It’s A Hard Rock Life – Harry Morton
Here’s the problem: There are four shots of tequila on the table in front of me and I need to choose one. Not just any one, but the right one. It’s a rare rainy Friday night in Los Angeles and I’m three beers deep into dinner with millionaire playboy Harry Morton at his Century City Pink Taco Mexican restaurant, one of three he’s opened in the U.S. The first, of course, is the flagship Pink Taco that sits just inside the lobby of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the Las Vegas hotel that Morton and his father built up and then sold in 2006 for $770 million, the success coming in no small part from Harry’s ability to shape the perfect party. Since then, the 28-year-old has returned to his hometown to do some under-the-radar investing in the city’s nightlife. Most importantly, he bought the Viper Room, the legendary L.A. nightclub once owned by Johnny Depp. He also invested in DeLeon tequila, which is the cause of this impromptu taste test.
While Brent Hocking, his partner in DeLeon, pours a row of tequila shots, Morton leans over him, ogling the mock-up of the bottle. We’re sitting in a massive leather booth near the back of the crowded restaurant, just across from a low-rider bicycle and a painting of a Mexican wrestler. Morton wears a plain white T-shirt, jeans, and Converse All Stars. As he talks about tequila, Vegas, and L.A. nightlife, he sips water, not tequila. He’s currently on a no-booze kick. “I’m in work mode right now.” Which isn’t to say that he won’t drink again in the future. “I get in waves and right now I’m on a work wave. You gotta be focused. When you’re up there, people want to shoot you down or rip you down. They love to watch people fail. You have to really be on your game.”
Morton talks like that a lot. It’s a healthy mix of paranoia brought on by business sense and years of dealing with Hollywood bullshit. The combination pops up in his vocabulary: He peppers conversation with business school phrases such as “brand opportunities” and “integration,” offsetting them with an occasional “dude” or “sick.” When he’s excited he throws all of the phrases together. For instance, DeLeon tequila will be heavily integrated with both of his brands and isn’t this bottle design sick?
Which makes this impromptu tequila taste test that much more important. It is part drunken dare, part business research. Could Morton’s tequila stand up to the others in a blind taste test? Fortunately, the entire experiment falls apart with the arrival of food and visitors, who stop to talk to Morton. I’m off the hook. Hocking and Morton discuss with one of the Pink Taco managers how the tequila is made, and Morton excitedly chomps his gum as he talks. “I like the creative process and coming up with an idea from the beginning and seeing it through the end.”
One thing that has definitely ended for him is Vegas. “I avoid Vegas like the plague now,” he says, holding up his hands. “It’s like the scene of a crime to me: Don’t go back! It’s like the high school quarterback who leaves but still comes back to high school to try to hang out in the locker room. I went there, I did it, I learned a lot, I’m done. I’ve closed that chapter. I’m on to new avenues.”
Yet when Hocking brings up a recent trip to Vegas for the opening of the new club XS at the Wynn Hotel’s Encore resort, Morton can’t resist asking about his old playground. “Really?” he blurts out. “How was it?”
Chances are you saw Morton if you visited the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in the late ’90s. He might have even carried your bags or dealt you blackjack. “I worked all the jobs in the hotel, from the front desk to bellman to engineering. I used to deal blackjack. I ran craps. I got in and learned the whole business.”
Before his stint as bellboy, Morton grew up in L.A., where he attended the private Harvard-Westlake School with Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Segel. His father, Peter Morton, created the Hard Rock Cafe restaurant chain, and his British mother, Paulene Stone, is a former model. His grandfather founded the Morton’s steak house chain. The family lived just up the street from the Viper Room.
“I grew up above the Sunset Strip, so I was around it from as young as I can remember. Like, before the Keyclub or any of that stuff. I grew up in the early ’80s, which I think was the coolest era. People will argue that maybe the ’60s when The Doors were there and that whole movement was better, but to me it was early Guns N’ Roses, W.A.S.P., Mötley Crüe. That was the best time. I grew up a one-minute drive from the Strip, just up the hill. Even as I kid going home at night I would see all the people out, the lights, the choppers. I grew up on rock ‘n’ roll music and the Strip.”
After high school, Morton moved to New York City to study hospitality at New York University. He got his first tattoo while he was there, the words “Dirty Harry” on his arm. “My grandfather always used to call me ‘Dirty Harry.’ He loved Dirty Harry movies and Clint Eastwood,” he remembers. “So I got that done at Jonathan Shaw’s in New York, down in Alphabet City. I was, like, 17 or 18. So they just started from there and I got more and more.”
When he graduated, Morton joined his father in Vegas, where he literally lived at the Hard Rock for the next three years, working the front desk, dealing blackjack, and learning the business. “It was brutal, but it was a great learning experience,” he says. “Then I graduated into what I excelled at, which was marketing, branding, the nightlife. I learned a lot. I think the thing with the Hard Rock was that I was the target customer, so it was easy. I didn’t really have to get into the head of anyone. I knew what I wanted.”
