The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, R.E.M., Madonna, Prince, the Beastie Boys, Kurt Cobain — not your usual line-up for a museum exhibit.
But now through Jan. 15, the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester is presenting these music icons and more — Janis Joplin, Bjork and Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles (who appears in the photo on our cover: Susanna Hoffs, by photographer Laura Levine, Boston, 1985), to name a few — in the exhibit “Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography.” The exhibit features 175 photographs by a variety of photographers with subjects that span rock & roll history from the 1950s into the 2000s. But the exhibit does more than just present these photographs. The gallery includes a seating area full of other rock & roll magazines, books and memorabilia, and a jukebox of sorts (an iPad loaded up with songs by the artists whose images line the walls) adds music to the experience of looking at big yet personal-seeming shots of Aretha Franklin or Johnny Cash. And, in the coming weeks, the Currier is holding a variety of events — from performances by local musicians at the museum to a screening of Spinal Tap as part of a Rock & Roll Film Festival — to make this not just an exhibit but an experience.
Adam Coughlin wrote about the exhibit before it opened but returned to get more information about the artistry of the photographs on display. Hippo’s regular music reporter, Michael Witthaus, looks at the photographs from a rock & roll fan’s perspective, giving his own playlist for the exhibit and filling in the history of some of the images that moved him. And we give you a rundown on the upcoming events related to the show.
Are you ready to rock?
Reliving decades of rock
By Michael Witthaus
The owner of the pictures displayed at the Currier Museum of Art’s “Backstage Pass – Rock & Roll Photography” exhibit prefers to remain anonymous. A man who used to be in the music business, I was told by museum staff, and not much more.
Then something in the nifty listening lounge caught my eye, tucked next to the iPad jukebox among posters, ticket stubs and passes: a framed set of credentials for a legendary 1970 rock festival on rails that included acts like Grateful Dead, The Band and Janis Joplin.
“Did this,” I asked, “belong to the collector?”
“Yes, that was his,” came the reply.
Over a span of 11 days, the Festival Express rolled across Canada, stopping for six all-day concerts in four cities along the way. The real action, as anyone who’s watched the 2003 documentary can tell you, happened between cities, on the train. Unburdened by the trappings of celebrity, the performers relaxed, jammed and put aside being rock stars for a while.
The unnamed collector’s urge to get behind the mask fuels this brilliant gathering of images. Instead of Jimi Hendrix putting his teeth to a flaming Stratocaster, or Eric Clapton grimacing as he cranks out a solo, the Currier exhibit has a shot of the two guitarists enjoying a cigarette together behind a London club. Joey Ramone sits in front of his refrigerator, toying with a bottle of barbecue sauce; Rod Stewart mugs in pajamas. Courtney Love applies eyeliner, Kurt Cobain bawls backstage and a pre-fame Madonna sits alone on a balcony.
Glenn O’Brien provides some insight in Eye Contact and the Ear, an essay included in the exhibit catalog.
“Before he became a collector … he collaborated with many artists for whom he had a deep affinity,” O’Brien writes of the mysterious donor. He was a mentor, a producer and, I learned after a bit of sleuthing, a record company executive. His collection is narrowly focused — artists in their prime, making eye contact with the camera.
The moments of repose on display are breathtaking. Dusty Springfield, seemingly unaware her picture is being taken, Johnny Cash pensively clutching a hymnbook, Neil Young and Kris Kristofferson, both impossibly young. All looking almost vulnerable — but only if you don’t know what came next.
I was fortunate enough to see a lot of these artists perform in their prime. Like the collector, I always hoped for an unscripted moment. I got one the night Jerry Garcia joined the Allman Brothers for a New Year’s Eve jam during one of the few years the Dead weren’t touring, and when Elton John performed “Crocodile Rock” for the first time ever for a small crowd in an intimate theater.
When MTV Unplugged debuted at the end of 1989, I was instantly hooked, because so many performances seemed to peer into the private moments that led to art. It always starts with a notebook, a guitar or piano, a tentative voice and a desire to create.
The show revealed a spirit that reminded me of a favorite Joni Mitchell lyric:
Remember the days when you used to sit and make up your tunes for love;
And pour your simple sorrow to the soundhole and your knee?
That song, “For the Roses,” was among the many that raced through my brain in the hours I spent with this wondrous collection, shared by a passionate individual who is first and foremost an undying fan.
“Although he worked in the music business,” writes O’Brien, “his involvement wasn’t really about business but about love — love of the artistry, the music, the performance.”
20 Pictures, 20 Songs
What follows is a Top 20 list of my impressions, and the soundtrack playing in my mind as I wandered among the photos. Often, a picture of one artist would bring another to mind — Buddy Holly begat Don McLean, Edith Piaf connected to Van Morrison. In each vignette, I credit the work that triggered my memory.
“Mystery Train” — Elvis Presley
Elvis Stare, 1956 photograph by Lew Allen
Elvis belonged to my parents’ generation, The Beatles to mine, but it’s all connected. Gobsmacked by their first meeting with Mr. Presley during the height of Beatlemania in 1964, John Lennon said, “Without Elvis, there would be no Beatles.” And without the Carter Family’s “Worried Man Blues,” which contained the line, “train arrived sixteen coaches long,” there would be no “Mystery Train.”
But the song speaks to me for reasons other than reaffirming rock’s eternal thread. Greil Marcus redefined the art of music criticism with a 1975 book containing the song’s title. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music caused me to think of music as a reflection of history and popular culture. I once saw Howlin’ Wolf, a certified legend, open for Alice Cooper, but I had no idea what American blues meant until I read Marcus.
