Photo credit: Steve Hefter
Interview with Kirk West - Part 1
March 14, 2014
Hi Kirk. Thanks for sitting down with me.
This is for Rock, Roots, and Blues – Live; a web magazine that’s going to go live in a few weeks. I appreciate you taking some time to talk with me.
So we’re here at The Citrus Bar across from the Beacon Theater [in NYC] and you have a photo exhibit happening, can you tell me how this came about?
Well, the background of my photography was, I was a hippie with a camera for a long, long time, and about 1973 it started to come into focus – I mean literally – that maybe I could make something happen. I had a passion for photography from the time I was 10, and I started pointing cameras at musicians in 1968, and I haven’t really stopped. Throughout the 70s and 80s I made a pretty fair career out of it. I was living in Chicago and shooting all kinds of stuff. My focus, my field of interest, was country ‘cause that’s how I grew up in Iowa, listening to country music – rockabilly music – and I moved to Chicago straight out of high school ‘cause that’s where Paul Butterfield was, and I wanted to be where that was shaking so I got to Chicago and thought, “whoa – this is far out“
When was that?
Fall of 1968. I graduated in June, went to the Democratic convention in August – came back in October and settled into very interesting, very eye-opening, very mind-expanding existence of anti-war politics, rock & roll, and drugs. I learned my way around the music scene in Chicago and did a lot of traveling from ’68-’78 in and out of Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Colorado, Florida and kept returning to Chicago, all the while getting better and better at the photography, less and less of the counter-culture entrepreneurship and by the time I returned to Chicago and actually settled there on a permanent level in the summer of ’77, I had crossed the country multiple times come up here to New York city and I thought, “Let’s see if I can actually make a living doing this.” I was working in photo labs and little camera shops, a couple of studios…
And that’s how you were paying the bills?
Yeah – ya know – bills being what they are. So I hit it pretty hard with a little group of characters in Chicago that were shooting rock & roll. We all had our little areas of expertise. I liked the blues and country. One guy liked the glam –Kiss, Alice Cooper, that kinda big show biz looking stuff. Another guy liked straight ahead rock. Everybody kind of overlapped here and there but we all had what our passions were. It wasn’t necessarily our specialty, it was what got us off. And I made a good living doing that, ya know? Got some good accounts, we were all in Chicago and Chicago was different. It was the third city. It wasn’t the second city, it was the third city. New York and LA, that’s where all the action was. It’s where the magazines were coming from, and we were in the middle of the country and we had to prove that we could get prints for Rolling Stone to ‘em in 36 hours. There was no uploads. There was no downloads. There was no e-mail. FedEx and fax machines. And so, along the way, I became enamored, fan-boy, and then friends with The Allman Brothers.
Did you meet them in Chicago?
No, I actually met them in Atlanta. I saw them the first time in Chicago in February of 1970, a little club. Didn’t know who they were. Hadn’t seen the first record yet. Saw them in a little downstairs joint about the size of this place (Citrus Bar) and they were too loud. We were there to pick up chicks. It was a rock joint and figured, we scored there all the time, right? So - but these guys were really loud. They looked just like us. But you couldn’t really talk. So we hung an hour and left. A couple three weeks later, I was at a friend’s apartment and leaned up against the baseboard, where we used to put all our records, there was the Allman Brothers album. I said “Those are the guys we saw at Beavers.” Put it on. Listened to it at normal volume – changed the way I was living. And so over the course of the next eight or nine years, I found myself, made myself be in proximity and got to know them. They broke up in ’76 and I had shot them a bunch up to that point, but the when they fragmented, and Gregg went this way, and Butch went that way and Dickey went this way, they were playing littler clubs around Chicago, so we got to know each other at that opening. They got back together in ’79, did the tour and I went out shooting a bunch of shows on the tour and in ’82 they broke up again and I was formulating the idea of doing a coffee table book—photography – of the history. This is 10-12 years into their career and I started gathering other people’s photographs….roadies, Dickey’s, I was hop-scotching from Dickey’s house to Mama A’s [Geraldine Allman] house, and in the course of gathering photographs, Red Dog had a bunch. Widows and ex-wives had a bunch. Dickey said “Well, why don’t you write our story? Nobody’s ever done a biography. You know us. We trust you. Why don’t you do it? ” So I didn’t know enough about it that I couldn’t (laughing), so I tried ya know? It took us several years and in the course of traveling I would piggy-back I would have an assignment for Marlboro Country music? And the tour would end in Atlanta so rather than get a return flight I’d spend another month floating around the south. In the course of things I copied everything. Photographs, newspaper articles, scrapbooks, tape of every sort, and I spent nine months in ’82, ’83, ’84 just going down spending 3 months driving around interviewing and gathering. The book never happened. The biography never happened. The coffee table book never happened. But what did happen was the Dreams box set. The tapes that I had located and gathered and copied became the nucleus for the other stuff on the Dreams box set. I ended up as associate producer of the very first album project I had ever been involved in other than a photograph on a cover. It was an amazing experience. Ya know, to come out here, and Polygram put me up, and let me root around in the tape vaults and stuff for weeks. It was like I was a kid in a candy store.
