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A dazzling Debbie Harry, a 'diabolically bad' Rod Stewart and a devilish Mick Jagger... all caught on camera by a legendary rock 'n' roll photographer.

Photographer Michael Zagaris has always been close to the action – sometimes terrifyingly so.

On June 5, 1968, he stood just feet from US Senator Robert F Kennedy (brother of assassinated President JFK) as ‘Bobby’ was gunned down in the kitchens of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. ‘People were screaming. Even now it seems like a terrible dream.’

Zagaris is speaking from his home in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, recalling his unorthodox route to becoming a rock ’n’ roll photographer.

He had developed a keen interest in the young British blues-inspired artists visiting the West Coast of America in the late Sixties for the first time. And it was Eric Clapton who suggested that Zagaris pursue photography as a career.

‘He was looking at a contact sheet of pictures I’d taken of him and said, “These are good. We could use them and I’ll pay you.”’

‘Access was much easier in those days,’ Zagaris says. ‘You’d turn up backstage, sweet-talk a couple of people, make up some story and you were in the dressing room.’

His intimate images of rock royalty have now been collected in Total Excess, a coffee table book chronicling the degenerate exploits of superstars from the Stones to the Sex Pistols.

It’s billed as the ‘last untouched rock archive’ – many of these raw and revealing pictures have never been seen publicly before.

‘I met some incredibly talented people and had a hell of a lot of fun,’ he muses, before concluding triumphantly. ‘But I got the shots too.’

Blonde Perfection                                                                                                            

‘I photographed Blondie in 1977 at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco. We were trying all sorts of set-ups but they had ideas of their own. So I winged it. They were a band where it was almost impossible to take a bad picture. Debbie was very beautiful, still is, and she was channelling that Monroe glamour, even though they were staying in some cheap hotel. Debbie was kind of short and had a very big head. Looks a little strange in person but photographs great.’

Never a Dull Moment            

‘I loved The Faces; they were like the guys you went to college with and partied with. When I met them they were drinking a lot so when they went on stage [Rod Stewart, above, at Oakland Coliseum, California, in 1972] they were diabolically bad, but so bad it was good. It was like this ongoing party – and they could party. You’d be in the hotel afterwards just about to pass out and they’d still be bouncing on the bed singing.’

Sparks from Slowhand      

‘Eric Clapton was staying at the Sausalito Inn [California in 1975 and performing at the Stanford Frost Amphitheatre]. He loved it because there were no TVs and no phones. I took a hash pipe and we smoked a little. We had one of those philosophical conversations you only have when you’re very stoned. Eric’s thoughtful but forthright, and it was the same when he played guitar – it looked effortless but there would be sparks flying.’

Sympathy for the Devil

‘Jagger had a certain energy that I’m sure even he couldn’t explain. The Stones had this really dark mystique at the time: the yin to the Beatles’ yang. Before they came on stage there would be a long wait, really dark music playing, so by the time they walked on [here at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California, in 1975] the anticipation and the tension were almost unbearable. That drama and theatre is why they’re still one of the biggest bands in the world.’

Who’s Next?

‘Roger Daltrey of The Who relaxes backstage before a concert in San Francisco: 'This was, arguably, the last great Who tour: the whole '76 year. That was actually the last time Keith Moon played drums for them, before he died; and that was the last time the Who played Winterland. I think a friend of Moon's from L.A. came up and had some mescaline. So we did mescaline before the show. I remember shooting part of the show from a television camera position and then it started really coming on. There was a balcony in the back that was closed off, so I went up there, but by that point I was tripping pretty hard.'

06 Nov, 2016 Adrian Deevoy