Using the Hard Rock as his personal sandbox, Morton began building what he wanted. When he craved Mexican food, he opened the Pink Taco. Bored by the shows at other casinos, he hired Beacher’s Madhouse, a wild variety show full of midget wrestlers and jokes about sex and getting wasted. “Sundays at the swimming pool sucked. Everyone was leaving town. I thought, This stinks. It’s boring now. Why are we chilling out? Let’s crank it up a notch. So we created Rehab, which went on to become a phenomenon.”
At the time, Vegas was going through a transformation. Once a destination for retirees looking for an all-you-can-eat buffet and a glitzy show, the Vegas vacationer was growing younger, drunker, and crazier. The city became a year-round spring break. Operating on the whims of his own tastes, Morton was part of the evolution. “This was the first time young people went to Vegas to party,” he laughs. “It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s go to Vegas to gamble and see a show.’ It was, ‘Let’s go crazy.’” But Morton’s success was more happy accident than marketing mastermind. “I’d love to say that we had a genius team behind these things, or that I was a lone genius, but really I just created what I wanted and it worked.”
He also began collecting tattoos, mostly at Bad Apple Tattoo in Vegas. Several of them involve skulls. One is a tribute to his late stepsister, Domino Harvey, an ex-model turned bounty hunter who died of a drug overdose (her life is glamorized in the movie Domino starring Kiera Knightley). “She was going to get this tattoo right before she died. I talked to her about it, and she said she was going to get a dagger with a rose around it. So we started it and I asked for a skull in it since I love skulls.”
These days, Morton gets all of his tattoos done at Mark Mahoney’s Shamrock Social Club. He’s currently working on a fine-line tattoo of an ace of spades, his birth card. “To me, Mark is one of the coolest guys of all time,” Morton gushes. “He’s a legend. His tattoo shop and the culture—the people in his shop are the real deal. You could be there with a gangster, some low-rider dude, and a cop. He doesn’t care. You’re in the Mahoney Zone. I love being there.”
We’re in Morton’s Jeep Cherokee SRT cruising through wet streets toward the Viper Room when we pass the Shamrock Social Club. The limited edition truck is Morton’s main source of transportation for now, as he recently sold his ’68 Shelby Cobra. He also plans to get rid of his Bentley. The truck makes more sense—and with all of the customizations, including a turbo charger and a blower, you can lay rubber for a city block. Plus, Morton can load up his rottweiler, Jesus, in the back.
Nine Inch Nails plays on the stereo as we pass Mahoney’s tattoo shop, just blocks from the Viper Room. Shamrock Social Club, with its pool table and hangout atmosphere, is a magnet for celebrities, and actors such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have been tattooed there. Another famous customer is Lindsay Lohan, Morton’s ex-girlfriend. For Morton, who prides himself on being a private person, the storm of paparazzi that came with that relationship was hell. “It is the worst thing of all time. That is not me,” he says, shaking his head. “I’ll be happy if it never happens again. There are people out there who just love it. Not me.” Even getting Morton to admit that he dated Lohan is tough. “I didn’t really date her. This is one of those things where people will say, ‘Yes, you did.’ But I really didn’t. Don’t believe everything that you read. You hang out with someone for, like, one week and they can extend that for, like, two months’ worth of pictures. It’s more embarrassing being known for that. I’d like to be known for stuff I’ve created or things I’ve done. I don’t want to be known for that. No way.”
Morton would rather be known for returning the Viper Room to its former glory as the hippest Hollywood hangout. He bought the club after driving past on the way to his nearby apartment. “I didn’t really have any plans of buying the place, but I was stuck in traffic one day and looked over and thought, Damn, I haven’t thought about that place in a while. Then I got the ball rolling.” To many, the club represents the coolest side of the Sunset Strip. Johnny Cash, Oasis, Pearl Jam, and Bruce Springsteen have all performed there. River Phoenix died outside. Today, tour buses stop out front to photograph the nondescript black facade.
But taking over the Viper Room has been a shock for Morton. “In Vegas, we had everyone play, from the Rolling Stones to Tom Petty to Daft Punk. It was an amenity to the casino, so you could go buy any band you wanted and go upside-down $500K on a show because we knew we were going to make it back in the casino,” Morton says, realizing that his sandbox has shrunk. “The stand-alone business has forced me to be really disciplined. That’s taken a lot of the fun out of the game. In Vegas, whatever band came out, we said, ‘Get ‘em. We don’t care what it costs. Just get it done.’ You can’t do that now.”
His plans for expansion are on hold while he figures out a way to bring the Viper Room back to its elite cool. “I could say that I want to see Van Halen since they’re my favorite band of all time, or Depeche Mode, but that’s not possible,” Morton says. “So I want to see the hottest up-and-coming artists. Find the next Depeche Mode or break the next Van Halen or the next great rock band. We need to carve into our niche and be the best at that.”
For now, it’s Friday night and the club is hosting the Pussycat Dolls burlesque show. The tiny 2,000-square-foot space is cluttered with stage props, including pink lights and a massive bathtub. The club isn’t open yet, but in a few hours Hollywood will begin filing in. We have just enough time for the INKED photo shoot, an exercise that the publicity-shy Morton isn’t excited about.
“The thing I hate more than anything is having my picture taken. Some people love having it taken. Not me.”