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Tom Maxwell
I communicate. Then with music, now with words. I like how the two inform each other.

Shelved: Dr. Dre’s Detox

Chelsea Lauren / Getty Images for BET

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March, 2021 | 6 minutes (1,743 words)

 

Dr. Dre’s Detox might be the best-known album that no one’s ever heard in its entirety. The legendary hip-hop producer’s supposed third album persisted in the public’s mind for 13 years, kept alive by rumors, leaks, and revised release dates. After first announcing the record in 2002, Dre finally admitted in 2015 that Detox was shelved because he “didn’t like it.” It’s probably just as well, because no album made by actual, fallible people ­— no matter how talented — could live up to such breathless, protracted hype.

Detox didn’t begin as an empty promise. We do have a few singles from the project to listen to, including “I Need A Doctor,” featuring Eminem and Skylar Grey, released in 2011.

 

 

Dre has apologized for physically abusing female partners — something that goes beyond the misogyny common in early ’90s hip hop — but only in a career as accomplished as his could such an epic dashing of hope become a footnote. Responsible for dozens, if not hundreds, of millions of records sold, Dre is a rapper, producer, actor, and music industry entrepreneur — a musical architect who defined a generation of expression. He was a member of seminal rap group N.W.A. in the 1980s. He co-founded Death Row Records after that — almost single-handedly inventing the West Coast G-funk style in the process — produced Snoop Doggy Dogg, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar, and Eminem, to name a few, and founded Aftermath Entertainment and Beats Electronics. Responsible for game-changing albums The Chronic (1992) and 2001 (1999), Dre has nothing to prove by producing the rumored Detox.

The most interesting thing about Detox is not what it would have sounded like had it been released, but its relationship to its creator. What compelled Dre to keep working on it year after year? How, for a record that was probably never even completed, much less issued, did it become so monolithic in the minds of his fans?

Born Andre Romelle Young in Compton, California in 1965, Dre had his first local hit with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru at age 19.

L.A. is the place for you to be

To witness Dr. Dre in surgery

He has a PhD in mixology

To cut on the wheels so viciously

One year later, in 1987, Dre helped design gangsta rap with N.W.A.. Songs like “Fuck Tha Police” from 1988s Straight Outta Compton talked openly about police brutality. Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy E did most of the rapping. DJ Yella and Dre designed the beats. The music was apolitical, explicit, angry, hedonistic, and unrepentant. It set up California as home to the most innovative hip-hop of the next decade.

Dre left N.W.A. in 1991 and formed Death Row Records with Suge Knight the following year. His debut album, The Chronic, made with the help of Snoop Dogg and The Lady of Rage (among others) went triple platinum. Dre won a Grammy for “Let Me Ride.” He also was Death Row’s in-house producer, responsible for Dogg’s massively successful Doggystyle as well as acting as the supervising producer for the Above the Rim soundtrack.

Parting ways with the notorious Knight, Dre formed Aftermath Entertainment, a boutique rap label, in 1996. After a shaky start, the label signed Detroit rapper Eminem. His The Slim Shady LP was certified quadruple platinum. Dre’s second solo album, 1999s 2001, sold at least six million copies.

Flush with capital to write, produce, and record anything he wanted, Dre announced the Detox project in 2002, referring to it as his “final album.” It was going to be the story of a hit man. Rumor had it that Denzel Washington would narrate.

“I had to come up with something different but still keep it hardcore, so what I decided to do was make my album one story about one person and just do the record through a character’s eyes,” Dre told MTV News in April 2002. “And everybody that appears on my album is going to be a character, so it’s basically going to be a hip-hop musical.”

“I’ve been blueprinting, getting ideas together for the past six months or so, just trying to figure out which direction I want to take and how I’m gonna present the project,” Dre continued. “Just gathering sounds and what have you. I want this one to be really over the top.” He predicted Detox would be released in 2003.

Less than a year later, Dre admitted to giving “the cream of the crop” of his Detox beats to 50 Cent for his album Get Rich or Die Tryin’. It has never actually been confirmed that the beat for what became 50 Cent’s single “In da Club” was intended for Detox, but that cream of the crop beat helped this song go to No. 1 for the rapper. 

 “Dre, he’ll play dope beats…they’re automatic,” 50 said of those sessions. “[He’ll say], ‘These are the hits, 50. So pick one of these and make a couple of singles or something.’”

Having abandoned its original concept, Detox’s release date was pushed back to late 2004. “I’d describe it as the most advanced rap album musically and lyrically we’ll probably ever have a chance to listen to,” co-producer Scott Storch told MTV News. “Dr. Dre always tries to top his last one. That’s why he spends so much time putting [albums] together and they don’t come out every five minutes. He puts a lot of time, energy and genius into the stuff.”

