It’s 10:30 at night and I’m cruising down I-15 heading away from the Las Vegas strip in the back of a mud-caked SUV, dissecting the musicology of the latest Death Cab for Cutie album with a man whose experiences validate every atom of why I love to work in music.
For the past four hours, this man has graciously and casually dropped the names of dozens of people who have shared oxygen with him during his 40+ year tenure as a rock photographer, never coming off as anything other than genuine and passionate about the art of music and the craft of taking photos.
This soldier of the old guard, however, who’s worked with royalty like Hendrix, Bonham and Richards, has decided to fill our last 15 minutes together with his incredibly accurate perspectives on the Beatles’ influence on Death Cab’s new tune, “Some Boys” and introducing me to scratchy demos by 16-year old musical prodigies. Rock may be dead, but it’s alive and blaring from a surround-sound system and a well-worn iPod as we are spirited back to our hotel at 60 miles-per-hour on this balmy summer night in Sin City.
To shake the hand of Robert Knight is to literally touch music history. His soft, energetic fingers having grasped countless cameras and guitars and greeted the other hands of music’s greatest legends since he started shooting artists in 1968. In the span of our conversation, he regales me with tales of getting banned by the Grammys, getting stood up by Jeff Beck and getting
ignored rejected by Walt Lafty in the early Silvertide days*.
There’s never a hint of showmanship when he tells these stories, mind you; he’s the perfect gentleman about his past interactions, laughing at his more ridiculous run-ins and protecting the names of the guilty for the sake of innocence. His demeanor doesnt keep these tales from occasionally spinning out of control and when he shares with you that he chose not to photograph Janis Joplin because he avoided artists who associated with heroin, you can’t help but laugh at his editorial control.
His stories are the very definition of an industry of excess, though they never feel excessive. I have a hard time keeping track of his associations, his interactions and how many glasses of wine he consumes (it was three, apparently), but I never feel like I am being played for my respect or my admiration. This is simply a life well-lived engaging in some nerdy talk with a bunch of other music and camera geeks, his wife Maryanne (an incredible photographer in her own right) and Jared included.
He’s also engaging and considerate, asking his own probing questions and offering up advice on all maters significant and trivial. He kindly introduces us to Kerry Simon, the owner and executive chef of the fantastic restaurant we are dining in this evening – a celeb in his own right, dubbed “Rock ‘n Roll Chef” by Rolling Stone magazine for his countless musical connections and his success at felling an American Iron Chef.
On the drive back to our hotel Knight plays a handful of rock songs, including the aforementioned Death Cab tune and a few obscure others from an eclectic mix of artists in what feels like the weirdest part of an already bizarre night. I cant tell whether he’s simply excited to meet another music nerd, he’s testing my awareness of modern rock or less likely, actually trying to prove that age hasnt slowed him down or dulled his senses for new discoveries.
As I reach out to shake his hand before exiting his car, I consider how brief our time together has been and I’m curious if I’ll ever meet him again. I wonder if this man will remember me one day, should the opportunity arise, or if I will simply become another face and another conversation that took place during another meal that he’s shared with others over the years.
If guys like Knight can be both of the time and also part of the equation that has helped shape it and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, then that future looks bright. Our hands shake firmly but with speed and then he peels out of the hotel’s valet area as fast as he pulled in, a representative of a time and place I’ve never been, but also a fellow traveller on a journey to some still unknown destination.
Editorial notes: The above story was not a sanctioned interview. It was not planned in any way. There are simply a few times in life when you experience something profound and it makes you realize that to not record it would be a big mistake. I did not request permission from my subject for writing this piece, but only because the idea for it came after our encounter. I hope it’s taken as nothing more than a moment in my own personal history, and should he ever find this piece, I hope he’ll appreciate the context in which it is retold.
*The part about Walt Lafty rejecting Robert is all in good fun. Robert is a huge fan of Walt’s and has remained incredibly focused on the movements of Walt, Nick Perri, Nicks’ guitar line and Sinai in general.