His book deepened my appreciation for everything I already loved, and introduced me to a world I scarcely knew existed. This was to be especially true when it came to Elvis Presley’s music. The early 1950s records Elvis made for Sun Records, before RCA helped make him the biggest rock star in history and before Lew Allen snapped this crazy-eyed photo, remain among my favorites.
“Sexy Sadie” — The Beatles
Beatles With Maharishi 1966, photograph by Philip Townsend
An unscripted moment can hold more poetry than a thousand poses. That’s why watching the Beatles talk to the press was almost as satisfying as seeing them perform. Of course, John Lennon was a bit too unguarded when he told a British writer in early 1966, “We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first — rock and roll or Christianity.”
The quote hit the United States with the Beatles in the middle of what would be their final concert tour. It caused a firestorm — literally. Piles of albums, posters and tickets went up in bonfires across the country, leading me today to reflect on the rest of Lennon’s statement, which is rarely repeated: “Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary,” he said. “It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
A few months later, the group fell into the thrall of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, leader of the nascent Transcendental Meditation movement. Their first meeting is documented in Townsend’s photo. They traveled to his ashram in India, and left amidst rumors of the holy man’s sexual improprieties (what a concept). Lennon wrote the scathing “Maharishi” on his way to the airport. “What have you done? You’ve made a fool of everyone,” he sings, though the title became “Sexy Sadie” at the behest of George Harrison.
“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” — Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan & Joan Baez with Protest Sign, Newark Airport, Newark, NJ 1964, photograph by Daniel Kramer
Kramer’s picture of Dylan and then-girlfriend Joan Baez flanking an airline terminal sign was taken a few weeks before Bob Dylan’s historic Halloween concert at New York’s Philharmonic Hall. The timeframe is significant because the show marked the first public appearance of a song that I consider my personal, seven-minute Bible. Ironically, the words on the poster — “protest against the rising tide of conformity” — are a crass advert for British gin. I wonder how long it takes a Currier viewer to suss that out.
It’s fitting that even America’s greatest poet can’t explain many of the lyrics that came from his most creative period.
“I don’t know how I got to write those songs. Those early songs were almost magically written,” Dylan told Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes in 2004. He then recited the opening lines of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and said with a smile, “Try to sit down and write something like that.”
Oh, but I am glad he found the words, however they came to him. “He not busy being born is busy dying” is etched on my iPad, and the final words of the song, “it’s life and life only,” will probably end up on my headstone — or maybe even my first tattoo.
“365 Rolling Stones (One for Every Day of the Year)” — The Andrew Oldham Orchestra
Andrew Loog Oldham 1964, photograph by Philip Townsend
The Rolling Stones were the anti-Beatles, catnip for bad girls. Sixteen-year-old Lynn Goldsmith had a chance to photograph the Fab Four in 1964 and chose to snap them from the hips down — the young Stones fan was only interested in their boots. Her picture is among those on display at the Currier, along with some great shots of Goldsmith’s ’70s boyfriend Bruce Springsteen — but more on that later.
This image of Oldham holding aloft a photo of the band he managed into superstardom adorns the cover of a catalog accompanying the Backstage Pass exhibition. It’s remarkable for reasons that are well detailed by Greil Marcus in his book-opening essay. I’ll use my space to explain the song that came to mind looking at the picture.
Most readers won’t recognize the theme music for Ready, Steady, Go!, a British show popular in the 1960s. It first appeared on The Rolling Stones Songbook — a cash grab by Decca that Oldham managed to turn into a bit of art (and in the early 2000s a lawsuit against The Verve, who sampled a track without permission for “Bittersweet Symphony”). But fans of Oldham in his current role as a Sirius XM satellite radio DJ know the well — it opens his five-day-a-week show.
“My Generation” — The Who
Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon & John Entwistle 1964, four photographs by Mick Rosser
I strangely acquired The Who’s Tommy by spinning the wheel of fortune at a carnival hosted by the local Catholic church. By that time, though, I’d seen Woodstock, so I was already corrupted. Later, I used earnings from my paper route to purchase Live at Leeds, the source of my favorite version of the song that declares, “I hope I die before I get old.”
Look at the fresh scrubbed faces of the band in these four individual Rosser portraits. They’re working-class English boys staving off boring factory jobs to play rock music. It’s understandable that Pete Townshend had such feelings when he wrote the song. It’s kind of weird to hear Roger Daltrey sing “My Generation” now. After all, Keith Moon did die before he got old, and John Entwistle is almost 10 years gone.
But when I’m asked to name the greatest show I’ve ever witnessed, the answer is easy: San Francisco Civic Auditorium, December 1971. Sitting in the nosebleed seats, I watched The Who perform like an engine revved to the point just before it explodes. Moonie’s arms moved in a million directions, Daltrey swung his mike like a cool madman, Townshend windmilled his guitar and Ox stood stock still, defiantly holding down the rhythm on his bass. Years later, I heard Pete say it had been an off night — but you could have fooled me.
“Son of a Preacher Man” – Dusty Springfield
Dusty Springfield c. 1965, unidentified photographer
I defy you to find a more soulful white woman than this British singer, photographed (likely by a friend) looking fetching — and alone. Hell, she served as the fourth Vandella when the regular member showed up late to shows during a 1964 American tour. Springfield joined them to sing backup for Marvin Gaye, albeit safely hidden behind a curtain so the audience couldn’t figure out the trick.
