SOMEWHERE IN ORLANDO
There's no music playing inside the Vault, and yet it's still impossible to hear yourself think. Your mind flips like a jukebox menu as you ricochet from a red Sammy Hagar "55" guitar to the Eagles' 1979 Grammy for Heartache Tonight to the baby-blue cowboy hat Madonna wore on the Music album cover — and it's all just sitting there, no big deal.
Nothing is encased or labeled or, for that matter, clean. This isn't a museum; it's raw, rock-god overload, and it's not for public consumption. Heck, the historian at Hard Rock International doesn't even want you to know the Vault exists.
"If you could leave the address out of the story, that'd be great," says Jeff Nolan, keeper of this multimillion-dollar mess.
The Vault — or, as Nolan describes it, "the world's craziest thrift store" — is a cavernous warehouse a few miles from Universal Orlando.
It's where many of the 73,000-plus pieces of "memo" belonging to the Hard Rock await a place in one of the company's 150 restaurants, hotels and casinos. Some items are just passing through (a Jimi Hendrix guitar for instance); some could stay here for longer (that Cher Makeup Center for sure).
Remember the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark? When Indiana Jones' boxed-up treasure gets rolled into that vast sterile repository of boxed-up treasures? The Vault at Hard Rock headquarters is nothing like that. Instead, everything is out in the open, history in a casual pose, like an Izod shirt hanging in your closet — except it's not an Izod, it's one of Elvis' "nudie" jumpsuits or Prince's wee tiny pants or the Jackson 5's outfits for an appearance on The Dinah Shore Show.
"We have a treasure trove of Madonna underwear," Nolan says with significant gravitas.
A genial, shambling sort who smells like cigarettes and vintage issues of Rolling Stone, Nolan, 44, knows where everything is, what everything means. And he is about to take his knowledge on the road. From Aug. 10-12, as part of his employer's 40th anniversary, Nolan will be at Tampa's Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino with an 80-foot double-wide truck of memorabilia including Steven Tyler's spandex and Michael Jackson's zipperific Beat It jacket.
"This is an interesting piece," he says, ambling toward a standup bass. "We just got it from Mumford & Sons." He points to a Freddie Mercury jumpsuit: "There's no way a human being would have the confidence to get into that."
Nolan, Hard Rock's walking encyclopedia since 2004, opens a boring gray file cabinet and starts flipping cards onto a counter. Upon closer oh-no-way inspection, the cards just happen to be autographed by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison.
The Vault is jaw-dropping, nerve-racking, awesome and a little sad — not unlike a trip through your attic, all those memories, all those moments left behind. Nolan picks up a vintage horn, someone's toy. "This is Keith's horn, when he was a kid. Keith Moon." Yes, the late, troubled Who drummer, his childhood just sitting on a shelf.
The Hard Rock was able to amass its collection — through donations and various acquisitions — because "for the longest time, it was the only game in town," says Nolan. Established in 1971, Hard Rock came years before the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland or the Experience Music Project in Seattle. A small staff of archivists decides which restaurant or hotel receives which items; it often boils down to personal choice, perhaps one historian's love of Michael Jackson. (Speaking of which, next to the Eagles Grammy you'll find the King of Pop's 1984 American Music Award trophy for Favorite Male Vocalist. Keep looking.)
On two long, high walls, hundreds of guitars hang: "This is a cool one, John Entwistle's," Nolan says. Look there: Joe Strummer's, Clapton's, Slash's.
Soon you want to know the story of everything. There, that furry faux-patriotic hat. Parliament-Funkadelic, perhaps? "I'm pretty sure that's C.C. DeVille's," Nolan says. Ah, yes, the guitarist for Poison. Sure. Why not.
Nolan displays an awe for most items, but even he gets an extra goose from the really special ones. He pulls a large, well-bound book from a shelf. It's a yearbook, 1954, from Lubbock High School in Texas. He flips through some pages, stops.
"There," Nolan says. It's a picture of a smiling, bespectacled young man. His name? "Buddy Holley." Yep, with an "e." His "Holly" stage name, it turns out, was a mistake on his first record contract.
"Wait," says Nolan. He turns to the yearbook's next page, points to a pretty brunet. Her name is Echo McGuire. "See her right there?"
Nolan holds your gaze for an extra second.
"That's Peggy Sue."
With that, he closes the book and puts it back on the shelf. "Come on," Nolan says. "You haven't seen anything yet."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife. Follow Sean on Twitter at @seandalypoplife.