Grin and Bare It

The fine line between storytelling and legend-peddling.

You know why the documentary Pearl Jam Twenty was an arduous, self-serving, and above all painfully boring two hours? Not because director Cameron Crowe didn't have plenty of material to work with for the anniversary flick, but because Pearl Jam was an equal partner in the doc, not just participants. They told the story they wanted told, and it glazed over the touchy stuff—drugs, inner-band turmoil, all those drummers, etc.—that could have elevated the film above a mere infomercial.

The story a band wants to tell and the one that should be told are often two different things. Just ask Jasen Emmons, EMP's director of curatorial affairs, who was once instructed by Bob Dylan's management that there was to be no mention of his drug use in the museum's exhibition on the artist. "If you get the band to buy in and they're contributing to [an exhibit], you're going to have that struggle of 'OK, can we tell that story?'," he says. "It's a richer story when you know those different points of view." Emmons says he was ultimately able to organize that 2004–06 Dylan exhibit to his narrative satisfaction.

EMP's former curatorial manager, Jim Fricke, is today the lead storyteller at Milwaukee's Harley-Davidson Museum, where his patron has been more forthcoming. "One of the things that made me excited about taking this job," says Fricke, "[is that] they were interested in telling a complete and honest story. There are parts of the [Harley] story where the company really missed a trend or really made what proved to be negative business moves."

What do Harleys and EMP have in common? The two museums are now preparing a new exhibit called "Worn to Be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket," due here in October, which will trace the garment's roots from utilitarian garment to rebel icon. That includes, says Fricke, mention of some of motorcycle culture's racier elements, from which Harley-Davidson has tried to distance itself.

"Why did the Ramones all wear leather jackets? It wasn't because they were all bikers," Fricke says. "They have kind of a bad-boy association." Whether those associations will include amphetamines and speed (not the two-wheeled kind) remains to be seen.

Beyond "Worn to Be Wild," Emmons says he'd love to do an exhibit about Pearl Jam. "No band has documented itself better," he says. What he wants to know is "How did that band manage to hold it together?"—a question, like so many others, left unanswered in PJ20.

 
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