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Antiques Roadshow

Inside Hard Rock's hidden closet

Photo: Rob Bartlett, License: N/A, Created: 2011:04:29 11:09:33

Rob Bartlett

As 1970s yearbooks from private California schools go, this one doesn't seem that unusual. The students look kind of privileged and kind of stoned; the teachers look like they're totally cool with the events of the late '60s. The students aren't broken down by age, but listed in alphabetical order. The cast of characters is uniformly white … at least until you get to the "J" page, where four black faces stand out: Marlon, Tito, Jermaine and 
Michael Jackson.

It's a jarring moment. It's strange enough seeing the world's biggest pop star in a relatively ordinary context - there are other immortalized schoolboy moments in the book, including one of Michael hanging out in science class in that goofy J5 hat and flares - but it's downright disorienting when it finally clicks: I'm holding Michael Jackson's yearbook.

This isn't an M.J. convention or a memorabilia auction or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It's a modest-sized warehouse room nestled in the back of a completely nondescript building in a MetroWest office park. And this yearbook is just one of the thousands of remarkable items that are stashed here.

This top-secret building is home to Hard Rock Cafe International's holding pen for the omnipresent hotel/casino brand's extensive and ever-growing music memorabilia collection. Part of that collection is on display at the company's various must-see tourist destinations - such as the Hard Rock at Universal CityWalk - and the rest is held here and in another warehouse currently hidden somewhere in Orlando and home to the Hard Rock collection's big guns: classic cars, motorcycles and other unwieldy items.

The MetroWest room is for the more spatially accommodating pieces of history, where a random flat-file drawer contains an animation cell from The Wall, and where a quick glance reveals the (autographed) talk box guitar effects unit that Peter Frampton used for "Show Me the Way" on Frampton Comes Alive, Waylon Jennings' iconic Telecaster and racks of rock star clothes that make it clear just how skinny cocaine-era David Bowie was.

"I've been working for this company for quite a few years now, and I have yet to be jaded walking into that warehouse," says Hard Rock historian Jeff Nolan. "Every day I walk in there and I find something that makes my jaw drop."

Nolan is best known to local music fans for his role as a guitarist in bands such as the Ludes and the Legendary J.C.'s, as well as national stints with the Screaming Trees, Scott Weiland's Magnificent Bastards and his own run at major-label rock & roll stardom, I Love You. During the day, however, Nolan's gig is to curate and promote Hard Rock's extensive memorabilia collection online, find items to feature on Hard Rock's memorabilia website (memorabilia.hardrock.com) and spark discussion and debate within a vibrant Facebook community (facebook.com/hardrockmemorabilia).

"A big part of what I do here is to try and defuse cynicism about the Hard Rock," Nolan says. "The intensity of what we own and what we present, it's easy to take for granted. And it's really easy for a major music fan to be like, ‘I don't want to go to some casino or a café because they're just gonna try to sell me something.'"

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