In the same way that Aerosmith are the American version of The Rolling Stones, the acclaimed photographer Michael Zagaris could well be described as the American Mick Rock. The acclaimed image-maker has documented the hidden side of rock’n’roll for nigh on thirty years, living a life ensconced in the inner circle of legendary bands as they took to the road in an era that held no prisoners in its quest to reach the palace of wisdom. Zagaris lived through the golden age of rock’n’roll, unlike some of his peers, and has just published a tome of unpublished snaps of everyone who was anyone in that time entitled Total Excess. In this exclusive interview, the scholarship student and one-time law student with presidential ambitions tells us how working on the campaign trail for Bobby Kennedy led him to drop-out of the system and pursue a life on the road, and explains why the collective energy driving the current swing to right-wing nationalism is the 1960s in reverse.
Where did the impulse come to take photographs? Was it always your ambition?
I had always taken pictures, from the age of five or six, but it wasn’t my ambition to be a photographer as a kid. I went to school on a football scholarship and I got into politics. I worked on The Hill in Washington DC for senator Pierre Salinger who had been JFK’s press secretary and had been present at the assassination and I wound up working part-time in Bobby Kennedy’s office. Then I came out to California and started Law School in Santa Clara. I knew almost immediately that I didn’t want to do that, because it wasn’t about justice at all, it was about making money. I went back and forth to work on the campaign and the night Bobby was killed I was about fifteen feet away from him. That was kind of it for me. I was done. I dropped out of the system. Funny as it sounds now, at that point my dream had been to be a senator and a congressman and even to run for president one day. I mean, it was not that outlandish to have those ambitions. It was the same for James Osterberg, he was class president in high school – it changed everything.
Is that what set you out on your trajectory?
At that point, I only knew what I didn’t want to do. I had read Huxley’s Doors of Perception, though, and when Revolver came out and I heard ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ I knew The Beatles had dropped. I was really curious about LSD. When I dropped, it wasn’t to get high or escape – I was searching for truth, searching for self and I probably learned more on my first acid trip than in my entire education, or working for the Kennedys or anything like that. I started hanging out at the Fillmore, watching bands like The Dead, Ten Years After, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin… They were basically playing American blues roots, which most of us had never even heard. So, I started working on a book about that, about how these things were remoulding our culture.
What was your process like? How did that journey begin?
In those days, I had my camera, a notebook and a couple of joints in my pocket, and would just go backstage and hang – most of the bands were from art school and we were all about the same age, so had a lot in common. The entrée into photography came though a conversation with Eric Clapton. He was staying in town and I went to see him with a transcript of an interview we had done before. I had some proof sheets of images and was marking them as we were talking. He asked me if he could see them and I said, ‘Yeah sure…’ I handed him the proofs and he said, ‘Man. These are good! These are great, can we use these? Listen man, we’ll pay you!’ In many ways, I was born in the right era, when it was exploding with culture, and everything fell into place – it was right place, right time
It sounds like you bought the ticket and took the ride…
Well, the first tour that I went on I think I had 46 dollars to my name. I would get up around noon and grab food off the trays. After one of the roadies caught me doing this and explained per diem to me I went to the tour manager and said I could use some – he said, ‘Look man, we sleep till noon and there’s a limo that takes us where we need to go… you hungry?’ Then he chucks me this little three-gram bottle of coke. That night, I’m changing film and the roadie says, ‘Did he fix you up?’ I held up the bottle and he said, ‘Fucking hell man! If you were the richest man in the world, what would you spend it on? I’ll tell you what you would spend it on – you would spend it on birds, travel and drugs, and you’ve got all that here for free, so you don’t really need per diem, do you?’ And I remember thinking that’s fucking rock’n’roll…
So, you followed your instinct and the rest is history…
I’ve always followed my instinct and I’ve always responded to energy. JFK would inspire you just by walking into a room and I mean, what is that? It is energy. I’ve lived my life though a stream of consciousness. I’ve always tried to let it flow through me and with the camera to kind of document it too. I have always used the camera as a way to enter scenes and situations – much like a method actor – so I could become what I was shooting. I want to take people where they have never been so they can live vicariously through that moment.
Are there any images in the book that capture that feeling for you?
I like the shot of Pete Townshend waiting in his dressing room and tuning up. It allows you the to feel as if it is just you and Pete alone in that room. Another shot is the cover shot of Lou Reed at the airport. He was about get on the red-eye to New York. I thought it perfectly captured Lou at that time in his life. There are things that just become haunting too, such as the Ronnie van Zandt shot. At that point Lynard Skynard were the best rock band in America, they had amazing energy and were on an upswing. Three months after I took that picture they were killed in a plane crash.
Can you imagine the paradigm of excess that was prevalent in the 60s happening now?
Well, the only constant on the planet is change and no one knows that better than this generation, watching how fast all the change on the planet is accelerating. I am sure some of what I experienced still happens but not to that degree. It has a lot to do with the corporatisation of not just music but of everything – the corps stepped in and now it’s all about money. What was going on then is not happening now. I mean capitalism too is constantly in flux and evolving or devolving, and it’s very predatory. The real shit could be coming down the pipe sooner than any of us think. I mean, Donald Trump, are you fucking kidding me? If I were coming from another planet I would be on the first flight out.
Why do you think there is that swing to authoritarianism?
The people are subconsciously channelling something in a metaphysical sense. When the changes went down in 60s and early 70s I thought, at the time, that that was done, and that our generation were actually fermenting the change. In retrospect, I think we were channelling something else–some kind of energy that was propelling all the changes in music politics and film, and that same kind of energy, albeit much darker, is propelling a lot of what is going on now. As bad as Trump is, and he is awful, he is symptomatic of something wrong with a lot of the people in this country. I’ve always said I don’t want to be alive when the karma of this country comes home to roost because this country wasn’t founded by the pilgrims seeking religious freedom–it was founded by people who were run out of England because they were fanatics, and they brought slaves and murdered the original inhabitants, and we haven’t stopped from then on.
Total Excess is published by Reel Art Press
Written by John-Paul Pryor
All images courtesy Reel Art Press and Michael Zagaris