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Hard Rock Hotel offers a walk down a rock ‘n roll memory lane

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image An elaborate costume from Elton John is among the many iconic costumes in the exhibit. Photo Mitch Traphagen

With a little help from things such as instruments, clothing and even a pair of round glasses, memories can play back like favorite songs on an iPod.

By Mitch Traphagen

TAMPA — From the elaborate costume hanging in a display, you can almost envision Elton John doing a handstand on the piano keyboard in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans. A dress from Amy Winehouse whispers silently of what could have, should have, been for the talented but troubled singer. A Les Paul guitar that somehow survived Pete Townsend of the Who hangs peacefully now; but the vibrations, the music it made, are still almost palpable. John Lennon’s glasses…well, they are John Lennon’s glasses. All you can do is stand there and try to envision what the legendary Beatle saw through them: how he saw the world, and how those things may have affected him. Those glasses were the windows to his soul.

All of those items and much more are currently on display at the Hard Rock Cafe and Hotel in Tampa. The public has never seen before some of the dozens of pieces of memorabilia, from costumes and instruments to hand-written lyrics and notes. They are part of a traveling exhibit, a merger of two exhibit themes entitled, Gone Too Soon and Music Gives Back, containing memorabilia involving music, the music of icons and legends that has fed the souls of generations. The exhibit is hard rock and tenderness, innocence and innocence lost. A junior high yearbook shows a smiling, young Kurt Cobain, still immortal at a young age with an infinite life in front of him, and no idea of what was to come.

“Music Gives Back celebrates artists that are really philanthropic,” said Jeff Nolan, Hard Rock’s historian who is traveling with the exhibit. “Gone Too Soon, well it’s self-explanatory and it happens a lot. People always think artists die from drug overdoses and so on, but not always. There are a fair share of vehicle accidents and things like that. It’s a poignant display but not a ghoulish display. It highlights their artistry and their legacy.”

The latter also includes two of Nolan’s favorite pieces in the expansive exhibit that begins in the Hard Rock Cafe and extends throughout the public areas of the large hotel and casino.

“I get a kick out of Tommy Allsup’s wallet,” Nolan said. Tommy was Buddy Holly’s guitar player. He very famously lost a coin toss to Richie Valens that cost him a seat on the plane that crashed. Tommy’s wallet made the flight but he didn’t. The wallet came from the wreckage and it is such a time capsule. It is an amazing piece of history, there is lots of stuff in his wallet so there is a lot of stuff to look at.”

The flight that crashed claimed the lives of Valens, Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. It has come to be known as the Day the Music Died.

Standing in front of the exhibit, a young couple, born long after the Day the Music Died, approached Nolan to talk about the wallet and the contents. They were from northwest Iowa, a place where the crash is still very much a part of the community’s fabric, and they told him they had no idea it existed. They were excited to see it, and the time capsule that it is dating back to February 3, 1959.

“I think my favorite piece of wardrobe is a denim and plaid shirt that John Lennon wore in 1974. It was during his lost weekend in Los Angeles when he and Yoko were split. He wore it when he was tossed out of the Troubadour for being a drunken belligerent with Harry Nilsson. It was a weird time for John.”

The weekend included a bar brawl after heckling the Smothers Brothers as they performed at the legendary Los Angeles venue, as well as an incident with a waitress, and her now-legendary words after Lennon reportedly stuck a recently purchased feminine product to his forehead.

“Just search the web on John Lennon and Troubadour and photos of him in that shirt will come up,” Nolan added. Today it is part of the exhibit, a small slice of life from a legend.

The exhibit is by no means a walk down memory lane reserved for older generations. According to Nolan, Hard Rock continues to seek out new talent, and some of the exhibits are the result of the relationships they forged.

“It is really gratifying when we get involved with a new band very early in their career,” Nolan said. “Hard Rock got involved with Mumford and Son very early on and now they are one of the biggest bands in the world. We started Hard Rock Records for this very reason, that’s where the fun is. We say that music is in our DNA and in this company that is actually true. This company doesn’t exist without rock ’n roll.”

The one-of-a-kind exhibit will be appearing at the hotel, located off I-4 near the intersection of Hillsborough Avenue and Orient Road in Tampa, through Friday. There is no charge to view the displays that include numerous costumes worn by superstars, hand-written notes, instruments and more.

“Hard Rock has been around for 42 years and we have relationships with artists that go back decades,” Nolan said. “What’s cool about this job is that this stuff never becomes background noise. I never become jaded. This stuff still blows my mind as much as it did when I first started.”

The magic of music is the ability it has to transport the listener to another place and time. Memories flood back when listening to a favorite song and such songs never get old. The exhibit offers something tangible to go with those memories. As people lined up to view the displays, they alternated between being elated and turning somber, depending upon what they were seeing. Music is a balm for the soul. Through Friday night at the Hard Rock in Tampa, it is also a feast for the eyes and the mind. It seems that with a little help from things such as instruments, clothing and even a pair of round glasses, memories can play back like favorite songs on an iPod.


The Hard Rock Hotel is located at 5223 North Orient Road in Tampa. It is one of 179 Hard Rock locations in 57 countries. The company’s 77,000-piece collection of memorabilia is currently traveling the world in three separate exhibits.

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