Inspiration in an Elliott Landy photograph
Where does inspiration come from?
When I’m working in a particular form, I sometimes get ideas when encountering a piece of art in another medium. Particular films were essential as I was constructing The Sandinista Project, and two Van Morrison songs were playing when I wrote my short-short for The Connection way back in 1998.
Even though I’m writing a novel about rock’n’roll and you’d guess that music would provide the crucial inspiration, I’m finding it more in paintings and photographs. Some of those images are music-related. In recent months, I’ve found worlds in the iconic late-’60s photography of Elliott Landy. And, like so many others, I’ve been most taken by his Woodstock photos of Bob Dylan and The Band.
There’s one in particular that I can’t shake. Elliott made me a big, beautiful print of it (although getting it to me required both of us to become far more familiar with how FedEx works than either of us ever wanted). He lists it as “a friend helps lighten the mood, Bearsville, Woodstock NY, 1968”:
I was too young to be a full fan of The Band during its present-tense existence. They stopped working together when I was only 14 and I had just learned about the group via Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train. I saw The Band in person only once, on their final original-quintet tour, in a ragged New York performance that was a warm-up for their “Last Waltz” gig. All I remember from that night more than 30 years ago is that Garth Hudson played plenty of long solos (his “Genetic Method” intro to “Chest Fever” may still be going on) and it seemed like Richard Manuel was losing the ability to sing as he took on “Georgia on My Mind.” (Little did I know then that singing high and on the edge was what attracted so many listeners to Manuel.) So, perhaps because I came to know and love The Band’s work second- and third-hand (first, through a book, and then when the group was no longer a working unit), I knew The Band mostly as myth: the guys with their families on the back of Music From Big Pink and especially the rustic images that adorned the front and back of The Band (see Landy’s famous mythmaking shot here. It was only when I got to my 40s that I read a pair of biographies that confirmed that the members of The Band were not lumberjacks or Shakers but rock stars, people who indulged in all the opportunities made available to wealthy rock stars. Richard Manuel wasn’t a beautiful loser to be worshipped for his inability to function in the real world. He was a drug addict who needed to be treated.
OK, back to the photograph.
I am simultaneously entranced and repelled by the above image, shot to, as Landy puts it, “lighten the mood” as he was working on this shot:
This photograph is the myth: five rustic, rugged, self-sufficient men on the edge of the woods. The outtake, with the naked woman there as object, victim, comic relief, is the reality behind the myth, something closer to the real, not-ready-for-LIFE-Magazine lives they were living up in Woodstock. As I’m trying to write a novel that captures some of the difference between the public image performers send out and what is really going on in their lives, the “lighten the mood” image provides much inspiration. It was clearly a funny, open moment, but nearly 40 years later it’s hard (for me, anyway) to look at that picture and not think about coercion. I sense a dark side that I doubt anyone on either of the camera felt at the time. But that’s what happens when you share art with other people. Because consumers of art bring with them ideas and baggage, they see or hear or feel something different, and perhaps more complicated, than what the creators intended. And since the story I’m trying to tell in my novel sometimes entrances me and sometimes repels me, this is a multi-layered, engrossing image to have nearby as I try to tell a compelling story. We’ll see in a year or so whether it’s anywhere near as compelling as the story Elliott told in an instant with his camera. Thank you, Elliott.
(Note: The Band has been on my mind and in my CD player quite a bit lately. Owen and I attended a thrilling Midnight Ramble, and this post details someone else who looked to Woodstock and The Band for inspiration.)