[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Entering rock photographer Henry Diltz's North Hollywood house feels like stepping into Merlin's cottage, if the wizard carried a Canon rather than a cauldron. Your eyes drift toward old papers, books and framed pictures, piled high and haphazardly. Finally, they settle on a vault of photo slides stacked to the ceiling, an archive of 45 years of rock music: 400,000 of them, alphabetized from America to Frank Zappa.
The 73-year-old Diltz was the official photographer at Woodstock and the Monterey Pop festivals. Among others, he shot Dylan, Hendrix, CSNY and the Rolling Stones. His blue, one-story bungalow is more treasure trove than home, with the evidence of a life vividly lived towering above you. And only half the collection is in plain site.
Ten of his most famous shots are being showcased at the Standard Hotel Hollywood in conjunction with the Sunset Strip Music Festival's recent celebration of The Doors. The show runs until the end of August and includes the iconic cover photo of Morrison Hotel, one of roughly 80 album covers Diltz shot with graphic artist Gary Burden.
“We met with The Doors and asked, 'Do you have a name for the album?' They said no. 'Do you have a title or any ideas?' 'No.' Then Ray Manzarek said, 'My wife and I were driving around downtown L.A. the other day and we saw this old hotel that said Morrison Hotel,” Diltz says, sipping a smoothie, sitting before a mound of notebooks and scraps of paper with scrawled titles and ideas.
An employee of the long-demolished downtown flophouse wouldn't allow the shoot without the owner's permission, but when the employee disappeared into an elevator, The Doors rushed into the lobby, where Diltz captured the image of seedy, nonchalant cool in just one hurriedly snapped roll. After the shoot, Morrison led the search for a bar nearby, which led them to the original Hard Rock Café — a wino dive on Skid Row.
“The bar was filled with old guys who drank wine all day, and [Morrison] loved listening to them talk,” Diltz says with the lullaby cadences of Vin Scully. “[Morrison] bought them beers and listened with a bemused smile. He wanted to suck it all up. He never spoke much. He was always very cool.” A Diltz photo of the bar's façade and its grizzled clientele became Morrison Hotel's back cover. Shortly after the album's release, Diltz and the band received word that a London entrepreneur wanted to use the name, Hard Rock Café, for his new restaurant.
It's easy to understand why Diltz was the most sought-after rock photographer of his day. He's blessed with impeccable timing, affable temperament and artistic talent. A former member of the Modern Folk Quartet — a four-part harmony group that released two albums in the mid-'60s — Diltz even recorded a Harry Nilsson-penned single with Phil Spector.
The photography career blossomed after his slides from a Modern Folk Quartet tour were well received.
Approaching his 50th anniversary as a photographer, the co-owner of the renowned Morrison Hotel gallery in Soho has retained the existential curiosity of his youth. “If you want to be a photographer, then shoot everything. Figure out what excites you and just do it,” Diltz says, his eyes enlivening, as though his greatest photo has yet to be shot. “The moment is all there is. Yesterday is past. The future we don't know. We are living right now. So live right now.
“And yet I'm known for having this huge collection of moments that have already passed. I've grabbed these moments and saved them. It's hard to reconcile that.”