The Jim Irsay Collection could be the greatest collection of historical documents and musical history in the world. Marc Johnson, co-owner of the Pop Machine recording studio in Indianapolis, is the chief guitar curator and the man partially responsible for building this incredible collection and organizing the star-studded events that go along with it.
Please press the PLAY icon below to listen to the MisplacedStraws Conversation with Marc Johnson –
On how he became curator – I’m very fortunate. In regards to the Pop Machine, I own the studio with my twin brother, Eric Clay Johnson, who also helps with the curation of the collection as well, and then we have another partner who’s not really part of the Jim Irsay Collection but is part of the Pop Machine, for sure. he is an attorney, Terry L. Monday. Terry managed Eric and I (in) bands going back to 1987, so we’ve been in business for a long, long time together, 35 years together, as a matter of fact. Why I bring that up is that that is somewhat of the origins on how this all came to be. So in 2000, we opened the Pop Machine after years of touring and we had basement studios and the like, but we wanted to really open a commercial facility, but Eric and I returned from, as I said, 87 to probably 96 full-time. That’s all we did through that period of time with Terry Monday, our third partner, managing our band and our efforts. Then in ’95 and ’96, probably more late ’95, literally December 26, 1995, is when it was. I began working for Ticketmaster and fast forward the clock six years on that, around 2001, I actually began repping the Indianapolis Colts for Ticketmaster. Through that, I met all of the key figures, if you will, Larry Hall, who’s the chairman of the Jim Irsay Collection, Pete Ward who is the COO of the Indianapolis Colts, etc., etc. When this position opened up, they did want it to be a position where I could still have my job at Ticketmaster, they wanted to be more of a part-time position, not a full-time position. I was able, and still do, I still work for Ticketmaster 26 and a half years later. But I was a trusted figure within the walls, but I also had music knowledge. My entry into Ticketmaster was certainly from the music business, from the live event side, if you will. So I didn’t just come with ticketing credentials, I came with a huge guitar collection of my own, certainly not as astute as Mr. Irsay’s, not even close. But in terms of sort of style, they are similar, meaning that we love vintage Gibson’s, and vintage 335’s, and Les Paul’s, and cool Stratocasters, and Rickenbacker’s, and Gretsch’s, and Martins. I certainly don’t own a George Harrison SG, (but) I own an SG, that sort of thing. So I think our interests are similar also in the artists that we love, he’s a huge John Lennon fan, and Bob Dylan, and The Who, and The Doors and all of that in so am I. So I think our tastes are in alignment. So when we look at something that we look to possibly add to the collection, I try to get inside Mr. Irsay’s mind and go, “Would he like this, is this something that he has interest in, and would it be great for the overall collection?” We could talk about the Nirvana Kurt Cobain, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” guitar. That comes to mind as an artist that, not right out of my mind that I would really consider Mr. Irsay being a huge fan of. I think he likes Nirvana, he certainly appreciates Kurt Cobain’s talent, but I think that along with the fact that Darren Julian from Julian’s auctions, was gonna donate a portion of the proceeds of that guitar back to Kicking The Stigma, that might have boosted his interest level along with him understanding that Kurt Cobain is essentially the Bob Dylan of the 1990s. Okay, so in my generation, he was, and I really consider myself, I’m 53 years old, but I would literally consider myself a huge Nirvana fan. Out of all of the Seattle and grunge scene that came out in 1991, they are far and away my favorite, and unfortunately, he was really the first one to pass away from the scene. I was talking to a friend of mine the other night who said, “Out of all the great Seattle and grunge artists, the last one standing in terms of the singer, is Eddie Vedder”. I’m going, “Wow, really didn’t even think about that”. But if you think of Cobain and Lane Staley, and we’ll put Scott Weiland in that I know he’s not from Seattle, but was certainly part of that scene, (Chris) Cornell. You go, “Wow, I never thought of things in that perspective”. But anyway, getting back to the matter at hand, Mr. Irsay certainly appreciates the fact that Kurt Cobain does resemble a culture-shifting, voice of a generation like Bob Dylan, and certainly, the significance of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, song, the guitar was also used on the Nevermind and In Utero albums, that is such a historically significant instrument in our collection and really becomes just one of the crown jewels of the collection, if you will. But something like that also, I think represents Mr. Irsay’s willingness to acquire an instrument of an artist that may not be one of his primary influences, but certainly an influence and an artist as appreciation for nonetheless. 1:00
