In 2015, Smithsonian Books, the publication arm of the Smithsonian Institution, asked fans to submit their personal, unpublished photographs of musicians and singers to its website, intending to archive a different kind of history of rock and roll.
By sorting through thousands of images, from those shot on film in the 1950s to digital phone snapshots, and adding the work of some of the top professional music photographers, a coffee table picture book was born.
But thanks to writer Bill Bentley, a veteran music business insider who has worked as a writer, publicist and A&R (artists and repertoire) executive, the Smithsonian got far more than just a beautifully designed compilation of previously unseen and iconic photographs of Jerry Lee Lewis, Prince, Iggy Pop, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen and Adele.
“Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen,” released Oct. 24, is an insightful rock 'n' roll history which, unlike most previous histories, recounts the story via short essays on each artist rather than a long text. And pivotally, it shoots for something far different than the standard accounting of usual suspects and big events.
“The results,” Bentley writes, “aim for neither encyclopedic authority nor comprehensive finality, but rather an index of supreme influence. Artistic importance isn’t the same as popularity, as this guided tour of rock 'n' roll proves at every turn of the page.”
What that means is that in addition to, say, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Bob Marley, David Bowie, Madonna and U2, Bentley includes lesser-known singers and bands that, in fact, contributed as much or more to rock 'n' roll as the commercial juggernauts.
They include some obvious selections, like The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed — he’s the only artist included with both a band and solo — the MC5, Iggy, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Fugazi and the Flaming Lips, to take a punk-rock lineage.
Similar accountings include psychedelic inventors the 13th Floor Elevators; Texas music master Doug Sahm, who began as the faux British Invasion Sir Douglas Quintet; the unclassifiable noise maker Captain Beefheart; singer/songwriter Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam; the Joan Jett-led, all-woman outfit the Runaways; and the final entry, Alabama Shakes, the contemporary garage/roots/soul outfit led by the indomitable Brittany Howard.
What emerges then is a narrative, visual and written, that flows from Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” to Adele's “Skyfall,” knitting together the shifting styles that have been pulled together under the rock 'n' roll label — soul next to ‘60s pop, singer-songwriter next to hard rock, grunge next to hip-hop, etc.
And because there is no commercial standard to meet, Bentley’s selection brings in artists that can still be seen up close and personal in theaters and clubs rather than arenas.
In Lincoln over the last few years, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, Dr. John and Booker T. Jones of Booker T and the MGs have played the Bourbon Theatre. John Mellencamp and Los Lobos have stopped at the Lied Center for Performing Arts. Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon and Wilco all have been at Pinewood Bowl.
And, of course, Bob Dylan has seemingly played every venue in town.
The subtitle, “Live and Unseen,” is a perfect description of the photos, most of which capture the musicians in performance and, particularly, never-before-seen fan-submitted images.
Those fan pictures are some of the most evocative: Amy Winehouse at a Philadelphia festival a decade ago; the Replacements and the Young Fresh Fellows in a backstage pyramid in 1987; Prince in full glory at North Carolina’s Greensboro Coliseum in 1984; and Dylan, T Bone Burnett and Mick Ronson on stage during an infamous Texas show on the 1976 Rolling Thunder Revue.
The most evocative, touching image of them all is a fan shot taken by Mary Gerber from the crowd inside the tiny Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 2, 1959. it’s of Ritchie Valens, glimpsed through the heads of those in front of Gerber, playing with his band only hours before he was killed along with Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson in a plane crash in a nearby cornfield — the day the music died.
As with any such compilation, there are some areas that are only briefly represented — Motown and metal come most quickly to mind. And there are some discussion-triggering individual selections and omissions
For example, I'd trade Alejandro Escovedo for Big Star, the Memphis power-pop band that influenced the likes of Lincoln’s Matthew Sweet and R.E.M., one of the entries in the book, which like Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Replacements and the Flaming Lips frequented local clubs in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Those quibbles aside, “Smithsonian Rock and Roll” really accomplishes its goal of presenting a visual history of the seven decades of the rock era as seen by the fans while wisely telling the real story of rock through the most influential of its practitioners.