The closest one could ever be to a fly on the wall is as a concert photographer. I was in my mid-twenties the first time I ventured into that existence. It was an adventure. Coincidentally, the very first photos I ever took were, by pure chance, at First Avenue for a friend who happened to be playing that night with his band Alphatonic. Frankly, looking back, I don’t know what those guys saw in my photos from that night. But, whatever it was they saw, and seemed to like, it only encouraged me to continue. For better or for worse.
Through the next several years, I had the pleasure of meeting and photographing a number of very interesting and talented individuals and often had the privilege of participating in shenanigans and/or just being in places others were not authorized. This allowed me to be privy to a lot more than the average fan. It also aided in my role as a photographer—being an observer.
As an observer, I got to see how a band was born (periodically how they died or divorced), how they constructed their originals or deconstructed their favorite covers, how they prepared for a show, the tremendous amount of blood (often literally), sweat (definitely literally) and tears shed for a performance, as well as the tedious, meticulous and speedy precision required for setting up and tearing down gear.
There were lively and heated debates about various idols and inspirations—there were even trick questions you would be a blasphemer for daring to answer incorrectly (think Airheads and their question about Van Halen—yep, that happens in real life folks, the trick question that is, not the holding up of radio stations but that could be debatable if they’ve made some radio play on Loud and Local or KFAI—I jest, seriously, I scoff at you for even thinking otherwise).
However, the ultimate observation I was ever privy to was the emotion laid out before my eyes for which I don’t even think they were aware they had given me permission to see. I don’t even know if any of them really knew exactly how I saw them differently and often it wasn’t with the camera lens.
I’ve heard thousands of origin stories—every musician has one and most are ready and willing to tell it to you (including me—but that’s for another time). However, regardless of who it came from or what level of local success they achieved there was one story that remained the same—they were nothing in terms of success unless and until they “made it.” Whatever that means.
Generally I think they meant a contract with a known label and prime time radio play, but mostly I believe it was the desire to achieve the ability to do what they really loved, above all else, and still be able to pay the rent. That is, not having to be on a Ramen noodle diet and not having to worry about whether the tour van is going to breakdown or if they have enough gas to get to the next gig. Maybe, even some competent roadies.
In all their tribulations, I didn’t see failure or mediocrity, nor did I hear the musical flubs they claim to have made on stage. What I did see is that they were doing it, whether they saw or believed it themselves they were doing what they loved and made it work—every weekend (especially in the summer), occasionally on week nights (even if they had a “real” job to go to in the morning), and most of them were well known within subcultures of the local music scene, some even had a label and did more extensive touring. Even if their larger crowds and popularity were mainly within the metro area on home turf they were still living a dream to me.
In large part, many of them became inspiration in various forms. I didn’t see the “local” in what they were doing—I saw rock stars. I saw intelligent, creative, talented and passionate people whose skills were highly coveted by many. And when they were finished with a performance I often saw caring, compassionate people whose only real façade was that they wanted you to think they didn’t give a fuck.
Sure, I’ve met my fair share of conceited musicians and their level of technical skill is probably all that, but not always. Regardless, there is a certain intimacy that occurs with a band’s performance and their music will just resonate with you in some way. Those I have photographed, at some point, have all made me wish I could step inside their shoes—to be able to play guitar or drums (more likely drums, because I have always had a thing for drums) as well as they do and to be able to be up on that stage, under the lights. While the experience of performing is sometimes surreal, the experience of that performance is often just as surreal for the observant observer.
Knowing someone in the band personally makes that experience much more real because it humanizes the performers, especially for those who are close enough they can reach out and untie the guitarist’s boot, knowing full well he can’t do shit about it in that moment and without fear of getting punched in the face later.
Hmmm, perhaps this is the origin of my origin story after all!
“Sleep tight for me, I’m gone.”