Experience Music Report #1: Fans Flock To Museum Opening

Interactive facility opens doors on collection of more than 100,000 rock 'n' roll artifacts.

SEATTLE — Visitors from around the country flocked to the curvy, cavernous Experience Music Project on Friday (June 23) for its grand opening, testing out the museum’s interactive exhibits and browsing its collection of more than 100,000 artifacts.

The museum supplied guests with a mini-computer/headset package that delivers audio of celebrity tour guides, such as blues singer Taj Mahal, explaining the museum’s many attractions, from Eric Clapton‘s famous “Brownie” guitar, used to record “Layla,” to Nirvana‘s first contract with the Seattle indie label Sub Pop (detailing a slim $600 advance).

“This is what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should have been,” Chip Howland, 35, of Grand Rapids, Mich., said. Howland, a crew member for industrial-rockers Filter — who are playing the museum’s kickoff concert with Metallica, Kid Rock and others Friday night — came to EMP to see the Guitar Gallery, a sort of history lesson on the evolution of the rock axe. “This is much more hands-on, and you can enjoy it on your own pace,” he said.

The three-level, $240 million museum, funded by local billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is named after Seattle guitar god Jimi Hendrix‘s trio Experience. So it made sense Friday when the longest line inside the museum was for the Hendrix Gallery, a collection of Hendrix memorabilia ranging from selections of his outlandish wardrobe to a chunk from the guitar he notoriously set on fire during his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.

But some of the most interesting elements of the Hendrix Gallery didn’t come in psychedelic colors; they were simply black ink on white paper. EMP showcased items such as the musician’s signed Woodstock contract (for $9,000), a page from his diary on March 19, 1968, (“I met some nice girls today,” Hendrix wrote) and the original scribbled lyrics to the song “Belly Button.”

Across the second-floor hallway from the Hendrix Gallery is the Northwest Passage exhibit, an homage to the region’s music scene. Grunge, the post-punk era that is the Pacific Northwest’s most prized movement, claimed nearly half the room, boasting items from acts such as Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden, along with memorabilia from lesser-known pioneers such as the Gits and Pearl Jam precursors Green River.

Other highlights of the Northwest Passage include the elaborate early stage costumes of Heart, tortured instruments from avant-rockers Queensrÿche and much of the equipment used to record Nirvana’s Nevermind. Handwritten lyrics by Kurt Cobain, to songs such as “Downer” and “If You Must,” also were on display, along with the commentary provided by local journalists who covered the rise and fall of grunge (via the headsets, which could be triggered by pointing the handheld computer at an artifact and clicking).

An Impressive Guitar Piece

“It’s very cool to see all this stuff,” Bryce Weinberg, 19, of Wichita, Kan., said. “The vibe you get from everything, all this musical history, is so cool.” Referring to “Roots and Branches,” a two-story sculpture made of instruments, mostly guitars, Weinberg added, “I love this whole guitar thing here. That’s crazy.”

Some of the instruments on “Roots and Branches,” designed by local artist Trimpin, are supposed to play music, but the roar of tunes coming from the nearby Sound Lab made it impossible to hear if it was working.

In the Sound Lab, visitors are given crash-course video instructions on how to play a chord on a guitar, create a song from a sampler machine and make their own mix of the Eurythmics hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” among other activities. The Sound Lab attracted the most children of any EMP exhibit.

“I’m learning all sorts of stuff,” Steven Streino, 12, of Washington, D.C., said. “I’ve sang. I played the guitar. It’s just really fun.”

Outside the Sound Lab, on the museum’s third floor, is the Sky Church Window, where visitors can look down into the second-floor Sky Church attraction, containing the country’s largest indoor video screen (built for the Rolling StonesBridges to Babylon tour), which plays occasional video clips, such as a Pearl Jam performance with Neil Young. Also in the Sky Church, which a tour guide said will host concerts and privates parties, was an assortment of twinkling lights and abstract art.

More Recent Milestones

Near the Sky Church Window on the third floor is EMP’s largest exhibit, Milestones. The room is designed to be a visual history of rock ‘n’ roll, but the emphasis is on innovative artists such as Sonic Youth and Bob Dylan rather than the Beatles and Elvis Presley (who are hardly present at EMP). One of the room’s most impressive sights is the guitar Dylan used at his first gig in 1959. The instrument is covered in character, from small chips in the neck to stains in the wood.

Milestones contains several exhibits that focus on important songs, such as Little Richard‘s “Tutti-Frutti,” which visitors can listen to on the headset. The room also honors punk rock with a sizable collection of photos, albums and even skateboards from artists such as the Descendents and the Ramones.

Rap also plays a major part of Milestones, especially in the enormous amount of commentary (11 hours) available from the headset. Narrators explain the roots of rap as visitors scan Melle Mel‘s first turntables, Notorious B.I.G.‘s suit and Run-D.M.C.‘s signature white Adidas sneakers.

Other attractions inside the EMP include On Stage, a studio for visitors to make mock rock videos and posters; Artist’s Journey, a video ride now featuring clips from James Brown; and the Special Exhibits Gallery, which currently chronicles the rise of the EMP, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry.

“I think it’s the best thing to happen to Seattle since the World Fair in 1962,” 38-year-old Seattle resident Lynn Etchison said. “I’ve been waiting for something like this. It’s amazing. I’m going to come a lot during the summers. You have to experience it.”

Events scheduled for Friday include a workshop hosted by Carole Kaye, who earned a reputation as the “first lady of bass” by playing on such recordings as the Beach BoysPet Sounds, a free show featuring Junior Brown and Bob Mould, and a stadium concert with Metallica, Dr. Dre with Eminem and Snoop Dogg, Kid Rock, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Filter.