Springfield was also a brave woman who used her drawing power to bring Motown artists to England for the first time. In 1965, she refused to play for a segregated audience in South Africa, decades before most pop stars cared about such justice (she got kicked out of the country right after her show). Springfield’s personal courage was no less exemplary. In 1970, she opened up about her sexuality, telling a writer, “I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”
When she made Dusty in Memphis in 1968 with a legendary Atlantic Records production team, though, her star had cooled significantly. The sensual “Son of a Preacher Man” changed that. Aretha Franklin originally turned down the song but later recorded it after hearing Springfield’s version. Teaching soul to The Queen of Soul — now that’s something.
“Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” – James Brown
James Brown, 1967 photograph by Jean-Marie Périer
Périer’s photo shows a smiling James Brown standing in front of a mural depicting popular black entertainers like Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway and Harry Belafonte. But when Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in April 1968, none of those performers could have pulled off what Brown accomplished. The Godfather of Soul single-handedly stopped a city from spiraling into rioting then engulfing an entire country, when he played a concert at Boston Garden the day after the murder.
Public television station WGBH simulcast the show as a favor to local leaders hoping to keep people at home and off the streets. Crowds came anyway, and at one point in Brown’s set people swarmed the stage, like a bomb ready to detonate. His cool-headed response is documented on the DVD The Night James Brown Saved Boston; the nearly canceled show ended up a beautiful memorial to the slain civil rights leader.
In the summer of that tumultuous year, Brown recorded “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” to express his dismay at black-on-black violence. The song became an anthem. Whatever you think of Rev. Al Sharpton, he had it right in his famous quote about Brown. “Most black performers came to white America,” Sharpton said. “James Brown made white America come to him, to accept him for who he was.”
“Trouble Every Day” — Mothers of Invention
Frank Zappa, London 1974, photograph by Kate Simon
Frank Zappa was the first social critic I cared about, but I initially thought the Mothers of Invention was a comedy band. I mean, they once opened for Lenny Bruce to help the beleaguered junkie comic raise money to defend himself against obscenity charges. “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” and “Who Are the Brain Police” are flat-out funny songs, as was later stuff like “Billy the Mountain” and “Mud Shark.’ It was easy to be confused.
But this number, written in response to the Watts riots of 1965, was no joke. In just under six minutes, it torched both the mainstream press (“if another woman driver gets machine-gunned from her seat/they’ll send some joker with a brownie and you’ll see it all complete”) and the knee-jerk simpatico of the left for what was basically self-destruction masquerading as race politics. To Zappa, “The fires burnin’ and the local people turnin’ on the merchants and the shops who used to sell their brooms and mops” reflected only “mass stupidity.”
Here’s a fun fact: a demo of “Trouble Every Day,” full of fuzz-toned, multilayered electric guitars, clinched their first record deal. The executive who signed them thought the Mothers were a blues-rock band. He had no idea what the rest of their catalog sounded like. Not that Zappa ever stayed with one sound — the year Kate Simon photographed him in a long trenchcoat, he’d remade the song into a slow, growling, anti-Nixon screed.
“Andy Warhol” – David Bowie
David Bowie/Iggy Pop/Lou Reed, Dorchester Hotel, London 1972, photograph by Mick Rock
So much history is packed into this picture. Iggy Pop, vamping with a pack of cigarettes in his teeth, wears a T. Rex T-shirt, thus making the shot equal parts glam rock — Bowie and Marc Bolan — and punk. But the figure that stands above all of this is Warhol, who launched Reed’s career with the Velvet Underground and provided inspiration to Bowie, who wrote a song in Warhol’s honor (sort of) for his Hunky Dory album.
Reportedly, the pop art icon didn’t like it much, and when the two met, they spent a lot of time talking about shoes. At the time Mick Rock took this picture, Bowie was relatively new to American audiences, Reed’s solo career was slow to start and Iggy had a heroin habit but no record contract. Bowie became a mentor to the two, producing (with guitarist Mick Ronson) Transformer and Raw Power. When Bowie’s Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was released, all three careers were back on track.
I saw Bowie play a near-empty Winterland in 1972, which is strange because you’d think San Francisco would have embraced him heartily. They eventually came around — 11 years later he sold out the Oakland A’s baseball stadium.
“American Pie” – Don McLean
Buddy Holly on the Bus, 1958, photograph by Lew Allen
He should have stuck with that mode of transportation. That’s all I could think about while looking at Allen’s photo of Buddy Holly sitting alone on a bus with his overcoat buttoned up. Holly’s death in a plane crash, along with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, is immortalized in McLean’s brilliant 1971 song.
Until I heard “American Pie,” I didn’t really know a lot about the tragedy that is now forever remembered as “The day the music died.”
But the song also managed to compress the arc of rock up to that point, and that’s why I loved it so much. My friends and I would sit for hours trying to parse its meaning.
These days, you’d just Google the answers, but back then it required a lot of work. It helped connect us to the music, and it’s sadly missing in many ways today. That’s not an old fart rant — kids these days, and all that nonsense. But a flash mob to deconstruct a pop song? That’ll be the day.
“The Circle Game” — Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell, 1968, photograph by Baron Wolman
Among the many things I admire about Joni Mitchell is that she reportedly refused to sleep with Robert Plant. It must have galled the Golden God, that she’d set up housekeeping with Graham Nash but rebuff the front man of the heaviest band in the world. Even after he wrote the sweet “Going to California” for her. Somehow I think Mr. Plant’s recent projects with Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin are connected to that slight.
