Among the best of my many US road trips, destinations that spotlight the roots and raves of American music shone memorably. Driving through Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, Nashville and more, I happily sang in the car while listening to songs from masterful musicians en route, fantasizing that “we” were duets together. (do you do that too?) At each stop, I was delighted to enjoy behind-the-scenes tours of arenas and auditoriums, ballrooms and bars, stadiums, stages and studios. For example, on Music Row in Nashville – the pulse center for record company offices, recording booths and radio stations – I had the opportunity to play the piano (one song, just for fun!) in the legendary Studio B of RCA Victor Studio (now listed on the National Register of Historic Places), where artists such as Chet Atkins, David Bowie, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Charley Pride and Hank Williams had performed, cutting singles and albums. It is therefore with enthusiasm that I welcome the forthcoming October release of Rhona Bitner’s new hardcover book, Listen: The Stages and Studios That Shaped American Music (Rizzoli New York).
Motivated by the 2006 closure of New York’s famed CBGB club – which had attracted an eclectic range of musicians and magnetic fans, giving rise to new musical revolutions dubbed punk and new wave – Bitner embarked on an ambitious 13-year project to photograph 395 noteworthy locations. “I realized that the inner architecture of American music history needed its own record,” says Bitner. “Living music, listening to it, is both a collective and personal act. I stood alone in the spaces. The place is freed up for memory, which in turn accepts time. And time is at the heart of all music. This quest has taken Bitner to 89 cities in 26 states to visually document these uplifting places in music, such as Elvis Presley’s Graceland Music Hall in Memphis; Jimi Hendrix’s recording studio in New York’s Greenwich Village; Aretha Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Family Church in Detroit; The Macon City Auditorium in Georgia, where 14-year-old Little Richie was discovered sending his career trajectory skyward (as well as where James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding wowed crowds); and Minnesota’s Hibbing High School Auditorium, where student Bob Dylan (then still Zimmerman) rocked the rafters.
A multitude of sites – ravaged by time and disrepair – are shells of their glorious past: “the ghost ships of American music”, as perceptively writes “the godfather of punk” Iggy Pop (singer, songwriter, producer and actor) in the foreword to the book. “Can you see into the past by gazing long enough at these eloquent photographs…? Yes, yes you can. Here are the places where love is found.
A perfect collaboration: Natalie Bell (art world curator), Jon Hammer (writer, researcher, painter, musician), Greil Marcus (author, music journalist, cultural critic) and Jason Moran (jazz pianist, composer, educator ) have also provided an evocative, illuminating commentary on the book. Editing was fine-tuned by Éric Reinhardt (novelist, editor), who oversaw crisp, detail-rich annotations on each location, which stand out from Bitner’s photographs, on contrasting paper, as a useful organizational format. Plus, dozens of moving images of famous and beloved musicians, songwriters, singers and producers (from other photographers and archives) – such as Chuck Berry, David Bowie, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles , Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Berry Gordy, Elton John, BB King, Carole King, Freddy Mercury, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, The Mamas and The Papas , The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, The Temptations – are included, dotting the pages with human vitality.
“Let’s say it’s First Avenue in Minneapolis…you’re on stage and you realize that your right foot, just a step in front of your left, is where Prince put his. You can almost imagine that there is an imperceptible depression on stage. That he left a mark. And so you press harder, as if you would too,” writes Greil Marcus. “This book is a public history of those private moments. It’s absolutely ephemeral – there are no people in the places Rhona Bitner photographed, no ecstatic faces, no whirling bodies. You must imagine yourself in these places… If you listen carefully enough, [the walls] will tell you what they heard.
“Bitner’s series, as much as it is about sound, music and listening, is also about absence and silence,” writes Natalie Bell. “It’s the photographer who throws the fabric over her head to take the picture, then also invites us under… Sit with the calm and stillness of these spacesBitner seems to say. Now what do you hear? In the silence, the image becomes more radiant, and unlike the cacophony of a concert or performance photo, in the silence of Bitner’s spaces we can hear our memories emerge.
“You have to act in the play,” says Jason Moran in the book’s afterword. “It’s a phrase touring musicians often use because they spend countless hours performing in venues they don’t quite know. If a heavy metal band walks into a concert hall like Carnegie Hall, they will find that the acoustics of a stadium and a hall built for acoustic music are vastly different. The artist is tasked with finding a way to “play the part”. This usually means: Learning the parameters of the room just enough so that your music can be felt by the audience. Throughout Rhona Bitner’s portrayal of these spaces, we see the often vacant – yet fully dynamic – rooms.
In each of these spaces Bitner photographed, there is a deeper duty and trust. “It is no coincidence that the letters of the words quiet and Listen are the same,” Moran continues. “Reminders of the power of silence and thanks for the sounds listeners pick up in their bodies…From the porch to the concert hall, find the vibration.”
Already thinking about your upcoming holiday gifts? Listen: The Stages and Studios That Shaped American Music could be a thoughtful gift for your own American music aficionado, who appreciates its colorful history and meaningful sense of place.