Dre told XXL that the album would have 12 or 13 singles. So I’m really taking my time with each one. No album fillers or nothing like that. No fast-forwarding.” But by May 2004 he’d changed his mind, telling the same publication that he wanted to concentrate on his Aftermath artists. (Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, released in 2000, sold in excess of 10 million copies.)

Years passed. Collaborators hinted at an unreleased masterpiece in other magazine interviews. “I’m thinking of making the album like a movie,” producer Imsomie “Mahogany” Leeper said, “like having 16-bar jazz pieces, live instruments.”

“I was really hoping to have it out this year, but it’s going to have to be pushed back a while because of some other things I’ve got to work on,” Dre told the L.A. Times in 2007. The following year, Snoop Dogg confirmed Detox was finished. “That record is real, it’s coming,” Dogg told Rolling Stone. “I was starting to doubt it myself and then I went up in there and he played so much music for me it knocked my head off.”

The first official release of anything from Detox came during a 2009 Dr. Pepper commercial. “For me,” Dre says, “slow always produces a hit.” He then shows a flailing young DJ how to slow a record down by putting a soda can on the turntable.

By then, Detox’s release date was scheduled for that year And indeed, singles purportedly part of the mix for Detox’s track listing dropped  — “Under Pressure,” “Kush,” and “I Need a Doctor.” The last single went double platinum. The album, however, did not come out.

More Detox songs were leaked in 2011 — “Mr. Prescription,” Chillin’,” and “Die Hard.” In a long-ranging interview with The Fader that year, Dre announced he was ready to take a break from music, mused at how successful his Beats by Dr. Dre line of headphones were, and said nothing about Detox. In 2015, he confirmed that the project was dead.

“Over the years Detox has become the most long-awaited album in hip-hop history, a project that has taken on mythical proportions, and with good reason,” Nathan Slavik wrote for DJBooth. “In addition to launching several of the biggest rappers of the last two decades — Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar — Dre’s first two headlining albums, The Chronic and 2001, were classics. It was completely reasonable to be excited about Detox until it was completely insane to think it would ever drop.”

In 2015, Dre released the soundtrack for Straight Outta Compton, a collection of tracks by N.W.A. and its former members. He also released Compton, his third solo effort, and first in 16 years.

But the story wasn’t actually over. When asked by reporter Chris Haynes in 2018 if Detox was permanently shelved, Dre replied, “I’m working on a couple songs right now. We’ll see.” As if on cue, more musical snippets from the project leaked in May of that year.

The best way I’ve found to think about Detox is that it was a catch-all name for, essentially, most everything Dr. Dre was working on for 15 years. Even noted perfectionists like Dre release material. Instead, as Detox became more mythic in the hip-hop community, it served, whether Dre intended to or not, as a useful publicity tease even as the hype proved impossible to live up to. Between 2009 and 2011, the best of the hundreds of song snippets he worked on were released. In such a rapidly changing musical universe, nothing recorded for Detox, no matter how inspired, was going to remain stylistically relevant over more than a dozen years.

It’s also possible that Dre buckled under the weight of expectation. “I worked on Detox,” DJ Quik told DJBooth. “Just, in theory, Detox is a super smart-ass piece of music, but it’s all music, you know what I mean? That’s what could be the stumbling block for the record. Because it’s all music, and you got so many people to please. If you’re off with one, it won’t be a classic record. So, I understand Dre’s concerns about putting it out. But, some of the tracks I heard, oh my God, get the fuck out of here… Sound-wise, it was gonna be better than Chronic and 2001, and idea-wise.”

“By all accounts — and believe me, I heard every account there was — it seemed like the album had become any creative person’s nightmare,” Slavik wrote.

Given an unlimited budget and no deadline, could you spend the rest of your life locked in a perfectionist’s jail, constantly terrified that the music you’ll make next will be better than the music you’ve made so far, each passing day only becoming further justification to take your time, the pressure of expectation becoming suffocating until one day you realize decades have gone by and you’re even farther away from the finish line than when you started? You seemingly could, and Dr. Dre was living proof. 

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Matt Giles

Shelved: Yoko Ono

(Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns — Getty Images)

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | January 2021 | 9 minutes (2,485 words)

Much is known about John Lennon’s self-described “Lost Weekend” — an 18-month separation from his wife Yoko Ono from the summer of 1973 to early 1975 — in which the former Beatle made records, produced records, drank, and took drugs to excess, and got kicked out of The Troubadour and various Los Angeles studios. Much less is known about how Ono spent her time back in New York.

In 1974, Ono recorded A Story at The Record Plant in New York. More than just another solo album, A Story was to be Ono’s first musical effort independent of her husband. Lennon produced or otherwise participated in all four of her previous recordings. Because of this, and the circumstances surrounding its creation, A Story is a statement of independence, a kind of personal manifesto. As a direct result of the couple’s reconciliation the following year, A Story was shelved at Ono’s direction. Most of its songs would resurface in later releases, sometimes in an entirely different emotional, as well as musical, context.

