The musical legacies of classic rock deities Eric Clapton and the Who's Peter Townshend are well-chronicled and widely revered. But on the eastern end of the Atlantic City Boardwalk sits an enormous concrete-and-steel monument to another aspect of their enduring impact on popular culture.
As it is with its scores of corporate-sibling restaurants, hotels and casinos around the globe, the calling card of the just-opened Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City is the vast collection of pop-music memorabilia housed inside what used to be Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. Items as large as Elvis Presley's 1963 Rolls-Royce and as small as a nondescript, vinyl-bound, pocket-sized address book owned by Jimi Hendrix when he lived in London in the 1960s are on display. And it's all because of Clapton and Townshend.
When the original Hard Rock Café opened in London in June 1971, the theme was Americana, which complemented its culinary strategy of offering Londoners hamburgers and other made-in-the-USA munchies. As the story goes, one of the most loyal customers in those early days was Clapton. Such was his fondness for the restaurant that one day, he brought in one of his guitars and suggested to management they hang the instrument on the wall adjacent to his favorite table to signify it was reserved for him.
A couple of weeks later, Townshend brought in a guitar of his own, accompanied by a note that read: "Mine's as good as his. Love, Pete."
With 480 pieces on display, Hard Rock Atlantic City has the most artifacts of any of the more than 200 outposts in the Hard Rock International chain. The items on display include numerous guitars once owned and played by the likes of Prince (a striking, custom-built purple number), Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Hendrix; a motorcycle owned by the late Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band; costumes that draped the bodies of, among others, Stevie Nicks, Dolly Parton, and Pink, and items from the personal wardrobes of Lady Gaga, Nikki Minaj and the Who's legendary, long-gone drummer, Keith Moon.
Although the car, motorcycle, clothes and guitars are clearly the headliners, perhaps the coolest of all the mementoes are far more ordinary. For instance, one exhibit boasts a Publishers House letter addressed to a home on Spaulding Street in Los Angeles. The intended recipient of the envelope that boasts a small, drawn portrait of longtime sweepstakes spokesman Ed McMahon in the upper left-hand corner was grunge avatar Kurt Cobain. In bold, black capital letters is written:
"KURT COVAIN (sic) IS THE UNDISPUTED TEN MILLION DOLLAR WINNER WE'VE BEEN SEARCHING FOR ALL OVER AMERICA."
Nearby sits a form letter from the 1970s addressed to Bruce Springsteen, 7½ West End Ct., West End, N.J. from the State of New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles. It requests info pertaining to a car accident in which he had been involved.
That these and similarly ordinary items are laid out directly in front of Elvis' imposing Rolls brings into sharp relief the idea that even pop culture immortals have to deal with the mundanities of daily life.
Obviously, none of the relics got to the Hard Rock on their own. Instead, corporate parent Hard Rock International has a small team headed by Jerry Fraize, whose title is director of memorabilia, design and construction. So how does Fraize (pronounced "phrase") go about accumulating the music-history totems?
"I really lean on auction houses to acquire a lot of these pieces, especially [from] some of the newer artists," he said during a recent interview. "And private collectors are a great source. I've got a lot of folks in the old Rolodex that really can help fill in some of these blanks, if you will."
And then there are the artists themselves.
"We have so many properties around the world between the cafes, hotels and casinos," Fraize explained. "A lot of times, the artists will come and stay, or come and eat and so we will have an interaction and [opportunity] to acquire memorabilia that way.
"We really have a good network."
Fraize added that, on occasion, he has been offered a piece by a performer that Fraize simply doesn't find display-worthy. In those instances, he noted, he declines the donation as gently as possible, often holding out the possibility that the musician might have a more appropriate tchotchke to provide in the future.
Because the chain's credibility rides on the authenticity of the memorabilia, legitimacy is a subject that Fraize and his minions take seriously.
"We stay away from things like hair and teeth — the really odd pieces that people would need to get a DNA test for," he reasoned. "We really like to make sure the provenance is rock-solid. Guitars are usually pretty easy [to authenticate], between the serial number and wood grain. You can match these with photos.
"But I really put the responsibility on the seller to prove the piece is what it's [represented to be]. Correspondence and photos are the best. I make sure the piece is authentic beyond a reasonable doubt, because we pride ourselves on having this massively amazing authentic collection."
As for where the pieces go, both the venues and the locations within them, Fraize said there are "four [memorabilia-display] designers who work really closely with the design firms that we use to come up with the locations where [the items] are going to be. Basically, we don't 'cookie-cutter' any of our properties. We make sure that each one tells its own story and has its own flow in regard to the memorabilia."
Among those recently checking out Hard Rock was Reese Stern, 33, of Northern Liberties. "The Rolls-Royce drew my attention when I first walked in and walked over to check out the stuff," he said. "It's very cool to see all the memorabilia here. The Kurt Cobain microphone is awesome."
Admiring an exhibit dedicated to performers from New Jersey (among them Clemons, Debbie Harry of Blondie and Bon Jovi), was Diane Krout of Audubon, Pa. who was making her second Hard Rock visit in 72 hours.
"The Elvis Presley car and jumpsuit," said Krout when asked to identify her favorite pieces. "And we're big Bruce Springsteen fans, so I brought my husband to see the Clarence Clemons motorcycle and Bruce's vest."
The Elvismobile was also special to Sal Perone, Bridgewater, NJ, 66, a self-described Presley fanatic.
"We visited Graceland and did not see the Rolls Royce," he said. "This is great. It gives me the chills. It gives me the chills."