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I read it too. What does it mean?

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This past week, music-loving bloggers everywhere shared their memories of the late Levon Helm — singer, drummer, mandolinist, roots-rock pioneer, actor, and Time magazine coverboy.

While it wasn’t at the top of his CV, it’s true that Levon and his Band-mates made the cover of America’s largest and longest-running general news magazine the week of Jan. 12, 1970.

I imagine they groaned when they looked at the cover illustration, which made Richard Manuel look like Baba Yaga’s late husband.

(Interestingly, the Jan. 5 issue declared Middle Americans the Men and Women of the Year — a roots move of which Robbie Robertson would have approved.)

The cover of Time doesn’t have quite the same pop-cultural cachet as the cover of the Rollin’ Stone. Still, it’s something of an accomplishment. Not many pop music performers have landed inside that famous red border over the years.

I decided to go through the magazine’s online gallery and pick the five best and worst Time magazine pop-music covers, based on:

  1. The cover photo.
  2. The cover design.
  3. My perception of the worth of the subject.

My judgment does not take into account the contents of the actual cover stories, which I don’t believe I can read without a subscription.

Also, I have not reproduced the actual cover images here because of copyright concerns. Each link opens up in a new window, though, so you can check out each image without losing the thread here.

So here we go:

The Five Best Time Magazine Pop Music Covers

1. Rock n’ Roll, May 21, 1965. In hindsight, parts of this cover are kinda questionable. (Trini Lopez? Petula Clark?) But I love the snapshot approach. Rather than choose one act and try to make them Officially Anointed Representatives of Rock N’ Roll, the cover collage captures all the different sounds that people were mixing into pop music at the time. Soul, Motown, teenie pop, little symphonies for the kids — it’s all there. And the shot of the “Shindig” dancers used at the top of the cover conveys the most important message — youthful energy.

2. Aretha Franklin, June 28, 1968. What do I like most? Is it the immense corona of hair? The enigmatic Mona Lisa-ish expression? The use of a subdued painterly approach, rather than some sort of disjointed attempt at pop art? The word “TIME” rendered in pink, as befitting a natural woman? Could be all of these and more. The bottom line: A classic (dare I say “respectful”?) cover for a classic performer.

3. Bruce Springsteen, Oct. 27, 1975. I’m not sure what I think of the neon/stage light treatment. But the cover image absolutely nails the Springsteen I love — the loose-jointed, golden-tongued Boardwalk Bard. He looks like he’s having a fantastic time, and he’s going to make sure that everyone in the room does the same.

4. David Bowie, July 18, 1983. This is one of the few occasions on which Time’s cover featured a performer I liked, at the time I liked him. I remember reading this issue, so I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for this one. Personal connection aside, I do think it’s a pretty good likeness of the man, down to his green and blue eyes. And his stylistically varied career (careen?) up to that point made him a deserving cover choice.

5. U2, April 27, 1987. By contrast, I couldn’t stand U2 when they appeared on the cover of Time.  But the cover works well in retrospect, even if it made me groan then. I like the simple design and the fittingly emblematic/symbolic fire treatment. The subhed, meanwhile, plays off the fire theme without being (IMHO) gimmicky or heavy-handed.

Also, the cover shot bears none of the hallmarks of Anton Corbijn, U2’s official court photographer and keeper of their visual iconography. The band seems to be looking suspiciously at the camera, wondering whether the unfamiliar person behind the lens would capture the power, the mystery and the hammer of the gods. (The shot? It’s OK.)

On the flip side …

The Five Worst Time Magazine Pop Music Covers

1. The Beatles, Sept. 22, 1967. If Richard Manuel had cause for complaint against Time magazine, Ringo Starr had grounds for a lawsuit. The world’s most revered pop drummer at the time looks like a sozzled, spiky-haired Muppet in Gerald Scarfe’s cover caricature — not that any of his bandmates come off better. (Random trivia note: Scarfe later married Jane Asher, who was engaged to Paul McCartney at the time this cover appeared.)

The only word for this cover is “ghastly.” Nowadays, the managers of best-selling pop acts probably demand veto rights on magazine covers — and would reject this one out of hand.

2. Joni Mitchell, Dec. 16, 1974. I adore “Court and Spark,” and I love the idea that La Mitchell landed on Time’s cover at her moment of greatest pop success. The only trouble is this: The orange lady pictured huge in the background looks damn near nothing like Joni Mitchell.

The smaller woman in the foreground looks somewhat more like Joni. Though, what she really looks like is the earnest young librarian who used to tote her guitar to the Saturday-night coffeehouses at the Youth Center in 1974, and whose presence there increased teen-boy participation by 250 percent before she moved out to southern California to live with her sister.

3. The Who, Dec. 17, 1979. In a world with the likes of Pere Ubu, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and Public Image Ltd doing business, the notion that a tired, sodden bunch of veteran corporate rockers could represent “Rock’s Outer Limits” is laughable.

The design touches (checkerboard, graffiti) also smack of a sort of late ’70s-early ’80s Urban Gothic aesthetic, a kind of post-disco return to blue jeans and muted New Wavey guitar licks and hollow, hostile amphetamine stares. I’m sure it looked Bold and Edgy and Real back then … but seen from today’s perspective, that visual style is about as fresh as Jim Carroll’s unwashed Chuck Taylors.

4. David Byrne, Oct. 27, 1986. In some ways this is actually kinda cool. The idea of using multiple, somewhat out-of-sync close-up shots to make up a larger picture has to be an homage to the cover of “More Songs About Buildings and Food.” Five points for conceptual continuity.

Unfortunately, I find the multi-colored photo treatment so thoroughly jarring and unattractive that it kills the whole package. I also can’t help but think that maybe Time went a little overboard on the whole “Renaissance man” thing: How much of Byrne’s film direction or design work still holds up in court 25 years later?

5. Jewel, July 21, 1997. Combine a blah cover shot; a lame headline (I assume it’s a pun on “Kool and the Gang,” which is to say it’s totally irrelevant wordplay for wordplay’s sake); and an earnest, polarizing subhed (“Macho music is out. Empathy is in”), and the result is a cover that makes you avert your eyes and wish you could un-see it.

I also find it kind of doubtful that Jewel represented the best and most promising performer in her genre. And, if you’re gonna pick one performer to represent an entire genre, you need to pick the best one if you want your choice to stand the test of time. (See Pearl Jam, 1993; Merle Haggard, 1974; or The Band, 1970.)

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