On the job training...
It was great. Bill Levenson showed me how to do stuff. And so, they got together as a 20th anniversary thing, and I had, all through the ‘80s, after they fragmented in ’82 – we were tight. Gregg would detox on my couch in Chicago….ya know…I was the sober guy in that little scene, so people relied upon me in that way. So in ’89 when they went back out, I went out to shoot pictures. I felt very involved. Very proud. The ’89 tour went fine, then I went out doing the Seven Turns album covers and all the recording and we were actually working on a Gregg autobiography at that time, ya know, I had the knowledge, I had the history, but it needed to be in their words. You live your life, you don’t necessarily keep track of it. My passion was to keep track of theirs. So we utilized that knowledge and that resourcefulness and the fact that I kept track of everything in records and recordings and all that, So, after a month of rehearsals for the tour they had hired a freelance tour manager. The ’89 tour manager became Gregg’s personal manager, and so they hired a freelance tour manager from Las Vegas who had worked with bands like Bang Tango and Haircut 100. He was a young guy and he thought if he talked loud he could get Dickey or Butch or Gregg to move fast. So after him being at rehearsal for a week or so, getting to know everybody, and then three days on the road, and Dickey came to me and said, “Uh, If that son-of-a-bitch talks to me like that one more time I’m going to cut his tongue out. So we’re going to hire you to be his assistant.” I said, “I don’t know anything about tour managing.” He said, “No, but you know how to talk to people. He doesn’t. He wants us to do something, he tells you and you come tell us. He’s not going to talk to us anymore.” And he said, “At the end of this three week run, we’ll get rid of him, you come back on the next leg, shoot your pictures, and we’re all good.” Well, they got a new guy, and they kept me in that assistant role, and the new guy is their current manager. He, for a year and a half was their tour manager then moved up into the management slot, also toured with us consistently, he’s still on the road with them…
Who is that?
Bert Holman. So I moved up a notch on the ladder and continued to take pictures but learned the ropes on how to be a tour manager.
So where did you get the moniker “tour mystic”?
Well that was kind of an evolution Red Dog pulled out of his hat. I was calling myself the tour magician. My thoughts were I could pull rabbits out of hats and make assholes disappear (laughing). So, then Red Dog said, “You’re the mystic man” so that’s how that came about. I was always making funny little job titles for everybody. The laminate would have their name on one side and their job function on the other. And so I came up with all kinds of ‘em... travelocity was a big one because I got us from point A to point B, or one year I just decided – we were touring with some form of The Dead, and I called myself the Chinese Herbalist (laughing). And one of their guys came up to me – it would be listed in the itinerary as well as on the laminate, so he said, “What’s your background in Chinese herbalism?” (laughing), and I go, “Uh….there isn’t any….” (laughing).
Did you give the band names like that too?
Oh yeah….I’m not gonna tell ya…(laughing)….but, yeah, yeah….(laughing). Like the liquid light guy, Pete Rabinowitz. His hands were always dyed so I called him old blue hands. Ya know, stuff like that, just fun, just hootin’. So, 20 years of that, shooting album covers and shooting portraits sessions, and shooting live stuff, when the time permitted, when I wasn’t on stage being the policeman or the maître de – I’d go out in front and shoot a few. Different venues have different limits on what you can do. The Beacon, you can’t set foot on stage with a camera – legally – ya know, union regulations and stuff. But since I’ve passed on, I see a lot of on stage stuff from cell phones, ya know, which is not good, but in 2010, after archive releases and Please Call Home and opening The Big House Museum, all those things…I turned 60 and thought…”I’m working 20 hours a day. Musicians are playing three hours a day, they could do that ‘till their 80s. I can’t do this ‘till my 80s… So it seemed like the time…things were winding down. We did the 40th anniversary tour, and so, I went home. Sat home for about a year. Watched Law and Order reruns, thought, “What am I gonna do now? I still have energy, I’m not dead, I’m 60, I ain’t 80, what am I gonna do?” So I dug out all these old negatives, bought myself all the right kind of gear, scanners, taught myself a bit of photoshop. Learned how to do digital printing instead of souping – ‘cause I was a reeaally good black and white darkroom guy. I’m a good shooter, but I was a master black and white guy….
