Even before they were stars,
they had the look...

By Mark Feeney - February 23, 2004
           If Elvis Presley had looked like Roy Orbison, would he still have gotten on a postage stamp? Long before MTV, rock 'n' roll placed a premium on what was seen as well as what was heard. Attitude and appearance matter almost as much as the music.
           For a demonstration of that fact, one need only look at "Artist to Icon" at the National Heritage Museum. The exhibit has 48 photographs -- some well known, most not - from early in the careers of Elvis, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan.
           Stardom is as much of a mystery as love (why him or her rather than someone else?). The part chance plays should never be underestimated; and, of course, there's always the matter of talent, though even the greatest ability will take a performer only so far. Still, some stars so clearly have "it" (not that "it" can ever be defined), their achieving stardom seems inevitable.
           Alfred Wertheimer's photographs of the young Elvis are a case in point. Wertheimer took them over a four-month period in 1956, from Elvis's first network television appearance, in March, through his recording of "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel," in July.
           RCA, the singer's new label, hired the photographer to do publicity shots. Since RCA wouldn't pay for more expensive color film, Wertheimer used black and white. Let's hear it for stinginess. Black and white distances as color does not, and there's a visual chasteness to these images that makes Elvis's sheer Elvisness (can you think of a better term?) stand out all the more.
           The bloat of his final years - not just in physique but also clothes, personality, and music -- tend to obscure what an astonishing figure the young Elvis was: eager, vibrant, unnervingly beautiful. There's something almost extraterrestrial about him - or, better yet, celestial. He's the star who fell to earth.
           The first image one encounters shows Elvis in profile, staring off with a dreamy intensity as he listens to an acetate of a recording he'd made the day before. "I watch my audience and I listen to them," he said around this time. "I know that we're all getting something out of our system, but none of us knows what it is." Here, as performer and audience both, it's as if he's trying to understand what that something might be.
           There's a similar dreaminess to the famous image of Elvis rehearsing alone at the piano (it's the image on the cover of the first volume of Peter Guralnick's magisterial biography). It's as if he's in another world, one of his own making, and absolute in his apartness.
           That sense of reverie is far removed from the several photographs of Elvis onstage. In one, a joyful Bill Black, his bassist, has both hands thrown up in the air. In another, the grin on the face of Elvis's guitarist, the great Scotty Moore, says more about the feeling the music expresses than even the music itself does.
           That might sound contradictory, but rock is always about more than the music itself - always. Anyone who thinks otherwise has only to look at the photographs in the exhibit's Beatles section. Shot in Hamburg, Liverpool, or on the set of "A Hard Day's Night" by Jurgen Vollmer and Astrid Kirchherr (young German friends of the band) or by Max Scheler, they're as much concerned with the context the group came from as with the Beatles proper.
           It takes little imagination to feel the brooding drabness of Liverpool - or the overpowering sense of release offered by the Fab Four and their even fabber worldwide success. In the most striking image in the Beatles section, George Harrison sits in a train compartment during the filming of "A Hard Day's Night," dutifully autographing photographs. A frenzied teenager on the other side of the window has her hand and face pressed against the glass: Beatle meets Beatlemania.
           Conversely, there's an abiding stillness in Vollmer's shot of John Lennon standing in a decrepit Hamburg doorway -- his pompadour a helmet, his leather jacket a shield. (It's the photograph on the cover of Lennon's 1975 album, "Rock 'n' Roll.") It's easy to imagine how miraculous an America of affluence and Elvis must have seemed from 3,000 miles away.
           The Beatles had a strong awareness of visuals - certainly, their manager, Brian Epstein, did - haircuts, clothes, the way one's looks could complement another's (Ringo Starr's cheery homeliness, say, playing off Paul McCartney's even cheerier prettiness). Part of what made Bob Dylan Bob Dylan was his seeming scorn for such considerations. Words and music - and attitude, of course - are what made him the figure he was. There's a photograph in "Artist to Icon" (like all the Dylan images, taken by Daniel Kramer) that captures his blend of disdain and playfulness: He poses with a camera in front of his face.
           Dylan's relationship to the visual is more complicated than that, though. He was too self-aware not to realize how much less prepossessing he looked than Elvis, say, or the Beatles. Even so, he didn't completely dismiss the visual element. The granddaddy of music videos is his performance of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" in the 1967 documentary "Don't Look Back." Another part of what makes Bob Dylan Bob Dylan is being able to have it both ways.
           "Artist to Icon" includes an interactive computer display, where viewers can see the photos while listening to commentary from the photographers, and two vitrines containing such items as a vintage portable record player, a carrying case for 45s, and an "authentic" Beatle wig still in its unopened bag (how much do you think would that go for on eBay?). Such variety and thoroughness accurately reflect how imaginative and rewarding a show this is..."

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