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Shelved: Pink Floyd’s Household Objects

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | September 2020 | 13 minutes (3,433 words)

 

Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon is one of the best-selling records of all time. Released in March 1973, the album didn’t leave the Billboard 200 chart for over 14 years. By 2006, EMI/Harvest claimed the album sold in excess of 40 million copies “and still,” according to a Billboard article from that year, “routinely moves 8,000-9,000 copies on a slow week.”

Listening to a renowned album as cohesive as The Dark Side of the Moon, you would never guess that the follow-up to that historic release was going to be made using everyday items. Household Objects, recorded during several desultory sessions over a two-year time frame, was constructed with rubber bands, wine glasses, spray cans, newspapers, brooms, and other such utilitarian gear. It was shelved.

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Shelved: The Misfits’ 12 Hits From Hell

Patti Ouderkirk / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2020 | 10 minutes (2,607 words)

 

The Misfits have carved a niche in punk rock history. Their 1982 song “Skulls” has everything that defined them: the breakneck tempo, blocky rhythm chords, and the cartoon monster lyric. “Demon I am and face I peel,” songwriter and frontman Glenn Danzig sings.

See your skin turned inside out, ‘cause

Gotta have you on my wall

Gotta have you on my wall, ‘cause

I want your skulls

I need your skulls

As punk rock music with B-movie horror film lyrics, the Misfits are immediately understandable. The music suits a mosh pit as much as a Spotify Halloween playlist. The original incarnation of the band, which lasted from 1977 to 1983, helped establish the “horror punk” genre. “Skulls” appears on Walk Among Us, one of only two full-length albums released by the Misfits during those first five years, and the album is generally considered a classic. With 13 songs clocking in at a total of 25 minutes, it’s punk through-and-through: no time is wasted on bridges and guitar solos.

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Shelved: Jeff Buckley’s Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk

Frans Schellekens / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,966 words)

 

On the evening of May 29, 1997, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley and his roadie Keith Foti picked their way down the steep, weedy bank to Wolf River Harbor in Memphis, Tennessee. Buckley, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and heavy Doc Martens boots, waded into the water singing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” After about 15 minutes, a boat passed. Concerned about their boom box getting wet, Foti moved it out of harm’s way. When he turned back around, Buckley was gone with the undertow. His body wouldn’t be found for days. He was 30 years old.

Jeff Buckley had mastered that most singular of instruments: his own voice. Possessing the same incredible range as opera icon Pavarotti, his phrasing could be anguished or exquisite; his breath control was phenomenal. Beyond that, he was the soul of eclecticism: Raised on prog rock, he dabbled in hair metal, gospel, country, and soul. Once, during a live performance, he improvised in the ecstatic style of Qawwali devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan — someone Buckley once described as “my Elvis” — over the riff from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

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Shelved: The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s “Brain Opera”

Michael Putland / Getty, Photo Illustration by Homestead Studio

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | September 2019 | 18 minutes (3,497 words)

 

In 1993, interviewers from the psychedelic music magazine Ptolemaic Terrascope stood on Viv Stanshall’s stoop, wondering if he would answer the doorbell. Stanshall’s friend, who set up the meeting, was just beginning to apologize when she turned and gasped: A frail and obviously drunk Stanshall, according to the article, “staggering down the road clutching a carved stick and a white plastic carrier bag containing a freshly purchased bottle of Mr. Smirnoff’s elixir,” lurched toward the house.

“Vivian, you look awful!” the friend said. “Where’s your shoes?”

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Remembering Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston at the Austin Music Awards, March 16, 2005. Randall Michelson/WireImage

Singer and songwriter Daniel Johnston was found dead at his home on the morning of September 11. He was 58. He sang about good and evil, sex, and true love. He courted and obtained a large, loyal cult following, as well as the respect of his musical peers. Johnston was an outsider artist, visually and musically. Diagnosed variously with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, he stood on the outside of mainstream expression looking in, and this exclusion granted him insight. “Everything you cling to will rot,” he sings on “Big Business Monkey,” “and everything you do will be forgot.”

Daniel Johnston embodied contradiction. His songs had an innocence that belied years of assiduous craftsmanship. His lyrics floated out in childlike rhymes, but addressed adult themes of love and loss and mental illness. He was considered pure — to the extent that he could not be corrupted by outside influences — but there was a patronizing quality to such considerations, allowing for  destructiveness as much as gentleness. As ambitious as he was incapable of handling recognition, Johnston constructed his legend by dismantling his career. 

“Quite often, Daniel was a pain in the ass,” friend and Austin Chronicle editor and cofounder Louis Black wrote in 2005. “Manipulative and innocence, Dr. Jekyll & Casper the Friendly Ghost, he looked like a near-child, sounded like an innocent, seemed a little slow, but a part of him always judged the odds around him better than any Vegas veteran.”

