Site not look beautiful? Click here

Features

The Music Memorabilia Man

Warwick Stone is the Hard Rock’s king of collectors

T.R. Witcher

First things first. Yes, there is a room. Yes, there is a guy.

The room is on the sixth floor of the Hard Rock Hotel. It’s a storage room. Or a prop room. No, no, no, it’s more like a closet, long and thin, and jammed with enough stuff to stoke even the most cynical among you into barnstorming rock and roll fantasies.

The room, watched over by a few statues of Shiva, houses the Hard Rock’s extensive collection of memorabilia, the items that are not currently on display in the hotel’s lobby and casino. Walking through is a crash course in half a century of popular music: A piece of the plane that crashed in 1967, killing soul man Otis Redding. Shoes from Spice Girls. Buddy Holly’s cowboy boots. John Lee Hooker’s guitar, hat and amp. Slash’s trademark black top hat (no, wait—the backup hat; the better one is downstairs). A costume from Korn frontman Jonathan Davis that’s best described as a Star Trek kilt. Rocker Lita Ford’s leather jacket. Clothes from The Temptations. Michael Jackson’s buckled-out costume from Bad. Madonna’s black bustier. Greeting you as you walk in is a yellow jumpsuit and hat belonging to funk maestro Bootsy Collins. Bootsy’s oversized UV 400 sunglasses are there, too. (Oh, wait, these have a tag on them, so they’re not originals. Damn.)

The costumes are cool, but the business end of rock music is farther back—a stacked inventory of guitars. About 70 of them. Elvis. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Clapton. Petty. R.E.M. There’s a Nirvana guitar with the labels, “This guitar supported by the timber industry” and “Trade in this guitar for a shovel.” There’s a post-Purple Rain guitar of Prince’s with a sort of devil’s tail-shaped adjustable sustain bar. And the ultimate, a banged-up white guitar once played by Jimi Hendrix (handle with caution!). Bookending the back of the room is a drum set from The Doors.

It all makes you want to close the door behind you, lest some hotel guest wandering by peek in, lest somebody start riffing on the rock-star daydream you’ve got cranked up in your head.

Oh, right, there’s the guy …

Actually, as Warwick Stone enters the room, he’s already moving to close the door. For years he was officially the Hard Rock’s creative director, a loose-fitting title which means, among other things, that he’s the curator of this room. The man who not only maintains the collection, but also found or purchased most of it. He stops at the Bootsy Collins display, and wonders what to do with the star-studded shades, as there is no mannequin head to put them on. Just dropping them below the hat strikes Stone as a little bit too Claude Raines in The Invisible Man.

Queen’s Freddie Mercury may have been born to be a rock star, as Stone puts it, but Stone was born to collect the artifacts that spiral forth from rock stars’ music and lives and create lasting connections between them and the fans. It’s been an interesting path for the Englishman. He’s moved from clothing designer to interior designer to curator—having chosen the photos for a recent exhibit by rock photographer Mick Rock—but he’s lost none of his own affinity for rock and roll. During a photo shoot he’s relaxed, but with his white gloves, he makes it clear that these artifacts of rock lore are more than just old guitars and clothes. “The memorabilia,” he says, “is sacred.”

O O O O O

When we met at the end of March, at the Hard Rock, Stone wore gray slacks, a snakeskin belt, a white T-shirt and a mop of curly hair. Growing up in Brighton, England—a beachside town south of London—the son of a seamstress and a painter, how could Stone not gravitate to the musical revolution? It wasn’t easy to find an immediate hook, however: “I can’t sing, can’t play guitar,” he recalls telling himself as a young man. “The next best thing is to make leather pants for rock stars.” Which he did, designing leatherwear and clothing for Mercury, Rod Stewart, Wayne Newton and Frankie Valli, among others.

But he moved out of the costume biz because it was too hard to earn a regular living. (He made tour jackets for bands, the sort of items that nowadays, he ruefully notes, “they give away to slot players,” but those were the days before such merchandise became, you know, merchandise.)

Instead, Stone had his sights set on getting into the restaurant business. He moved to Los Angeles in the mid-’70s and fell in with Hard Rock Café co-founder Peter Morton. (Stone’s sister would later marry Morton.) The first Hard Rock had already opened in London in 1971; 10 years later the company began an aggressive expansion. The Hard Rock in LA opened in 1982 at the new Beverly Center mall. Basically it was a T.G.I. Friday’s with a ’50s diner theme and walls stuffed with a taxidermist’s version of the relics of Americana. Some of it was rock and roll, some of it wasn’t, but all of it was generic. A dozen restaurants in LA were selling the same middle-of-the-road menu.

