Heavy Stones

Music photographer Ethan Russell documented the Rolling Stones throughout their most electrifying -- and terrifying -- concert tour. And he lived to tell about it.



At first glance, Ethan A. Russell's career in music photography seems like Chauncey Gardiner's lucky journey in the film Being There. As a 23-year-old expatriate in London in 1968, Russell was tapped to photograph Mick Jagger by a new publication called Rolling Stone. That gig eventually led to working friendships with many members of 1960s rock 'n' roll royalty. Russell is, in fact, the only person to have shot album covers of the Rolling Stones (Through the Past Darkly); the Beatles (Let It Be, Hey Jude); and the Who (Who's Next). "It was very serendipitous," Russell says of his photo career. "It's funny how a lot of this stuff happens."

Russell went on to photograph many music stars through the 1970s, then branched out into video directing, writing and, in recent years, Web interface design. But his historic still photography is now enjoying a renaissance: A major exhibition of Russell's large-scale prints, Let It Bleed: The Rolling Stones 1969 U.S. Tour, runs at the San Francisco Art Exchange through April 4, and then travels to Rotterdam's VIP's International Art Galleries in April and later to London.

Front and center is Russell's extensive trove of images from the Rolling Stones '69 tour of America -- a groundbreaking series of concerts (immortalized on the Get Your Ya-Ya's Out! album) during which Russell was given unprecedented access to the group's activities, both onstage and off. "It's important that this work finally gets to be seen," says Annie Leibovitz, one of Russell's music-photo peers. "Ethan was doing something that no other photographer was doing at the time."

The variety and sheer scale of Russell's work with the Stones can be seen in a mammoth new book, also called Let It Bleed, available through www.rhino.com. With 420 pages and more than 500 photographs (many never seen), measuring 15x12x4 inches, and selling for $650, it's a stunning coffee-table volume designed for Stones fanatics who now have some cash on hand. (Lots of fans are buying those high-dollar tickets that made the Stones' most recent tour the highest-grossing concert series ever.) Russell's Let It Bleed is more than just a visual document: It includes interviews with many key players in the Stones' entourage, from band members Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor to tour manager Sam Cutler to record producer Glyn Johns. "I knew that this had the opportunity to be a serious book," Russell says, "because of its historical uniqueness."

Adding to that seriousness is a significant section on the Stones' infamous free concert at the Altamont Speedway at the tour's end -- a traumatic event that marked not only the nadir of the group's concert history but, by many accounts, served as the unofficial end of the peace-and-love 1960s ethos. The bare facts -- including the murder of concertgoer Merideth Hunter at the hands of Hells Angels in front of the stage, as documented in the film Gimme Shelter -- fail to convey that day's lingering impact, Russell says. "The feeling of devastation was total, both while you were there and afterwards -- as if everything had collapsed," he recalls. "Call it what you will." (According to recent reports, Mick Jagger was even targeted for assassination by Hells Angels members in the event's bitter aftermath.)

All of which makes the Let It Bleed book and exhibition resonate with cultural lessons nearly 40 years later. We recently caught up with Russell when he visited New York for a gallery show of his work, and he shared thoughts about his photo career, the legacy of the 1960s, and his experiences with the World's Greatest Rock Band. (He didn't opine whether that's the Beatles or Stones.)

Jack Crager: Why did you decide to put out such a big book -- and why now?

Ethan Russell: The book has been in the works for awhile. I ended up publishing it with Rhino, which is a first for them, and it just grew to be this scale. And it had a discovery component to it, especially the part about Altamont. For anyone who was near the stage, you might as well have been at war. When I talk to people who were on the [Rolling Stones 1969] tour, some may not remember the middle of the tour well -- but eveybody remembered Altamont like it was yesterday. They knew where they were, they knew how they felt, they remember being scared. It brought back all these stories. And that show, of course, was not really part of the U.S. tour because the Stones had finished it by then.

JC: Altamont was like an afterthought -- it had been promised as a free concert, and they had to move the location...

