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Michael Zagaris on Shooting Rock n Roll Debauchery

A fair number of the photos I shot in the 1970s were taken when I was high. In the mid-1970s, we were all – well, most of us – smoking pot and snorting coke and you'd think nothing of taking a psychedelic. I remember one occasion in particular, when The Who played at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in March 1976.

Before the gig, I was in the dressing room on my hands and knees, loading the film up Moony [drummer Keith Moon] walked in and said [in a perfect Cockney accent]: "I've got a surprise for you." He whipped out a plastic baggie containing a black withered thing that looked like beef jerky. "It's magic mushrooms, isn't it." He tore it in half, washed one half down with beer and handed me the other. "You fancy some?" I said: "I don't know, man, I've got to shoot the show." To which he responded: "I know, man, and I've got to play me drums."

I impulsively took it. It was bitter as hell, so I washed it down with a beer, too.

All of a sudden the band was going on stage and I was following behind. I pulled the back of Keith's shirt. "Hey, Moony. What kind of trip is this going to be?"

He briefly turned back and said: "Don't know."

Maybe three quarters of the way through the show, I started feeling anxious and claustrophobic. I moved with Kristin, my life partner and collaborator, to a private balcony, where we had a perfect view of the stage and the audience. I was gazing open-mouthed at the spectacle, getting higher and higher.

Kristin said: "Hey, are you shooting this?"

I pointed the camera and got this incredible picture of Pete [Townshend] throwing the guitar up in the air, with the entire audience on their feet behind him. It's one of the best photos I've ever taken and I got it quite by accident.

There are maybe a dozen photos of mine that I love, including the shot of The Who, a photo of Jimmy Page and the picture of Lou [Reed] lighting a cigarette that's on the cover of Total Excess. It's just a snapshot, as are most of my images. In the spirit of photojournalism, they capture something in the moment.

I'm so glad I was around during the 1970s; these days the music business is so corporate that it's hard to get near artists. If I'm honest, I have two regrets: not shooting Elvis or James Brown. I wish I'd shot Elvis in 1956, before he joined the army. Alfred Wertheimer told me he was hired by an old army friend of his who worked for RCA. He simply said: "Hey, man, we've just signed this hillbilly singer. Can you come to New York and take photos of him?" Alfred was so knocked out by Elvis that he paid his own way to go back to Memphis with him on the train.

It would have been amazing to have shot James Brown in 1965, when he would sometimes do three shows a day. He put on the best show I've ever seen. Sweat was dripping off the walls; people wept when he did his blues thing and gaped as he danced. The only other time I've ever experienced anything like that was at Winterland in 1978, when the Sex Pistols played their last-ever gig. Usually you can't anticipate gigs being great; you walk in and you're swept up.

My problem is that I've always wanted every day of my life to be a high. By which I mean the kind of natural high you get from a James Brown concert – I haven't taken drugs since the early 1980s. I am subconsciously chasing that Dionysian dream, but it's always been elusive, just out of my grasp.

The Week

07 Nov, 2016

Michael Zagaris