Kirk West Swampland Interview
KIRK WEST’S PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORIES
Kirk West plays an integral part in The Allman Brothers Band organization. West began taking photographs in the '70s which included hundreds of musicians such as Merle Haggard, Bob Marley, Jerry Garcia and The Allman Brothers Band. In time, his photographic skills led him to the Allmans' camp.
The Allman Brothers trusted West enough to compile and oversee their landmark Dreams boxset. In 1989, West became a full-time employee of the band. West created artwork for the 1990 Seven Turns CD as well as various other promotions for the group. Several years ago The Georgia Music Hall of Fame showcased West’s remarkable photography. His work embodies a personification of art in the sense that his photos suspend and preserve moments in time that capture a specific action in the past that will never reoccur again.
Kirk and his wife, Kirsten, moved to Macon in 1993 and began cultivating The Big House Foundation -- an organization dedicated to preserving a home and history for the Allman Brothers. The vast contents of West’s collection contain multitudes of priceless memorabilia. The Allman Brothers lived in the Big House from 1970-1973 where many tragic and glorious events happened.
Duane Allman was leaving the Big House when he was killed in a motorcycle accident. Bassist Berry Oakley was taken to the Big House before dying at the hospital after his fatal motorcycle wreck. Gregg Allman wrote “Midnight Rider,” “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” and “Hotlanta” at the Big House. Dickey Betts penned “Blue Sky” and “Ramblin’ Man” in the same house, located on historic Vineville Avenue.
In this extensive Swampland interview Kirk talks about his photography, the Allmans, the origins of Hittin' the Note magazine, The Big House Foundation and other interesting topics. Swampland presents this interview with great pride.
So, what’s goin’ on?
Well, it’s scramble time. Y’know we’re loading in and heading to New York.
Well, let’s get to it. You grew up in Chicago, right?
Well, actually I grew up in Nevada, Iowa, spelled like the state. I moved to Chicago when I was 17.
When did you get your first camera?
My grandmother gave me my first camera when I was about 8 years old. I still have it — a little green, plastic — it had 620 film. It was a little square Brownie box type camera. I started shooting pictures when I was 8 of all kinds of weird little things. My Dad had been an amateur photographer when he was growing up. He was the school photographer — year book, and all that kind of shit. My Dad wasn’t around much. My Mom was divorced when I was 3. I just came by it kind of naturally. My grandmother gave it to me and I just started snapping. When I was 13 I got myself a part-time job after school working for a Chrysler dealership. I was a little gear-head. This town had like 3,500 people in it — it was a real small farm town in the middle of Iowa. For anybody that was a car nut there were four good jobs in town: The Standard Station, the Chevy dealer, the Ford dealer and the Chrysler dealer. I got a job as the car wash kid and learned how to change oil and stuff when I was 13-14. They had a drag racing team, this Chrysler dealership.
I didn’t realize your race fever went so far back…
Yeah, this was drag racing. They had a race team; they were successful. I’d go out on the weekends and be the gopher and I’d shoot pictures and sold some to the local paper because they were a winning team and it was a big deal. It got like that — I shot mostly cars and drag racing until I moved to Chicago and I started shooting music.
How old were you when you moved to Chicago?
I was 17, right out of high school.
I guess by then you owned a pretty good record collection.
I wouldn’t call it that, y’know. We were pretty poor. When I got out of high school, I probably had a couple hundred albums. It was all about vinyl because 8 tracks didn’t sound that good. They were only for cars. They were a horrible format. So, it was all about vinyl. I moved to Chicago and jumped into photography with both feet. I was going to concerts every weekend —shooting pictures, doing drugs…hanging out in blues joints.
That’s really when you started shooting a lot of blues guys, right?
Yeah, it was totally alien to me. I grew up in a town with 3,500 hundred people. There were no black people in that town. They knew nothing about black people. They weren’t racist, but there were no black people there.
What year was it when you were 17?
Trouble was about to hit the fan…
Yeah, it was—I went to Chicago for the first time in the summer of 1968 which is why I moved there in the fall. I turned 18 just as I got into Chicago. I graduated high school in June of '68 — turned 18 in October and went to the Democratic convention in the summer of '68. It was a helluva summer. So, I turn around and made another feeble attempt at Iowa State and lasted six weeks and then packed up my car and drove to Chicago. That’s when it started — where a lot of shit kicked off. I had been exposed to the blues through some of my friends’ older brothers. It was San Francisco psychedelia and Chicago blues…that was my combination.
