By GREG COOK  |  March 24, 2010
LOSIN’ IT: The catalogue-cover shot of Tina Turner by Henry Diltz illustrates rock and roll’s tendency to explode.
It opens with a selection of photos of Elvis Presley. William V. Robertson captures the 20-year-old Elvis on stage in Florida in 1955, strumming his guitar and singing with his mouth wide open, his eyes closed, and his knees stained — from sliding across the stage? From sweat? Lloyd Shearer shows him shirtless, with bedroom eyes, leaning against a bed in a Memphis hotel in 1956, the year he would have his first #1 hits with “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Love Me Tender.” Alfred Wertheimer finds him touching tongues with a pretty blonde in the soft shadows backstage the same year. Wertheimer remembered the woman’s teasing him with “I bet you can’t kiss me, Elvis.” He replied, “I bet you I can.” Five minutes later, he emerged from the shadows, combed his hair, grabbed his guitar, and walked on stage. “Who Shot Rock & Roll” is about these sorts of anecdotes and moments.

The arrangement of the photos is mostly chronological but on occasion random, with a photographer’s or rock star’s images sometimes grouped together and sometimes shuffled among others. There are some great photos, but this isn’t really about great photography or great photographers — though the line-up includes Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz (only one shot from her sordid ’70s?!), Dennis Hopper, David LaChapelle, and Anton Corbijn. Neither is it about getting behind the music. “Who Shot Rock & Roll” luxuriates in glittering surfaces, the images and styles of stars, the glorious manufactured legends. The result isn’t so much a history as it is a joyride through the era — with an emphasis on the baby-boomer ’60s and ’70s. It’s about the sexy, nostalgic, intoxicating rush of getting close to our idols.

The Beatles, pre-Ringo, pose in Hamburg in 1960. Bob Dylan and girlfriend Suze Rotolo walk down a gritty, snowy New York street in 1963 — a variant of the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover — like two kids clinging to each other against the mean city. James Brown stands under the tail of his James Brown Productions airplane, surrounded by admiring women, in 1964. He leans his head back in a deeply delighted smile. Johnny Cash flips the bird at San Quentin in 1969. Flower children crowd around a stage as Mick Jagger sings at Altamont Speedway in California in 1969. Just behind him is a big guy in a Hells Angels vest, like a dark omen. A member of the biker gang would stab to death an audience member — said to be brandishing a gun — that night.

As against that darkness, Aretha Franklin, in a sequined gown, glows as she sings in London in 1970. Paul Simonon of the Clash smashes his bass guitar on stage in New York in 1979 — the image that would become the cover of the band’s London Calling album. Black Flag’s Henry Rollins seems to bloody his fist punching a mirror in 1981. (The shot was set up, the “blood” actually ink, dish soap, and coffee.) Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain sits backstage crying after a 1990 Seattle show. Tupac Shakur poses, bare-chested, in 1993, revealing his tattoos: “2Pac,” “Thug Life,” and, in the shape of a gun, “50 Niggaz.” Pavement play before a sea of fans at a festival in England in 1995. Puff Daddy and Jay-Z fiddle with cell phones in 2001.

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