With more than 77,000 pieces of music history in its possession, the Hard Rock Cafe empire is a global music museum as well as eatertainment complex. Along with presenting permanent displays in dozens of locations across the world, the company culls pieces from its archives for traveling exhibitions. Treasures of the Hard Rock -- which includes two collections, "Gone Too Soon" and "Music Gives Back" -- is one such show, opening today at the Hard Rock Cafe Denver in Denver.
Jeff Nolan, Hard Rock's music and memorabilia historian and the curator overseeing all of the company's exhibits, recently spoke with Westword about the process of creating a traveling show.
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Westword: How do you go about putting exhibitions like "Gone Too Soon" and "Music Gives Back" together?
Jeff Nolan: Picking pieces for traveling tours is one of the more interesting things that we get to do here. The folks involved, myself included, are passionate about we think is the "good" stuff, or the stuff that we think will be compelling to folks. The conversations and debates around making final decisions can be pretty animated.
With this particular (traveling tour), we had two collections. "Gone Too Soon" is pretty self-explanatory. A lot of rock stars left the world before their time. Of course, an odd number of them, too, at age 27.
The 27 Club has many members -- Brian Jones, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain. It's quite a list.
I just found out something about the 27 Club that I didn't know, as a music and memorabilia historian for Hard Rock International. I was embarrassed I didn't know this -- Chris Bell of Big Star was 27 when he died. I learned it from watching the new Big Star documentary (Nothing Can Hurt Me).
I feel like as that movie circulates, the 27 Club conversation will once again be revived. It is interesting to look at different musicians who passed at that age, and seeing where they were in their lives and careers at that time.
Absolutely. I've heard so many different theories on the 27 Club -- from the completely hippie to the numerological to the coincidental. It sort of shows an arc of life. The folks who really started to get a lot of success in their early 20s, by the time they were 27, you can be kind of spent, creatively. At least for a while. It's crazy to think that someone like Jimi Hendrix was only 27 when he died. These people become mythological creatures. They seem ageless. I mean, Buddy Holly was 22!
I just think of how I felt when Kurt Cobain died -- and I was only 13 and I was devastated. But now he's a completely different character to a whole new generation of people.
When I talk to kids and tell them I saw Nirvana many times, on club dates, too, it is very similar to when I was a kid and one of my uncles telling me he saw The Beatles. It doesn't seem like it could be real.
And you never know the outcome at the time -- it may just be one of thousands of shows you have seen.
Everyone has these stories - but being fanatical about music, I've seen so many bands in this context. I remember seeing shows that would be iconic, but at the time, it would be just another gig. Some of those legendary gigs, they kind of sucked. (Laughs.) Totally. I remember seeing Ol' Dirty Bastard at the Ogden Theatre in the '90s and it was a nightmare. He seemed wasted and barely performing. But I still can say I was there.
And that's why we do these memorabilia tours -- one of the coolest things you get with the culture that Hard Rock has built is you get to hear the guests tell these same stores. That, to me, is really fascinating. From doing this, I've met people from all walks of life.
One that stands out in my mind is, I was showing memorabilia in the Orlando (Florida) Hard Rock Cafe and I met an older couple from Liverpool. They were probably in their seventies. Come to find out, this man had played in a Mersey Beat band called The Senators. They had done countless club gigs at The Cavern Club and at Pete Best's mom's place where they used to jam, The Casbah (Coffee Club), with The Beatles.
He told me that back then, John Lennon was such a hassle to him -- he said he liked him and they were friends, but John would always call him and ask him to bring his amp down to gigs in his little hatchback sedan, because John didn't have a car. Hearing stories like that from folks is a hugely gratifying thing; it's why we put these tours together.
How do you choose which pieces will go into a traveling exhibition? The Hard Rock Cafe's archives have to be huge.
