Visual Arts Review: Play It Loud — Admiring the Tools that Made the Tunes

Play It Loud is porn for musicians and fans who fetishize the tools of the trade.

By Jason M. Rubin

There’s an old adage, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The point is that certain forms of art can not be well-elucidated or effectively appreciated through incongruous means of inquiry and critical response. Those of us who write about music may well take exception to this sentiment, though I believe that words are inherently limiting when it comes to describing something as intangible, as resistant to quantification and classification, as music.

The expression came to mind when I was leafing through the handsome, 236-page volume entitled, Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll (Yale University Press, $50), the catalogue to the like-titled exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, on view through October 1 (it will then move to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland from November 2019 through September 2020). With the heft of a 30-CD boxed set, and featuring 179 illustrations that include everything from Ringo’s drums to Lady Gaga’s keytar, this book is porn to musicians and fans who fetishize the tools of the trade.

As delightful as it is to see Buddy Holly’s guitar and Bootsy Collins’ bass, Keith Emerson’s synthesizers and Clarence Clemons’ saxophone, the images inevitably generate a paradox: they have everything to do with rock and roll and, at the same time, nothing to do with rock and roll. The instruments are artifacts of the history of rock music, suitably weathered from years of use and abuse (a broken Pete Townshend guitar is included), personalized by their owners (Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers would win a ribbon at a field day for having decorated his bass with stickers from such bands as Black Flag, the Clash, Devo, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols), and custom-made for maximum visual impact, such as Rick Nielsen’s five-necked guitar and Keith Moon’s legendary “Pictures of Lily” drum kit.

Yet these things are silent. In the book, they are merely still photographs; in the exhibit, they stand or hang motionless and mute. Though I appreciate the craftsmanship of the untold luthiers and other instrument makers whose work is represented, an elemental question is raised: what is the value of an instrument that is not being used to make music? Is looking at an instrument (sans performer) like dancing about architecture? When I gaze at the photo of the white Fender Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix used at Woodstock, I can imagine the metallic cacophony of his controversial rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” But the strings don’t vibrate; the song isn’t playing. The guitar is in the forest and it isn’t making a sound.

One of the guitars on display, in the book and the exhibit, “Play It Loud.”

Does that mean this is not a worthwhile book or exhibit? Of course not. I used the word porn earlier in a colloquial sense, but pornography via still images is effective, if that’s the kind of stimulation you like. But it’s no substitute for the real thing. Still, Play It Loud is a volume that would not sit undisturbed for long on any coffee table. In addition to the pictures, the book includes seven essays from such notable rock writers as David Fricke and Anthony DeCurtis, as well as detailed notes on the instruments featured in the catalogue and others in the exhibit that didn’t make the cut. There’s also the requisite argument-starting lists of must-hear albums, songs, and solos.

If you can’t make it to New York City to see this exhibit in person, then the companion book will enjoyably immerse you in the subject matter. One can argue that electric guitars and drum kits do not belong in a sober and stately environment like the Met, but with nationwide museum attendance trending downward in recent years, many institutions are trying to goose up public interest by elevating popular culture into the realm of fine art.  And most major museums have exhibits of ancient instruments, so why not feature some contemporary (musical) axes. Play It Loud foreshadows where rock and roll, and its artifacts, may end up in the decades to come — on display.

Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 33 years, the last 18 of which as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for The Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, combines in a single volume an updated version of his first novel with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, depicting the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


  1. Matt Mayerchak on May 21, 2019 at 8:58 am

    Thanks for the lovely comments on the book (and exhibit). I typeset the book (under the the direction of book designer Susan Marsh). The reason that, as you say, “Play It Loud is a volume that would not sit undisturbed for long on any coffee table,” is because we all have strong emotional connections to the subject. It doesn’t hurt that the book is so well-written and accessible. These artifacts of rock ’n’ roll history are touchstones to powerful moments in our personal and public lives. If a production baseball that happened to be someone’s 600th homer is worth putting on display, surely a guitar played by Eric Clapton is worth seeing.

  2. Steve Provizer on May 21, 2019 at 1:56 pm

    It’s worth noting that The Met has always had a fantastic collection of instruments, from ancient to modern. As a brass player, I especially appreciate the completeness of that part of the collection.

  3. Judith E Marsh on July 13, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    To me, an important aspect of this show was that the focus of the accompanying explanations about the instruments were about the makers. That is, the artists who created these wondrous instruments, fitting & proper for an art museum. It is wonderful that we have finally been introduced to their artistry & innovations, which helped to make Rock music possible!

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