Rock and Roll Graveyard

Jimi Hendrix's guitar. John Lennon's furniture. Bono's sunglasses. Hope I die before I get sold.

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.

Company CEO Arthur Levitt III, a fast-track ex-Disney wunderkind who took over the reins in January of this year, is another story altogether. You get the sense that Levitt desperately wants you to like him, and the minute you do, he's going to sell you something. It's the same kind of sneaking suspicion that leads one to conclude all the Hard Rock's "Save the Planet" and "Love all -- serve all" sloganeering is really just part of a cynical strategy to appear hip and PC in order to sell more T-shirts. Levitt discusses at length plans to sponsor a manatee farm, and can rattle off statistics about how many of the wild sea cows were killed last year, how many remain, and how soon they will become extinct at the present rate of attrition. It's a convincing spiel. Then he just sort of shrugs and says, "Or maybe we'll do something to save the rain forest."

Levitt works hard at being a regular guy. He majored in marine biology at Southampton College, and did fisheries research in Hawaii for two years before moving to L.A., where he landed a job selling office furniture. He's personable, accessible, goes on three-week adventure vacations to New Guinea, and has a penchant for loud ties. His handshake is firm but not macho. But Levitt's family tree tells a different story. His grandfather served as New York state comptroller and his father chaired the American Stock Exchange. Hard-nosed businessmen. Not the types to fret over the irony inherent in snapping up those rebellious, anti-establishment rock stars' instruments and using them to sell seven-dollar hamburgers.

And free spirit that Routhier may be, if he were too sympathetic to Elvis Costello's point of view, he'd be out of a job. Not surprisingly, he steers discussion toward the treasures tucked away in the memorabilia warehouse's guitar room, such as the Fender Telecaster with a body fashioned out of yellow-green bowling-ball plastic. "The bowling ball Tele was part of a limited edition, one of only seven produced, only three that color. It didn't belong to anyone famous, but it may be the only one of its kind still around," he explains.

Then there's a battered old acoustic with what looks like an elaborate winter snow scene painted on it. "We picked that one up from a Russian water skiier who was part of an exhibition team visiting Orlando before the wall came down. He'd sell us caviar and vodka he'd smuggled over, and one day he came by with this guitar painted by a famous (or so he said) Russian religious iconographer. Nowadays we probably wouldn't buy something like that, but it seemed like a good idea at the time," the curator says.

To a guitar aficionado, entering this domain must be akin to the rush Goldfinger experienced when he finally breached Fort Knox. Ignore Michael Jackson's spangled white glove. The walls are lined with dozens upon dozens of classic axes. Slash's black Les Paul Custom. Steve Vai's Ibanez. B.B. King's black-with-gold-trim "Lucille." Keith Richards's Gibson L6-S. Tom Petty's Rickenbacker. Steve Howe's double-necked Gibson SG. Neil Young's Gretsch Tennessean. David Gilmour's black Fender Strat. Glen Campbell's blond Ovation electric with the pearl inlaid "G.C." A Spike Jones Rickenbacker. Chet Atkins's custom Gibson. Glen Frey's lavender Yamaha. Bo Diddley's square Gretsch.

All told, the Hard Rock owns 629 electric guitars, 96 basses, and 151 acoustics. They have early instruments that belonged to legendary electric guitar innovators Leo Fender and Les Paul, as well as the favored Strats of Hendrix and Clapton. The collection is worth millions, although that's not necessarily what the Hard Rock paid to assemble it. "In the early Eighties, it wasn't uncommon for people to sell stars' guitars for the value of the instrument alone, regardless of ownership. They were selling them for the price of the guitars. At the time everyone thought the Hard Rock was crazy for putting so much emphasis on the star's name. Now they hate us for it," notes Routhier, the man most responsible for Hard Rock's policy of paying a premium for instruments formerly owned by famous rockers.

His office, located in a nondescript Orlando warehouse, is an expansive desk that faces a plump settee with a fist-size hole in the wicker back; the couch was Lennon's and the hole is from the head of his guitar repeatedly banging the rattan while the Beatle practiced.

The curator keeps a little Fender Champ amplifier near his desk, and sometimes at night, after everyone else has gone home, he'll pick out one of the vintage six-strings, tune it up (guitars are stored with the original strings slackened), and let her rip. He wouldn't admit to it, but you wouldn't be surprised to find out he occasionally even dons one of the Voodoo Chile's embroidered jackets or silk shirts (Hendrix was partial to Velcro buttons!) to put himself in the mood. After all, no one's stopping him.

