Most music fans are familiar with Cameron Crowe’s 2000, fictionalized, semi-autobiographical movie, Almost Famous. In the movie, Patrick Fugit plays a version of Crowe, who as a teenage, high school student, gets a writing assignment from Rolling Stone Magazine, to go out on the road with an up and coming band. It was a sensational, however largely true account, of a boy who metaphorically ran away and joined the circus. The film is mostly a coming of age piece, albeit prematurely, about the experiences of a naive, and pretty innocent young man, thrust into a world that most thirty-year olds would have a difficult time navigating. Of course Crowe went on to be a successful music journalist as well as an accomplished writer, director and producer. Now, as fantastic as Crowe’s story is, what if I told you there is another person, whose name you probably do not know, who lived maybe an even more incredible version of that life? Ed Caraeff is certainly not a household name. But his work has probably been in as many homes as Santa Claus. Don’t believe me? Read on!
The Modern Rocks Gallery in Austin Texas will host a 24 day exhibit of some of the most prominent works in Ed Caraeff’s catalog. Dubbed Eyes That See In The Dark, The Photography Of Ed Caraeff, the show will kick off on October 6th, with an opening reception, which will feature an appearance by the artist himself. On display will be several of his most iconic pieces, culled from his extensive collection of performance, candid and album cover works. Now that we have taken care of the business portion of this article, let’s dive into why the exhibit may be of interest, but more importantly, the story of the person behind the work and the remarkably unique path that lands Caraeff at this exact spot on the road of life, and quite a ride, it is!
On an unseasonably warm, early September afternoon, I drive down PCH to an apartment near the beach in Santa Monica, CA. In a very unassuming apartment building, not unlike all the others surrounding it, I enter the gate of the unit where I am to conduct the interview. The door to the apartment is open and I sheepishly knock and am approached by a man who introduces himself as Zox. He invited me into his sparsely furnished one-bedroom, beach style apartment, which is almost fully adorned with original artwork. Typically, allotted time slots for an interview will be no more than an hour. When Caraeff joins us, we begin what will end up being a three-hour conversation, which I believe could have been eight hours if left unchecked. The amount of material accumulated would suffice to produce a mini-novel. But, since this is Screamer Magazine and not Simon and Shuster, it’ll be presented in a Reader’s Digest version, if you will.
Caraeff’s journey to rock photo legend status had humble beginnings, much like most fantastic stories, it does not begin in a sensational manner. “I used to listen to the Dave Diamond show on KHJ every night, Monday through Friday. Every night he would play this song, Pushin’ Too Hard, by The Seeds. One night after playing the song, he goes ‘Tomorrow, if you’re out at LAX, the boys will be coming back, go say hi.’ Every week in photography class, there was a certain assignment, the last week of class, was anything you wanted to do.” Attending Westchester High School at the time, Los Angeles International airport was only a mile away. “In those days, you could just go to the airport and walk right up to the gate. I went to the airport on my lunch break from school. I had the school’s equipment, a Rolleiflex camera, that you look down at and a flash because I was a school photographer. I’m taking the photos and someone tapped me on the shoulder, I turned around and it was a blonde woman in a suit, all made up. She gave me a business card that said Crescendo Records, and her title. She said to me, ‘If those come out, I’d like to see them.’ I was in her office the next day during lunch with a cardboard box of edited and mounted prints. That’s how I got started. Mind you, I wasn’t there next week. I was there the next day!” As a reminder, this was 1965, when Caraeff was 15 years old.
The next iconic moment in his story is what is now one of the most famous photos in rock n’ roll history. Although it wasn’t at the time and it almost never happened. He took the iconic photo of Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar at The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and in case your math isn’t great, he’s 17 years old at this point. “I had a press pass for that show, by the way and a “friend” of mine, who knew I had one got there before me and used my name. They didn’t ask for I.D. back then. He took my press pass.” Can you imagine, one of the most iconic shots in rock history, may never have been taken, or at least may have been by someone else? “They went to Derek Taylor, The Beatles PR guy, he was in charge of that show, I tell him my story and he let me in and he’s responsible for getting me that show. If he wouldn’t have let me in, somebody else possibly may have gotten that shot. Would they have gotten up on that chair to get the angle I did?”
