Features & Columns

Rock On

A visit to Cleveland's Hall of Fame reveals connections to history of rock & roll in San Jose
FACE THE MUSIC: In 1956, San Jose rock fans ran wild at a Fats Domino show at the Palomar Ballroom. Courtesy Bay Area Rocks

THE FIRST TIME I infiltrated the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, I spent hours amid the exhibits. The multistory building on Lake Erie provided a wealth of inspiration. I even lurked for quite awhile in the gift shop, especially the book section, where I flipped through Dominic Selerno's groundbreaking taxonomy of Burt Bacharach songs. Enlightenment ensued.

Titled Bacharach: Song by Song, the book breaks the composer's creative output into years. The section for 1968 includes an interview with Dionne Warwick, for whom Bacharach and Hal David wrote many hit songs. Reflecting on the tune, "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," Warwick was quoted as saying: "It's a beautiful little city. I was made an honorary citizen. I'm accused of putting it on the map and overpopulating it."

I contemplated that statement for a long, long time. She was accused of putting the city on the map. Not thanked, not congratulated, not applauded, but accused. For me, it put everything into perspective, since now, 40 years later, it often seems like many people in San Jose still don't want to city the be known for anything. They live here because they don't want it to be an interesting place.

In my opinion, the San Jose condition will always involve the conflict between urban and suburban, small town and big town, or what constitutes a "major city" and what doesn't. It seems like this creeps into everything that happens here: the arts community, the music scene, the convention and visitors bureau, sports, politics, the bars, the media, everything.

This is not a profound new insight on my part—just ask any old-timer—but that quote from Dionne Warwick just seemed to nail it. As I stood there, flipping through that Burt Bacharach book, while standing there in the gift shop at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, I felt like I had just received special psychic revelations from the Great God of Suburbia, commanding me to craft a column about my experiences.

That was three years ago, and since I just returned to Cleveland last month, the time seems right. Travel provides new models for contemplating one's own landscape and also helps to manifest a heightened sense of awareness. That is, certain connections will emerge that one cannot ignore. This time around, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame set the ball in motion. Again.

In Cleveland, right outside the Rock Hall, one finds a historical marker designating the Birthplace of Rock & Roll. Legendary DJ Alan Freed organized what's referred to as the first rock concert, the Moondog Coronation Ball, on March 21, 1952, at the Cleveland Arena.

It was also the occasion of the first rock & roll riot, as thousands of counterfeit tickets were apparently sold. After waiting outside for hours, the overcapacity crowd shoved its way in, fights broke out, bottles flew and the riot ensued. Three of the acts didn't even get a chance to play. The arena itself was torn down decades ago, but the historical placard tells the story.

Standing there at that marker immediately made me think of San Jose's equivalent event, which took place four years later. The now legendary Fats Domino riot went down on July 7, 1956, at the celebrated Palomar Ballroom on Notre Dame Avenue, now the backside of the Axis luxury midrise condos. At that show, several folks were arrested and a few were admitted to the hospital with injuries. The event was a stain on the Palomar's legacy, one that included shows by Mel Torme, Doris Day, Louis Armstrong and many Latino performers.

Several folks over the decades have heroically referred to the Fats Domino show as the first ever rock & roll riot, which unfortunately isn't true. I wish San Jose could claim that one, but it can't. Cleveland, Ohio, is the place where it all went down that fateful night in 1952. And that town obviously has some class because they put a historical plaque right where the whole shebang took place—something San Jose would probably never do.

When the original Palomar Ballroom building was destroyed, the developers did absolutely nothing significant to acknowledge the magnificent history of that venue. I guess that would require class on their part. One of the new residents even recently complained about loud rock music on the patio of the De Anza Hotel. There you have it. So much for urban living. Dionne Warwick would be proud.