Getting High with the Band: Intoxicating Images of Led Zep, The Who, The Stones

Photographer Michael Zagaris used his camera and a pocket full of drugs as a backstage pass


The photography of Michael Zagaris has been called “the last untouched rock archive”—a treasure trove of images now collected for the first time in his new anthology Total Excess. Documenting a slice of musical history based largely around San Francisco in the 1970s, Zagaris got up close and personal with many of the most influential rock bands and musicians of the era, often using his camera and a pocket full of drugs as a backstage pass.

In addition to shooting Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Blondie, The Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton, Zagaris would eventually join some of these acts on tour, including The Rolling Stones, Peter Frampton, The Who, Lou Reed, and Bad Company, among others. This level of access allowed Zagaris to witness the legendary bad behavior of rock stars firsthand, and he has the photos and stories to prove it. Zagaris spoke to Cuepoint about Total Excess and recounted some of his favorite rock & roll tales.

Cuepoint: Tell me about the creation of your new book Total Excess.

Michael Zagaris: It was really four years in the making. We took our time. We wanted to do it the right way, because I had so many friends that did books and as they’d hand it to me, they’d say ‘Now, this isn’t really the way I wanted to be,’ or ‘the colors are bad,’ or ‘I like the photos, but not the design.’ So I thought, fuck, I don’t want to be that guy. I’d rather wait and do it the right way, or not at all. The hard thing was editing it down. I am very, very satisfied. Real Art Press went above and beyond… I’d rather make no money on the book and have the best paper and have the book we want. In the end, that’s kind of your calling card and that’s what everybody’s going to see.

Eric Clapton rocks Oakland, 1978

Photography started off more as a hobby for you, as a fan. But during that time, you had more access to getting up close and personal with these artists.

I’d always taken pictures from the time I was a kid. I’d never considered it a hobby, it was just an extension of what I did. That being said, I never thought I’d be doing it for a living. I segued into it because I had been writing a book about how English musicians were using our blues roots and they kind of influenced and changed our culture, while in turn being influenced and changed by our culture. Doing these interviews in those days — late 60s, early 70s — I’d have my camera and tape recorder, with a couple joints in my pocket, and I’d go backstage and we’d spark up. The bands — we were all the same age, early 20s — we’d get high and talk about all the shit you talk about when you are high. So I’d take a few pictures as well.

Eric Clapton and I had done an interview and he had come back to town about 9 months later. So I brought the transcript of our last interview and he was kind of looking over the transcript. We were smoking hash and I had brought a stack of proof sheets, so I while he was doing that, I was going to mark them. So he says, “Hey man, what you got there? Can I see?” So I remember I handed him two or three proofs and he goes “Oh fuck man, these are great. Can we use these?” And I said, “For what?” and he says “Songbooks, albums. I’ll pay you.” So I said, “Yeah, sure,” and he says “the writing is all right, but you should be doing this for a gig,” and boom. That was kind of an epiphany. Just as important, it was during a time and place when you could actually do this. There were very few people taking pictures of rock & roll. Access was almost unvetted, though that was about to change.

Another friend of mine, Peter Frampton, I told him “You know, I’m still working on the book, but I’m going to do this now [photography].” And he said, “Look, you ought to come to London, I’ve got a place in St. John’s Wood. My wife Mary [Lovett] is a model, but I’m gone a lot. You could stay with me.” I was married at the time, but I went over. Between a friend of mine that worked for the London Sunday Times and Peter, I’d go back and forth between their places. Mary’s best friends were [models] Patty Boyd and Twiggy. I’d go to parties and she’d turn me on to people I never would have met. It was kind of like being in the right place, at the right time. And being born in the right era. It was very serendipitous.

Patti Smith

Did you find yourself traveling a lot to photograph these artists, or was this mainly San Francisco and London?

I went on tour with a lot of the bands, but most of it was here, because everyone came to San Francisco. From the late 60s and 70s, San Francisco and London — aside from L.A. and New York — were the creative capitols.

What bands did you tour with?

