If only these guitars could talk. The collection of famous guitars included in photographer Lisa Johnson’s book Immortal Axes: Guitars that Rock are among the most famous instruments of the last sixty plus years. If you know the stories behind the recordings these instruments are present on and the lives of the men who once played them, it’s an even more affecting reading and visual experience.
Seeing Mike Bloomfield’s guitar makes me melancholy. The one-time wunderkind of electric blues, lead guitarist for The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Bob Dylan, and before their time R&B/soul/blues all-stars The Electric Flag, later declined into drug addiction and ill-health before his death in the early 1980’s. Seeing his 1963 Fender Telecaster in this book, a guitar he used during the recording of Bob Dylan’s seminal Highway 61 Revisited, is a silent reminder of his greatness.
Johnson’s talents for presenting these instruments are considerable. She never opts for being showy, however, over artistic – you will find no theatrical shots contained in Immortal Axes, no reproductions. This is a thoroughly original work. Some are presented in musically themed settings, only lightly so however, while others strive for naturalism as well. She examines the guitars from several inventive points of view.
There are small errors but never affect the book’s quality. It opens with a Forward from guitar player Peter Frampton and Afterword from another famed musician Suzi Quatro, by far the longest passages of prose during Immortal Axes, but not the most consequential. Johnson composed brief pieces accompanying each musician, more often than not describing the circumstances under which she photographed each guitar.
Some of these pieces, however, strike a personal note. Readers can get a well-rounded sense of music’s influence on Johnson’s life reading these pages. Her passion for the subject makes it all the more enjoyable. There’s no pretentiousness in either her writing or depiction of these near-mystical cultural artifacts. Make no mistake, there’s part of me that wants to label this a history book.
It is nothing less than a visual chronicle of instruments shaping innumerable lives. The sounds and compositions created from these strings have prodded young men and women to reconsider life goals, sent them far from home pursuing dreams of fame and glory, and stood some nights as the lone bulwark saving someone from utter loneliness. Johnson understands this. She reflects that understanding in the loving care and attentive eye she shows photographing these guitars. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.
Now it’s documented for posterity. It’s a bad word in rock and roll usually, even with the advent of Hall of Fames and geriatric musicians still flogging their wares in 2021, but Johnson does a service with Immortal Axes. These instruments and their impact on our world shouldn’t be buried under the proverbial sands of time but, instead, honored in pages for their mesmerizing effect on the human heart. Let’s hope Johnson identifies another similar subject soon that’s worthy of this lavish attention because I enjoyed this book immensely.