Taking stock of the rock

Posted Feb. 06, 2009, at 5:44 p.m.

Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Madonna, the Beatles — if you love rock ’n’ roll, the band’s all here in the Portland Museum of Art’s new exhibit.

“Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography,” features more than 200 photographs of 65 of the biggest superstars from rock ’n’ roll, and beyond. Want James Brown? He’s here. So are U2 and REM, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Who. There are 37 photographers represented in the exhibit, which will be on display until March 22.

What you won’t see, however, are the musicians performing. “Backstage Pass” is all about the behind-the-scenes lives of musicians, even if some of the photographs are obvious setups.

The exhibit also explores the back story of rock ’n’ roll itself, said Tom Denenberg, the museum’s chief curator, who organized the exhibit and arranged for the museum to borrow the photographs from a private collector in Maine. That’s why the exhibit’s opening images are of stars such as the Supremes and Aretha Franklin.

“It starts with the question of race and all those jazz musicians,” said Denenberg, who believes 1949 was a key year in the development of rock ’n’ roll.

It was in that year, Denenberg writes in his exhibit-catalog essay “Rock & Roll and the Camera,” that Billboard magazine reclassified “Race Records” as “Rhythm and Blues,” reorienting the marketplace and opening it up to white musicians and youth.

The connections are clear in the exhibit — after several photos of black musicians come the photos of Elvis, whose style and music are linked to rhythm and blues. From there, the exhibits spread as music did — to the British invasion, protest music and so forth.

“Backstage Pass” goes deeper than mere documentation, however. It explores issues of celebrity, including the heights of success and the depths of failure, the blending of public and private personae, and how musicians used photography to communicate power and their own version of what “cool” is, as Denenberg puts it.

“The question is really where did the public persona of the rock star come from,” he said.

These rock ’n’ rollers surely understood the concept of coolness. Although in contemporary times we might not consider Frank Sinatra an example of rock ’n’ roll, he was certainly the epitome of cool. Photographer Terry O’Neill’s 1968 image “Frank Sinatra and bodyguards, Miami Beach,” in which Ol’ Blue Eyes strides through a crowd, oblivious to the attention he’s getting, is spot-on cool.

So is Bob Gruen’s 1978 photo “Sid Vicious, Airport Bus, Baton Rouge, USA,” which depicts the slumped, relaxed rocker keeping his eyes on his own reading material while men in suits and another in a cowboy hat sit stiffly around him. Clearly, they don’t know what to make of Vicious, but he’s comfortable anyway.

Then there are the early women of rock, and the power they ooze in their photos. Madonna, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Grace Jones are all made to look tough, as if to say: “We’re here — you can’t ignore us.”

Denenberg said he chose to explore the women of rock not only through the musicians depicted, but also in the use of many photographs by female photographers Kate Simon, Laura Levine and others. Some of the most macho, if you will, musicians were shot by women. Eve Bowden shot the Rolling Stones; Janette Beckman’s photo of 1990s rap group NWA is included in the exhibit. So are Lynn Goldsmith’s photographs of Bruce Springsteen, George Clinton, the Beatles and U2.

“That was a consideration,” Denenberg said. “If you look at Laura Levine and Kate Simon, I think they had the most [photographs] in the exhibit.”

For all the coolness and power, however, there’s a lot of wistfulness in the photographs, especially because we know what happened to many of the musicians in “Backstage Pass.” In a 1973 photograph by Gruen, Led Zeppelin, considered one of the first hard-rock bands, posed near an airplane with the band’s own logo painted on one side. Singer Robert Plant’s arm is raised in jubilance and victory, a symbol of the band’s success. Yet, in 1980, Led Zeppelin would disband after the alcohol-related death of drummer John Bonham.

Same thing with “Janis on the Throne,” a 1968 Baron Wolman photograph of singer Janis Joplin, swathed in printed cloth and posed in what looks like an attic. It’s Joplin as hippie queen, yet she died two years later of a drug overdose. There’s Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison of the Doors, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana — all depicted at the height of fame, only to die young.

Steve Schapiro’s 1974 image of “Ike and Tina Turner At Home, Los Angeles,” is a true mix of the public and private personas of rock stars. The print depicts the husband and wife standing in front of a portrait of the smiling couple, with Tina wearing a crucifix and an elegant fur coat, while Ike is dressed in a suit. As they stand in front of the portrait, however, things are much different. Tina is wearing a low-cut top, with a long necklace calling attention to her cleavage, and a serious Ike is dressed in a tank top.

It’s the private Turners standing in front of what looks like a publicity portrait, yet the whole thing must have been for good public relations. In real life, of course, their abusive relationship was well-documented — not quite the happy couple they hoped to portray.

The real pleasure of the exhibit, however, is just walking the rooms and catching a glimpse of your favorite rocker at rest (or mid-party, in some cases). From Tori Amos to Neil Young, there’s an artist for anyone who has ever loved rock ’n’ roll. As Joan Jett — included in “Backstage Pass” in Levine’s tough-but-tender 1981 photo, “Joan Jett NYC” — might say, put another dime in the jukebox, baby, and enjoy.

For more information on programs related to “Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography” or for information about the Portland Museum of Art, go to www.portlandmuseum.org.

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