Peter Frampton, The Who, Lou Reed, Bad Company, parts of a couple of Stones tours and some smaller bands. The first time I went our with The Who, I had just separated from my wife… I went on that tour and I think I had $46.36 to my name. So we’re staying in the best hotels, sleeping until noon. I’d be walking down the corridor to somebody’s room and I’d see a croissant on somebody’s tray that they had not eaten, or jelly with an extra piece of bacon, so I’d be like “Hmm, that’s my breakfast.” So one of the roadies walking behind me says, “Hey mate, what are you doing? Are you nicking food?” So I said, “I’m sorry, I only have about forty bucks and you guys are going to pay me at the end of this, so…” And he says, “What, you’re not getting per diem?” I said, “Per diem?” He goes “Yeah, it’s like eatin’, feedin’ money. Go talk to the road manager, he’ll give you per diem money.”

So I go up to the tour manager’s room, he’s all speeded out, talking on the phone and he says “everything all right?” And I said, “Yeah, I have no complaints. Except I don’t have any money to eat and I could use a little per diem.” He goes, “Per diem? Per diem? Look man, we sleep ’til noon, there’s food backstage.” He then opens up the nightstand drawer and pulls out a three gram, amber bottle with the little cap with the spoon on it and says, “If you’re hungry, have this.” That night, halfway through the gig, I’m leaning behind one of the amps, changing film and the same roadie comes up.

“So did he fix you up?”

“Yeah, he fixed me up,” I said and pulled out the bottle.

“Fucking hell! Well look, man. If you were rich, if you were a millionaire with all the money in the world, what would you spend it on?”

“Uh…,” I said.

“I’ll tell you what you’d spend it on. You’d spend it on birds, on drugs, and on travel. And you’ve got it all here for nothing, so you don’t really need per diem, do you?”

That’s fucking rock & roll (laughs).

Lou Reed

On the cover of the book you have Lou Reed, bleached blonde with his finger nails painted black. What’s this story about him in that era using a microphone cord as a tourniquet to shoot heroin live on stage?

I was never sure if he simulated shooting up or there was smack. It almost didn’t matter. That was his Transformer period. Lou wasn’t real approachable. At that point, I was on assignment for Creem magazine. Lester Bangs was writing the story about Lou. The next day, they were going to go back to New York, so I showed them proof sheets of him tying off and shooting up. He said, “Hey man, that’s beautiful, that’s incredible. Can I get some prints?” And I said, “Don’t worry, nobody is ever going to see this.” And he said, “No, no I want to print up seven or eight large photos of this and give them as gifts.” I thought later on—where else could you do that and at the very least not be in some deep shit? You do that in Japan? You go to jail. In some countries, jail might be the good news.

Everything I did, there were very few portrait setups, I just shot as a photojournalist. That shot, they were about to catch the red-eye back to New York. Lou had just went to the bathroom, came out and lit up a cigarette and it just worked. Like so many pictures, you think it’s a good image the moment you take it, but then you look at the proof sheets. Over time, it came to be representative of that era, especially in the context of the book’s title, Total Excess, which for about a ten year period in rock and punk was very emblematic of all of that.

Pete Townsend of The Who, 1976

Tell me about this photo of The Who, I can’t actually tell who’s back this is.

That’s Pete Townsend, tuning up in the room. They had been touring in the Spring and Summer of 1976 and at the last minute, they flew back here to San Francisco and did a two-day, big stadium show called Day on the Green, with the Who and the [Grateful] Dead. At that point in time, that was as good as it gets. They had trailers backstage for the bands and their friends, where they’d mingle. The Who had a trailer and Pete was in there tuning up before the show.

I never considered myself a photographer. To me, the camera was an entrée to scenes that I wanted to become a part of, to live. Almost the same way an actor becomes the character he plays. I tried to approach what I shoot from the point of view of who I’m shooting. By totally immersing yourself in that scene as if you are in the band or you are a football player, you really shoot it from the inside out and give people that point of view.

And here we have Eric Clapton, rocking a “No Snow, No Show” t-shirt…

That was Oakland ’78. I like that because at that point in time in music — fuck, in everything — cocaine was huge. It the way booze was in the 20s, 30s, 40s or the Sinatra era.

It definitely was a fashionable drug, especially going into the 80s, when it exploded.