A lot of your pictures at The Georgia Music Hall of Fame-a couple years back -- proved a formidable collection. By around 1970 you probably started catching up with The Allman Brothers Band.
Well, I saw them before I heard about them. They were playing this joint in the entertainment neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. The hippie section was along Well Street all through the later Sixties. It started to get fairly dangerous — there was a lot of turmoil going on in Chicago, a lot of shit kicking off. Three or four blues clubs around Rush street, but mostly they were these 1970’s equivalent to singles bars. Pick up joints. They’d have a lot of music, but they weren’t serious listening rooms. At this time we were 19 and there’s this one place — none of us were old enough to drink yet, so we all had fake IDs and were floating in and out of the joints and I came to a place called “Beavers” that’s where I first saw The Allman Brothers. They were loud. They looked like us — we were hippies with tie dies and mutton chops and shit like that, but they were really fucking loud and they were okay — they were good, but we weren’t there to watch music, we were there to get close to chicks. We hung around about an hour and it wasn’t the kind of sound you you could talk over, so we split. A short time later I was at a friend's house and I saw that first album and I recognized the guys as the guys we saw that night, and so I put it on and listened to it at a moderate volume and fucking fell in love with it. I went out the next morning and bought two copies of it. I left one at home and took the other one wherever I went. I saw them again down here in Atlanta — '69 and '70 were a couple of good years for hitting rock festivals.
Right around the time of the Byron Pop Festival…
That was the second time I ever saw the Allmans was July of 1970.
You stayed in Chicago a while, right?
I didn’t live in Georgia until 1993. I stayed in Chicago, well I left Chicago in the fall of '70 and high-tailed it to California. I was dodging bullets and policemen. I got out there and spent about a year in northern California. Then I came back to Chicago to face the music. I was in and out of Chicago from '68 to '77. I’d spend a year or two in Chicago and then I’d get restless and go to Colorado. I kept coming back to Chicago. I was in Florida — facing some serious criminal charges and got my act together and quit being a deadbeat, cleaned-up and after about a year and a half or two years of sobriety I moved back to Chicago.
Did you ever have to worry about the draft?
I got a 1Y Deferment which was a health classification. I had epilepsy when I was in junior high school when I was 13 years old. I took a mild dose of Dilantin for about five or six years. It was a childhood epilepsy — petite mal, didn’t really have seizures, I just lost conciousness. It was enough to keep me out of the draft.
Kept you from having a foot shootin’ party (Duane threw Gregg a “foot-shootin’ party when Gregg shot himself in the foot to avoid the draft)…
(laughs) That’s exactly right. I don’t like cold weather so I wouldn’t have been much of a Canadian either…so that kept me out and gave me freedom to protest the war without feeling like I was gonna get yanked.
But you’re taking pictures the whole time…
I had a nice 35mm with three or four lenses. You shoot your environment — that’s what I did. All those years I was a dope fiend I shot my environment. I got really chilling pictures of young people that ended up dead. Living in vans and traveling. I shot nothing but black & white. During my professional career I only shot color if somebody was paying me to shoot color. I shot black & white every day of my life. Once I snagged on to it. Back when you’re doing the little box cameras — shooting things at the drug store — it’s mostly color film but in the very early days it was bad color — black & white stayed truer. When I was in high school I didn’t shoot for the yearbook or the school paper, but I was really good friends with the guy who did, and I’d go over and use his dark room. He’d print stuff for me. Black & white was the way I saw the world.
What photographers, if any, did you try to model yourself after?
There was a guy named Larry Clarke -- he put out a book called Tulsa, Oklahoma, that impacted the whole thing for me. William Penn was a portrait photographer that I really admired. A Canadian by the name of Joseph Karsch was a very famous portrait photographer. I didn’t shoot a lot of stuff outside. I wasn’t a landscape guy. I wanted to do brutal stuff like Tulsa. As years progressed, you see the stuff Jim Marshall shot as far as music photographers Annie Liebowitz and the Rolling Stone photographers…those were the guys that always had the access. In the early Seventies they weren’t creating studio environments outside or in houses, they were using 35mm and most generally it was shot with a wide-angle lens which puts the subject in its environment, which is different from what Karsch did or William Penn because they created formal studio settings. The music photographers were always putting the subject in the context of their environment. So, I’ve done both -- I do both.