On if he ever has to convince Mr. Irsay about an instrument – Well, yes. With the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Cobain, it did not need a lot of convincing, but I will rewind the clock a year prior, well, maybe perhaps more than a year prior. Well, let me just tell sort of a brief story here. In June 20th, 2019, we acquired the Black Strat, the David Gilmour Black Strat that was acquired at Christie’s Auction from New York City. And at the time, it was the most expensive guitar ever sold at auction. Mr. Irsay acquired the Black Strat along with 1969 Martin D-35 and a really cool blue flight case that says Pink Floyd London on it that actually carries the black strat. A year to the day after that auction, this time across the coast are across the country to the west coast rather, to Julian’s auction, and Julian’s was selling the Martin that Kurt Cobain played on Unplugged, Live in New York, and that would later become the most expense guitar sold auction. Sold to Peter Friedman for$ 6 million. Peter Friedman is the founder of Rode Microphones, he’s an Australian gentleman. That particular guitar, why I bring that up is that as a guitar that squarely fits into the scenario that you just described, where I went and I said, “I know he may not be a fan of Nirvana, however, I think this is a really cool guitar for the collection”, it’s from the unplugged era, unplugged, as we all sort of know, was sort of the last commercial work that Cobain released while he was still alive. Then upon his death, the song “All Apologies” became really the eulogy, if you will, of his life, and of course, he’s playing the guitar, and so the guitar was significant. We had an interest level in it, but certainly not an interest level that would commensurate $6 million worth of purchase. So that’s one where we said it takes some convincing, I don’t know about that. I think there was just an interest level that was below $6 million at that point in time. But then as luck would have it, or fate or whatever you wanna describe, I actually, even though it’s less expensive than a $6 million mark, but still somewhat an expensive guitar obviously, the blue Fender Mustang Competition 1969 that was used in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, and in my mind is even more iconic. What I love about that guitar, even more so than the Martin acoustic, is that that’s the guitar that Cobain is best closely associated with, playing certainly his most iconic guitar, and also something that represents the introduction to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, and let’s face facts here, ushered in a complete musical revolution with the songs, specifically “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, The image of that guitar, remember in 1991 most guitar players, Slash was definitely on the scene then playing big Les Pauls, you had other hair metal bands playing more Jackson, Charvel, Kramer, that sort of style of guitar, but (Cobain) playing at the time, which was basically a pawn shop Fender. Now Fender Mustangs are significantly expensive because of things like Kurt Cobain and because they’re a vintage instrument. But at that point in time, you could purchase a guitar like that for a pretty good deal, and that was part of Cobain’s punk rock ethos, if you will, was candidly probably not having the money to purchase a $2000 Gibson, $1500 Gibson, or $1000 Fender or something. So you have to go to the pawn shop and find something like that. Then obviously he was somewhat of a tinkerer, as we know, with usually the humbucker in the bridge position, etc., etc. So he modified the guitars to make it a more of a powerful rock instrument, if I put in a humbucker and then actually in this particular case, it’s a hot rail, the pickup in the guitar, so he doesn’t have to route it out and you can certainly put a new pick up in it to make it more harder, rocking instrument. The end of the story is I prefer the Mustang over the Martin. I was just elated when Mr. Irsay purchased the guitar earlier this year from Julian’s auctions. 6:48
On if there is a criteria to what the Collection looks for – Well, it’s not a hard rule, but we do. We have a set of criteria and do we follow it 100% of the time? We try to, but no, we don’t follow it 100% of the time. But the criteria would be, is it the most significant guitar in the artist’s career? Okay, and if it’s not, if that becomes a no, then the next tier goes, is it one of the most significant? Where obviously, the Fender Mustang 1969 owned by Cobain is absolutely the most significant in my mind, and then I would say followed by maybe the Martin guitar from Unplugged, because of the introduction, because of the music video, because it was used on Nevermind and In Utero. So that’s really the set criteria when we go assessing an instrument, and then the other sort of cross-reference would be availability. What is available on the market itself, and what is coming to auction, what is being sold by a private seller? Then overlay that with the Is it the most significant? Is it the most historically significant instrument in that particular guitarist’s career collection? That is the other set of criteria. There are other ones that sometimes don’t meet it that we have acquired, but generally, that’s the general rule, and that’s what we try to stick to when things are presented. We run that by ourselves, certainly while I curate, there’s a team of us, including my brother, Eric, Larry Hall, the chairman, and other people as well within the Jim Irsay Collection, who assess, evaluate, etc., before we actually acquire an instrument. 12:03