Joni is my ideal woman, prickly and sweet, smart and sensitive, gorgeous but an inveterate chain smoker who probably smells. I’d wreck multiple homes to follow her down, so Mr. Plant’s age-old torch doesn’t surprise me in the least. In Wolman’s photo she sits in repose, wearing a silk blouse with sunlight pouring in behind her.
What was I talking about? Oh, right, “The Circle Game” — New Hampshire native Tom Rush recorded it first. Perfectly distilled poetry, every word a pearl, every elegant thought perfectly realized — “fearful when the sky was full of thunder and tearful at the falling of a star” and “cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town” — gorgeous. It’s no wonder everyone from Judy Collins to Dave Van Ronk was clamoring to record her songs. To think, she hadn’t even made Blue yet.
“Happy” – Rolling Stones
Keith Richards, Los Angeles, 1972, photograph by Jim Marshall
Altamont is remembered as the end of Sixties innocence. Where I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Rolling Stones’ botched attempt to re-create a Woodstock vibe on a bone cold December racetrack was more than that; it was personal. The fiasco was a stain on the community, a debt the band needed to repay.
So they did. When the 1972 tour was announced, four dates were booked at the smaller Winterland instead of one big Coliseum show. I tried everything to get tickets, conniving to sell my body to science (how? no idea), and scheming to hide under the stage three days prior to the show. Good thing I nixed that one, as the stage was moved from the back to the side of the building, especially for the Stones.
In the end, I hung around outside the hall and found a ticket 15 minutes before showtime, via more than a few miracles. Keith Richards sang “Happy” that night, and I walked out feeling like I could die smiling right at that moment. A week later, Jim Marshall took this picture of Richards, looking asleep with guitar in hand, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
“Saint Dominic’s Preview” — Van Morrison
Edith Piaf, 1960, photograph by Emil Cadoo
I’m none too familiar with French singer Edith Piaf, and I can only guess what she’s doing in an exhibit claiming to be “Rock & Roll Photography.” But as I said earlier, the thread of music is long and winding; at one point Van Morrison heard Ms. Piaf, and she became a touchstone for a marvelous song.
“Singing songs of Edith Piaf soul/I hear blue strains of ne regrette rien/across the street from Cathedral Notre Dame,” Morrison sings as the “Saint Dominic’s Preview” opens. He’s quoting a Piaf hit from the same year as Emil Cadoo’s photo. I’m convinced he’s describing a kind of writer’s fatigue, with stream of consciousness lyrics touching on record label politics, the struggles in Belfast, and his new home in San Francisco, among other subjects.
“Trying hard to make this whole thing blend/as we sit upon this jagged story block,” he seems to complain, but it’s hard to know what he’s thinking, as Morrison doesn’t much like the press — comments on the subject are few. But I can translate Piaf’s words (though she didn’t write them): “I’m not sorry for anything,” she’s singing. Now, ain’t that rock & roll?
“Thunder Road (Live, 1975)” — Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen, NYC, 1978, photograph by Lynn Goldsmith
A longing to hear moments of pure creation propels me as a music fan. I love first takes, rough mixes, and when a performer utters the words, “I’ve never played this song in public before” it can give me a feeling of pure bliss. By the time Bruce Springsteen played this stripped down version of “Thunder Road,” lots of people already knew it as the opening track of his breakthrough album, Born to Run.
But hearing him sing “Roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair” with nothing but a piano behind him gave me a sense of that brief space in time where art is born. Legend has it that Keith Richards woke up in the middle of the night to play the opening notes of “Satisfaction” into a bedside tape recorder, then fell back to sleep, forgetting what he’d done.
I have stacks of MTV Unplugged on VHS tape in my basement — stuff like Joe Walsh playing the gentle and obscure “Rosewood Bitters,” Daryl Hall and John Oates pared down to two perfect voices on “So Close,” Aerosmith ripping through a sloppy “Toys in the Attic.” I live for that kind of stuff, so this spare take is what comes to mind looking at Bruce in 1978, with the rough edges filed off, well on his way to being an icon.
“Gloria: In Excelsis Deo” — Patti Smith
Patti Smith, Central Park, 1975, photograph by Lynn Goldsmith
The second most powerful show I attended, after The Who, was the Patti Smith Group sometime in 1979. It was in a big auditorium, the CBGB days were well behind her, but the raw energy she exuded that night? Could have been the Grand Canyon, and it wouldn’t have mattered. The best part is that I had no idea it would be that good. I was just bored with an extra five bucks in my pocket, so I bought a ticket.
Yeah, that’s what a seat cost back then.
If you wonder why the era endures, well, most artists began as fans. Making music wasn’t a choice — it was in their DNA. Now going to a rock show costs half a week’s salary, something that’s hit the gene pool hard. The old days are gone.
Patti Smith is a poet who needed rock & roll to give her words force. She possessed true punk ethos, too — notice the “Free Keith Richards” shirt she’s wearing in Goldsmith’s picture. I can imagine Smith reading the words, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine … my sins are my own,” but I wouldn’t want to. She needs to be set to music. There aren’t many moments more pure than her retooling of Van Morrison’s classic song, born of love, honed by fury.
“Trenchtown Rock (Live)” — Bob Marley & The Wailers
Bob Marley, Kingston, Jamaica, 1976, photograph by Kate Simon
I ignored reggae for a long time, passing up many chances to see Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Toots & The Maytals and other purveyors of the genre early on. The opening song from Marley’s 1975 album helped nudge my recalcitrance. Recorded at London’s Lyceum Theatre, it’s one of the most joyous songs sung by anyone, ever.