The story of how the Hendrix shot became legendary is as unique as his story. Although taken in 1967, and was probably published somewhere, Caraeff didn’t immediately recall where, exactly, it was just another concert shot at the time. That all changed in 1987, when he received a call from Rolling Stone Magazine founder Jann Wenner. “He gets on the phone with me and acts like he’s my best friend. I don’t remember ever meeting him, but I guess I had. He said ‘Ed, I’m doing an issue on the best rock performances ever, and for the cover, I’ve got it down to two images, and I want to use your shot of Jimi burning his guitar in Monterey.’ The first words out of my mouth were, what’s the other shot?” Being a guy who had monetized his photographic work, he was negotiating. “Wenner said, ‘It’s Pete Townshend doing the windmill.’ Hendrix burned his guitar one time, Townshend did that 100 times a show. He put that shot on the cover of Rolling Stone. There’s a song by Dr. Hook, called The Cover Of Rolling Stone. I’m proof that the song is true, because Jann Wenner made that shot famous.”
Caraeff would spend the remainder of the 1960s photographing bands and making money doing it. At a time when most of his peers were flipping burgers, he was photographing some of the biggest names in not only rock, but music in general. He once received a check for $50.00 in the mail, much to his mother’s astonishment. Remember, in the late 60’s, 50 bucks was a good amount of money. Much of this happened before he was even an officially licensed driver. He spent countless hours in a darkroom which his parents had made for him in the rafters of their garage. He would play music and process photos into the wee hours of the morning. That is, if he wasn’t sneaking the family car out at night to go shoot a band. He spent so much time honing his craft, that at one point his parents would contact his photography teacher to see if all this time he was spending was worthwhile. I think based on the body of work he created, it can safely be said, that yes, it was.
Now in the early 1970s, Caraeff receives a telephone call, “It’s this guy named Zox, and he wants to show me his portfolio. I didn’t really understand why, how does this relate to anything I do? But, I was courteous I think. In the months that followed, my lady and I we loved to go out and eat spicy food. And we started to see Zox and his girlfriend at these restaurants.” So they found a friendship in shared love for spicy cuisine, which blossomed into a working relationship. As Zox remembers, “Ed called me and said, ‘Hey, I think I have a project for you.’ So it was for Three Dog Night. He wanted a background. I did this 20 by 30 foot background of an Italian train station with a train coming in. We cut holes in the canvas and put lights behind them. We had actual smoke coming out.” That was the Album Coming Down Your Way.
The two would go on to work on numerous subsequent projects. Tom Petty’s first record, and Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam most notably. Regarding Steely Dan, Caraeff recalls, “I got a phone call one day from somebody I had never heard of. He said my name is Donald Fagan, I’m in a band, and we’re going to be on ABC Records.” Originally designed for a Van Morrison album that would have been titled Naked In The City, but never came to fruition, Zox had painted a backdrop. “The converging buildings were done for that album. Now the M.O. for Steely Dan was always the same, he’d say we got a new album coming out and we need a cover. I would ask when do you need it and the answer would always be, tomorrow!” Zox interjects, “Ed called and says that we have to finish that painting. So for the next 100 hours, me and a couple of guys who worked at my studio worked on finishing that painting of the converging buildings.” At the time, Caraeff’s future wife’s sister and her boyfriend, who was also a photographer, were staying with them. Caraeff continues, “I was looking at some of his shots and he had a picture of a homeless guy sleeping on a bench. I made an 11 square inch color mock up of this on an overlay. That’s the story of that album cover.”
His association with Three Dog Night would be a long one and is one that goes back to his high school days. “I had taken some shots of Steppenwolf, when they first came out. There some good ones and I found out who their manager was.” Upon showing the shots to their management, he was informed that they had their own band photographer, Tom Gundelfinger. “I didn’t know that was even a thing! They said they had a new band and they had no photos of them and they were playing an after hours gig on like Sunset and Cahuenga. They’re going on at 4:00 in the morning, if you can get some photos of them, we’d like to see them. They’re called Tricycle.” So, he snuck the family car out and got the gig. “A few albums in, they’re big now. Danny Hutton, one of the singers, totally changes his look. I get nice photos of the three singers, mounted on cardboard and show them to Jay Lasker, the head of the record company. I bring him the shot, and return to my seat. He screams, ‘WHAT THE F**K? I spent all this money promoting them. What did he do?’ And Lasker throws it at me, it comes flying at me, he could have blinded me.”
