Rock photographer Jay Blakesberg, whose new book “Jerry Garcia: Secret Space of Dreams” focuses on the legendary Grateful Dead singer and guitarist, always had a goal when he was shooting the late musician.
“For me, I loved Jerry’s smile, so to try to get that smile out of him was always important,” Blakesberg says. “I usually don’t try to get people to smile when I’m doing portraits of them. I did a shoot with Garcia once for Rolling Stone magazine in ’92, and he was at an art exhibit in Berkley, California, and we were backstage in the green room, the office of this gallery, and it was a very candid situation where he was doing an interview, I was just sort of getting his attention here and there and capturing him in storytelling mode when he would just break out into laughter. It was easier than me having to direct him and saying, ‘Jerry, give me your fake smile.’ ”
When Blakesberg began shooting portraits of stars like Garcia, Carlos Santana and Neil Young in the ’90s, they had already been in show business for decades, and the last thing they wanted to do was sit for a photographer.
“My job is to get the best shot that I can. So it’s this weird give and take,” he says. “These guys want to go out and eat lunch, and I want to make a brilliant photograph. So you need to figure out how to work within those parameters to get their attention, get them to do what you want to do without too many distractions, because you know you’re just going to have five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, if you’re lucky an hour, to shoot a band, an artist or a personality for a magazine.”
Garcia, he says, “gave you his attention as much as he could. He definitely wanted out, he wanted it to be over as quickly as possible.”
Garcia will be a major component of Blakesberg’s free exhibit, talk and signing at the Ace Hotel in New York Sunday at 3 p.m. The presentation will be followed by a performance by Grahame Lesh, Elliott Peck and Jesse Bardwell. His show will include slides and stories of his last 40 years shooting the Dead and its offshoot bands, as well as shots of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and others.
Blakesberg, based in San Francisco, is often on the road, shooting concerts, searching for “peak moments.” Like when Dead and Company — the band featuring core Grateful Dead members and John Mayer — goes into “Sugar Magnolia,” he knows to train his lens on Bob Weir. He remembers shooting a Dead and Company show in Boulder, Colorado, whose first set was plagued by technical difficulties, but when the band played “Sugar Mags” in the second set, “I never saw Bob so animated. I was ready for it. I got a shot where Bob is practically standing on air with Oteil [bassist Burbridge] behind him.”
Mayer wrote the foreword to “Secret Space of Dreams.” The relatively recent Dead convert is a key member of Dead and Company, and last summer he shocked and dazzled fans at Citi Field in Queens when he played Wolf, one of Garcia’s trademark guitars, for the entire show. Blakesberg, who is friends with Wolf’s “handler” David Meerman Scott, got the guitar in Mayer’s hands in LA, where he played it for five or six hours and decided he’d be able to play it on stage. For the Citi Field show, the guitar had to be removed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was part of the “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll” exhibit.
“There were all those flaming hoops that we had to navigate,” the photographer says. “Getting The Met to agree to let that guitar out for the day, and armed security picking it up and bringing it to Citi Field and watching it arrive and seeing them putting it on a golf cart and bringing it up to the stage and watching John’s guitar tech pull the plates off and look at the electronics and change the strings, and then getting it back to John in his dressing room and having him pull it out and plug it in and just sort of noodle around with it. It was really for me an incredible day, and I’m so happy and honored it happened and privileged to have been the guy to help make it happen and photograph it and document it.”
Blakesberg says he’s working on a book about psychedelics and the people who helped spread them, like Timothy Leary and Owsley Stanley, and those who were influenced by them. He’d also like to do a book on music festivals and one that focuses on Weir, the first Dead member to pay him to shoot portraits — in 1991 for Weir’s project with bassist Rob Wasserman. Until then, he’ll be hitting the road to promote his book and shoot more concerts, sometimes hired by the venue, the artist or a magazine, or sometimes just “shooting for myself.”
“It’s a great way to discover great new artists,” he says. “And it’s hard for me to go to a show without a camera.”
Photos courtesy of Jay Blakesberg