Jay Blakesberg Fare Thee Well!

By Jeb Wright

Lifelong Deadhead Jay Blakesberg was the man chosen by the surviving members of the Grateful Dead—Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart—to be the official photographer for the final shows dubbed as “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead.”

In the interview below, we discuss what these events -as well as the rehearsals in which he attended- were like for a lifelong fan of the band. Jay was the ultimate fly on the wall for these shows and has released a book of his photographs that is a must-own for any Deadhead, as he tells us all what this personal experience was like for him. 

Jay has also recently released “Hippie Chick: A Tale of Love, Devotion and Surrender.”  Check both books out at www.rockoutbooks.com

Jeb:  Before we get knee-deep into this discussion, I have to say… Wow, 50 years of The Dead!  Boggles the mind… and I am only 49! 

Jay: Absolutely, and what boggles my mind is that I have been on the bus for 38 of those 50 years…and even more intense is that I was 15 in 1977 when I first saw them, and now all these years later I was the guy asked to photograph the shows documenting this 50 year landmark.

Jeb: I also know there are pictures from the two rehearsal days.   Tell me what it was like for you to be there watching the guys and taking shots…

Jay:  Rehearsal days are nothing special.  They are casual, but the band is working hard… for many hours!  I just try and be a fly on the wall and not be in the way.  Shoot some special moments that are candid and only happen when they are not in front of 70,000 people!

Jeb:  You’re pretty famous as a rock photographer.  Why?  In other words, what makes you different?  What’s your approach?

Jay: I don’t know if I would call myself famous… perhaps well known in the Jam-Band world is more accurate… Social media certainly helps with people knowing my work and raising my profile.  What makes me different? I think 40 years of taking photographs, for one!  We live in an oversaturated world of images, and way more of those images are bad than good… so everyone with a camera and a few years of experience is not a “professional photographer” – don’t get me wrong, there are really good photographers that have been only shooting for a few years, but like any profession, experience makes a huge difference.  Understanding the history of photography makes a huge difference.  Most photographers are not paying attention to what came before them, and there is so much to learn from looking at and studying that work.  I feel like I am constantly inspired by other work, and I am always under the firm belief that I am only as good as my last photograph.  Most art directors and photo editors really don’t care that I did portraits of Jerry Garcia 25 years ago.  They want to see the portraits I did last week, I need to show them that I am still relevant, creative, original, and HAVE A POINT OF VIEW, a VISION.  That is what most of the current breed of photographers lack (again, not all, but many).  Copying my style, or look, or lens does not make you original, and does not help you to be original yourself.  People get too caught up in the post processing technology and don’t spend enough time becoming a unique artist.

Jeb:  Was Trey about to crap himself in rehearsal or before going on stage?  I am curious if you noticed his emotions through the lens, so to speak. 

Jay:  Not at all.  Trey is a pro, has played in front of 70,000 people many times before, did his homework, and stepped in to that role seamlessly.  He was happy to be there, happy to play with these guys who he has played with many other times, and ready to do what he was asked to do… Play some amazing Grateful Dead music!

Jeb: I like the crowd and venue shots as much as the band shots. Does each crowd and venue have a vibe?  If so, how do you capture it?

Jay: Every room is unique, even the stadiums and every crowd is unique. I have always loved to shoot the fans… hence my last book – Hippie Chick: A Tale of Love, Devotion & Surrender which is all about women music fans and their connection to the live music experience. Been shooting hippie Chicks for 35 years!  “Visual Anthropology”! So you find the nooks and crannies, on stage, between microphones, in the audience and you try and capture magic in a split second wherever you are.

Jeb:  You had backstage photos that were on the screens in Chicago while the band played their last concert.  Oh my!  Put that feeling into words…

Jay:  Mind Blowing!  When “Attics of My Life” was being played, I was on stage waiting to capture the final bow from behind.  So as the images were being shown I could not see the video screens.  As the individual portraits kept going the cheers were getting louder with each new image!  When Phil came up it got loud and I scooted behind the drums and could see the behind the stage stadium screen! Then Trey came on and a huge cheer erupted, Bob was last and the place went nuts, then the band portrait and it really was out of control… and I know everyone was cheering for the people in the photo, but it was MY PHOTO… and THAT was amazing!

Jeb:  Gotta ask... how cool is it that Bill Walton wrote the forward?! Talk about it Jay, tell all!

Jay:  Bill is an incredible Deadhead… he lives his life by the gospel of the Dead’s lyrics.  He talks using song titles and lyrics in his everyday life, in his professional life, on TV, the radio, etc.  So he brought those same things to the Foreword.  Enthusiasm for something that has been a huge part of his life for over 40 years!

Jeb:   You have another book called Hippie Chick.  What’s the scoop on that one?  You probably could have just done that at the Dead shows, ha ha ha!

