The prince of pop (culture)
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PROVIDENCE — While the other kids were out shopping for new sneakers, young Darren Hill was dragging random stuff home from the side of the road in New Orleans. He doesn’t know why, only that he caught the collecting bug early. Later, when he was a touring musician, Hill spent his down time on the road scouring junk shops and flea markets for art, furnishings, ephemera, curiosities, conversation pieces, he says, from the archival to the absurd. It kept him out of trouble, but it also got him into trouble. Over the years Hill had to rent one storage unit after another to house his swelling collection of pop culture artifacts.
He's obsessed, clearly. But with what, exactly?
"I've always been fascinated with history and preservation but there's also an element of P.T. Barnum and Robert Ripley," says Hill. "The offbeat and the eccentric. Later I became interested in good design. There was so much of it in the '50s and '60s, Eames furniture and automobiles and even simple domestic items like telephones and lamps. I always had a dream of opening a shop but I figured it would be well into my retirement."
Hardly. Hill is 56 and works as an artist manager, a job he took up after years playing the bass — first in Red Rockers, a New Orleans punk band that cracked the mainstream with its 1983 hit "China," and later, after moving to Boston, in roots rock outfit the Raindogs, touring the country with Dylan, Warren Zevon, and Don Henley. Paul Westerberg, the frontman for alt-rock heroes the Replacements, recruited Hill for his first post-Replacements band, but when Hill's son was born he made the transition from musician to manager so that he could spend more time at home. Today Hill manages Westerberg, psych-rocker Roky Erickson, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones from his longtime base of East Greenwich, R.I., where he works and lives with his family.
Of course he never stopped shopping. Despite his best effort to rotate new acquisitions in and out of their home in a timely fashion, Hill's finds — which concentrate on items from the '50s through the '80s — started overtaking the place, so in 2012 he opened POP, the Emporium of Popular Culture, in a quaint storefront half a mile down the hill from his house.
The store developed a loyal following, becoming a clubhouse of sorts for the local design community, and Hill started supplying pieces to film companies shooting movies in the area. But when the Replacements' 2014 reunion tour took off, Hill no longer had time to run the shop and he closed POP's doors.
This week it'll open again, in a seriously cool new location: a 10,000-square-foot industrial building in Providence. From the street it looks like any other brick warehouse — previous tenants include Wal-kar Engraving and the Black Key sex club — and it remains unmarked except for a sign over the back entrance. Hill bought the building from a friend two years ago and renovated the place top to bottom, sandblasting the soaring ceilings, refinishing original factory floors, and dividing the place in half. The store is on one side; on the other is a performance and gallery space. POP's opening party is on Thursday , from 6 to 9 p.m., featuring music from singer-songwriters Man & Wife and art by Rhode Island painter Susan Dwyer.
"I've been painting Pyrex and Jell-O molds since high school and when I met Darren at his store I knew he was a kindred spirit," says Dwyer, who's very excited about the prospect of POP filling a niche in the local art scene. "Providence desperately needs gallery spaces that aren't geared toward vacationers or corporations, that show local artists who don't have an established following."
Hill does see himself as something of a curator, and at POP he brings to bear an uncommon suite of skills: a great ear, an impeccable eye, flair for business, and one of the most undersung qualities in this or any profession: a huge heart.
"Look at his roster," says Dicky Barrett, frontman for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and announcer for "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" "It's not about 'will it make me a lot of money?' or 'will I be a player?' These bands are things he cares about, things that have been a part of his life. The Replacements, the Bosstones, the New York Dolls [Hill facilitated the group's 2004 reunion], a lot of people wouldn't bother, but they're precious things to him. It's a matter of respect, and you can parallel that with his store. He lights up looking at the things in his store the same way he lights up at the [the Bosstones' annual] Hometown Throwdown. That energy is a real joy."
I asked Hill about the through-line, whether there's something that connects his work as a musician, a manager, and a collector. "I want to feed creativity," he says. "That's the through-line. POP is a store, of course, and I want to sell things. But I'd like it to be a playground."
That's what it feels like. Walk in the door and turn to your left – there's the gunmetal desk used in "Black Mass" and just beyond that a mid-century bar nestled next to a Twister rug. White tulip tables and a riot of colorful chairs dot the room, and the seats facing the stage are tucked behind vintage bowling alley scoring tables. A massive coin-operated Love Meter (Clammy to Uncontrollable) beckons. Art covers the walls.
Turn to your right and you're in the Emporium. WWOZ out of New Orleans is streaming, some old R&B, and it's hard to focus on any one thing because everything is enchanting. If you wander for a while, patterns emerge: a tiny sports section, a cluster of fine ceramics, items pertaining to Steve McQueen, nuclear fallout, radios, venereal disease, Barbie, books, pink things, the list goes on. Whimsy and stewardship, high style and kitsch, history and humor, they all seem to have equal value here.
"Everything," Hill says, "has a story. That's my benchmark."
For now POP is open Friday-Sunday from noon to 5 and during special events in the gallery/performance space. Next month Hill is bringing in the Amazing Hancock Brothers, Texas siblings who are print-makers and spoken-word artists. He swears he doesn't want to go into "the nightclub business" but offers for shows are rolling in, and it's easy to imagine POP becoming a very happening scene. Hill, who keeps a bass in his office, says he's even been thinking about having a little fun with music again. And why not? This is his playground.
POP, 219 W. Park St, Providence R.I. Hours: Fri-Sun, noon-5pm and during special events, 401.885.5050, emporiumofpopularculture.com