ER: "That's correct. The Stones and the other bands were motivated to do it for perfectly good, innocent reasons. But this event got totally out of control. When I started this book, I didn't know what all was here, but I knew that Altamont occurred, and it was phenomenal, and the rest of the tour was spectacular, and nobody knew about it like those of us who were there.

JC: Was there a sense that you had put this in the past -- and then wanted to go back to it?

ER: Well, it's definitely a platform. A lot of this stuff is very funny. It didn't all come out of me -- I had characters telling the story. And it gave me the opportunity to say, "How did we do?" Altamont was like getting a big shock: There was a disavowal of a lot of the stuff that the '60s were about. And all these years later, you have to look back and ask how we turned out. I didn't get the same answer from everyone, which I really liked. And my own personal take is, at best, a mixed review. As somebody said, life is not a rehearsal. You've got to hold yourself responsible.

JC: So part of this was an attempt to do that?

ER: Yeah. One of the people in the book is Chip Monck, who was famous for being the voice of Woodstock and for being a penultimate stager. Chip said, "Somebody should have stood up and taken responsibility for Altamont, and nobody did." The Hells Angels blamed the Stones, the Stones blamed the Hells Angels, and even the people who showed up -- the ones in the front who were getting beat up by the Hells Angels -- some of them were so screwed up that they were falling down and knocking over their bikes. Well, they have to take some responsibility too. But nobody did. And for everyone it had this kind of traumatic component. But Altamont is just one part of this project -- I knew I had great pictures from throughout the tour. And I had a level of access that nobody else had ever had.

JC: At some level, you befriended the Stones -- they sort of took you into their inner circle, right?

ER: Well there were only 16 of us on tour, so it was hard not to be in the inner circle if you were a part of it. But by the same token, there was no question that the Stones were the stars. They demanded respect, but they were doing work that made it sensible to give it to them. They were doing seriously good work. They were already huge stars when I met them, in '68. The ethos of the 60s was sort of that you were all in it together -- but you weren't, really. Still, we were friendly. They visited my parents' house in northern California.

JC: You have pictures of Mick and Keith riding horses in the countryside...

ER: Yeah, they're English boys, and it was all new to them. But as a photographer, I never really was like, "I want to be your best friend." It wasn't just hanging out for the sake of hanging out. Partly I would have been too shy. But also, I believe that you don't want the photography to be about the photographer. You want it to be about what's going on. And if you're too buddy-buddy, they're going to wave at you and smile when you walk by. So I was like, Stay on the edge and watch. And I do think it paid off, in that nobody's looking at the camera.

JC: But they felt comfortable enough with you to give you total access on the tour.

ER: Yeah. I think on one level, I was this guy from America, and maybe I was intriguing; they couldn't type-cast me. And I tried to be a pleasant guy and didn't get in your face and took pretty good pictures and all that. So I think it added up.

JC: They probably wanted pictures for publicity reasons...

ER: I think that's right, but in that way, they were on drugs [laughs]. Because I didn't have the mechanism to distribute all this [photography] around. That's why so much of it hasn't been seen. I didn't have the syndication rights or anything. And then when this tour was over, I was off doing the Who's Next cover or some other stuff. So some of this was published periodically, but a lot of it will be seen for the first time in this book.

JC: What did you shoot all this with?

A Nikon, probably an F1 -- I don't even think I had a motor-drive yet -- and two or three lenses. I would've had a 24mm, a 105mm, those were my favorites. I don't think there was a 180 yet. There wasn't much in the way of long lenses, and there certainly wasn't autofocus. I used a Pentax spot meter.

JC: You were reeling off rolls and rolls?

ER: I've got five or six binders of 15 rolls, so 75 rolls. Not a huge amount by today's standards.

JC: You had first met Mick Jagger through an assignment for Rolling Stone, right?

ER: Right. I had gone to England to get out of America. I was against the Vietnam war, and I was of draft age, and while I didn't get out just to escape the draft, I sure as hell didn't want to go. And I went over to Europe with friends, and they all went back at the end of the summer but I stayed in London. I lived in a one-room flat -- I would walk and walk, and I loved it. And the movie Blow-Up was a big influence. Because Blow-Up was about being a photographer in the '60s.

JC: You had discovered photography by then?

