The Fashion, Passion & Surrender of Hippie Chick
Rock photographer Jay Blakesberg has shot concerts for decades now. Just recently, he published two new books. The first, Hippie Chick: A Tale of Love, Devotion & Surrender, features photos of women dancing at Dead shows and various festivals. The second, Fare Thee Well: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Grateful Dead, includes photos from the farewell concerts that the remaining members of the band played this past summer. Based in San Francisco, Blakesberg has had work featured in Rolling Stone, Guitar Player, Relix and many other magazines. He has photographed acts such as Dave Matthews, Phish, moe., Tom Waits, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Carlos Santana and the Grateful Dead. He spoke to us via phone from his San Francisco office.
I think you grew up in New Jersey. Talk about how you first got into photography.
I grew up in a small suburban New Jersey town called Clark that’s just south of New York City. In high school in the 1970s it was something I liked to do. I started taking pictures of friends, and I started borrowing my father’s camera to bring to some concerts. I went to my first Grateful Dead concert at the Meadowlands in New Jersey in September of 1978. The main reason I started taking pictures at concerts was to create my own memorabilia. I wanted to put the pictures on my bedroom wall.
What was it like to shoot your first Grateful Dead concert in 1978?
The stage was super high and they had these giant monitors on the stage. From where I was standing, which was maybe 40 or 50 feet back from the stage, it was still almost a 15 to 20 foot high stage and you could only see the band from about the waist up. It wasn’t really thought out in those days. I remember when I developed the pictures and made some prints in the dark room that I was really excited about it. Now, 35, 37, 38 years later, I still get excited when I download my photos. That enthusiasm and excitement and passion and inspiration still exists in my life as a photographer today. Back then, the driving force was that you’d be in the dark room with this red light glowing and you’d make a print and expose a piece of paper and throw it into this developing tray and up would come this image. It was very magical and inspirational experience. As a teenager, that was a really cool experience. It kept me going and kept me driven. I wanted to have that experience over and over again. It was a really big rush.
Do you still have those photos from that show?
At some point you moved to San Francisco. How did that happen?
I moved to the West Coast in 1982. I was going to college in Olympia, Washington, at Evergreen. I did my last year as an internship in the Bay Area. I had a girlfriend who wanted to go to school in the Bay Area and we agreed to move there. I would just bring my camera to concerts. I didn’t even have a photo pass. That was a weird transition time in the mid-’80s. It was the beginning of corporations taking over and clamping down on photographers. You had to go through publicists. I was still going to club shows where you didn’t have to do all that. Some of those shows were Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Butthole Surfers, Soundgarden and Nirvana. I would go to see these bands in these weird places where you didn’t need a photo pass. I did that and built my chops a little bit. I started showing my photographs to different magazines. I walked into BAM Magazine in the late ’80s and showed them my work and told them I wanted to shoot some covers. They looked at me and chuckled and then they called me, and I had my first cover, which was Camper Van Beethoven. I shot 50, 60, 70 covers for BAM over the years. In late 87, I shot a free U2 concert in downtown San Francisco for Rolling Stone. They liked what I did and I started becoming a regular. That was November 11 of 1987. They were filming Rattle and Hum. Since then, I’ve done about 300 assignments for the magazine. I had some good lucky breaks and “Almost Famous” moments and just kept going from there.
You published a coffee table book on the Grateful Dead archive back in 2002. Talk about that project.
That was my first coffee table book. That was called Between the Dark and Light. I did that with a publisher here in San Francisco. I got the bug to do books at that point. I thought it was cool and wanted to do more books. I did one on Primus after that. I had been working them for a 15-year period and convinced them to do it. [Singer-bassist] Les Claypool wrote the forward. It’s a limited edition book. That book did really, really well. Then, I did a Flaming Lips book. Traveling on a High Frequency is a 30-year retrospective of my work. And Hippie Chick just came out.
Tell me more about Hippie Chick.
It’s my tenth coffee table book. My eleventh coffee table book is about the final Grateful Dead concerts. When I did that first book on the Dead, I thought it was my one shot. And now here I am with my eleventh. I feel very lucky. But most of the books I’ve self-published. There have only been two that I published with a publisher. I joined Facebook in 2008 to help market my Traveling on a High Frequency book. In about two years, I had a following and started posting my old Grateful Dead photos. They really resonated with a lot of people. There was an article on Huffington Post about how those photos were galvanizing the Deadhead community. If you go on Facebook now, there’s a huge Deadhead community. People wanted me to do a book on Deadheads. I didn’t feel like I could do a book on just the Deadheads that was rich enough. But about seven or eight years ago, I started doing photos at Mountain Jam and Gathering of the Vibes and moe.down — festivals that anywhere from ten thousand to 25 thousand people. About a third are old and the rest is more current. Edith [Johnson] saw a photo I had taken of her at the Lockn’ Festival. She did a blog called Festival Girl and wanted to repost that photo. I said sure. We started a conversation and we met for breakfast in Brooklyn and hit it off. She wrote three incredible essays — one called “Love,” one called “Devotion” and one called “Surrender.” That’s the subtitle of the book.
