I went to a preview of the Met Museum’s latest exhibition, Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll, notable for making it the first art museum to stage a show dedicated entirely to the instruments of rock ‘n roll. The preview email said to expect “special guests”, and, this being New York City and all, those guests were Jimmy Page, Steve Miller, Don Felder (the man behind the Eagle’s most famous guitar riff, Hotel California, which he played for us, in the hallowed halls of the Met) and Tina Weymouth, one part of Talking Heads.
I’d last seen Jimmy Page in New York almost 7 years ago at the press event for Celebration Day. Back then he was talking about his stage set-up for the one-off concert he and the rest of Led Zeppelin were promoting. This time, he was talking about his stage set-up that he’d provided to the Met as part of the exhibition’s offering in Play It Loud. He’d been asked about lending some pieces to the exhibition, which features 130 or so instruments that changed music, by its Head of Musical Instruments. Page said he’d agreed when he was told Chuck Berry’s guitar would greet visitors at the entrance. A “chalice standing there, like the Holy Grail.”
Page’s guitars, lovingly looked after, are among the items in the exhibition. Along with the guitar – ahem, chalice – Berry played Johnny B. Goode on, as well as other groundbreaking pieces. As has been tradition in rock ‘n roll, the exhibition is dominated by men. By Page, by Pete Townsend, by Keith Richards, by Prince, by Tom Morello, by Hendrix. At least some effort has been made to try include women too – that’s why I’m glad Tina Weymouth was at the opening remarks. Quoting civil rights leader Howard Thurman, she spoke about how everyone should be allowed to express their “sound of the genuine.” I agree wholeheartedly, and am happy the show includes “Queen of Rockabilly” Wanda Jackson’s customized Martin D-18, Lady Gaga’s dazzling ARTPOP piano, Patti Smith’s clarinet, and other musical instruments that indicate the role women played – and still play – in rock ‘n roll.
But looking at all the instruments that were preserved from the early ’50s and ’60s, from the likes of Elvis and Buddy Holly, I wondered about the instruments used by women. Were as many of them as carefully preserved? How many have been found and restored? What story could have been pieced together by instruments that may have been long ago discarded, all to minimise women’s role in the bending and shaping of the genre?