Jorma Kaukonen isn't sure how being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame helped his career. But he jokes that he likes the museum gift shop discount — which he actually received the last time he visited.
Regardless, the 75-year-old Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna member is unequivocal that it "makes a difference" to be in the Hall of Fame.
"It is difficult to quantify," he says. "But that said, it's a real thing. Does it make a positive difference? You bet it does. Absolutely. And it is a huge honor. It truly is."
When he made the cut in 1996 as a member of Jefferson Airplane, the Ohio resident strapped on an acoustic guitar at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City to perform his classic "Embryonic Journey," which appears on the band's influential 1967 psych-rock LP, Surrealistic Pillow.
"At the dinner before the induction ceremony, I ran into Judy Collins," Kaukonen says. "I don't know her that well, but she gave me a big hug and said, 'I'm glad you're still alive,' and I said, 'I'm glad you are too.' "
Some culture critics have wondered the same thing about the Rock Hall itself — a sometimes stodgy institution mired in the past. But two decades after Jefferson Airplane's induction, the Rock Hall is evolving to better embody the "anything goes" spirit of rock 'n' roll, an art form driven by change and rebellion. And with this year's inductee class — which includes both jazz-influenced rock troupe Chicago and influential rappers N.W.A. — the institution has an answer about how it can continue to advocate for music history without seeming behind the times.
"Rock 'n' roll's a big tent," says Greg Harris, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum president and CEO. "There's a lot of people that fit under that tent. ... It's not about having a guitar or four skinny guys and guitars. It's about an attitude. It's about pushing the envelope, and it's about music that pushes for change and gives voice to people."
The museum itself has reflected that spirit by making a stronger effort to show how music's past, present and future are related by placing seemingly disparate artists such as Buddy Holly and Bruno Mars on a continuum. "Our exhibits can't just be static presentations of artifacts. They need to be dynamic," Harris says. "We're at our very best when we're connecting yesterday and today, and not just telling the story of yesterday."
In recent years, the Rock Hall has incorporated fresh multimedia elements and pushed for artist-first storytelling. A late 2014 Paul Simon exhibit featured detailed narration from the singer-songwriter, a Rock Hall first.
"When I got there they said, 'We're going to do a Paul Simon exhibit,' " says Karen Herman, vice president of collections and curatorial affairs, who came to the Rock Hall in 2014. "But no one had thought to say, 'Hey, can Paul be involved? Can we sit down with Paul and do some interviews with him?' He said, 'Yes.' It brought a whole new way of doing exhibits into the museum."
The current Graham Nash: Touching The Flame exhibit includes poignant, stark photographs taken by the inductee, as well as items from his vast memorabilia collection — from a chunk of fence from near where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated to Phil Everly's acoustic guitar. Many items are paired with video commentary.
The Nash exhibit also reflects the museum's newfound Twitter-era relevancy. There's a sound booth where patrons can try harmonizing a song with Nash, and then keep the resulting video for use on social media.
"You really get a much better sense of who [Nash] really is," Herman says.
Curating more engaging exhibits becomes more pressing each year, as the artists inducted into the Rock Hall evolve. Recent inductees included Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Heart and Green Day, all of whom remain active, forward-thinking artists. The class of 2014 included Nirvana, whose fans range from teenagers to their Generation X parents. In the coming years Radiohead, Wu-Tang Clan and Foo Fighters are eligible for induction.
What complicates matters is that the museum is closely aligned with — but not responsible for — deciding who is inducted. That's the job of the nonprofit Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, specifically its nominating committee of musicians, critics and other industry professionals, including Harris.
Every year, this committee meets to hash out a list of potential inductees — a process that's notoriously Byzantine and secretive. From there, the ballot is sent to a larger pool of voters, including all living Rock Hall inductees. The top five vote-getters get the nod.
This year's class is a grab bag: Chicago, N.W.A., Steve Miller, power-pop pioneers Cheap Trick and beloved hard rockers Deep Purple. It represents a quiet rebellion against the old guard, a step in the right direction.
There were familiar criticisms. N.W.A.'s inclusion angered those who felt that rap and hip-hop have no place in the Rock Hall. Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan was upset their induction left out key members. And Miller's nomination felt like an outlier. Inducting him over influential dance act Chic or electronic band Nine Inch Nails was a head-scratcher — underscoring that the nominating committee still seems biased against those genres. And the lack of women and African-American musicians in the new class, a long-standing complaint, was distressing.
On the whole, however, the mix of revolutionary mentalities in the 2016 class shows that the institution is positioned well to face the future. And it's clear that digging deeper to tell surprising stories about familiar musicians or movements is already paying off.
Harris says museum attendance was up in 2015, with more than 400,000 paid visitors. When attendees from schools, programs and events are included, the tally tops 500,000, the highest in two decades, he adds.
"Internationally, we are the emblem for Cleveland," Harris says. "People associate Cleveland [as] the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and we're honored to have that distinction."
In another encouraging step forward, the museum is deliberately reaching outside Cleveland by making major exhibits portable. The Paul Simon exhibit is in Baltimore while the forthcoming Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics, a collaboration with the Newseum, will travel to Washington, D.C., in time for the 2017 inauguration.
For many people outside the city, who tend to view the museum as interchangeable with the inductees, seeing the forward motion present in these exhibits might be surprising. But those of us in Cleveland know that the Rock Hall can continue to champion the past without ignoring the sounds being created every day.