At that point, to get a foot in the business Stone was working as a bus boy in the restaurant, or a door host, or a salad line preparer, or a kitchen warehouse man (lugging around 50-pound bags of hamburger). Clearly not jobs he was meant to have for very long. But he was also Morton’s right hand, and as the expanding company gradually began looking for more rock and roll artifacts to put on the walls, Stone wound up leading the efforts. His first break came around 1983 when the Guitar Center in LA called him up and offered him Pete Townshend’s guitar. The Who had recently disbanded, and Townshend had given the guitar away to a kid on an MTV show. The shop sold it to Stone for $850. Not long after, Priscilla Presley gave Peter Morton one of Elvis’ capes.

By the mid-’80s memorabilia began to turn up in larger numbers at the London auction house Sotheby’s. At first it was small stuff—Beatles suits, lyrics and gold records—but it gradually grew from a niche event to a major media show, with dozens of reporters camped out asking questions. The auctions were held twice a year, in the spring and fall.

Stone became one of the usual bidders, along with Japanese collectors, a Japanese department store and a Beatles rep trying to buy stuff back—items private collectors had hoarded out of trash cans, which, Stone says, would later go into anthology collections. A yellow pad with song lyrics might fetch £10,000. (Those same lyrics might be worth $200,000 now.) The time was right. Stuff was “available but relatively still affordable.”

That is, if you could carry it away. Drum sets from Led Zeppelin and Emerson, Lake and Palmer weighed 1,000 pounds. So no drums. “But we got everything else.” (Although, Stone admits that the paucity of Led Zeppelin memorabilia is a large hole in the collection.) The Hard Rock’s best stuff came out of that five years or so of auctions at Sotheby’s—memorabilia from early rock and roll founders like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Haley.

But Stone’s favorite stuff came from the punks. He remembers young fans once showed up at Sotheby’s looking to buy Sid Vicious’ leather jacket, but they didn’t have enough money. The jacket, which Stone bought, came with a letter of authentication from Sid’s mum. “I was gonna buy that no matter what.” Stone also got a set of Kiss dolls owned by Vicious that his mum got him for Christmas one year, along with another letter.

Of course, memorabilia wasn’t really what the punks were all about, was it? Stone has a bit of punk still in him, as well. Years ago, when a jacket Stone created came up for sale at a charity auction for $300, his pride was mixed in with incredulousness at the thought of buying it. “I’m not paying that,” he thought. After all, he made it. Now … well, it might have been a nice addition to the collection. (If Sid Vicious was done with his jacket, he’d have probably thrown it away.)

Still, millions of dollars and thousands of artifacts later, Stone remains an unabashed memorabilia enthusiast. “I really do love it. I really feel like no one else can do it quite like I do.” In other words, take that, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

O O O O O

His design work came about organically, not surprising given his fluid duties at Hard Rock. As he traveled to restaurants around the country, he discovered that every time he wanted to put something up on a wall there was a fire alarm or sprinkler or light fixture there. So, he became involved in telling architects what they needed design-wise so the memorabilia would fit. Pretty soon he did it himself. He began designing everything from door handles to saxophone chandeliers to cards and chips. Stone went on to design 15 Hard Rock flagships around the world, and created the chain’s signature neon guitar logo (an early idea called for a giant Hendrix burning his guitar). He also sliced a Cadillac in half and mounted the back end above the entrance to the Hard Rock’s LA restaurant.

“Whether you’re a theme place or not, everything is themed. You have to pay attention to details.” When the Hard Rock Hotel opened in 1995, the chain had 45 restaurants around the world; then the Mortons sold the chain (except for the Vegas hotel), and Hard Rocks began sprouting up like weeds everywhere. But all the best stuff, Stone insists, is here.

O O O O O

Stone left Hard Rock in 2004 and moved on to design interiors at the Pink Taco chain. He says the hotel became “a little cluttered and fussy.” He came back briefly at the end of 2005 to serve as “architectural traffic cop” on a planned renovation of the Hard Rock that never got off the ground; Morton sold the hotel to Morgans Hotel Group soon after.

When the new owners announced plans to renovate and expand the resort, Stone came back to help oversee the design. He hadn’t been in the memorabilia game for years, and here he was designing and building display cases himself. He wanted to modernize the place. Putting up guitars and jackets and platinum records was no longer as easy as hanging a piece of art, or a cross, on a wall. Now things have to have impact.

“How do you fight 800 slot machines?” he asks. The answer was simple enough: You don’t. You put the best stuff at the entrances, and when people get into the casino, that’s the end of it. So this is what you get when you walk into the Hard Rock vestibule off valet parking—two display cases on either side. In the one sits that icon of ’80s hard rock, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. Or rather one of his skin-tight, crotch-busting jumpsuits, this one an orange denim piece scored with black X-shaped stitches, a thumb-size plastic gun dangling from a chain, an eye shedding a tear painted on a shoe and a signed playlist.

