Photo credit: Karen Hefter
Kirk West, long-time music photographer and Allman Brothers Band road manager recently held an exhibition of a small sample of his work. The exhibit was timed to coincide with The Allman Brothers Band annual March run at The Beacon Theater in NYC, and was held at The Citrus Bar from March 7-29. Many of the photos exhibited have rarely, if ever, been seen by the public. Kirk has just recently begun making prints from negatives he long-ago safely tucked away.
On March 14, 2014 I had the pleasure of not only viewing the exhibit in a private walk-through with Kirk, but also sitting down and talking with him for nearly an hour. In our interview, he shares stories about his early days as a photographer, meeting and eventually becoming The Allman Brothers' tour manager, and how the photo exhibit came to be. It was a true pleasure to hear his story first hand, and I am very happy to be able to share it with you.
See Part 1 of the interview here.
Interview with Kirk West - Part 2
March 14, 2014
And here we are in 2014…
Exactly (laughing). So, you know, these wall street guys they may take some
hard hits from the public, but ya know what? Their hearts are good. So, I was
trying to find a spot to do a little pop-up gallery. That’s the whole thing now – you
come in for a week or five days or whatever, and I couldn’t find a space north of
like 50th street [in Manhattan] and I knew it had to be near The Beacon. My boy
Cliff Greenburg, he’s my guardian angel, ya know, he’s had my back. Him and
his community have raised a lot of money for The Big House, they’re on the
board, ya know – they’re good people.
Cliff is part of the Wall Street group?
Yeah, yeah. Him and Mike Nurenburg. And we have Brian Borenstein and Julie Mendleson. That’s my gang of four. And they have a big party. Once a year they buy most of the tickets at the show and have a big party here [The Citrus Bar] and at the other corner, at Josie’s. It’ll be five-, six-, eight hundred people. It’s like an annual event. They also do one at Jones Beach when the band plays in the summer-time. So I was pulling my hair out. I could’ve rented a little space down in the gallery district in Chelsea. He said, “Well look, they have that great room at Citrus, downstairs.” And the food upstairs is rockin’. It’s kind of like sushi and Hispanic – it’s a fusion restaurant. So got them on the horn and they said, “Sure, you can have the room. If we have a rental you’ll have to adjust…”, but…this is how it’s run. We opened on the 7th and we’re closing on the 30th and there are about four dark days in the middle where we can’t do anything, but one of them falls on a Sunday, but none of them are on the weekend, which is the big run, and it’s been good. It’s like a little gorilla gallery. People that don’t know – we’re using Facebook and doing handbills and everybody’s filtering it out like you are to your 300 people and so on, and traffic is good. People start showing up at 5:00 and by 8:15 they’re all gone, ya know? Unless the hippie boys from Staten Island couldn’t get a ticket figured they’d go hang out here and talk shit (laughing) which happened the other night….
So that’s how you ended up here [The Citrus Bar]?
So this is only the….you haven’t exhibited the work very much though? You said a couple of festivals…
Yeah, a couple festivals and a couple gallery shows down south. I was involved in a three photographer show in Chicago which lasted a week – blues stuff…but I think this is a viable deal, ya know? Do some festivals, do some that make sense. We’ll probably do several that are on the Brothers’ festival circuit this summer, but if you want to go through here, and look at the whole show, it’s only about 45 percent Allman Brothers.
How’d you pick the photos? Out of the – you must have tens of thousands of negatives...
So how did you pick these ones?
Well, ya know, like I said I spend 6-8 hours a day scanning negatives and the stuff speaks to ya, ya know? Like right here, on this wall here (pointing), we have Crosby, Still, Nash, & Young from 1974, Bruce Springsteen with Clarence Clemons from ’78, and Bob Marley from ’79. Classic. There are just (slapping one hand into the other) certain pictures that people look at and go, “Shit!”
Yeah – like, that’s the one.
Yeah. That Marley down there with his dreads flying. The one or two classic, iconic pictures. But these are pictures that hadn’t really been seen because I put all this stuff away when I got on the tour bus with the Brothers in ’89 I quit shooting that stuff. I mean, it wasn’t immediate, but over the course of the first eighteen months on the road I didn’t have time to do anything else…I shot a couple of Alligator album covers when I was home the first year, but I was shooting the Brothers and basically that’s what I had time for. In the beginning, in the ‘90s, the Brothers were working a lot more than they are now. They were hitting it hard. Europe, Japan, all over.
So you were busy?
Oh yeah – it was good. So, how did I pick? I wanted to tell a story….obviously this is to try and create some commerce. So, I wanted those twelve pictures, the portraits [of the individual Allman Brothers members] because that’s a statement. But, I haven’t sold any of ‘em because you really have to be like passionate about Dickey Betts to want a portrait of Dickey Betts on your wall. Over here the whole group shots in Memphis or Arkansas or Boston those are more readily identifiable and they’re the whole group. So I’ve sold a lot of those.
