When Seattle’s EMP (Experience Music Project) museum opened its doors on June 23, visitors experienced music, all right — and plenty of it. Dedicated to the history of American rock & roll, the EMP houses more than 80,000 artifacts, including Kurt Cobain’s first electric guitar, Janis Joplin’s bell bottom pants, and the drum machine Dr. Dre used to record ’92s ”The Chronic.” ”We went for really specific stuff,” says curator Jim Fricke. ”Not just the hankie Jim Morrison sneezed on.”
The EMP could afford to snap up hard to find artifacts because of the deep pockets of founder Paul G. Allen, who not only possesses the world’s largest collection of Jimi Hendrix memorabilia, but also created a little software company called Microsoft with Über geek Bill Gates. Still, cash played less of a role than luck in the museum’s quest to land the best goodies. EW Online has the story behind the music (memorabilia, that is).
BIGGIE MISTAKE When Fricke asked Violetta Wallace, the mother of late rapper Notorious B.I.G. (real name: Chris Wallace), to donate some of the stage outfits belonging to her son, who was shot to death in ’97, she quickly agreed. But when a messenger arrived at her house to pick them up, he discovered that someone from Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had already taken them. Wallace, it turns out, had confused two near-simultaneous requests, accidentally handing over the clothes to EMP’s competition. ”There was a little profanity that day, but it worked out great for both museums,” says Fricke. The Hall of Fame received a box containing sweat suits, which didn’t fit the glamorous look EMP was hoping for. So Wallace was gracious enough to go through her son’s closet again, and soon sent over a flashy designer suit with a matching hat and cane. Hey, Gucci beats an old sweat suit any day.
LOVE LOST Not everyone was eager to relinquish their belongings. Courtney Love refused to donate any possessions of her late husband, Nirvana singer songwriter Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in ’94. Cobain’s former band mates, drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic, initially hesitated, worrying that an exhibit of Nirvana memorabilia would overshadow material from other grunge bands. It was only after EMP promised to incorporate Nirvana into a larger exhibit about the Seattle scene that Grohl and Novoselic relented, donating a drum set, bass, and amps.
DUST COLLECTORS Some of the most intriguing finds were dug out of storage or rescued from the trash. Grandmaster Flash — the hip hop innovator behind the ’83 hit ”White Lines” and now the bandleader of HBO’s ”The Chris Rock Show” — found at his mother’s house the Technics SL 1200 turntables he used in the ’80s. The guitar used to record the Kingsmen’s 1964 hit ”Louie, Louie” had been stuffed under drummer Lynn Easton’s bed for years. And Kurtis Blow’s handwritten lyrics to ’80’s seminal hip hop album ”The Breaks” turned up at a recording studio 20 years after Blow had tossed them aside. A savvy employee had framed them and hung them on the wall, and Blow was able to convince the studio to give them back.
FROM TRASH TO TREASURE A Seattle flea market yielded one of the EMP’s biggest finds, says curator Pete Blecha. ”A friend called me and said ‘There’s a little old lady here with what she thinks is a lap steel guitar, but it’s a weird one,”’ he says. ”I dropped the phone and ran.” What the little old lady had was a 1936 Audiovox bass guitar — the first electric bass ever manufactured. Blecha believes the bass, which he picked up for what he terms ”a flea market-appropriate price,” is the sole surviving instrument of its kind.
CATCHING GERMS What’s still out there, waiting to be found? Fricke is trying to locate a leather jacket belonging to Darby Crash, lead singer of the ’70s punk band the Germs. The cult icon’s life story — he died at 22 of a drug overdose — has attracted the interest of Allison Anders, David Arquette, and Love, who have all talked of adapting it for the screen. Even though Fricke got a reliable tip that the jacket exists, he just can’t get to it. ”It’s owned by someone who’s retired to Jamaica, so we haven’t been able to track it down,” he sighs.
GRAVE INJUSTICE Not every hot tip led to a treasure. ”We got a phone call five years ago from a guy who said he had an item for sale we’d want to have very badly,” says Blecha. The seller claimed to possess the headstone to Hendrix’s grave — a marker that had been stolen in the ’70s and has since been replaced. Blecha urged the caller to turn the guitar great’s headstone over to the authorities, but it has yet to surface.