ER: Yeah, it was very serendipitous. In college I had wanted to be a writer, but I had a friend who took pictures, had his own darkroom, and explained that stuff -- it was a slow, painful process [laughs]. And I bought a Pentax and started taking pictures. I later worked in a camera store, and when I left I bought a Nikon from them. So I'm living in a flat in London, and a friend came over, and he had a buddy who was writing for this new magazine -- in its third issue -- called Rolling Stone. And he asked if I wanted to photograph Mick Jagger. And the Stones saw those pictures and liked them. And they don't know I'm not anybody [laughs]. I mean, I interviewed Bill Wyman for this book, and Bill's been great, very nice over the years, but when I told him the story of how this happened, he was almost like pissed off! Like I had tricked them [laughs].

JC: They thought you were Somebody?

ER: Right. It's funny how a lot of this stuff happens. But once I did that, it's such a small world, and Apple [the Beatles' record company] of course is watching the Stones. And then I got the chance to shoot John Lennon, and Lennon was great. He was very approachable, took a liking to me, started calling me up and asking me to do stuff. And of course he was even more stratospheric for me -- the Beatles were the biggest! And Lennon was phenomenal, and nice to me, and I got a call from Apple asking I wanted to come in and see them. Because it was this little group of people. So then I was shooting for the Beatles.

JC: And they hired you to do the Let It Be album cover and booklet?

ER: Well, they hired me to be a photographer for one day, and I said I wouldn't work for one day -- which was like [makes crazy motions and laughs] -- and I said three days. And they said okay, and I went to show those pictures and they were on the sound stage for the early part of the Let It Be filming. And when I went to show those pictures, they were all in the same room together with Billy Preston, and somebody said, "Let's do a book!" And then I was with them every day until filming ended.

JC: Could you tell that they were at the end of their ropes with each other?

ER: Well, yeah, you can see it in the film. I mean, I loved every Beatles record except Let it Be. They were crabby with each other, and it was pretty obvious that it was the absence of Brian Epstein, somebody outside of them to say, "Do this." So McCartney was leaping into the breach, and George and John resented it. McCartney wasn't doing a bad thing, from his point of view -- he felt they needed leadership. But what's remarkable is that these guys were showing up on a sound stage at 8 a.m. in the winter. I mean, musicians, going to work at 8 a.m.!

JC: Did it burst your bubble a little bit, to shoot such big stars and find out it's not as glamorous as you might have thought?

ER: No, because to me it was always -- and it seems to be a point that's often missed -- these people worked hard. To this day, a Stones fanatic might think all they do is shoot drugs, and sort of nod out, and then miraculously tour 80 days a year and make records. It's not without its remarkable quality, I admit, but they work hard. And the Beatles worked hard and I worked hard, and it's really all about work. I was excited to be there, of course, but it was the fact of it that was exciting rather than the experience of it.

JC: The Stones tour was in November of the same year, and you have all these behind-the-scenes images of it. What were these guys like off-stage?

ER: They could be funny, and the events could be funny. But they were different kinds of guys. By all accounts Keith Richards and I should've been tight, because we're very much alike, but we were not. I was always sort of intimidated by Keith, and I don't know why that is. A lot of people I really liked really liked him. And he was not the druggie then that he later became.

JC: Could Keith be intense?

ER: He's intense, but then, so am I. So I don't know ... whereas I got on with Jagger pretty well. Mick was much easier for me, because he's a little more cosmopolitan, and I shared that with him. But then, Mick is very chameleon-like, a very positive person. But also very good at not being pinned.

JC: It seems like Mick would be image-conscious.

ER: Yeah, aware of it but not unpleasant with it. He tends to be able to engage with who he's around. So it's like, Sir Mick here, and Blues Brothers here, he can do them both, which is pretty good, but one wonders where the core is. But it's just that: He's a person who changes his colors as he moves forward. Charlie Watts was always the one -- if you talk to anybody -- he was down to earth. I'd go stay with him at his house and we would talk about furniture and horses. You couldn't believe that somebody who was a Rolling Stone was that down to earth. Was and still is. Brian Jones wasn't with them for long when I was there, but he was pretty messed up.

