Isaac Tigrett wants to do good. But can he do well?
When you walk into Isaac Tigrett’s house in Sherman Oaks, California, you feel you are entering a church whose pastor has a spiritual version of multiple-personality disorder. Tibetan prayer flags hang from the rafters of the living room, not far from a trio of Buddhas, placid and golden, that stand like sentries beside a large oil painting of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Across the room is a bronze plaque from Myanmar inscribed with gold-lettered Sanskrit prayers. If you look outside, through the windows, you will notice an ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhmet, the lion-headed warrior goddess, presiding over Tigrett’s swimming pool.
Tigrett amassed a vast collection of religious and folk art with the $65 million bonanza he made when he sold his share of the Hard Rock Cafe, which he cofounded in 1971, bringing into existence an entirely new entertainment category, the theme restaurant. More remarkable, he has spent most of the money. His fortune has been greatly diminished by the artwork, a hospital he built for the poor in India, and his 1992 founding of the House of Blues, a chain of innovative music clubs from which he was ousted in a boardroom coup. Tigrett, who is 50, now wants to move beyond that, into new terrain.
“I’ve sold every single thing you see here, this entire house,” he told me in June, waving his arm across his living room. “Tomorrow they come and start taking away everything.” As we spoke, his maids were packing up smaller items, the dishes and silverware and so forth; some of his belongings would be given away.
“I got a message from my master,” Tigrett explained. “He said, ‘Live very simply, very humbly, in a small place, no decorations, no fancy bits and pieces.’ It’s time for me to leave this past and the energy that was with it behind. So goodbye 20th century, hello 21st century.” This made him laugh, nervous and excited, the sound of a flamboyant gambler pushing his remaining chips into the pot.
Tigrett’s master is Sri Sathya Sai Baba, a guru who lives in India and counsels followers to “love all, serve all,” a credo Tigrett reprinted on countless T-shirts and caps sold at Hard Rock Cafes around the globe. Tigrett’s skill at turning the worthy into the marketable drives his newest, biggest gamble: the Spirit Channel, a web network intended as a Hard Rock Cafe in cyberspace for people seeking not burgers or music but spiritual and physical tranquillity. If all goes as planned, it will make Tigrett known as the man who branded spirituality on the Internet.
The Spirit Channel is to include a variety of sites. Holy Lands Live will feature nonstop webcasts from places like the Vatican, the Western Wall, Mecca, the Pyramids, Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, even the Eiffel Tower. The Word Foundation will be an online library for, as Tigrett puts it, “the word of God in all its forms.” The commercial heart of the network will be New Atlantis, a cybercity for practitioners and consumers of holistic therapies. The Fifth Dimension will provide forums for paranormal endeavors like tarot card reading, channeling, and palmistry. The Spirit Network will provide a dating service for spiritually inclined singles. In the Golden Circle, Chinese herbal doctors will offer online consultations, and online marketplaces will sell all things organic and holistic.
The Spirit Channel will have real-world outlets, too; the first one is slated to open in London early next year, followed by branches in New York and Los Angeles. They will be of the Hard Rock Cafe-meets-Indian ashram-meets-Canyon Ranch variety, with vegetarian restaurants, bookshops, lecture halls, and rooms for yoga, acupuncture, massage, and the like.
Tigrett is not your typical businessman betting his house, almost literally, on the fin-de-siècle roulette wheel called the Internet. He casts himself as a Citizen Kane of spirituality-charismatic, fearless, and brash, quite certain he knows what the people need and what they will buy. He is over six feet tall, with an ample physique he wouldn’t mind trimming, and his eyes are so blue and so fierce they seem wired into a power source of their own. He even has a distinctive uniform-white tunic, dark jacket, dark fedora-that he wears every day, like a hip monk from an order with only one member.
“I believe a new renaissance is going to occur through science and spirituality combining,” Tigrett says. “People are on spiritual searches for themselves…. The goal of the Spirit Channel is to be their guide.”
It sounds vaguely messianic, as does Tigrett’s decision to give up his belongings in Los Angeles and move to a modest flat in London, where he opened the first Hard Rock Cafe. “I have to live the expression I am trying to teach others,” he told me. But Tigrett isn’t abandoning everything. He has just acquired a fully loaded Cadillac SUV equipped with a global positioning system and built-in video screens for backseat passengers, and he is shipping it to London, where he wants to have a left-hand-drive vehicle. When I noted one day that although he eschews meat, meditates 27 minutes a day, and burns incense in his hotel rooms, he nonetheless sneaks out of Spirit Channel strategy meetings to smoke cigarettes, he flashed a smile of weary indulgence. “I’m not a priest,” he says. “I’m an old rock & roll guy.”
