She was shooting the stars of Rock and Roll High School when we were finishing second grade. She carved a niche for herself as Cleveland’s go-to shutterbug—and became so gosh darn good at snapping those coveted dream shots that other major markets tried wooing her away.
But Janet Macoska wouldn’t have it.
When it comes to capturing iconic images of the stars doing what they do best, she’s our girl. A Cleveland girl.
You’ve seen her images alongside Plain Dealer reviews by Jane Scott, Michael Norman, Chuck Yarborough, and Michael Heaton. You perused her portraits while cued outside the Agora on Euclid Avenue. Or maybe you saw Macoska’s more recent work on display at her new base-of-operations, the “Rocksino” at Hard Rock Northfield Park.
Now (finally) you can hold some of Janet’s “greatest hits” in your own two hands.
All Access Cleveland: The Rock and Roll Photography of Janet Macoska (Cleveland Landmarks Press) is both a visual history of pop music in Northeast Ohio and high-gloss celebration of the aggregate output of the area’s best-known camerawoman that collects forty years of stunning imagery (340 photos) and backstage brouhaha in 150 spellbinding pages.
Ever catch a World Series of Rock concert at the old stadium? Remember the campaign to bring the Rock Hall to Cleveland in the early ‘80s (or the ground-breaking ceremonies in the ‘90s)? Were you at one of Michael Stanley’s sold-out shows at Blossom Music Center? Or one of the lucky ones in attendance when Led Zeppelin landed at Richfield Coliseum?
If so, then Macoska’s got a bargain-priced souvenir for your coffee table. If not, then All Access is your time capsule back to the era when the Belkin brothers brought the stars to town and 101 WMMS ruled radio. And if you can’t remember just how cool the scene was way back, the book will jar your musical memories with its gallery of assorted guitar greats, sundry singing sensations, and myriad boy bands and pop princesses. They’re all here, frozen in time by Macoska’s lens: The pioneers and rebels, the poseurs and wannabes, the awesome and the ugly.
“I took my parents’ Kodak twin-lens reflex camera from the front closet and started shooting everything,” writes Macoska of her inauspicious beginnings.
If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then Janet’s proofs have spoken volumes. Still, she supplements her galleries with tales from the trenches, backstage banter, and intimate celebrity moments: There’s Debbie Harry of Blondie clowning around at a vintage shop on Coventry Road. Here’s Peter Gabriel peeking from a closet at the Bond Court Hotel. There’s Joan Jett straddling a trash can, AC/DC guitarist Angus Young dancing on a deli platter, and Devo outside Chili Dog Mac in Akron.
Macoska writes of her pre-teen years handling fan mail at WHK / WKYC radio (where she captures Sonny & Cher on film), attending a “Young Reporters Club,” and doing blasé obits and police blotters for The Commuter at Tri-C. Tasked with interviewing someone for a college class, Janet wrangled a chat with the king of interviews himself—Monday Night Football’s Howard Cosell—at the Marriott on W. 150th. So not only did she get the job done, but she learned a thing or two from the master in the process. A trip to England in 1977 found her joining Alex Harvey and “the clan” of British rock photographers, whose networking tips proved invaluable.
“It was all a bit of a whirlwind,” she reflects. “No one told me what I could or couldn’t do.”
Other serendipities (and favors returned) sent Janet to Cleveland Stadium with Joe Walsh and Barnstorm, at the Allen Theatre with Genesis, at Richfield Coliseum for The Who and Led Zeppelin, and Music Hall for a little War with those Irish upstarts in U2. There’s Freddie Mercury of Queen in a unitard; there’s Jimmy Page’s double-neck guitar (and Robert Plant proffering an inflatable blimp like a phallus).
We dug the shots of Van Halen (1978-86), Cheap Trick (1977-2012), Bruce Springsteen (1975-2010), Fleetwood Mac (1977), Kiss, The Cars, The Kinks, The Dead Boys, Eric Clapton, and Aerosmith. But the book has special sections for logging Agora memories (Pere Ubu, Paul Simon, Todd Rundgren), reliving the halcyon days at Swingo’s on E. 14th, and retracing the rise of Steve Popovich’s Cleveland International Records (with Meat Loaf and Ian Hunter).
