Bill Bentley has been a drummer, a record store clerk, a DJ, concert promoter, music producer, the former A&R director at Concord Music Group and a Vice President of Warner Brothers Records. His new book “Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen," is a photography book of rock 'n roll pictures.
Bentley sat down for an episode of "Salon Talks" to talk about Prince, Joni Mitchell, Iggy Pop, Sly and the Family Stone and so much more.
Most photography books are put together by a professional photographer or feature professional photographers, but this book is a little different. Tell me how it came about?
Smithsonian contacted me. The man who’s the director of books there used to be the road manager for the Flaming Lips and I was their publicist at Warner Brothers. He called me up and asked me if I wanted to write a book about crowd sourced pictures — and I’m kind of older, I didn’t know what crowd sourced meant — but he told me it would be a process where people would submit their photos to the Smithsonian website and then we will go through and pick the photos and pick the bands we want to cover. And we got close to 5,000 pictures, which is quite a bit.
He and I started whittling it down to which bands we think really needed to be in the book. We came up with about 200 bands and we had to knock that down by 50. We started to go through all the pictures and finding photos of those bands and then the ones that we didn’t have photos of, that were very important bands, then we had to go to professional photographers and see if they had things that hadn’t been used much. I’d known a lady at Magnum Photos named Susan Brisk, a photo researcher.
She was like a blood hound. [We asked her to] find a great Dead picture that hadn’t been seen a million times or an Iggy Pop picture, anything that’s not over-used to illustrate a certain group. That’s how we did it. We really tried to get all crowd sourced, but the ones for the bands we didn’t have, we went to the professionals and then got off-road to find things they hadn’t sold and over-used too many times.
People who buy this book, they’re never going to have seen these pictures before.
That was the hope. I looked through every photo book, almost, that comes out and I know the difference between every minute you look at the pictures now for over 50 years and you go, “oh, that’s a great picture, but I’ve seen it a hundred times.” The idea was to find the photos that were new to most people. I mean, they’ll be a few in here that have been seen before, I’m not saying everyone, but I’d say 95 percent of the pictures are things that most people had never seen.
Watch our full conversation
Bill Brentley collected rock 'n roll's rarest photographs
Photography has always been a huge part of rock music. Why do you think rock is such a visual medium, for being a musical form?
One reason is because the audience for rock is a very visual audience. I mean, it’s the baby boomer kids who grew up in TV which was visual and then they started reading magazines about music which had never existed really. That’s visual. Then this whole industry of photography grew up because it’s the look of rock 'n roll, it's something that helps sell it.
I remember the first time in '56, I saw Elvis. I’m like, I’m buying that record because it’s just the look that gets you, it’s almost as much as the music. I kind of always had this theory that you look and listen with your eyes and your ears at the same time.
If I look at a picture, it reminds me of the music. Almost every time I’ll look at a photo like that one of Iggy Pop that’s in the book and I’ll go like, “God, I remember seeing him. I remember what he did. It’s just like it was yesterday.” The picture evokes that feeling.
Digital technology is great in many ways, but how do you think people are missing out not having record covers and fold outs? It’s kind of a lost art. But speaking of, back in those days, I’m an enormous fan of '70s punk and glam. I was stoked to see pictures of Blondie, David Bowie, Lou Reid, Iggy Pop in here. Why do you think that sort of grimy punk, like all these pictures kind of look dirty and grimy? Why do you think that was glamorous in the '70s? What was so glamorous about that?
I think the punk era was really glamorous because it was reaction against the real processed pictures of coliseum rock from the '70s. Everything had gotten so big and nothing against any of the bands that were huge, but at some point all the fans of true hard core music went like “enough of that. We don’t want to be sold a mega group. We want to find the things that we find that nobody had seen.” All that comes out of a very gritty dark place.
I mean, if you look at CBGBs, those bands, I mean, forget it. And then we had the Sex Pistols and it was almost like the uglier you were, the bigger you were going to get. I mean, I saw the Sex Pistols. It was just like, “what in the world is going on?” These guys look like they just gotten out of jail. Just gotten beat up. They had no visual sense at all, but by reversing the norm, they made that the visual sense which is kind of genius. It really was.
One of the pictures is Iggy Pop covered in blood. Tell me about this picture.
If you saw Iggy back ‘76, ‘77, ‘78, that was part of his deal. I mean, he liked to cut himself up and then he liked to climb up on the speaker scaffolding. He liked to do everything that had never been done. That’s kind of how he made his name, really. We felt like that is Iggy at his most Iggiest. We found the picture from somebody. I think that picture is from the Whisky A Go Go that had never been seen and he was like, cut up to the max.