JC: You shot a series of pictures of Brian at his house -- were those the last pictures made of him?

ER: They weren't the last pictures taken of him because the Rock and Roll Circus was after that. And I shot that. Anyway, I always liked Bill Wyman. Bill's a straightforward guy. His story is generational -- he really is the generation before, he was born in the '30s -- and he said that was really a big difference.

JC: Is that partly why he stopped touring with the Stones?

ER: He did, but I don't think it was because of his age, because he's still out there playing. I think he got uncomfortable traveling that much. But he's still an active guy, and a good guy.

JC: What about Mick Taylor -- did he seem like an odd man out?

ER: Well, he was so quiet. I think musically he was brilliant. But very quiet. I would always try hard, when I would shoot somebody, to pull it out. And I did the first photos of Taylor as a Rolling Stone. But he kept being sort of expressionless, and as a photographer that will drive you crazy. It was such a placid exterior, you don't know what's going on. But a lot of it is, they're musicians. If you want to know what they're about, listen to what they play.

JC: Which is what people were doing ...

ER: It was such a funny time for that. It's like, after a lot of our political leaders were assassinated, musicians ended up filling that void. But they weren't really leaders. There's a line I put in the book's epilog: "We chose musicians as leaders who in turn chose not to be chosen." The musicians didn't really want to be leaders.

JC: They were even resentful -- or at least felt put-upon.

ER: Yeah, when they stopped cashing checks [laughs]. But I don't think they particularly minded the limelight. It just what happened. But they would say over and over, the Stones in particular, they didn't understand what was going on in America. They never did want to play the political game -- they wanted people to dance.

JC: They weren't into the "message"?

ER: No, I think Jagger's an entertainer. But he was writing "Sympathy for the Devil." Which was based on a Russian novel, I later found out, so it was ... it was theater.

JC: They stopped playing that song for years after Altamont. Did you get the feeling that they wanted to retreat?

ER: Well, later Jagger wrote, "It's Only Rock and Roll." You know: Don't put too much stuff on it. And by the time of the '72 tour, it became clearly entertainment. The political bit was over. It was fine for them to retreat, but then what were we going to do as a generation? Because we were so associated with it.

JC: It was like, who do we follow now?

ER: Right, and people sort of drifted. A lot of drugs, and people got into that fog, and there were a lot of drugs for a long time and it didn't really help.

JC: What about the debauchery on the tours -- were you partaking in that?

ER: No, I was a drinker, but I would've been a drinker whether or not I met the Rolling Stones. It's in my family. And I smoked dope -- back then. But I was not a big debaucher. And again, I was working. But THEY got pretty debauched [laughs]. But I wouldn't chase them into a room, or say, show me your tracks. And they wouldn't want me to do that either.

JC: Bill Wyman talked to you for the book -- did other group members?

ER: Mick Taylor did. Jagger was approached, and we're still approaching him, but for the moment, no. I thought Keith and Charlie would participate, but the Rhino people felt they would get Mick and then it would kick in, and at the end of the day it didn't. But they're all in the book because others talk so much about them. I'd love to talk to Jagger about what he was thinking. It was clear that he was frightened out of his wits at Altamont, and he should've been. I don't know that he ever will talk about it.

With all the people I interviewed, I said: I want you to tell me about what it was like for you, as a human being. Not as a Rolling Stone, and not as the driver for the Rolling Stones, but as who you were and what it was like for you to be there. And what were you thinking when you do this?

JC: How do YOU answer that question? What was it like for you?

ER: When we started the tour I was prepared not to like it -- but I did like it. I got used to going to the shows, and I got great access, and I could be on stage and people would rush up -- and it was very exciting. But the ones who really get the payoff in that are the musicians, because they're looking at that and playing music, and the energy was tremendous and the music was amazing. So I felt great about it. I didn't like being on the road or being in motel rooms in the middle of nowhere. And Altamont, of course, was horrible -- it had a horrible vibe and it was scary. But the tour itself was great. I liked the people. Some of them were really good friends, still are, and I still love the Stones. We had a good time.