Venturing Inside The Hard Rock Memorabilia Vault: A Music Fanatic’s Heaven

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.

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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.

My framed weirdness.

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?

It kind of looks like an energy drink.

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.

Remember the scene in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory when the group enters the mythical candy room? Yeah, it was kind of like that as Jeff swung the vault door open.

“A worlllllllllllllld of pure rock imagination….”

The sheer size of the place catches me off guard. Imagine a Costco warehouse filled to the brim with instruments, clothes, collectible toys, posters, and god only knows what else. You literally don’t know where to look first. Over twenty thousand pieces of history live in this room, and I don’t want to miss a single one of ’em. It is the attic I’ve always wanted, an Aladdin’s cave for the serious rock fan. Every time I turn my head I’m certain I recognize something amazing. “Wait, is that Gene Simmons’ axe bass? Is that a jacket used on the cover of the third Monkees album!? IS THAT KEITH MOON’S DRUM CASE!?” Jeff’s response is always a delighted “Probably!” before taking me over to investigate. I hope he finds my enthusiasm endearing, but I’m pretty sure he’s afraid I’m going to become the first known case of ’death-by-fanboying’.

I’ll take everything. All of it.

One towering multi-tiered shelf holds nothing but framed gold records presented to rock bands over the years. I start leisurely leafing through, as if they’re merely dogeared paperbacks on someone’s bookshelf. The first one I pull belonged to Cheap Trick for their At Budokan LPRight on!

Stacks and stacks of gold records.

The walls are completely taken up with guitars -many autographed, and all owned at one time by legendary musicians. They do their best to compete with everything else in the room for my attention. Tags are tied around the head-stocks, revealing the famous hands that strummed the strings way back when. My brain is dangerously overloaded.

The Guitar Wall.

“As you can see, we’ve got every kind of guitar conceivable,” Jeff tells me. “It’s a challenge not to stay all night playing ’em.” I’m in no state to choose where to begin, but Jeff knows the perfect starting point. He removes a bizarre-looking tiny metal guitar from the wall, barely bigger than a frying pan that shares its shape. For a second I think it’s an electrified ukulele, but Jeff enlightens me. “This is a mid-thirties Rickenbacker lap-steel, the first commercially available electric guitar. Pre-dates the Telecaster by a good 15 years.” It’s a strange moment, like looking at some prehistoric genetic ancestor. Each one of the hundreds of guitars on the wall can be traced back to this one weird little gizmo. It is the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of Adam ’n’ Eve. Crazy.

We jump forward in time as Jeff begins to pull down some slightly more contemporary items. There’s a Fender Stratocaster with a custom zebra pick-guard played by Mick Jones of Foreigner, a Les Paul from Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, and a rare Gibson SG six-stringed bass used by Chris Squire of Yes. Jeff is a massive fan of Canadian prog-rockers Rush, and takes particular delight in showing off bassist Geddy Lee’s double-necked guitar, used during 1980’s Permanent Waves tour.

Nolan with Geddy Lee’s double-necked guitar.

But any good musician knows, your best axes deserve to be kept in their cases. So Jeff takes us over to a small table to share three of his favorite guitar gems.

First he takes out Roy Orbison’s six string, custom made for him in 1976 by British guitar-maker John Birch. Clearly he was proud of his work: he put a plexiglass plate on the back to show off the electronic wiring! Then my eyes then grow wide at the sight of George Harrison’s Rickenbacker 425, used on several of his ’80s solo records.

George Harrison’s 425 Rickenbacker.

But Jeff saves the best for last, producing a battered and war-torn case. I swear I hear angels sing as he cracks it open to reveal the holy grail of electric guitars: a 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul, used by the Rolling Stone’s Mick Taylor on tour to promote their landmark 1972 album Exile on Main Street. “This is a big deal,” he proclaims proudly. “It’s a genuine ’59 ’burst.” Vintage guitars of that model go for well into the six figure range, and that’s without this one’s famous pedigree. Ordinarily we’d be pretty bummed out by the ugly belt-scuff marks on the back of the beautiful body, but considering the belt belonged to one of the Stones, we guess we’ll let it slide. These battle scars from out on the road just serve to give it character. “It sounds pretty good when it’s plugged in…Or so I’ve been told!” Jeff says with a wink in his voice.

