Amid a fast-growing Fenway, the Verb Hotel is a blast from the past
There’s some spectacular stuff hanging on the slate-blue lobby walls of the new Verb Hotel, the rock ’n’ roll revival of the old Fenway Motor Lodge. The centerpiece of the crowded display is a near-lifesize shot of a young, unclothed Mick Jagger, who is strategically holding a copy of the Rolling Stones’ infamous “Sticky Fingers” album cover: a close-up shot of a man’s crotch in a tight pair of jeans.
That and several other framed pieces — Lou Reed’s autograph, a poster for the Who’s gig at the old Boston Tea Party — are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-worthy artifacts. But it’s not just the demigods of rock history who grace these walls.
“I couldn’t tell you for the life of me who Hymie and Glinda were,” said project curator David Bieber during a recent walk-through, referring to a hand-drawn flyer from a 1980 set at the old Cantone’s.
Bieber — a rock historian who worked for 16 years at WBCN and another 19 years around the corner at the Boston Phoenix — has traced Boston’s musical heritage from the psychedelic era and the corporate-rock successes of the 1970s to the hardcore and alternative movements and beyond. Now choice selections from his massive collection of memorabilia are the inspiration for the whole vibe of the Verb, which has a soft opening this weekend.
The place, for decades an undistinguished Howard Johnson’s affiliate, was nevertheless a hub for visiting bands booked into the various nightclubs that have cycled through Lansdowne Street, in the shadow of Fenway Park: Axis, Avalon, Spit. Bieber, who often hung out at the bar with his fellow ’BCN staffers, recalls one night when he and the Clash’s Joe Strummer had an intimate, one-on-one conversation on the steps outside.
“That was the glory of that period,” said Bieber. “The artists and the members of the media were so intertwined. It was like one hand clapping the other.”
With its midcentury Modernist layout and its restored, colorfully tinted windows resembling Mondrian paintings, the hotel, at 1271 Boylston St., is “a real oasis, like Palm Springs comes to Boston,” said Elizabeth Lowrey of Elkus Manfredi Architects, who worked on the Verb’s concept and restoration.
Planning meetings typically involved Bieber unpacking his archives — concert posters, promo photos, handbills, other ephemera — to the designers’ delight.
“I get giddy when there’s a meeting,” said design consultant Antonio Bertone. “I usually love being part of the meeting-free culture, but if it’s a Bieber meeting I’m like ‘Oooh!’ He’s one of the coolest people to talk to.”
Though Bieber owns a 13-room Victorian, he likes to say he lives with “about 3 percent” of the things he owns. The rest are in storage. After decades of squirreling away his collection, Bieber and his archive were recommended to developer Steve Samuels by Stephen Mindich, the former publisher of the Boston Phoenix who ran the paper from the late 1960s until its closing last year.
At the time, Bieber was already starting to think about what to do with his archives for posterity. Walking through the hotel, he mentioned Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, which houses everything from manuscripts by Abraham Lincoln to letters of Bette Davis to photos and letters of Martin Luther King Jr.
“I’m processing that right now,” said Bieber. The collection needs to end up in the right hands, he said: “With no back story, a lot of it does wind up looking like debris.”
“I’ve never sold these things,” he added. “It’s not a business. It’s been a pleasure, and also a burden, a responsibility.”
While he mulls his long-term options, he couldn’t be more pleased to display some of his memorabilia at the Verb. For now, several dozen pieces greet visitors as they enter the lobby, where the front desk personnel will help guests spin albums — yes, the vinyl kind — from a collection of Boston-related and general-interest music Bieber is stocking. There’s a wood-grain turntable resting right there on the check-in counter.
Bertone, the consultant, helped conceive of Puma City, the innovative traveling retail space created from shipping containers, when he was the shoe company’s chief marketing officer. He said the hotel’s original motor-inn design lends itself to the romance of the road — “the thousands of motels across the country that bands are still rolling into.”
As a teenager, Bertone ran a record store in Milford, specializing in hardcore, death metal, and other underground genres. He’s adamant about the hotel’s ongoing commitment to its concept.
“You can’t just have an opening day, then basta,” he said. “This thing has to have dedicated people that curate it, program it, to build that atmosphere and that knowingness about rock.”
The prints and posters hanging in the lobby are a crash course in Boston’s rich rock ’n’ roll heritage. Out-of-town visitors will naturally want to see reminders of the biggest bands to come out of the city — Aerosmith and Boston and the Cars and the J. Geils Band — but there’s plenty of room to recognize less successful acts, as well as late scenesters such as Billy Ruane and Mr. Butch.
“You might have to explain to someone who Human Sexual Response were,” acknowledges Bieber, pointing out a smallish poster from a show at the old Jonathan Swift’s, one of many blast-from-the-past local venues.
The collection will evolve, with new images rotating into the lobby and more snaking down the halls, the walls of which are currently bare. (There are, however, sayings painted in large, bright lettering in the stairwells, such as “Listen to more music and less advice” and “If the music’s too loud, you’re too old.”)
Bieber, whose frizzy hair and stubble are decidedly gray, first caught the collecting bug as a kid — baseball cards, bottle caps, marbles. Asked to pinpoint the origin of his pack-rat mentality, he suggested with a laugh that he should lie down on the lobby’s bright yellow sofa for some psychoanalysis.
While the easy-going Bieber has been happy to accommodate the design team’s suggestions, he has advocated on behalf of some of his personal favorites — a promotional poster for an obscure, cassette-only Christmas compilation from the early ’90s, for instance.
So far, though, there have been no deal-breakers.
“Nothing,” he joked, “like ‘I’m taking my damn toys and leaving your sandbox!’ ”