What are the individual chapters about?
Love is about how you love a band and fall in love with them and their community. Devotion is about how you are devoted to a band and might wait all day online to get a spot on the rail or travel long distances to see them play. You collect their music and memorabilia and set lists. Surrender is going to the show and surrendering to the moment and forgetting about everything else that is going on in your life like your kids, your spouse and your car payment. [Edith] wrote an introduction about getting involved in the music scene after a very academic career. Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane, the original hippie chick, wrote the forward. And Grace Potter, the modern-day hippie chick, wrote the afterward.
Did you come up with the categories?
Yes. In 1980, there was an article in BAM long before I even knew about the magazine or worked for it. Somebody sent me an issue called “Deadheads: A Strange Tale of Love, Devotion, and Surrender.” It was written by Blair Jackson, who’s a friend of mine. He’s written numerous books on the Grateful Dead and used to publish a fanzine called The Golden Road. I called Blair and said I wanted to use part of his title for a book I was doing. It was really the title of a Mahavishnu Orchestra album. I knew that. But for me, it resonated because it was the title of his article. He said, “Of course, you can use it.” I was following protocol and didn’t want him to be surprised. We went back and forth about keeping that subtitle. I finally had one of those epiphanies and decided to keep it and divide the book into those sections. We wanted to find photographs that fit into the sections even though the photographs would fit into any section. They’re similar in a lot of ways.
How many photos did you sift through?
About 100,000. They’re from Dead concerts and festivals. There are 445 in the book and 75 to 100 are from Dead concerts. I had to go through all my photos from moe. and Phish and Widespread Panic. If I go to a festival, I might shoot two or three thousand photos a day and about 200 of those might be of fans. Out of those, there might be 20 that are candidates for the book. I went through all of them but I didn’t know how it would lay out. I didn’t realize there would be small photos cropped in tight. Photos I thought wouldn’t work would then work. I spent six or eight months going through photos nonstop. There weren’t 100,000 photos of hippie chicks but there are 100,000 that I had to go through to find them.
Has the “hippie chick” changed over the years?
So many people have commented that they look at my photos and they think they could have been taken in the ‘60s,’ 70s, ‘80s, ‘90s or 2000s. They’re timeless. The one thing you’ll notice is that you’ll see there are no cell phones in the early photos. At dead shows, there are no people holding drinks. Those are the two main things. Bare mid-riffs and head dresses and long skirts were all popular. Even back in the Deadhead shows, they were more hippie chic. They’re different than the fashion parade that happens at Coachella. It’s a very different scene. The book is really about fashion and passion and inspiration, and the connection between live music and the women who experience it.
Is today’s music fan as in touch with the music?
It depends on the show or festival. Coachella is more of an Instagram/Social Media festival than Gathering of the Vibes. But I think at the festivals that I shoot people are there to immerse themselves in the experience. My criteria was pictures of women in the throws of ecstasy. I wasn’t looking for pictures of beautiful women holding up their phones taking a picture. I wanted photos of someone whose eyes were closed and was riding the rail or whose hair was in the air and had a big smile. Are there pictures of people standing there? Sure. But I wanted photos of people who were dancing and smiling and engaged in the moment. Most fit that bill.
Does it bother you that everyone thinks he or she is a photographer?
It doesn’t bother me. It bothers me that the world we live in is one in which mediocrity rules because everyone has a camera. You see stuff on social media all the time of a famous person on stage that is a famous person on stage singing into a microphone. You’ll see 45 comments that say, “Great picture.” That’s just because it’s a picture of a famous person not because it is actually a great picture. We’ve become desensitized to brilliant photography. I try to contribute but I don’t hit that grand slam every time because nobody can. But I have high standards and 40 years of experience. I think I know the difference between a mediocre photo and a really great photograph or even a brilliant photograph. Even though I did portraits of Jerry Garcia some 25 years ago, I still think I’m only as good as my last photograph. I need to remain relevant. That’s one of my goals. I work hard at 54 years old. I’m still out there trying to prove myself, even though I don’t have anything to prove. I don’t want to just be a social media poster. I want to work for magazines and record companies. I’m a commercial photographer. There are people out there buying photography who aren’t qualified. They might be marketing people. They hire photographers and they don’t know the difference between a good photograph and a brilliant photograph. Good becomes the standard. I don’t want to just do good. I want to do great.