There isn't much that the photographer Robert Altman didn't get in
his viewfinder in the swinging Sixties. Here he shares his memories
of that decade's hippest music-makers
July 18, 2008
In this life I have been hung on by Janis Joplin; smoked dope with
the Stones; smorgasborded with Mel Tormé; crashed a $1,000-a-head
party with Tony Bennett; was the actress Jane Russell's dinner
escort; been photographed by Jerry Garcia; danced with the MGM star
Marge Champion as well as slow-danced with Lana Turner's infamous
daughter Cheryl Crane; shared intimate thoughts about girlfriends
with Carlos Santana; and recently listened to Eddie Fisher tell me
that Liz Taylor had just called him after decades of silence.
Yes, I'm not the late, great film director. I'm the photographer. I
love rock'n'roll, and more than that I love talent. I've had this
great lifetime capturing it all on film.
I was born in New York City in 1944. Mosholu Parkway was a
middle-class neighbourhood in the Bronx. The mother of the actor and
director Penny Marshall ran a dancing school in the ballroom of our
apartment building. I was drafted in at age 5 to perform there. Ralph
Lauren and Calvin Klein attended my elementary and junior high
schools, although I couldn't buddy up with them as they were older.
When the Sixties came along. It was our time and we knew it. Every
day something new came: Dylan's "finger pointing"; the Beatles'
sunshine; then Motown and the Stones. I embraced it all: long hair,
billowing habiliments, skinny-dipping.
While all this was going on I had graduated from college. I lucked
out when I found the still camera. I soon found my way to Rolling
Stone, which had become a hip proving ground. What a trove of
coruscating editors, canny wordsmiths, hip secretaries, artists – and
the healers and dealers who came along for the ride.
The music was incredible and my camera afforded me access to not only
experience all that pleasure but also to capture some amazing moments
on film. A very young Tina Turner, still performing with Ike, was
blindingly electric, singing and strutting while at the same time
dripping sensual ooze. Janis Joplin bearing her soul. Jim Morrison
defining what it was to be a rock adonis.
Only once have I been responsible for an iconic image, the subject of
which I was clueless to. I had duly covered a concert in which Gram
Parsons had performed. He had popularised country rock, which
particularly influenced the Rolling Stones. But in 1973, my
ex-girlfriend Margaret Fisher, who is still a dear friend, shared a
motel room with Parsons and discovered his comatose body the day he
died from a heroin overdose. She was so freaked out that she left
California for ever. Only years later did I become fascinated with
this "fallen angel". The concert photo I had taken of Gram later
became the cover of books and posters, and I never even heard of Gram
in the first place.
The scariest day of my life? It had begun benignly at Altamont
Speedway in 1969. Along with everyone else, I thought it was going to
be Woodstock. I was recruited to "string" for two stock agencies
while also slogging for Rolling Stone. The Hells Angels were hired as
"security" for $500 in beer. Strange bedfellows to the flower
children? Yes, but in those days it was thought as radically chic.
Unfortunately, crowd management for 300,000 proved insane for 30
bikers. Over the day the Angels became ferociously unstrung. I
unravelled too . . . but for me there was nothing else to do but
shake off the paranoia and load film and shoot. You might say that
F16 saved my ass.
And the greatest day of my life? Recording Let It Bleed in Hollywood,
the Rolling Stones were doing pickups at Elektra. There I was, trying
to be cool, but inside there was a 13-year-old jumping up and down
and screaming, "Hey, I'm blowing dope with the Rolling Stones!"
So, should we dismiss the 1960s as an irrelevant period in which a
group of self-indulgent flower children ran amok? Was it only one
huge fantasy camp where our parents said, "OK, it's 1967. You can go
out now but just be back by 1974."
As a generation, perhaps we were naive in our belief that we were
reshaping the world. However, we should honour ourselves for the
furtherance of causes and thinking, such as civil rights, dispelling
the idea that our nation could draft half a million of its young to
fight an unpopular war that its people did not support, furthering
the permanent protection of our environment, as well as embracing
spiritual and self-growth.
It has been a long, strange trip – one I would never change.
The Sixties: Photographs by Robert Altman runs until Aug 29 2008 at
the Idea Generation Gallery, E2. www.ideageneration.co.uk