Handled cleanly and literally in its own terms, as an ice-cold, some ways limited, some ways more capable, eye, [the camera] is, like the phonograph record and like scientific instruments and unlike any other leverage of art, incapable of recording anything but absolute, dry truth.
Agee’s faith in the camera’s putatively unerring eye isn’t without a whiff of naivetÄ; no matter how worthy of our trust, cameras are never handled cleanly and literally in their own terms, but always at the angles of those who employ them. Still, his claim contains more than a kernel of truth. Photographs can render faces, events and horizons in terms drier and more piercing than other forms of art, especially when the men and women taking the pictures allow their subjects to come to the fore rather than pursuing their own editorial agendas.
Two recent collections of photography do just that: Ernest C. Withers’ The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photography, published by Viking Press, and Hank Williams: Snapshots From the Lost Highway, published by Da Capo Press. By presenting their subjects in contextthat is, in the circles in which they movedboth books not only expand the frameworks in which we know the musicians they depict; they often enable us to look, with second sight, at aspects of their lives and work as well.
The 150 black-and-white photos in Withers’ book, which are graced with an essay by Sam Cooke biographer Daniel Wolff, shine a light on the Bluff City’s R&B and soul scenes, both nascent and ascendant. Yet more important, in some respects, than Withers’ subjects is the point of view from which he approaches them: as someone who was part of their milieu rather than an outsider trying to “capture” it. Thus we glimpse Rufus Thomas and blues shouter Big Maybelle tearing it up at a crowded house party in the early ’50s. Or, in one of the book’s most tenderly devastating photos, we witness Aretha Franklin and her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, off by themselves at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention in 1968, searching each other’s eyes for comfort just three months after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Withers, who turns 80 this year, started taking pictures avocationally while in the Army during World War II. Upon his discharge he opened a portrait studio back home in Memphis, but business was slow, so to make ends meet he signed on as one of first five black officers on Memphis’ newly desegregated police force in 1948. The gig did more for Withers’ career as a photographer than he ever could have imagined, taking him all over town, from the night clubs on Beale to the black neighborhoods where Saturday-night fish fries gave way to Sunday prayer meetings. Withers returned to these scenes while off duty and brought along his camera, which he lovingly trained on everyone from future jazz lions in their high school band uniforms to the big names who headlined hot spots like the Hippodrome and the Paradise Club. Photos of Ruth Brown poured into a satin evening gown circa ’55, Ray Charles blowin’ sax with Hank Crawford’s band in ’61, and a young, impossibly sexy Tina Turner struttin’ her stuff while her husband Ike looks on menacingly are among the dozens of indelible images in this latter group.
More than just celebrity, Withers documented the convergences between these stars and their audiences and communities. Indeed, be it Louis Armstrong hugging a fan in the door of his dressing room at the Hippodrome, or the blues murderers’ row of B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Ivory Joe Hunter posing with a WDIA-sponsored Little League team, these connections are arguably the leitmotif of Withers’ work. But the scope of Withers’ photographs goes well beyond musicians and their circles: In the earlier book No White People Allowed in Zoo Today, his black-and-whites immortalize freedom marches and lunch-counter sit-ins, as well as haunting scenes at the Lorraine Motel in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death. A few of Withers’ photos in The Memphis Blues Again, such as that of a broke-down James Brown sitting on the steps of a twin-engine plane after arriving in Memphis for Otis Redding’s funeral, echo that unspeakable loss.
Edited by Kira Florita and historian Colin Escott, Hank Williams: Snapshots From the Lost Highway is every bit as revealing. In addition to presenting upwards of 30 songs that Williams never recorded or published (most of them scribbled on notebook paper or stationery), the book includes 300 or so hitherto unseen candids of Hank from a host of sources. Many portray aspects of Williams’ experience that tend to get short shrift in most accounts of his life and music. In contrast to the usual images depicting him as an avatar of unrelenting gloom, here we see a man who was often bright-eyed and full of the dickens. And this is the case in photos of Hank as a boy as wella boy more middle-class than is often thought.