I was reading somewhere you listed some of your techniques…blowing smoke under the enlarger….some things like that?
(laughing)…Oh yeah. Take a nylon stocking and use it as a diffusing filter…, yeah, that kind of stuff. I learned from…ya know, black and white guys were a lot like short order cooks. If they were good, they could get a job anywhere. You could be an old drunk, ya know, but if you were good, you could get yourself a job. That’s history now. Everybody’s got a camera on their phone….I can’t give my enlargers away….(laughing). I have three really good enlargers in the garage at home and I can’t even give them to the camera shop at home in Macon. So, I started fiddling with this. I was doing the non-Allman Brothers stuff initially, because, it turned out, I was reliving every moment…ya know, I’d pull out a sleeve of negatives and I’d start to scan the negs and make the prints and I’d relive all those moments. And ya know – the Brothers had been my life for 30 years – it was like a divorce. You create some separation. So I focused on the Springsteen, the Marley, The Police, the country – Johnny Cash, George Jones….
And the Chicago blues guys?
Oh yeah – a lot of Chicago blues guys. Yes indeed. So, right across the street from where we lived, as we were building The Big House Museum, we sold the house and the collection to the foundation. We raised a bunch of money, created a big foundation, and then the foundation bought the house and part of the collection and [we] donated the rest of it. We just moved across town and the transformation of the house into a legitimate museum….’cause we had a couple of rooms about the size of this room in the house that we had a little stealth museum. We called them the archive rooms. And our relationship with the world was if you could take no for an answer, you’re welcome to knock on the door any time you want. If I’m watching NASCAR, maybe I won’t let you in, ya know? We’d get Japanese tourists at 9:00 on a Sunday morning. We had a carload of drunken polish guys one time show up at midnight…
Now – this was your own house?
Oh yeah – we lived The Big House. That was the deal. We bought the house in ’93. My wife and I moved to Macon from Chicago. We married in ’91, said, “Let’s get out of town.” She was a business executive and I was me so our social scenes didn’t actually blend, but she was a HUGE music fan…used to date Buddy Guy’s manager…knew the names of bass players in obscure blues bands. We met over an ad in The Chicago Reader.
Yeah – an old girlfriend wrote an ad – I turned 40 and she said, “get up off your ass and go meet somebody.” So she wrote an ad that would appeal to a woman. Not a guy writing about how cool he is…
So your ex-girlfriend hooked you up with your wife through an ad in a newspaper?
Yeah, yeah….and Kirsten was the very first person that called and the only person I met out of the two or three dozen that called and responded to the ad, and within 30 minutes of meeting her I knew I was sitting with the woman I was going to spend the rest of my life with. And it played out that way. So, we lived in The Big House nearly 15 years and during that time Gov’t Mule created themselves there, moved in and spent 10 days rehearsing and arranging their first set of songs, then went downtown Macon and played their first show. During the course of living there, Gregg stayed with us three times. Jamoie stayed with us three times. Butch came and stayed with us. All the old originals came back and stayed, with the exception of Dickey. The roadies came, we had funerals there, we had family re-unions there….and in the nearly 15 years we stayed there we probably had 25,000 pilgrims knock on the door.
So when did it become The Big House? Or when was it called The Big House?
It was always called the Big House. The band called it The Big House in 1970 when they moved in. It’s a 6,000 square foot, three story, Tudor mansion, right on a main road in Macon, and they’d all been living in little apartments, then they get this place and – there is a big piece on this on The Big House website that I think Linda wrote. So, when we decided we had enough of the pilgrims knocking on the door we thought, “What are we going to do?” We tried to sell it to a passionate crazy person….and I found a couple, but their wives….they had the money, they had the intent, they had the heart, but the wives didn’t want to pick up and move to Macon and operate a house full of old guitarists. But one of them suggested – one of them donated our seed money to start the ball rolling – and the other one came up with the idea of a foundation. Those two guys really inspired, they kicked the ball the first time…between the two of them. So, we started having events. We had Chuck [Leavell] play solo acoustic piano. He lives outside of Macon, so we got him engaged, got him on the board and he did a fund raiser for us. So we started having these fund raisers and the Wall Street boys – the Bear Stearns boy – here in New York were huge Allman Brothers fans and big supporters and they really helped raise a lot of money. We’ve had some folks up here, two or three individuals who really put their money where their mouth is and raised a bunch of money and built the museum and the foundation runs it –my wife and I have nothing to do with it any more, out of nothing bad – ya know – you raise a kid, send him to college, and wish ‘em luck, ya know?
