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Trivia question: What do the black Gibson Flying V guitar with gold hardware on which Jimi Hendrix played "Red House" on Rainbow Bridge; an empty sleeping pill bottle filled at Schwab's pharmacy on May 5, 1961, by Marilyn Monroe; a pen-and-ink self-portrait of John Lennon masturbating; Madonna's wedding dress from the Like a Virgin album cover; and the man with the coolest job in the world have in common?
Answer:They can all be found at the Hard Rock Cafe's memorabilia warehouse in Orlando. According to Sotheby's -- the closest thing there is to an authority on the subject -- the spoils of the Hard Rock empire include the most extensive agglomeration of rock gewgaws, heirlooms, and artifacts on the planet. The Miami Hard Rock Cafe, scheduled for a late-September opening in the Bayside Marketplace space formerly occupied by Reflections, will be the chain's 24th outlet. Steve Routhier, a 38-year-old reformed ski bum and wanna-be guitar player, who is the memorabilia collection's curator and holder of the above-mentioned coolest job in the world, will supply the decorations.
Trading in rock artifacts has become a big business. The Fender Stratocaster Hendrix played at Woodstock, arguably one of the most coveted relics of the rock era, fetched $325,000 in 1991. Rumors abounded at the time that the Italian collector who bought the holy ax got his currency-exchange rates confused and thought he was actually paying a tenth that price, but subsequent sales of less desirable Hendrix guitars have corroborated the outlay. For several years the biggest player at the world's rock auctions has been the Hard Rock Cafe, which displays most of its acquisitions in its restaurants.
"Rock stars always say, 'Are you crazy? You're gonna put that stuff on the wall?'" laughs Routhier, who has been presiding over the Hard Rock's archive since 1986. "And then you get some who don't even remember the pieces. Yes bassist Chris Squire insisted that a bass we had in the New York Hard Rock was never his. We researched it, found a photo of him playing the instrument, framed the photo, and hung it next to the bass. A few years later, when Yes launched their reunion tour, he asked us if he could borrow it."
Not all rockers, however, are as untroubled by the concept of a commercial restaurant chain controlling the world's largest and most valuable collection of rock memorabilia. "Elvis Costello told us, 'You guys are scum. Fuck off,'" admits Routhier with a self-effacing grin.
Costello had a point. It might be unfair to compare the Hard Rock's hoarding to, say, the Nazis looting Europe's art treasures, but it isn't too much to hope that cherished rock and roll mementos would meet a better fate than to end as marketing gimmicks for a very slick multinational corporation.
The Hard Rock Cafe's corporate honchos have assembled a formidable PR machine. Even though Miami's branch doesn't open for a month and a half, paraphernalia emblazoned with the company's familiar logo has been selling briskly since mid-May at the "information booth" -- a temporary retail store near Bayside's main entrance constructed from the hull of the bus that shuttled the Beatles around on their Magical Mystery Tour. And the company thought nothing of flying a press junket from Miami to Orlando, site of Hard Rock's USA headquarters, to peruse the archive. Reporters were wined and dined in the Orlando Hard Rock Cafe's VIP area (affectionately known as the cloud room because all the rock stars represented on its walls are dead, with the exception of the Grateful Dead) and loaded up with complimentary Hard Rock T-shirts, baseball caps, sunglasses, and boxer shorts. The New Times contingent, appalled by the blatant pitch, rebelled by soaking up as many Rolling Rocks as we could. Can't buy us.
To hear Teri Simpson, design coordinator under Routhier, tell it, the company really believes the archive is its spiritual center, and accords it the appropriate veneration. "Everyone at Hard Rock Cafe agrees it deserves respect," she maintains. "It's their treasure."
Routhier concurs that the company is a benevolent force. "The Hard Rock has become an important collection of cultural iconography that is unique in the world, the only living museum of rock and roll in the universe," states the curator's company-issue bio, although Bruce Conforth, director of curatorial and educational services for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, objects to the "only living museum" line.
"They're not a museum. No museum hangs items on a wall," says Conforth. "But the Hard Rock Cafe has become an icon of popular culture. They do what they do very well. Rock and roll is the greatest celebration of capitalism that ever existed. [The evolution of the Hard Rock Cafe] was as inevitable as MTV."
Assuming the corporation has a soul, Routhier is it. He left his job as creative director for a Madison Avenue advertising firm in 1984 because of "a growing dissatisfaction with suits and ties," and then spent two years working in virtually every facet of the New York Hard Rock Cafe before creating the memorabilia department in 1986. Today he exudes the contented air of a man who's found his niche. The curator smiles so broadly his eyes disappear into slits when he describes his personal favorite pieces: Bo Diddley's crude, homemade first guitar, and a hand-painted Nehru jacket worn by Hendrix at Monterey. Either Routhier is a great actor or the man genuinely cares.