As you might imagine, it’s not just a boys club: Plenty of ink is dedicated to the ladies, too (Chrissie Hynde, Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, Aretha Franklin, Annie Lennox, etc.).
“I’m a rock fan, just like you,” writes Janet.
“I succeed as an artist when my photos capture the energy and spirit of rock and roll in a sixtieth-of-a-second.”
Some of that artistry has wound up in the most awesome—and unlikely—of places: Macoska’s iconic image of Paul McCartney now hangs alongside Annie Leibovitz’ shot of John Lennon at the National Portrait Gallery. Other pictures have been used on television and in major magazines. Others still were circulated around the globe vis-à-vis their use at Hard Rock restaurants.
The horror stories about unwilling subjects are just as entertaining as the anecdotes about the approachable, cooperative musicians: Lou Reed gave Janet the middle finger; Sting had to be prodded on a cold winter’s eve; Rod Stewart mooned Macoska during a shoot for a radio contest; and David Bowie (one of her favorites) gave her a tsk-tsk when she violated his strict “three songs only” shooting stipulation. Madonna’s handlers ordered Janet and others to turn away and avoid eye contact until Her Worshipfulness was ready for action.
There are pinups galore from the ‘70s (Peter Frampton, Shaun Cassidy, John Travolta, Bee Gees) and sensational snaps from the big-hair‘80s (Duran Duran, Go-Gos, Eddie Money, Bon Jovi, Whitney Houston, Whitesnake, and Judas Priest). And there’s a shot or two from Metallica’s “secret” Coffee Break gig at the Odeon in ’97.
Some images take on new meaning because the musicians depicted have passed on: B.B. King, George Harrison, Michael Hutchence top Macoska’s heavenly rock ‘n’ roll marquee.
Janet laments the passing of the free-spirited days of (relatively) unrestricted access and cites today’s inhospitable shooting conditions (“Three songs from front-of-house / soundboard, then to be escorted from venue”) as one reason for taking on non-musical work in the ‘90s. The rise of bubblegum acts like Britney Spears, N’Sync, and Backstreet Boys only exacerbated time limits, copyright rules, and camera presence at live shows.
Janet was there for Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rallies in the mid-‘80s (with Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar and Governor Dick Celeste), groundbreaking (with Mayor Mike White and Billy Joel), and ribbon-cutting festivities in 1995. She was also on hand for all induction ceremonies occurring in town (2009-2015)—and the book has shots of Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Slash, Rush, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Red Hot Chili Peppers to prove it. One even shows Janet being “strangled” by shock-rocker Alice Cooper.
Oh, and there’s Yoko Ono (boo) and Jan Wenner (hiss) walking arm-in-arm.
We appreciate that Macoska’s text is just as warm and inviting as her photography; she literally puts herself in the pits with fellow fans. She appreciates her good fortune and never lords her access, privilege, or rock star run-ins over her readers in rub-it-in fashion. It’s all well-balanced, too: For every stolen Frank Sinatra kiss, there’s a whisky bottle bouncing off Janet’s head during a chaotic shoot.
Hometown heroes make the cut, too: Michael Stanley gets a few pages to himself, and late Plain Dealer critic Jane Scott receives special tribute (and a dozen or so shots with her hobnobbing with the legends).
The layout is compelling, the page flow smooth, and the visual Feng shui appropriately striking and soothing—but don’t think we didn’t notice the thumbnail with AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams misidentified as rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young (Angus’ brother).
Peter Chakerian (Plain Dealer, Yahoo! News, AOL) offers a touching, personal Foreword and Introduction wherein he discusses meeting Macoska twenty-five years ago and taking inspiration from her can-do attitude.
“I was always gob-smacked by her unflinching photography,” he says.
“[It’s] more than just a collection of photographs…It captures a distinct moment in time, not only of Janet’s highly distinguished career, but of a city that will always be the ‘Home of Rock and Roll’ to both of us.”
Thumbing through All Access, one guesses other readers would likewise borrow from Macoska’s M.O. by fearlessly applying themselves to whatever it is they always wanted to do, be it picture-taking, candlestick-making—whatever.
“There are plenty of things to fear in life,” Macoska muses. “Trying isn’t one of them.”