There are countless rock & roll images that are burnt in the public’s collective memory. They have played a major role in creating the image of our favourite or most influential musicians, and that image has been taken for granted without much acknowledging the photographer who took it. Today I am taking the time to acknowledge some of the photographers who, through their passion for music and talented eye, have helped create the visual identity of rock music and of three of the most extraordinary musicians this world has known.
Kurt Cobain photographed by Charles Peterson
In our teens, my brother used to listen to Nirvana and I listened to crap. Yes, I spent the best years of my life (in terms of forming my musical culture) listening to bad music, the kind that said nothing to me, that meant nothing to me, that did not help me figure me out and shape my personality, all those things music is supposed to do. Sure, I heard Nirvana songs all the time and I am the one who bought my brother all their albums, but I didn’t listen, I didn’t want to listen, I didn’t know what to do with their music yet. It was only years later that I understood that that truly was the last rock ‘n’ roll revolution. And I do believe I missed out on much in my teenage years because I didn’t listen to good music – “Nothing sounded as sincere as Nirvana’s music. It took a long time for me to accept that any other music could be good in other ways. Including my own”, Weezer’s River Cuomo best summed it up. I have made considerable progress over the years, but the music cultural difference between me and my brother and husband, for example, who both breath music, is still huge.
Kurt Cobain photographed by Frank Micelotta for MTV Unplugged, November 1993
But the beautiful thing about growing up is that you change, mature (hopefully), start to listen, truly listen, to others and to yourself, and to music. That said, I believe that so many people idolize Kurt Cobain, who was a hero to a generation of musicians, admirers and misfits, and that so many great thoughts have been written about him that I really don’t think the world needs mine too. “Rock music had become kind of hedonistic – 35-year-old men taking a helicopter to the stage and dating supermodels, and going out of their way to separate themselves from their audience. Nirvana, more than any other band, rocked way harder, had significant originality, while looking like guys you went to high school with. I think that was their secret. There was an inclusion that was long overdue, and it was what rock was supposed to be about. The legend isn’t simply going to be the way that he [Kurt Cobain] took his life; I believe it will always be the songs.” Chris Cornell, Soundgarden
I don’t want to talk about their music, because, I am saying it again, many already have better than I ever could: “I think that grunge and Nirvana was this last big musical movement before everything was virtually connected in real time all the time. Now things just move so quickly that there’s really no ability for something to bubble up organically and be meaningful, not for an entire generation or world,” Charles Peterson, who photographed Kurt Cobain and Nirvana throughout their brief existence, told Billboard.
But I would like to make a note on Kurt Cobain’s style, which was an intrinsic part of the man who was the center of grunge counter-culture. Maybe these images featured here are not the ones mostly associated with the musician and his style, but they have a special meaning to me. The understatement of these looks, as opposed to the musician’s more radical dressing choices, is like a visual translation of the way Nirvana’s music has seamlessly found its way into my life, not in an abrupt way in my teens, but in a subtler, more consistent way throughout the years. And just like timeless style, it’s there to stick.
Bob Dylan photographed by Jerry Sctatzberg for the cover of Blonde on Blonde
Jerry Schatzberg was commissioned to shoot Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde cover. It shows Dylan dressed for winter in a suede jacket and checkered scarf. Many took the blurry image for a drug allusion, but it wasn’t. “He was always very cautious – even with me at first. He didn’t trust the press – but we got over that and he trusted me. You can tell from the photographs that I took that he would try anything. […] We started out in the studio taking the colour photos of him looking sombre and holding his shirt. I thought I’d like to go outside, so we went to the Meatpacking District in Chelsea, which wasn’t a fashionable art centre then. The image used is slightly out of focus, and this was interpreted as a drug trip – but it wasn’t. It was February; he was wearing just that jacket, and I was wearing something similar. It was cold and I shook the camera. He chose this image himself for the album cover”, the photographer described his experience of shooting one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century and the cover of one of the best albums of all time.
“The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind,” Dylan famously said about Blonde on Blonde, “that thin, that wild mercury sound.” At the time, Dylan’s music style was changing, and so was his dressing style. Dylan’s style has never been so revolutionary as to dominate the cultural conversation around him. Nor should clothes ever do that. But they should be part of the conversation. In its low-key, unassuming, yet completely aware way, his style has always helped define the visual tone of his music. There have been quite a few creative changes in Bob Dylan’s career, and his style has changed along the way. But I’ve always loved that photo, that look, that album, that after thought it evoked. “It’s the perfect image of Dylan at the time, creating in a heedless rush too fast to stay in focus, even for a second,” wrote the Rolling Stone magazine. That’s Bob Dylan. Always staying true to himself, never belonging to anybody but himself, being the voice of himself and only himself. “All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.”
Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons photographed by a Eric Meola for the cover of Born to Run, 1975
I was deeply moved by the story behind the cover photo for the album Born to Run, 1975, designed by in-house Columbia art director John Berg, taken by Eric Meola and featuring Bruce and Clarence Clemons. “We used it to invent ourselves, our friendship, our partnership on an epic scale. […] When the cover is closed, the album front is a very charming photo of a young, white, punk rock ‘n’ roller. But when it opens, a band is born and a tall tale begins. […] When you saw that cover, it was filled with the resonance, the mythology, of rock’s past, and a freshness calling toward its future,” explains Bruce in his autobiography. This kind of story gets to you, just like his music does, just like the entire book Born to Run does.
That powerful and mind-opening album cover also sealed Springsteen’s rock star image: leather jacket, shredded white tank top and jeans – three great American classics, which have always been part of his dressing repertoire. “Listening to the album for the first time was one of those mind blowing moments where you realize, even as you’re experiencing it, that things will never be quite the same,” wrote Dave Gourdoux. An album that was simultaneously steeped in rock history and modern. Let’s go back to those clothes for a moment: they are a pillar of classic rock ‘n’ roll, but the mandatory mention is that, on Bruce, they looked new again. He made them his own.
Related content: Morrissey in His Own Words / Can You Hear the Music? / Chronicles Volume One