‘Finding Robert Frank Online’ and Beyond

The other day The New York Times covered the announcement of a treasure trove of images from the work of Robert Frank, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. The National Gallery of Art has released a comprehensive archive of Frank’s work, including contact sheets and work prints, much of it never before seen by the public. It all comes in advance of Frank’s 90th birthday, in November.

As The Times says in it’s Lens Blog:

The cover image for the U.S. edition of The Americans, Robert Frank’s epochal book, spoke volumes about the state of the nation in the mid-1950s. The tightly-cropped photo shows passengers in the windows of a New Orleans trolley assuming their place in the social order of the Jim Crow South — progressing from a black woman in the rear to white children and adults up front (slide 4).

The contact sheet that contained the image showed that Mr. Frank had photographed the city from multiple perspectives, but he ultimately selected the frame that most dramatically and symbolically captured New Orleans’ racial hierarchy. Learning this photo’s backstory would be impossible without the ability to view Mr. Frank’s contact sheet. Now, such important archival material, typically reserved for scholars and curators, is just a click away.

Born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, Frank took pictures in Europe and South America during his early career, but it wasn’t until he crisscrossed the seductive roads of America that Frank felt he was finally making art with his lens. With his U.S. travels in the mid-1950s, his work reached a new level, and 83 of his road images were arranged into the book The Americans.

It’s no surprised that Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the first U.S. edition of The Americans. The 1959 edition raised eyebrows in the media for its brute black and white candor. But The Americans, like Kerouac’s own masterwork, On the Road, opened the door to the loneness of the country’s heart and spirit and, together, they inspired a generation of artists, musicians and thinkers.

It’s interesting how foreign image makers like Frank, Mechelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point, 1970), Louis Malle (Atlantic City, 1980) are able to capture the essence of the land better than most native auteurs. In fact, with the stir made by The Americans, Frank was compared to America’s original outsider observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1835 book Democracy in America helped to define the young nation’s unique character (Is it what America brings to you or what you bring to her?).

I believe a great artist is a conduit for “place.” His subject somehow finds him, speaks through him. The artist ultimately “sees” through time as the French photographer Eugène Atget once described it. I believe such artists also see through other dimensions, some of which elude us, some of which speak through intersections of light and shadow, artifact and art, quietude and cacophony, moment and mystery.

It’s hard to describe The Americans. Language could illuminate it, could degrade it. Perhaps it’s like the stuff of dreams, the magic of which begins to disappear upon transfer to the conscious mind. So much spills from the bucket on its ascent from that deep, dark well.

I was surprised and pleased when I discovered Frank himself had linked the worlds of photography and poetry in his description of his work:

When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.

The Hot Ride

A heat bomb hit me when I slid into my Chevy today, a welcome rapture after an icy winter in upstate New York. It took me right back to the tireless Nash that was heaped among the weeds in my boyhood, nested among toads and copperheads in a bungalow colony in Peekskill.

A James Deanish boy named Leif was my summer partner in crime. He was the true grit country boy, I, the city kid learning the ropes. We were just short of teenage, and that mechanical skeleton was our rocket to the moon.

We sat in the stultifying July sun, hornets circling; our souls exulted from the dusty upholstery scents as we took turns behind the hot steering wheel, the battered speedometer feeding our imaginations. The cracked and crazed sheet metal became a time machine, taking us on far journeys through states that were as yet unknown. Our young hearts baked and burned. Turn after turn, we explored, escaped as if mapping out the rest of our lives.

I have no idea what happened to Leif after that summer. Year after year, my own soul baked on: in my father’s Studebaker, Dodge; in my first car, a 1948 Cadillac hearse. That black monolith took me to California and back twice, tracing every road I had imagined in that magical Nash.

It persists. I’ve since traveled the back roads of most states. My wife, Roxanne and I continue the journey every chance we get: Cross Creek, Savannah, New Orleans, Pueblo, Greensboro, Kansas City, Barstow, Staunton, Albuquerque. Somehow, it’s always just beginning, when the sun enwraps you behind the wheel.

