Elliott’s Writings: High on the Music
The appeal of musicians of the Sixties was that they played from a very deep, very personal, very poetic part of themselves. They tried to express the essence of themselves through their music. Musicians had always tried to express this essence, of course. But in the Sixties they consciously looked for it and went beyond the norms of society to develop a new form of music created as a participatory experience for the audience. They did not simply perform, but interacted with the audience, inviting them to dance, to change their life-styles, to become part of a large family of like-minded beings. The concert space became a communal space for an evening.
If the Sixties generation wanted to change the world, the musicians were viewed as the leaders. We confused their art with their personalities. As artists they had discovered how to tap into the essence of the time, how to utilize masses of energy to move people and communicate their feelings. In so doing they created a powerful transformative experience for a culture in the midst of an evolutionary elevation of awareness.
But the musicians, so successful at their art, often didn’t reach that same level in their personal lives-some failed abysmally-nor were they necessarily gurus in areas other than music. Dylan tried to make this clear to me when we met by denying that he was a political leader.
I was never into the personalities of the performers whom I was photographing. When I was shooting a concert, only the music and how the musicians looked as they were playing it mattered. If I didn’t like the music, I couldn’t take pictures.
Above all, I was into photography for the image. Meaning and content were secondary. This was true even though I wanted to say something with my photos. I felt that the only way to really say something -to create a feeling in the person seeing the photograph- was to present a work of art so well composed that its form touched something within the viewer, helping him or her to open up and understand. Without first opening, a person cannot learn, and so I was a stickler for creative control over my work -especially since, in the beginning, I was not getting paid beyond bare costs for film and paper used to make the prints.
In 1968 two former legitimate Jewish theaters in New York’s East Village began presenting psychedelic rock concerts -the Anderson, and Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. They were located around the corner from the offices of The Rat, the underground newspaper that I was photographing for. I remember my first concert. Anyone would. It was a new world of fabulous sound, music- filled air, friends everywhere sharing joints, and an incredibly synchronized Joshua Light Show. I was very inspired. It changed my life. I had to take pictures.
The Fillmore East opened in NYC on March 8, 1968. Big Brother and the Holding Company, with Janis Joplin was the headline act. They had just signed with CBS Records. It was a memorable evening.
I had free run of the house because the management of the theater-Bill Graham and John Morris-knew I was working for the underground press. There were very few other photographers, since photographs of rock music were not yet commercially viable. I was able to take pictures from wherever I chose, for as long as I wished, without being worried that an aggressive guard would come along and rip the cameras out of my hands, as began to happen in later years. There was no paranoia, and few restrictions. Today photographers are usually restricted to shooting the first three songs of a concert and are confined to the photographer’s pit, directly in front of the stage – which is often not the best place to get a beautiful photograph.
Janis Joplin was one of the few performers I got to know personally while I was photographing in New York City. I got an assignment from New York magazine, to go with Janis and Big Brother to Detroit, where they had a gig at the Grande Ballroom. There we were hosted by John Sinclair and MC-5, the reigning Detroit psychedelic band. Rock bands like Big Brother were part of an underground community which stretched across the nation. We hung out at MC-5’s downtown communal apartment, which was big and rambling, with people smoking dope in every room.
I found Janis to be loving, considerate, and lonely. She seemed to experience pain even when she was having pleasure. That she couldn’t get as high in real life as she did from her performances saddened and depressed her. Drugs got out of hand. They made the highs higher and the lows lower-too low. Her answer was to do more. She was wrong.
One night, after a big show in New York, I shared a cab with her and a few other members of the band. She directed the cab to drive to the home of a casual friend who she hoped was there. When she got out, she shook her head and with a sad smile said, “Man, what a drag. Here I am a big star and I can’t find anyone to be with.” We all invited her to stay with us, but she walked away. It was snowing. The cab drove on, taking each of us to our destinations, but for Janis, apparently, there was no place to call home