Inside Hard Rock’s hidden closet
As 1970s yearbooks from private California schools go, this one doesn’t seem that unusual. The students look kind of privileged and kind of stoned; the teachers look like they’re totally cool with the events of the late ’60s. The students aren’t broken down by age, but listed in alphabetical order. The cast of characters is uniformly white … at least until you get to the “J” page, where four black faces stand out: Marlon, Tito, Jermaine and Michael Jackson.
It’s a jarring moment. It’s strange enough seeing the world’s biggest pop star in a relatively ordinary context – there are other immortalized schoolboy moments in the book, including one of Michael hanging out in science class in that goofy J5 hat and flares – but it’s downright disorienting when it finally clicks: I’m holding Michael Jackson’s yearbook.
This isn’t an M.J. convention or a memorabilia auction or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It’s a modest-sized warehouse room nestled in the back of a completely nondescript building in a MetroWest office park. And this yearbook is just one of the thousands of remarkable items that are stashed here.
This top-secret building is home to Hard Rock Cafe International’s holding pen for the omnipresent hotel/casino brand’s extensive and ever-growing music memorabilia collection. Part of that collection is on display at the company’s various must-see tourist destinations – such as the Hard Rock at Universal CityWalk – and the rest is held here and in another warehouse currently hidden somewhere in Orlando and home to the Hard Rock collection’s big guns: classic cars, motorcycles and other unwieldy items.
The MetroWest room is for the more spatially accommodating pieces of history, where a random flat-file drawer contains an animation cell from The Wall, and where a quick glance reveals the (autographed) talk box guitar effects unit that Peter Frampton used for “Show Me the Way” on Frampton Comes Alive, Waylon Jennings’ iconic Telecaster and racks of rock star clothes that make it clear just how skinny cocaine-era David Bowie was.
“I’ve been working for this company for quite a few years now, and I have yet to be jaded walking into that warehouse,” says Hard Rock historian Jeff Nolan. “Every day I walk in there and I find something that makes my jaw drop.”
Nolan is best known to local music fans for his role as a guitarist in bands such as the Ludes and the Legendary J.C.’s, as well as national stints with the Screaming Trees, Scott Weiland’s Magnificent Bastards and his own run at major-label rock & roll stardom, I Love You. During the day, however, Nolan’s gig is to curate and promote Hard Rock’s extensive memorabilia collection online, find items to feature on Hard Rock’s memorabilia website (memorabilia.hardrock.com) and spark discussion and debate within a vibrant Facebook community (facebook.com/hardrockmemorabilia).
“A big part of what I do here is to try and defuse cynicism about the Hard Rock,” Nolan says. “The intensity of what we own and what we present, it’s easy to take for granted. And it’s really easy for a major music fan to be like, ‘I don’t want to go to some casino or a café because they’re just gonna try to sell me something.'”
With 149 Hard Rock locations in 53 countries – including cafés, hotels, casinos and live venues – the company is not shy about super-stocking its locations with iconic pieces. The Orlando Hard Rock Cafe – the company’s largest – overflows with so many pieces lining the walls that they almost blur into the background: Bootsy Collins’ sunglasses; a letter from John Lennon to his roadie; the bass John Entwistle played in the Tommy movie; the vehicle registration for Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 GMC van. And while cooling and feeding tourists is a large part of Hard Rock’s business, Nolan insists that food and T-shirts play second fiddle to the real stars of the show.
“If you’re an enthusiast and you want to see this stuff, you can – for free,” Nolan says. “Take this ’59 Les Paul that’s in Boston. For a young guitar player, things like that are unattainable, mythological items: the Maltese Falcon. A 14-year-old guitar player who lives in the Boston area or who is visiting Boston with his parents can walk into the Hard Rock and see a genuine 1959 Les Paul in person, and they’re not gonna get the chance to do that very often. When I was a kid, I wish I could have done that.”
Of course, today’s modern Hard Rock – a multimillion-dollar corporation that was purchased by the Seminole Tribe of Florida for $965 million in 2006 – doesn’t come by these artifacts by accident. Nolan describes Hard Rock’s origin as humble; before there was an actual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame location, artists would (and still do) donate to Hard Rock’s collection “by default.”
“We work directly with a lot of artists, whether they give us something, or we buy it, or, in a lot of cases, we will work out a donation/fundraising thing for their favorite charity,” Nolan says. “And then, of course, there are the auctions. In the ’80s, when the big auction houses started doing a lot of rock & roll memorabilia, for all intents and purposes, we bought ’em out. If you were a private collector in the ’80s and you went to an auction and saw a guy from Hard Rock there, you’d get a sinking feeling. ”
Most of the items in this MetroWest room are just spares. Hard Rock has teams of designers and database wranglers who strive to keep the material in each location fresh and aligned with local interests. With new cafés opening and older units being regularly remodeled, it’s up to the folks working here to keep the good stuff moving through quickly.
“We have so much memorabilia – 72,000 to 73,000 pieces. And it’s scattered all around the world. And literally, the collection has never all been in the same place at the same time ever,” Nolan says.
However, one slice of the collection is currently amassing in this room. There’s a space demarcated on one of the shelves in the office’s back corner: “40th for Jeff.” There rests a few items – Justin Bieber’s skateboard, Buddy Holly’s glasses, handwritten Bob Dylan lyrics – that have been set aside for an upcoming 40th Anniversary Tour beginning this month and stopping at Hard Rocks all over the country through mid-August. Hitting the road in a specially equipped tractor-trailer, the “museum on wheels” will present some of Hard Rock’s best pieces, some of which were decided on in user-voted showdowns on the Hard Rock Memorabilia Facebook page.
“We had a contest on the Facebook page for a few weeks where we pitted two pieces from the collection against each other, and fans of the page voted on which one we should take,” Nolan says. “We pitted handwritten Kurt Cobain lyrics against handwritten Eddie Vedder lyrics, and of course, the Cobain lyrics won, but the Eddie Vedder lyrics are written on a barf bag. How do you not take that, too?”
“Forty years doing this is pretty impressive,” Nolan says. “With all the changes that Hard Rock has gone through over the years, and all the changes in pop culture and music, for us to take a rolling museum of some of our favorite pieces … allows us to celebrate the music and celebrate the culture.”