It’s not that the dark side of Williams’ life isn’t evident here as well. Witness the shot of Hank and his wife Audrey outside their home in Nashville, his face turned from her, hers covered with her hands, that’s opposite the handwritten lyrics to a song called “The Broken Marriage.” Then there are the photos of Hank’s funeral, including one of him lying in state. Yet even among these troubled images is a revelation: the presence of a good number of African Americans among the mourners, a disclosure that suggests Hank’s relationship to black Southerners went beyond his musical mentor, Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne. Indeed, like many of those in The Memphis Blues Again, the scenes we spy in Snapshots From the Lost Highway aren’t so much steeped in the blues, but rather brim with life, an unflagging sense of possibility that is the essence of transcendence itself.
Spectacular book chronicles the making of the Rolling Stones’ classic early ’70s LP
Cynics will probably dismiss Dominique TarlÄ’s Exile, which photographically chronicles the making of what many believe to be the Rolling Stones’ best album, Exile on Main Street, as an overpriced rock ’n’ roll coffeetable book. Like the Beatles’ Anthology volume, Exile is a limited edition published by England’s Genesis Press. Quarter-bound in leather, it comes packaged with gilt-edged pages, a cover inlay and an elegant slip-case. The total publication run is restricted to 2,000 signed and numbered copies.
But cynics, as Oscar Wilde famously said, know more about price than value; and Exile is not only invaluable but also a work of a geniusin the sense of the word that isn’t wholly separable from its etymological kinfolk “genuine” and “genie.” To put it another way, the fresh, inarguably authentic spirit of TarlÄ’s book emanates not from impulses toward hagiography or nostalgia; instead, his powerful photographs embody that spirit, rendering in a different form the same story that the music sings: one of dislocation, intimacy, collaboration, death and survival.
The well-known backstory of Exile, the book and the album, begins with the Stones’ 1971 flight from stringent tax laws enacted by England’s Labour government; indeed, the tax levied on income generated outside the country was downright punitive. Furthermore, Allen Klein’s wizard-like control over the Stones’ money had delayed till then the recognition that far more of their pounds and dollars were lining his pockets than their own increasingly threadbare ones. The world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band couldn’t even pay their own office expenses, much less their taxes, and the situation called for a drastic measure: exile.
Though anticipating financially better days, no one wanted to leave England, with the possible exception of Jagger. Perhaps the Stones sensed that it would change their band irrevocably, as it did; but in the spring of 1971, there seemed no choice but to rent country housesnone without some combination of rock-star grandeur and seedinessin the south of France, move there with their families, and begin what turned out to be an arduous and frustrating search for the best place to record their next album.
That place turned out to be the basement of NellecÖte, by far the grandest of the Stones’ various rentals; the villa fronted the Villefranche harbor and was initially inhabited by Richards, Anita Pallenberg and their son, Marlon. NellecÖte gradually seemed more and more transformable into a recording studio, once a few preliminary stepslike illegally patching the mobile studio’s equipment into the French railway line that ran in back of the housewere taken. For all the jet-set gloss that had settled onto Stones at this point, they remainedas the best of them still dotrue to the bluesman’s code of improvisation and making creative use of the materials at hand.
The lack of suitable facilities in the area was only part of the reason why Exile on Main Street came to be recorded in NellecÖte’s summer-steamy basement, where the Gestapo took fresh arrests during France’s hellish Vichy years. Richards’ intuitive, time-intensive means of working, plus his reluctance to be away from both his son and his stash, meant that some of the bandincluding pianist Nicky Hopkins and horn players Bobby Keys and Jim Pricefound themselves not only on Richards’ erratic schedule, but also living as his housemates. The leftover swastikas doodled by the floor vents simply added to the dark and slightly crazy ambience; when the basement kitchen caught fire one night, Richards commented on the still present work of “the Gestapo vibes.”
Making a record at NellecÖte proved to be lunacywhich may well have been the chief source of the record’s genius. Details of that lunacy are described in extensive quotes that accompany the photographs, and in the five-part, never-before-published 1971 Richards interview by Rolling Stone’s Robert Greenfield. All the witnesses and participants speak of the maddeningly uncertain nature of the goings-on at NellecÖte, which included nights so hot that they induced instant laryngitis in Jagger and made it almost impossible to keep the guitars in tune.