Jay: I spoke about this a bit earlier in the interview, but after I started posting pics of Deadheads from the ‘80s and ‘90s, about five years ago on Facebook I got a lot of positive feedback on the photos.  People kept saying I should do a book about deadheads.  I really did not think I had a book just from dead shows.  But I was also shooting a lot of new images at festivals like Summer Camp, Mountain Jam, Gathering of the Vibes, High Sierra Music Festival, Lockn’, Moe.down and the body of work was growing.  So about 2 years ago I decided to do a book called Hippie Chick: A Tale of Love, Devotion & Surrender.  Grace Slick wrote the foreword, and Grace Potter wrote the afterword.  There are hundreds of quotes in the book written by hippie chicks we interviewed. And my writer for the project, Edith Johnson, who blogs as The Festival Girl, wrote 3 incredible essays titled Love, Devotion and Surrender, plus a beautiful introduction.  The essays are very powerful and I have been told by many women who have read them that Edith really has put into words what many of these women feel but have not been able to express. You can order the books at www.rockoutbooks.com for signed copies.

Jeb: What made you want to take hippie chick pics?  This obviously spoke to you by the attention to the way you capture their personality.

Jay: I have always felt that I was a chronicler of Pop Culture History - and the fans are part of the whole experience.  The energy goes from the stage to the audience, but also from the audience to the stage, so I always wanted to capture that part of the scene.

Jeb:  Back to the Dead.  You first saw the band in 1977.  I wanna know where, when, how, what tunes struck you… what it was like to see The Great One in that era?! 

Jay:  Englishtown 1977 – I was 15.  It was a blistering hot day, 100,000 people, a lot to take in as a 15 year old.  But clearly I connected to it.  I think all of us Deadheads/Jamband fans were born with that special Psychedelic DNA chip!  So I got on the bus.  That show was a favorite bootleg tape of mine for decades and then they finally released it as a Dick’s Pick’s.  Donna was ill at the show and sat on a stool, Mickey had a cast on one arm, but it is truly the most EPIC He’s Gone/Not Fade Away the band ever played!

Jeb:  What’s your favorite Dead album?  And song? 

Jay: HMMMM… who is my favorite child???? I have 2 kids…

Jeb:  Which is the BEST era of the band?

Jay: There are several that I truly love; ‘68-‘69 because they were the most incredible Psychedelic blues band going.  Those ‘69 Fillmore shows are unreal! ‘73-‘74 – unreal!  1977 – next level greatness… WOW! 1980 because Brent infused some new energy and they were smoking years and that was the peak of the Dead tour for me!

Jeb:  Back to the final shows and the book.  You had to have a serious side to this.  You were documenting a very important day for an entire generation—hell, several generations—here.  Were you nervous?

Jay: No, I stopped being nervous for shoots long ago… But there was anxiety for sure!  I found out about the shows in Mid-December, so those 6 months were an intense build up. After I took what I consider the first iconic shot of the run which was from on Mickey’s drum riser looking out over Levi Stadium it all melted in to a dream and the amazing photos just kept happening!

Jeb:  When you looked at the shots, what feelings did you have knowing that what you took represents fifty years of the biggest band from San Fran and the hippie generation?

Jay: The shots only represent the actual celebration of 50 years.  There are a few vintage photos of mine in there as I felt that Jerry did need to be in the book. It is truly an honor to be the guy asked to document this celebration, and that is what the new book is, a document of the 5 shows and 2 rehearsals.  Gary Lambert – co-host of “Tales from the Golden Road” on Sirus/XM Grateful Dead channel wrote 2 amazing essays, and Dead archivist David Lemieux wrote an amazing afterword.  I love this book and think it really captures the spirit of the experience!

Jeb:  What are your personal favorite shots?

Jay:  The front cover of the book – the band looking back at the crowd!!  Here is the story behind that image!  The folks who were doing all the decorative vinyl banners around the stadium printed out a large copy of the photograph I had taken from Mickey’s drum riser in Santa Clara showing the whole stadium and hung it up backstage next to the production office. Coran Capshaw, who manages Trey and Bruce Hornsby, saw it and said, ‘This is a great shot, but THE shot to get is one with the band facing you on the drum riser and the crowd behind them.’ He said, ‘I'll make sure Trey and Bruce are on board, but the rest of it is on you to figure out.’  This was clearly a great idea, so I approached all the different managers with the idea and pointed out that the only way it could work is in daylight. I knew I needed a good reason for them to do this in order for me to get the photo, so I suggested that they go out on stage and greet the audience, more of a hello and thank you - BEFORE the start of the show - and not as a final bow as I knew they would do that at the end of the show. Right before the show was to start, I was running around on stage from band member to band member reminding them to do this, and not go to their instruments – and they did it! It was one of the most intense photographs I ever took. I was on Billy's drum riser up on a step stool getting hit with all the energy directed at the stage from 70,000 people. The cheers and applause were so loud and intense I felt like I would get knocked over backwards.  They greeted the fans in front of them, and then turned around to greet the fans behind the stage, and that is when I got the shot, then they did their final band huddle onstage in front of everybody, before starting to play.  This really was a peak moment for the fans, the band, Pete Shapiro and his production team and certainly my 38-year adventure with the Grateful Dead.  Big thanks to Coran for planting the seed!

Jeb:  Last one… does ANYONE really remember that last show?  I heard there was still a lot of smoke in the air!

Jay: If they didn’t remember, it’s ok because now we have this book for everyone to look at and remember all the magical, musical, moments!