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Rock and roll music is something the United States are powerfully invested in, albeit most of their citizens tend to forget about it and take it for granted. But to Europeans, Asians, Australians, and many others, American rock and roll music still represents one of the most important popular culture exports worldwide. You can travel as far as Myanmar or Argentina and still find people who will know your neck of the woods just because some American rock band comes from there. New York City? People will mention the Ramones and Patti Smith. San Francisco? The first choice goes to Metallica. The list can go on and on.
Rock music is first of all an American product – it is truly embedded in the country’s geography and history. The sidewalks of some of the USA’s cities and towns still resonate with rock history.
Would you like to experience the United States under a unique angle?
This article guides you through some of the most famous, strange, or plain unknown rock and roll cities in the USA. Prepare yourself for an unforgettable road trip – get inspired to visit the birthplaces of American rock and roll, the hottest spots in the alternative touring circuit, or just drive coast to coast chasing the Holy Ghost of American rock and roll!
New York City
You can either start or end your tour in the Big Apple, as few cities in the whole world have had the same connection with rock music as New York. I could fill up an entire volume with the subtle stories of NYC’s rock and roll hall of fame, as the city has always been associated with the birth of one of rock’s most shocking revolutions: punk music.
Take a stroll to 315 Bowery at Bleecker Street in Manhattan and stand where CBGB’s club, the birthplace of 70s punk rock music, used to be the coolest rock bar in the city. Unfortunately, this place ceased operations in late 2006, but it still remains an icon for rock tourists. Continue your visit by taking a walking tour of the city and reach the intersection of 53rd and 3rd. Here you will stand at the corner where bassist Dee Dee of the Ramones used to come down to buy his fix.
You can end your punk rock tour in St. Mark’s Place visiting Trash and Vaudeville, the same boutique where the Ramones and Blondie shopped for their punk clothing 30 years ago. The store is still running and represents a touch of authentic punk color in the heart of St. Mark’s Place. Browse their catalog of punk clothing for men, women and even kids… fancy seeing your little one sporting a mini leather jacket in pure biker style? This is the place to do it.
Check out the New York City Indie Travel Guide
Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee
There are no places in the United States that can represent the golden age of 50s rock and roll and country music like Memphis and Nashville. In these two cities, the lives of all the early American rockers intertwined. Greats such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash have laid down their first original classic recordings in Memphis.
Sun Studio is the corner house where early American rock history has been mostly written – if rock was a religion, Sun Studios on Union Avenue would be its Mecca. You can visit the place daily by taking a guided tour for a mere $12. Have a go at standing in front of the same microphones that captured the immortal vibrations of Elvis’ vocal chords.
If the ghost of Elvis is what you are after, continue your visit to Graceland, the King’s original mansion. It has been transformed into a museum complete with a stunning collection of Elvis’ stage clothes. It even has the King’s personal touring airplane parked in the backyard!
When you are still possessed by the reverberation of rock and roll’s early foundations, you can drive down to Nashville and head straight to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum at 222 Fifth Ave. Otherwise, if you have had enough of exploring the past, visit downtown Nashville and sit at any of the bars. Have a drink while listening to contemporary country artists strumming their acoustic guitars in full-on cowboy gear. Chill in complete southern comfort as the night falls and the music keeps going until the wee hours, because it will be hard to leave the stool and this unique kind of musical time travel.
Not including the “Windy City” in this list would have been a terrible mistake. Sure, Chicago has been recognized as the home of the blues, no doubt. But it has also been largely overlooked in terms of its important contribution to the history of American rock music. And after all, isn’t the blues a close next of kin to rock and roll?
Chicago has given birth to too many important rock bands to be forgotten: besides its 1970’s arena rock band Chicago, the city is also home to the 1980’s godfathers of industrial metal, Ministry. The 90’s saw Smashing Pumpkins rise to fame as Chicago’s most internationally recognized group. Setting nostalgia apart, Chicago still hasn’t stopped feeding rock greatness to its visitors as of today. The city’s perks, besides the avant-garde Millennium Park and the sheer watery vastness of Lake Michigan, have to be found in its extremely vital contemporary underground rock scene. Find it every night in clubs such as the Double Door in North Milwaukee Street. And don’t forget to top off your live rock entertainment with the amazing tacos and New York pizza slices for sale just across the street.
