It is, of course, different strokes for different folks. There may well be people in this world who will linger over ephemera from the likes of Flogging Molly or Loggins & Messina, and who will look in awe at an encased set of drum cymbals that were once deftly whacked by Charlie Watts. There will be people who may have scant regard for a hand-written letter by Van Morrison or a signed bodhrán by Hot House Flowers' singer Liam Ó Maonlaoí; or who may think that the aforementioned drum cymbals would look much better after the application of Brasso and elbow grease. That's what memorabilia of any value – historical, sentimental or otherwise – is all about: you either connect with it or you don't.
Back in February, about two weeks before the soft opening of Hard Rock Hotel Dublin – which, as we know, soon after went into lockdown with the rest of Ireland – I sat down with Jeff Nolan, the hotel group’s music consultant/curator/copywriter. For a guy named Jeff, he really does channel a Dude attitude – he says he got the gig with the hotel group through “dumb luck and misspent youth”. Formerly a working musician who had lived for many years in Los Angeles, about 20 years ago he arrived in Orlando, Florida, where Hard Rock is based. While he represents not so much Hard Rock properties as its world-beating “pre-eminent music museum”, Nolan is also a music fan who has no problem enthusing over memorabilia of varying shapes, and, as a Thin Lizzy aficionado, talking excitedly of meeting Irish artist (and Thin Lizzy designer, et al) Jim Fitzpatrick. Nolan, however, is no sucker when it comes to analysing certain aspects of his role.
“Hard Rock’s memorabilia collection gets lost sometimes in the hubbub of the openings of hotels, restaurants and casinos. The average guest can be forgiven for being somewhat sceptical about that because we now live in a collector culture. From a music fan’s point of view, however, it is extraordinary what this company has in its collection, which runs to north of 80,000 pieces. They have items that are as equally iconic as whimsical and ephemeral, and being a music fan I was attracted to that.”
Collector culture, he says, places a monetary value on everything, which in turn can transform the art, or item, into something unattainable to all that can’t afford to buy it. Hard Rock, he observes, started the idea of a systematic rock’n’roll collection that is put on display for all to see. The hotels, cafés and casinos, he implies, are the structures (and unabashed money-making ones, at that) by which to view them.
These items only have value and power because of our shared experience of them
The Hard Rock brand, however, is largely perceived as being part of an era that celebrates legacy rock acts from, more or less, the mid-60s to the mid-90s. From Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Janis Joplin to Sex Pistols, The Clash, U2, and Nirvana, rock music – particularly in the past 20 years – has undergone significant if not seismic changes in areas of styles, genres and delivery, hasn’t it?
“You don’t have to have the big money gatekeepers any more to create art, that’s for sure,” Nolan affirms. The downside, he suggests, is living in a time where many people have little or no frame of reference for the purchase of music. The upside, he says, “is that if a kid can make an album in their bedroom and release it into the world just by hitting a button, then that’s amazing. Billie Eilish is currently the ultimate expression of that - her album really was recorded by her and her brother in the bedroom on, for the most part, consumer-grade equipment.”
Is Hard Rock planning to bridge the gaps between memorabilia that celebrates legacy and a far more diverse and contemporary range of music acts? There’s a Beyoncé t-shirt and a Justin Timberlake artefact on the walls of Hard Rock Dublin, but beyond these we don’t see memorabilia from any other current pop acts of the past 10 years. Nolan isn’t privy to future company policy, but he does admit that the demographic is flipping.
"I find that younger people are more open-minded about legacy music than older people are about new music. I could easily find you a kid in Dublin that loves The Beatles or is wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt but who also loves Lizzo and Billie Elish. I think I'd be hard-pressed to find you a 50-something guy who loves The Beatles and Led Zeppelin who is also into Lizzo, Billie Eilish or Ariana Grande."
Younger people are genre-agnostic, too, he remarks (a positive by-product of streaming services, of course), so “those hard lines aren’t as sharply drawn as they used to be. Besides, it can’t all be classic rock because if we just sat here and only talked about bands like Thin Lizzy, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones it would be pathetic.”
Recent acquisitions, he confirms, have been mostly contemporary artists. “Hard Rock’s collection of legacy artists is gigantic, so it doesn’t really need to be expanded that much and, frankly, the legitimate legacy pieces that become available tend to go to vastly wealthy baby boomers.” Such auction-happy spendthrifts rarely, if ever, release their goods into the great outdoors. Hard Rock has a different mandate. “Anything it gets is because they want to share it with people. Yes, they have physical possession of the stuff, but these items only have value and power because of our shared experience of them.”
Memorabilia items arrive by various methods and means, none of which include (and this is said with a chuckle) “scouring eBay”. The hotel group works directly with artists, artist management, artist estates, and major auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and in particular, Julien’s, the California-based celebrity auctioneers. Acquisitions also come via various artists’ philanthropy (one example being an extended loan of Shakira’s stage and video clothes in return for a donated sum of money to her Barefoot Foundation charity) and, more pragmatically, some artists’ need for money. “You have some 80/90s artists who are not making enough to pay the bills, so they get an infusion of cash and recognition,” says Nolan, sworn to secrecy as to which acts might be on their uppers.
The greatest kind of memorabilia is hand-written. It's personal, and you can see into the artist's head a little bit
Some items, including numerous artworks in Hard Rock Dublin’s public spaces and bedrooms, are specially commissioned. Irish artists such as Jim Fitzpatrick, Laura Buchanan, David Uda (aka Duda) and Helen O’Higgins each have their work displayed. Yet with Dublin already having memorabilia at the Irish Rock’n’Roll Museum (“it’s goofy”, says Nolan, and we don’t think he’s being complimentary), Windmill Lane Recording Studios, and the planned U2 Museum, is the pool for solid-gold items from irish musicians vanishing?
"There is always that for any project, of course, and then with some artists you just can't get any. Not everything is attainable. For example, Hard Rock doesn't really have a preponderance of Rory Gallagher memorabilia." I mention the cased electric guitar, located in the bar/lounge area, that is signed by U2's Adam Clayton. It isn't an Edge guitar, and it isn't one of Clayton's bass guitars. As memorabilia goes, it's a bit random, isn't it? "Oh, ignore that," says Nolan, sharply steering off such a naysayer observation with "have you seen the Van Morrison letter? It's amazing."
We take the elevator to the Rock Star Suite. Nolan is correct. The Van Morrison letter, framed and positioned where you can’t miss it, is something else. It a red-biro-written stream of consciousness (no guru, no method, no punctuation) to guitarist Mick Cox, a member of Morrison’s recording and touring band in the late 1970s/1980s. It is items such as these (which was bought at auction by Hard Rock, and no, Nolan won’t say for how much) that validate the not wholly unreasonable claim that a cultural/legacy aspect can still have value for the dedicated fan.
Nolan agrees that the passion some people feel about looking at any of these items on the walls of Hard Rock properties might not transfer to a casual observer or non-music fan, yet “it’s incumbent on Hard Rock to convey that passion and find a way to connect with their guests. Otherwise, why do you put the stuff on the walls?”
All things being equal, it’s a fair enough question, but – still looking at Van Morrison’s letter – Nolan The Dude is drifting off into a reverie. “The greatest kind of memorabilia is hand-written. It’s personal, and you can see into the artist’s head a little bit. These days actual letters just don’t exist anymore. I mean, we’re not going to print out Billie Eilish’s emails and texts and nail them to the walls, are we?”
Certainly not. Duh.