02/17/2013 10:13 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

'Gone Too Soon' Exhibit Sends Michael Jackson's Jacket And Whitney Houston's Pants Across The Country (PHOTOS)

It’s a perverse truism that the greatest career move for a popular musician is to die young. Album sales invariably surge, and television specials, and devoted impersonators ensure a steady stream of performances from the grave. Starting this month, a traveling exhibit asks us to remember our dead idols using starker material: their things. In “Gone Too Soon,” now touring Hard Rock restaurants around the country, familiar talismans of flamed-out stars -- such as Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Maori necklace -- share stage time with quieter relics -- like Kurt Cobain’s seventh grade yearbook -- in glass cases that evoke the voyeuristic set-up of a medical oddities museum. Scroll down for images of some of the items on display.

On the eve of the exhibit's launch, the Huffington Post sat down with curator Jeff Nolan, in a back room at the restaurant’s cavernous Times Square location. The Hard Rock historian told us the story behind his favorite piece on tour -- a “ridiculous” denim jacket worn by John Lennon -- and mused on why “the ghoulish element” can’t help but draw crowds.

The Huffington Post: Why are we so fascinated by these men and women?

Jeff Nolan: The music that anybody listens to between the ages of 15 and 25, it hits you at such a deep, emotional level. So as consumers we're sort of frozen, and they are too. They're never less than beautiful. They don’t have a chance to wreck their legacy, or make a bad record. Buddy Holly will always be 22.

And then, for music fans and the cognoscenti, it makes for endless debate. How do you think Jimi Hendrix’s career would have progressed had he lived?--that's a fun conversation. What guitar would he be using? Would he be playing weird jazz, or doing a record with Chuck D?

HP: How did you decide which items to use?

JN: I was pulling from [Hard Rock International's] casinos, hotels, and restaurants, which all told have 77,000 pieces. The ones I picked all had to have some resonance and a story behind them. I mean, I’m a huge fan of John Lennon -- I get overwhelmed when I have to write something about him -- but come on, there’s enough written about that guy. The jacket we included is the one he was wearing when he was thrown out of the Troubadour [the Los Angeles nightclub] for being drunk and obnoxious and heckling the Smothers Brothers. It’s this moment in his life where all his pain and drunk angst manifested in the sort of street punk he was as a kid. When you think of John’s legacy of art and peace...I mean, all that is true. But it brings this musical demigod down. I think that makes the music more impressive. It wasn’t made by the muse, by an avatar, this music was made by a regular person. And he wore a ridiculous jacket. It could only have existed in the early seventies.

HP: You've curated other exhibits. How popular do you think this one will be?

JN: Oh, very. I would like to pretend the ghoulish element isn’t a factor. In no way are we choosing to dwell on the circumstances that made them die. But when a rock star goes early, it’s like watching a shooting star. It’s gorgeous, and it’s also destructive. It’s hard to look away.

'Gone Too Soon'