From Jim Morrison vomiting over his shoulder to Keith Moon handing him magic mushrooms, Michael Zagaris is not short on dinner-party anecdotes. His work as a photojournalist documents a wild time in music history, one that makes today’s antics seem rather tame in comparison. “When I was shooting, it was like I was in the band and that was really the reason I wanted to do it,” he says. “The camera for me was merely an entrée. I wanted people to get the feel from the pictures that they were part of it and getting a musician’s eye view or an athlete’s eye view. Much like a war photographer, it was about me personally having the experience and bearing witness as well as chronicling it that was paramount.”
But this wasn’t always his path. Before his rock’n’roll days, he was an upstanding, suited member of society, attending law school, working on Capitol Hill and writing speeches for Robert Kennedy. He dreamed of a career in politics but had a change of heart after the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963. “The music started to change,” he says. “The Beatles hit this country literally three months later. Nothing was ever the same and everything was changing globally. Music, sexual revolution, drugs, film. Looking back, it was like a renaissance and I thought politically we were all changing the world. In retrospect, I think there was something happening that we were really channelling.”
Here, Zagaris discusses some of the images chronicled in his new book, Total Excess.
“This was in 1974. I was on assignment for Creem magazine. Charles Auringer had assigned me and Lester Bangs was doing a big interview with Lou [Reed]. Over a three-day period I shot him at Winterland and that was the famous concert where he either simulated or didn’t simulate shooting up on stage. At the very least, it was great performance art.
“We ended up going to SFO [San Francisco international airport] a day and a half later, where Lou had a red-eye. There was Lou, Rachel – who he was living with at the time – Ernie [Thormahlen], who was on the back of his album and he’s actually in my book, and his publicist. Lou went to the bathroom at one point, came out, got a paper. There’s a series in my book of him pulling out the newspaper. I think the headline on it was Skyjacker Kills Hostage. And he proceeded to stand against the wall with papers all over the place. Then he walked away, stood and lit a cigarette, which you can’t do anymore. It’s one of my favorite shots and Lou kind of spoke to Total Excess. He had bleached hair at the time and it’s one of those really strong images, even if it’s just a person, not Lou Reed.
“That afternoon before we left for the airport, I had developed most of the black and whites and I was showing Lou the proof sheet of him tying off and shooting up. He goes, ‘Hey man, this is beautiful.’ And I said, ‘Don’t worry, nobody’s gonna see these.’ He said, ‘No, no, can you blow up 6 of these, maybe 11 by 14? I’ll give them as gifts.’”
“This was in the late 70s at the Oakland Coliseum and I thought it was perfect for the time because first of all, Eric [Clapton] was still doing searing leads. Over the years he kind of evolved and, not changed, but his music softened a bit. It wasn’t as hard or frantic like the leads, but he was still post-Cream when I took this shot and I love that because the 70s were still a cocaine era. It was the same in sports. There was a lot of blow. These athletes, musicians, writers, cinematographers, actors, actresses. They reflected the age and the time they were living in and that’s what art does. The irony at the time for me … the people that really demonize it the most were the previous two generations, who half of them were alcoholics. Alcohol was their big thing and of the two, I’d say they were both equally harmful in a lot of ways. It’s certainly not white light energy.”
“It was October of 1976 and the Who were doing a joint show with the Grateful Dead. Bill Graham used to put these shows on called Day on the Green. The Dead opened up, then the Who played and there were like 60,000 people – those were the first big stadium shows. Pete [Townshend] was in the trailer tuning up before they went on. So I was in the trailer with him taking pictures. I have another picture that we ran in the book. After he tuned up, he walked over into a trailer where Jerry Garcia was hanging out with his friend Deborah Koons, and Phil Lesh was in there. And Robert Hunter. It was great. Very open. Everybody was happy. It was part of the times.
“That was the last time the Who played the United States with Moonie because he died shortly after. I think anybody who really lived that life, anyone who lived through it, we were all, if nothing else, very lucky.”
“Rod [Stewart] was a showman. Above and beyond having a great blues voice, he was a real performer. And as he reminded me, he wasn’t English, he was Scottish, and he used to kick a soccer ball around the stage. The first time I saw Rod, he was with Jeff Beck. It was 1968 and Truth had just come out, which was this incredible fucking blues riff album and Jeff had just left the Yardbirds. There was Jeff Beck, Mick Waller on drums, Ronnie Wood on rhythm guitar and bass, and then Rod Stewart vocals. I remember they played the Fillmore and the first two numbers, Rod was so shy, he sang them from behind the amp and then finally came out.
