Go to any concert these days — whether in a small, 200-seat room, a midsized performing arts center, or a gargantuan arena or stadium. You presume you’re going to listen to the music of the artists you’ve paid to see, to spend a few moments letting the music wash over you and to forget that you need to pay that electric bill or to complete that project at work or that your car needs new tires. Music has that power to lift us out of ourselves, to transform, to heal.
But when you get to the show and the music starts, the couple behind you talks loudly about their day at work, or the guys sitting next to you keep looking at their phones to see who this opening act is and whispering about their findings. Worst of all, the guy next to you asks, “Have you heard this band before? Are they famous? I’m here because the bartender gave me a free ticket.” If your evening’s not yet shot to hell by people treating the concert hall as their living room, or if you’ve somehow been able to transcend these annoying concertgoers — or have somehow gotten them to shut up, finally — there’s one more little annoyance waiting for you: the cellphone camera. You thought you were here for the music, and you figured everyone else was, too, but as soon as the lights go down, the screens light up. People hold up the cameras to get a good photo; some folks are shooting a video of the entire performance. Whatever the case, people live in the preterite; they might be there for the night, but their photos or videos guarantee that they can live in the past historic.
Of course, folks have been snapping photos of their favorite bands — and we’re talking about fans here, not professional photographers who might be on assignment or who might be working for the artists to get new publicity shots — for years, and many of those fans have been reliving past concerts by pulling out their photos and looking at them fondly, or maybe incredulously, and perhaps sharing the pictures with their children, telling them the tales of the night they saw Elvis, and here’s the photo to prove it.
The Smithsonian was definitely counting on these fans with shoeboxes full of old concert photos when it came up with the idea for its new book Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen (Smithsonian Books). They put out a call on their website in December 2015 for rock fans to send in their concert photos. One year later, the institution had received 4,000 photos for this project, and they faced the daunting task of sorting out which ones they would use and which artists they would feature in the book. The Smithsonian called in Bill Bentley, former music editor at L.A. Weekly, longtime publicist at Warner Brothers Records, and A&R director at Vanguard Records, to edit the collection, and to provide a short introduction and to write the text accompanying each picture. “Fans have worn vinyl down to a nub, unspooled 8-track tapes and cassettes into spaghetti, spun the shine off CDs, and downloaded countless hard drives’ worth of MP3s. Memorized every last blessed lyric while hanging posters on their walls from dorm rooms to castles … And they have taken photographs: millions and millions of images of their beloved musicians and singers,” writes Bentley.
Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen publishes hundreds of these photographs from fans — of artists ranging from the MC5 and the 13th Floor Elevators to Laura Nyro, Marvin Gaye, and the Alabama Shakes. However, this book is not entirely crowdsourced, since it also includes numerous photos by professional photographers such as Henry Diltz and Baron Wolman.
The text and photos are arranged roughly chronologically, beginning with Elvis and moving through the decades to the Alabama Shakes. Each section screams at the readers with a loud title proclaiming a message about the music and artists lumped into that section. So, “Innervisions & Outlandish Trips: The Land of the Free and the Saved” (Chapter 4) opens with one page each devoted to Joni Mitchell and Marvin Gaye and includes artists ranging from Santana and Van Morrison to Stevie Wonder, Black Sabbath, Bonnie Raitt, and George Clinton & Funkadelic. Some artists — like Clinton — receive a full two-page spread, while others, such as Randy Newman and James Taylor, get a single page. The book’s final chapter is called “Beats, Bravado & Beauty: Rock and Roll to the Rescue” and features band photos of The Replacements, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and N.W.A., as well as concert photos of Guns N' Roses (who get a two-page spread), Fugazi, and The Flaming Lips.
Many of the photos capture the energy of an artist’s live performance, and they provide a rich archive of images from fans who share their intimate memories of their favorite shows with us. Even so, the book can be overwhelming, simply because its layout is so busy. The photos are laid out helter-skelter on each page, often bleeding one into the other or overlapping. The book is so crowded and jam-packed with photos that we feel like we’re bring encouraged to rush through a cafeteria rather than to sit and savor our meal. What’s missing here is a clear organizational principle; why do some artists get a two-page spread and others just a single page, for example?
In the end, though, I guess rock and roll is all about the moment; it’s about living in a present filled with phantasmagoric sights and sounds. You never get to savor the meal; you do rush through the cafeteria, gobbling up the tastiest bits on display. For a few hours, you’re transported and you get to see your favorite musician play that riff from the album or hit that note in a song that you thought would be impossible to do live. You can’t relive those moments, except through photos like those in this book, which offer us a madeleine that prompts the memories of the night we saw an artist and transports us on our own remembrance of rock and roll things past.