Nolan with the ’59 Les Paul used by Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones on the ’Exile on Main Street’ tour.

My jaw has been on the floor for a solid hour now, but I manage to pick it up long enough to ask: What is all of this awesome stuff doing locked away in a windowless warehouse down in the swamps of Florida? Why aren’t MORE minds being blown by the prizes that I’m seeing?! Jeff assures me that they will, and soon. Many of the artifacts are either waiting to be put into new restaurants, or are in between traveling exhibitions. “That’s the thing about this stuff. You’ve got to put it out in the world so that people can see it and be close to it. Not just hide it away.”

The Hard Rock collection was recently valued at over $30 million, but like the old commercial says, the true amount is closer to priceless. “We’re always looking for stuff that has a story,” he explains. “We have relationships with artists that go back decades. We still get contemporary artists coming to us.” But it’s getting harder for the team to acquire the older goods for display. “The market for memorabilia over the last twenty years has exploded, because you’ve got these baby boomers retiring. And maybe they did well in life, and their kids are out of the house and they have a pile of money and they’re not going to be happy unless they have Jimi Hendrix’s guitar in their basement. And maybe some of these folks were a hedge fund manager. How are you going to bid against them? It’s not out of reach, but definitely much tougher.”

Looking around the vault, it seems like they’ve got more than enough artifacts to keep them busy! We continue on our tour, over to the racks on racks of clothes and stage costumes. “Welcome to the world’s strangest thrift store,” Jeff announces. And he’s not far off. It looks like a giant Salvation Army, but instead of S, M, L, XL, the plastic labels read “Sade,” “Santigold,” “Sex Pistols“…

“Damn, they’re all out of ’Nsync!”

The space is guarded by a mannequin clad in Nicki Minaj’s Barbie tutu. On the end of a rack I spy a green blazer from 2-Live-Crew’s Uncle Luke, and some onesies that appear to belong to a mid-seventies Aerosmith hang nearby. Famous undergarments are strewn all over the place like a teenager’s bedroom. From a nearby shelf Jeff busts out Lady Gaga’s head-dress, starched stiff and perpetually fluttering.

The meat dress is in the refrigerator.

A bright shade of red catches my eye from across the room and beckons me nearer. Yup, even Michael Jackson’s clothes can command attention! I gently remove the hanger to examine the King of Pop’s red velour track jacket, festooned with Neverland Ranch patches and tour logos. The garment was surprisingly tiny, belaying MJ’s slight dancer’s frame.

Michael Jackson’s wind breaker.

I’m pretty sure I blacked out from excitement after that. There was simply too much history in that room for one man to take. I gingerly touched Elvis Presley’s Vegas-era sequined show cape, and ran my hands over the keys on Brian Wilson’s piano, where the harmonic genius composed some the Beach Boys canon. Their autographed surf-board lay propped up next door.

Elvis’ cape and Brian Wilson’s Beach Boy piano

But STILL there was more!

We were about to wrap things up when a member of the design team taps Jeff on the shoulder and tells him that they’ve got a “very special delivery” waiting for him in the Back Room. Wait, there’s ANOTHER room!? The prospect of second warehouse filled with treasures would almost certainly cause my mind to snap like an over-wound guitar string. But luckily for my sanity,  this space is mostly reserved for items that are still packed away in crates, either newly delivered, awaiting transport to a restaurant location, or in various stages of restoration. Off in the corner, a master carpenter alternates between fixing up a guitar (“It’s from Poison, so look out!”) and a massive mid-seventies Elton John head-dress, cleaning each sequin one by one by hand.