Born in Sacramento in 1961, Johnston was raised in West Virginia. His family was deeply religious. He learned to write songs in his parents’ basement by studying a book of Beatles music. Struck by a quote by Ringo Starr in which he claimed that the Beatles rewrote other people’s songs for their own purposes, Johnston did the same thing: He took his heroes’ songs apart and reassembled them in a different shape. 


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Johnston’s first record, Songs of Pain, was recorded on cassette. In between songs his mother can be heard saying things like, “You’ll never amount to anything!” His next album was titled Don’t Be Scared. 

After a brief attempt at college, Johnston followed his brother to Texas, winding up in Austin after stints in Houston and San Marcos. He made more albums, recording his shaky voice and chord organ on a boombox in his brother’s garage, and he gave the cassettes away to anyone who would listen. Initially unable to duplicate the tapes, he simply recorded a new version of an album every time someone asked for a copy.  

“Imagine what it was like,” Black wrote about first hearing Johnston around 1985. “Everything you know is wrong. Music reinvents itself in the middle of your ears. You sit there, not stunned but not normal. You play the tape again.”

One of Johnston’s cassettes made its way to Austin musician Brian Beattie, who, like other local songwriters, found the music strangely compelling. “I guess everyone who’s heard it for the first time, you’re kind of like trying to confront or understand that nervous feeling you get, that voyeuristic feeling from listening to how intimate [it is],” Beattie told the Austin Chronicle in 1999. Local bands, including the Butthole Surfers, began covering Johnston’s material.

Mark Kramer, founder of New York indie label Shimmy Disc, recorded Johnston in 1989. At first enjoying the experience, Johnston became increasingly agitated, singing about graveyards and the devil. He was unable to complete the album, so some live tracks were included to round it out. Supposed to be called 1989, the production took so long that the album was released as 1990. This record contains what is arguably Johnston’s most famous song, the plaintive “True Love Will Find You In The End.”  

“This is a promise with a catch,” Johnston sings. “Only if you’re looking can it find you.”

’Cause true love is searching too

But how can it recognize you

Unless you step out into the light the light

Don’t be sad, I know you will

But don’t give up until

True love will find you in the end

Johnston’s mental illness sometimes manifested itself quite publicly. The stories of his breakdowns — often brought about by positive reviews — are legion. By the early 1990s, Johnston had self-released several crudely recorded albums, appeared on MTV’s The Cutting Edge, attacked his manager with a pipe, suffered a psychotic break as a result of taking LSD at a concert, pulled the key out of the ignition of his father’s plane mid-flight, chased a terrified woman out of a window because he thought she had the devil in her, spent months in various mental institutions, and gained masses of fans for his vulnerable, awkward, undeniably catchy, and disarmingly direct songs. 

When Kurt Cobain wore a Johnston T-shirt during a string of photo shoots, things really took off. Cobain had been given the shirt, featuring the enigmatic Johnston-drawn cover of his Hi, How Are You album, and wore it during a performance at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards and numerous photo sessions at the height of Nirvana’s fame. Cobain also included Johnston’s Yip/Jump Music on lists as one of his favorite albums. 

 

This led to an almost instantaneous major label bidding war on Johnston: Elektra offered him a carte-blanche deal, but Johnson rejected the label as satanic. (Metallica was on their roster.) He fired his long-suffering manager and signed with Atlantic while residing in a state psychiatric hospital.

Fun, perhaps the most polished of Johnston’s work, was released in 1994. It stands alongside Skip Spence’s Oar and The Madcap Laughs by Syd Barrett as a brilliant, disjointed communication from a stricken and singular voice.  

Johnston was quickly disillusioned by major label patronage. “I had $35,000,” he remembered. “I was going, ‘Yeah! I’m rich!’ The next day they came out, made a video, and a couple of weeks later I get a $30,000 bill. Isn’t that a ripoff?” Fun sank without a trace. Atlantic dropped Johnston in 1996.  

The 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston further lionized the tormented artist. Listing Beck, Tom Waits, Wilco, and Pearl Jam among the luminaries who had covered his songs, the movie compared Johnston to the brilliant, struggling Beach Boy Brian Wilson, among others, and deftly portrayed him through animations of his drawings, new footage, and childhood home movies.

It’s always been troubling, at least to me, that Johnston’s turbulent life was consumed as avidly as his art. American culture has always been drawn to creators touched by fire; it confers a shamanistic quality, which helps explain the mysteries of artistic ability and inspiration. The side effect, of course, is that doing so puts that person at a safe remove, which is beneficial to those who love a so-called good train wreck or wish to profit unimpeded. But Daniel Johnston’s talent was his ability to communicate with unaffected emotional directness, which, when you listen to him, not only makes it harder to separate the artist from his art, but also from you yourself.

