Friday, March 26, 2010

My Vodka Breakfast with Jim Marshall

Late Wednesday night, I received word that iconic music photographer Jim Marshall had passed away at the age of 74 and I felt a pang of regret. For months now, his latest book, 'TRUST', has been sitting in my office, sent to me by the publisher - a reminder to schedule the follow-up interview that I never followed up on.

I first met Jim Marshall on the second day of 2004. A few weeks prior, I'd suddenly become obsessed with his famous 'flipping the bird' photograph of Johnny Cash at the San Quentin sound check in 1969. I must have a poster of it, I decided.

And so, I began trolling the interwebs and - what luck! - came upon the phone number of the photographer, Jim Marshall, who lived right in my very town: San Francisco. What are the odds? In a moment of ballsy idiocy (with occurs with some frequency in my life), I impulsively picked up the phone and dialed the number.

As the phone rang and rang (he had no answering machine), Jim's career bio popped up on my screen - his massive, beyond-impressive resume that included so many legendary subjects - Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, John Coltrane, The Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen - that my wee brain nearly popped. You know that shot of Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire? Yeah, Jim took that.

Jim Marshall has shot more than 500 album covers and his work resides in the Smithsonian. Dennis Hopper's character in Apocalypse Now was based on Jim Marshall (photo at right). When The Beatles held their final concert at Candlestick Park in 1966, Jim was the only photographer allowed backstage. Holy crap - this was the guy who friggin' invented the All-Access pass!

"Hello?", said the gravelly voice.

Dear God, was I really going to ask this legendary artist for a fucking poster? Was I that much of a flaming idiot? What in God's name have I done?!

"Hi. Is this Jim Marshall?" I managed to squeak out.

"Yeah!" he barked.

And then it dawned on me that I might just have an out. At the time I was doing film reviews and interviewing actors and directors for a local radio show, "Movie Magazine International" on KUSF-FM, 90.3.

"I'm calling to see if you'd be interested in doing a radio interview for a local station here in San Francisco...?" It was a made-up lie but at least it was better than my original question.

"Sure. When?"

And so, I managed to not make an ass of myself and arranged to meet Jim at his Castro apartment a few days later. I never did mention the poster.

I arrived just before 11:00 a.m. and knocked his door that was covered in "Jim Marshall for Mayor" stickers (he'd made a few unsuccessful attempts) and a scruffy man answered the door. Jim looked like he'd just gotten out of bed and I came to learn that he pretty much always looked like that. "Do you like vodka?" he asked.

"Um, I'm more of a whiskey girl but really, Jim, I've already had breakfast so ..."

"Debbie! Um, I mean, Lisa!"
Jim always had a young girl working for him who ran his life. An exasperated girl appeared in the room with a distinct 'What now?' look on her face. "Can you go to the store and get us some vodka?"

"You've already got three bottles in the kitchen," she said.

"Oh, good! Bring us some."
So she did - no ice, no mixer - nothing like straight vodka before noon.

Jim took a gulp and stated. "I'm actually not much of a drinker. I like cocaine. I just keep it around for company."

Clearly, I was in the presence of Greatness, and from another era, no less.

So, I began arranging my gear for our interview - laptop, microphone, small digital camera and my large film camera. "You got too many toys," he growled.

That day, Jim's living room was filled with black-and-white prints, all being sorted and organized for his book, 'Proof.' Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen, Mel Torme, Michael Douglas - each one a masterpiece.

We chatted and he let me snap a few shots although he was very shy and wouldn't look at me. As someone who is more comfortable behind the camera than in front, I totally understood.

The interview (which can be heard here) began in a classic fashion. I made a comment about being Annie Leibovitz calling him "THE rock-and-roll photographer" and his graveled response: "I don't shoot rocks! I shoot people! Ansel Adams shoots rocks!"

I asked him about the Cash photo ... big mistake. Jim launched into a full-scale rant: "Arggh! I HATE that photo! I wish I'd never taken it. More than any other, that shot has cost me so much money and grief. So many people have stolen that image and used it for all kinds of things. My lawyers can't chase them down fast enough. Do you know that you can even buy cheap posters of that shot?" he looked at me, incredulous.

Wisely, I repressed the urge to say, "Where?" and instead chose the words, "That's terrible!"

We had fun, for sure. At some point, he mentioned that another interviewer from the local NPR station, KQED, was coming over so I began to pack up my 'toys.' "Oh, well thanks so much for your time, I-"

"No! You don't have to leave. Hang out, it'll be fun!"
he said. Alrighty, then.

And so, I hung out on Jim's couch, going through his amazing prints, while the lovely Elizabeth Pepin showed up with her toys. The three of us had a lovely time together and I really never wanted to leave.

Turns out, I didn't have to. After Elizabeth left, I said, "Well, this has been great, Jim, but I should be going ..."

"Really? But 'Law & Order' is on!" he said, somewhat pleading.

And so, there I was, watching TV with Jim Marshall, the godfather of music photography and all I can think about is that he used to do drugs with Janis Joplin, sleep in Johnny Cash's house and went to Jimi Hendrix's funeral with Miles Davis. But now, evidently, he's into vodka and L&O. I should have pumped him for more stories but I got the sense he just wanted to relax and hang out.

Eventually, I left - some six hours later - but we hung out a couple more times after that. Jim, as many of his friends will attest, was somewhat unpredictable in mood. He could be cuddly like a bear, like the day I met him, or irascible like a dragon.

One time I showed up at his doorstep and rang the bell. He literally poked one eye past the door - his hair sticking wildly up. "Hey Jim, I was in the neighbor-" SLAM! A week later, he'd take me to lunch like it never happened. Jim was a bit of a Jekyll/Hyde character but overall, pretty lovable.

I recall mentioning to one pro photographer that I'd been to Jim's house. "Well, that's odd," he said, looking me over and holding up my arm, "You don't seem to have any permanent scars."

As the years went by, I'd taken up the habit of calling Jim on his birthday, February 2. I never did it to remind him of who I was (for it was not something to be counted on) but because he was always so delighted by it. He just loved it that someone remembered the date. One year, I caught hell for missing the year prior: "I waited but you never called!" he yelled, in that famous gravel voice.

Jim was one-of-a-kind photographic master and a powerful witness to so much cultural history, I can't hardly believe my luck in having spent time with someone of his experience and talent. The only silver lining in all this: I guess this means I can finally stop feeling guilty about having that big Cash poster in my office.

RIP Jim Marshall, you lucky bastard. Next time I get my hands on some vodka, you'll get a fine toast.


fyrchk said...

When are you going to write your autobiography? Because you are one of the most amazing people I know. You know EVERYONE! And have such great stories! I love reading them.

Is it the horseshoe?

ClizBiz said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I feel like I've been writing about dead people alot but I guess cool people have to go sometime, dammit.

I believe this is Sydney's horseshoe, yes.

Susie said...

Jim Marshall AND Phyllis Diller? You say happy birthday to the coolest people.

hotdrwife said...

I loved this story, for sure.

ClizBiz said...

Okay, I'll admit there's a certain Forrest Gump-esque quality to my life, but with less chocolate.

Heidi's heart said...

Heather, you are really Forest Gump, aren't you? You have met so many amazing people. Once again, good for you.