{ Pittsburgh's Hard Rock Cafe as a Sign of Something New }
David C. Madden

hard rock - david c. maddenCrossing the Smithfield Street Bridge from Downtown, the neon guitar that adorns the main entrance of Pittsburgh's Hard Rock Cafe looks like an icon. Not something religious. Not even an icon of music, of history, of latter-day-20th-century rock 'n' roll celebration. No. It's something more contemporary and cartoonish, a desktop icon lying in the system tray of the South Side's Microsoft-Windows tableau; double-click for a stroll down music's memory lane. It's a fitting image. Sure, the rest of Bessemer Court—the waterfront showcase of Station Square anchored by the Hard Rock and the choreographed fountains that spit into the air opposite it—throws neon and lights around with a sort of fevered, watch-me-now glee, but the guitar is clearly the glee's centerpiece and prize, shining as a sort of warning that what lies within is not your father's Hard Rock. You're in cartoon territory, now.

A History, Developing to a Present-Day Argument or Problem
Two enterprising Americans opened the first Hard Rock in London in 1971, as a paean to American cuisine and what HRC Corporate calls "eclectic Americana." It wasn't until Eric Clapton hung one of his guitars over his favorite table that Hard Rock became a music-memorabilia phenomenon. The Cafe began its global expansion in 1982, opening restaurants in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, New York, Dallas, Boston, Washington D.C., Orlando, Paris, and Berlin.
   Now there are more than one hundred Hard Rocks in more than forty countries, including restaurants in such exotic locales as Jakarta, Tijuana, Kuala Lumpur, and Gatlinburg. And new ones keep opening every few months, as shown last year by not only our Johnny-come-lately city but also Minneapolis and Leeds, England. All of this expansion leads to the following questions:
   1. How much worthwhile rock memorabilia is left in the world, really?
   2. How can Hard Rock remain a tourist draw when nearly every city in the country is home to one?

The Present-Day Problem, Not Really an Argument
In middle school, I had and wore a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt from St. Thomas in the Caribbean. I didn't go there—my folks did, on a cruise—and as late as the early Nineties it was still relatively cool to wear a Hard Rock shirt from a far-off locale. These days? Not so much. I don't have to spell this out for you (when I told a friend the other day that I was writing about the Hard Rock Cafe, her response was, "Really? The Hard Rock Cafe's so Eighties. Does anyone even go there anymore?"), but I think at the root of this are the two questions asked supra. In the name of expansion and capitalistically healthy growth, the Hard Rock is no longer special, having moved from a one-of-a-kind dual museum/restaurant to a music-themed version of a simple chain eatery. Where's our P.F. Chang's? The Waterfront. Our Ruth's Chris? Downtown. Our Hard Rock? Illustrious Bessemer Court in the storied and eclectic Station Square.
   And with proliferation brings a decrease in quality of spectacle. Witness the memorabilia adorning Pittsburgh's Hard Rock's walls (asterisked items are hailed on the Web site as among the establishment's top ten memorabilia):

  • a smashed-in-two guitar from Godsmack played during a Hard Rock Cafe performance in Orlando, March 2001*
  • Toadies concert poster, 2001
  • Foreigner cymbal, signed by band members
  • Belly poster, undated
  • Cinderella dobro, signed
  • enlarged Blind Melon Rolling Stone magazine cover of the band sitting nude
  • red baseball hat signed by Fred Durst, encased with red "fedora" signed by Kid Rock*
I'm being unfair to make a point, but the small amount of good stuff (Kurt Cobain's guitar, KISS's drum kit, Michael Jackson's black zipper jacket, Angus Young's red-velvet schoolboy outfit) can't fill the room, so wall space must be filled by unsigned tour posters from 2001. How, then, is the Hard Rock different from a T.G.I.Friday's, where the corporate office moves in a truckload of goofy crap to emblazon each new restaurant's walls, with all crap varying slightly from city to city? What here is meant to attract and delight tourists, giving them something to take a snapshot of and show the folks back home?
   And it's here that things get tricky, because it's clear that Pittsburgh is not a tourism-driven city—unlike those towns to which the Hard Rock Cafe first expanded—and as such, our Hard Rock isn't trying too hard to attract and delight tourists. Can you blame it? Who in their right tourism minds would be interested in checking out the Pittsburgh Hard Rock? This question was at the center of my feelings of sadness and regret when I heard the news of a Hard Rock opening in Station Square. Housing a Hard Rock Cafe may have once been a prerequisite for all major American cities, but this no longer applied come 1995; opening one in Pittsburgh seemed too little too late.