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Sam Schuyler

Shelved: Van Morrison’s Contractual Obligation Album

Ian Dickson/Redferns/Getty Images

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | August 2019 | 12 minutes (2,134 words)

 

Sometime between the massive success of his first single “Brown-Eyed Girl” and the extraordinary musical statement of Astral Weeks, Van Morrison walked into a New York studio and recorded thirty-one of his worst songs.

To be fair, he was terrible on purpose. What became known as Morrison’s “revenge” or Contractual Obligation album is perhaps the most distinguished of many record label f-yous. Comprised of over thirty songs supposedly recorded in an afternoon, with titles such as “The Big Royalty Check” and “Blow In Your Nose,” the work was, understandably, shelved. Apparently that was the point: Morrison wanted to get out of his contract with Bang Records and make a new home with Warner Brothers, and the Contractual Obligation songs were supposedly central to that transition. Morrison’s Bang Records contract stipulated quantity, not quality. The truth, about all of it, is a lot more interesting.

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Images Present Themselves: A Conversation With Photographer Burk Uzzle

The famous Woodstock photo by Burk Uzzle.

This month is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Originally billed as the “Woodstock Music & Art Fair presents An Aquarian Exposition ­— 3 Days of Peace & Music,” the gathering changed American culture in unanticipated ways. Photographer Burk Uzzle became an unwitting documentarian of the event, and captured an image so representative that it became the cover of the Woodstock soundtrack album. Uzzle’s career spans six decades. He documented the tumultuous 1960s and continues to be a powerful example of how an artist can function as an agent of change. I spoke with him earlier this year in his studio in Wilson, North Carolina.

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Tom Maxwell: Can you describe your experience taking that iconic picture and your experience being a photographer at Woodstock?

Burk Uzzle: I had gotten up early one morning and left the little lean-to that I’d made for my wife and two children, and just went out to walk around. As the light came up, people started to wake up and roll out of whatever they were sleeping in or on or whatever mud puddle they were trying to transcend, and I just walked around.

This couple was standing up, wrapped in a blanket, holding each other and trying to stay warm. I think maybe they were one of the very few couples standing. Most people were still asleep. It was just so beautiful, the way they were holding themselves up and wrapped in a blanket. It all composed very nicely with the hillside in the background and the foreground objects on the left and the side. It lent itself to a very beautiful composition.

‘We’ll just go and make a nice little day trip out of it, going into the music festival.’

As I walked up to them, I did the sort of body compose technique which street photographers do. I would sashay to the left or sashay to the right so that when I got to within the right amount of distance to make a nice composition with them standing there, filling the frame as much as it needed to be filled, they were perfectly placed. Then I quickly raised my my Leica loaded with black and white and took a few frames, and then I took my normal lens off of that camera and took a few more frames on the Leica loaded with color film. I did not have a lot of color film, because I’d gone up there to camp out with my wife and sons, and we got locked in. The rain came and the crowds came. Once we were there, we couldn’t get out.

TM: Were you on assignment?

BU: No, I had turned down all assignments. I don’t like to work on assignments — at least when it’s something that I think is important. It’s fun to do commercial assignments where somebody needs me to go be an eloquent spokesman for an oil company or whatever, but when something is happening like Woodstock or Martin Luther King’s funeral, or the pictures I do these days driving around the United States or in my studio, I don’t want any direction from any kind of editor whatsoever.

TM: You just sensed that Woodstock was a big deal.

BU: Right. I had heard about it and about the bands that were going to be there. It sounded like good music. I was living in New York, so we all decided to get out of the city for a weekend. I think it was the director of Magnum Photos in New York, to which I belonged at the time, she and her husband owned a lot of acreage up in the Catskills near Woodstock. We decided to camp on a trout stream very near to Woodstock. We pitched our tent and were having a great time on the side of the stream for a couple of days.

Then the morning the festival started, we decided, “Well, let’s drive over to Woodstock and go hear a few tunes. Then we’ll come back tonight and get back in our tent. We’ll just go and make a nice little day trip out of it, going into the music festival.” Once in, we couldn’t get out.

TM: You said something very interesting to me, that most of the other guys were taking pictures of the bands, of the musicians.

BU: Well, they were all working on assignment. Their editors had told them to be sure to get pictures of this musician or that musician. Like I say, I don’t like to work on assignment, so I had been offered assignments but declined. I was free to respond to what actually happened.

TM: Not to get too inside baseball, but as a freelancer you also own the negatives of whatever it is that you shoot.

BU: That’s correct. I do that anyway. I would never give up copyright to anything. Even all the years I was at Life magazine, the reason I did not accept a staff position at Life magazine when offered a job was because I wanted to own the copyrights. I said, “I’d like to work for you, but I’d rather just have a contract, be a freelancer, and I’ll own the copyright to all my negatives.” That was one of the very few smart business decisions I ever made in my life.