America is in my blood, my bones, as evinced in my writing. Check out this raw reality in the video to my song “Miss America.”
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Catcher 22: Holden Caulfield Today

“The Catcher in the Rye” was as singular a novel as the voice of J.D. Salinger, who passed away on Thursday. To my generation – The Who, Woodstock and all that – it was the bible for the disaffected, misunderstood teenager, who was ready to flip from Peter Pan.

Of course, the flipping continued. After high school, there were new discoveries on the road, so to speak, to self-discovery: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Hemingway, Dylan, the Beatles, the Williamses (Tennessee and Hank), the Millers (Henry and Arthur), Lorca.

But today’s youth don’t have time for such protracted processes. As Jennifer Schuessler put it, writing in the New York Times last June:

Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world — like Harry (Potter) — not the beautiful losers who reject it.

Some critics say that if Holden is less popular these days, the fault lies with our own impatience with the idea of a lifelong quest for identity and meaning that Holden represents.

Since the 1980s, I’ve been saddened by the fast-track trajectory of college students. Pressure to choose a gilded career flattened any chance for soul searching during its ideal developmental period. No doubt many college students in recent times have bounced from major to major, from career to career, and have fallen under the wheels of life a few times. Yet something still seems lost in today’s culture.

Nevertheless, I’m convinced there’s something inherent in human nature that seeks its own inquisitive level despite the “so now” pressures and distractions of the times. Our three-year-old grandson, Russell is as spoiled with store-bought toys as many, but I was heartened to see that his favorite play thing of late is an empty chewing-gum box — the best gift his pappy ever gave him.

The soul lives on.
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‘On the Road’ to Woodstock 40 Years After

Make no mistake, the Woodstock festival has been viewed with rose-colored glasses, especially from a 40-year vantage point. The event was essentially a massive, disorganized mud pit with a stage-view the size of a dime for most concertgoers. It was as much downer as upper. But, despite its faults, Woodstock was special in ways that defy definition.

On the road to Woodstock

On the road to Woodstock

It sounds trite to say, “you had to be there.” But you did, and I was. My journey there was part of a summer-long road trip in my 1948 Cadillac hearse. But before I put the sleek three-ton black beauty in gear, let me go back a few years – to the Summer of Love – to put Woodstock in perspective.
My Cadillac Hearse

It’s June 1967. I meet a college chum on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx. “Did you hear about the festival? Are you going?,” she says. The festival in question was Monterey (California), and my reply was that I wanted to go bad, but didn’t think I could make it. That killed me. Music meant so much to us college kids back then. There weren’t a million channels of music. You could actually keep up with all of rock: the groups, the movements. You were at the record store when the new Stones album came out, the new Dylan.

That decade there were seismic cultural shifts on the music front year after year. But one needs to understand that the music front of the ’60’s included a major social revolution, one that impacted politics, family dynamics and both personal and interpersonal development.

When The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album came out a month before Monterey, it hit music lovers like a number 9 on the Richter scale. In 1968, The Band debuted with “Music from Big Pink,” blowing listeners minds. No one had envisioned such a sound: a literary gumbo of country, rock and Americana. Then, Bob Dylan, who had already remapped the music landscape in the early part of the decade, released “Nashville Skyline,” in 1969, turning the scene on its head yet again. Seminal events all.

And that’s just a brief snapshot of the ’60’s music-wise. Defined in chief by Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead, the period was a turning point in the history of music, and culture overall. Let’s face it, the first three in the list make up the Mount Rushmore of 20th century rock.

Monterey, which featured Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, and the Mamas & the Papas, was the first of the big music festivals; some say the best. It had a huge pull for us kids back then. Besides the music, there was the romance of “California Dreaming.” After all, it was the Summer of Love. Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair”) beckoned from the radio. By July 1967, it was all too much to bear. I may have missed Monterey, but I wasn’t going to miss San Francisco and the Summer of Love. I quit my summer cooking job at Lenox Hill Hospital and set out with friends in a 1947 Cadillac limousine, nearly the same vehicle of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” We put 10,000 mile on the odometer that summer, which included a long stop in Haight-Ashbury.

My friend Richard, the limo’s owner, was a collector of vintage Caddies, and, by 1969, I purchased a 1948 Cadillac hearse from him, my first car. The same year I married my first wife, Carol, and by the summer we had the behemoth packed for another cross-country adventure that included Richard, my sister, Alice and a brilliant folk singer named Ribsy.

