Gary James' Interview With Rock Photographer
He's photographed the greats of the 1960s and 1970s, including The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Grace Slick, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana and the list goes on and on. In fact, his friendship with Jerry Garcia earned him the title as the Unofficial Photographer of The Grateful Dead. We are speaking about Mr. Herb Greene.
Q - Herb, I think Emerson, Lake And Palmer wrote a song about you, "Lucky Man".
A - I don't think so.
Q - Not that you didn't work hard, but you were right in the center of where all the action was in the mid-1960s, San Francisco. You must have been aware of that early on, were you not?
A - I'm trying to go back to the Emerson, Lake And Palmer thing. I don't think they know me.
Q - I was just being funny. Herb Greene was a "Lucky Man." He was in the right place at the right time with the right stuff.
A - That applies. That's exactly right. That's right on. That was just like an opportunity falling on you.
Q - And you knew that early on, didn't you?
A - That's hard to say. People were just trying to avoid crummy jobs I think, mostly. (laughs)
Q - And you avoided one!
A - Yeah, I had to suffer with whatever. (laughs) But there was just enough stuff being thrown out that you could salvage. You could pay the rent. And again, it was very inexpensive to live in San Francisco at the time. You could get by on nothing and enjoy the city.
Q - Not like that today.
A - No, nothing like that today. Restaurants were really cheap. It's just a whole different city.
Q - I was surprised to learn that you didn't photograph musicians onstage. You would have them come to your studio for a sit down session. What was the reasoning behind not photographing them onstage? Would the photographs have been too blurry? Would it have been too difficult to get front row or backstage access?
A - I was never any good at it. I just thought it was kind of rude. I shouldn't say that, but I do. For me it's more private. I don't take snap shots often. Back then I had lots of opportunities to burn through five thousand rolls of film, Jim Marshall style, but I could never do that. My personality isn't there. I'm not intrusive. So, when you're doing a portrait sitting, that's all of a sudden intimate. It's consensual. (laughs)
Q - And it's not on you, it's on the person sitting in front of you, isn't it?
A - Yeah. When you're sitting, you're using the large formate cameras some of the times and medium format always and look like you were working. I was good at it. The camera just sort of plopped into place and all that. That disappeared a long time ago, but for lack of a better word, there was a zone. It wasn't really conscious either I think. I don't know. It was counter to my personality to do that, being shy. I'm not intrusive, getting back to that.
Q - You did get over your shyness, didn't you?
A - I performed when I was supposed to perform. I enjoyed doing it, but it was somebody else. Do the sitting and then do the laundry. Again, back then there was lots to do. You could go between L.A. and San Francisco. Other people went from New York to San Francisco to L.A. to cover the whole thing like Jim (Marshall), while I live under his shadow. (laughs) He's the guy, the heavy duty journalist. He's a little bit older than the rest of us. He had a pretty high I.Q. I would estimate. He had a lot of psychological overlays. He was like a real colorful guy. He was a journalist and carried a gun.
Q - And he had a really loud voice.
A - He had a really ugly voice! (laughs) I know Jim pretty well. We were friends. I'm from a long, long time ago, before he went to New York and came back. Anyway, different personality. He would kick down a dressing room door to get a picture. He was really aggressive. He was really intrusive. He could really be intrusive, but he was a journalist, a real good one.
Q - When you say journalist, do you mean he was a writer as well?
A - No. He was a photojournalist as well. He was there and he covered it.
Q - You first saw Jerry Garcia at a Bluegrass cafe called The Fox And The Hound. That was in 1961. Jerry Garcia was doing an acoustic act? Was he singing the Folk songs of the day?
A - It was a Bluegrass band. I don't remember the tunes. '61, could it be that early? I think it was later than that, '63 maybe. It was Fox And Hound or Coffee And Confusion. We used to go up to North Beach to see if we could find beatniks and they were gone, but that whole thing drew us there too. They were the common denominators, why were we in San Francisco. We all consumed the same media. It was limited media. There was Mad magazine. Then there was the political stuff, I.F. Stone, but the musicians were more aligned with keeping up with the latest Folk song. "How do we tune for this one?" That kind of thing. But it all happened so fast, to electric. Bang! They were doing it. All of a sudden Rock 'n' Roll wasn't the ugly step-sister, 'cause Rock 'n' Roll to those people when they were doing the Folk music was the worst thing that you could ever do.
Q - Then Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Festival in 1965.
A - Yeah. That happened before the San Francisco scene.
Q - Then it became acceptable.
A - Well, it was just unstoppable. It was gonna happen. It went up from the Blues to electric, to B.B. King and all those guys. Of course it was gonna spill over to the Folk played on the West Coast.
Q - After seeing Jerry Garcia, did you walk up to him and introduce yourself?
A - Yeah. We just started talking. He was a very gracious guy. It must've been '63, '64. I have a hard time with the time line. I really do. There are other people working on it. We're trying to get everything together and publish it ourselves, friends. I'm just tired of waiting for a publisher to pick it up. It's not going to happen. I've been looking for a publisher for fifty years. Seriously. I published a couple of Grateful Dead books. I really have to see my Grateful Dead book in a horizontal format and nobody's going to do that, you know? (laughs)
Q - It shouldn't be that hard of a sell. That era is always of interest to people.
A - I know, I know. It's a Grateful Dead Book for God's sake. Anyway, we're going to go out with material from the beginning to 1969. There's a lot of material I would never consider putting in. There's the Haight Street pictures, not many, but they're all gray, and there's the Be In.