It’s almost like it was right before he gave himself open heart surgery, that he really cut himself up. I remember the first time I saw him. He climbed up probably at least 15-yard scaffold to the top of the Armadillo World Headquarters. I thought he was going to die. We really did. He was up at the top, jumping around. He’s a contortionist. But he had no fear. He never did. I saw him a couple of years ago, same thing. He never slowed down and to me that’s the essence of rock 'n roll. You do it because you have to. He’s not trying to do a show or impress somebody. That’s where it drives him: to the top of the scaffold full of blood.
I really like this photo of Joni Mitchell. She’s at the piano and it's kind of a casual. She has her hand over her eyes, kind of obscuring her face. Why did you pick this particular photo? What about Joni Mitchell do you think it captures?
Joni basically is a very shy person, but wanted to be a mega-star because she knew how good her music was. I was her publicist for a few years. It was just this real dichotomy when you talk to her and listen to her music, it’s like very inward and all about her deepest feelings and the pain she’s going through or what she senses in the culture that’s strange and you think like, “this woman is lucky she ever gets out of bed.” But when she’s out there doing it, it’s like, “Well, I’m as good as Bob Dylan. I’m as good as anybody. Why don’t they know me as much as they know the superstars?”
With Joni, I think that picture is sort of her staring into the audience almost like where am I? But [actually] she’s like, I hope that’s a big audience out there. She really knew show business. She knew what it's about and she went for it. I mean, it was hard for her because if you listen to those songs, you’d almost go like, “How can anybody get to do this in public?” Because they’re so personal, but she did it for thousand and thousands of people.
She was a big influence on Prince and of course, you have a photo of Prince in here. The photo's from 1984, when he was going from more obscure to being a real superstar. What about this particular photo spoke to you about Prince?
When I first saw Prince, it was right when he was really getting big probably ‘79, ‘80. He freely came out in women’s fishnet hose and high heels and very little less. I felt like, OK, that’s very controversial and it’s going good. But then I think, he realized he needed to move in just a little more normalcy. But he was still not all the way sure of himself on stage. Because he started just making songs in his basement of his father’s house. He didn’t even play live. This picture with the guitar showed me he’d finally cross that road where he could just be a guitarist and be really like a rock star.
I think, it showed sort of Prince’s flowering into the artist he became. Because when he started he wasn’t that artist. He was a solo. He did everything himself, getting on stage, playing guitar and the band opening for the Rolling Stones was a huge leap for him. It took a lot of guts for him to do it because naturally that one what he was, we used to see Prince walking down the hall at Warner Brothers, the word from on top was don’t talk to him and don’t look at him. He’s too shy. He would walk by you, lovely short man. You couldn’t say anything to him. You can’t look at him but he would walk by you and do this. He’d be acknowledging you but he didn’t want to see you because he didn’t know what to say. That’s how shy he was. But this picture shows that when he’s on stage, not shy.
When you think about people like Joni Mitchell and Prince who are shy or introverted and their art can often be very personal and then they go out on stage and they just become these big stars. What do you think it is that drives somebody to need that? To want to expose themselves to some people in that way?
The great artists that I’ve known, and a lot of the artists in this book, they have an inner drive to be somebody. They know that their music is saying something. They want people to hear it. They want it to matter to the people. They really want to change the people with their music. Those are the people that off stage could be almost wilting violets. But on stage, they become another person.
Most of the great artists on stage are completely different than they are off stage. Really, true. I’d say the ones that you’d get the most trouble are people like Jim Morrison because he’s the same on and off. I mean, he never knows how to shut it down. But you can’t be what you are on stage all the time off stage. It will kill you. Unfortunately, that’s why people off stage, if they’re different, they might take drugs to medicate themselves or they just get into all kinds of things that aren’t really good for them because they feel like they should be the on stage person. You really almost have to be two separate people, to really do it all the time because who could live like that 24/7. You couldn’t do it.
You have a really great picture that I loved in here of Sly Stone, of Sly and the Family Stone. Tell me about his place in music in the '70s, because I think he was kind of in a unique spot.
Sly came out of the tradition. I mean, he grew up in the Bay Area. He was a record producer. He was around the whole psychedelic movement in the mid-'60s and that wasn’t him at all. But he took some of the visual outlandish elements that have those, those artists dressed however they wanted. They kind of broke all the rules. They weren’t like show business. I mean, the Beatles used to wear nice suits if you remember. But then when you saw the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane or Big Brother, it was sort of like these costumes to the max.
But I think Sly kind of took the visual of that era, the '60s San Francisco rock. and put it into what was basically soul music, amped up with rock beats and rock guitars and everything, and really mixed it up in every which way. It came out unique. Nobody had ever done the soul and the hippy together except Sly and then he kind of threw in almost like a circus aspect to it. That was the way he thought. He was a very, very imaginative person.
