“I’ve always said a teaspoon of inspiration dropped in an ocean of discord or unsettledness can change everything. I was at The Eagles concert in Arizona last night – Joe Walsh is a friend of mine – and just watching those guys play, when I walked away, I was 20 years younger. I mean it was magical. I mean the spirit was stirred. And of course that’s so important in this town.”
This was Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who on Saturday hosted an extravagant event at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville showcasing his extensive memorabilia collection, to which he plans on exhibiting in his own museum someday. Much of his collection consists of iconic music instruments and artifacts.
Such pieces of memorabilia that were on display included:
- Jack Kerouac’s typescript scroll of On The Road (1957)
- Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin'” written lyrics (1963)
- “Dylan Goes Electric” Fender Stratocaster (1964)
- Paul McCartney’s affidavit to John Lennon to break up The Beatles (1970)
- George Harrison’s Gibson guitar (1964)
- Jerry Garcia’s Doug Irwin “Tiger” Guitar (1979)
- Jim Morrison’s gold microphone (1968)
- David Gilmour’s “The Black Strat” (1969)
And this was a mere fraction of the endless treasures hanging on walls and inside display cases.
“Even back when I was 24 in 1984, you kind of envision the way the world is, and how you can help change that. To me, if you asked the biggest thing I’ve learned, it’s that fulfillment in life is when you’re of service to others.”
It didn’t take long for me to realize that when a man of monumental wealth and experience talks, you don’t just listen- you marvel.
It’s no secret Irsay has gone through his fair share of personal battles, which could be why the first piece of memorabilia he mentioned in his welcoming speech was the original AA manuscript from 1935 that he’d obtained.
“It doesn’t just apply to alcohol. It applies to spiritual growth. It doesn’t matter what your religion is. That saved over a hundred million lives or more. My grandfather died of alcoholism, my dad died of alcoholism. Eric Clapton is another one- he would’ve been dead without that manuscript. He’d tell you. It is so important and so historic, and it was very important to me to get that and share it with the world.”
He would go on to discuss a select chunk of his present collection one by one, and what it means to him in a cultural, historical, and personal sense.
“The Lennon and Harrison guitars with The Beatles – and that was George’s main guitar. Ed Sullivan shows it when he gets out of the Brinks truck in 1966 – and Candlestick Park, their last show, that’s the guitar he had with him. He gave it to Badfinger’s guitarist, and John Lennon played it on the White Album, so that thing has some magic.”
He then brought up the “Dylan Goes Electric” Fender Stratocaster.
“Dylan’s guitar when he plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. What can you say? Pete Seeger with an axe trying to cut the wires. ‘How can you go electric Bob? How can you possibly do it?’ Bob had the courage to do that. It took a lot of courage to do that. It was just an incredible event that changed music.”
Not that I know a thing about the behavior of NFL team owners, but I imagine they keep a conservative and relatively buttoned-up profile at public or private events. Obviously given Irsay’s deep affinity for rock n’ roll and his friendship with the late Hunter S. Thompson (to which he bought the famed Red Shark), I figured he must be a pretty cool guy. But when he grabbed the mic and busted out his rendition of “All Along The Watchtower,” it all but confirmed it. With his backing band of Kenny Wayne Shepard and Tom Bukovac, Irsay sang with grit and power.
The spirit undoubtedly moved him.
He let out guttural grunts and growls throughout, going off the cuff at certain points. It was truly a sight to behold. “This man owns the Indianapolis Colts,” I kept thinking to myself. “This man drafted Peyton Manning, and now I’m watching him sing a classic Dylan and Hendrix tune.”
As a life-long Buffalo Bills fan, should the team ever disappear into thin air or move to Austin, I’d think long and hard about having an allegiance to the Colts strictly because of Irsay and his passion for rock n’ roll.