Mick Taylor adds: “It was all very primitive, and if we were in the middle of a take at 2 o’clock in the morning and there was a thunderstorm and lots of lightning, we’d have power failure sometimes. We’d sit around in that dingy basement, talking by candlelight until the power came back again. The whole idea of doing an album like that these days would be laughable.” And thus wouldn’t include a song like “Ventilator Blues,” whose literal origins we see in shots of Taylor and Keys slumped on the floor and greasy with sweat. In the background, the small, rectangular, ceiling-level panels we associate with dungeons or CCA offer small promise of fresh air.
Richards dominates Exile, not as the book’s star but as its central locus of genius; and TarlÄ’s best photographs are means of trying to define genius as a mode of being in the world. The first requirement is an acute intensity of presence, whatever the setting, the weather and the surrounding characters. The second may well be the ability to listen with sustained, intimate and willingly collaborative focusan ability no less essential to a great record than instruments or singing. Such bouts of creative intensity are neither easily entered nor shaken off; that they may be more easily reached, and also relieved, by doses of chemical oblivion seems obvious, if at times accompanied by unfortunate consequences.
Nevertheless, those looking for evidence of narcotic orgies and other titillating forms of degradation in Exile will be shocked or disappointed by the large number of TarlÄ photographs that include not syringes but baby bottles, not bags of dope but bundled nappies.
Richards’ unsettlingly consistent facial and bodily expressions lend a pictorial and spiritual unity to Exile. He appears alone in various grand, 30-foot-ceilinged rooms of NellecÖte, on its verandas, in the nearby Riviera village ordering coffee, in the basement studio and in the car. He also appears in his boat with Marlon and Pallenberg, and in musical communion with his close friend Gram Parsons. No matter what the circumstance, there’s an immutability in Richards’ face that seems the outward and visible sign of a central, enigmatic and finally elusive guiding energy, one that leads us through Exile’s subjects and scenery, and also through the concomitant process of assimilating these with the music we already know.
Like the Divine Comedy, written not too far across the Mediterranean from NellecÖte, Exile has its casualty list. Parsons haunts this book like one already half-slipped into the next world. Indeed, among TarlÄ’s most eerily brilliant shots are those of Parsons and Richards seated beneath one of NellecÖte’s resplendent chandeliers, its light refracting off glass doorsor are they mirrors?presumably singing the country songs whose rhythms and twangs became an inevitable part of the album’s reverb. Pallenberg states, with wistful authority, that “Gram was constantly playing and coming out with different songs. He must have had the biggest song repertoire of anybody. He certainly knew more songs than anyone I’d ever met and had the best singing voice I’ve heard from someone singing informally to a group of people in a room.” Several photos, she says, are of Keith “singing with Gram, talking to him [while] Gram looks like he’s listening really carefully and Keith is doing his thing on country-and-Western type songs.... All I know is those were the happiest moments of Keith’s.”
Nothing forces us back upon our own make-do impulses more than loss and dislocation. And much of the making-do that gives Exile on Main Street its improvisatory funk had enormous day-to-day fallout, as further attested to by Pallenberg, who routinely saw 25 people appear at her dinner table, glimpsed John Lennon throwing up on the foyer rug, and slowly came to realize that some of Marseilles’ biggest drug lords were dealing out of her house. It’s no wonder that she took up knife-throwing as a means of relieving stress. The NellecÖte summer also saw the beginnings of the rift between Richards and Jagger, exacerbated by the latter’s marriage to tropically chill star of the jet-set demimondaine, Bianca Perez Mora Maìias, whom Pallenberg and Richards despised.
In the end, the very existence of Exile reminds us that for all the grousing, all the later tragedies and all the physical difficulties, there was genuine magic steaming in a certain French Riviera basement in the summer and fall of 1971, resulting in songs that yearn for ventilators, Jesus’ face, the spirits of Robert Johnson and Slim Harpo, the release of Angela Davis, and, perhaps most desperately, a means of reconciling the necessarily anarchic energies of rock ’n’ roll with the desire for home, for peace, for the redemptive, shining light of love.
For sample photos, textual excerpts and purchase information on Exile, go to http://www.genesis-publications.com, or call Govinda Gallery, Genesis’ U.S. distributor, at 1-800-775-1111.
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