Little did we know we were about to ride through history that July and August, with a strange experience in a beat northern California town during the Apollo 11 moon landing, a detention by the L.A. cops the morning after the Tate-LaBianca murders, and a momentous arrival in Woodstock as we rediscovered America. This post is the last of a triptych depicting those three notable dots on the map of the summer of 1969 (links to the previous two above).

When the L.A. cops released us on the morning of Aug. 11, we continued on our way to the festival. We already received our tickets while in California and hit the desert with great expectations. The collective pull of Woodstock was everywhere we went. Just outside of Needles, Calif., we encountered a converted mail truck full of freaks goin’ our way. And the way was Route 66, the curvy dream road that took us first through the West to Texas and north toward Chicago.

It’s probably difficult for today’s youth to understand that being different was not tolerated in many parts of the country in the ’60’s. Hippies, if you will (and I use the term affectionately), in those days got a tiny taste of what it must have been like to be black in America. Of course nothing could begin to compare to the latter experience, but the longhairs plight of the day – so well chronicled in the classic 1969 film “Easy Rider” – was an interesting snapshot of an intolerant America. I’m not accustomed to giving away movie endings, but “Easy Rider” does end with the shotgunning of the lead characters – played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper — on a rural southern road. And that very scene was to have an eerie resonance for us on our next stop.

With Richard staying on in L.A., the remaining four of us stopped in the small western Colorado town of Naturita, as we had left Route 66 for a time. Us two hippie-looking couples were having dinner in a local café in the no-traffick-ight mountain town. A handful of miners were located in a booth across from us. But for the staff, we were the only inhabitants. In short order, the comments came: “why don’t you get a haircut, boy? Them boys really need a haircut, don’t you think, Billy.”

Ribsy and I both had shoulder-length hair, and I had a full beard. The girls wore summer tops, no bras. To the miners we were heathens. It was becoming clear that they wanted to do harm to the men at our table and likely rape the women, who they viewed as loose, because of their dress.

One of the miners picked up a table knife, stroking it gently, provocatively with his right forefinger. “You do need a haircut, hippie. And you need to shave that beard. I’m just gonna have to do that for you, ain’t I boys?”

The staff could have cared less. It was clear we were alone and in the wilderness. We were just about trapped and we were in trouble, big trouble. I told my table we had to leave now, but that we should move naturally, slowly, then enter the hearse without dawdling. “But don’t run, don’t look panicked,” I told them.

The hearse was parked at the curb right outside the restaurant. We got into the car, and by the time I reached the driver’s door, I heard the screen door slam a second time. I made sure not to look back. I climbed behind the wheel and started the car, all in one balletic motion. The instigator of the group stood before the hearse revealing an open switchblade. The scene looked like the cover of a pulp fiction novel.

For some reason, in emergencies I can see and process dozens of things at once, and I keep my head. I had figured that I needed to pull the car out fast, nearly grazing the knife wielder, knocking him off balance without actually hitting him. It would be like Roger Clemens brushing back a batter. My brush-back worked perfectly, and no one was able to jump on the running boards. But there was just one problem. We were nowhere, literally. There was nothing and no one for miles. The nearest real town was Grand Junction, more than a hundred miles away on winding mountain roads, and it would be dark in an hour. I expected to see a pickup truck of shotgun-toting roughriders in my rearview mirror anytime soon. So I drove 90 on straightaways and pressed the curves best I could. It didn’t hurt that I was a professional driver: four years as a New York cabby while going to college. A cabby eventually becomes one with his car, and it came in handy that night.

Somehow, it didn’t happen. Somehow they never caught up with us. Somehow, we escaped a horrible “Easy Rider”-style fate. Late that night in Grand Junction we found a cheap hotel room and crashed, still scared but also high on freedom.

My sister often reminds me of one memorable stretch when we left Colorado. Apparently, I drove 1,200 miles without stopping, all so we could make the Woodstock festival on opening night. I pushed that car like a streamliner train. Since I was the only one who drove shift, I was the sole driver.

