Rolling Stone’s First Photographer: The Stories Behind Iconic Rock Photos
We Sixties rock & roll shooters are getting old! No surprise there. But years ago it occurred to me that when we, one by one, all go to that big darkroom in the sky, our photos remain but the stories behind the photos go to Heaven with us. That fact was brought home to me each time I had a gallery exhibit of my pictures. “What was so and so musician like,” I was asked again and again. “How was it to be backstage or on the stage with Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin and all the others?”
I decided to make sure that at least some of my stories were left behind with the photos, and enlisted the help of my friend Dave Brolan of London, the world’s most knowledgeable music photo researcher and a musician himself, to gather a selection of images for a book. In Paris, Dave and I sat around in the cafés with the photos; I told stories, he took notes. Once the notes were transcribed, I brought the rough draft of the book to Bangkok where I edited our wide-ranging conversation into cogent sentences.
In addition to the stories behind the pictures, I decided to tell how it was that I came to be Rolling Stone’s first photographer, what it was like be involved with the birth of what has become both a significant and legendary publication. Furthermore, I asked two of my former associates at Rolling Stone to write some words putting me and my work and the magazine into context. Tony Lane, one of the magazine’s early art directors, wrote the preface. Jerry Hopkins, a staff writer with whom I collaborated on many early-day stories, wrote the introduction.
The book was published a while ago and met with considerable success. I traveled the world from Russia to London to Australia and all around America, signing copies, promoting it and talking about it on TV and radio, and in print. It has been translated into Italian, French and Portuguese, and will soon finally appear in a Spanish language edition. The book even has its own website, TheRollingStoneYears.com.
My tour of duty at Rolling Stone both changed and defined my life as a photographer. Although I’ve photographed subjects as diverse as aerial landscapes, auto racing and the NFL, it is my photographs for Rolling Stone with which I’ve long been identified, and for the privilege I thank the musicians I loved and memorialized, and, of course, Jann Wenner, who famously said to me in April 1967, “We’re going to need a photographer. You wanna be our photographer?” And the rest, as they say, is history. . .
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Midday on January 31st, 1970, the four members of the Creedence Clearwater Revival arrived on Belvedere Street in a black limo to be photographed in the upstairs studio at my home in the Haigh-Ashbury. The photo session was for a Rolling Stone feature story. Late that same day CCR played a concert in the Oakland Coliseum Arena, on the same stage where I had photographed the Stones for the first time only two months prior. Jim Marshall [another photographer] and I arrived early. As usual, we both had all-access permission to go where we pleased; in the early Seventies the bands still trusted us. We hung around backstage with the group as they tuned their guitars and their minds, then followed them to the stage for the performance.
Steve Miller was warming up backstage at the Marin County Civic Center in 1972. A lone woman, cigarette in her hand, was waiting patiently. . .for what or whom I do not know. It hearkened back to Penny Lane and the young women who followed the band, Stillwater, in the film Almost Famous. An interesting fact I only recently heard but cannot confirm is that apparently in this photo Miller is playing a left-handed Fender Stratocaster strung for a right-hand player. Also that this is one of two such guitars made for Jimi Hendrix that he never picked up at the store, so Steve bought them. It might well be the case; when I visited Miller in his Idaho compound, he had a "secret" room with a most remarkable collection of guitars. These must have been among them.
Creedence Clearwater Revival was the cover story on Rolling Stone issue No. 52, dated February 21st 1970. For the cover shoot on January 31st, the band came to my Belvedere Street studio in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. During the shoot I vaguely remember that somebody had a movie camera and was filming me shooting the band. The "me shooting the band" sequence actually appeared in an episode of VH1's Behind the Music feature on CCR. Later that same day the band and I made our way across the Bay Bridge to the Oakland, California, Coliseum Arena for CCR's performance. Before the concert began, the band and I hung out backstage and I grabbed a few intimate shots of the four members preparing for the show. Once the music began I was on the stage, behind the band, which is how I got this photo of John Fogerty gesturing like an evangelist to an adoring crowd whose faces betrayed the ecstasy of being virtually upon one of their rock gods. I found it interesting that the crowd was allowed to be so close in front of the stage like that. Several weeks earlier that same physical arrangement of fans to musicians had resulted in the tragedies at the Altamont free concert, only a few miles down the road.
