CELLULOID PICASSO OF LAUREL CANYON
Updated: Nov 28, 2017
The amazing magical journey of World Class Photographer Henry Diltz
By Keith Chagall, Pop Music/Film Editor Century City News June 6, 2017
Oh if all of us could only find our true chosen path in this life so effortlessly. Some of us wander through life not knowing what is around the corner. And others just fall into a magical road, even if one had other designs and plans. As if an unseen hand decided that for the good of all, this shall be your chosen destiny. Such is the incredible life of one of the most celebrated photographers in the history of Rock and Roll, Henry Diltz. A special, almost other worldly gent who really only wanted to play the banjo and do four-part harmony with his pals in NYC, yet was thrust into a musical heart matrix where he had not only a front row seat to observe the beginnings of the historic Laurel Canyon golden years that spread into a worldwide musical revolution, but documented it through his original photos, done always in natural light, forever enshrining the moments when groups Crosby, Stills & Nash first coagulated their sound that would spawn from Laurel Canyon during the late ‘60s and onto the ‘70s.
Imagine being there when Mama Cass invites you to visit her home to hear CS&N trying out the blissful harmonies before a note had been recorded. Imagine driving through West Hollywood by an abandoned house with a sofa on the porch that became their first album cover. Or hanging out with The Doors who needed their own cover and finding the Morrison Hotel where that album shot was taken. Or driving with Don Henley, Glenn Frey and the rest of the Eagles to the desert in Joshua Tree, and capturing their moment with history. The list goes on and on. James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, The Monkees, David Cassidy, The Hollies, Life cover of Paul & Linda McCartney, and becoming friends with them all. There he was, capturing it all through his finely tuned and nuanced camera of organic light, being at the right place at the right time. It’s an unknown untold story, but then again Henry would want it that way, for his is a gentle humble, very Zen-like mystical soul, an astute observer who was welcomed to be part of the inside circle of Rock and Roll royalty. Rather than outline his story sequentially, this writer outlines vignettes of amazing things you couldn’t make up to give you a sense of how life can sometimes put a soul into the very heart of history, that 50 years on is still quite wondrous. In our continuing series of music legends, Century City News sat down for a recall session of unbelievable, yet true accounts of those halcyon days.
Editor’s Note: As we had done a recent article on Klaus Voorman, designer of the iconic Revolveralbum and close friend of The Beatles, Henry recalled a connection two degrees of separation that occurred the first time he heard a landmark album, before it had been released to America in 1965.
HD: The first time I hear this incredible music I was in a one-room studio on Rosilla Place in Laurel Canyon and three of my friends and I had dropped acid. So they are starting to laugh and giggle, and as I wanted to go inward and meditate instead, I climbed up the hill behind my house and I was sitting there in the dark meditating and all these mosquitoes were flying around. I was talking to them saying I grant you little beings permission to fly around me but please not bite me. And I was really trying to connect with them when I heard this music drifting up the road and it was like a cartoon character you know when you can smell the scent of a fresh baked pie and see the scent, so I followed the music across the street to a house where this music was coming from. I looked into the window where I saw this beautiful black lady, who I recognized as a go-go dancer from the Whisky A Go Go, named Cynthia. She was sitting on the floor within a ring of candles listening to this magical music. And I knocked on the door and she invited me in. I was in the throes you know and she could see right away that I was tripping, and she was like a nursery school teacher. She invited me in and made me a cup of tea and explained that she was listening to an advance pressing that Chris Hillman of The Byrds had been given in England by The Beatles. So I sat there with my mind being blown by this music that we have come to know as Rubber Soul! And Cynthia later married Klaus Voorman.
CCN: How cosmic Henry. Tell us about the early years before you became the legendary photographer.
