Bill Pagel knows what you’re thinking, so he’ll say it for you. Last month, the Hibbing, Minnesota resident bought the two-story house where Bob Dylan lived between 1948 and 1959. It follows his 2001 purchase of a dwelling in Duluth where the singer and his family lived before Hibbing. “When you start collecting homes – and I’ve got two – I think that’s when you should probably get some professional help,” Pagel says with a self-deprecating laugh. “That’s end-stage collecting.”
Rock memorabilia has been a thriving market for many years, but this decade, it’s entered the realm of the one-percenter collector. A handwritten draft of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” lyrics went for $2,045,000 in 2014, around the same time one of Ringo Starr’s principal Beatle-era drumkits was auctioned for $2.2 million. In 2011, Michael Jackson’s red-and-black Thriller jacket went for $1.8 million.
“What’s happened over the last 20 years is that [music collectibles] have become the new fine art,” says Darren Julien, whose Julien’s Auctions company has been involved in the Jackson and Starr auctions, among others. “[Millionaires] are starting to spend big bucks on an item you would normally see someone spend on high-end artwork. It’s far sexier to hang a guitar on a wall than a Monet.”
In those big-dollar circumstances, what’s a less well-off but equally impassioned fan to do? Think smaller, somewhat more affordable items. This past June, the manuscript for Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” sold for $62,500 at Sotheby’s; Julien’s was involved in the sales of a Neil Diamond convertible ($86,000) and a wooden letter “A” ($6,000) that Barbra Streisand kept in a New York apartment, representing the missing vowel in her first name. “People are getting priced out of that market, so now they’re looking for other things; anything an artist or celebrity has touched,” says Julien. “They want a car owned by a celebrity or items from their personal life.”
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The latest twist – and one more affordable than, say, Duane Allman’s Gibson “Layla” guitar, which sold last week for $1.25 million – is childhood or adolescent homes of major rock stars. Last year, Kurt Cobain’s family home in Aberdeen, Washington – still owned by his family – was sold for $225,000 to Lee Bacon, a lighting-design consultant and longtime grunge devotee. This summer, a modest, 1,200-square-foot house in Gainesville, Florida, home to Tom Petty during his youth, went on the sales block. A California real estate agent and admitted devoted Petty fan expressed interest and put down a deposit, with the plan of helping turn it into a museum or historical landmark.
In the end, Petty’s ex-wife Jane stepped in and bought it for $175,000. Speaking to Rolling Stone, Jane Petty says she has no plans to transform the house into any type of museum or commercial tourist attraction. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with yet,” she says. “We haven’t decided. It’s in a very nice neighborhood, and I would hate to disrupt it. I just had a feeling we in the family should own it.” (Michael Jackson’s “Neverland” ranch, which has dropped from $100 million to $31 million, remains unsold.)
Pagel admits that buying rock and roll property is a twist with unusual challenges: “With a guitar, you can move it around. A house is just sort of stuck there. It’s not a portable collectible.” But neither he nor Bacon, of the Cobain house, has plans to move in. Instead, they’re in the process of restoring their respective purchases to as much of their original conditions as possible. The country world has already entered this territory – one can tour Loretta Lynn’s or Johnny Cash’s childhood houses, for instance – and Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s boyhood homes in Liverpool are tourist attractions. But plans for the Dylan and Cobain residences could mark the start of a similar initiative here in the States to turn the homes of classic rock acts into tourist attractions.
As dedicated Dylan diehards go, few probably top Pagel, who has seen around 500 Bob shows, owns a vast collection of memorabilia (including signed high school yearbooks), and runs the well-respected Bob Links site, one of the primary sources for Dylan setlists. The idea of owning one of his hero’s homes occurred to him when the Duluth residence was put up for sale on eBay. “I really wanted the Hibbing house,” he says. “It seems more people associate Bob with that house. But it wasn’t available, and that [Duluth] one was, so I thought I’d buy it.” Pagel did just that for $82,000 cash and now gives informal tours of the home.
Pagel has spent the last 18 years maintaining the Duluth home, renting out the first floor and sometimes crashing upstairs where young Bob slept. He installed a new roof and porch, replastered walls and refinished the floors; for added period touches, he tracked down the exact type of gas stoves and refrigerators that would have been found in homes in the Forties and Fifties.
This summer, Pagel, who retired from his pharmacist job last year, finally had his chance to nab the Hibbing residence when the couple who’d owned it for several decades decided it was time to move on. Pagel declines to verify the price but the two-story, three-bedroom home was listed on Zillow for $320,000. He’s already found a bedroom set similar to the one Dylan had, and the original curtains and curtain in that bedroom remain amazingly intact. He’s currently in search of the owner who bought all the furnishings from that home in the Eighties, including the dining room table and Dylan’s actual bedroom furniture. “I haven’t been able to find him,” he says, “but maybe he’ll read this.”
The Cobain home on E. First Street was on the market for at least three years, sitting unsold and priced as high as $500,000, when Bacon and his wife heard it was available. According to Bacon, the cozy, 1923-built bungalow still includes remnants of Cobain’s early years there, like orange shag carpet. “My goal is to preserve and restore it for my generation and for my kids,” says Bacon, who went to the same high school as Scott Weiland and wants to recreate the “original Sixties and early Seventies splendor” of the years Cobain lived there.
Thanks to zoning laws in that residential neighborhood, the house may never transform into a full-fledged museum, but Bacon has had preliminary discussions with state officials about granting it landmark status. “This is a tribute project that we ultimately would like to see shared with his fans, through truthful storytelling and historically accurate preservation,” Bacon says. Whatever becomes of it, Bacon sees the restoration project as a way of conjuring memories of a younger and happier Cobain, rather than the driven-to-suicide Nirvana frontman. “He could be a happy kid,” Bacon says. “He was gifted, and we want to stress the positives. Prevalent and undeniable throughout the home’s history is his sense of his humor growing up there, his passion for art and playing drums and piano, practicing guitar, writing songs, and having practice sessions with his friends in the garage.”
Pagel realizes how odd this developing trend sounds, but like Bacon, he has his eye on history, not the bewilderment of anyone who wonders why people would buy these things. “People like going back and seeing where somebody’s from, and this will be my contribution,” he says. “I think I’m doing something that should be done, even if people think it’s a little crazy.”