Dead Rock Stars
Deborah Chesher was culling through her old boxes of negatives one day when a random thought crossed the photographer's mind about how young and alive all of the guitar gods of her youth had been.
It was quickly followed by the realization that many of those rockers were also dead, and most had died young.
She has now brought those synaptic occurrences into focus in the coffeetable book "Everybody I Shot Is Dead." The 208-page volume, with black-and-white and color, celebrates the joyous, often unguarded, moments of some of rock music's biggest stars.
By its theme, the book also chronicles some of the legendary excesses that led such stars as Harry Nilsson, the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson, T Rex's Marc Bolan and scores of others to their early exits. Chesher, however, chooses to downplay that element.
"It's truly not about dead people as much as it is about how amazing these musicians were," Chesher says as she sips a latte during a recent interview at a friend's art studio.
"The theme is resurrection. I'm bringing them back to life with pictures that have never been seen before and that were taken at a time when they were all extremely vibrant and productive — which is how I like to remember them."
As much a fan as a photographer when she started, the native Canadian arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s with a 35-mm camera and a portfolio of touring rock acts she had photographed as they passed through Vancouver. She was soon working at all the local music haunts, shooting musicians for albums, concert posters and publicity photos.
Although some typical "rock star as deity" poses make it into "Everybody I Shot," most of the 48 people profiled in its pages are captured in a way that reflects more of a human side. There is a joyous George Harrison on stage in embroidered jeans and bright yellow shirt, and a relaxed Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees visiting backstage with family and friends.
Little Feat's Lowell George is playfully making bunny ears behind record executive Mo Ostin's head as Ostin reviews a contract the two are about to sign. Michael Bloomfield even takes his turn behind the camera, producing some blurry black-and-white images in an apparently misguided attempt at art photography.
Not all that long after he took those photos, the guitarist died of a drug overdose at age 37. It was a tragedy that still brings Chesher to tears.
Others, such as George, who was 34 when he suffered a fatal heart attack, died young after years of hard living. Still others, like Bolan, who was 29, perished in car crashes or, in the case of former teen idol Rick Nelson, plane crashes.
But not everyone was a victim of life on the road. Some, like Papa John Creach, the old man of the Jefferson Airplane, lived well into his 70s. And, Chesher acknowledges, not everybody she shot is really dead.
"Maybe I'll do an 'Everybody I Shot Is Alive' book next," jokes the photographer, an exuberant woman whose long blond hair cascades past her shoulders. She looks much the same as she did in photos from the 1970s, dressed casually in jeans, black sneakers and a black-and-white pullover shirt.
The fellow survivors she photographed include Van Morrison, Steve Miller, Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, Tom Waits and all the members of the Eagles, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. That's not to mention seemingly indestructible rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry, who is 81.
But there is clearly a greater fascination with chronicling the lives of those who lived fast and died young, says Josh Kun, a University of Southern California English professor and the director of USC's Popular Music Project.
"Books like this are tapping into a collective desire for remembering an era of rock 'n' roll that, whether it's true or not, felt more pure, felt more authentic, more aggressive in its stance against the status quo," Kun said.
There's also just a magical hold that music and the people who make have on people. Photos of rock stars in their prime, particularly candid shots, give fans a way of connecting with musicians that goes beyond sitting in the audience at a show, Kun said.
Chesher, who has moved on to film work but still takes the occasional band photo, hopes the book won't so much glorify rock's excesses as inspire the younger musicians she meets by showing them another side of their heroes. Her previous book, 1979's "Starart," collected photos of musicians' art works.
"The amount of amazing music they put out in that period of time — they just don't do that anymore," she says.
On the Net: www.cheshercat.com