felder who wrote the music and played lead guitar. (He did fine on the vocals at the Met.) It’s one of those perennials that make every crowd go wild when the first notes are sounded. Even the sedate press got into it.

He didn’t really rock out, though, until he finished the (abridged) vocals, switched to the lower neck of his instrument, and played the hell out of it.

I was planning to take you to this Great Moment in Press Preview History with my own CultureGrrl Video, but YouTube blocked it as a copyright violation [?!?]. Sympathetic to my plight, the Met allowed me to use its own video (at the bottom of this post), which has the advantage of much better sound quality.

Here’s the all-star line-up of those who spoke at the press preview:

L to R: Met curator Jayson Kerr Dobney, Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Don Felder, Steve Miller (eponymous band, a member of the Met’s Visiting Committee for Musical Instruments), Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads), Met director Max Hollein
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

If I come off more like a fan than a critic, that’s in keeping with the spirit of the Met’s exhibition, which seems a better fit for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland (where it makes a road trip in November), than for a scholarly institution. The show was co-curated by the Met’s Jayson Kerr Dobney and the Hall of Fame’s Craig Inciardi.

Accorded pride-of-place at the entrance to the show is Chuck Berry‘s 1957 Gibson. He used it to record “Johnny B. Goode,” which is part of the Met’s soundtrack in the first gallery. It “established the electric guitar as the primary instrumental voice of rock and roll,” according to the label:

Gibson Electric Guitar, 1957, Courtesy Joe Edwards, Blueberry Hill, St. Louis
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Other progenitors represented by their guitars include Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Elvis. But where was B.B. King‘s “Lucille” when we really needed her? Looking around at my press-preview colleagues, I ruefully realized that I was one of the few dinosaurs roaming the galleries who had actually sung along with the progenitors’ songs (with the exception of Muddy Waters) on radio and TV, when they were excitingly fresh, not relics.

The label for Chuck-plucked guitar is a great improvement from earlier text that had been posted in our press kit. It provides the kind of detailed information about the instrument’s sounds and how they were produced that seemed wanting from much of this starstruck show.

Here’s an excerpt from that label:

An electric guitar’s pickups use an electromagnetic and wire coil to transmit the vibrations of steel strings to an amplifier as electrical signals. This example is from 1957, when Gibson introduced…humbucking pickups, which have two coils with currents running in opposite directions, canceling (or bucking) an electrical hum that the earlier single-coil pickups could produce.

At the press preview, Jimmy Page deferentially referred to Berry’s guitar as “The Chalice,” saying that the Met’s plan to give it a solo turn at the beginning of the show was what had moved him to cooperate with loans of not only his guitars, but also this unBerry-like costume:

“Dragon Suit,” CoCo Los Angeles, 1975, designed by Jimmy Page, Collection of Jimmy Page
Black crepe jacket and velvet pants with silk embroidery
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s a closeup of the double-neck guitar that the Page mannequin is holding aloft. On it, Page played both the acoustic and electric parts of the Led Zeppelin equivalent to “Hotel California”—the similarly haunting “Stairway to Heaven”:

EDS-1275 Double-Neck, 1971, Collection of Jimmy Page
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Feeling a need for more information about the instruments themselves (as distinguished from their famous owners), I wished I had been accompanied by my California kids—acoustic-engineer CultureDaughter (who understands the interplay between electronics and sound) and her mechanical-engineer husband, who understands guitars’ underlying gadgetry and moonlights as a rock-guitar player. In lieu of a more conventional birthday present this month, I contributed (at his request) some funds for CultureSon-in-Law‘s planned creation of a personal recording studio.

Wanting to give him something more tangible, I also threw in a handbook that (in addition to the show’s catalogue) is being sold in the gift shop at the show’s exit. With brief but insightful entries about 500 examples of “the world’s most seductive instrument: its soul, significance, beauty and magic,” David Schiller‘s $13.95 guitar guide from Workman Publishing provides insights into each instrument’s special qualities that I would have liked to have seen more of in the Met’s own exhibition labels:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

What I’m not going to buy is the Met shop’s $1,399.99 “Met x Jimmy Page Fender Telecaster”—a “reproduction of that legendary instrument…in a first limited run [how many more “limited runs” might there be?] of 50, featuring an exclusive co-branded nameplate and engraved Jimmy Page signature on the neck.”