HD: People say oh you’ve had such a life, you’ve met all these fantastic musicians and photographed them and that is true, it’s been a fantastic 50 years of doing that but then what I always say is really the interesting part is way before I even picked up a camera. As a young boy I grew up in Tokyo after the war, moving there from Kansas City at seven years of age. My parents were employed as a TWA pilot and stewardess. My real father was an officer in the Air Corp, and died testing B-29 planes. My mother remarried so that me and my brother would have a dad. My stepfather also worked for the State department and one of his assignments was in Japan, where we lived for five years. Next stop was Bangkok, Thailand and I was in an international high school over there. We were isolated there culturally speaking and could only get American 45’s when visitors from stateside visited. This is 1955 when Rock and Roll was just beginning to hit. We returned to New York and I graduated high school from Great Neck and was about to go to University of Montana studying wildlife technology as I was going to be a forest ranger. And my Mom said your Dad has been assigned to Bonn, Germany after the summer so you can either go to Montana or go to Europe with us. So I went to Munich and attended an American college affiliated with Maryland. I had a little motorcycle and travelled all over making friends and getting into music very heavily. I played harmonica and clarinet but in Munich I studied classical music and sang with a fantastic glee club that traveled all over Germany. I loved singing and was introduced to folk music as well. And then I got an opportunity to attend West Point because my father dying as a member of the Armed Forces and all. So I took the exam, passed and I really wasn’t going to go but people kept congratulating me, like in some Dustin Hoffman scene from The Graduate. "Congratulations my boy, what a great opportunity” So I went. The universe is calling me you know. And I totally enjoyed it. It whipped me right into shape. And it was all so interesting, the long grey line, the pomp and circumstance, the cannon booming and I loved it. They make you an officer and gentleman and give you an engineering degree. And I had a deep interest in Psychology 101. And fell in love with it because I realized that I am fascinated with life and with people. Who we all are and what this is all about.
It’s a crossover from the Forest Ranger thing. People like the animals are fascinating and I wanted to study the human condition. So after that first year at West Point, I continued my studies in Oahu, Hawaii, where I had a friend who had relocated and his family put me up.
CCN: Henry that is what most people do in a lifetime and you are still only 22!
HD: It was there that I picked up a banjo and started listening to Pete Seeger. As a member of the Columbia record club, I soaked up those albums. It was a hypnotic sound. And I fell into the coffee house scene. I met a wonderful fellow who owned the club and became my lifelong friend. After three years there we had formed a quartet and then we moved to LA to seek our fortunes. We played the Troubadour and got a standing ovation first time out as we played this four-part harmony tune and no one had heard too many four-part harmony singing. We signed with an agent that night, then with Warner Bros. records and for the next few years toured doing clubs, TV and the rest.
Fast forward to 1966 we are on tour and at one stop in the Midwest after a concert we stopped at a little secondhand store and there was a table of used cameras. And we all got one for no reason just to spend $20.00 on something. So we bought film and some guy showed me how to set the numbers on the camera. Read the Kodak box he said, and that was my photographic schooling right there. I set the numbers to 250 at 8 for outdoor sunlight. I followed the directions, went outside and all the pictures came out perfectly. Weeks later we arrived back in LA and I realized that all this film I had taken and developed were slides, so I said let’s have a slide show. And that’s what did it!
I started putting on these slide shows on the wall for all my hippie friends. It was magic to me. You were right back in the moment with these huge glowing pictures. I was capturing famous moments from our tour. And then I said this is magic I have to take more of these and do more slide shows. So I would set up these weekend slide show happenings for my friends, Neil Young, Mama Cass, David Crosby, and Stephen Stills. Eventually I started photographing them as well and they started using them for publicity.
It was so accidental. I just wanted to create more slide shows and that is how it began. Photographing all my friends was the door to what this has become.
CCN: Tell us more.
