What is rock and roll? Is it Eddie Van Halen striking a guitar-god pose, satin pants gleaming in the spotlight while he unleashes his ferocious guitar alchemy? Is it Janis Joplin, alone and pensive on a backstage couch, tenderly clutching a bottle of Southern Comfort like a lover? Is it Robert Plant in his bare-chested prime, his blond mane glowing ethereal gold and orange as he threatens the crowd with the bulge in his jeans?
The answer is yes.
It's also Alice Cooper in thigh-high cheetah print boots, Neko Case in a convertible, Kurt Cobain sprawled on a drum kit and Debbie Harry in her underwear. It's Fugazi and Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Marley and the Notorious B.I.G. It's both Elvises.
These artists and dozens more are represented in the killer collection of rock photography currently on display at Bozeman's Museum of the Rockies. Taking Aim comprises nearly one hundred photos selected by famous musician Graham Nash, who is a gifted photographer in his own right.
I saw the poster for the exhibit when I took my family to the Museum in April, and as a devotee and practitioner of rock and roll, I began to drool immediately. Nothing has come along to change the world—certainly not my world—in the last 60 years like rock and roll. The music, the culture, the attitude and the imagery—I love it all. Here was an exhibit of photographs that promised to show the visual history of rock with the reverence it deserves, as selected by one of its survivors from the front lines. I wrote the opening date on my calendar with a pen and planned a little road trip.
Janis was belting "Piece of My Heart" on the radio as I pulled into the Museum's parking lot on a bluebird late-September morning. I walked into the large hall, and "Parasite" by KISS was blasting from the ceiling speakers. I had to hand it to the museum—from the chirping frogs of the previous exhibit to a growling Paul Stanley, that's a pretty ballsy jump. The music continued: Queen, The Stooges, Prince, The Who. This was foreground, not background music. Suddenly, I had a huge grin on my face.
At first, I nixed the audio tour, preferring to absorb it at my own pace, as I'd done at Graceland a few years back. Big mistake. After half an hour of drifting from photo to photo, I met Jean Conover, the Museum's marketing director. She told me that Nash himself had done the audio narrative, and it was worth a listen. Had she not gently intervened, I would have missed out on a huge aspect of the experience. A lot of the subjects in the exhibit are friends of Nash's, and his personal insights and photographer's perspective make it a multimedia feast.
The sequence of the photos lends potency to this mother lode of rock history. In particular, that shot of Janis, looking vulnerable and lost on that backstage couch, contrasts with a powerful photo of her singing at the opening of Fillmore East in 1968. Elliott Landy's sexy shot captures the fiery Texas spirit and soul of this beautiful mess, her eyes closed and fist clenched as she belts it out as though she knows her days are numbered.
Nash reminds us in the audio that his band, The Hollies, was named after Buddy Holly. In Lew Allen's shot of Holly on a tour bus in 1958, the bespectacled rocker looks young, innocent and full of wide-eyed promise. How could anyone have known the impact he would have on rock and roll in his short life? The pair of tribute albums released just this year is a testament to the enduring quality of his songs. To look back more than 50 years into the teenaged face of Holly at the beginning of his meteoric rise is thrilling and a little spooky.
Also spooky is Jürgen Vollmer's widely seen shot of John Lennon standing in a doorway, while the blurry images of the other Beatles (including original bassist Stu Sutcliffe) walk by. The 1961 photo was used as the cover of Lennon's 1975 album Rock 'n' Roll. The effect is eerie, perhaps even more so than Annie Leibovitz's iconic shot of a nude Lennon curled around a black-clad Yoko Ono, taken just hours before he was shot to death in 1980. "I wonder how many great songs he had in his head that we'll never get to hear," Nash muses.
Lennon's influence spans generations. While I was there a 30-ish dad was leading his young son through the exhibit, and he explained to his boy who Yoko Ono was. "In my opinion, she ruined him," he said. His son pointed to a photo of Sid Vicious, smeared with blood from self-inflicted cuts. "Sometimes people get stupid," said Dad.
I'll bet that young father's favorite photo of the exhibit was the same as mine, and it's not of a rock star at all. Captured in a working class London neighborhood by Mick Rock, "Dude '72" is a fantastic shot of a young boy brandishing a homemade cardboard guitar, the legs of his denim bell-bottoms spread wide as he apes his favorite rocker. He has one arm raised overhead, pointing to the heavens, while his dark mullet and makeup-smeared eyelids testify to his rock and roll cred. Eyes squeezed shut and mouth stretched wide in a yawp of pure joy, the kid is bursting with as much rock and roll power and passion as any of the legends on display in this remarkable, moving exhibit.
Rock on, young dude. Rock on.
The Taking Aim exhibit at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman continues through Jan. 15, 2012. Go to museumoftherockies.org for more information.