People used to lead with that. People used it to get into clubs or to get backstage, or to get laid. I remember being in a club in L.A. waiting for a friend at the bar. This guy next to me was hitting on this girl and he’s like “Yeah I’ve got a hot tub, that’s my Ferrari out front. I’ve got some great flake, we can go in the bathroom and do it. By the way, my name is Jeff.” I thought, this guy is leading with everything but himself (laughs). But they did go in the bathroom and then they left together.

Rod Stewart

Here is Rod Stewart taking a break on stage.

When he was with the Faces, they were one of the most fun bands. They used to get fucked up a lot. Some of the guys would take what they called “Mandrax.” They say, “Mandrax, man. It’s like a double Quaalude. It’s beautiful!” They’d go on stage and sometimes they were out of tune and sloppy, but it fucking worked. The sound was diabolical, it was great. They were having fun. They were great to hang around.

Rod would dance around, but at one point he just kind of collapsed. I was behind the amp and I just took the picture. From that angle, you feel like you are in the band.

Blondie, 1977

This shot of Blondie is probably my favorite shot in the set.

This was April, 1977. They had just gotten back from Japan. We did some shots on the roof and went to Golden Gate Park and went to the arboretum, which from the outside looks like the Pan Pacific Exhibition of 1918. It’s a beautiful white building filled with flowers. We put them in there and this is just one of my favorite pictures. Debbie [Harry] is one of those people where it’s almost impossible to take a bad picture of her. They had a great sense of presence and playing to the camera. They had that pre-punk, New York way, it all worked.

Bob Dylan

Here we have Bob Dylan walking off stage and he actually looks like he doesn’t want to be photographed. Apparently Bob does not like to be photographed much these days…

It’s been that way more and more. It wasn’t that way in the beginning, which is why there are so many photos of him in the 60s in New York — at least until the motorcycle accident at Woodstock. The fame thing — I don’t want to say it spun him out, but he got tired of being that guy. Imagine if you can’t go anywhere — and when I say ‘anywhere,’ I mean anywhere — without people rushing up to you and being inundated. That photo was in ’75, when he was still accessible, but he was kind of a recluse.

To shoot Bob, you’ve got to go through Jeff, his manager, they’ve got to know who you are. They’ve got to approve it, to own it, and all the stuff we’re talking about. My friend Charlie Sexton is the guitarist in his band and they don’t see him that much. They’ve got their own dressing room and then there is Bob’s. They play close to 200 dates a year. A true troubadour.

Iggy Pop

A young Iggy Pop. I don’t usually think this, but he looks a lot like Robert Downey Jr. in this photo.

Somebody else told me that too (laughs). The face, the profile, I know exactly what you are saying. That shot of him, we just happened to find him in the airport. He was waiting for a flight, going back and forth between here and L.A. In ’79, I think he was living with Sting and he was fucking partying hardcore and heavy, like many of the people in this book that are no longer with us. He was definitely aware of me, in his own way.

Mick Jagger

Here Mick is definitely being Mick.

That was the ’72 tour. I was on the ’75 tour as well, but in ’72 they were fucking white hot. That’s to take nothing away from the Rolling Stones now. But the music was great, the shows were great. One of the reasons I printed the proof was — I mean, it’s all about the music — but Mick had an incredible stage presence and never stopped moving. You could be a 22-year-old welterweight boxer and not be in the shape he is in. To continually dance and move and preen for two hours, while you are also singing and bantering. Incredible showman.

This book is about that, as much as the music. Most of the bands that I would cover were bands that I’d want to be in. They’d combine this incredible music and sound with style and lifestyle. It was an amalgam of all of that. It was very reflective of the times and it molded a lot of the people watching at the time.

Jimmy Page

And finally we have a classic Jimmy Page.

That was the final show that Led Zeppelin did in the United States as Led Zeppelin. At that point in time, the band was… I mean, talk about Total Excess. Jimmy was really out there and he would go on stage, get it together, and fucking play incredibly. It was almost as if he was channeling something from another galaxy. If there was ever a band that was into magic, into alchemy, it was Led Zeppelin. Not just with the Celtic myth and everything, they embodied it with what they sang about and what they played. It was perfect with Peter Grant as their manager, or really, Jimmy’s manager.