HD: By 1967-69 I was doing this at Monterey Pop, and getting calls from Tiger Beat to photograph The Monkees on their TV show. Became kindred spirits with Micky Dolenz, and as their photographer went on tour with them. Traveled with David Cassidy and then in ‘68 met a guy named Gary Burden, an architect and part-time graphic artist. He was designing Mama Cass’s home and she asked if he would design her forthcoming album cover. He had met me and recruited me to take the pictures and that’s how I got into doing album covers. And we became a team. We did the CS&N cover. And we did this by planning an adventure with the artists we were shooting. Maybe take them to the desert away from their girlfriends and phones. I would take hundreds of shots and Gary would say shoot everything, film is the cheapest cost, so I did. Then we would have slide shows and go over the shots with the clients. Gary had a great talent for picking the perfect shot. He would add the graphics and there you go. He had great taste. CS&N needed publicity pics and so we were driving around and Graham Nash had seen this dilapidated shack off Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood up the hill. We took some pictures. We later have the slide show and were not even thinking these would be a cover shot. But that one shot looked great. The problem was in the ensuing days, the group got their Name Crosby Stills and Nash, but the photograph I had taken had them sitting as Nash Stills and Crosby. So I said let’s just go back to that hose for five minutes, jump on the couch in the right order and click click, we’ll have the shot. But when we got back to house, the house was gone! It had been leveled into a parking lot which it still is today. So we flipped the original shot and that is the cover today. And Mama Cass was theGertrude Stein of Laurel Canyon. She introduced Nash to the other two, knowing they needed that high harmony part and she was very intuitive that way. LikeGertrude Stein introducing Hemingway to Picasso at her Salon in Paris during the 1920s. It was many magical nights spent with these brilliant artists, hanging out at Mama Cass’s home as she held court. They were amazing days indeed.
CCN: Recount the Eagles first two album covers and Doors’ Morrison Hotel cover episodes:
HD: Gary always wanted to do an adventure with the groups when shooting their album covers so one night after the Eagles finished their performance at the Troubadour, we drove off to Joshua Tree at two in the morning. Driving through the dark and arriving there at five in the morning we climbed up this secret magic mountain where folks would do hallucinogenic drugs and there we spent the day eating peyote buttons and smoking marijuana, laughing, playing music, taking pictures, just having a lark. And that was that. Did their first two album covers with them.
With The Doors, we got a call and met them at their offices on Sunset. They didn’t know what they really were looking for and Ray Manzarek said he was driving with his wife through downtown area and saw this funky hotel called the Morrison Hotel. So we all said sounds interesting and we headed over there. It was perfect but the front desk guy wouldn’t let us shoot any pictures there. As we were about to leave I saw from the corner of my eye that the desk clerk stepped into the back office and disappeared. "Quick I said to the guys, get back in there by the window. As I was outside and proceeded to take a quick roll, click click, and there’s the cover. Afterward Jim Morrison suggested we all get a drink so we headed down skid row to a bar called Hard Rock Café, and I shot them there and it became the back cover. Months later we got a call from investors in England inquiring about the name Hard Rock Café that they saw on the album and so they got the rights and started the Hard Rock Café brand.
We named my art gallery the Morrison Hotel Gallery and we now have four galleries around the world that house close to a million slides of my work. One in Soho, New York, and here in West Hollywood at the Sunset Marquis, and one in Hawaii at Mick Fleetwood’s restaurant called Fleetwoods, and finally one in Japan.
I get calls every day from people asking to use the images. We license them for use in books, television, lithographs, films, and it is an amazing thing that has grown from that one day in the Midwest when I purchased a $20.00 used camera.
CCN: There are so many more fantastic vignettes to this man and Henry continues to take incredible pictures to this day. Including my forthcoming album, "Sail on Betsy Ross” which Mr. Diltz says is one of his favorites. Readers can view this amazing cover at www.keithchagall.com
Henry Diltz you are so much more that the Celluloid Picasso of the 20th Century, you are an American treasure and we are forever grateful and thankful that you documented and captured truly one of the greatest periods in American music history. Thank you and keep clicking dear friend.