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That time I was kicked out of the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame

A younger me basking in the glory of an enormous Joshua Tree banner at the Rock Hall.

Comparatively speaking, I’m a youngish U2 fan. I fell for them in 2001, at the end of my senior year in high school; by the time I entered college, a full-fledged obsession had begun. This was mostly due to the fact I saw my first U2 concert that same year, sending me into a fandom spiral of no return. The fact I got to see them that year at all is sort of a miracle.

I remember exactly where I was the moment I first heard about the show–it was night, and I was driving the country way home. I just happened to have my radio on when someone mentioned U2 was playing at the Savvis Center in St. Louis. I sped home like a storm of devils was after me and found out tickets were going on sale in a matter of days. I called up my concert-going friend and asked if she wanted to come with, and she was game. It all happened ridiculously fast, with a string of green lights that seemed to wave me in the direction of musical destiny. The show was November 28th, and it was the fourth-last date of the Elevation tour. I made it under the wire by four tour dates. 

It remains the single concert that changed everything for me. Before that, I really hadn’t dove into anything outside of boy bands, because I was sheltered and didn’t know any better. Post September 11th, U2 was the driving force that helped me grow up. Their music, and that show, opened up an entire world to me. The band exposed me to ideas, music, and culture I wouldn’t have necessarily discovered on my own (or until much later) and for that, I owe them more than I can probably ever know.

ImageFast-forward to my absolute U2 fandom initiation/mudslide. I went through their entire catalog, buying up each CD slowly to savor each one along the way. There was no record store near me, so I generally bought most from a now-defunct CD store in the mall, and from big box chain stores like Circuit City. My first U2 album was their latest, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, so I went back and began collecting them chronologically, starting with Boy. I distinctly remember when I finally picked up Pop, and had the funny feeling that I would never buy an old U2 album again. From then on, everything would be fresh off the press. It was kind of scary, as I feared the best had already come and I wouldn’t be as excited about anything that came thereafter. So I took that time to really listen to each album and give it its due, which is maybe why I hold neglected titles like Pop so dearly.

With my new musical taste came new friends; I met one of my best college friends in a drawing class. We bonded with our shared interest in music, and he introduced me to other bands I hadn’t given much attention to before then, like the Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, and Moby. Sadly, he had never seen U2 live, so I made it my mission to show him all the live U2 DVDs eighteen billion times until he could taste a grain of what it was like to witness them in person. You might assume this was ill-informed, but awesomely enough, it wasn’t. He loved them as much as I did, so it was only fitting when a ginormous U2 exhibit came to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, we went together.

This epic journey fell on our spring break. I won’t go over all the adventurous details, but let’s just say it was full of randomness, innocence, and music, and the trip stands on a short list as one of the best times in my young life. Of course, it centered around us spending two days in Cleveland, Ohio, and drooling like bwain-hungry zombies at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.

For whatever reason, we thought it would be a great idea to walk to the Rock Hall from our hotel, so I have this memory of me walking sixteen city blocks in fancy platform sandals and realizing I’d made a huge mistake somewhere around the eighth block. The great thing was, once you get to the museum, you just stand around and stare for the most part, so you’re only really required to shuffle. One of the first sad truths you learn when you enter the museum is there is no photography allowed in the exhibits. Outside and in the lobby, you can take all the pictures your little heart desires, but once you’re past those velvet ropes, the CIA will jump out of a helicopter and throw you to the ground if you so much as look in the direction of your camera. (Only slightly exaggerating.)

Rock Hall-approved photo of Zoo-TV Trabants taken from ground floor level.

So when you’re faced with the inability to take a single picture of Larry Mullen Jr.’s first drum kit, the single instrument that spawned your favorite band, what other sign of true appreciation exists than to have your friend distract security while you quickly and respectfully touch it? While I understand and encourage the Rock Hall’s mission to preserve their collection of rock ‘n roll memorabilia for future generations, I argue they really hung that carrot in not allowing anyone to take a photo without a flash.

