There’s a lot of excitement surrounding an appearance and performance by Blondie at the Brooklyn Museum tonight for the opening of the show “Who Shot Rock & Roll.” I just returned for a preview of the show and have to say it is very well arranged and presented. (I wonder why they are using & instead of ‘n’).
The first thing you see entering the exhibit is a giant poster of David Lee Roth. Hearing Elvis sing Heartbreak Hotel, you naturally look down and to the right and there’s an old video. In the main gallery a favorite photo is of Johnny Cash giving a television crew the finger. Having received an evil eye from Martha Stewart while taking photos at the Brooklyn Flea Market last week, I can understand how photographers can feel during the necessary actions that often invade personal space. At the Robert Frank show at the Met there’s a photo of a couple sitting in Alamo Square looking at San Francisco’s painted ladies. The look given by the man in that photo is similar to the effect of the look in the Johnny Cash photo.
After rounding all the corners and traversing the rooms, we’re again presented with some photos, these exceptional photos, of Elvis as he kisses a woman whose identity has been lost. From that early era, I was happy to see a Bill Haley photo (one of the few in color), which brings me to my criticism of the show. I know it was based on the work of photographers, but the artists presented seem to be more about who’s popularity survived rather than who’s who in Rock ‘n’ Roll. I saw only a thumbnail-sized photo of Grace Slick, no Stevie Nicks or Fleetwood Mac. Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground seem under-represented. What about Wolfman Jack? Dick Clark? Credence Clearwater Revival? What about the whole metal era, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Bon Jovi, etc (there is a photo of Axl Rose). I’ve seen some great photos of Leslie West (Don’t look around cause I’m never comin’ back.)–not here. I understand, they can’t show everything. The history of rock is far too expansive. I know everyone will go in there with their own musical preferences, but I couldn’t help but feel the ones who’s names are still on the tips of the tounges of popular culture are those best represented. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones. Maybe they just had better photographers? I find my criticism warranted given the show is presented as a photographic history.
That said, Who Shot Rock & Roll is well worth seeing. The immediate sense from the exhibit is powerful. This music is something even the youngest among us are familiar with. It’s been a part of our culture since the 1950s; and the music tells the story of a half-century. This is not just music, it’s all tied up with culture and social movements. Sadly that connection between social movements and music has probably, for the most part, ended.
The exhibit brings to mind another song, Stairway to Cleveland, by the Jefferson Starship, which I’ve always assumed referred to the Rock ‘n’Roll Hall of Fame. I thought of Cleveland when I first entered the exhibit. Across from the video of Elvis is a photo of Alan Freed’s Rock ’n’ Roll show at a theater in Brooklyn. Freed coined the term Rock’n’Roll and this is the primary reason why the Hall of Fame is in Cleveland. Cleveland. Cleveland, Cleveland, Cleveland. After Elvis and the Beatles and Woodstock and Motown and Nirvana… is that where it all leads? Cleveland? Cleveland.
That Alan Freed mention was an important one. Beginning in the 1950s, radio, and specifically pop radio (which is mostly rock and soul), tied American culture together. That continued through the Vietnam War era and into the early days of MTV. Today however Dick Clark and Casey Kasem would be lost. There is no top 40 or generally music that’s popular across a spectrum of cultural groups. I don’t even think the recent death of Michael Jackson could match the social impact the death of Elvis or John Lennon had on us. Bob Dylan’s times are still changing and they always will be. Neil Young sang “Hey hey, my my, Rock and Roll can never die. (There’s more to the picture than meets the eye.”) It’s a great line, but walking through the exhibit it’s clear that some of the power is the sense is the burning out. That the great and intense spirit of rock ‘n’ roll has faded. Some of it will always be there to be appreciated, but the zeitgeist that made rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t seem to be very present in our culture anymore. I wonder how firm my perspective will be after tonight’s performance by Debbie Harry.