You’ve taken a lot of up-close photos of artists and ordinary folk…
Throughout the Seventies and into the Eighties once I got back to Chicago and got settled, I got real serious about it. I got real serious in ’77. I’d been clean for a couple of years -– I wasn’t shootin’ up dope no more and I had the ability to buy a nice set of cameras. I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I really got down to business in ’77. I became obsessed -- I shot every day, all day. I’d shoot the world around me -- two or three concepts a night. I had a couple if partners and we formed a little co-op. See, we had different notions… you had the KISS, Genesis guys and a lot of punks at that time. I was a country boy -- I was shootin’ lots of blues. There were other guys that shot nothing but blues. I shot all the country in town, and nobody wanted to touch that…
You meet the Allmans in the late ’70s, right?
I started shootin’ pictures of 'em as a freelance guy in ’73. It wasn’t until ’79 that I started making any kind of serious in-roads with them. I’d gotten to know them on a very casual -- here’s some reefer kind of basis. Musicians are always happy to see a smiling face and then hands them something -- so we got to be friends like that…
By then The Allman Brothers Band was in shambles…
Yeah, see that was the thing. I had been introduced to them and gotten to know them throughout their heyday -– their heights, but by the time I got serious about photography they had fragmented. Dickey was out with Great Southern – Gregg playing with the Night Hawks. He had a little band. Sea Level was happening. Butch has a band. So, everybody had their little fragmented pieces and they were little extremely gracious and accepting.
It was a little easier to get to them
Well yeah, y’know when you’re playing joints instead of stadiums all the gladhanders turn away from you. The people that didn’t -- it was a valuable relationship during these periods. In ’79 when they got back together, I go out as the shooter. I did a lot of freelance with them -- all I was doing was photography. I shot the stuff for their ’81 and ’82 video releases. I did all kinds of publicity stuff. Then when they were fragmented -- it was ’88 – I got to workin’ on the boxset. The Clapton Crossroads thing was out. Polygram was proposing to do a Brothers package and the guy that was the head of that department started scouting around. There was no Allman Brothers organization at that time because everybody had their thing. Everybody kept saying talk to Kirk -- he knows where all the tape is -- he knows the deal. All through the ‘80s I had started working on this book project. In the course of gathering data, memorabilia and documents -- I also gathered tape. So, when the record company got serious about it, I got involved in it and they made me associate producer of the whole package. I rounded up all the photographs and that was my forte, but I knew all the tape also. I knew the lineage, and I knew the story. So, they hired somebody else to write the notes, the essay, but I was deeply involved in the rest of it. Then they got back together in ’89 and went out as the photographer for the first leg and then they lured me as assistant tour manager because they had somebody that didn’t know how to talk to them. I officially started drawing a weekly paycheck in the summer of ’89.
Right around 1992 or ’93 you moved to Macon…
In ’93 we bought the Big House. We came down -- I came down in the fall of ’92; I’d been working, playing around down here in Macon. I’d been down here a lot through the ’80s diggin’ and looking for stuff for this book and taking up boxes of tapes. This was a ton of old tape in the studio basement. I came down and started doing that, and Chank Middleton turned me on to the people who own the Big House. Cedrick Lesley was the guy.
He didn’t own it when the Brothers lived there did he?
No, he bought it from back taxes in 1987. The house was crumbling pretty quick. It hadn’t been tended to for a number of years. It changed hands several times throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s -- nobody kept it up. They didn’t have any money to keep it up. So when we bought it in ’93 we overpaid for it and threw every dime we had into it. It needed new everything -- it had no heating or air. We spent as much renovating it as we did buying it and we still ran out of money. We never got it to the point where we really wanted to have it, but it's fine, very stable. Two or three rooms we really would’ve liked to do different, but we never did.
The Mule came in not long after that and made their first record...