Either an Ingenious Solution or the Icing on the Failure Cake
Did you know Pittsburgh's Hard Rock has live bands every Thursday? I didn't until I drove across the Smithfield Street Bridge, parked in the Station Square garage, walked past the clubs and restaurants with "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" coming at me seemingly from nowhere and everywhere at once (I soon found it to be the background tune for the spitting fountains), and entered the Hard Rock Cafeeto be greeted by two bouncers in yellow "EVENT STAFF" shirts asking for five dollars.
   "Oh," I said. "How many bands are playing?"
   "Three," one of them said.
   I paid the money, got a purple wristband, and entered the restaurant to find a good vantage point from which to see all. Pittsburgh's Hard Rock is surprisingly small, maybe half the size of your high school's auditorium. In front of you as you walk in from Bessemer Court is the bar, facing the stage to your far left. In between both is the open dance floor, which doubles during the day as part of the dining room, flanked by tables and booths on near and far ends. I passed the bar and took a two-person table on the far end of the room and ordered an Iron City, which came in a plastic cup ($3.64). My waitress, like most of the staff, was wearing a black Hard Rock Cafe Pittsburgh T-shirt out of which she had cut a sexiness-increasing V-neck to moderate success. She told me they had stopped serving dinner but that I could choose from three appetizers: the chicken strips, the Santa Fe spring rolls, and the nachos. I chose the spring rolls, which came in a margarita-like goblet ($6.29).
   Around me as I ate and drank were increasing numbers of kids about my age, many younger. Most of them were pierced or dyed or otherwise punkified in, well, conventionally clean ways. The bands playing that night were Super Xero, Three Car Garage, and Camp Element, none of which I had ever heard of. From their sounds and influences posted on their respective Web sites, these bands are from the Korn/Disturbed school of rhythm-section-heavy hard rock. Apparently there are a good number of these bands in the area that get played on The X and WDVE and get booked at the Hard Rock Cafe and have acquired a small legion of young fans. And as Super Xero starts playing and the college girls not at all punked-out across from me get up from beside their boyfriends and dance in the aisle, I realize what Hard Rock has done to remain relevant past their prime.
   Let's say you own a restaurant with a history of attracting tourists to eat, see memorabilia, and buy T-shirts. And let's say you're opening a restaurant in a city with a small number of tourists, which tourists will understand this particular restaurant to be sub-par in comparison to previously opened restaurants. What do you do? Like all ingenious solutions, this one isn't obvious until you hear it.
   You cater to locals.
   Of course. What else for Hard Rock, in this day of everyone having visited at least one, with rock memorabilia all snatched-up and showcased, with legends dying faster than new ones are made? You cater to locals and keep your room relatively small and get architects to design a space that is quickly transformable between a restaurant and a nightclub. And you book local bands and charge a cover and throw some 'bilia of questionable memory to fill the walls and you become a successful live-music venue in a city that could always use more live-music venues.
   And yes, successful. By the time I arrived at nine p.m., the Hard Rock was hopping. Outside, in the fenced, al-fresco dining area with a great view of the spitting fountains, there were two two-person tables open. Inside there were only two or three tables and booths open once Super Xero really got into it. The bar area was crammed with people, and a good dozen were on the dance floor.
   If you think about it, this isn't very surprising. Seeing a band at the Hard Rock is almost kind of great. Pretend you're telling an out-of-town friend on the phone during Must See TV that you're seeing a band play tonight at, oh, say Nick's Fat City. Your friend hears not Nick's but rather "generic Pittsburgh bar/nightclub." There's no cultural standing there. Now say you're seeing a band play at the Hard Rock Cafe, which has cultural standing in spades. "Oh," your friend says. "Oh, funny. Wow, I've been to a few of those."
   It's just strangely better. Suddenly going to the Hard Rock in your hometown is worth it. (Note to hipsters: wearing a Hard Rock Pittsburgh T-shirt around town is the ultimate in irony.)

Our Cafe, Our Selves
It's probably asking too much for our Hard Rock to have live bands every night, or to book more diverse acts (upcoming shows include the Buzz Poets, Camp Element again, Canadian Korn-rock band Theory of a Deadman, and British jam-band The Yards), dipping into the pool of great local bands stuck in Pittsburgh's small-bar circuit. But it's nice to know that our Hard Rock isn't the intrinsic failure I worried it would be, because even if it's a global phenomenon, even if the bands don't interest you, even if the memorabilia's Pittsburgh-ties pretty much end after Bret Michaels' guitar and one of Christina Aguilera's outfits, our Hard Rock Cafe is still ours. Let's own it. Go on a Saturday afternoon in the thick of tourist-lunchtime and revel in the pleasure of feeling touristy in a town where we're all so utterly local.
   We did, my friend and I, and agreed that it was dorkily nice to be there, ordering delicious drinks with vaguely rock 'n' roll-themed names (the Lovely Rita margarita and the Electric Kool-Aid) that came with little plastic swizzle sticks topped with guitar silhouettes. And nice to look around and not at each other, watching the widescreen televisions that showed videos on loop you can't see on MTV anymore ("Poison", "Imagine", "Personal Jesus", "Bittersweet Symphony", "Love Shack", "Jet City Woman", "Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go)"). It was like we were on vacation. And there were even actual tourists eating around us. An Indian family lined up in their booth to get their photo taken by their waiter. An older man came out of the restrooms wearing a HRC Las Vegas shirt. Grandmothers had fanny packs on and others had cameras around their necks.
   Our Hard Rock, then, is almost a sort of gift for a city as small and underappreciated as Pittsburgh. Because if the Hard Rock Cafe insists on opening everywhere and no longer functioning as an attraction, then maybe we can turn it into a distraction, a venue for escape. Maybe amid its shoddy memorabilia we can find a reasonably priced restaurant with a little something extra, loving all and serving all long after the novelty has worn off.

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