In the other case is a play on the video Tim Burton directed for The Killers’ hit “Bones.” Here the band mannequins are skeletons, impeccably dressed. Beyond that, through the doors and into the casino, is another display, a perfect re-creation of the video for OK Go’s “Do What You Want,” wherein the band, the instruments, the floor and the walls are all covered in a burgundy floral-patterned velvet.

At the entrance are some tidbits from today’s pop stars: a flower dress Joss Stone wore in one of her videos; Britney Spears’ famous Catholic school-girl outfit that marked her emergence onto the pop scene in 1999; Christina Aguilera’s leather pants, red-and-white-striped bikini top and red bottoms, with a defiant X marking its spot on the rear. There’s also an incomprehensible tiger-striped duster once worn by Pink.

Two feelings are inevitable as we pass through the entrance. One is that there’s no, you know, music—the memorabilia displays show videos, but they’re behind glass so you can’t hear anything. But the second, stronger feeling is one that sort of goes like this: “Wow, Christina Aguilera’s ass is the chief tchotchke of this era of pop music?”    

At some level, all art strives for a kind of legitimacy. Jazz has risen from the bordellos of New Orleans to command respect in concert halls. The artifacts of rock music are fastidiously curated in museums. Larry Pellegrino teaches a course on The Beatles at UNLV. One of his prized possessions is the birth announcement he sent to Yoko Ono—his son’s middle name is Lennon—that she sent back signed, and accompanying a drawing from John Lennon.

His big thing is autographs, and he tells me that gathering all four Beatles signatures on one item would fetch anywhere from $10,000 to $18,000. After Ringo and Paul depart this world, the figure will go up. So he gets it, of course. “They were here, they touched this. That’s the whole essence of memorabilia in a nutshell. The personal aspect to it. They wrote this. They touched this. They owned this.”    

For Pellegrino, memorabilia depends on its rarity and its value. “You need not only the scarcity of it, but you need the demand of it. You take a band today, and you ask yourself, how much is their guitar going to be when you put it next to Jimi Hendrix’s left-handed Stratocaster?”

That’s a question that may split down generational lines, but for Stone it’s no abstraction. With the Hard Rock Hotel in the midst of an expansion that will double its size, he knows it’s tough to bring in new stuff. Even if all the items in the storage room are put on display, he still will have room to fill down below.

And rock stars aren’t making it any easier on him. “Nobody wears costumes anymore,” he says. “The basic bit of the show-biz costume is a black T-shirt.”

And as new bands inspire new generations, and memorabilia continues to proliferate, getting the artifact that stops people in their tracks is an uphill slog. Take Linkin Park, a band Stone describes as a “friend of the Hard Rock.” He asked them to send some stuff, and he got a turntable with no mat and a tonearm missing, and a black keyboard with skateboard stickers on it. Hardly the equal of a guitar from Hendrix. Stone wasn’t impressed. Then he found out that the turntable had been smashed at the end of a recent live DVD shot in Texas (“That’s rock and roll,” he says), and the keyboard was vocalist Mike Shinoda’s first ever.

“It’s all about the story.”

But the bands, long seeking to cut out corporate middlemen, have gone corporate themselves. One band (which he won’t name) sent Stone an outfit worn by the lead singer in concert, right down to the shoes. But then the band tried to send a new pair of shoes, different from the ones worn in the show, because the band owned the shoe company.

While there’s probably always an undercurrent of marketing when a band gives an item to the hotel, Stone had to draw the line somewhere. He refused the new shoes. “It’s not the same world it used to be.”

Still, when Townshend and Clapton were nailing up guitars at the first Hard Rock, in London, way back when, it was because they were, to some degree, locals. Fostering that attitude in a giant restaurant chain is not very easy. But in one hotel? Maybe. At any rate, “there’ll always be a Sharpie in the dressing room.”

This display of 12 punk jackets stands opposite the elevator bank. Behind the jackets the wall is decorated with concert fliers. Stone bought the jackets, covered with illustrations and punctuated with studs, from a Seattle record-store owner who bought them from kids in the store. “They’re artwork,” he says. “They’re personal identity.”

But he’s not happy with the display. In his original concept, a sheet of paper covered the entire glass wall. He slashed the paper with razor blades, so you had to work to observe the jackets behind it. Now, the paper covers the bottom half of the display—projectors splash concert footage across them. Only one of the projectors isn’t working, and the paper is held up by pieces of scotch tape. “It looks fucking awful.” Fittingly, he plans a new version, where the paper is pulled down and crumbled in a heap, while the projector dances images across the pile. The punks might approve. –TRW

Memorabilia photographs by Iris Dumuk

Warwick Stone photograph by Beverly Poppe


If you have memorabilia you’d like to give or sell, contact Warwick Stone at hardrock@warwickstone.com.

T.R. Witcher is the Weekly’s associate editor.

  • Get More Stories from Wed, May 14, 2008
Top of Story