A FEW MINUTES WITH… Ethan Russell
By Don Wilcock
Rock photographer Ethan Russell is on a one-man crusade to prove that the ’60s were the first time in American history when the dream inspired our reality rather than the other way around. His photographs of John Lennon & Yoko Ono, the Rolling Stones and the Who are a peek behind the curtain into an intimate reality that gets lost in the revisionist history that Dion once told me has become “a cartoon.” Russell sees that cartoon as TV footage that has become embedded in our brains with the themes of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Russell’s “Best Seat in the House” show at Proctors’ GE Theatre in Schenectady on Saturday (March 28) promises to show 380 pictures of the most iconic rock stars of the 1960s complete with back stories. His photos offer a reality that exploded in a cultural shift away from the black and white box that was TV at the time into a colorful embrace that brought the pop musicians of the day closer to their fans and turned the rock stars away from being actors parroting other people’s songs into complicit compatriots in a modern revolution.
The ’60s were the first time popular artists like the ones Russell was photographing were speaking directly to their audience with songs they themselves had written. “Everybody at the time was saying, ‘They’re talking to me,’” explains Russell. “And Pete Townshend was saying, ‘I’m talking to you.’ This relationship between the audience and the writers/performers was massive.” And Russell was the shy observer capturing that dream and turning it into the reality of pictures worth a million words.
“If you photograph people that are engaged in things that matter to them, they don’t see you, and yet you see them. That’s what I like best about what I do – when I’m able to take these unbelievable figures and have you see them in a way that is not self-conscious. And I couldn’t have said any of this to you when I was doing it.”
Album cover art was a big part of the package when you bought a long playing 33 1/3 RPM record in the 1960s. It helped define the image of the artist. There was no YouTube, no selfies and few TV appearances. Russell was creating the art – and it really was art – that was the album cover. It sold the LP, and it gave a visual reality to the music that became the theme song for the most evolved generation of the 20th century. He took the photographs for the cover of the Beatles’ last album Let It Be, Who’s Next and several Stones LPs including Get Yer Ya’ Ya’s Out. But Brian Jones was one lone Stone whose last photo session with Russell never made it to an album cover. It took place at Brian’s home once owned by A.A. Milne of “Winnie the Pooh” fame. Months later, Jones would be out of the band and face down in his backyard pool.
“In those photos, Brian was wearing an American flag shirt and brandishing a rifle. He was only 26 years old, but he looked 46, easy. It’s right in front of you. I mean I took the fucking picture, but I didn’t see it at the time. So it all went by me, but I was aware of it. I was sort of vaguely aware that he was a problem in terms of all the people who wanted to work with him. Like was he going show up? Is he going to be able to perform all of that? He was still in the Stones through that. I think the last session I did is the Through the Past Darkly session. I think that’s the last time he was part of the Rolling Stones. He died shortly after that, but there’s not much to say.
“I wasn’t telling him what to do. So if he’s wearing an American flag shirt and pointing a gun at me, it’s because he thinks that’s cool. Now mind you, I think that’s extremely cool, right, but I’m not gonna tell him to do it. So he was clearly very conscious and aware of trying to push an image out, and the others kind of inhabited it. Keith does it without thinking, it seems. I think there’s some thought but not much, but Brian I think really saw that, and in fairness to him, when I first saw pictures of the Rolling Stones, it was Brian that I looked at. Brian was cool.”
Rosanne Cash, in her introduction to Russell’s e-book “An American Story,” writes: “In my mind, Ethan Russell is the only person who could have written the book. Those who were there don’t have the objectivity. Those who have the objectivity weren’t there.”
The same could be said for the live presentation that he’s bringing to Proctors.
“People who lived through it are either dead because they drank the Kool Aid literally, or they’re not talking about it because it’s kind of become discredited,” says Russell. “I really do think that sex, drugs and rock and roll is a very unfortunate phrase because it’s so attractive, why not? Why wouldn’t you love to do that, but it’s really just brought people careening towards being fucked up, and I don’t think that does us any good. But the people who lived through it have a totally different experience of it and that experience, I would say, is lost by and large.”
Perhaps we can find the garden again in Russell’s presentation.
“My story is the core of the evening. The pictures become the pictures that really validate what you’re listening to, ’cause the person that’s telling you the story is clearly telling you a true story that he couldn’t make up.
“We became a country in an incredibly short period of time where television basically painted our reality,” says Russell. “So our ’50s cartoon is a television cartoon, and our ’60s cartoon is a television cartoon, but we became a country that was basically a country of print for 250 years until the beginning of the ’50s when television holds sway and now you don’t have people who even remember what it’s like to live outside of a world that is principally defined by image as if to put a capper on that because it’s so on the money. The images become the story.”
WHAT: “Ethan Russell: Best Seat in the House”
WHEN: 7:30pm Saturday
WHERE: Proctors’ GE Theatre, Schenectady
HOW MUCH: $30
NOTE: A 1:30pm matinee performance was also originally scheduled, but that has been cancelled.