That show, the day before they went on, Peter had a son that was 12-years-old and was throwing a ball around backstage. The ball kept hitting people and finally Jim Matzorkis, who worked for Bill Graham, took the ball from Peter’s son, because he was getting so many complaints. He said, “I have to take this ball right now, but when the crowd thins out, you can have the ball back and continue to play.”

So I don’t know what he told his dad, but Peter Grant had Bindon, one of the roadies, lure Matzorkis into his trailer to talk to him. As Jim went into the trailer, he was tripped and he fell. Peter sat on top of him and he and Bindon beat the fucking shit out of him. Eyes closed, his nose was bleeding.

Bill Graham went berserk. There was talk there would be no second show. Tickets were sold for 60,000 people. Peter Grant made Bill sign a paper, basically exonerating Led Zeppelin for any responsibility, promising not to sue. But Bill Graham’s attorney told them, “Sign the paper, it will have no validity in a court of law, because you signed it under duress.”

So with that as a backdrop, I’m working for Led Zeppelin. We show up to the gig, and almost immediately, as I am walking into the trailer, Peter Barsotti, who was Bill’s stage manager and a friend of mine, says to me, “Hey Michael, you can’t shoot today with that pass. You’ve got to get one of our passes, you’ve got to have Peter Grant request a pass from us.”

I said, “Hey man, don’t give me any of this shit. I know what’s going on, I have nothing to do with any of it. I’ve got a kid, I’ve got a family, please.” He says, “No, you’ve gotta go ask Peter Grant.”

So I go ask Peter Grant and I said, “Look, Bill Graham’s stage manager said I can’t go on stage and that you have to request a ‘Bill Graham Presents’ pass from them.”

“YOU TELL PETER BARSOTTI THAT YOU’VE GOT THE ONLY FUCKING PASS YOU NEED FOR LED ZEPPELIN! AND YOU TELL THEM THAT IF ANY OF THOSE PEOPLE LAY A FUCKING HAND ON YOU, THAT WE’VE GOT TWO BLOKES PACKING AND WE’LL FUCKING BLOW THEM AWAY. STRAIGHT AWAY, YOU TELL THEM THAT!”

And we did actually, we had two L.A.P.D. squad cops that were doubling as our tour security. So I go back and I tell Barsotti and he goes, “Waitaminute, they’re going to blow us away?! Hold on.” He goes away and comes back with Bill, and Bill goes “Michael, tell me what he said, word for word!” So I repeat it, word for word. “What? They’ll blow us away? Come with me.”

So Bill takes me down to the front of the stage where he’s got eight or ten guys that look like they may have been Samoan. Their hands were taped, their feet were taped and I found out later that they were a semi-pro football team from San Jose and Bill had hired them in case any shit went down that day with the Zeppelin people. So he goes up to them, points to me and says, “See this man? Remember his face. He’s a friend of ours. Any problem, nobody touches him.” And then he looks at me and says, “You can go now.”

Well, I go, they play and that picture is from that show. Jimmy was not in great shape until the show and again, he was amazing. He just spun magic, alchemy. The show was over, the band had a flight into New Orleans. So they go to their limos, escorted to the airport by eight or nine Oakland PD, Alameda County highway patrol police cars, escorting them to the airport.

We get to the plane, the cars are all surrounding the plane. Everybody gets out of the limos. They took Peter Grant, John Bonham, and Bindon and booked them for assault. The band flies on to New Orleans where they were going to play the Super Dome. Woke up the next morning and Robert Plant gets a call that his son Karac— who was four years old — had just died, contracting a stomach virus. The band flew back to London, they played there, a couple of months played a gig in Germany, and then Bonzo [John Bonham] died. So they never returned again as Led Zeppelin.

The irony here is that the Beatles played their last show as the Beatles at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the Sex Pistols played their last show ever as the Sex Pistols in Winterland in San Francisco, and Led Zeppelin played their last show at the Oakland Coliseum right across the Bay. Ironic, coincidence, who knows? It’s amazing.


Photographs excerpted from Total Excess by Michael Zagaris from Reel Art Press. Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.

All Images by Michael Zagaris

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