Q - Your friendship with Jerry Garcia led to photographing other groups of the day with Big Brother And The Holding Company with Janis Joplin.
A - I was the guy with long hair and the camera. It's like that thing you mentioned in the beginning, the right place at the right time with the right attitude. I fit right in, by God. I was one of them. And it was exciting. We were used to living kind of rough anyway, a lot of us. Again, it was easy to live in San Francisco without too much money. At any rate, we were all hungry. I met Bill Graham and all that. My ex, my wife at the time became his secretary at my introduction and insistence kind of. It's exciting. All these people. It's killer. I really appreciate it now. It was like being in Paris in the '20s. How can you go wrong? (laughs) We were like down and out in Paris or London, a Henry Miller experience. Everybody shared.
Q - You liked the music then?
A - Oh, I loved the music. Folk music was great and I loved Bluegrass. That's how I tapped into Jerry, because of Bluegrass. I wanted to say hello to this guy. I don't know why I wanted to do that, but I did and it was pretty neat.
Q - What do you remember about Janis? Did you like her?
A - Oh, Janis was lovable. You couldn't help but love Janis. Her bright side was so bright. I didn't meet her the first time she came to San Francisco. That was pretty dark. I just knew her when all they (Big Brother) wanted to do was rehearse, (for) the love of the music. The energy. She was charming, smart, real bright, funny and all that. You couldn't help but love her. And I'm pretty sure she loved me.
Q - When you got to her, she was on her way up in the music business?
A - They were just rehearsing, Big Brother. When I was at State College I remember being at The Commons and I walked by Chet Helms and he was talking to Peter Albin about a band. I hadn't gotten involved with it yet, or maybe I had. I studied Communications at State for a year and then the next year the Haight thing broke. In the meantime I was still working the Wall pictures.
Q - What was this dark period of Janis you're talking about?
A - It'd be the first trip out. You'd have to research that. I mean, she went back to Texas. It's well documented. There's a book out by Alice Echols, Scars Of Sweet Paradise. It's really good. I really enjoyed reading it.
Q - As long as we're talking about people who were around at the time, did you cross paths with Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix?
A - No. I met Jim Morrison once, which is a long story. I never paid attention to The Doors until I just watched this documentary. I'm getting this great education and perspective on music now, the period because of all these great documentaries. I met Morrison because when I started working in Hollywood, and it was fantastic, one of the people that befriended me was Diane Gardner. She worked at Rogers, Cowan And Brennen, a P.R. firm. She was young and cute. She was friends with Eve Babitz. She was really deep into Hollywood. A generational thing. It's really interesting. Eve Was not only a driving force in Hollywood. The energy there was incredible compared to San Francisco. Anyway, Diane Gardner lived below Jim and Pamela in Hollywood or wherever it was, West L.A. So, she knew them really well. So, I met him once at her house and he was getting ready to live in San Francisco and in the meantime Diane had taken a job with Jefferson Airplane. Pam and Jim rented a little house, twenty yards from where Diane lived in Sausalito. Morrison seemed like a nice guy. He was pleasant.
Q - You never talked to him about his music?
A - No. I only knew him by reputation because of Bill Graham getting hit in the head by Morrison. Morrison clobbered him with a microphone.
Q - He probably deserved it.
A - Oh, I don't know. Bill Graham was like, wow! I knew Bill pretty well. I got to see a side of Bill Graham that not many people did. I was at the Fillmore all the time because of my wife. He assumed I managed The Charlatans. He said, "Who shall I hire for the opening act?" I said, The Charlatans." (laughs) Anyway, that's neither here or there, but that's the kind of fun it was.
Q - After a photo shoot with say Jerry Garcia, would you guys go out to dinner? Would you socialize with him?
A - No. At the beginning it was like that. Garcia and I were just friends, but as far as that level of hanging out, no, which is probably how I maintained a relationship with him.
Q - If you got too close to him you might not have liked him so much.
A - Well, I don't know about that. You get exposed to maybe a different side of him than you were used to which is really friendly and welcoming and all that 'cause he never forgot that you were there from the very, very beginning. They don't forget that. So, when I photographed Jerry we'd pick up the conversation where we left off in the last city, which could have been six years before. In the meantime I saw them pretty regularly because of them being in San Rafael and me being in Novato. In San Rafael I got to hang out at Front Street a lot. Enough, you know?
Q - You sell you photographs at museums and galleries across the country. What kind of questions do people ask you about The Grateful Dead?
A - They really don't. Museums don't sell anything. It's galleries. I'm whittling it down to just a few galleries. Most of the purchases are for gifts it's safe for me to say, a lot of them, and I kind of keep track of that. People will say it's a present. There's a lot of that, so they know what they're getting anyway. The nice thing about me is you know what you're getting.
Q - No one ever asks, "What kind of a guy was Jerry Garcia?"
A - There's that. He was exactly the way you wanted him to be. People used to say, "Do you think Jerry's in Heaven?" I'd say, "What makes you think he's in Heaven?" That guy spent a lot of time in Hell here. There's all of that stuff.
Q - Let's say you had this teacher at Yuba City High School who didn't suggest you take up photography, where would you be today?
A - I don't even want to think about that. Believe me, I'm only suited to do this. I realized that when Jerry died. This is why I was put on this planet, was to do that stuff back then. My purpose in the universe has been fulfilled. Now, I'd like to play in the garden.