By Dick Boak
My wife Susan and I were quite fortunate to be invited to the opening reception of the Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on April 1 (no fooling), 2019. I was tempted to revive one of my hippie outfits from the 60s for the event but decided instead to take the higher road with a jacket and at least a Jerry Garcia tie!
As we climbed the steps at the entrance, it was clear that this was going to be a special night. The enormous lobby, or Great Hall, was packed to the gills and we were almost immediately greeted by Jayson Kerr Dobney, curator of Musical Instruments and of this unique exhibition.
Other familiar members of the department staff together with music industry VIPs and supporters of the museum congregated in groups in the lobby, sampling hors d'ouevours and champagne. We edged our way over to the entrance of Play It Loud to catch famed Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page walking by with his entourage. I snapped a quick iPhone photo and we entered the exhibit.
(L) a blurry iphone photo of Jimmy Page at the exhibit! (R) Dick Boak with POLICE guitarist Andy Summers at Play It Loud
The winding path through the exhibit was so crowded that it was difficult to see every display close up or absorb the tremendous scope of so many iconic instruments. In a long series of inter-connected rooms, guitars, basses, music memorabilia and assorted gear from the rock n’ roll era graced the walls. Iconic instruments played by early rockers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly shared space with classic music legends such as Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Joan Jett, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Patti Smith, and of course Jimmy Page (whose slightly skeptical hand I shook as he came around a corner). There were so many more famous instruments than can be mentioned here individually, but some of the key highlights for me included Ringo Starr’s “BEATLES” drum set, a very unusual Lady Gaga keyboard, a beautifully psychedelic hand-painted Steve Miller electric guitar, and Eric Clapton’s priceless MTV Unplugged Martin acoustic. One review I read noted that any one of these instruments would make a stunning statement and display, yet together, the summation seemed “over-whelming.” I suppose that’s not a terrible word for such a well-curated show.
(L) Ringo Starr's Beatles drum set with George Harrison's first electric guitar
(R) Steve Miller's psychedelic painted electric guitar
It took about a half-hour to squeeze our way through. Along the way, I encountered Andy Summers of The Police and several other friends from the music industry. Coming back into the Great Hall, Questlove and Black Thought were performing with their Grammy Award-winning band The Roots, blasting out high decibels of funk-rock and rap while excited onlookers crowded around the stage taking iPhone videos. Don Felder of The Eagles, famous for his Hotel California double-neck guitar solo joined the band for a cameo performance, as did “The Gangster of Love” Steve Miller who performed an inspired and extended version of his hit song “Fly Like An Eagle” to a very appreciative crowd.
I must confess that for a relatively conservative institution, I have never witnessed such a dichotomy between the art world establishment and the raucous rock ‘n rollers. I suppose this is appropriate given the subject matter, let alone the “Play It Loud” title. It’s wonderful that the baby boomer’s musical contributions are being acknowledged in such high-profile settings, but it is clearly equally valuable to a museum like the Metropolitan in bringing newer and younger audiences through the doors and into the fold. If you haven’t seen the exhibit, make sure to do so before it closes on October 1st. I’m sure it will be slightly less crowded, and oh yeah, Rock On!
Dick Boak was employed by The Martin Guitar Company from 1976 until his retirement in 2018. He initiated many Signature Edition guitar projects, managed Artist Relations, and extended Martin’s Museum and Archives. He is now immersed in art, music, travel, and organizing the archives for his legendary neighbor, Mario Andretti.