Rock n’ Roll used to be a somewhat inaccessible medium for the masses. Many kids in the suburbs of America’s great cities who grew up in earshot of a powerful FM Album Oriented Rock radio station had very few avenues to get close to their favorite rock bands. If you experienced your formative years in the 1970’s, you understand. Sometimes even access to a decent record store was, as the kids say today, a “the struggle is real” moment. Countless songs about what the radio meant to the youth of that time were delivered over those very same airways through the family’s cheap hi-fi set, when you were allowed to use it. There was no MTV, there was no internet, no YouTube either. There were only a few venues where groups could play, and those were almost exclusively in major city centers. Back then, the best that most kids could do to get close to their musical icons was grab a copy of Circus, Creem or Hit Parader magazine at the local drug store. These were the days where teenagers across the United States adorned the walls of their bedrooms with posters of the people whom they could only hope to ever see in person. Those two-dimensional heroes looked down upon them as those adolescent dreamers listened to the very music their silent overseers created. If you were one of the millions who plastered your mother’s walls with these paper monuments to your far away heroes, there is a better than average chance that photograph was taken by Neal Preston.
The word legendary is often tossed around in a cavalier manner, and may have lost some of its meaning and impact. There are a few people to whom the word legendary does apply, and Neal Preston is truly one of them, working in a medium where the participants are not supposed to be part of the event. Photographers are to be unseen and unheard. In late 2017, Preston released a book chronicling his many years on the road with literally a who’s who of rock n’ roll royalty. Neal Preston: Exhilarated and Exhausted is a first person account of life on the road photographing acclaimed rock groups from the 70’s, 80’s and beyond. In a side room at the NAMM Show on January 26th, Preston addresses a small group of attendees, who by 5:30 pm, are most likely also exhilarated and exhausted and like this writer, are probably glad this is a sitting event. He displays numerous photos on a large television screen, off to the side of the podium, and explains iconic photographs with the same frankness with which most people caption instagram photos of their lunch. Preston relates stories like when Jimmy Page walked over to him in the middle of a song and asked him a question, like they were coworkers in an office. Stories of getting home and not even unpacking from one tour, only to catch an early morning flight to catch up with another major tour. From amazing performance shots to candid moment in time shots to formal photo shoots, Preston is one of the few who were let inside the inner circle that most will never enter. Preston has captured so many snapshots of musical history that you may be completely amazed by the sheer number he has taken. The photo of Robert plant with the dove (or pigeon as Preston maintains) in his hand, he took that. The photo from behind Freddie Mercury on stage at Wembley in 1986, he took that.
So what kind of people want to sit and listen to a photographer talk for an hour at the end of a day trekking around the Anaheim Convention Center, with artists and equipment as far the eye can see? One guess would be a few photographers, who can only dream of the possibility of photographing artists the likes of which Preston can hang his hat. Their may have been a few of those now 50-60 somethings who had his images lining the four surfaces of their meager quarters as a teenager. Regardless of the motives of the gallery, listening to Preston recount his experiences is riveting and elicits memories of looking at those pictures and thinking…what must it be like?