The new documentary Rock Prophecies is interesting and worth watching for several reasons. It avoids some of the usual cliches of music documentaries, where we only see and hear positive things about the protagonist. Instead, Robert Knight, a photographer who has taken photos of everyone from Aerosmith to ZZ Top and everyone in between, admits he sometimes questions what he’s doing with his life.
The movie also avoids falling into the usual documentary trap where things are predictable. Instead, as I say in the interview, I think it’s great that Knight spends part of the documentary taking care of his mom who has Alzheimer’s, and trying to figure out if and when he needs to adjust his artistic integrity in order to help her welfare.
How did this movie come about?
Tim Kaiser, the film’s producer, asked for a meeting with me relating to a project about Ronnie Wood. After talking for several hours, he was interested in doing a film on me. This came as a great shock to me because it was not something I had ever thought of doing.
To what do you attribute having been able to work with such great musical figures as the Rolling Stones, BB King, Led Zeppelin? Luck?
I was single-minded in my goal to work with great artists. It was a matter of timing, yes, but I put myself where I needed to be which was San Francisco in 1968.
Was the plan always to have the documentary also delve into the problems you were having finding care for your sick mother or is that something that happened – and it was decided to become part of the story – as the film was being made? Personally I find that part quite moving.
The director, John Chester, saw my relationship with my mother as an important part of my story. I was resistant to including it in the film, but he talked me into it and promised it could be taken out later if I didn’t like their edit. Everyone who saw an early version of the film said that it should be left in the film. It is very personal, but I’m happy with how it was handled.
What have been the highs and lows in your career as a photographer?
Some of the highs include working with the top guitar players in the world during my first six months as a photographer. The low was doing the final shoot of Stevie Ray right before his death, as we had become such good friends on the Jeff Beck 1989 tour. Another big high for me is finding and promoting the next generation of guitar players, and I have found many. Tyler Bryant, Josh Gooch, Graham Whitford, Yayo Sanchez, just to name a few. They are and will become the next Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Hendrix of their generation.
What do you hope people will take away from this movie?
No matter where you are from, you can reach your goal. I was from the middle of a weird part of Honolulu, and yet I was able to work with all my heroes. I do not feel I am anything special so if I can do it, so can you.
Some will see this movie on PBS but it’s also available for sale, right? Can you talk about some of the extras that are on the DVD, so people can see what they can get from buying the DVD?
There is additional footage with Jeff Beck, Steve Vai, and Santana. There is also another ending of the film with Tyler Bryant playing in front of 1000 kids in Montana rocking his brains out!
You were the only photographer who captured Stevie Ray Vaughn’s final concert. When he died I assume you were asked to share those photos but you refused. Can you talk about that? Was that a hard decision? Did you ultimately sell them after all? Are you proud of that decision?
The phone went nuts the next day, but he was a close friend and I just could not imagine my photos being used to exploit his death. I waited several years until Stevie’s PR agent, Charles, told me to let them out.
If you had to choose your three favorite stories about taking photos of musicians what would they be?
1. I had done a photo shoot for drummer Jim Keltner’s son and refused to let him pay me. Instead of paying me, Jim told me that the next day I should go to a hotel in Santa Monica, pick up Buck Dollar and take him to the Hotel Bel Air where Jim was supposed to meet us. The next day, Buck Dollar turned out to be Levon Helm, the drummer from The Band. We got to Hotel Bel Air, and I rang the room number Jim had given me and asked for him. This British guy answered the phone, told me that Jim hadn’t arrived yet but if I was Robert Knight to come up to the room. The “British guy” turned out to be Ringo Starr from The Beatles! I was already in awe from being in the room with those three legendary drummers when my photo rang, and it was Alex Van Halen wanting to know what I was up to. I told him I was with Ringo, Levon, and Keltner — he wanted to come over so I ended up in the room with those four drummers for eight hours! I got to do an amazing shoot of the four guys together.
2. The first time I shot Led Zeppelin, I wasn’t even old enough to get into the club. I called the hotel they were staying at and said this young photographer had come down from San Francisco to shoot them – i.e. me. Jimmy Page asked me to come over to the hotel and that night brought me to their first show in America in 1969 as their guest! I was the only photographer in the room!
3. Several years ago I was invited to shoot Aerosmith in Las Vegas. I was told I could shoot four or five songs. Two minutes before the show begins, my phone rings and it’s Steven Tyler telling me to get to their dressing room. Steven said I was only getting to shoot one song, but to go on stage and stand two feet in front of his microphone. I ran on the stage, the lights went down and when they came back up Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were right in front of me. I shot them live in front of 14,000 people while they played their opening number—wow!