The Rolling Stones' 1972 tour of the United States is one of the most studied events in pop-music history. Comprising the band's first stateside performances since the Altamont tragedy and coinciding with a widespread search for meaning in The End of the Sixties, the tour was documented from all sides, from multiple angles. Truman Capote was in the flotilla of debauchery, on assignment for Rolling Stone. Terry Southern covered it for Saturday Review, as did Robert Greenfield for his book S.T.P.: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones. Photographer-turned- vérité-filmmaker Robert Frank trekked along to shoot the legendary, still-unreleased backstage film Cocksucker Blues (yanked from distribution by a wary Mick Jagger, who's shown masturbating and doing coke). Rollin Binzer showed up to shoot the run in Texas for the concert film Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones.
Finally, there was Jim Marshall, the American photographer who made his name capturing some of the most iconic images in rock: Jimi Hendrix's guitar on fire at Woodstock, Johnny Cash's middle finger at San Quentin, the Beatles' final concert on the roof of Apple Studios. Marshall also was along for the ride in '72, and what he shot is on display at the Experience Music Project now, two years after Marshall's death.
Beyond all the zeitgeist-hunting by Capote and Southern and the decadence recorded in S.T.P. and Cocksucker Blues, the '72 tour matters first and foremost because it represents the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band at the height of its creative powers. Touring in support of Exile on Main Street, the double album made amid band estrangement and problematic intoxication that paradoxically led to the strongest record of their career, the Stones found themselves knocked out of their estrangement—at least physically.
After months of rarely overlapping studio appearances, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were thrown back together onstage, where all the surrounding hubbub fell away to reveal two men who'll do anything to make the sound they're both addicted to, and whose genius only blossoms when they're together. When Richards and drummer Charlie Watts tumble into a riff strong enough to support the sui generis cock-walk of Jagger (which they've done consistently for 50 years), the Rolling Stones create magic that's never been replicated, and this magic was never stronger than in 1972.
All of this, from the zeitgeisty overtones to the ferociously rebooted band chemistry, gave Marshall a rich world to photograph. The best photos in EMP's Rolling Stones 1972 capture Marshall's amazing eye for the iconic, in what could be illustrations of core Stones truisms, from "Mick Jagger becomes Mick Jagger onstage, but Keith Richards is always Keith Richards" to "Johnny Depp's character in Pirates of the Caribbean was completely based on '70s Keef." Does it matter that the most arresting photographs are the ones you likely already know, from the Exile record sleeve and a half-decade of widespread rock journalism? It does not. Marshall is a master, and seeing his modestly sized prints in a galleryish setting makes perfect sense. His best photos are so intimate and seemingly without affectation that they'd capture the eye and mind of a person who doesn't know what a Rolling Stone is.
For die-hard Stones fans, this exhibition provides a tour of some of the band's greatest visual hits (Jagger and Richards at Sunset Sound studios, Richards collapsed backstage in a chair). But what remains elusive in Marshall's photographs is any visual evidence of the chemistry that makes the Stones the Stones. This chemistry is possible to capture on film, as proven by selections from Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones that play on a video screen in a corner of the exhibition. The few minutes I spent watching the band blast through "Happy," with Richards and Jagger nearly smashing faces as they howl into the same microphone, were the richest I had at EMP. Marshall's photos of Jagger and Richards sharing a mic seem needlessly lifeless by comparison. I found myself wondering why he chose these moments, and noticing that, aside from the video, there are no revelations here.