‘One good thing about music/when it hits you feel no pain,” the song begins. This from a man with a pretty good conception of suffering — life in Jamaica could be brutal. Granted, he smoked a LOT of ganja, which no doubt also helped. But it took more than pot to make Marley’s magic, a talent that led Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga to eulogize him as a man “never seen — he was an experience which left an indelible imprint.”
The otherworldly Marley ushered in something that today we think of as World Music. He was taken from the planet far too soon. This stark Kate Simon portrait provides a glimpse into what was lost when he died of melanoma in May 1981.
“Frenchette” — David Johansen
David Johansen Dreams — NYC, 1978, photograph by Bob Gruen
Like David Bowie, David Johansen is a shape shifter. The singer began with the New York Dolls (if creative debt were tangible, he should be a zillionaire on that alone), and then went solo in 1978 with a garage-y gem that most people remember for the raucous “Funky But Chic.” He was a groupie magnet, as Gruen’s photo indicates. (Posed? Probably.)
I caught Johansen fever when someone gave me a cassette of the promotion-only David Johansen Live at the Bottom Line. The man put on a killer show, and his version of “Build Me Up Buttercup” is worth the price I paid for a vinyl copy a few years ago on eBay. But my favorite track was “Frenchette,” where he laments, “I can’t get the kind of love that I want, so let’s just dance and I’ll forget.” It was angst before The Cure and The Smiths, and I bet it was somewhere in Kurt Cobain’s teenage record collection.
In later years, Johansen dabbled in acting (he’s hilarious in Scrooged) and became alter ego swing man Buster Poindexter. But for my money, his eponymous solo album is the best thing he’s ever done.
“No Fun (Live at Winterland 1978)” — Sex Pistols
Sid Vicious, Airport Bus, Baton Rouge, USA, 1978, photograph by Bob Gruen
This picture captures everything the rest of the world thought of punk rock in general and the Sex Pistols in particular. To the left of Sid Vicious is a burly bearded man, no doubt a bodyguard. To his right are three straight-laced businessmen, each in various states of disapproval. One bites the inside of his mouth as if contemplating taking a swing at the bass player (and I use the term “player” loosely).
The next day in Dallas, a few rednecks got the chance, beating Vicious to a pulp before their show at the Longhorn Ballroom. He played anyway, and a photo of the leering, fat-lipped Sid is included in Gruen’s coffee table book, which sits near the Currier’s iPad jukebox.
The Pistols’ final gig came four days later in San Francisco; they remained defiant until the end. “No Fun” was the last song played by the original band. Vicious overdosed and died a little over a year later, a suicide. As punks tore up the seats at Winterland, singer Johnny Rotten ended the night by asking the audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
“Shoot Out the Lights” — Richard and Linda Thompson
Richard and Linda Thompson, NYC, 1982, photograph by Laura Levine
I went to the Currier exhibit on a Sunday, and though I wasn’t in church, God was speaking to me. When John Lennon made his remarks about the Beatles and Jesus nearly a half century ago, I wonder if he realized that rock would become a kind of religion, with its attendant share of miracles.
Like the one that found a ticket to see the Rolling Stones in 1972, or allowed me to avoid being killed after getting mugged — twice — hitchhiking home from concerts, or the earth angel I snuggled for an entire Jerry Garcia show, who then disappeared.
Another miracle happened that Sunday morning at the Currier. As I gazed at Levine’s vivid, heartbreaking portrait, I felt chills. Then the first crashing chords of the title track of the couple’s final album came bleeding through the Currier sound system. “Keep the blind down on the window,” sings Thompson in his familiar, jagged brogue. “Keep the pain on the inside.” Richard and Linda stare into each other’s eyes. The love shared in that gaze is complicated and, ultimately, doomed.
The couple would soon divorce.
Levine didn’t know this when she shot the picture, but sensed something and managed to capture it perfectly with her lens. It was an unguarded moment, just the sort of image the anonymous collector who provided the material for the exhibit was looking for. Linda Thompson would lose her voice for a couple of years and never return to her former artistry. Some of Richard Thompson’s best music still lay ahead. Deep love can never fully untangle.
It’s hard for one picture to say all that, but Levine’s comes very close.
“Lust for Life” — Iggy Pop
Iggy Pop, Miami, 2007, photograph by Kate Simon
Every time I hear “Lust for Life” in some consumerist pursuit like a cruise ship ad, I’m comforted that the original punk — Iggy — is still alive and among us. That he even survived is probably rock’s greatest miracle of all, and this picture by Kate Simon has all the elements. She should have titled it The Passion of The Ig.
There he sits, shirtless in a leather chair. Behind him hangs a portrait of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns; both their heads are tipped at the same weary angle. “Rock musicians are so good at masking,” said Simon. “It is a privilege when they take off the mask.”
I don’t care about Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne any more than I’m interested in the years Patti Smith spent as a housewife. Give me Superman, Batman, any day. Oh, I know that Iggy Pop is a character, played by a guy named James Osterberg. But it’s Iggy I believe in, when he’s careening across a stage, mowing down amplifiers, crawling across barbed wire, glass, whatever, scarring his leathery body without a care.
I know it is Iggy, not Jim, who bleeds for me.