The fact of the matter is, once you get away with touching a historic piece of rock memorabilia, it infects you like ebola and you can’t find a way to stop. It becomes a game, and you start making mental lists of all the things you want to touch, and keep tabs on where the security guards are stationed at all times, and start plotting strategies with your cohort to make your dreams become reality. Once we entered the tower, the top of the U2 exhibit and beheld the dimly-lit room full of stage costumes, I kind of lost it. Nothing became more important to me than my mission to touch Bono’s black pleather Fly costume. 

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The Fly – I touched that pant leg. Unfortunately, not while Bono was in them.

Some touches were more easily scored than others, based on the layout of the room and the number of guards stationed at each exit. Well, the U2 costume tower was more heavily guarded than any other room–with two guards at either end, and nowhere to look but right at you. Which is why it was so impressive my friend and I started a running tally of all the things we touched. Later, I made a list of my coups on a dinner napkin. But the Fly was my Holy Grail and it held out till the end, on our second visit, after we’d exhausted everyone else in the room. We had hung around for what was likely a couple of hours until the guards could stare at us no more, and I made my way for the exit and slyly held out my hand to touch the pant leg like a child brushing their hand along a sidewalk fence. Turns out, the cooler you play it, the less likely anyone is to notice it. That is, unless you’re doing something you think is completely within the rules and a security guard spots you.

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Coyly described as “Brushes with Fame,” #14 on my Rock Hall questionnaire lists my coups. It continues on the back.

There should be nothing more rock ‘n roll than being kicked out of the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, am I right? The irony is, I got escorted out by security for something incredibly lame after I’d done the bad stuff undetected. After our big touching “heist,” (Wow, could that be taken horribly out of context…) my friend and I made it out of the exhibit and paused on the stairs to take pictures of the Trabant cars hanging from the ceiling. The tiny cars were used as stage lights on U2’s Zoo-TV tour, and from the top of the stairs, which led to the lobby, I could get a higher vantage point of the details. 

Contraband Trabant photo taken from the forbidden staircase. Notice the Secret Service agent is totally wearing sunglasses inside a museum.

That’s when security yelled at me to drop my camera. I wasn’t a total vigilante, mind you. I was always a good kid in school, yadda, yadda, so when someone actually yelled at me, I tended to listen while my head hung in shame. So it seemed a little much when a security guard motioned me down the stairs, and another followed me, both with their little Secret Service headsets. To clarify, I asked the guard at the bottom of the stairs what he’d caught me doing wrong. Apparently, it was okay for me to take pictures of the Trabants from the ground floor of the lobby, but not on the stairs. Even though they were the same cars and I wasn’t able to see anything else from the exhibit with that vantage point. It was one thing to be yelled at while you were touching Elvis’s guitar, but  taking a picture of a cardboard car hanging from the ceiling at a slightly higher angle equaled a security escort from the premises?

Needless to say, I was a bit thrown off by the parameters of the rules. What was more, the Secret Service stayed glued to me like I was some kind of marked criminal and wouldn’t let me browse in the gift shop. I left the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame with a confused sense of triumph. Which was more awesome, touching The Fly’s pant leg or having a story about being physically ejected from the hall of musical anarchy by its Secret Service? I’ll bet the latter is something even The Edge could never boast about.

I went back to the same exhibit a year later and was relieved (and mildly disappointed) when nobody threw me out at first sight. I half expected to see a black and white security screenshot of my face posted in the gift shop, but alas, I was not as infamous as secretly hoped. I haven’t returned since 2003 to know if the photography rules have changed, but I would imagine security would have to be tripled to keep people from taking discreet pictures with their camera phones. Hopefully, the Nirvana exhibit from the EMP Museum will come to Cleveland, and I can make a return trip to find out first-hand. (And, perhaps, report back with a new list of coups…)

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