But again, another artist that had trouble I think living off stage like he was on stage. He couldn’t find that center where he could be both and relaxed. It kind of drove him [away] after what, five or six albums. He went away. Because it was a hard life. But he, he amped it up as much as anybody did and really mixing the genres together.
One of the things that’s interesting about this book is it’s called "Smithsonian Rock & Roll," but you’ve included artists that might be classified as funk or hip hop, or genres that weren’t exactly rock in here. How did you determine what bands to include and what bands not to include?
The first rock 'n roll artist who I loved was Elvis Presley. In my life, I started with him, but as I got into music, Elvis and the Rolling Stones led me to blues. I mean, really hard core blues. They totally influenced rock 'n roll people. And you move on a little bit, Sly and the family Stone or Al Green or then you get into hip hop. I looked to artists that could express the freedom that really is the basis of rock 'n roll. To me, rock 'n roll has always been about setting the artist free and hopefully the listener free. An artist for sure like N.W.A. or Run DMC or Al Green or back then, Otis Redding, I mean, I get to see Otis Redding. It was as powerful as anything I’ve ever seen in my life and that’s what the rock 'n roll experience is.
Coming from Texas, things are all mixed up anyway. I just never liked the idea, “oh no, that’s not rock 'n roll, that’s not this.” I think the music that expresses it might not be exactly rock 'n roll but it shares the passions of rock 'n roll and sometimes exceeds it. I mean, there’s never a greater live performer than Otis Redding. I don’t care who it was. No matter what rock 'n roll artist it was. I felt like he belonged in there too because maybe those early artists saw him and thought, we can do that. The Rolling Stones covered him on their first albums. I know that they loved him because he did his songs. Mick Jagger probably watched Otis Redding. It is all kind of related. The fact of rock 'n roll is it’s not rigid and once you get rigid you ruin it.
We have a couple of photos from the 21st century in this book. We have the White Stripes and the Alabama Shakes. And what’s striking about these two photos is they're from small spaces, like really intimate settings. What is it about that kind of small intimate settings that spoke to about rock music in the more recent years?
As rock got huge, the arena and stadium experience — and those are all wonderful things, I mean, if you’re in a stadium watching the Rolling Stones it’s electrifying — but when bands start out, especially bands like the ones you’ve mentioned, I think their personal relationship to the artist and how the artist can really almost touch them or feel them, I think that’s how they learned the power to then maybe extrapolate that to big venues. I mean, I’ve seen so many great young artists, once they get in the big setting, they’re not as effective. You really have to be careful. But, I like to show artists kind of at the start of when they’re first learning how to reach out and touch the audience.
I remember the first time I saw the Grateful Dead, it was 1968, it was a small club in Houston. You had to be under 21 to get in. I sat in a chair and it could touch Jerry Garcia’s microphone. That electrified me and completely blew my mind in a way that I never got over it. I felt like when music does that to you, that’s as good as it gets. While I love all the big shows, when it really gets down to that essence of being right there next to the audience and you feel that you’re one with them, that’s when it changes you in a way that you’ll never get unchanged.
The book is laid out in a chronological order. Why did you decide to go that direction?
Being a Virgo, I didn’t really figure out any other way to do it. One, I sort of like orderly, right? Once you get into it trying to do it by genres just like we just spoke about, the genres are all melt together. You can’t really do that. The only other way I saw doing it, plus I wanted to start at a point with Elvis and 56. I wouldn’t say Elvis invented rock & roll by any stretch, but he blew the doors off. Once, he was popular, everybody heard it. I kind of wanted to do that where it’s almost like a train trip through rock & roll country where you get on at the start, of where you live and then you go to the end or where it is right now, with the Alabama Shakes which was a young band in the South like Elvis was from. Almost unknown when those pictures were taken. But are making a huge impact on the culture in a way that will change everything that comes after it. I mean, I think young bands that are inspired by the Alabama Shakes and their singer Britney Howard, I think we’re going to seeing those bands soon4 because that was a huge seat change. Nobody had really sounded like that. Nobody looked like her in rock & roll for a long time.
I think when those things happen like I wrote in the introduction, people say, is rock dead or what’s going on? It’s like, you’ll never know. We have no idea what’s coming. It’s like the world. You don’t know what’s coming. I mean, and there’s no reason to know. In fact, it would be boring if you did know. I’d say keep yourself open to surprises. Don’t judge things now like, “oh, my God, it’s over or it’s not good anymore” because it’s going to change. What I’ve learned in what 60 something years, you will listen to it, I didn’t have a clue that starting with Elvis that we’d end up with the Sex Pistols or we’d end up with anybody like Alabama Shakes. But if you stay open to what’s happening, you’ll dig it a lot more.