They were just an idea when they came in. They moved in here in late May of ’94. We moved everything out of those two archive rooms and they set up where the band used to rehearse and they had a name and a landfall of songs that they were trying to make their own. They were here for about two weeks. Haynes was living in Duane’s room. It was the three of them and Eric Hanson. For 10-12 days they sat down here and worked. We wouldn’t let ‘em play electric after midnight.
(Laughs) They had to get all their work done before the midnight hour.
And those motherfuckers don’t like to get up early. But we let ‘em play acoustic after midnight so we got every bit of their music on acoustic versions. Woody playing an acoustic bass, and Haynes playing acoustic or dobro and Matt playing a cardboard box. We taped all that shit. It’s pretty cool stuff. They did that and went downtown and played their first gig.
When did the idea come to turn the Big House into a Bed & Breakfast?
We came down here with that idea. However, the city -- with building codes and zoning don’t really make it economical to have a Bed & Breakfast in the city of Macon. So, we were gonna have four guest rooms and live here with two museum rooms. That was our invention. Be here five or six years, do a Bed & Breakfast, we just let people stay here. Gregg came a few times. Butch stayed here, the Mule, Jaimoe was always coming through. It was wild. It became what it had been. They’d say man it’s fucking amazing to be able to come back here and sleep in your old bedroom after all these years. So many wonderful and tragic things took place in this house. We had a couple of funerals here for the roadies that passed. It was good that it was a home. It brought the family back together on a number of occasions. It was a real blessing that we were able to do this.
When did you and Ron Currens get Hittin’ the Note together?
Well, I met Ron in ’85 or ’86, ’86 I think. We were doing a little thing a gal and I were doing up in Chicago called Les Bres. It was mimeographed -- quarterly newsletter. She quit doing that; her and I split up when I went to work for the band. I quit having anything to do with Les Bres and she did it for another couple of years. She quit doing it in ’91, I believe. So then in ’92 this gal that I know came to me with this idea that her and her husband were gonna start a little home publishing company. The first project she wanted to do was the Allman Brothers fan club. But she didn’t know jackshit about the Allman Brothers and Les Bres had been discontinued. I didn’t have time, but I rounded up Ron Currens, Joe Bell, and Bill Ector…
By the way, how is old Bill (Ector - Hittin’ the Note’s publisher)?
Bill’s fine. He had a large tumor removed. He’s doing a little bit of radiation just to make sure. It’s made him a little foggy, but he’s fine. He was always a little foggy (laughter).
John (Lynskey) told me the day he got out of the hospital, he went to the Waffle House. From brain surgery to the Waffle House is a great sign.
It was incredible. It was a benign tumor on, not in, his brain, so they were able to cut him open and take it off. If you can get a lucky brain tumor -- Bill got it.
Once you got those guys Hittin’ the Note started coming together?
Yeah, once I got them rounded up. They were gonna provide content. We were gonna have it published in Chicago and these guys from Atlanta were gonna provide content. She lasted about an issue and a half -- she never put out her second issue. Kirsten and I took it over from the publishing standpoint. We would administer the newsletter and the fan club. The boys down here would do the writing. Ron was the editor, Kirsten was the publisher beginning with issue two and I was they wrangler. That lasted until Pete moved to town in ’97.
That’s around the time I began writing for Hittin' the Note. Maybe eight months later.
I remember the ceremony when Currens turned everything over to John Lynskey. Lynskey took over as editor. Pete took over from Kirsten as publisher. That was all about the same time Pete moved down here. We were still operating out of the Big House. We bought the house next door in ’97. So, all that took place if that timeframe.
So, let’s talk about these upcoming Beacon shows… what’s going on with the Brothers?
We’re gonna work this year -- not a lot. Last year we worked a lot more than we had in a number of years and this year we’re going in to exact opposite direction and we’re gonna do a couple of festivals. We’re doing Jazz Fest, Memphis in May, and Wanee Fest. Then we’ll work in August and that’s it.
Any plans for recording?
It’s hard to say. I think they want to. I don’t think there’s any real pressure to record. It doesn’t make any sense to get in there and force it. I think Gregg’s got a notion he might want to do a record on his own. It’s hard to say. I didn’t think the band would stay together this long. When I met my wife, Kirsten in ’91, I told her, we’ll only be at this for a couple of years. Who knows what the fuck's gonna happen.
