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Zink Magazine, March 1, 2006

Big Shot

These photos by acclaimed music photographer Michael Zagaris speak for themselves, but he'd much rather do all the talking for them.

Photographer Michael Zagaris has made a career out of shooting music legends in the making. Many of his subjects (such as Etta James, Marvin Gaye and Mick Jagger) have already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while others (like Blondie, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Sex Pistols) will be inducted this year during the annual ceremony on March 13th at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. But Zagaris is much more than just an accomplished photographer; he's also a true music lover. "I try only to shoot bands that I, at worst, really like and, at best, really love," he explains. "It's not just music to me; it's a lifestyle.

One of his earliest influences and idols was the incomparable James Brown, whom he not had the opportunity to shoot because he was still in college at the height of Brown's career. "The first time I saw James Brown perform, he totally blew my mind," he confesses. "I was going to school back at George Washington in DC, and he'd come and play the Howard Theater. Sometimes he'd do three shows a day. The civil rights movement was just starting to explode, but I thought in my mind that I was black. The comedians would come out and tell jokes about black people, and I'd be one of the few white faces in the crowd. But I'd be laughing so hard like 'Wow, this is great!' And people would turn to me and say, 'What are you laughing at, cracker?'"

A gifted shutterbug and storyteller, Zagaris took us on a walk down memory lane, discussing our favorite photos from his wide collection, while also giving us a glimpse of his life behind the camera, where he hobnobbed with rock gods while inadvertently becoming a legend himself. - Janine Anderson

Rick James
San Francisco

"This is a great story. Rolling Stone had me shoot him. When I got there, he was in the studio with his entourage. He had his back to me, and he was sitting on a swivel chair in front of the soundboard. And he's got this woman astride him, and they're wrapped up in a deep, deep throat kiss. Then he swings the chair around, and the woman is actress Linda Blair. He goes, 'Hey, man, are you the motherfucker from Rolling Stone?' And I said, 'That's me.' And he says, 'Have some breakfast. Let's get started.' Right behind him is a giant pizza that his body had been obscuring. I see the top two or three slices, and they look like they've been there for about three weeks. Then he shoves a tray toward me with about an ounce of blow on it. And I'm thinking, 'Okay, I better show a little solidarity here.' So I did a couple of big lines, and we started shooting. Somebody calls, and he holds the phone down to his cock and says, 'I want you to get a picture of this.' Later, when we're almost done, I tell him I want to go down to Golden Gate Bridge, which was only ten minutes away, and take some really cool pictures under the bridge. And he goes, 'Oh no, brother! We ain't leaving this stash. I ain't going to Golden Gate Bridge!' So I tell him that I really want to get a shot outside of the studio. So we walked across the street where the bay was. And all of a sudden, he sees this huge rock coming out of the water so he jumps across on to the rock and says, 'Hey man, get this for the cover!' And it looks like he's snorting a giant rock. So that's what that was all about."

Marvin Gaye
Oakland Coliseum Arena in California
January 3, 1974

"At that point and time, Marvin Gaye was almost God. He'd come out with those two great seminal albums. He put on a great show, and it was like pandemonium. Women were screaming. It was like those early James Brown shows. There was a great after party and every pimp, player, dealer and beautiful woman was there. I actually took a number of photos of the after party -- taking pictures, getting phone numbers...I was having a ball. He was a great guy. He could have had any woman. They were throwing themselves at him. He was just riding that great wave.

Being an entertainer like that - be it rock 'n' roll or soul - it was really a different time then in the late '60s to mid-'70s. Music was so much more important in this country. Culturally, it was a statement. Music and moves have always reflected our culture. I have friends who don't like Jay-Z; they hate rap. They hate 50 cent; and I go, 'You know what? Turn the lights off. Clear your head, and listen to Fiddy. Aside from the great beat, listen to the message. Is it fucked up? Yeah, but it's also what's going on in this country.' It's easy to point fingers and say they're causing problems, but they're not causing shit; they're reacting. They're basically saying what's happening in their community and in their lives. And you know what? That's a huge indictment of America and what's happened to the big American dream. The late '60s and early '70s were a time of renewal and hope, and now it's all about money and bling. And I'm not just talking about the hip-hop world. I'm talking everywhere. I mean, who runs the world? The corporations. It's all about quarterly profits."