A talk with photographer Laura Levine
Laura Levine possesses a fan’s heart and an artist’s eye. For 15 years beginning in 1980, Levine’s photos appeared in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, Sounds UK and the seminal New York Rocker, where she served as chief photographer and photo editor. She and her subjects were often friends, allowing Levine to capture many intimate moments — the B-52’s frolicking in a Catskills swimming hole, Henry Rollins’ tattooed back, James Brown gently playing a grand piano.
She came to the profession first as a fan.
“When I was a teenager … the bands I photographed were the ones I was interested in, or somehow happened to get access to,” she wrote in a recent e-mailed response to questions about the exhibit. “With fake press pass in hand, I got photo pit access at the War Is Over rally/concert in Central Park (1975), which is where I first heard and photographed Patti Smith, for example, and became an instant fan. Other times I already had tickets to concerts and snuck my camera in.”
Later, she’d get free rein at big venues like Madison Square Garden.
“It was a thrill to be only a few feet away from Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen while they were performing,” she wrote. “Personally, I always preferred shooting in small clubs, like the Mudd Club or Maxwell’s or CBGB’s. The stage was lower and smaller and you could get much more interesting shots.”
Success also allowed Levine discretion in choosing her subjects.
“Many of my shoots were on assignment, but I generated a lot of sessions on my own as well,” she wrote. She’d work the phone, calling a publicist when an artist interested her. “Sometimes I’d simply show up at gigs and ask the band if I could shoot some quick photos backstage before or after the show, or if they’d like to come to my place for a session the next day … you could pretty much just wander backstage where the bands were totally accessible and generally thrilled to have their photograph taken by a photographer from the Village Voice or NY Rocker.”
In the mid-1990s Levine walked away from the profession, blaming a changing music industry.
“What started out as a fun, spontaneous, intimate, and creative collaboration between two artists ended up becoming more akin to a marketing session,” Levine writes in an essay for the exhibit catalog. “So I left.” She continued as an artist, painting, making films, writing and illustrating books and opening an offbeat shop in upstate New York, which she still runs.
Levine had a close association with R.E.M. — she shot them in Super 8 for the underground documentary Just Like a Movie in 1984. They met through her friendship with dB’s guitarist, Peter Holsapple.
“He was over at my apartment. We were playing our regular poker game,” she recalled in her e-mail. “He pulled a demo cassette out of his bag and told me to give it a listen, that it was by his friends in a new band from Athens, Georgia, called R.E.M. (Peter turned me onto a lot of great music, from Big Star to The Soft Boys). This cassette set — which I still have, by the way — is quite rare. They only made a few of them, and each one was hand-decorated by Michael Stipe. I listened to it, loved it, and did a photo session with them when they came up to NYC. We immediately hit it off and became good friends, and I photographed them intensively over the next few years.”
Recently, R.E.M. announced it was disbanding. “[The] decision affected me quite deeply,” Levine wrote. “They were such a consistent, everlasting connection to my youth, and I suppose we all assumed they’d just always be there.”
Over the years, Levine photographed a lot of famous musicians and many who deserved greater fame but never quite found it: “The Feelies, Pylon, Victoria Williams, Kendra Smith, The Darling Buds, Lisa Germano, Liquid Liquid, X, The Woodentops,” she says, listing them off. “I never photographed Paul Kelly, but I’m a fan of his work and felt he deserved larger recognition. But bear in mind that many of these artists probably had no interest in mega-stardom nor would it have made them happy. They probably found just the right comfort level.”
Levine sensed that certain performers were bound for bigger things. She finagled a shoot with Boy George before the first Culture Club album had even been released. “Others I just had a feeling about, like Sinead O’Connor. I remember getting an advance of her first record and being blown away. When I heard she was coming to the States for the first time I hounded her record label for a photo session, even though I didn’t have an assignment. I knew I’d be able to place the photos, and I knew she’d be a success. What a voice.”
Sometimes, though, Levine would simply listen to the music.
“I’ll be honest with you,” she says. “If I ever really wanted to enjoy a show, I’d leave my camera at home. When I was working I wasn’t taking it all in. There’s just no way to do both.”
Levine recently mounted her first one-person show at New York City’s Steven Kasher Gallery. To view more of her work online, go to www.stevenkasher.com. —Michael Witthaus
A look at the images, not just the rockers
By Adam Coughlin
What makes a great rock & roll photograph?
This seemed like a simple question, as I walked around the Currier Museum of Art on a rainy morning. The museum’s newest exhibit, “Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography,” features some of the most iconic faces in popular culture. But the Currier isn’t in the business of promoting faces; its mission is to promote art. So was I enjoying an exhibit of famous people who happened to be photographed or photographs that happened to be of famous people?
I wasn’t the only person wondering this. As I walked around and examined the photos, which were much larger than I anticipated (probably the exact opposite of what it is like to meet a rock star who seems larger than life but turns out to be really short), a group of art students huddled near me. They critiqued the photos’ composition and lighting. Looking at one Buddy Holly photo, they said it wouldn’t even be on exhibit if it didn’t depict a rock star.
But the curator of the exhibit, Nina Bozicnik, said the photographs on display, due to their artistic value, are worthy of their own exhibit regardless of the subject.
So are these works of art or just cool photos of rock legends? Can they be both? And how will changes in photographic technology affect rock photography in the future?