So that happened, we moved across town to a nice little bungalow in a wooded neighborhood and we both retired, relaxed, and traveled a bit for fun, rather than herding semi-filled with cats like I had been doing for 20 years. So, across the street from our house where we live is the publishers of Macon Magazine and they knew what I was doing. I built a little website, signed a deal with Getty Images to rep myself and I just thought, ya know, I’ll just hang out. I’m really liking our place, we have a beautiful place, and maybe I’ll just sell some pictures and get some mailbox money, I’m not looking for another career. Well, Kirsten was talking to our neighbors who publish Macon Magazine and they wanted to do a feature on me. So they did a feature last year, a year and a half ago….and they turned me on to The Macon Arts Alliance, or they turned them on to me, and they did a gallery show last March in Macon. It was a little bit Allman Brothers but it was mostly the rest of it – blues, rock, classic rock, and country. It did really well. I’d never done Facebook ‘cause I said I don’t need to advertise for friends. I’ve got way too many friends, and it’s just more ways for people to ask me for shit (laughing). But I did that because the cat that is here working with me, Brian Shupe, is my colleague and motivator, and can build things. I can’t build things, I’m not a builder, ya know? I’m a shooter. I’m an observationist, I’m a professional observationist, and I’m a pretty decent camera man. So he encouraged me to do a Facebook page because we had a website and we had those links, I refused to do Twitter, but I did Facebook, and as a result of the show in Macon, I got another show off the Facebook page in Jackson, Mississippi that was a two month show. Brian is big on the jam band scene, he owns a club in Baltimore that books all these little….
What’s the name of the club?
It’s called The 8 x 10.
You know The 8 x 10?
Yeah - I’m from Maryland…
Oh really? Yeah, they’ve owned The 8 x 10 for eight years now. They do all kinds of festival work, Gathering of the Vibes, the Jam Cruise and all that sort of thing, and he said, “Ya know, you could sell some pictures if you get out to there on these festivals.” And ya know – kid glove, Hittin’ the Note, we’ve done little pop-ups and festivals and stuff like that. It never struck me that people would buy paper at a festival. Paper gets ruined in the rain, these are photographs, they’re not like a newspaper. But they have a little traveling group of artists, mostly poster artists and painters, and they call it The Grateful Gallery. They started it at the Vibes, and it’s expanded. They do The Peach Fest and Lockn’ Fest and all these littler festivals. It’s kind of a grouping of creative types that set up a circus tent, plywood floors, plywood walls inside the circus tent and everybody gets a little booth. So I did that at The Gathering of the Vibes last July and did pretty good. So then we did the Lockn’ Fest in Charlottesville over the Labor Day weekend, did REALLY well. So I thought, “Maybe I could make something out of this.” You price it for festival prices, you’re not framing and pricing as if it was an art gallery, where the gallery is going to take 40 percent or 30 percent and it’s gotta be museum glass, etc. Ya know, you make prints so it appears to be matted, you sign it, put it in a fifty dollar frame instead of a hundred and fifty dollar frame with matting and all that, and price it to sell. Because these images aren’t doing nobody any good sitting in my closet or on my computer.
Yeah – no one is seeing them.
No. So, posting these little things on Facebook has been really positive. It’s creating an awareness, ‘cause people didn’t know that’s what I did – people knew I was the tour magician. Ya know, the world at large in this day has very little knowledge of what I did before.
Yeah , yeah. They might notice that I shot the album covers, but a lot of people don’t read….
And that was your passion from the beginning – the photography.
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And as it turns out, I am a good sheep herder and I’m really good at making people laugh and follow directions without, ya know, I can control people with a nice touch rather than a punch, so I was good. I used to think out there that maybe, I’d feel like Baryshnikov sometimes, ya know? I’m a little rhinoceros looking guy, but I’m spinning so many plates and none of them are crashing. Ya feel like this is a good ballet.
Like things are working?
Yeah…so, as the life of the Allman Brothers has unfolded, this, from all observations and appearances, this is the last Beacon run, the band is coming to an end. Warren, Derek, and Oteil are definitely going. Gregg says it’s over. Butch’d like to keep playing ya know…who knows how it will all play out. When I met Kirsten in 1991 I said, “Baby, this won’t last much more than three or four years. ’95 we’ll be over.”
And here we are in 2014…
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.