When we pulled into White Lake, were were jubilant. First of all, we didn’t hit any of the awful traffic reported on the radio, because we came in from Route 6 in Pennsylvania. Most concertgoers were on the New York State Thruway. And when we came in that back door, the festival pilgrims, seeing the big black beauty, jumped on the hood, the roof, stood on the running boards and bumpers. We entered Woodstock like a sultan coming into Babylon.

That was the high point. From there it was mostly downhill. The fences were down, our tickets were rendered unnecessary. Food was scarce. Vendors were selling single bananas for $3. The hearse was parked in a field almost a mile from the natural amphitheater. By the time we made the long trek to the concert site, the place was jammed and we were forced to take up residence on the top of the hillside. The stage looked like a matchbox. The performers were specs. Then, it started to rain.

The balding aisles turned in to mudslides, with folks slipping, falling. A group of knuckleheads from New Jersey decided it would be fun to piss in the aisle and have a hoot watching people take headers in their private cesspool. It was sickening, disturbing. This wasn’t peace and love.

Look, Woodstock was a city, and everyone on every block, so to speak, had a different experience. Some were tripping their brains out, some were grooving on the music. Richie Havens was great that first day, but it was hard for us to let go of the bummer scene and challenging conditions in our locale.

We did enjoy some of the festival. Besides the music, we had a great experience meeting our Bronx neighbors in the absolute pitch dark on the way back to the car that night. Jack and Barbara had a full supply of bacon and eggs back in their VW van, and we made plans to rendezvous for breakfast. Jack was our cool English professor from Berkeley, and Carol and I rented an attic apartment from he and his wife. Hearing their distinct, friendly voices made our night and helped raise our enjoyment.

I’m not going to review the music, since this piece is more about the big picture of Woodstock. Essentially, the fest was a gathering of a generation that was also a culmination of all we were and everything we had been.

My generation was always about gatherings, sometimes for activism, sometimes for no reason at all. The latter-style assemblages were called be-ins, and they took place in New York, San Francisco and other urban centers and college campuses throughout the mid-’60’s. We were celebrating life and our sense of freedom, openness and experimentation. Sure, some were smug about it, like we had all the answers. Hippies were about being hip. There were us and them, the freaks and the straights. But find any young generation that doesn’t feel the same way.

Dismissiveness regarding Woodstock and, for that matter, the counterculture of the ’60’s irks me. In revised versions of his 1961 book “The Image,” historian Daniel Boorstin, termed the three-day fest the quintessential “pseudo event.”

But one has to look a little deeper, a little further into the context of the festival and its attendees to understand the far-reaching significance of both. Let’s face it, the media rounded up that generation to the lowest common terms. At the time, it was easy for an uneasy establishment to term the counterculture hippies. In some way, it’s name calling of the highest order, because it comes from the establishment. It was easy to view hippies as goofy, bizarre, lazy, drug-hazed, shallow and self-absorbed.

But let’s put hippies in context. Born of the repressive Eisenhower era, so-called hippies spawned several revolutions. The first involved a self-awareness and discovery that changed the entire dynamics of families and interpersonal relationships. The second spawned a rich culture of music that culminated in the statement that was Woodstock. The third, tied to the first two, helped change the course of American politics and turn the tide of the Vietnam War. And, surely, their accomplishments began the culture wars that blaze on to this day.

Of course there was a down side as there is to any disruptive invention. Extraneous parts need shedding, and, certainly, most hippies shed the excesses of their heyday and eventually — after some bumps along the way — founded strong families and careers by their middle years. I’m an example. I’m happily married to my second wife, Roxanne, and have a wonderful family that includes three stepchildren, two grandsons and Stella the wonder dog.

I got some great perspective on the Woodstock generation last night from an interview by one of the times’ most respected FM disc jockeys, Pete Fornatale. I mentioned before that there weren’t a million bands and niches as there are today, and that there weren’t many channels. WNEW-FM in New York was headquarters for the music, and to some extent, the culture of those times. Fornatale had just joined the station a month before Woodstock. Last night, WFAN’s Mike Francesa interviewed Fornatale, who just came out with a book on the history of Woodstock, “Back to the Garden.” It’s a great interview, and brings out background for much of what I’ve discussed here.
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