Start with art
I started with Bozicnik, who has a Master of Art History degree from Tufts University. Bozicnik said a good photo is the result of collaboration between the photographer and the musician that captures a previously unseen intimacy. She said these photos give us a unique look into the lives of people who have influenced, no matter how slightly, our lives. Art has always been about presenting a different viewpoint, so this made sense. She said some of the photos in the collection show the beginning of the artists’ careers, when they were more vulnerable. Since the photos are grouped by bands or in semi-chronological order, you can experience how different photographers captured the same band and how the bands changed over time.
For example, on one end of the Rolling Stones wall there is an image of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger taken in 1961 by Philip Townsend. At this time, The Rolling Stones hadn’t even been formed. This is a picture of two kids who loved music and had the whole world before them. Only a few feet away there is a photo by Eve Bowen taken in 1967, and in this picture these two boys have definitely transformed into The Rolling Stones. On this wall, in the span of a few feet, you can watch the transformation from men to myths. This is the power of rock photography from the 1950s through the 1990s, the period represented in this collection. As Bozicnik said, there is an integral relationship between photographs and rock & roll, as the images project an attitude the artist is trying to get across.
“The photos are visual representations of what the musicians live,” Bozicnik said. “Photos are as important as the music. They create authenticity.”
Maybe you can’t separate the fame from the photo. Maybe these people are famous because of what is seen in these photos.
Bozicnik also said a good portrait — and that is what the majority of these photos are — creates a psychological space: it influences our emotional response to the subject. As an example, she used William Claxton’s 1960 photo titled “John Coltrane at the Guggenheim, NYC.” In the photo, the jazz legend is off to the side staring into the distance. It creates a contemplative mood and makes me wonder: What was Coltrane thinking? She said composition makes a difference and it wouldn’t have been the same shot had he been perfectly centered.
Although the Currier’s collection comprises a wide range of photos and photographers, it does come from one person’s collection, which means it reflects that person’s tastes in both art and music. Bozicnik also noted that the collection is in no way supposed to be a comprehensive guide to the history of rock & roll or rock & roll photography. It is meant to be enjoyed. And that is really what rock & roll photography is all about: enjoying the moment.
Although Bozicnik gave me some good technical answers on photography, I wanted to talk with someone who had actually taken an iconic photo. If I was Luke Skywalker, there was really only one person who could be Yoda: Joe Stevens.
Stevens got his photographic break by conning his way onto the stage of Woodstock — the original Woodstock. From there, he never looked back. David Bowie woke him up at his apartment, Rod Stewart lied on his behalf to Stevie Nicks (said Stevens could get her picture published in a Brazilian magazine in two hours) and Peter Gabriel sat in his bathtub.
Stevens isn’t a rock & roll photographer. He is rock & roll. He uses words like “yackity yack” and signs e-mails “cheers and tables.” I met him in Portsmouth, where he has lived for years following time in New York City and London.
“By its nature, rock & roll photography should be a celebration of life,” Stevens said. “It shouldn’t be too grim.”
When he was starting out, Stevens looked to create his own style. When he went through a roll of film, he’d always pick out the goofiest image. He said talented photographers like his friend Jim Marshall had already done the classic Jimi Hendrix-with-his-eyes-closed portraits, so he wanted to put his stamp on something else.
But having such professional control is something he sees deteriorating, as technology’s influence grows. Stevens said with digital cameras, the photos are often automatically transferred to editorial rooms where production people choose the one they want for magazines. Stevens said if he took fashion photos of a model today, they would almost instantaneously be up on the model’s website. In the old days, he could develop some black & white negatives and mail the ones he thought were best.
“You never want to rely on someone else’s eye,” Stevens said.
Stevens sees himself as a chronicler of history. He tries to take in the whole scene, so if years from now a Hollywood director wants to make a movie about a certain time period, the director will have plenty of material to research. It is only fitting that Stevens’ contribution to the Currier collection is a photo of Stewart emerging from a graffiti-covered rest room.
Artist David Christopher, who was working at the Currier the day I visited, said he likes to look closely at the pictures and see the narrative of the artist’s life. Would you ever have guessed that Joey Ramone would have a Weight Watchers lasagna in his freezer? If you look close enough at the 1982 photo “Joey Ramone, NYC, 1982” by Laura Levine you can see it. It’s a detail that might help us understand the artist better. And maybe by understanding the artist we understand the music, which has impacted us.
Stevens suggested that with digital cameras, photographers are snapping photos so rapidly there are only slight variations between shots. But he said digital photography still beats taking photos and hoping they came out at all, which is what happened plenty of times to him, especially when shooting in a dark, dingy club.
Another difference between today and when Stevens was coming up is access. Stevens’ girlfriend at the time, photographer Kate Simon, took a photo of The Clash in a back alley near their apartment. She became friends with the band. Today, musicians use Twitter to self-promote. They are surrounded by posses and handlers. Fewer photographers are spending hours, let alone months, on the road with the acts. Back in his day, Stevens ran a coffee house in New York City and would often host musical acts. Through this he met Marshall. When Stevens went up to Woodstock, he brought his cameras and convinced Marshall to let him on stage. Marshall didn’t even know if he could take a photo, but he knew Stevens was a solid guy. After the legendary music festival, Stevens went straight to Life magazine’s office in New York to try and sell his photos. People at the office complained about how bad he smelled.
“Try bullshitting your way on stage at a Lady Gaga concert,” Stevens said. “I see these photographers today and it doesn’t look like a lot of fun. Security wants to throw you in the air.”
But while today’s photographers may lack access, technology has allowed them to explore their art more. With an old film camera, there was only so much a photographer could do as far as color. But now, in Photoshop, a photographer can make the whole picture green if he wants to. What artists lack in access, they can make up for with creativity.
