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Smithsonian's Rock and Roll Book Captures Fan Experience

Images from music history as seen by its most loyal devotees

Smithsonian Rock and Roll Live and Unseen

Courtesy Smithsonian Books

In October the Smithsonian is scheduled to release a book that includes rock and roll photos the public has never seen.

In any illustrated rock history book, it would be pretty difficult to come across a picture of stoic Lou Reed making a kissy-face. Or the legendary Bob Dylan playing a low-key concert for schoolchildren in Texas. But on Oct. 24, the Smithsonian is set to release Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen, a compilation coffee table volume of images of more than 140 influential artists — from Elvis to Adele. And this is not your average book of photos: To acquire images, the Smithsonian asked rock fans to submit their own pictures. The result, says author Bill Bentley, was overwhelming.

Mick Taylor, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones at the Forum, Inglewood, CA 1972

James Fortune/Smithsonian Books

Mick Taylor, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones' 1972 performance in Inglewood, Calif.

"There were over 4,000 images submitted. They were amateur photos, but they were photos that still captured the feeling of rock and roll," Bentley says. Each artist's entry, written by Bentley, is supported by photos with that unique perspective. 

As a result, the book does more than just catalog the history of rock and roll. It provides a visual documentation of how fans experienced the music of their heroes.

"We wanted the book to be a history of rock and roll, but mainly show what fans love about it. We had to meld those two things together," says Bentley. A professional photograph might not show the pure emotion of a Fugazi concert in the middle of a warehouse or the view of Mark Knopfler from below as he wails on a guitar solo, but the amateur feel of the images allows this perspective to shine through.

There are more than just the usual suspects. Some obscure bands like the 13th Floor Elevators are given standing alongside notables such as Dylan and Prince because of their undoubted influence in rock history. The book begins with Elvis Presley, the father of American rock and roll, and continues through the present. It ends with an entry on one of the most acclaimed contemporary bands: Grammy-winning Alabama Shakes.

A goal of the book, Bentley says, is to show that love of music is one and the same, whether it is expressed through screaming for the Beatles in the 1960s, headbanging for Metallica or singing along with an Adele ballad.

“There are so many people out there who love music,” Bentley says. “It’s the language of our generations.”

Prince at the Greensboro Coliseum, NC, November 14, 1984

John Rottet/Smithsonian Books

American singer and songwriter Prince performed in North Carolina on Nov. 14, 1984.