Lou Reed
San Francisco Airport
November 24, 1974

"He'd done a great show in San Francisco, and it was right around the time of Transformer. He had gone into the bathroom - he was taking the redeye back to the Big Apple - he came out, lit up a cigarette and I thought it was such a perfect time. I had another picture where he was pulling out a newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the headline said, "Skyjacker Kills Hostage." And there's this straight businessman who stopped and looked over his shoulder at Lou, who had blond hair at the time and black fingernails. He really was an icon. I've always thought that in this country, which professes such a profound faith in God and Jesus; the real gods in our culture are entertainers, the musicians, and the celebrities. That says a lot about who we are and who we aren't. I think there's a great lack of spirituality in this country, which has nothing to do with religion. Religion is about control. Do this or you're going to hell. My thing is: If you're going to be in heaven, I hope I'm in hell. My brother is a born-again evangelical preacher. His way of saying 'Fuck you' is 'I love you, I'll pray for you.'"

Etta James
Boarding House in San Francisco
June 26, 1974

"I think she was singing 'At Last.' But when you're shooting, it's hard to know the songs on the setlist because you're so wired in on what you're doing. It's not that you don't hear, but it's just the two of you. It's like you're in love. The room could be filled with people and music, but all of a sudden you look across the room and you only see that person. Everything else is in soft focus.

Phil Kaufman, who worked with Etta [and later became Emmylou Harris' road manager], was there that night. Phil and I went way back. He was also Charles Manson's cellmate for a short time at Terminal Island. Charlie got out first, then when Phil got out, he went to live with Charlie at his ranch for while. He used to tell me all this stuff. He'd say [imitating Kaufman's deep voice], 'You know, dude, Charlie was real people, a good guy. He got kind of a bad rap. But things did start to get weird with the acid, so I went to him one day and said, "Hey man, it's getting kind of strange here. I think I'm gonna split." And Charlie said, "That's cool, brother. Just take any one of the chicks and take the car." And I said, "no man, I came with nothing, and I'm leaving with nothing." 'Then a few months later after all the shit goes down, Phil says, 'You know, Charlie's at San Quentin. He's got a little church going. We should go check him out sometime because you'd really dig him. He's real people.' I said, 'Uh, that's OK.'"

Mick Jagger
Oakland Coliseum Stadium in California
July 26, 1978

"This was Mick's birthday. The Stones and the Beatles are in their own category. Now they're almost like U.S. Steel. The Stones were always harder to work with because even bands in the '70s were like gods, and you had a number of people to get through to get to them, although fewer than you'd have today. Each guy had his own roadie, and there were tons of drugs. They had more coke than most people could ever snort in their lives. It was wild. There was always a celebrity scene around them too, people like Truman Capote. I thought Phillip Seymour Hoffman really nailed that roll."

Patti Smith
Boarding House in San Francisco
November 21, 1975

"She was actually preoccupied and kind of moody, and I was shooting for After Dark magazine in New York. They wanted 'a nice portrait' quote unquote. I was talking to Patti about it, and she says, 'Portrait? I'll give you a portrait.' And it looks like she's taking a piss. I loved it. Funny thing about that bathroom, it's in the same place Etta was playing."

Golden Gate Park in San Francisco
April 13, 1977

"They had just gotten back from Japan, and they were just starting to really break through. They came to San Francisco, and I called them up at their hotel and shot on the roof. Then we went out to the Hall of Flowers at Golden Gate Park, and I shot them there. When you get a group together, you try to have a few ideas before you shoot, but never know how it's going to go because you can walk in there, tell them the ideas and somebody will go, 'I'm not doing this.' I decided to put Blondie in the foreground and have them in the background just a little out of focus. Fortunately, with bands in those days, there was rarely a publicist. There was rarely a fucking entourage of sycophants and idiots whispering into the artist's ear."

Zagaris' photographs are currently available at

By Janine Anderson

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