If this exhibit is repeated 50 years from now, perhaps the photos will be more artistic, but that doesn’t mean they will be better. A good portrait expresses vulnerability. You need to be very close to someone for them to allow you to see their vulnerability.
While technology has allowed many industries to thrive in remote locations, rock photographers still need to be where the scene is. When Stevens was working, the scene was in New York and London, which are still epicenters for music. Stevens recommended young photographers go back to the classic images — the very ones he avoided — to experiment with skin tones and other coloring schemes. He said there is now more room for art and imagination.
Stevens has traveled the world and met plenty of famous people, but it was photography that he loved the most. He was still taking pictures in his mind as we sat at the coffee shop. Even though most of his work was printed in magazines, which would mean he was a music journalist, he didn’t like to distinguish what he did from what an artist does. An artist looks at life through a different lens and that is exactly what Stevens always did. But his work is also part of our cultural legacy. Stevens said when he used to take photos he didn’t worry about whether they’d pay his rent. He knew the photos would be around a lot longer than his apartment. He took the photos and hoped to preserve a moment in history.
But he wasn’t a fly on the wall. Stevens, like many of the other photographers featured in the exhibit, lived the scene. That authenticity is evident in the photos, Stevens said. That authenticity turned a scrawny British singer into Rod Stewart.
Rock & roll season
The Currier celebrates with music, movies and more
By Adam Coughlin
The folks at the Currier Museum of Art are having a whole lot of fun with their new exhibit “Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography.” And, with tons of photos of some of the biggest names in music and a constantly changing soundtrack in the gallery, who can blame them?
“It’s a fun topic that we’re all familiar with,” Vicky Jaffe, public relations and marketing manager for the Currier, said of the behind-the-scenes rock photos.
Jaffe said since the subjects of the show are famous rock stars, the exhibit appeals to a broader group of visitors than, say, an exhibition of mid-19th-century sculptors. And since the music spans from the 1950s to the 1990s, there is really something for everybody. Jaffe has seen kids, parents and even grandparents enjoying it together.
“People are coming who have never been to the Currier before,” Jaffe said. “We think of it as a gateway exhibit. Once visitors come in the doors, we hope they enjoy our permanent collection, the ceramic art of Karen Karnes or our Winter Garden Café.”
Obviously, it is fun for the staff of the Currier to know they’re hosting an exhibit that will attract a new audience. But Jaffe also said it has been one of the most enjoyable exhibits to put together because the music theme has allowed them to be so interactive.
Within the exhibit there is a listening lounge in which visitors can relax, flip through a catalog of images and select songs from an iPad. Nina Bozicnik, the curator of the exhibit, said it was a labor of love putting all of those songs onto the iPad. The songs chosen represent the artists at the point of their careers when each photo was taken.
“I love the music,” Jaffe said. “I wish more exhibits had music with them.”
This love of music was evident at the opening of the exhibit when New Hampshire-based band Mama Kicks performed live. It was only the first of many special events the Currier has lined up for this exhibit. They’re having a lot of fun and want to share it with you.
• There will be live performances on the first Thursday of the next three months beginning at 6 p.m. The performers will play original music as well as covers of artists featured in the exhibit. Shows are: Alli Beaudry Trio on Nov. 3; Craving Lucy on Dec. 1; and Matt Chase Group on Jan. 5. Tickets cost $10.
• There will be a meet-the-author event with Tim Riley on Thursday, Nov. 3, at 6 p.m. at Red River Theatres, 11 S. Main St., Concord. Music critic Riley will discuss his new book, Lennon: The Man, The Myth, The Legend. The event is a collaboration with Gibson’s Bookstore, www.gibsonsbookstore.com.
• A Rock Star in Focus: Franz Nicolay will be held on Sunday, Nov. 6, from 2 to 4 p.m. Nicolay, who is a former keyboardist for The Hold Steady, and photographer Konstantin Sergeyev will talk about capturing images in the music industry. Admission is $30.
• A Rock and Roll Film Festival will be held Friday, Nov. 11, through Sunday, Nov. 13, at Red River Theatres, 11 S. Main St., Concord. Over three days, rock-themed movies, such as This Is Spinal Tap (screening on Nigel Tufnel Day, 11/11/11, of course), Festival Express and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, will be played. Three-day passes cost $35, individual films $8. Visit www.redrivertheatres.org.
• On Family Saturday, Nov. 12, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., there will be music and art. The day allows for kids and families to participate in hands-on activities and enjoy the museum. Admission is free for all on Saturdays between 10 a.m. and noon.
• There will be Focus Tours: “Music Notes and Brush Strokes” on Saturday, Nov. 19, at 11:30 a.m. and Friday, Dec. 9, at 11:30 a.m. During the tours, the relationship between art and music throughout history will be explored. These tours are free with museum admission.
• ABC’s of Rock, which is part of Storytime in the Gallery, will be held on Monday, Nov. 28, at 11:30 a.m. Kids will be able to listen to the story ABC’s of Rock by Melissa Duke. Free with museum admission. Kids 17 and under are always admitted free.
• There are daily public guided tours held at 1 p.m. They are free with admission. Remember, the museum is closed on Tuesdays.
• Since the exhibit is so focused on portraits, the Currier, along with WMUR-TV, wants photos of you. Send digital images of you striking your best pose to ulocal.wmur.com and you could be on display in the Currier’s Community Gallery. Photos will be up through mid-January.