Florida has long played muse to certain kinds of songwriters – your Jimmy Buffetts, your Bertie Higginses – but it may come as a surprise that a sunny day poolside at a Clearwater motel was the birthplace of the Rolling Stones' breakthrough hit, "Satisfaction." Or so Keith Richards claimed in his 2010 memoir, Life.
Which fans the flames of intrigue for a show currently hanging at the Orlando Museum of Art. The British Invasion is a collection of pictures taken by Bob Bonis, American tour manager for the Stones and the Beatles from 1964 to '66. The snaps he took, mostly unpublished during his life, revel in and reveal his intimate access to the band, showing Mick, Keith and the boys not just performing and recording, but also in unguarded moments of downtime – like that fateful day in 1965, by the pool of the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida.
After his death, Bonis' family found an archive of negatives – more than 800 pictures of the Beatles and a whopping 2,700 of the Rolling Stones, covering all three of the Beatles' U.S. tours and the Stones' first five American tours. Hanging at OMA is a set of new prints from those negatives, some beautifully bright and candy-colored, some in rich black-and-white.
"Bob was an amateur and he was probably working very intensely on his job [as tour manager] but he had inspiration and a natural eye for capturing these moments," says OMA curator Hansen Mulford. "He had good equipment and knew how to use it, he was a gifted person ... but he never was interested, from what I've heard, in showing them in the public. It was just his private stash of memories."
Bonis captured, perhaps inadvertently, the very differences between the two bands that make music fans declare themselves either "Beatles people" or "Stones people." The pictures of McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr are perfectly polished, never betraying a crack in the image of the Fab Four. Whether clowning around or gazing pensively into middle distance, every shot buttresses the brand. As Mulford says, "They have this thing, this public persona that you can't get through. They're posed, self-possessed."
On the other hand, the Stones are sullen, sunburned, but electrifyingly authentic. ("They look like unattractive teenagers," Mulford laughs.) These images document them on the verge of their big breakthrough, and they appear sometimes swaggering, sometimes unnerved.
In an interesting coda, a box of snapshots of the Stones from the same Southern tour surfaced at a swap meet in 2012. They were later collected into a book, attributed to "an unknown photographer," but they look extremely similar to the Bonis photos. (Whether from his camera or not, they were taken in the same places on the same days.) The book, to have been published by L.A. art press the Ice Plant, was printed but shelved at the last moment due to "some kind of legal problem – a photographer's estate claimed rights," says John Jeremiah Sullivan, who wrote the foreword. (Neither representatives of Bonis' gallery nor the Ice Plant would comment on the matter.)
Writing last year in The Paris Review, Sullivan theorized that it wasn't just Florida, but a certain blonde there that inspired Mick Jagger's lyrics – a leap of imagination that combined Keith's memory of the day with a St. Petersburg Times news report claiming that, though hundreds of teens tried to get past motel security, only 18-year-old Ginny French made it in to spend time with the band. Sullivan sees what he thinks are glimpses of Ginny in the found photos – her wrist in the corner of one, the curve of her knee in another – though she's frustratingly absent in the pictures at OMA. Is it all a figment of the writer's fancy? No one can say for sure, so you might as well go and form your own (girl) reaction.
The British Invasion is at OMA through Jan. 3, making it a good holiday fam activity.