Rock Hall’s tiny exhibit of iconic bands as newborns captures history: Chuck Yarborough

October 6, 2018

Rock Hall’s tiny exhibit of iconic bands as newborns captures history: Chuck Yarborough

CLEVELAND, Ohio – It happens at every concert now, and it’s disgusting.

“Artist Slime and the Slimeballs limits photography to the first two songs of the show, from the sound board. Photographers will be escorted into and out of the venue, and all photos are subject to approval of Slime and the Slimeballs and/or their management and limited to one-time use without express, written permission from Slime and the Slimeballs and/or their management.

“Sign this release or you will not be permitted to photograph the show.″

You know what, Mr. and Ms. Management? In your interest is to “serve” your artist, you have served no one. Not the fans, not the artist and certainly not history.

Your “release″ – a contradictory term if ever there was one – is nothing more than an assurance that history will not have images of emerging artists – or established ones – that are real. Those “pictures,″ all will be as manufactured as if they’d come out of a paint-by-numbers factory in Hoboken.

You want proof? Check out a tiny new exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame called “Something Going On: Jeff Rusnak, A Rock & Roll Life.″ It’s a collection of some – just some – of the tens of thousands of photos rock fan, musician, sometime DJ and record-store worker Jeff Rusnak took during his 60-year life.

Only a few of Rusnak’s images are on display – it may be the tiniest single exhibit I’ve seen in the 23-year existence of the museum. But the entirety of the collection is part of the Rock Hall’s Library and Archives, located in the Gill and Tommy LiPuma Center for the Arts building of the downtown campus of Cuyahoga Community College.

Rusnak wasn’t a professional photographer, and if the Fujica ST701 35mm camera he used that is part of the tiny display is an example, he didn’t have the greatest equipment, either. What he had was an eye for the right moment – that shows in his shot of Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale taken in 1980, and one of the Rolling Stones’ Ron Wood onstage with Chuck Berry in 1982. An image of Nancy Wilson of Heart is so iconic that you can almost hear the opening riff for “Barracuda” just looking at it.

A story in The Trentonian, the hometown paper of Rusnak in Trenton, New Jersey, explains how he got them:

“He was a fantastic photographer,” said Jon Lambert, who now owns the Princeton Record Exchange (PREX) and was Rusnak’s close friend dating back to their time at the Quakerbridge Mall music stores in the 1970s. “All through the 1980s, every big act that came through Trenton, New York, or Philadelphia, he would shoot. He literally had tens of thousands of photos, and we always told him to do something with them. And he was always like, ‘whatever.’ ”

The interesting thing is that Rock Hall President and CEO Greg Harris knew Rusnak, at least in passing, from his own days in the area, and from his own work as a co-owner of the Philadelphia Record Exchange, according to Trentonian writer Jeff Edelstein in the story:

″ ‘Personally, I’m really thrilled having connections to that area, being in the same clubs, shopping at the Record Exchange,’ Harris said. ‘I knew Jeff to say hello, but the fact his work will now be here permanently and preserved is really exciting.’ ″

The jewels of the collection, according to Harris, are photos of bands just when they were getting started, photos no one has ever seen before. Black Flag, U2, The Clash, and, of course, Ween.

Rusnak actually started the Bird O’ Pray label that was the first to distribute Ween’s music.

That speaks to Harris’ point in an email exchange with The Plain Dealer in response to a query as to whether Rusnak was ever a “credentialed″ photographer.

“Not credentialed but he was an insider, played in bands, had a radio show and worked in the local indie record store,″ Harris wrote.  “He always had a camera around his neck.”

What that means is this: The most important thing that Rusnak had was access. Access that today is being denied. If he – or anyone else – tried to walk into a any venue with even that little 35mm Fujica, they’d be turned away.

Oh, you can bring a point-and-shoot in, and obviously phones and tablets are allowed by most places. Gee, how would you take that stupid selfie with the performer in the background or watch an entire show that’s unfolding live in front of you on a 5-inch screen without your phone?

But a good single-lens reflex camera with interchangeable lenses? Forget it.

The exhibit notes that Rusnak’s collection included 50 or more cameras, and that he always went to shows with several around his neck. That would not pass muster today, in an era when artists and management say they are out to control their brand or image, but in reality is a poorly disguised grab for power and, ultimately, money from any kind of marketing or merchandising using images someone else created.

That is what makes this exhibit as important as it is impressive, despite its tiny size – it only takes up a single small wall and features 16 images, plus a rolling digital slide show. You will never see photos like this of today’s artists and bands. The images are not all tack-sharp. Some are so grainy that they look to have been etched in sand. One of the Ramones taken in 1979 looks as though it was taken from a balcony a half-mile away.

But the photos are real. They are living and breathing chronicles of then-new bands and artists. They are what we will never have with cellphone selfies:

They are rock ‘n’ roll.

Something Going On: Jeff Rusnak, A Rock & Roll Life What: A new exhibit of photos taken by fan, musician and record store worker Jeff Rusnak. It runs through January. Where: Level 0, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1100 E. Ninth Street. When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays. Admission: Free to Cleveland residents and Rock Hall members; $14 to $24 for others.

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