Read the Chicago Indie Travel Guide
Do not mistake Omaha for an unexciting, quiet Midwestern town. Its position across the plains, connecting Chicago to Denver as a last Midwestern port before the drive to the Far West, has made it an important trade city for decades. Furthermore, Omaha was a thriving center for African-American music during the 1920’s. Although the times of the Dreamland ballroom jazz era have long gone, you can still roll into town and dwell into its peculiar Indie rock scene at places like the Slowdown and the Waiting Room. Omaha has also carved a definite niche in modern rock with the peculiar indie rock sounds of local label Saddle Creek’s recording artists. Whether you just pass through town on your way West or South, or decide to stay longer and soak in its relaxed atmosphere, Omaha won’t let you down in terms of its musical offerings.
This college town has long been the capital of American underground rock music and hosts the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival every year. Austin will make you change your mind about Texas and the stereotypes of the “Dirty South” – in fact, the city has one of the most lively music scenes in the world. Every important (and soon to be) band has played at least a show here.
The main strip on 6th Street is a conglomeration of bars, bistros, grills, and tattoo parlors where music is played almost around the clock for most of the year. SXSW itself is the cream of the crop of an otherwise never sleeping party town. And besides having the most lively bar and music scene in the USA, Austin also offers quiet, spacious, and idyllic rural surroundings that are perfect for after-show relaxation. I highly recommend you check out the program of Emo’s before you go, as this very happening live club has some of the hottest events in town.
When it comes to rock music and the Northwest, the first thing that comes to mind is grunge and its landmark city, Seattle. But I didn’t put Seattle on this list. Why you may be wondering? Because it is from Olympia that most of the bands that gave Seattle its imprint sound of the 1990’s.
Drive your car southwest from Seattle and come to Washington state’s relaxed capital city, a place where you can discover the source of alternative American indie rock history. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, the Melvins, and the Riot grrrl movement all began here before moving on to Seattle and (some of them) down to California and the rock and roll way to stardom. Explore the environs that propelled the northwestern grunge revolution around the world – 6th and 4th Ave in the city’s downtown area still host daily music performances. International and local acts grace the stages of a series of rock bars such as Dumpster Values, Le Voyeur, and the 4th Ave Tavern. They cater to every different need of the rock and roll spectrum. Keep Seattle’s “posers” out of your way, and enjoy the rich rock and roll nightlife Olympia has to offer!
Portland has previously been a thriving center of American rock – it is here that the Kingsmen wrote their 1960’s smashing anthem Louie, Louie. During the 70’s and the 80’s, the city was the epicenter of one of the most active punk music scenes in the country. Bands like the Wipers and Poison Idea helped earn Portland a reputation as “home base” of Northwestern punk.
Portland quickly established itself as one of the three most important music centers in the region along with Seattle and Vancouver in Canada. A convenient stop in the land route between Seattle and San Francisco, Portland offers a wide range of live music venues and watering holes for all budgets and tastes. I recommend having a look at the Aladdin House, a great music venue with a colorful past as a vaudeville house and an adult movie theater.
Check out the Portland Indie Travel Guide
San Francisco, California
The Bay Area has given some of the best rock, heavy metal, punk, and thrash to the world – Jefferson Airplane, Blue Cheer, Metallica, the Dead Kennedys, and more have all started their careers here. It is an incredible, liberal, and artistic city with an equally exciting music scene.
After your Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz sightseeing, grab some supreme tacos and enchilladas in one of the many Mexican restaurants peppering the streets of the Mission district. When you have had your fill of food and drink, head down to famous underground venues such as the Bottom of the Hill – named by Rolling Stones magazine as the best live music venue in SF – or experience California’s historical punk venue 924 Gilman in Berkeley. This is the place where California punk has been kicking and thriving since 1986. Its stage has served as a kick starter for bands such as Green Day and Rancid, and a million other more unknown, but equally important underground punk bands. 924 Gilman is definitely one of the best places in the whole country to discover the roots of hardcore punk, a peculiar musical and political movement that changed the face of American popular music forever.
Read the San Francisco Indie Travel Guide
From the road map, Lawrence seems just like any other lost Midwestern college town. On the contrary, it has a distinct musical edge setting it apart from the rest of Kansas’ cornbread-producing land. The New York Times’ travel section named it “the most vital music scene between Chicago and Denver” in February 2005. On top of that, its mainstay alternative rock venue, Replay Lounge, has been listed as one of Esquire magazine’s top 25 music venues in the country. Check out its outdoor patio and relax with a beer, or enjoy its series of old school flippers between a band and the next. And if you fancy more action besides rocking into the closed door of a club, come in August and see Lawrence bloom into an explosion of street performances and vagabond musicians during the Lawrence Buskers Fest. Small town Midwestern America has never looked so exciting.