If you’ve got a picture of your favorite rock star clipped from a magazine and taped to your wall, chances are good that you’re familiar with the work of Janet Macoska. She’s been shooting everyone from the Ramones and David Lee Roth to Neil Diamond and Bette Midler. And she’s been doing it for 30 years — but her career wide-spanning collection, Jews Rock! A Celebration of Rock and Roll’s Jewish Heritage, is fresh off the presses — independently released, ready for coffee tables, and ripe for Chanukah.
Macoska is completely wild, filled with amazing stories. She has a great sense of humor and she’s a natural sponge for this type of photography, which comes across in both her photography and her interview prowess. She speaks of Michael Bolton and Spinal Tap’s Harry Shearer in the same reverent tones…and she’s not afraid to dish on a few other celebs.
She’s selling the books herself at JewsRock.net and at local JCCs and synagogues — yes, Barnes & Noble doesn’t treat independent authors very well. But don’t let me try to convince you — check out what she has to say.
Thereâ€™s an eyebrow-raisingly wide variety of musicians included. Itâ€™s hard to say how many readers are going to appreciate action photos of both Joey Ramone and Kenny Gâ€¦Whatâ€™s your target audience with this collection?
It’s hard to say…Rock and roll is now over fifty years old, so there have been many artists and many different varieties of music that live under that umbrella of rock and roll — Kenny G.’s soft jazz and The Ramones’ punk rock being just two of them. As a fan of rock and roll, and as a photographer of it, my taste in music encompass more than one “flavor,” so I’m guessing that is probably true of others. This book is aimed predominately at a Jewish audience who loves rock and roll, and some will be more attracted to hard rockers like KISS or Twisted Sister and others to the iconic figures, like Dylan or Billy Joel.
When you look at a roll of photos, do you always remember the night when you shot it? Do you remember the stories?
Many times I have particular memories or stories about the concert and circumstances of the night…onstage antics, offstage antics. Sometimes not so much. I’ve shot a lot of frames of images over the past 34 years. I figured it’s probably more than a million images. Some of the bigger stars, I could have photographed a dozen times. With many of the artists, I have some type of professional relationship — they know me and my work as much as I know theirs — and they’ve recommended my work to their record labels for boxed set retrospectives, or the like.
There are a lot of shots in Jews Rock! that Iâ€™m dying to ask about the stories behind. If you donâ€™t mind, Iâ€™m going to fire away a few names:
I’ve only been able to photograph him once, but it was the tour after The Jazz Singer film came out, and he was on top of his game as a singer and performer. Everyone was so excited because of his performance in that film. The shots you see with the American flag as a backdrop I believe was at the beginning of the show, and he was singing a song from the film, “Coming to America” (which talks about Jewish immigrants — and others, depending on who is listening to it — coming to America for a better life). The energy was just crackling in that place during that song, and Neil was fabulous.
Michael’s always been the consumate professional with me; and gives his all to an audience that adores him…but a more distinctive memory is that he also a huge baseball fan, and on one tour would often play a baseball/softball game for charity on the afternoon before the show. He did that in Cleveland, and it was just cool to see him in that different light. He was not Michael Bolton, superstar performer onstage…he was Michael Bolton, oh cool, I get to wear a baseball uniform and hit the ball and run the bases. He was having a great time.
Harry Shearer in Spinal Tap?
Harry Shearer is such an intelligent, gentle soul — a much calmer persona than his Spinal Tap character. I spoke to him a bit backstage, but also years later at a major book convention where he was promoting a new book he had written. We talked about the Spinal Tap show in Cleveland, which was at an outside ampitheatre by the river, and during one of their songs, a giant ore boat glided past the back of the stage as the band performed and blew its horn loudly drowning out the music — which is a perfect Spinal Tap moment, when you think about it.
That aquatic shot of Porno for Pyros?
That was pre-show at an “extreme sports” event on the shores of Lake Erie (in downtown Cleveland, OH) and I’d been hired by the publicist of the band to document everything that was happening. That was a pre-show interview by a music video channel. The show was much more of a challenge…I was just trying to stay alive with a crazy moshing crowd, so I was shooting frantically with not great stage lighting and security guards catching flayling bodies in mid-air.
Which shots are your favorites?
