About time ’70s and ’80s hard rock – rawk, rather; insert obligatory devil-horn finger gesture here – became recognized as the sophisticated arts medium it merits, all that big-hair and big-sound aesthetic deemed as suitable for the hallowed halls of classy museums as for the sticky linoleum of seedy clubs.
For too long, the theatrical bombast of Kiss, the heavy-chord angst of bands such as Guns N’ Roses and Dokken, and the sly sleeze of Mötley Crüe have been sneered at and spoofed (see “This Is Spinal Tap”) by the effete cultural intelligentsia, dismissed as a mousse-headed stepchild in rock ’n’ roll’s vast and august lineage.
The Carnegie Arts Center in Turlock has add a patina of legitimacy to a genre whose heyday coincided with a long-lost epoch when MTV actually aired videos (kids, ask your parents). This handsome, 18,000-foot space, which in the recent past has displayed the likes of Degas, Picasso and Ansel Adams in its galleries, has let its big hair down with its “Carnegie Rocks!” exhibit.
You’ll see a life-sized mannequin of Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley, fully face-painted, of course, and adorned in the black-and-silver costume with knee-high platform boots that he wore during the band’s 2000 farewell tour. He will be cradling the 1974 Cherry Sunburst Les Paul guitar, the strings that once made the hearts of many teen girls flutter.
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You’ll see the guitars once shredded by the likes of Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, George Lynch of Dokken and Joe Satriani. You’ll see the work of art that is Steve Vai’s “Vai 2K DNA” model, whose designer, noted artisan Darren Johansen, used a few liters of Vai’s blood in the swirled paint finish.
You’ll see drum kits used by Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos at Budokan and by Matt Sorum when Guns N’ Roses incited a riot in St. Louis in 1992 during its “Lose Your Illusion” tour. You’ll see amps used by Van Halen, vintage concert posters, ticket stubs and all manner of rock ephemera.
Museums so often are perceived as staid, sedate places to be held in near-holy artistic reverence. Decorum, and delicate sensibilities, reign. Certainly, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie wasn’t envisioning wailing guitar riffs and head-banging drum solos when he awarded Turlock one of his original 1,600 libraries back in 1916. But times change, dude, so why not turn the knob to 11 and open the Carnegie to a whole new museum-going demographic?
Former curator and executive director Rebecca Philips Abbott, who rightly speaks of the “high bar” for exhibits at the center, nonetheless embraces the foray into glam rock. In fact, it was she who approached Turlock business magnate Matt Swanson about sharing the 40 choicest pieces in the vast rock collection he’s steadily built over the past two decades.
“It’s part of an exhibition series we thought about at the beginning of the Carnegie: that is, to celebrate local collections,” Abbott said. “We’re trying to encourage people to collect and experience that joy of sharing. So it may be postcards. It may be Old Masters. And it may be rock ’n’ roll.”
It is the latter for Swanson, 46, whose family has almost as much of a musical background as it does business acumen. His parents, brothers, children and spouse all are accomplished musicians. In fact, he said, an earlier generation of his family had a gospel band.
“Banjos, strings, the whole deal,” Swanson said. “Of course, our generation, we wanted to play Van Halen. Through my collecting, uh, addiction, I have run into rock stars and different people who’ve owned iconic pieces that I’ve been able to acquire. … I have a desire to kind of curate an era – ’70s and ’80s rock – and speak to that. I look to people who were great guitar players and people I grew up with.”
Cool and all, but is it museum-worthy?
“The tie to a museum is, well, I read that one of the curators of the Smithsonian Institution said that, with the possible exception of the automobile, the guitar is the biggest cultural icon of the 20th century. It’s music and freedom. It’s uniquely American. Even MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York did guitar shows.”
Swanson is no mere guitar-collecting dabbler. He’s spent thousands, major coin, to purchase the axes of guitar heroes, many through auctions for charity and some through private purchase. And it’s not just relics from the musicians he came of age hearing. The exhibit will feature the original 1959 Telefunken microphone used by Les Paul, as well as a guitar Taylor Swift decorated on her bedroom floor when she was a senior in high school.
But we tend to always fall back upon the music of our formative years, and so it is with Swanson. He gets a special gleam in his eyes when he clicks open a guitar case and unsheathes the almost cubist electric Gibson guitar once belonging to Mötley Crüe’s Mars.
“He used this to record ‘Theatre of Pain’ in ’85,” Swanson said. “Great album. Had ‘Home Sweet Home’ on it. At the end of the session, he broke a string, the little ‘e’ string. He gave the guitar to the producer, Tom Werman. He left it with the broken string. I’m leaving it the same way.”
The public will see only a smidgen of Swanson’s holdings. He collects guitars the way some collect modern art. That’s because Swanson considers the instruments as such.
“These are hand-hewn,” he said of his favorites. “They use special materials. Some guys make just one a month. One a year. There’s an art form there and then they produce art with music. It’s an obsession. If I buy an acoustic, I fly in a person who’s an expert luthier who has tools to measure the thickness of the finish, puts on a light and looks inside. I mean, you don’t know what we go through.”
Swanson is making a name for himself among collectors. He’s not quite in the league of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who’s opened the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle.
“He outbid me for the Derek and the Dominoes (Eric) Clapton strat (Stratocaster),” Swanson said. “Any (Jimi) Hendrix stuff, Paul Allen’s going to buy it. A few guys with a tremendous amount of money will buy all Beatles stuff.”
But Swanson’s definitely a player in the rock collections world. And, yeah, he does play guitar, too. Played some Doobie Brothers at his daughter’s wedding reception a couple of weeks back (his daughter played drums).