When asked if he ever reaches out to the artists for further insight after purchasing their historic instruments, Irsay briefly touched on things like being friends with Dylan and trying to get Gilmour to attend the event, and had this to say about Jerry Garcia’s Tiger guitar: “We tried to get the guitarists from The Dead to play Tiger if they wanted to. And Trey from Phish didn’t feel comfortable doing it, and John Mayer hasn’t felt comfortable yet. Probably Bob Weir would decide. I know Bob some. It’s like ‘ugh, do we pick it up? It was Jerry’s. Maybe we shouldn’t play it again, but then again the fans would look at Tiger on stage…”
Irsay was then asked what was the piece that got away, to which he quickly said, “You know the piece that got away – and that’s the way I collect – like what would people after two or three Heinekens really want to see? And Wilson the volleyball from Castaway was going on auction for $18,000 and I let it slip. Never again I said. Can not allow something like that to escape.”
He went on to say, “Kurt Cobain’s Unplugged guitar. I was negotiating with his son-in-law so to speak, and he had had it because it was a wedding present apparently, and I was saying it was probably worth about $1.25 [million] or $1.3, [million] so that’s what I’ll give ya. It went to auction and some millionaire in Australia bought it for $6 million and it broke the record. Up to that point David Gilmour’s black guitar was $4 million, and it shattered the market and led the market as the highest priced guitar. But you do lose out on some things, and you have to be willing to lose things, you know?”
I spoke to Larry C. Hall, Vice President of Spec Projects, Historical Affairs & Alumni Relations, who’d been a part of Irsay’s team for 38 years, and he shed further insight on the collection.
In regards to the Eric Clapton Unplugged acoustic guitar, he told me, “There was a luthier in New York who literally told me it saved acoustic guitar-making in America. He claimed that – the Martin company in particular – sales had really, really waned. And that particular performance, Eric Clapton MTV Unplugged – six Grammys, song of the year “Layla” – their sales shot up. So think about that particular guitar at that particular moment.”
I’d asked him about the first few pieces Irsay acquired and how he got started, to which Hall told me it was Kerouac’s typescript scroll in 2002, and then he fast-forwarded to the present.
“One of the recent acquisitions was Sir Elton John’s piano. That piano was at so many significant events. The last time John Lennon performed live on stage was with Elton at Madison Square Garden, and that piano was there and part of the performance. Elton used it over a thousand times in studio or on stage. He also lent it to Freddie Mercury for a year, so it toured with Queen, and was used at Live Aid. McCartney played it, and they estimated 1.9 million people saw him play ‘Let It Be’ on it.”
This most recent acquisition was still in England, but getting prepped to be shipped over to The States to be yet another significant notch in The Irsay Collection.
While on the subject of pianos, Hall told me, “He has this John Lennon Sgt. Pepper’s piano that was in two different homes that Lennon had – and most of the Sgt. Pepper’s songs came out of that – and it’s just a beautiful piece. 150-something years old. John Broadwood and Sons made it, and they made pianos for the King of England and Mozart. That’s how far back they went.”
He then discussed a 170-year-old Martin guitar.
“When people say ‘pre-war Martin’, you think pre-World War II. Well Mr. Irsay has a pre-Civil War Martin. It goes back to like 1850-something. It almost looks like a parlor guitar, it’s very small,” he said.
I then asked if it was a strategic power move to host the showcase the weekend of Colts-Titans right there in Nashville, to which Hall said, “There’s no question. He definitely tied it to the fact that we’re playing the Titans tomorrow. It definitely was planned that way. It’s not a coincidence.”
It was an extraordinary if not surreal evening being in the presence of such living, breathing items worth millions with a million stories behind them. Wherever The Jim Irsay Collection decides to call home will be a damn lucky city. Flocks of folks will undoubtedly come in droves, especially music fans, and this will be a highly sought after venture in due time.
“They will be going in a museum somewhere. I don’t know where, but I do know I have a vision for it. It’s going to breathe, it’s going to be alive, it’s going to grow, it’s going to talk, it’s going to teach our youth, and it’s going to be interactive,” Irsay said.
Consider me intrigued to see where this one of a kind collection winds up and when.