This is the autobiography of a rock photographer through words and pictures -- in that order, really, because as lifely as the pix may be (Faces, the Who, James Gang and the rest), the narrator’s life that gave them substance grabs stronger. I found ocular brine gathering a number of times while reading; not for the misfortunes of Tom Wright, the kind of talented, self-absorbed fuck-up anyone might know, but for the clear way he sees, as Jennifer Terran has written, what was lost and what it cost.
For good and ill, Wright’s journey has been a series of accidents. In 1963 at Ealing Art School, he made a friend of fellow student Pete Townshend by sharing blues records and weed, later becoming The Who’s road snapsman. He looked for a job managing Detroit’s fabled Grande Ballroom only after all his shit got stolen from his New York apartment. His first wife was a waitress he loved at first sight. He looked across the street at a building in San Antonio and got inspired to start an art school.
All in all, both aided and hamstrung by the boozing that nearly killed him, Wright proved capable at his many trades. And “Roadwork” showcases a couple of other skills -- an easy, rhythmic writing style (abetted by Susan VanHecke) and a lensman’s eye for detail. When his plane’s about to crash, he remembers exactly what he was doing with his pillow. In a crush at the Grande, he recalls a strange girl’s hair and the hat of a cop. He fills out the moment of spreading his work on a table for a friend’s inspection by including the accompanying tacos and the coffee in styrofoam cups.
A not uncritical fan, Wright will gag you with his observations on musicians. Iggy Pop: “The guy was a loser and I hated his music.” The Grateful Dead: “Minus the acid, the Dead would’ve been booed right off the stage.” Sun Ra “made you want to cover your ears and toss your cookies.”
The pictures themselves -- rock stars, unknown roadies, nekkid groupies -- keep giving more, the more you look at them. I can’t think of any other photographer who would take a photo of Rod Stewart and make you look at something other than Rod; the real star is the exact condition of the god’s hotel bed.
Okay, so I’m making a list -- just a small sample of the gems lying around between these covers. And for those who were around in what has become known palely as the Classic Rock Era, I’ll leave you with one little piece of hyperbolic Wrightly wisdom:
“It turned out that a lot of the bands I worked with were part of the most influential renaissance in human history, a war waged against things phony and mediocre by artists who were willing to go down in flames in the process. This wasn’t about money. It was about taking risks. Making a statement. Telling the truth. And that invisible spirit, that inherent sense of fearlessness, discovery and experimentation, still hangs in the back of a lot of people’s minds, still hovers over their record collections.”
Among other places, “Roadwork” is available for a lousy 20 bucks here.