Memorably, among the best of my many US road trips, destinations that highlight the roots and raves of American music have shone particularly brightly. Driving to Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, Nashville and more, I sang happily in the car while listening to masterful musicians and imagining “we” doing duets together. (Do you do that too?) At each stop, I was thrilled to enjoy behind-the-scenes tours of arenas and auditoriums, ballrooms and bars, stadiums and stages and studios. For example, I had the opportunity to play the piano at Nashville’s Music Row – the pulse center for record labels, recording booths and radio stations (a song just for fun!) had played at the legendary Studio B at RCA Victor Studio (now on the National Register of Historic Places), which had featured artists such as Chet Atkins, David Bowie, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Charley Pride and Hank Williams , singles and albums cut. It is with enthusiasm, therefore, that I welcome the October release of Rhona Bitner’s new hardcover book, Listen: The Stages and Studios That Shaped American Music (Rizzoli New York).
Motivated by the closure of New York City’s high-profile CBGB club in 2006 – which had attracted an eclectic array of magnetic musicians and fans and spawned new music revolutions called punk and new wave – Bitner embarked on an ambitious 13-year project to bring 395 to photograph notable venues. “I realized that the inner architecture of American music history needed a record of its own,” says Bitner. “Experiencing music, listening to it, is a collective and personal act. I stood alone in the rooms. Space is given to memory, which in turn accepts time. And time is at the heart of all music.” This quest took Bitner to 89 cities in 26 states to visually document these music-loving places, like Elvis Presley’s music room Graceland 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 and skyrocketed (and where James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding wowed crowds); and the auditorium of Hibbing High School in Minnesota, where student Bob Dylan (then Zimmerman) shook the rafters.
A multitude of locations – ravaged by time and decay – are shrouds of its glorious past: “Ghost ships of American music,” writes “Godfather of Punk” Iggy Pop (singer, songwriter, producer and actor) revealingly in the book’s foreword. “Can you see into the past if you stare 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) also contributed moving, insightful commentary to the a book. The editing was refined by Éric Reinhardt (novelist, publisher) who provided crisp, detailed annotations for each venue on contrasting paper as a helpful organizational format that contrasted with Bitner’s photographs. Plus dozens of vivid images of famous, popular musicians, songwriters, singers and producers (sourced 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 and pepper the pages with human vitality.
“Let’s say it’s First Avenue in Minneapolis … You stand on stage and realize that your right foot, just a step in front of your left, is in the same spot where Prince put his. One can almost imagine that there is an imperceptible depression on stage. That he left his mark. And that’s how you press down harder,” writes Greil Marcus. “This book is a public history of those private moments. It is absolutely ephemeral – there are no people in the places Rhona Bitner photographed, no ecstatic faces, no swirling bodies. You have to put yourself in these places… If you listen carefully enough, [the walls] will tell you what they heard.”
“Bitner’s series is not only about sound, music and listening, but also about absence and silence,” writes Natalie Bell. “It’s the photographer who throws the cloth over her head to take the picture and then invites us under her… Sit in the peace and quiet of these spacesBitner seems to say. Well what do you hear? In the stillness, the image becomes brighter and – unlike the cacophony of a concert or performance photo – in the stillness of Bitner’s rooms we can hear our memories surfacing.”
“You have to play for the space,” says Jason Moran in the book’s afterword. “It’s a phrase that touring musicians often use because they spend countless hours performing in spaces they don’t quite know. When a heavy metal band enters a concert hall like Carnegie Hall, they realize that the acoustics of a stadium and a space built for acoustic music are extremely different. The artist’s task is to find a way to “play the space”. In general, this means: get to know the parameters of the space just enough for your music to be perceived by the audience. In Rhona Bitner’s depiction of these spaces, we often see the spaces empty – yet fully alive.”
There is a deeper need and trust in each of these spaces photographed by Bitner. “It is no coincidence that the letters are in the words Quietly and Listen are the same,” Moran continues. “Reminders of the power of silence and gratitude for the sounds that listeners capture in their bodies… From the porch to the concert hall, find the vibration.”
Are you already thinking about your holiday donation? Listen: The Stages and Studios That Shaped American Music could make a thoughtful gift for your own American music lover who will appreciate its colorful history and significant sense of place.