Is there one that’s the top seller?
Yeah – the Marley. Marley’s a top seller.
That’s a great picture.
Tom Waits, on the other side of Springsteen here. The Grateful dead wall of sound, I’ve sold a bunch of that…
So do you have plans for how long you’ll be doing these little pop-up exhibits? Just going to see how it goes?
No, I’m just going to see how it goes. I was trying to put something together for Jazz Fest in New Orleans, but that didn’t really come together – I was too late. A lot of those galleries are booked a year in advance for something like that.
Are you doing any other festivals this year? Wanee or Mountain Jam?
I’m not going to do Wanee. Mountain Jam maybe. For sure Peach Fest in August. Lockn’ for sure. The Vibes probably again. I don’t know if The Brothers are playing but it was a really good opportunity.
It was good for you?
Yeah – it was great. And that’s where I learned the ropes. I met all these people in this little collective ya know, the poster people. A lot of them are from around Woodstock, and one of the guys, the guy that did the Beacon event poster, a guy by the name of Mike Dubois, he’s got a little gallery, so he wants me to hang at his gallery. It’s a sale gallery rather than a look and see gallery, so we’ll do a few pictures up there and see how it goes. Ya know – I’m feeling it out. I’m 63 now, and it seems to me that what I did in my youth is of value today. Now I’m not sure I want to get balls to the wall and have a whole ‘nother career out of the deal, because what’s been happening is that my retirement, my social security, all that stuff is paying our nut – Kirsten is five years older than I am, so we’re in our golden years, we’re getting our check and our government cheese (laughing) and this is the gravy. The sales of these old pictures is the gravy. We’ve been traveling, low key traveling, but we’ve made some friends…. When we lived at The Big House, we had a lot of people live with us. In 1997, these two little Croatian hippie girls get out of the shuttle bus at the front door of The Big House, and they were in their little Pakistani, Indian tapestry dresses, and….they moved in for a month. They came from Dubrovnik, Croatia to see where Duane Allman lived. Now how in the fuck does a 19 year old Croatian hippie girl know about Duane Allman? The Internet is an amazing thing… They worked three jobs for a year to get enough money to come over. So, we let ‘em in. C’mon, what are you gonna do?
You can’t turn them away.
Hell no man! So they moved in. The one girl we never saw again. She went back at the end of their month. But Daniella spent the month…we hooked ‘em up good. The tail end of their trip I had to leave and go back on the road to the west coast. So they had enough money and enough time – they flew to San Francisco. We got them a ride from show to show, and from San Francisco to LA we put ‘em on the drummer bus. So, these two little gals riding with Jaimoe and Butch and Marc from San Francisco to LA. So they catch the show, then fly back immediately to Atlanta and then back to Croatia. Well, Daniella came back and spent six months with us. That’s how long her visa was good for, then she came back and spent a year with us. Worked at our little thing we had going at Hittin’ the Note magazine and Kid Glove selling merch, packing stuff…. So, we had a lot of that when people…. I mean, we had this cute couple come down one time, and he had a beautiful Allman Brothers tattoo on his shoulder – it was a beautiful sleeve. They were form Toronto. So I said, “what brings you here?” He said, “Well, we’re on our honeymoon.” I said, “Cool, where ya headed?” I figured they were going to Disneyworld or some shit, right? He says, “Here. We came here. This is our destination for our honeymoon.” I said “ Well shit!” Unbelievable….so we let ‘em sleep in Duane’s room for three days.
Yeah (laughing). Turm ‘em out! So that’s how we operated. That’s how we lived. That’s what we did. We give because that’s the way you live.
And now you’re not having all the visitors and guests?
Nah – we got our friends come to our little house. And the Big House is rockin’. It’s open four nights a week and they hold events. It’s a legitimate, world-class museum. It’s like high-tech, and low-tech, and no-tech. I mean, Linda Oakley decorated four of the rooms, some with actual artifacts that they had there when they lived there. And the rest of it’s in style, ya know? And the downstairs has video replay and high tech lighting – it’s a wonderful thing, and the collection has expanded dramatically.
So do you go visit?
Yeah, occasionally. When my brother comes to town I’ll show him. Yeah, I go over there, but I’ve done my time.
They just had a concert there not too long ago, right?
Yeah – they do that stuff there all the time. They have a little stage they built in the back yard. They had a fundraiser in February, I think. They do two or three fundraisers, golf outings. A couple boys from R.E.M. are from Macon and everybody wants to golf with them, so they got all kinds of little activities.
There was someone who played that concert in February who was part of The Allman Brothers history – Les Dudek.
Yeah, yeah – exactly.