TM: How old were you when you entered into that agreement with Life?

BU: Life hired me when I was 23. I was the youngest photographer they had ever hired. That was a good way to start learning how to be a good professional or educated. They sent me all over the world. I had never wanted to go to college. I, to this day, break into a cold sweat if I go into a classroom of any sort. I have spent time in prisons and I have spent time in colleges, and I don’t like either one of them. They both make me feel the same way.

I have spent time in prisons and I have spent time in colleges, and I don’t like either one of them.

TM: To pull back a little bit, the year before you attended Woodstock, you were taking pictures of Martin Luther King in his coffin. What a roller coaster that must have been.

BU: It was a roller coaster. Martin Luther King had become a hero of mine because he was my very first magazine assignment when I was about, oh, I don’t know, 19 years old.

I had quit my job. The only salaried job I ever had in my life was in Raleigh, North Carolina, as a staff photographer for the News & Observer, where I was paid, I think, $48 or $50 a week. My wife was seven months’ pregnant, so I had to find something to do. I was hired on as an assistant to a very good magazine photographer in Atlanta. He was out of town one week, and Jet magazine called up and said, “We need your boss to go and photograph Martin Luther King tonight.” I said, “Well, he’s out of town.” They said, “Well, can you take pictures?” I said, “Yeah, I’m his assistant. I was a newspaper photographer until I moved here.” They said, “Well, would you run over and photograph Martin Luther King sitting on his couch in his home? He’s a young unknown. Nobody has heard much about him, but he seems like a promising young preacher and he has a father who is a great preacher.”

I took the assignment, visited his church in Atlanta, and went to his home and did the picture. Jet magazine published it, and they continued to hire me to do more assignments. I continued to follow him. That was the beginning of the decade of social protests in the United States. It was a very interesting decade. I got beaten up. You get banged around a lot when you’re trying to photograph the kinds of demonstrations that were going on all through the ’60s, but I did. That was my first year of social protest.

TM: Did you feel that being a documentarian was, in fact, a political act?

BU: I felt that, as I do now ever more strongly, artists are probably the only people who can make a real difference with the nature of the political corruption in the country now. It’s up to the artist to do their best to photograph, to document, but do it interpretively so you bring our own sense of truth and dignity to the pictures you’re taking. You do that and you get them published as often as you can and as well as you can. That’s what I endeavor to do.


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TM: Can you give me an example of one of your photographs that embodies what you just described?

BU: Life magazine gave me an assignment to spend time on death row in Chicago’s Cook county jail, because there was a man named Paul Crump, who the warden had described as sort of a hero of the jail. He had been sentenced to death, but he was doing a lot of wonderful things in the jail, attempting to mentor people and making them better people. In fact, there was a fellow in there that was having an epileptic seizure. My friend, Paul Crump, saved his life. He knew exactly what to do for him.

That story was published in Life magazine. It had so much response. People were writing all kinds of letters on Crump’s behalf to the governor, that the governor actually commuted his sentence to life imprisonment instead of death.

TM: As the decade progressed, the 1960s became more violent and divisive. There’s an extraordinary image, one that when I visit you and look at it, it shocks me in its beauty and in the way it describes the scene, which is of King in his coffin and a woman touching his face in a very loving and open and innocent gesture. I wonder if you could describe that moment.

BU: This was in Memphis, and his body was going to be shipped to Atlanta to be buried. We decided that we would hang out there and wait to hear what was going to happen. They announced they were going to open up the funeral home where his body was being kept, for just a short time. They let myself and about three or four other photographers in, and just a very few people, apparently close friends, to view his body in the open casket.

Indeed, one would see the expected kind of thing, where people would see his body and throw their hands up in horror. and cry and carry on and grieve in very visible, loud ways. We all took those pictures. Then, all of a sudden, this one woman came by, and she just reached over and caressed his face in the most loving, beautiful way, and then moved on. That picture was on the same role of film as one of the pictures of one of the very loudly demonstrating women, which became the cover of Newsweek. It was such a beautiful and tender photograph.

It’s up to the artist to do their best to photograph, to document, but do it interpretively so you bring our own sense of truth and dignity to the pictures you’re taking.

A friend of mine, who lived in Chapel Hill, was here in my studio one day, looking at all the Newsweek outtakes. He saw that picture. He said, “This is such a tender photograph. Why don’t you send it off and get it scanned and get a print made of it?” which I did.

TM: Had you ever made a print of it?

BU: I had never printed it.

TM: It was just on the roll.

BU: It was just on the roll. Newsweek had taken a look at the film and they saw what they wanted and gave me the film back. Magnum sold those pictures around the world a few times. I had never printed it, and by then, that transparency was here in Wilson. The Ektachrome film in those days was not very stable, and the picture had faded terribly, but I sent it off to the man who did a lot of my scanning, Todd Gangler at the Art & Soul Lab in Seattle. He managed to salvage the picture and make a decent file out of it, which could be printed. He made a print of it, and we hung it here in the studio.

