Who Shot Rock & Roll
Making the most of my time back in the Old Borough, I spent a considerable chunk of last Friday at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, specifically checking out its new Who Shot Rock & Roll exhibit. I fully expected to be underwhelmed; after all, who hasn’t seen their fair share of iconographic rock star images by now, be it in print or on a gallery wall? And after the over-priced disappointment that was the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex in Manhattan (“was” being the correct use of tense; the Annex closes in the New Year ), I couldn’t imagine being either especially surprised or emotionally engaged by the further deification of a rebel music.
But I was. Who Shot Rock & Roll doesn’t just confirm that a significant amount music photography deserves to be called art, it communicates, viscerally, to the viewer, the emotion of the moment. It also communicates via sound: whether or not you plan to attend, I recommend visiting the web site for the audio links, which include a number of MP3 accounts by the photographers in question, and a variety of specially composed pieces by Chris Stein. (I went unprepared for all this, and though I was still able to dial in the photographer audio from my cell phone (technology!), I’d have heard the descriptions that much more clearly from my iPod.)
The exhibit, which fills several rooms, distributes its hundreds of images into separate categories: Starting Out, Behind The Scenes, Portraits, Performances, Fans and Crowds, and Constructing An Image. It includes, as you might expect, a number of famous images, including Pennie Smith’s shot of Paul Simonon that ended up as the London Calling cover, Danny Clinch’s massive 4×5 Polaroid cover shot of Tupac Shakur, Roberta Bayley’s shot of The Ramones for Punk magazine that ended up on their album cover, and Richard Avedon’s royal portraits of the Beatles in 1967. All of those are special, but I’d seen them before, in record stores as well as magazines. Here, then, were a few of my favorite scenes I’d never experienced before on a museum wall:
1) The Brooklyn Paramount by William “PoPsie” Randoph. The first photograph in the entire exhibition happens to be the first photograph in my new book, All Hopped Up and Ready To Go. It’s the marquee of the Brooklyn Paramount (on Flatbush Avenue), as photographed during disc jockey Alan Freed’s (first) Easter Revue of 1955 – which sold 97,000 tickets in just one week. PoPsie’s brightly lit panorama celebrates the moment when rock’n’roll went public.
2) The Kiss by Alfred Wertheimer. Over a series of three gelatin prints, Wertheimer portrays Elvis Presley, backstage in Richmond, Virginia, on June 30, 1956, at his most beguiling, as he attempts to steal a kiss from his beautiful date for the night (a woman whose identity has never, oddly, been revealed). In one picture, they’re at a slight distance; in another, their faces are squashed together (she had bet him he wouldn’t be able to steal a kiss from her); in the third, their tongues are touching. (Ultimately, she couldn’t resist.) This may be the last candid photo ever taken of Elvis: his manager Colonel Tom Parker was about to ensure that photographers would never have such unrestricted access again.
3) Joy Division by Jill Furmanovsky. British photographer Furmanovsky captures the four-piece Manchester band back-stage moments after they’ve played an important London headline gig, at the YMCA on Tottenham Court Road in 1979, just as their career is starting to crescendo. All four are smoking, all four are leaning in the same direction, all four have a certain post-show glow; there’s an unspoken bond between them that is the very essence of the rock’n’roll “group.” Naturally, it’s in black and white.
4) The juxtaposition between the picture of the Ronettes’ beehives and behinds, as taken by Ray Avery in 1963, with Amy Winehouse’s beehive, as taken on her wedding night in 2007 by Max Vadukul. In this picture, Amy has her hand between her legs, a pose also employed by Bjork in a 1994 photo by her then boyfriend Stephane Sednaoui, which captures her reclining on her bed. All three communicate the artists’ clear understanding of their sexuality – and the photographers’ hunger to experience some of it.
5) Another Hotel Room: Eric Clapton by Pattie Boyd, 1974. Supposedly a candid picture by Clapton’s girlfriend at the time, Another Hotel Room is in fact pure art, revealing the tedium of the road, this shot perfectly framed (complete with a hotel painting of a beach scene teasingly placed in the center of the short) and in lurid color.
6) The Beatles Arriving for their MBEs. (Photographer unknown, Goddamnit.) I’ve seen this picture dozens of times over the years: three British bobbies are attempting to hold back several hundred screaming school girls at the gates of Buckingham Palace as the Beatles arrived to collect their MBEs in June, 1965. In the past, I’ve always looked over the shot too quickly, failing to appreciate its perfect depiction of time and place. The police are flailing; the central bobby’s hat strap tucked under his nose. They look like a comic strip version of the British police; in fact the entire image looks like a still from A Hard Day’s Night. And yet those are real tears they’re shedding, and you can almost hear their piercing screams as you look at their faces, frozen in ecstatic puberty. The definite image of Beatlemania.
7) Top Rank, 1981 by Adrian Boot. Somewhere in the background, the Specials are performing. But they’re not the central figures in this shot; that honor belongs to the crowd which, per the mood of the times, has clambered all over the stage to join in. The audience is mainly white but, fortunately, there’s no real hint here of the racist skinheads who played the role of 2Tone’s partypoopers. The shot instead is a tribute to teenage testosterone, the joy of stage-crashing, the communal feeling of the perfect night out with your mates.
8) Kurt Cobain by Ian Tilton. This incredibly tragic picture of Kurt Cobain crying helplessly backstage moments after smashing his guitar speaks, and much more so than pictures of other rock’n’roll suicides on display (e.g., Kevin Cummins’ portrait of Ian Curtis), too loudly of a man at war with himself. It’s hard not to cry along with him.
9) Bunny Wailer by Kate Simon. “Getting Bunny to pose for me taught me the meaning of the Jamaican expression ‘Soon come,’” says Kate Simon in the audio accompaniment to this devastatingly powerful portrait. Simon, who apparently had never met a proper rastafarian before, spent a full week in Kingston (Jamaica, not New York) waiting for Bunny to come down from his house in the hills. When he did so, he drew on a massive spliff while they worked their way through three rolls of film. Wailer’s look in the chosen image suggests animosity; Simon insists that is merely “intensity.” Either way, it’s the quintessential portrait of a dreadlock rasta. (For a more humble view of the same creed, check the picture of Bob Marley and the Wailers walking their guitars from their hotel to the Birmingham Odeon, eschewing the conventional limousine ride.)
10) Oasis and Johnny Marr by Jill Furmanovsky. There are several collages in the exhibition, including one of Michael Jackson dancing in the mirror, and what is rightly called an almost “celestrial” multiple exposure of Madonna on stage. But I love the carefully (make that, symmetrically) cut-up collage that Furmanovsky assembled from various pictures she took at a London studio in December 2001, a few days after George Harrison died. The members of Oasis, joined by Johnny Marr, are sitting down, listening to Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” They’re surrounded by several more images of themselves, recording in the studio that same day. The panoramic image has the classic feel of time-delay, but it also says something about the music-making process, that of inspiration and continuity – the notion that “All Things Must Pass” and yet, and this seems a fitting conclusion, that “The Show Must Go On.”