On November 18th, 1967, the Who played the San Francisco Cow Palace at a so-called "Festival of Music." Also on the bill were the Association, Eric Burdon and the Animals, the Everly Brothers, the Sunshine Company and the Sopwith Camel. What was particularly interesting about this festival was that the concert was free. "Tickets to the musical extravaganza are free with the purchase of any one MGM or Warner Brothers stereo album at any Bay Area White Front store, sponsor of the event," heralded the local newspaper article. White Front was a large department store, a precursor to Walmart. This concert represented my first live music assignment for Rolling Stone, and it was also the occasion of Jann interviewing Pete Townshend for the first "Rolling Stone Interview," where the magazine would run these long, insightful conversations with a particular musician. I don't remember whether the interview in his hotel room was before or after the concert itself, only that it was the first of many times I photographed Townshend and the Who.
I was stunned the first time I saw AC/DC at one of Bill Graham's legendary Day on the Green concerts in 1978. Standing on the side of the stage (out of sight of most of the audience, of course), I looked down and saw this strange little guy dressed in shorts and tennis shoes, writhing around the stage on his back with a guitar in his hands — was he actually playing the guitar? Yes, he was and his name was Angus Young, the Scottish-born Australian lead guitarist of AC/DC. Even before Rolling Stone beknighted the band I took to their music. My problem was the lyrics, I often heard words they were not singing, "Mondegreens," they’re called. A Mondegreen is a mis-hearing of lyrics in a way that gives it a new meaning. Jimi Hendrix, for example, singing he is about to "kiss this guy" rather than "kiss the sky" in the song "Purple Haze." Lyrics notwithstanding, I immediately loved the energy and the rhythms of AC/DC, and even at this late stage of my life I enjoy listening to them, especially when I need the musical equivalent to a jolt of Red Bull.
Some of my best, most personal photos of Janis Joplin were taken in her Haight-Ashbury flat; understandably, she seemed to feel at ease at home. She'd just lay back and relax on her bed with her dog and her cat. We'd chat and I'd keep shooting pictures. One of the walls of her bedroom was even papered with copies of the famous poster sporting a semi-nude Janis that the talented Sixties shooter Bob Seidemann had taken. "Dig it, Baron," she declared. "I'm the first hippie pin-up girl!" It's a bit bizarre how people keep asking me if I slept with Janis, as if it's any of their business. I always answer, "What do you think," or "What do you think?" I simply let their imagine run wild, saying nothing definitive, not even suggesting an answer, for which they thank me profusely.
In 1968, for Sunset magazine, I shot a story about a cruise ship sailing from San Francisco down to L.A. When we got to port in Los Angeles I hustled off the boat to the Chateau Marmont to meet up with Jeff Beck and his band. We sat around the rest of the day before heading back up to San Francisco where they were performing next at the Fillmore. It was the only occasion I hung out with a band over a period of time, and I did nothing but sit and talk and take pictures. It was nice, it really was nice, and I can see why a lot of photographers like to do that; without the pressure of a gig, we can get great pictures like the ones I took of Jeff in his room at the Marmont, sitting there playing his guitar with the silent TV in the background. You don't get that unless you're on a tour with a band.
I photographed blues musician Taj Mahal a few times, mostly at or around his home, seldom in concert. Like Jimi Hendrix, I found it difficult to take a bad picture of Taj. There was something about the man which was fundamentally photogenic. My friend Jim Marshall often spoke about the trust that can exist between photographer and subject, a necessary component to a successful photographic experience, one that provides an opportunity to create intimate and meaningful portraits. Perhaps that trust existed between Taj and me. In 1974, Taj was living in Oakland when Columbia Records asked me to make some new pictures of him — this is one from that session.
