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A Dream Gig: Rock 'n' Roll Curator : It's a Hard (Rock) job, but John Rosenfield is happy to dig up music memorabilia. Heck, somebody's gotta do it.

July 04, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some kids kept their noses in their textbooks, diligently applied themselves and were rewarded with professions or positions in high-tech industries. Then they lost those jobs in our rocky economy and possibly found themselves among the 3,000 applicants seeking food service jobs at the Newport Beach Hard Rock Cafe when it opened in October, 1992.

John Rosenfield, meanwhile, spent his formative years crowding the walls of his room with rock 'n' roll posters, drawing Rat Fink cartoons on his friends' T-shirts and pondering the big questions, such as: "I wonder where Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock Strat is now?"

Unlike his hapless contemporaries, Rosenfield has a swell job, one that allows him to jet around the world and hobnob with the rock elite. And he gets paid to wonder about the whereabouts of the now-legendary guitars of Hendrix and other stars.

As curator for Hard Rock America, which owns half of the world's growing supply of Hard Rock Cafes, it is Rosenfield's job to find and acquire rock-related rarities--from Buddy Holly's glasses to Kurt Cobain's guitar--for display in the mega-popular restaurants.

It isn't simply serendipity that landed Rosenfield, 38, his position. Between times spent staring longingly at the guitars on Eric Clapton album covers, he also studied art and design, dealt in antiques and spent time in management, taking the helm of some of Ralph Lauren's shops. That experience all comes in handy, but one suspects he's where he is--working in blue jeans, driving a '56 ragtop T-Bird, and inhabiting an office so cool that you hear John Lee Hooker music when he puts your call on hold--because he clearly has followed Big Joe Campbell's famed maxim and followed his bliss.

"I love rock 'n' roll music. It's my life," Rosenfield said. "When I was a kid, I always went overboard with posters on the wall and everything. I had collected lots of signed photos and had a huge record collection, thousands of records, which I lost in the fire in Malibu.

"And vintage guitars are a real passion for me. Like vintage cars, there's an authenticity to them that's so real . I could have a guitar, like a 1954 Les Paul, and never touch it, just look at it and go, 'God, what a piece of art.' "

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He is at the Beverly Center Hard Rock Cafe, the one that's set apart from its upscale neighbors by the befinned Cadillac jutting from its roof. The interior is scarcely less flashy, with such prizes as a 1958 Harley Elektra Glide once owned by Elvis Presley and a gaudy gold metal-flake guitar of Chris Isaak's.

Rosenfield got his start with the Hard Rock by managing this location when it opened in 1982. Previously, while managing the Beverly Hills Ralph Lauren store, he had become friends with Hard Rock founder and owner Peter Morton. Visiting Morton once in the late '70s at the original London Hard Rock, which opened in '71, Rosenfield suggested that Morton build an L.A. location and that he would like to work for him if he did.

So Morton did, and Rosenfield did, although he soon found that being a restaurant manager didn't provide much satisfaction once the place was set up and running.

"I liked working for Peter, but I didn't like the job that much. What I really wanted to do was collect the stuff full time. But back then, this was the only Hard Rock (in the United States) and no one knew how it was going to take off."

Rosenfield wound up going back to work for Lauren until six years ago, when the Hard Rocks had become such an expanding proposition that they needed a full-time curator. The chain now has the world's largest collection of rock items, leading People magazine to call it "the Smithsonian of rock 'n' roll."

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In the Newport Hard Rock, you'll see Prince's "Purple Rain" outfit and guitars that were formerly the possessions of stars ranging from the Cure to local surf guitar legend Dick Dale. There's more color in displays of the skate and surf boards of local celebs, and even a motorcycle gas tank from fashion kingpin Mossimo Giannulli.

It's not easy finding such treasures--Rosenfield routinely works 10-hour days--and his success at it just makes the job harder. Rosenfield maintains that the Hard Rock Cafe practically created the present market for rock memorabilia and certainly upped the ante.

When the London Hard Rock opened, rockers were glad to donate their relics to hang on the walls. Now, the value of their castoffs is so great that those in possession of them understandably want heaps of money.

Rosenfield wouldn't disclose the budget he has to work with, saying only: "It's big ." But it evidently has limits. When the Fullerton-made Fender Stratocaster guitar played by Hendrix at Woodstock (the same instrument Rosenfield mused about as a kid, original list price $330) came up for auction a while back, he had to pass on it--an Italian collector made a record-breaking bid of $325,000 for the guitar.

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