Elliott’s Writings: The Band
One of the first major magazine assignments I got was to photograph Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. They were managed by Albert Grossman, who also managed Bob Dylan. Albert had a distinct dislike for me because of a run-in we had had at a Dylan concert a few months earlier, and he once asked me to leave his office in the middle of a shoot. However, he did allow me some access to his group because the job was for a major magazine.
One night, I was photographing Big Brother at a club called Generation, which later became Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studio. Albert was there, and in between sets, he motioned me into a tiny room in the back of the club. I didn’t have a clue what was coming next. He then popped the question -was I “free to take some pictures this weekend in Toronto?” “Of who,” I asked. “They don’t have a name yet.” I said yes.
At the time I didn’t know how important that question was. It’s funny how some moments stand out in your memory. I can still see the two of us in that tiny room. I had thought he was still mad at me.
Later Myra Friedman, Janis’s friend and publicist, told me that Albert had seen the photos of Janis which I had left in her office, and he flipped over them. There was one in particular that showed her hugging him from behind at a press party. He was reaching around behind him while she cuddled up, looking like a little girl; she’s kind of goofing a little bit, distracting him while he was doing business. Albert had “liberated” my print and put it on his wall.
It was admirable that Albert was able to forgive me once he recognized my talent. It was also smart. Intuitively he knew that I was the right photographer for the new album-“Music From Big Pink.” He discovered me and gave me my big break. That night he also told me that Dylan might be there for the picture. I felt my life going into high gear.
The first time I heard The Band’s music was the night I met Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson to show them my photographs. After looking at my pictures in the hallway of the recording studio in New York, Robbie brought me into the mixing room where Garth was listening to his masterful organ intro to “Chest Fever” coming full blast from the finest studio speakers. It was a good beginning. They asked me to meet them in Toronto the following week.
Three of the members of the group picked me up at the airport, and we drove up north to Rick Danko’s uncle’s farm to take the “next of kin” picture which appeared on the album. This was their way of acknowledging their families, and the importance of their roots to their music. Four of them were from Canada, and Levon Helm was from Arkansas. His parents couldn’t make the trip, so we put their picture in the corner of the shot. Dylan didn’t come either.
The guys in The Band were different from the other musicians I had been around. Even though they were young, hung out with the best of ’em, and did whatever “irresponsible” things they wanted, there was a deep wisdom and maturity about them. They knew about life and about people. You couldn’t fool them. They had been around and had seen it all with a really deep comprehension. I liked all of them a lot and felt really comfortable around them-like a kindred soul.
I flew back to New York with John Simon, who had produced the album. When they saw the pictures from Toronto, they liked them, and we made plans to do a shot of the band members alone. On Easter weekend 1968 I went up to photograph them in Woodstock, where they were living in the house they jokingly called Big Pink. Four of them-Levon, Richard Manuel, Garth, and Rick-were living there. Robbie had his own house elsewhere in Woodstock, with his wife, Dominique, a French Canadian journalist.
It was in the basement of this house, that they recorded the basement tapes with Dylan. All the instruments and microphones were set up. Dylan had originally rented the house for them when he brought them to Woodstock.
We took some pictures on Saturday, and I stayed overnight. The next day, Easter Sunday, they were invited to Bob’s house, but couldn’t bring me with them. I was left at Big Pink with Levon’s girlfriend, who wasn’t in the mood to go, she said.
We got stoned, and settled in. After a few hours she asked me to drive her somewhere. She wanted to find Levon. So we drove through winding wooded roads, up a mountain, and pulled off the road in front of a big old brown wooden house. As we were walking inside, she told me, “This is Bob’s house.”
Sara Dylan greeted us at the door, her inner warmth matching her physical beauty. She didn’t know exactly who I was, but immediately made me feel welcome, offered me a drink, and invited me to be comfortable, which I definitely was not. In retrospect I think that her energy -who she was- was responsible for Bob’s choosing a positive path at that point in his life.
I looked around the large living room: vaulted ceiling, dark wooden beams, picture window looking out over the trees, a big fireplace, and a grand piano in the corner. I saw a couple of the Band members there, and felt uneasy since they had not asked me to come.
After what now seems like less than a minute, Levon’s girlfriend was back and wanted to leave. She hadn’t found him and wanted to look further. So we left. I don’t even know if I saw Bob or not. It was all too fast, but that was the first time I might have met him.
We drove down through some more winding Woodstock country roads and pulled up to another house. She knew the woman who lived there and suspected that Levon was ‘visiting.’ We parked the car, got out, and walked up to the house. There were several doors, and she went over to one on the other side, while I waited by the car. After a moment, Levon peeked out of another door, and asked me what was going on. I told him, and he told me to make believe I hadn’t seen him. His girlfriend came back a minute later, having gotten no answer, and we left. I didn’t say anything, and we drove back to Big Pink. It was quite a ride.
We took several beautiful photographs at Big Pink. One was a picture of them taken from behind, sitting on a bench in front of a pond. They had explained that they didn’t want a name because they wanted the focus to be on the music, not on themselves., and didn’t want to be “labeled” and defined by the audience’s preconceptions. They wanted to be free to change musically. So they wanted to stay almost anonymous, which I think we captured in that photograph.
But they didn’t feel it was right, I don’t know why. So I went back to do a second shoot. We did some nice shots at a few different places, but those weren’t what they wanted either. But they decided to stick with me and try a third time. We had a real nice personal connection.
We talked about what was missing in the photos, and I showed them a book of photographs of the Old West and suggested we go for that look. They liked the idea.
I realized that the subjects of those photographs were very connected to the land, they seemed to be planted there. We looked around for the right place to take the shot and found it in their front yard.
The other element present in the old photographs was respect. People took the camera seriously. A photographer’s visit was an important and unusual occasion. People stood up straight and looked right at the camera, which made them look dignified. People were a different sort in those days. They were connected to the earth, there were no modern conveniences. Of course, I couldn’t have created that old-time classic look with just anyone. It was their spirits that came out and greeted the opportunity for self-expression.
I spent a lot of time in Woodstock, photographing, showing them the pictures, and just hanging out. They showed me the country life, and introduced me to their friends. I loved it. I went to Los Angeles to photograph them for their second album, The Band, which they were recording in Los Angeles, and for their debut performance at the Fillmore West in San Francisco.
They didn’t ask me to do their third album, but by that time I wasn’t interested in music photography anymore. I had done it and had a different creative direction plotted out.
Twenty-four years later, in 1993, I took photographs of Garth, Levon, Rick, and three other musicians when they made the first new Band album in fifteen years