We know it may seem contradictory, but somewhere in our Punk Channel is the ultimate anarchist, and we need your help to decide just who that is. Of all the bands competing, only one Grand Prize Winner will receive a year’s supply of Ernie Ball strings and accessories. So if you think you can spot the next Ramones, Sex Pistols, or Clash, then click here to start judging!
Veteran photographer Jesse Frohman isn’t easily fazed. He may have become adept at photographing the “beautiful people” in celebdom, but he first began making a name for himself in the late ’80s by capturing colorful moments on the fly with hip-hop provocateurs. So, when a drugged-up, freakishly attired Kurt Cobain strolled into his shoot three hours late in November of 1993, Frohman didn’t flinch. After all, Jesse Frohman is the man who invited a militant-era Chuck D. into his house and insisted on putting a gun in the Public Enemy mastermind’s hand. Fortunately it was all in the service of an iconic photo.
“That was a funny shoot,” recalls Frohman, “because I told whoever was doing the props at the time, ‘You’ve gotta get a gun,’ because I wanted to do that [Black Panthers founder] Huey Newton-style picture, and he comes back with this grandpa gun, and Chuck D. was like ‘Where’s the Uzi?'” Frohman had some strange but memorable shoots with LL Cool J in those days too. “LL Cool J would say the funniest things, he would just call me randomly and say ‘Okay, I want to get my Pathfinder up in the woods and we’ll put a deer on the hood, and I’ll get camouflage clothes’ [laughs]. Just one thing after another, it was just a real crackup.”
But even Public Enemy’s intimidating image didn’t rattle Frohman. “People really thought these guys were very much that way,” he explains, “and it made me realize they’re putting on a show” they were natural entertainers. When you’d meet them in person they’d drop their guard a little bit. I really didn’t have any problems with anybody, I had more problems with people like Dee Dee Ramone out at my house; he picked up the brass knuckles that he gave me as a gift and tried to use them on me. He was having a bad reaction to some drugs he took.”
Frohman doesn’t even betray an ounce of chagrin when he recalls getting kicked out of a shoot by the artists themselves. “Green Day was a great band to shoot,” he begins. “they get the attitude, they’re zany, they don’t care what they look like, they just want to have fun in the pictures, and they put on a show a little bit.” Then he drops the other shoe, continuing, “The funny thing about Green Day is, a magazine said, ‘They’re on tour,’ would I mind going to the show and doing a few pictures there? I went to the show and Billie [Joe Armstrong] says after the first couple of songs, ‘How about we kick the goddamn photographer out of here?’ I’m trying to say, ‘No, it’s me Billie! We just had this four-hour shoot!’ He either didn’t see me or he didn’t care, and I was kicked out, so I didn’t get concert pictures.” But Frohman wasn’t just fattening his portfolio by banging around with all these enfants terrible, he was gaining combat experience. “They were colorful,” he says of the aforementioned artists, “they were interesting, they were great subjects, and it really set me up for a shoot like Nirvana and Kurt Cobain.”
Frohman sets the scene for his short but momentous Cobain encounter, “I think it was November 15, 1993,” he remembers. “The London Observer magazine asked if I would do a cover story on [Nirvana]. They set up a shoot that we all agreed would be five hours. They were in New York performing at Roseland that night, so we had the late morning/afternoon to do the shoot. When I arrived at the hotel, I met the manager at the lobby and he said, ‘The plans have changed, and we don’t have anything close to five hours now, and we have to shoot in the hotel.’ He had reserved a conference room for us. We were planning on shooting in Central Park and on the street, that’s what I was set up for, and he nixed all that. So that was the beginning of the experience.”
If you’re thinking it got worse after that, you’re right. Nirvana rhythm section Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic showed up for the shoot only to find their fearless leader MIA, so they departed. When they returned some time later, the singer had still not turned up. Finally, a chemically-enhanced Cobain wandered in with only twenty minutes left in Frohman’s alotted time. He arrived with an absurd, garish ensemble including a leopard jacket that looked like it belonged to someone’s grandmother, an earflap-adorned aviator hat of the sort pilots sported in WWII, and a pair of huge plastic sunglasses that would have been better suited to Jackie Onassis. To make matters more difficult, Frohman recalls, “Once he put those glasses on he wouldn’t take them off, so I didn’t get any pictures with his glasses off except when I went to Roseland and shot him on stage.”
Fortunately, Frohman’s luck soon turned around, and he found himself getting some great, soon-to-be-iconic images of the bedraggled rock star. “Maybe not the most flattering pictures,” he allows, “but he was very expressive. He was nice, and he was fine to shoot. It was definitely a partnership in making a picture, but he wasn’t demanding, he wasn’t difficult. He was really very easy to photograph, and that was really my saving grace, because I didn’t have enough time to work with somebody that wanted to change outfits or wanted to take a break”he just walked in and stood up against the wall and he was a happy camper.”
Following the band along to their Roseland gig for some stage shots, he marveled at Cobain’s ability to operate in his impaired state, even though Frohman had no way of knowing how dire the situation really was at that point. “There’s a lot of people out there that have problems or have moments where they’re in that state,” Frohman says, “and he was a rock star, so you just accepted it, and I was really just concerned with my shoot. And then I traveled with him to Roseland and there was no problem, he was fully functioning. He got up and he conducted rehearsal and he performed that night. To me it was remarkable that he was able to do that with such ease. I don’t know how he was able to do it.”