SERIOUSLY?!?

“Met x Jimmy Page Fender Telecaster,” $1,399.99
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But back to the real deal: I’m not sure if anyone (other than Eddie Van Halen) can explain to me exactly what’s going on with this scary monster:

“Frankenstein,” composite electric guitar, built and painted by Eddie Van Halen, Courtesy Eddie Van Halen
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

According to its label, the “Frankenstein” is composed of: “contoured ash body, maple neck, 25 1/2-inch scale, PAF humbucking pickup at bridge, dummy neck pickup, single volume control, Floyd Rose locking vibrato system, 1971 quarter” [huh?].

Here’s a closer look at this contraption:

And here’s how its label describes it, without describing the special sound that Eddie was going for or how this complicated gizmo achieved it:

We got a breathtaking look at Eddie’s “groundbreaking and unorthodox playing style” in one of the short videos on view in the show’s most engrossing gallery, where he and several other brilliant guitarists (including Keith Richards), discussed their instruments and their craft, and played a few riffs. Also on view were the actual rigs that they engineered to get the sounds they wanted.

Here’s one of the show’s more elaborate set-ups (with guitars), loaned by Tom Morello (bands: Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave), who, according to the label, “is known for both for (sic) his extensive use of effects and for his techniques such as using the kill switch on his guitar—which turns the signal on and off and creates a stutter effect [including the stutter on the exhibition label?]—and scratching the strings with an Allen wrench”:

Collection of Tom Morello
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Although the show is ostensibly about all the “Instruments of Rock & Roll,” the vast preponderance of objects in “Play it Loud” are guitars, and the stars of the show are the virtuosos of that instrument (i.e., Van Halen and Richards), not the frontmen (i.e., not David Lee Roth or Mick Jagger, who was in the news on the day of the press preview because of a then unspecified medical problem that forced the postponement of the Rolling Stones tour).

Non-guitars on view include Clarence Clemons‘ saxophone and pianos used by rock progenitor Jerry Lee Lewis and contemporary star Lady Gaga:

ARTPOP Piano, electrical piano in acrylic case with internal LED lighting, ca. 2014, Courtesy Lady Gaga
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Many of the instruments in the show evoke not only iconic players but also defining moments in rock-ology, including:

—A fragment of a Fender Stratocaster, painted by Jimi Hendrix, that he set on fire and then smashed at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

—The still intact 1968 Fender Stratocaster on which Hendrix famously played his “radical reinterpretation” of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1969 Woodstock Festival:

Courtesy of MoPOP, Seattle
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

—A guitar that Keith Richards received as a 27th birthday present from Eric Clapton, which its new owner later named after a Charles Dickens character:

“Micawber,” Fender Telecaster, 1954, Keith Richards Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Prince‘s outré “Love Symbol” guitar, born out of a contract dispute with his recording label, Warner Brothers, which motivated him to change (as an act of protest) both his name and his instrument to this symbol:

“Love Symbol” guitar, 1993, Courtesy Paisley Park Enterprises & the Estate of Prince Rogers Nelson
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Eric Clapton‘s composite Fender Stratocaster is one of the few guitars mounted in a freestanding case, allowing us to view both its front and its well-worn back:

Eric Clapton’s “Blackie,” ca. 1956-57, assembled ca. 1970, Courtesy of Guitar Center
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

There’s something sad, though, about seeing relegated to silent, static display all these instruments that once came thrillingly alive in the hands of their famous owners.

The museum-ization of this ensemble (with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” playing in the background) is the one that put a lump in my throat:

But enough with nostalgia. Let’s get down with Don, who will not be part of the reconstituted Eagles’ upcoming first-ever concert performance of the entire “Hotel California” album (in Las Vegas, not California), but can take some comfort in yesterday’s release of his own new album.

At the end of this clip (which may bear ads ads placed by the copyright owners on YouTube, which was the source of my embed code), you’ll hear Met director Max Hollein exult that “this was probably the most amazing press conference that we’ve ever had!” Max hasn’t been at the Met long enough to say that, but I’ve been attending Met press previews since the 1970s and, yup, he’s right!

an ArtsJournal blog