Among the best of my many U.S.A. road trips, the destinations that spotlight the roots and raves of American music have memorably shone especially bright. While driving to Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, Nashville and more, I gleefully sang in the car while listening en route to songs of masterful musicians, fantasizing that “we” were doing duets together. (Do you do that too?) At each stop, I thrilled to enjoy behind-the-scenes tours of arenas and auditoriums, ballrooms and bars, stadiums and stages and studios. For example, on Nashville’s Music Row — pulse central for record label offices, recording booths and radio stations — I had the opportunity to play the piano (one song, just for fun!) in legendary Studio B at RCA Victor Studio (now 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 played, cutting singles and albums. So it is with enthusiasm that I welcome October’s upcoming publication of Rhona Bitner’s new hard-cover book, Listen: The Stages and Studios That Shaped American Music (Rizzoli New York).
Motivated by the 2006 closure of New York City’s high-profile CBGB club — which had attracted an eclectic range of magnetic musicians and fans, giving birth to new music revolutions dubbed punk and new wave — Bitner launched an ambitious 13-year project to photograph 395 note-worthy venues. “I realized that the inner architecture of American music history needed its own record,” says Bitner. “Experiencing music, listening, is an act both collective and personal. I stood in the spaces alone. Room is cleared for memory, which in turn accepts time. And time is the heart of all music.” This quest propelled Bitner to 89 cities in 26 states to visually document these music-lifting locales, such as Elvis Presley’s Graceland music room in Memphis; Jimi Hendrix’s recording studio in New York City’s Greenwich Village; Aretha Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist family church in Detroit; Georgia’s Macon City Auditorium where 14-year-old Little Ritchie 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 yesteryears: “ghost ships of American music,” insightfully writes “Godfather of Punk” Iggy Pop (singer, songwriter, producer and actor) in the book’s Foreword. “Can you see into the past by staring long enough into these eloquent photographs…? Yes, yes, you can. Here are the places where love is to be found.”
Pitch 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 evocative, enlightening commentary to the book. Editing was finessed by Éric Reinhardt (novelist, publisher), who oversaw crisp, detail-rich annotations about each venue, which are set apart from Bitner’s photographs, on contrasting paper stock, as a helpful organizing format. In addition, dozens of lively images of famous, beloved 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, B. B. 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, peppering 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 in the same spot where Prince put his. You can almost imagine that there is an imperceptible depression on the stage. That he left a mark. And so you press down harder, as if you will, too,” 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 imagine yourself into these places…. If you listen closely 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 is the photographer tossing the cloth over her head to take the photograph and then also inviting us under…. Sit with the quiet and stillness of these spaces, Bitner 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 play to the room,” says Jason Moran in the book’s Afterword. “This is a phrase that touring musicians often use because they spend countless hours performing in rooms they don’t quite know. If a heavy metal band goes into a concert hall like Carnegie Hall, they’ll find that the acoustics of a stadium and a room built for acoustic music are extremely different. The artist is charged with finding a way to ‘play the room.’ This generally means: Learn 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 rooms often vacant — yet entirely vibrant.”
Within each of these spaces photographed by Bitner, there is a deeper must and trust. “It is no coincidence that the letters in the words silent and listen are the same,” Moran continues. “Reminders of the power of silence and thankful for the sounds that listeners capture in their bodies…. From the front porch to the concert hall, find the vibration.”
Already thinking about your holiday-giving ahead? Listen: The Stages and Studios That Shaped American Music might be a thoughtful gift for your own aficionado of American music, who appreciates its colorful history and significant sense of place.