You’re a main staple of that organization
I’m not gonna let these bastards run me off! (laughs)
You’ve got quite a lot of Allmans memorabilia...
Well the museum thing is interesting. Kirsten and I’ve had nearly 25,000 people walk in the front door of our house when we bought it in ’93. That’s a lot of interruptions. We don’t charge admission. I’m obsessed but Kirsten isn’t. We’re down here because she wanted her husband to be happy. Now, it’s time to make sure her husband keeps her happy. I started hearing her about five years ago. She wanted to get the hell out of Macon. She wanted to go out west. She wanted to be in New Mexico. We used to vacation in New Mexico. We love it down there. From a business and a land standpoint, it’s a long ways away. It’s the other side of the world when you’re talking about rock tours. We found a beautiful house and we were going to go to New Mexico. We still owned the house next door, and I was trying to sell both houses who wanted to do what we did. I didn’t want to have everything auctioned off -- this tells an important story here. A lot of people wanted the collection, but they didn’t want the house. A lot of people were poking around. I found a couple different guys that both had the right combination of heart and intention and money. A lot of folks had some combination. Some had money but not the right intentions. Both of these guys were ready but neither one of their wives wanted to live in Macon. But they came up with the interesting notion of a charitable foundation. One guy came up with the idea and helped us establish it -- while this other guy wrote the first big check. They were both on the board of trustees for a good bit and then they both kinda passed into the history of this thing. We started three years ago seriously pursing this concept and we built it with a board of directors and a board of trustees from around the country and started raising money with the intention of the foundation buying the collection and the house and appreciating it as a traditional house museum. We tapped our first million. We paid for a documentary film we will release.
Wasn’t a bit of that shown at the outing in January in Macon?
Yeah, we showed the trailer. So, you know we got a lot or irons in the fire. Kirsten and I will move out of here in May. We’re moving out of here in May.
Where ‘ya moving to?
Shirley Hills -- the other side of town. We found a nice house that Kirsten fell in love with -- we’re not going to New Mexico. It became apparent in this process that I had to be in the midst of it for a good while -- at least a couple of years after it appears. I’m gonna have to stay involved. I’m a really fundraiser. I’m the heart-we got a great team. We’re starting renovations in June. Soon as we’re out of here. We’ve had serious support here, in middle Georgia. Most of the money has been raised in New York and Chicago. We started with a couple events in Atlanta. We didn’t want the town of Macon to think we came up with this idea that we wanted them to fund this for us. We wanted to do this for the community, not by the community. But you know, the way communities are once it looks like it’s gonna be the real fucking deal, they want their name attached to it. There are a couple of organizations here in town who will really contribute to the Big House Foundation once this change happens. I’d like to put at little pitch out there. We’re looking for anybody that’s got a good heart and some old-house renovation talents. Carpenters-drywallers-window men, we're looking for someone who can do floors. We’ve got a lot of volunteer labor-people from San Diego, North Georgia, and a guy in Savannah I’m trying to track down.
So when you get home from the Beacon run this will be all on top of you…
Oh, I know. Balls to the wall. We come back, I got two days here and then we go to the Wanee Fest. I get home on the 16th but we’ve been in the moving and cleaning process since September. We’ve moved -- this house was absolutely packed to the rafters with memorabilia that was not on display. We had a guy who donated to us about 4,000 square feet of office space downtown in a brand new building. This particular space is a big loft space that hasn’t been finished yet. It’s the best building in Macon. Down on Mulberry right across the street from the rock and roll hall of fame. Beautiful building. We’re on the second floor, with the U.S. Marshall Service (laughs).
Ah, the irony…
Oh yeah, the DA is above us. Saxby Chambliss' office is up there.
Well, at least you’re safe. We’ll get a future update from you later -- maybe display more of your photos…
We’re as safe as milk. I’ll tell ya, those marshals didn’t know what to make of us when we started haulin’ shit in there. We carry our laptops in backpacks, right? You got these longhaired guys with weird looking outfits on -- they’re just looking. Yeah, I’m really glad we got a chance to do this. If you wouldn’t mind, link the Big House Foundation Website where you can bid on tickets, and instruments at auction fundraisers. I enjoyed this…thanks for asking me…
all photos courtesy of Kirk West