One day a tour came through the studio. One of the people in the tour saw that picture on the wall and said, “Oh, do you know who that is?” I said, “No, I have no idea. She was just a women who was being very tender with Martin Luther King.” He said, “That’s because she was one of his mistresses.” He told me her name, which I regretfully forgot to jot down. He told me their story and that Martin Luther King had a big, long history of having lots of mistresses—and indeed, that’s how J. Edgar Hoover kind of kept him in line, by threatening to tell his secrets. He never did, and Martin Luther King kept on keeping on. That picture was here and so it was interesting to know the story about it.

TM: Moving forward then to Woodstock, and you’re there because it feels like some place you should be, and you probably had a limited amount of film. You probably got a lot of good pictures, but that couple in the sleeping bag on that hill, you said the composition offered itself up to you. You could recognize how to compose the frame pretty quickly. Did you think it was anything other than a good snap when you took it?

BU: I felt, at the moment I took it, that it was a really lovely picture. I understood right away that it was a very beautiful composition. It was one of the tenderest things I had seen. It was very dark. It was a slow exposure, hand-held camera. The color film, in those days, was not very fast, before the days of digital. But yeah, even then, I felt that it sort of summarized the feeling of the place. I had been running around photographing all the people getting undressed up by the pond and so forth, and the people who had wandered away from the stage to take their clothes off and go skinny dipping in one of the little lakes up there. There was a sense of beauty and peace about the men and women who were in the nude, wandering around and having a great time. The event seemed very likely to turn itself into a people story rather than a music story. They summarized that. They were the essence of it.

TM: That’s key, really, isn’t it — because the publications who put photographers on assignment to take pictures of the well known musical groups , that was sort of a one-way communication. You concerned yourself with some of the half-million people that made up the population of that temporary community, which was the real story.

BU: Right. The people became the real story. Well, back to the story of the film: We were only expecting to stay there a few hours, for the day at most, having a couple of kids that were first-graders, basically. I stuck a pocketful of black and white film in my pocket, and we carried a little knapsack with some canned fruit and animal crackers and a poncho. You never go anywhere with kids without a poncho. That was our story, so I quickly ran out of that film.

I realized I had to shoot very selectively, and I would do one or two frames at a time rather than the characteristic three and a half rolls anytime you would see anything. I said, “Hmm. This is pretty interesting.” I kept going down to the stage. I knew a lot of the photographers, and I would borrow color film. I would tell them, “You know, the most wonderful things are happening up on the hills. People are all taking their clothes off!”

The event seemed very likely to turn itself into a people story rather than a music story.

There was one Magnum photographer who was a really good friend of mine, Charles Harbutt. I said, “Charlie, you’ve got to get up there and take some of these pictures! There is great stuff to see.” He said, “No, the editor wants me to be sure to get Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar. I’ve got to get Ravi Shankar. The editor would be furious with me if I left the stage and took those photographs, just photographed people when I need to be photographing musicians.” I said, “Well, in that case, would you loan me some film?”

There were two or three occasions when I would go down and borrow a few more rolls of film from him. That picture, the cover picture, was taken on film I borrowed from Charlie Harbutt.

TM: Momentos, like souvenirs or photographs, often tend to stand in for memories and they can replace a memory. because it recalls this thing for you. “Remembering a past event is a present experience,” as Alan Watts tells us. Is your relationship to past pictures now different than it was at the time that you took them, or can you describe any where that might be the case?

BU: Yes. My relationship with American society — the nature of our culture all through that decade — it was pretty rocky. It had been a bad, hard decade. In fact, two weeks after Martin Luther King’s funeral, I photographed Robert Kennedy’s funeral. I remember marching down the streets in Cicero, New York with the people of color, and people were throwing bricks off of rooftops, trying to hit us on the head. This is not a nice thing to do. It doesn’t make you feel really good about your country.

John Kennedy had been killed, Robert Kennedy had been killed. I saw it in Ethel and Robert’s faces at Martin Luther King’s funeral. I could see that they knew that he was going to be killed. How could he not be killed, and he was! Two weeks later, I photographed his funeral. Woodstock happened, and Woodstock is when American culture turned on a dime. You could see it all around. You could see the way people treated each other. You could see people that were expected to riot, and people were expected to hurt each other, because they were described as wild-assed hippies or whatever they were. They were being really nice to each other. They were taking care of each other. It was raining. It was muddy. There was not a lot of food. But people were really trying to help each other through this event. I think that picture summed up that feeling. It became a profound moment of spiritual peace, sociologically speaking.

I think that picture summed up that feeling. It became a profound moment of spiritual peace, sociologically speaking.