On if there was ever a guitar he wanted but the collection said no – Well, no, because I think part of my value proposition and Eric’s value proposition is bringing things could be viewed as a little on the outside or what have you. Again, this is Mr. Irsay’s, guitar collection. This is not Marc Johnson’s guitar collection. Being a responsible steward, and a responsible curator, it is my responsibility to surface guitars that I believe have historical significance and that would be beneficial to the collection overall, and Mr. Irsay’s interest is absolutely first and foremost of that criteria. Then after that is “What would the general public think?” We’re getting ready to do this massive event in Indianapolis that we’re just incredibly excited about, it’s going to be the biggest of the exhibitions, the museum exhibitions that we’ve done so far, we’re absolutely elated. One guitar that comes to mind that would fit in that category would be DeeDee Ramones’ bass from The Ramones. Understanding that Mr. Irsay may not be a Ramones fan, I happen to be a Ramones fan. What I liked about it is just again, there is a punk rock ethos, I mentioned that with Kurt Cobain. Well, it was also a bass that was played on literally every Ramones record and tour. It was one that the provenance of the instrument was very clean, where it was coming from, the proof of the history and the provenance, etc. was exactly what we like to see. It was just not something they had an interest in. Hey, absolutely, completely respect that, and we’re gonna move onward, I certainly am not heartbroken about it, but that would be one where I surfaced where I would think that would be cool for the collection, but it didn’t resonate and we didn’t get it. You know what, whoever has that, God bless them, I’m sure it’s a great instrument and it’s part of their collection and part of their story. We don’t have sour grapes at all when something like that doesn’t come our way, but yeah, we do surface things that could be somewhat outside of the norm, but also to have exposure to letting Mr. Irsay evaluate that and see what his interest is. 14:11
On what fans can expect when they attend a free exhibition – With each installment of this and so far we’ve done Nashville, Washington, DC, Austin, Texas, Beverly Hills, California, New York City, Chicago, and now we’re going to go to Indianapolis. So we’ve done it quite a few of these, and I believe with each installment, with each show we do, we get better. It’s better for the audience. It’s better for us. We are always constantly innovating and iterating the way that things are presented, we wanna make, especially the exhibit portion as immersive as possible. New York was a great example where we had a two-day event there, one for the general public, and there was a private event the day prior. What I really loved about the general public is the New York guitar enthusiast and music enthusiast, they were there en masse on the public day, and we really got to talk to these people, and these people are highly educated. Whether it’s about Jerry Garcia’s Tiger or the Yellow Cloud, or the (Pete) Townsend SG, or the George Harrison SG, or the Eric Clapton 00042, that was used on Unplugged. They have incredible knowledge and they’ve already researched these guitars, so it was such a high level of engagement where I was really holding court and Eric was holding court for hours on end in the Hammerstein Ballroom. And so that’s fun. So we try to make that part of it, where Eric and I are available. In Chicago, we had, I think, three different guitar walls displayed there. In Indianapolis, we’re gonna have over 33-35 guitars displayed in Indianapolis, more than we’ve ever had at any other exhibit. Eric and I are there with the exhibit to answer questions to talk about the provenance, to sort of highlight some of the new acquisitions that we’ve made, etc., etc. But the idea of all of these thoughts, again, is to make incremental improvements with each stop that we do, create a truly immersive experience for the artifacts with the guitars included. There’s so many great compelling US history artifacts, Muhammad Ali, and James Brown, and Jackie Robinson, and John F. Kennedy, etc., etc.. The Declaration of Independence for crying out loud, artifacts that are completely breathtaking when you view them in such an exhibition that we put on. So again, we try to make as immersive as possible to the fan, to the audience member, and again also be there, especially in the guitars where Eric and I are open to answering any questions, allowing fans to take photographs, even one installment, we thought the lighting wasn’t quite right, we had corrected that at the next installment because we want fans to walk away with momentos, if you will, of the installments and have an incredible photo, let’s say, of Bob Dylan’s Newport Stratocaster. That’s important to us and fans can walk away from that. One thing that I do wanna say is (that for) Mr. Irsay, such an important part is about sharing the collection. He has one of my favorite quotes that he ever says where he says, “I have never have seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul”. Meaning that when you die and you pass away, you’re not gonna take this with you. So his mission is to share it, and that’s why these are free, that’s why we’re taking these to other markets, etc., etc. But getting back to the actual event itself. One thing that makes this highly unique is in addition to the exhibition of artifacts, there is a live performance component that really is comprised of some of the most world-class musicians in the world, including, and I’m just gonna name off the band because I love it, we have Kenny Aronoff on drums, Michael Ramos and keyboards, Mike Wanchic from John Mellencamp’s band on guitar, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, obviously blues guitar legend, Tom Bukovac, Nashville session ace is the other guitar player, the bass player’s Mike Mills from REM, I’ve been a huge REM fan my