No clear line of demarcation exists between Routhier's office, his staff's, and the memorabilia. Valuable junk is strewn everywhere; it looks like a teenager's bedroom. Routhier and his four underlings would have visitors believe they keep tabs on the disarray, and emphasize that every item is tagged and logged in a computer. But you'd never guess that from the quantity and variety of odds and ends that litters the area. A black cloth voodoo doll from Jane's Addiction. A foot-tall porcelain Mick Jones figurine. The white roller skates with red laces from Warrant's Cherry Pie album. A plastic bag containing one of Keith Moon's drumsticks and some foot pedals. Bono's bug-eyed glasses from the first leg of U2's Zooropa tour. It's the ultimate novelty shop.

Between Routhier's desk and his nearest associate's is a semicircle of a half-dozen recently acquired guitars on upright stands, including a Fender bass used by Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam in the recording of the band's as-yet-unreleased second album, two Albert Collins Flying Vs, and a Harmony Marquis acoustic that belonged to horror novelist Stephen King, autographed by the Rock Bottom Remainders and featuring a wimpy nylon G string. A close-up photo of a grumpy-looking John Belushi flipping the bird to the cameraman (and hence the viewer) peers out from a window ledge behind Routhier's chair.

At the opposite end of the office from Routhier's desk is a bank of filing cabinets, home to an extensive collection of classic rock concert posters. Abutting the cabinets are racks of rock star clothing: a signed Born to Run-era Springsteen leather jacket, several gaudy Elton John outfits, some purple Prince finery, a rhinestone-studded black velvet pants-and-jacket ensemble that once adorned Lou Reed, and a hairy pink fake fur worn by John Lennon during the Magical Mystery Tour.

Routhier cites the Lennon garment as an example of the type of item the Hard Rock's ever-vigilant artifact acquisition team looks for when it scours the memorabilia auctions. "Something that conjures up or galvanizes an image," is how he puts it. A photograph of the star in the garment is a plus, exposure on an album cover or in a movie is even better. A crown with matching red-and-white cape worn by James Brown is perfect -- trademark accessories, oft-photographed and inextricably linked with the Godfather of Soul.

This is where the man with the coolest job in the world "works," the place where he and his staff file their nails, engage in telephone tag with auctioneers and collectors around the globe, and try to resist the overwhelming urge to play with the toys on company time. Routhier has decorated company cafes in New York, Dallas, Tokyo, Cancun, and Reykjavik. During one fifteen-day period in 1987, he expended a week decorating the Tokyo Hard Rock Cafe, flew to Dallas for an afternoon, jetted off to a Sotheby's auction in New York where he spent $220,000, and from there hopped a plane to Iceland, where he oversaw the decorating of the Reykjavik franchise. Recalls the curator: "In Iceland in June, the sun never sets. I didn't know whether I was coming or going. Surreal."

But the job does have its perks, not all of which revolve around surreptitiously plucking the stars' strings. Routhier once conducted a private tour of the Dallas cafe for an appreciative group of legendary studio guitarists, many of whose guitars are part of the Hard Rock's stockpile -- Tommy Tedesco, Chet Atkins, Leland Sklar, Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, Steve Cropper, and James Burton. And then there was the time Bo Diddley gave Routhier an impromptu talking blues history of his first fiddle, followed by a rendition of "The Clock Strikes Twelve" at the caretaker's request.

Guitars, posters, and clothing make up the bulk of the Hard Rock's holdings, but there is much, much more. Rows and rows of shelves and cubbyholes shelter loose documents such as Buddy Holly's traffic tickets and a letter home to mom, a Beatles tour jacket, and Charlie Daniels's fiddle. In an un-air-conditioned section of the warehouse lurks the engineless, seatless body of one of Elvis's pink Cadillacs. The Hard Rock tries to rotate the memorabilia in its restaurants every three years, and Routhier's office is the axis about which it all revolves.

Most of the items that will decorate the walls of the Miami Hard Rock Cafe are being packed up and readied to ship from Dallas, where the archive was located until 1989. A partial preview:

Elvis's karate gi.
Elton John's three-piece wool plaid suit.
Keith Richards's snakeskin jacket.

George Harrison's handwritten lyrics for "Piggies" with John Lennon's corrections.

Madonna's coat with embroidered crown and crosses from Truth or Dare.
Janis Joplin's hat.
Guitars from Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Albert Collins, Slash, Keith Richards, Robert Cray, and Vernon Reid.

And the piece de resistance: Gloria Estefan's bustier. Never let it be said that the Hard Rock Cafe doesn't understand its market.

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