I’m not a religious person at all, but if there had ever been anything that happened in my life that would have made me believe in a higher power, it probably would have been Woodstock and seeing the way the couple in that photo held each other, and how everybody else treated each other. They were really a symbol. They were representative of a whole lot else that was going one. They were just the most visually eloquent example of it.

TM: Your work continues and your relationship to your subjects continues. Where are you at now as a photographer? What is it that you want to document?

BU: I have pictures hanging on my studio wall of an AR-15 I borrowed from a friend. Actually, I wrapped it up in what may even be the same little space blanket I had with me at Woodstock. There it is now holding an AR-15. Standing behind it are a dozen or so grammar school kids — black, white, multi-racial and what have you. I asked them to hold hands as if they were about to be shot. It’s a picture which I call “Targets.” It’s a terrifying and sad, horrible picture to have to look at.

Then there is another one where we already took a picture of a door that says “colored” on it. That was found a block and a half from where I live in the basement of a building that was about to be remodeled.

TM: That was meant for a bathroom or some segregated facility? It still has the word “colored.”

BU: Yes, it has “colored” on it. This is an easy thing to find in the South. Growing up, I would see these doors all the time. I borrowed the door, brought it to my studio, hung a noose over it, hired some black dancers to come and take their clothes off and stand on a little pedestal as if to visually paraphrase what used to happen when they’d get off the slave boats in Charleston or New Orleans to be auctioned off to slave owners. They were told to undress. There they are. It’s a very beautiful but troubling photograph because there they are. I had a friend make a noose to hang over their heads and I call that picture “Heritage,” because that’s the black heritage.

I have to do it. That’s why I am on this earth.

TM: Obviously, you put two black people into what is not a comfortable situation. Maybe as dancers, they’re used to being disrobed, but here they are with all of this horrible iconography that still casts a very long shadow over our society. What did they say to you?

BU: Well, I told them the same thing that I told the school kids that came here. I said, “I want to tell the story of violence. I want to tell the story. I want to do a photograph which speaks to the issues of violence in our culture today. I’m asking you to cooperate with me.” They happily agreed, “Absolutely, let us participate in telling the story. We’re honored and happy to do it. Let’s all work together to make this a powerful photograph.”

TM: What have you seen through your lens that gives you hope, because you still travel all over and shoot outside of your studio?

BU: I see in the landscape, I see the joy of the eccentricity of the Southern culture, which gives me great pleasure. Now the South is a very special place. It’s hateful and racist on the one hand, and it’s loving and poetic and eccentric on the other. Those two poles bounce off of each other almost within every block you see in a small town in Southern America.

I love to drive the backroads, the small towns. I find examples of both and then I photograph them and put them in my archive. I put them on my website and show them to museums. Sometimes I’m lucky enough for museums to buy these pictures and put them in their collections, although I was told a really interesting thing by a very good museum curator who lives and works in the South. “You will never sell any of these pictures that deal with racism to a museum in the South. They don’t want to touch it. They don’t want to be known for racism, so you may never, ever have a picture in the permanent collection in a Southern museum that deals with this.” I was recently on a trip across country, and in Austin, Texas, I went to see a museum and they said, “No, that’s not true. We could very well see ourselves buying these photographs for our permanent collection.” They looked favorably upon the box of photographs that I showed them. They said, “We want to keep all of this in mind.” I think there are some Southern museums that would buy them for their collection. So far, that’s been the most optimistic thing I have heard.

TM: You, of course, are undeterred in pursuing the things that you believe need to be documented.

BU: I have to do it. That’s why I am on this earth. I’m on this earth to photograph what I see around me, that which I love and that which hates me and that which loves me me back and that which I really dislike seeing. I trace a lot of it these days right back to Donald Trump. How can I not?

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath

Shelved: Jimi Hendrix’s Black Gold Suite

Larry Hulst / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2019 | 20 minutes (3,275 words)

 

On a blustery winter day in February 1970, Rolling Stone managing editor John Burks entered a New York apartment on East 37th street. “Inside his manager’s neo-turn-of-the-century apartment, on a sofa near the radiant fireplace, sat Jimi Hendrix, in a gentle, almost reticent frame of mind,” Burks wrote. “The light snow had begun to fall. You could see that through the narrow slits where the curtain allowed the merest sliver of daylight and streetscene to penetrate into the gloomy dark room.”

Burks was brought in to provide the centerpiece for a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign: a feature story about the reforming of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience. The group, consisting of Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding, and drummer Mitch Mitchell (both of whom were white) had disbanded the previous autumn. Since then, the rock ‘n’ roll guitar virtuoso had busied himself by befriending other African Americans: Trumpeter Miles Davis, jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and (according to Burks) “living and jamming with an all-purpose crew of musicians — everything from older black gentlemen from the South who played blues guitar, to a band of avant garde jazz/space musicians under the general leadership of a flute player named Juma — and talking about coming up with something new.”

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