So did you have any involvement with Les? Do you know Les?
Yeah, I mean, about like I know you (laughing).
Which isn’t a whole lot (laughing).
Yeah – there you go… I mean I know all about Les, but I wasn’t there when that concert took place. But they do a lot of that. There’s a real community spirit that – everybody’s proud that the Brothers were there, but nobody was really coordinating and focusing it. There’s a little thing called GABBA – the Georgia Allman Brothers Band Association. It’s a fan club sort of thing, but they’ve been at it since ’92 when they formed GABBA. And they have GABBA fests, that’s where Les played, and it’s in conjunction with The Big House, but it’s not The Big House. So there is a lot of community stuff taking place. Phil Walden’s niece, Jessica Walden, they have a little thing down there where they do walking tours of all the sights. The Otis sites, and the R&B sites, and The Allman Brothers and Capricorn sites and it’s a beautiful little thing. The H&H, Mama Louise’s deal, the restaurant, ya know, she’s getting on. Her partner, Inez Hill, The H and the H, Hill and Hudson, she passed away a number of years ago, and Mama – she won’t say how old she is – but I know she’s pushing 80-85, she’s running a diner six days a week. So, some cats in town that have the where-with-all and the intention, are buying the H&H and are gonna pay her to just hang out as long as she wants. And they are going to upgrade it but not desecrate it. And there was another organization down there that saved the old Capricorn studio and office building from the wrecking ball, and those two projects are pretty pricey. And there is no recording business in Macon anymore, Atlanta got a big thing. So maybe you turn it into a museum/gift shop/restaurant. Maybe you have recording equipment, who knows. I’m going to let someone else sort that out.
How’d you get hooked up with Alan Paul and the book [One Way Out]?
I met Alan in 1990 or ’91. ’91 I suspect. He was a college age journalist and he got, through a publicist, an in person interview, and I met him. I was the guy facilitating his deal at the gig, and we just hit it off, ya know? So, we’ve known each other since ’90 or ’91. He used to come stay at my house in Chicago and I just helped open doors for him and give him perspective on things and we just became really, really close. His wife was an editor at The Wall Street Journal and she was the Bureau Chief in Beijing for four years and they moved over there and took their family and lived in Beijing. And he wrote a book and he’s a good guitar player. He was big in China. They won best band in Beijing one year .
Really? I didn’t know that.
Yeah. So last year, about the time Gregg’s autobiography came out, he had all these interviews that he had done for Guitar World. Consequently it was mostly guitar players. He did a little e-book, I think called One Way Out and it did really well, so they offered him a real deal ya know? A paper book. So it was a matter of now reaching out and getting deeper. I got involved in that thing – I was giving him consulting and fact checking on the e-book. So when he decided to do the real deal, he wanted me to be the photo editor. About the same time Sony was getting to do the Play All Night package and the re-release of the Great Woods video from ’91 and The Brothers and Sisters thing – Universal put The Brothers and Sisters expanded thing out. And so at that point – this was a little over a year and a half ago – I hadn’t done any of the Allman Brothers stuff – hardly any.
By done, you mean exhibited?
Scanned ‘em, looked at ‘em, picked ‘em…
They were still sitting in a shoe-box in your closet?
Well….bank boxes…(laughing). Ain’t no shoe boxes. But I’d been working on the other stuff. I knew….I’d been really working the country and the blues stuff, ‘cause that’s, again, my passion. I’ve had great, great opportunities and stuff, I mean – Junior Wells sang at my wedding.
Yeah. Kirsten and I got married at The Checkerboard Lounge, which was Buddy Guy’s joint on 43rd street. We hired a cat named BB Odem to be our wedding band. And Junior, I had spent two Christmas dinner’s in a row at Junior’s house. So, Junior just showed up. He just showed up at my wedding and sang for an hour!
Yeah – that’s totally great! So, ya know, that’s the passion. I shot Willie Dixon’s sons’ weddings. I took the pictures at Muddy’s wedding. It was a very low key deal.
When was that?
This was….’78. Clapton was there. At the reception. In the driveway of Muddy’s house in the suburbs, ya know? Amazing shit.
So that’s how it came about?
I haven’t read Alan’s book yet…
It’s a great book. He did all the interviews except for two: Red Dog and Mike Callahan. I had hundreds of hours of interviews with people I did from ’83-’86.
For the book that never came out [the biography]. And we’ve used them, we ran a four-parter of Tom Doucette in Hittin’ the Note magazine and we did a two- or three-parter on the Dickey Betts stuff.
Now how did Tom get associated with the band? I had asked you about the ’92 Orpheum picture, and I asked you who that guy was.
Well Tommy…it’s in Alan’s book, the specifics, but he was just a good harmonica player floating around. So they met back in the Outlast days or before that. Tommy was playing in a band called Blues Image, I think, out of Miami. Who knows how they met…
Everybody knew everybody?