We try to cast a wide net, and we also try to make connections between legacy artists and contemporary artists. One thing that gets, well, I wouldn't say boring because I'm into these things as a music nerd, but one thing that kind of gets old after a while is only talking about the "Golden Age" rockers. All that stuff is fascinating, and it is a cultural earthquake that has yet to be matched, but, we also want bring in pieces like Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes's outfit she wore on tour with TLC -- which to me is incredibly poignant, because her story is incredible.
She was like this really creative artist, whose career and death sort of came at the cusp of this total information society that we live in now. Things like her tumultuous marriage, her death and the dissolution of the group -- it was right at the beginning of when we started to consume that information in real time.
I thought Amy (Winehouse) was the biggest example of that. I felt like I was the only person who was shocked when she died. I think the fact that some people weren't shocked speaks again to that instant information phenomenon. If you take the same tools -- cell phone photography, YouTube, Twitter and the instant dissemination of rumors and gossip -- if you take those same tools back forty years and point that same camera at Keith Richards, are you going to tell me Amy Winehouse was more messed up than Keith Richards in the '70s?
Give me a break. I mean, that could be anybody -- not just Keith. We use Keith as the sort of default example, but come on.
Is there any Amy memorabilia in this tour?
Unfortunately, no. We have four tours going around the world right now -- when we have done these tours in past, we tend to default toward North America. It's only because we're (headquartered) in North America. But this time out, it was a conscious effort to take a very impactful memorabilia tour to the rest of the globe. But we couldn't neglect North America, of course, so we sent out four awesome exhibitions.
How does the Hard Rock Cafe acquire these items in the first place?
A lot of different ways -- when Hard Rock started in '71, it wasn't really even about music memorabilia. It was just a cool kind of restaurant and watering hole for the two hippie guys (Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton) that started the joint. The entire memorabilia collection almost started by accident -- Eric Clapton gave Isaac a guitar to put on the wall for absolutely no reason. So he put it on the wall.
Pete Townsend, in a drunken sort-of lapse of judgment, sent over an unbelievable custom Les Paul with a note that said, "Mine's as good as Eric's any day." That guitar and the note are on one of the tours.
So, what's coming to Denver on the tour?
We have an amazing custom-tailored leather outfit that was made for Keith Moon. I mean, you'd have to be Keith Moon to wear it. The Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes outfit and some handwritten lyrics from her will also be there. We have an incredible Kurt Cobain display -- an Ovation acoustic guitar that belonged to his aunt, Mary Earl. He used it really early on, when he would go record at her house.
My favorite on the Cobain display is his seventh-grade yearbook -- it's just so much fun to look at. For me, personally, it resonates immensely. I love to look at the rock star yearbooks, not to look at the rock stars, but to look at everybody else. Think about all of the back-story lies people are probably telling now about how close they were. (Laughs.)
But also, for me, it's weird because Kurt Cobain and I are almost the exact same age. Our birthdays are, like, two weeks apart. The kids in his yearbook are like the kids in my yearbook, you know what I mean? I look at every kid in the book and I'm like, I know these people.
We've also got the Guild twelve-string acoustic that Bob Marley used to record "Is This Love," and it is pretty amazing. We have a great Jim Morrison display with a leather jacket and handwritten poem. We have a Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar coming. Oh, Elvis's black karate outfit that is just over-the-top -- it's this karate outfit with a tiger emblazoned on it.
We've got a patent-leather "fly" outfit that Bono wore on the "ZOOTV" tour, which is ridiculous. One of the real showstoppers, though, is John Lennon's round glasses. It's a big deal. We have a Bruce Springsteen display that has this sort of nondescript black blazer that he wore on the "Darkness on the Edge of Town" tour. But also on display with it is a poem he wrote for Clarence Clemons that is incredible -- he took each letter of Clarence's name and made a line for the poem.
We also have this Uncle Sam-looking Elton John outfit -- it's this sequined, crazy thing that only Elton could wear. There's a really, really good Jimi Hendrix display, too. We've got a lot of great stuff coming to Denver.
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Treasures of the Hard Rock opens today and runs through August 3. The exhibit is housed inside the Hard Rock Cafe Denver, 500 16th Street; for more information, visit the Hard Rock Cafe's website.