On a pleasant day in April, Tigrett emerges from a black limousine, enters a building on a downtown stretch of Fifth Avenue, takes an elevator to the 14th floor, and strides into the New York office of iXL Enterprises Inc., a three-year-old Internet consulting firm. The company is going public in a week, and there is a buzz in the air, a feeling of creation itself. (iXL’s stock will jump 49 percent on its first day of trading, valuing the firm at approximately $1.14 billion.)
Tigrett is led into a meeting room that contains a translucent, batwing-shaped conference table. Seated at the table are Kevin Wall, iXL’s vice chairman, and Mark Swanson, who heads the New York office. Something like $30 billion is spent every year on alternative medicines and treatments, Tigrett tells them, and the sector is growing all the time-vitamins, nutritional supplements, deep massage. Who controls the market? There is no dominant brand. Who regulates the market? Nobody. The government oversees drugs, not ginseng.
“It’s a free-for-all,” Tigrett says. “The only brands that are out there are GNC and Celestial Seasonings and all that bullshit.”
Tigrett has raised $2 million in seed capital, largely from a Malaysian tycoon he met at Sai Baba’s ashram, but he’d like to raise about $40 million to launch the Spirit Channel, and at the moment he is looking for an Internet firm that can develop a business plan and demonstration site that will woo investors. In the loopy, upside-down Internet economy, clients like him must pitch their accounts to best-of-breed firms like iXL, which have more business than they can handle.
Tigrett is winning converts. When he heads to the elevator after the meeting, Swanson takes a call in the reception area, and as the elevator doors close I hear him say with the enthusiasm of a teenager, “I just had a great meeting about a business we’re going to do. It’s with the guy who did the Hard Rock Cafe!”
In June I visited Tigrett in Los Angeles, shortly after the death of his father, who made a fortune from novelty items like the Glub-Glub Drinking Duck and advised such financiers as Sir James Goldsmith and Armand Hammer. I rode shotgun in Tigrett’s SUV as we headed to a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, and I heard again Tigrett’s soft Tennessee accent, which he shares with his famous childhood friend, Al Gore Jr. (The vice president still bears a small scar on his forehead from the time Tigrett whacked him, accidentally, with a baseball bat.) I asked Tigrett how his father’s death affected him.
“I died in a hotel room in 1976 in Colorado and came back from what I consider to be a death state,” Tigrett says. “I know that death is a celebratory transition that everybody is going to dig a whole lot, but of course you grieve the personal loss of the physical form of your relative or loved one.”
He lowers the volume of a blues song playing on the stereo. “I had an epileptic fit and swallowed my tongue and died on the floor of this hotel room and missed my flight connections. Suddenly this guru, who I had been following for two years, named Sri Sathya Sai Baba, appeared in the room. My spirit came out of the top of my head and I was in some sort of form of giddy electricity, conscious of myself and of my separateness from my dead body, which was lying 10 feet below me. Sai Baba picked me up, put me on a bed, pulled my tongue out, pressed on my chest-and my spirit went back inside my body. I looked up-there he was smiling at me.
“That’s an experience that makes you dive deeper into understanding that there is more going on than what one thinks. This whole age is about getting closer to these answers. People are not satisfied with just religious ceremonies. They want to actually know who they are, where they’re going, why they’re here. When they’re on that journey, the Spirit Channel is there to assist.”
We make a left turn.
“All right,” Tigrett says. “Here we are at Il Tiramisu.”
Alan Aldridge waits at the bar. A fiftysomething Briton, Aldridge worked with the Beatles on the design of their White Album, and he created the Hard Rock logo. Aldridge serves as Tigrett’s artistic consigliere, and tonight the two men have an appointment to unwind over a bottle of Dom Perignon and a plate of calamari.
The Spirit Channel has come a long way since the meeting in New York. A contract has been signed with iXL, whose vice chairman, Kevin Wall, has made an investment in the venture and joined the board. Tigrett wants the Spirit Channel to look unlike any other website, and for that reason has drafted Aldridge into the project.
Aldridge is equipped with a felt pen and a pad of blank paper. After the calamari are gone and the first bottle of champagne is nearly consumed, he turns to Tigrett and coaxes out of him the sequence of the Spirit Channel’s opening screens. He is channeling Tigrett, and in a mad 30 minutes, his pen squeaking across page after page, Aldridge creates one storyboard after another. The Spirit Channel is taking shape, and there isn’t a computer in sight.
When Tigrett leaves to make a phone call, Aldridge leans back from the bar, winks, and says with a smile that makes him look young, “This is how us old hippies work.”