whole life, I can’t say enough about their influence on me, Peter Buck in particular, but also Mike Mills influence on my brother who also plays bass, enough compliments can I be given his way. We also have great backing singers in Renee Michelle Marrifield, Stephanie Allen-Stevenson, and Elena Renee and StacyMcCracken. Then obviously Jim Irsay leading the charge, it’s the Jim Irsay band. We have this absolutely world-class band and the great Kenny Aronoff on the drums, you no better drummer out there. So we have this incredibly world-class, band that gives a live performance at each of the exhibition installments and usually complemented by just an incredible rock star and iconic rock star. We’ve had many on the tour, just to name a few, Billy F. Gibbons, which just was incredible. He played with the band during the Los Angeles installments in both of the El Rey Theater and The Beverly Hills Hote. In Chicago, we had Ann Wilson, of Heart, and obviously a solo artist in her own right. Mr. Tplayers in the band plays with and on om Bucovac, one of the guitars, plays with her on her solo tours, and we also had the great legendary Buddy Guy, which in Chicago and Chicago, blues, you can’t really breath a word of that without talking about Buddy Guy, but we’ve also had Robert Randolph, the great pedal steel player. Natalie Merchant was part of the New York installation. So great. Obviously, she had the song “Jack Kerouac” that was phenomenal. In Indianapolis, we’re bringing again back Ann Wilson and it was just announced that Mr. John Mellencamp will be joining for a song too in Indianapolis. So I can’t say enough, these events are one-of-a-kind. You might have gone to museum exhibitions before, you might have gone to rock concerts before, sort of blending these two together, mixing these, it’s just a really, really, truly unique experience for the fan, and I think of what we have in store in Indianapolis will be the biggest and best yet, and we’re really looking forward to it. 16:46Now streaming on nugs.net – Bruce Springsteen LIVE – 40 years of concerts on-demand. Stream exclusive official recordings from The Roxy ’75 to stadiums in the 2000s.
On if he has a dream guitar to acquire – Always, and there are multiple. It’s not just one, we go down the list, but Clapton Blackie would be a big one, and The Fool that he played in Cream would be a big one. Obviously, any of the, which I don’t think is going to happen in our lifetime but never know, any of the Beetle instruments that we currently don’t have Obviously McCartney’s Hofner bass, how special would that be? I think we all watched “Get Back” last November, any of the guitars there that they were playing, whether it’s Harrison’s Les Paul the Casinos or what have you, any of those would be incredible. There’s just so many, and obviously, one that I think is at the top of our list, that may not be at the top of every collector’s list, but we would love to have the Love Symble guitar made by Andy Beach that Prince played during the half-time performance of Super Bowl XLI when the Indianapolis Colts defeated the Chicago Bears. I can only imagine what it would mean to Mr. Irsay to have that guitar as part of our collection, would be absolutely huge. That’s something that we do have an interest in. While we’re on the Prince subject, the Honer MadCap that’s currently displayed at the Smithsonian would be a very compelling instrument. Obviously, Jimi Hendrix original sets. The thing with Jimi Hendrix is you have to be very careful. A lot of people claim to sell Jimi Hendrix instruments. The joke internally, as I say, it always comes with a great story and a very blurry photo. I should add a third element to that in a very hefty price tag. To confirm one of the guitars, I’m not gonna mention which one because it’s actually still on the market, but there was one guitar that was offered where a guitar that’s previously owned by somebody that’s a different guitar, is claiming the exact provenance. Well, what that means is that if you bought that guitar, you’re going to share in that and the person who owns the other guitar, they’re gonna believe that’s their provenance. We don’t like that, we wanna have something with a very clean provenance, there’s no question, is the guitar that we own, the Black Strat is the Black Strat. How do we know that? Well, it was first sold by Christie’s, which is one of the most reputable auction houses in the world, Kerry Keane who helped curate it is a friend of the collection. The auction was directly driven by David Gilmour with his guitar tech Philip Taylor, that’s clean provenance, and that’s what we really like to see is where we could prove it out. I mean to answer your question, there are so many that we would look at, but really, of the most iconic guitars, that’s what we’re looking for. That’s just a real base level, but as things come to auction and things come to market, we’re always looking for things like that, but really the most iconic guitars out there, obviously any of Jimmy Page’s, we would love. We do have a Jimmy Page guitar that he played at Epsom College when he just jammed with some students there after giving the speech, he signed that guitar, which he rarely does. It’s a DeArmond by Guild. But it’s certainly not his Les Paul, or certainly not the Danelectro, or the Martin Acoustic. So anything by the greats, we are absolutely interested in. So as your listeners are listening to this, if there’s something that someone they have, we’d be certainly interested in hearing from you, but again, we do try to get that most historically significant instrument from the artist. 26:00