He used to sit in all the time, throughout the ‘70s until Duane passed. Duane and him would jam up ya know? Tommy was aces. So when they did the ’91 New Year’s Eve shows in Macon that was supposed to be “An Evening With” but the recordings weren’t very good. Technically there were problems with it. Dickey was trying to play a Gibson acoustic from the ‘20s.
For whatever reason...
Well, because it was a good old guitar but it was impractical as shit. You couldn’t put a pickup in it so you had to play it with a microphone and it was feeding back… So none of those four shows were usable for a record. But Tommy was there, sat in and played. Then when we did the stuff up here (NYC) in ’92 that ended up coming out Tommy was there, so we included him in the thing. There was the Atlanta Pop [Atlanta International Pop Festival] record, ya know that live double? You have it?
No, but I know of it.
Well, you should track it down. It’s a bitch man. It’s as good as the Fillmore. A little rawer, and not recorded as well, but I wrote the liner notes for it. I was the producer of the package. There was an executive that was the company guy, but it was me barking at people like a little fucking asshole dog, for years, “Those tapes are great those tapes are great you gotta put that out the shit’s good the shit’s good!” I had audience recordings of the Atlanta Pop that the film crew had recorded.
But they had the boards?
Yeah – Columbia had the multi-tracks. And Levenson from Polygram, ‘cause he was the first guy I was barking at, he went to the studio and had them pull the tapes. They’re eight-track tapes. Well one of the tracks was used for the sync of the film. So, it was only a seven track tape. Well you got a six man band, two drummers, two vocalists, where ya gonna put everything? What ended up happening was there was no bass track. There was no dedicated bass track. So Levenson listened to them and ran some rough mixes and said, “We can’t use these. “ Well – ok Bill, they’re not your tapes anyway, they belong to Columbia. And he’s at Polygram. It was like a gentleman’s consideration that they’d even let him listen to them ya know? So I let that sit and I started barking at Columbia and Sony saying, “Man. This shit is rockin’! And you need to do something with it.” So what they did is, they took those seven track tapes and dumped them into the computer and pulled out a bass signal out of the bleed on all the other seven tracks. They created a bass track. And the shit sounds amazing. They spend $75,000 doing that, so I doubt the record ever made any money. There was no profit in it, but it was the right fuckin’ thing to do. And it’s amazing. It’s the shit! So I wrote the notes, because, in addition to being a little barking dog, in my counter-culture entrepreneur days, in the summer of ’70, I went to about ten festivals and would sell this and that and the other thing, so I had the feel. I had the vibe. I was there, ya know? And in those liner notes, I talked about Tommy Doucette. Everybody wanted Tommy to join the band but he had a good line of shit and didn’t want a real job (laughing). And that’s what it would have been.
So what’s he doing now?
Teaching yoga down in Sarasota.
Yeah – he was a mystical guy to begin with. He’s a spiritual guy. Sober, cleaned up, thin. Vegan-looking guy who teaches yoga.
That’s great! Let me wrap up with just a couple quick questions. What advice do you have for photographers today?
Use a camera, not a phone (laughing).
That’s good advice. So, like tonight…I have a 15 minute photo pass to shoot at the show tonight [ABB at the Beacon]. What’s your advice for me? I have a real camera!
Good, good. Just anticipate the moment. The cameras, technologically, are better than our eyes. It will see stuff you won’t. So trust in that. Get your settings dialed in and just know the moment. And try not to get engaged in the music. Which is tough. That’s why some of my classic rock stuff is so good, because I didn’t give a shit about the music, I was just watching the spectacle. I don’t have any pictures of The Allman Brothers early – I saw Duane twelve times, but I didn’t shoot, because I realized very early, if I was gonna see some music that really moved me, I was gonna be high to do it. And I learned that I couldn’t focus the camera if I couldn’t focus me eyes. So, I have a lot of pictures from that era of bands I don’t care about. Ya know, Pacific Gas and Electric, Ambergris…
I’ve never even heard of them…
That’s the name for whale puke (laughing together), ya know, stuff like that….Ten Wheel Drive, shit like that. So – try to disengage from the music but anticipate the moment.
Anything about the rest of the Beacon run you can share?
I don’t know anything. I mean – I’m going to go to the 26th, which is the 45th anniversary show and I’m going to go to the 29th. I went Wednesday night [3/12/14] first time this run, and enjoyed it. I’m going to go to the 45th and I’m going to the last one. I was at the first one and I’m gonna be at the last one. It‘s a wonderful thing. 25 years in one building. Almost 240 sold out shows when the run ends, 233 is what I think they are saying. Fuckin’ ridiculous!
It really is! Well, thanks a lot Kirk. I really appreciate your time.