Jim Henke is on the hunt again.
The chief curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland is busy putting the finishing touches on a major exhibit opening in May to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Summer of Love.
As with all the museum’s exhibits, it’s Henke’s responsibility to track down and secure the wide variety of artifacts and memorabilia that will bring a chapter of rock history back to life for museum-goers.
With the aid of consultants ranging from author Tom Wolfe to lysergic harlequin Wavy Gravy, Henke already has assembled more than 400 objects reflecting the era, including Janis Joplin’s psychedelically painted Porsche, Jerry Garcia’s “Acid Test” diploma and many of the outfits worn by performers at Woodstock.
But pulling bits and pieces of rock ‘n’ roll’s history into a museum setting is always a challenge.
“In the art world, if a museum is doing a Picasso exhibit, they generally know where all the Picassos are and who to talk to to get hold of them,” says the affable former Rolling Stone editor, in Los Angeles for a day to discuss a museum film project.
“But when we’re looking for artifacts, they could be anywhere--with a family, with a collector, in a warehouse. There aren’t any other rock ‘n’ roll museums to call. Everything we do is being done for the first time. It’s sometimes a struggle, but it stays interesting.”
A Cleveland native whose pride in his hometown was stoked by the establishment of the museum, Henke spent 16 years with Rolling Stone and a year as a vice president at Elektra Records before signing on as curator in January of 1994. Since then it has been his responsibility to decide how rock ‘n’ roll’s history should be presented at the museum, which opened to the public in 1995.
“I wanted to appeal to a lot of different kinds of rock fans, and I think we’ve done that,” he says. “Some people come to see the iconic stuff--John Lennon’s ‘Sgt. Pepper’ costume or Elvis’ black leather suit. Others become real students--they spend four or five hours poring over lyric manuscripts and personal papers.”
Among the papers Henke has pulled together for the museum’s permanent exhibit are such curios as a faux-newspaper journal called the Daily Howl kept by a preteen Lennon, the commencement address Jim Morrison delivered to his sixth-grade class, and one of Keith Moon’s grade school report cards, which gives the drummer-to-be a high mark in music class but notes that he is “inclined to play the fool.”
Larger artifacts include Bootsy Collins’ mirrored bass, Rolling Stones stage sets and a painstakingly replicated version of the legendary Sun Records studio that includes the piano Jerry Lee Lewis used for his early recordings.
Henke’s job frequently finds him on the hunt for such items and he tries to go to as personal a source as possible.
“We like to go to the artists themselves, or their families, and it’s usually amazing what’s been saved. The Everly Brothers’ mom had rooms of stuff--she’d saved everything. Jim Morrison’s mother and father gave us a lot of very personal stuff. Howlin’ Wolf’s widow gave us the special bag he used to carry his money in. Each artist’s family is usually very happy that there’s a place for that artist at the museum.”
But some artists are not ready or willing to think of themselves as museum exhibits. Yoko Ono has made a great deal of Lennon’s effects available, but the other Beatles have been less forthcoming. And among the curator’s “Holy Grails” for the museum is a larger exhibit on the work of Bob Dylan, who has not yet been interested in contributing to the museum.
“I think it would be great to have some of Dylan’s original lyric manuscripts,” Henke says. “But I think a lot of artists run into the big question, ‘If I’m still living, do I want to be in a museum?’ That’s especially true for younger bands. In the case of R.E.M., Michael Stipe toured the museum and really liked it, and Peter Buck is a big collector, but they feel their career is still happening and they’re not ready to be part of an exhibit.”
As a journalist, Henke had the opportunity to meet scores of famous rockers face to face. But he allows that there’s still a special thrill when those rockers’ priceless, personal belongings make it into his hands.
“It really is exciting to see some of these bits of rock history,” he says. “We have a little piece of paper with a handwritten list of the names of all the people the Beatles wanted on the cover of ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ When I get the chance to look at something like that, I can’t help but think, ‘I have a very cool job.’ ”