“I love that picture with the lighting and everything. He had that great hair, that rooster hair. He was an incredible showman. Put on a great performance and that was the thing about a lot of the English bands. They had come over here playing blues, a lot of which we’d never heard, even though they were from all the old blues masters, from Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson … all of that. And then they had their own sort of Carnaby fashion and style. Most of the American bands would get up and play their music. The English were flamboyant. They were just fantastic.”
“That was from the 1972 tour and I thought – and this is a personal opinion – I thought 1972 and 1975 musically, they were at their height. That was the Rolling Stones as good as it gets musically. They’re still high-energy now, but that was incredible and kind of from the Exile on Main St. They were playing that album, that whole genre, and they were white-hot. And the stage was much smaller than it is now and they had Mick Taylor with them. You could see Mick kind of just galvanized everything.
“I was so naive in those days. I thought if you want to shoot somebody like that you just call them up, tell them who you are and they’ll put you on the tour. I called up a month and a half, two months before. It took me two weeks to finally get somebody and I was told no, they already had a tour photographer. The only way you could shoot them was to be on a magazine assignment. Rolling Stone, I think, had Annie [Leibovitz] shooting for them at the time. And I thought, ‘God, what am I gonna do?’ We magazine was just starting, so I called them. They weren’t going to assign me. So then I thought, ‘I’ve seen a lot of things over the years with the Stones at Vogue.’ David Bailey had shot them. I saw that Leo Lerman was the photo editor and I decided, ‘Fuck it, I’m just gonna call.’ I called Jo Bergman – if not the Stones’ manager, it was Mick’s manager – and said [in an English accent], ‘It’s Leo Lerman here, Vogue magazine. Listen, we’re planning on doing a story on the lads and we’ve got this great new young photographer Michael Zagaris and we’d like him to accompany you on the road.’ She said, ‘We can’t do that. We’ve got a road photographer with us, Ethan Russell. Anything you need, we can have him supply for you.’ I said, ‘Oh no, well thanks a lot. We can’t really take handouts, can we? Well, maybe next time.’ She goes, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. Who is this guy? He can meet us in Vancouver. He can come along for a couple days and he can shoot, but he can’t go on the whole tour. Maybe till Los Angeles. Have him meet us there and we’ll take care of him.’ And that’s how I got on the tour.”
“Etta [James] had the most incredible voice and she lived what she sang about. She’s playing at a club called the Boarding House in San Francisco. She had Ronnie Tutt, Elvis’s drummer. She had a great backing band with her, but as great as the backing band was, Etta killed it. And Donto, her son, was like her little emcee. He was four.
“There was a party the Cockettes had a couple years before that. It was in the Mission district and it was right out of Mad magazine like one of those parties where everybody’s on acid or mushrooms or doing coke. It was around Halloween and toward the end of the night, around four in the morning, many people had left. I’m getting ready to leave and all of a sudden from the balcony, this woman starts singing That’s Life. There’s no music, just her singing. Everyone that was left stopped and looked up, and it was Etta. I remember I had tears in my eyes and when she was done I thought, ‘Wow, it’s like I’ve been to heaven and heard the angels sing.’ I remember walking out onto Valencia Street and Mission and it was starting to get light out. And I thought that was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and once again Etta had a part of it.
“Fast forward to 2008. Etta is playing the Fillmore. I hadn’t seen her in 30 years. Went backstage after the gig. I’m talking to her bass player. Her bass player was Donto. The drummer was her son that she was pregnant with when she played a show we did the album cover for, Etta Is Betta Than Evvah!”
“That was Patti’s first trip to San Francisco. It was 1975. She was just starting to really get known nationally. We were backstage, actually in the same dressing room that Etta had used. We’re at the Boarding House again and she was hanging with her band. Ivan Kral was with her in one picture, but Patti had this great sense of theater and every picture I took, she was not posing, but she was posing and having these different characters. I think I was shooting for After Dark magazine and I said, ‘Patti, they’re looking for some kind of a portrait.’ And she said, ‘Portrait?’ And steps across the hall into the bathroom and says, ‘How ’bout this for a portrait?’ That’s the great shot in the book of her standing looking like she’s peeing in the room.”
“That was the last time Led Zeppelin ever played the United States as Led Zeppelin because Bonzo [John Bonham] died about a year and a half later. And that concert was very checkered because Peter, their manager, John Bonham, the drummer, and one of their roadies had beaten up one of Bill Graham’s backstage helpers. A kid named Jim Matzorkis. He was actually a friend of mine, but I was working for the band.
“After the show, the band flew on to New Orleans, where they were gonna play two days at the Superdome. The first day in, they got a call that Robert Plant’s son Karac, who was four years old, had died. They flew back to England, never again to play in the United States. The last show the Beatles ever did was in San Francisco at Candlestick Park. The last show the Sex Pistols ever did was at Winterland. The last show Led Zeppelin did in the US was right across the street at the Oakland. It’s possible that there are no coincidences.”