Of course, he wouldn’t be able to do it for much longer. on April 5, 1994, Cobain made the jump from superstar to rock & roll martyr. To memorialize the eighteenth anniversary of that tragic event, Frohman decided to partner with the renowned Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York City, famed for featuring rock-oriented photo shows, to present his complete collection of images from that fateful day in ’93. “It was interesting to look at a shoot from that long a period ago,” says Frohman of putting the exhibition together. “There’s lots of memories about the shoot, about the day and what I expected and what I finally got out of it, and I think that some shoots take on a life of their own. It’s really because of him, not me, to a large extent, but it definitely was a partnership. Had I done some snapshots of him at Roseland, or on the street, I wouldn’t have had the shoot that I had, so I’m fortunate that I had to shoot in a conference room and I made the best out of it. It was a twenty-minute shoot, you don’t know that it can become something.”
Even so, the decision to do the show was not an automatic one for Frohman. “I went back and forth,” he explains, “‘Do I want to do this or not,’ then I said ‘I really do.’ I think it’s the time that there’s enough interest in Kurt and it makes sense photographically. I think it makes sense in this time and place to do something like this.” Allowing all of his rare, raw images of the rocker’s endgame to be seen together like this for the first time (the show will be up throughout the month of April) Frohman not only makes a major photographic statement, but marks a strange, sad, stirring juncture in rock history.
10. The Byrds
Their career was so fragmented that it is difficult to assess as a whole, but The Byrds almost single-handedly invented both folk-rock and country-rock while also bringing international attention to young folker Bob Dylan. In melding Dylan’s compositions with the concept of a guitar-based group, The Byrds brought poetry to pop and illustrated the incredible melodicism of Dylan’s not-so-accessible songs. The Byrds got into psychedelia early on, and had a number of their own classic originals (many by Gene Clark) before catching on to the roots revival. When they hooked up with Gram Parsons, to the credit of the band and leader Roger McGuinn, they followed his vision of a unique country-based cosmic American band. His time in the group was short-lived, but produced arguably their best LP, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The Byrds influenced at least two bands on this list, as well as re-inspiring the acts that influenced them, including Dylan, The Beatles and folkers like John Phillips and John Sebastian.
It seems there’s a worrying trend these days wherein more and more veteran rockers seem to be turning to bluegrass. We’re using the term turning to bluegrass here in the interest of fairness, since the more popular going bluegrass bears too much pejorative potential, what with its evocations of going ballistic, going rogue or even going postal. At least for the moment, we’re trying our hardest to keep an open mind about this phenomenon, so bear with us on this.
The rock-to-bluegrass move isn’t a new idea”in terms of high-profile artists, you can trace it back at least as far as David Lee I’ll try anything once Roth, who may have had mandolin-shaped dollar signs dancing before his eyes ever since the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack made the mainstream start paying attention. Diamond Dave sang on a back-porch version of Jump for the Van Halen bluegrass tribute album Strummin’ With the Devil back in 2006. With the ice thus broken, others began following in Diamond Dave’s footsteps, even though it’s unlikely they were emboldened by the aforementioned VH reinvention itself. The following year, not only did patron saint of punk and last surviving (original) Ramones member Tommy Erdelyi unleash the self-titled debut album of his bluegrass duo Uncle Monk, the original shirtless wonder of stadium rock, Robert Plant himself, delivered Raising Sand in collaboration with Alison Krauss. Of course, in Plant’s case, the aesthetic and commercial rewards for this venture turned out to be enormous, and that probably proved to be the real turning point for this whole thing.
Suddenly, it seems as though we’re inundated with warhorses from the rocking side of the fence willing to dip a toe” if not an entire foot”into the Appalachian stream ofbluegrass music. To wit: some guy named Paul McCartney takes a vocal turn on Steve Martin‘s new bluegrass outing (bluegrass-bound actors are a topic for a whole other column) Rare Bird Alert, singing on the Martin-penned Best Love. Guitar man Brian Setzer‘s latest release, Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL!, finds the former Stray Cat picking up a storm on the old Earl Scruggs tune Earl’s Breakdown. Elvis Costello‘s recent acoustic, country-tinged National Ransom was cut in Nashville with a raft of hotshot bluegrass cats. Even the ultimate urbanite, Paul Simon, has collaborated with one of the biggest acts in contemporary bluegrass, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, on the former’s upcoming So Beautiful Or So What.
Okay, so most of these are relatively minor dalliances in the high-lonesome hinterlands”guest-spots, one-offs and the like. Perhaps in and of themselves, each one of these examples shouldn’t be enough to inspire concern in those who feel that rock/bluegrass mergers may not be the best thing for artists on either side of the fence in the long run. Like we said at the outset, we’re still attempting to keep an open mind, despite any initial misgivings. But then along comes the clincher, the one that makes all these other examples seem less like isolated incidents and more like a snowball slowly gathering steam as it rolls down a white, wintry hill.
It turns out that Tommy Shaw, longtime frontman for classic-rock kingpins Styx, has just released a full-on, Nashville-recorded bluegrass album, Great Divide, featuring contributions from Alison Krauss as well as legendary pickers Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and others. Now, even allowing for the relatively generous assumption that you accept such Shaw-penned Styx hits as Renegade, Blue Collar Man and Too Much Time On My Hands as the arena-rock classics they are, does that mean you have any good reason to approach this project with great expectations? Again, we’re just posing the question here, not handing down any overt judgments about the bluegrass potential of Ted Nugent‘s former Damn Yankees bandmate. We’ll simply say that the most convincing bit of mountain music we’ve heard thus far from Shaw has been a ˜grassed-up take on Renegade, which does not appear on the all-original Great Divide. Regardless, Shaw’s going whole-hog on this thing”hell, the guy’s playing the freakin’ Opry in a couple of days! One can only wonder which of Shaw’s fellow stadium-rockers will be the next one up on the hay bale. Say¦has anybody been keeping an eye on Steve Perry lately?!