We all crowd in, anxious to get a good look at Hard Rock’s latest acquisition fresh off the truck. And it’s…it’s…it’s a thing!

A thing.

To be honest, I’m not completely sure what I’m looking at. But Jeff knows exactly what it is. The Rush-megafan recognizes the item from one of their stage shows and (possibly?) an album cover. I have no doubt that they will brush up and learn ever single factoid and detail about the life of this….very large thing, before polishing it up and sharing it with the world. It’s really rather sweet to see my new friend get so excited. After a day of showing me mementos from all of my heroes, I’m glad he got to experience a special moment for himself. Suddenly I don’t feel so embarrassed about freaking out over…well, everything. I can tell by the look on his face. This isn’t simply a “job” for him.

Despite being familiar (sometimes personally) with pretty much every musical artist of the last century, Jeff Nolan is the anti-music snob. “I’m just the storyteller” he’s quick to say when I praise his seemingly limitless expertise. His enthusiasm is infectious, and he’s still so obviously thrilled to be among the one-of-a-kind rock loot. “I’ve been working with this company for about nine years. And you never get jaded about this stuff. Every time I come in here, it’s just like, “Holy moly!'”

Sadly, our time in the rock ’n’ roll Garden of Eden has come to an end. The experience was obviously unforgettable, but a small part of me couldn’t help but feel that the warehouse was light on the Lennon, my favorite Beatle. In a way it made sense -they have to fast-track goods of that caliber out into the public eye, ASAP! But Jeff has a parting surprise for me before I fly back to reality. We turn the corner and I spot it resting in an unassuming little nook. It’s a chair. A somewhat beat up thing, with a large hole in the wicker backing. But my days spent looking at 3-D models of the Beatle’s sun-room have served me well and I identify it immediately. It’s John Lennon’s favorite chair.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [Photo: Tiger Beat/VH1]

The icon spent an untold number of afternoons in his beloved sun-room reading, dreaming  and (most importantly) writing on this 1930s walnut, double caned and parcel-gilt Bergere Settee. It gave him peace, comfort and sanctuary from the fan-craziness in the world beyond. While “a Beatle” out there, on this couch he was always just John. Although restored, I’m thrilled they left the hole alone. It was formed by Lennon’s guitar that he kept propped up, just in case inspiration struck while he was in repose. It often did. And the stuff he wrote while sitting here helped brighten my life.

Wait ’til I tell my piece of John’s carpet at home!

Ahh, the carpet square. Back in New York, I commune with this crown jewel of my personal mini-Hard Rock collection. Suddenly I feel a little less alone in my urge to amass this stuff–flecks of wood, scraps of cloth, bits of paper and plastic. These items help tell the tale of music that I love with all of my heart, and I want to keep them safe. Whenever people come to my apartment for the first time, I can’t help but point out some of my favorite “artifacts.”  I love to share, and hope they get ask much joy out of them as I do. If I had the money, I’d build a much larger and more comfortable space for these touchstones, so that guests could come and go as they please and check ’em out.

Hard Rock must feel the same way. They’re a venerable rock Smithsonian, bringing music history to fans around the globe. They also happen to sell food. This last element rubs some people the wrong way, believing that memorabilia is simply a way to get people in the door to shill more buffalo chicken sandwiches. “They’re like T.G.I. Fridays, but with more expensive stuff on the walls!” or, “Guitars are meant to be played, man! Not put on the wall!” I’ve heard it all before. Hard Rock sits at a tricky fault-line between fight-the-power rock rebellion and corporate commerce. It can be confusing, but we can’t forget that what they do is extremely important. Like Jeff Nolan, they are the storytellers, the record keepers, and the protectors. Their efforts legitimize rock ’n’ roll as something that deserves to be preserved and presented as a crucial piece of our cultural history, placing it on the mantle alongside other great art of humanity.

Does Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” measure up to Van Gogh’s ’Stary Night’, Chaucer’s ’Canterbury Tales’, or Michelangelo’s ’Pieta’? For my money, definitely.

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