Detective in Pop Culture
Though not a “street person,” Bob Egan ’75 is definitely a man of the streets, specifically those of Manhattan. Three decades ago, he bicycled every street on that island to research The Bookstore Book (1978), his guide to its bookstores that was complete enough to include Ukrainian shops. His current job as a commercial real-estate broker also takes him to the sidewalks as he seeks out retail and other spaces for clients. “I walk a lot,” he says. “When people tell me about some exotic destination they have been to, I ask if they have been to the eastern part of Chinatown. I have an inquisitive mind. Some out-of-the-way places in New York are as interesting as flying to a foreign country.”
Some spots on certain streets are very interesting indeed—they were the sites of moments in the history of pop culture that are engraved in the memory of millions. Through painstaking, often fascinating research, Egan—who’s been called a “pop culture detective”—has successfully pinpointed the exact spots where some of the most famous album covers of all time were photographed. In 2011 he launched a website, www.popspotsnyc.com, to share his “PopSpots” findings.
Take the cover of Bob Dylan’s iconic 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited, which includes what many consider the greatest rock song ever, “Like a Rolling Stone.” It shows the singer sitting, wearing a Triumph Motorcycle T-shirt with a blue and purple silk shirt over it, holding sunglasses, and looking, well, moody. The legs of a man standing with a dangling camera appear behind Dylan.
The pilasters in the background made Egan think that “the photo was taken inside something like a college lecture room with nice molding against a white wall, and Dylan sitting on the front edge of a stage.” Google searches identified the photographer, Daniel Kramer; Egan found Kramer’s reminiscence of the shoot on the website of the Seattle-based Experience Music Project. There, Kramer recalled taking the picture on the front steps of a building on Gramercy Park where Dylan often visited his manager, Albert Grossman. (The four streets that border that private park, accessed only by key-holders, rank among New York’s most exclusive addresses.) Janis Joplin, another Grossman client, had written elsewhere of looking out on the park from his porch.
A Google Image search for “Gramercy Park” turned up two Federal five-story townhouses “that I had seen at least a hundred times while walking past the park,” says Egan. They had tall steps and fancy white doors; zooming in on the white doors, Egan noticed an arced, polished-brass piece that “was right behind Dylan on the cover!” One day after work, the Highway 61 album in hand, he tramped over to the park and peered at the buildings and the cover until, at 4 Gramercy Park West, “the door handle, the arced pattern of the brass window element, and the thin white pilasters on the side matched perfectly.” Characteristically, Egan exclaimed, “Bingo!”
The cover of Paul Simon’s 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years depicts the mustachioed singer in a stylish hat, standing on a fire escape. Cast-iron building façades populate the background, where, unusually for Manhattan, the street terminates in a T. Egan used Google and Bing Maps to chart the SoHo, Nolita, and Tribeca neighborhoods, which have the greatest concentration of cast-iron architecture, and circled 10 qualifying intersections. Searching revealed that Edie Baskin, then a Saturday Night Live photographer who was dating Simon, took the photo in 1974 or 1975, and that Baskin once had a photo exhibit at Central Falls, a restaurant/gallery at 478 West Broadway that Egan recalled from the early 1980s. (In 1977, when he first came to New York, he lived in the area.) “I figured that if she had frequented that restaurant, her loft would be near that address,” he says. Crosby and Howard streets formed the T intersection nearest to Central Falls, and by using Google Street Views of that block, Egan found architectural features on four buildings matching the background of Simon’s cover photo. Bingo!
Egan has an excellent visual memory, but also spends hours “flying” over neighborhoods with Bing Bird’s-Eye View, and tapping resources like the New York Public Library’s digital archives. “The key to PopSpots is research,” he says. Years ago, it might have taken days poring over books to unearth connections like Dylan and Grossman, or Simon and Baskin, but today, the Internet yields such gold in seconds.
He’s also begun branching out into movies, paintings, and historical events. Popspotsnyc.com shows how Egan tracked down the Oslo site of Edvard Munch’s The Scream; he has also identified the likely location of Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting Drug Store ( the Greenwich Village Historical Society’s website reported his findings). A collection of classic film images of New York—including Marilyn Monroe’s leg-revealing updraft, the Robert DeNiro Taxi Driver poster, the famous rooftop scene from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall—is nearly complete, and Egan is now training his sights on Civil War pictures of Abraham Lincoln and the exact site of the Gettysburg Address.
More than a thousand Twitter followers around the world monitor Egan’s findings, and the image-sharing website Imgur attracted eight million hits by hosting 24 images of his work. “With these rock albums, I tapped into something bigger than I thought,” he says. Yet, “the search is what matters. Searching for and finding the exact spot is the most rewarding thing to me.”