Rock and roll is filled with rags to riches stories, and the Hard Rock Cafe is no different. It started off as a humble musician’s hang-out in the heart of London, specializing in down-home American cooking. Guitar god Eric Clapton was a frequent customer, and he decided to mark his favorite seat by hanging his old Fender Lead II guitar overhead. Not to be outdone, Pete Townshend of the Who soon sent his own black Gibson Les Paul over with a note: “Mine’s as good as his. Love, Pete.”
From this playful game of one-upmanship grew a collection that weighs in at over 77,000 pieces to date, the largest assortment of pop music memorabilia on the planet. Much of their stash is on display in restaurants around the world, but I’m about to hit the mother-lode: An invitation to tour their Rock Vault in Florida! Off limits to the public, the vault is the epicenter for their restoration work, as well as the home-base for all of their priceless treasures. For anyone passionate about music history, or sound in general, this is sacred ground. And for me personally, it’s a dream come true.
It’s worth noting that I personally own a piece of John Lennon‘s carpet, which I unashamedly count among my most prized possessions. I bought (yes, bought) the one-inch square through a website devoted to Lennon’s home known as Kenwood, where he lived during the height of Beatlemania from 1964 to 1968. I visit this site with alarming regularity, where people with my particular brand of insanity obsess over things like the precise layout of the Beatle’s sun-room. Computer generated 3D-models get involved…it ain’t pretty. But it gives me unspeakable joy. So when the chance came to have a small piece of the house for my very own, I jumped at it. Sure it’s weird, but it makes me far happier than trying to be normal ever will. I’ll never admit what I actually paid for it, but I will say that I lived on Cup Noodles, cereal and popcorn for weeks after.
Now the piece hangs framed on my wall, right next to a similar bit of blue carpeting from Elvis‘ billiard room in the basement of Graceland. I also have a small chunk of the wooden parquet floor from Abbey Road’s Studio 2, where the Fab Four recorded the bulk of their music. These are just three of the reasons that I will likely die alone. But I don’t restrict my collection to flooring! There’s also a swath of a grey collarless 1963 D. A. Millings “Beatle Suit” worn by Paul McCartney, an unused ticket to Woodstock, an autographed dedication by Quincy Jones’ in his biography, the same from John Densmore of the Doors, a key (the eighty-eighth, to be exact) from Ben Folds‘ piano, a signed copy of Brian Wilson‘s set-list from 2001’s “Pet Sounds Live” tour…and of course, an untold number of vinyl singles and long-players. These are a few of my favorite things.
So needless to say, the opportunity to dive deep into the largest memorabilia vault in rock was extremely appealing to me. In fact, I am unable to sleep for days beforehand. As we pull up to the building, I have to be reminded to wait for the car to stop before I sprint out.
The Orlando headquarters for Hard Rock International looks like any other office building. Almost. I doubt that many corporations would have James Brown‘s stage suit and the talk-box from Frampton Comes Alive on display in their front lobby. But the halls are fairly ordinary, with plain doors leading off into tasteful offices and cubical cities. But then we reach one that is decidedly different. Can you tell?
The vault is understandably kept under fairly high security, but we’re joined by Hard Rock’s head historian Jeff Nolan, who wields the key to my wildest fantasy. It’s time to brace myself, because we’re goin’ in.