Caraeff would create over 200 album covers in his 15 year career. His first being Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense And Peppermints at age 17, and his last being Private Eyes by Hall and Oates. In between he worked with the aforementioned artists, as well as Elton John, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Dolly Parton and so many others. “I had an unlisted telephone number, I had no portfolio, I had no business cards, I just got a lot of work, word of mouth. I was a one man show for the most part. I develop all the film, edit, manipulating everything. He would eventually move to New York City, where he prepared his first portfolio and bought his first suit, and began to solicit work with record companies, whose work he respected. He would work as a creative director for CTI Records, a jazz genre subsidiary of Columbia Records. It was there where he would finish his career in music photography, all at the ripe old age of 30.
So, he has stepped away from photography, end of story, right? WRONG! We already know he had a passion for spicy food. “I became a single parent in Manhattan, with two young sons. I thought, this will be easy, because every block has thirteen restaurants. So the first ten days, we had burgers, pizza, French toast, and I started thinking, they’re not eating any vegetables, or fish. So I started to go to these bookstores that just had cookbooks. I would read the index on how to bake a potato. There’s a lot to know.” Already having a love for interesting food he thought, “It seemed like such a creative thing. My friends were enjoying it. I was doing mango salsa and watermelon margaritas in ’85. I was doing stuffed chilis with tofu, currants and cinnamon. Mixing Indian and Mexican or something like that.” He embarked on a 30 plus year career in the culinary arts, owning several different restaurants. He ran restaurants in New York City, Santa Cruz, California and Hawaii.
Two lives down, one to go. Caraeff had lived his life at a frenzied pace since before he was able to drive. Spending countless hours in the darkroom, and billing his clients, planning and executing projects. “There was never enough time, so it was coffee or stimulants to make my day longer, to get more hours. Then I got into the restaurant business. As long as I can remember, my alarm was set at 5:20 a.m., I just got up early all the f**king time.” At the age of 65, he finds himself in his doctor’s office. “They had found an aneurysm in my aorta. He’s telling me what this entails, I silently stopped listening to him. I thought, bucket list. What would I regret not experiencing, eating, traveling, doing, apologizing for, if I knew the end was near?” So, he sold all of his possessions, including his photographic catalog, purchased a Volkswagen Westfalia camper van, he lovingly calls Moonbeam, and hit the road. What do his days consist of these days? Aside from living a vagabond life between camp grounds, and driveways of friends, which is why we met at an apartment in Santa Monica, his life is now much simpler. “I try to do nothing before noon if I can help it. I wake up, I listen to music. I have a glass of orange juice. I make the very best cup of coffee I can, with beans that I source and grind. There’s been no compromise on that.”
Life in a camper van, traveling the road less traveled can also present pitfalls. “I got stuck somewhere, and I spent somewhere around 72 hours giving myself a high percentage chance that I would die. I was fine with that. I tried to hike out of this situation. There was no cell signal, I was way off the main road. There were just buzzards, a mountain lion and a snake, I had my knife with me.” Obviously he did not die, “I have pictures of all this too, by the way. I actually thought I was going to die. It’s not all been ominous however, I did a lot in the first three years. I went to the Florida Keys, upstate New York, because I wasn’t sure how long I would be able to do it. When I was telling my doctor about all this, the first words out of his mouth were, ‘If not now, when?’ I didn’t know how long I was going to live.”
If you find this abbreviated telling of the journey of Ed Caraeff interesting, you’re not the only one. There is a documentary filmmaker named Doug Nichols who has embarked on a project to bring Caraeff’s story to the masses. He does not know when it will be released, “My thought about that is, honestly, when I die, it’ll come out.” As much as I would like to see that story in its entirety, in much greater detail than could be chronicled here, I do hope it is a long time before it comes out, if that is the stipulation. Caraeff sees himself as the accidental photographer. “I was working continually in a career I never even knew existed as a job choice.” The fact of the matter is, it probably didn’t so much before him, at least not in the way he did it. For a man who has had his share of beginnings and endings, there is one thing that shines a ray of hope on his life. “People think that taking the photo was the end of it. Taking the photo was never the end of it. It was just the beginning.”