It was early in 1969, that Jann finally decided to do a cover story on the Grateful Dead. We all wondered why it took him so long — of all the home-brewed bands in San Francisco, the Dead was the one with the greatest mystique, the ones with the fans, the delightfully rabid Dead Heads. They editorial crew asked me how I wanted to shoot the Dead. I decided I would make the photos in the style of one of my photographic heroes, Richard Avedon, one by one, with a plain studio gray background and simple studio lighting. There is much more to this story but this shot of Jerry Garcia tells a lot of it. The entire band was relaxed when they showed up at my home-based studio, a couple of blocks from the Dead’s house at 710 Ashbury Street. It was an even more relaxed Jerry who opened his hand to me, the one with the missing digit, for, as far as I can tell, the first time he showed his imperfect picking hand publicly. I call the photo "Jerry Waving."
The Rolling Stones
Juliana [my wife] was with me on the 1968 trip to London. After the Who finished their work in the studio Pete invited us to dinner and later decided we should go over to the film set in which Mick Jagger was shooting his new movie, Performance. Dropping by the movie set had nothing to do with my Rolling Stone assignment; this was just Townshend's suggestion. I mean, I think it was his idea that we go over there; at least that's how I remember it. So we just showed up and, as you can see, the photos were very informal. I love the classic Polaroid camera Mick is holding, and Anita Pallenberg was gorgeous. The relationships were all a little complex; Anita was Keith's girlfriend who had been with Brian Jones before and was now in a movie doing love scenes with Mick!
I started out shooting a portrait of Miles and his wife, Betty. After the portrait session was finished he said, "OK, let's head over to the gym." We climbed into his red Ferrari and sped down the West Wide Highway toward the famous Gleason Gym. Along the way I asked him to pull over for some more portraits, not with his wife, but with his beloved Ferrari. When we arrived at the gym, he growled, "Baron, you are totally out of shape. You're getting in the ring with me for a serious workout." Fortunately for my body and posterity the only workout I did was with my cameras, following him as he warmed up, worked out on the heavy bag and sparred with a friend in the ring. We talked about his love of boxing and how it related to the way he played. "Listen carefully to my music; I play like I box. You can 'hear' the jabs, the feints, the crosscuts, the uppercuts. You can imagine that I'm boxing when I'm playing."
The Walden Brothers
In 1969, Rolling Stone sent me and Stanley Booth to both Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Macon, Georgia, to do a story about Southern rock. In Muscle Shoals we met the legendary record producer Rick Hall of FAME Studios. In Macon, we met the Walden brothers, Phil, Alan and Clark. Phil Walden, in particular, is legendary in the music world and much has been written about his career in general, the music of Macon and the South in particular. He and Alan managed Otis Redding, and formed a company with the great soul and rhythm and blues singer called Redwal Music (Redding/Walden). With the subsequent company, Capricorn Records Walden helped create the Southern rock genre. Capricorn, whose roster included the Allman Brothers Band, the Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop, Wet Willie and others, folded in 1980, although Phil eventually resurrected the label with the introduction of Widespread Panic. He even acted as Billy Bob Thornton's manager for many years. While in Macon, I and my cameras were introduced to the newly formed Allman Brothers Band, and I was fortunate to photograph them the very first time they were rehearsing in the Redwal/Capricorn studios.
September 1968 was a very good month for me and my Nikons. I spent several days in London, during which time I photographed the Who recording the rock opera Tommy, Mick Jagger on the set of Performance and the inside of the still being renovated Apple Corps offices at 3 Savile Row. It was at that address that I also made this photograph of a very quiet George Harrison (reading Bob Dylan’s book Don't Look Back). I arrived at Apple Corps before Harrison, primarily to photograph him in conjunction with an interview being done for Rolling Stone. He arrived after I did, plopped himself down comfortably on a couch and continued reading the Dylan book. For once I was a bit flustered, maybe also a bit starstruck. After all, I was in the presence of a Beatle! (The only one I ever photographed, by the way.) A battle raged inside my head: Should I ask George to pose a bit for me or should I just let it be (pun intended). After all, he had already assumed the perfect pose. Long story short, I let him be and got this photo, one of my personal top-of-the list images.