I love performers who are more visual! Bands like KISS, and performers like David Lee Roth of Van Halen are fun to shoot. Billy Joel can be a bit of a challenge because he’s always at the keyboards, not physically moving; that’s why I included that shot of him onstage with Chuck Berry and Pete Townshend. That was shot at the groundbreaking for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I like that it seems like a mutual admiration society of iconic rock figures.
Some of the digital images like Matisyahu, Greg Hetson of Bad Religion, and Slash are interesting to me because digital reads and renders color so differently than film. I can do things now with digital that would have been so much harder with film. I think I’m a better shooter now because I can check for exposure and push the camera to get what I want it to get (and know, with confidence, that I’ve done that).
Who were your favorite artists to work with? Was there anyone whose music you loved, but were disagreeable subjects, or vice versa?
One of my favorite artists — who’s not in this book (he’s not Jewish) — has been Ray Davies of The Kinks. I think he’s such an inventive songwriter/storyteller. Paul McCartney, as well — also not Jewish –I’ve had the privilege and opportunity of working with them both several times. Ray has used photos of mine on his cds, and one of my photos of Paul is in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Of the artists in the book, I’ll just say that Gene Simmons of KISS is great, great fun to photograph, but sometimes, offstage, the room isn’t big enough to hold anyone other than Gene. He’s a big personality.
Lou Reed was odd in that he’d veer back and forth from being polite and sweet, holding the door open for me, and then into evil Lou flipping me off as we sat in a radio station music director’s office. I was hired by the record company to hang all day and shoot photos of Lou at radio stations, record shops, etc. He would do this to other people, too, trying to keep them off balance. Probably amused him. It didn’t bother me, but almost brought a deejay who idolized Lou to tears on-air.
How close did you get to your subjects?
Physically? Well, right in front of the stage! A lot of times it was just shooting the concert. Sometimes you’d share a bit of conversation backstage; and sometimes the record company would hire me to hang with the band as they took them around to radio stations and such.
Youâ€™ve been doing this for a long time, and youâ€™ve probably outlasted many of your subjects, in terms of careers, at least. Itâ€™s interesting to note who youâ€™ve staked for posterity in this book, since you obviously intend it to be around for a while. What do you think of Ashley Tisdale?
Before I shot the High School Musical kids I watched the first movie and I liked it. It’s sort of the Grease for this generation. My niece’s favorite from the movie is Ashley so she was happy that I photographed her and got a cd autographed.
What about Matisyahu?
I didn’t know Matisyahu’s work very much before I photographed him. He was in Cleveland for the CMJ Festival (College Music Journal) a couple years ago, and I was shooting a bunch of up and coming artists. Once I got to his concert, though, I was fascinated by him, his music, and his very, very enthusiastic audience. I stayed for about an hour but had to leave to shoot another show across town. He’s coming back to Cleveland in Dec. and I want to see the entire show this time.
In his introduction, Rabbi Brian Leiken makes a division between artists who consciously acknowledge their Judaism, like Matisyahu or (in a very different way) Gene Simmons, and those who donâ€™t, such as Billy Joel and Bob Dylan. Did you have trouble convincing anyone to appear in the book?
Truth is I didn’t ask them. I didn’t really have to, as it’s a collection of my work of artists I’ve photographed. I just had to be as conscientious as possible about my research about an artist’s “Jewish heritage.” Rabbi Brian and I conferred about that, and concurred that some artists are more upfront about their religion than others. Actually Billy Joel has sought out his Jewish roots in more recent years, and Dylan floats back and forth, but also has been seen more attending services.
Was there anyone who you werenâ€™t sure about including?
There were some artists I omitted because they’ve made it known they didn’t want to be considered Jewish — Lenny Kravitz, for one, who had a Jewish parent, but wears Christian symbols as tatoos.
What are you working on now?
The Jews Rock! book is so new I’m just getting the word out about that, but I continue to do my photography. This past Saturday I photographed The American Music Masters concert in tribute to Les Paul (who invented the electric guitar and multi-track recording) presented by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. I’m their primary photographer and do a lot of work for them. I’m also finishing a book on Ray Charles that will be published in England early next year. And looking for more artists and concerts to photograph. I still love my rock and roll!