The king and I: Hot off the press
The death of Elvis Presley in August 1977 brought an end to the age of innocence for a young photographer, glorying in his halcyon days at a ground-breaking new music magazine. The King's legacy went on to inspire Joe Jackson to fulfil his journalistic ambitions, but the stormy affair between 'Hot Press' and a working-class kid with a dream could not last forever
Published 30/01/2011 | 05:00
It was a magical, maybe even spiritual, moment. Certainly, as I stood there in Dalymount Park on the evening of Sunday August 21, 1977, photographing what had been billed as "Dublin's First Major Open-Air Rock Festival" headlined by Thin Lizzy, and which was meant to "Celebrate Phil's Birthday", there was a part of me that couldn't believe I was photographing the man himself, Lynott, close up!
In fact, I flashed back to the first time I ever saw Phil. I was 14, he was singing with the Black Eagles in Club Caroline in Glasthule and what made me -- a kid too shy to even talk to girls -- Irish-green with envy, was the way so many seemed to gather near the stage and drool over the guy, the same way they drooled over Elvis while watching his movies. Now, here he was, Lynott, legendary Irish rock star, gazing out at another audience, handing a roadie his guitar, and bathed in a kind of incandescent light that looked, let's say for now, like it came from heaven. Click.
Unfortunately, and for reasons I'd rather not disclose until later, that is a tale you won't hear me tell during the forthcoming RTE documentary about Hot Press, simply because I declined an invitation to be interviewed. Even though I was one of their first photographers, covered that Dalymount gig for the magazine, many readers -- OK, at least my mother -- have fond memories of the articles I wrote for HP between 1985 and 2007, and The Irish Times once even went so far as to suggest, "Hot Press is noted for its probing interviews conducted by Joe Jackson." Damn, that reminds me, I never sent Deaglan de Breadun the "brown-paper envelope" I promised if he'd write that line. It's in the post. I'm joking, OK?
More seriously, seeing as though I won't be gracing that RTE documentary, which, no doubt, will be of the socio-cultural kind currently favoured by the TV station, why don't you see what follows as my psychosexual counterpoint to that story, my personal tilt on the tale? Or, alternatively, as a special feature on the DVD, alongside the clip of Bono explaining to the Pope, plus other world leaders such as Barack Obama, and, eh, Brian Cowen, how Hot Press saved the planet.
So, OK, cue camera: I'm ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille. Shoot.
I'll never forget the first time I heard of Hot Press. Here's why I won't. One: at the tender age of nine, I decided to become a journalist; two: three years later, when I was told that the word journalist originally meant "one who keeps a journal", I began to do just that; and three: On May 26, 1977, I wrote in the latest of that series of freeform diaries the following account of a phone call that would change my life.
"Eh, my name is Niall Stokes, I'm the former editor of the Irish rock magazine, Scene. Myself and my partner, Mairin Sheehy, are starting a new magazine called The Hot Press, and were wondering if you'd like you to work for us, as a photographer. We heard you really got the feel of the Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee gig in the Stadium recently, and you got on great with them in the dressing room later. So, would you be interested?"
"Great. So, what are you, a journalistic photographer?"
"No, more a writer who takes some photos in order to make bread by selling them in the Dandelion Market."
Voice-over: I threw in the word bread because Stokes sounded hip, which made this the first time I prostituted myself in the name of journalism. If only because I hated the hippie use of the word bread, unless it is applied to a loaf, man.
"Well, we need shots of Chuck Berry and Dory Previn and I'd be interested in seeing any you have."
"OK, but I didn't take them for publication, and haven't seen them myself. But the dressing-room shots of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee are good because I did, yeah, establish a good rapport with them."
"Well, to some photographers it's just a case of taking pictures."
"Well, to me it's not. It's more like trying to capture the kind of definitive moment I'd try to capture in a short story, or a poem, as pretentious as that may sound."
"It doesn't. In fact, that all sounds good to me. So, let's meet as soon as, say, next Monday, because we do have a deadline; our first issue is coming out June 9."
Deadline? How could Niall have known that his use of this word, and applying it to me, was bound to send me winging back to that life-changing moment when I was nine, watching a movie called Deadline Midnight, and the following speech made me decide to become journalist. Picture the scene, literally. A disillusioned hack, Collins is quitting his job and mocks the cheapness of the paper used to print The Examiner, which prompts editor, Jim Bathgate, to grab a copy and say:
"We have to print on the cheapest paper, otherwise we couldn't sell for a dime. You know what people use these for? They roll them up and swat their puppies for wetting the rug, they wrap fish in them, wrap their two-bit china in them when they move . . . But this also happens to be a couple of more things. It's got print on it that tells stories that hundreds of good men all over the world have broken their backs to get. It gives a lot of information to a lot of people who wouldn't have known about it if we hadn't taken the trouble to tell them. It's the sum total of guys who don't quit. It's a newspaper, that's all. But if you only read the comic section and the want ads, it's still the best buy for your money in the world."
Did I just hear every journalist in Ireland cheer? I hope so. And, reportedly, as we hacks say, this speech inspired countless kids to want to become journalists. But, sadly, at the time Niall Stokes made that phone call to me, I was what I guess you could call a failed would-be hack, in ways. I had started writing articles at 15, for an Elvis-fan-club newsletter -- including, most ecstatically, a review of Suspicious Minds -- but then, when I applied for a job to some ancient institution, long since forgotten, called Independent Newspapers, the bastards turned me down.
Not only that. Clipping the wings of my dreams even more cruelly, I was told: "Future intake of trainee journalists will be confined to those who qualify in the full-time professional course in journalism in the College of Commerce, Rathmines", which was hardly a feasible option, financially, for a poor boy like me, or my family, given that Dun Laoghaire Corporation was threatening to evict us. So, acting on my dad's advice to "get a trade", I left school and became a sheet metalworker, a job I detested from the start. But then, one night, three miserable years later, he, after telling me he'd "always secretly cherished the dream of becoming a literary creator", said he'd like to see me, after I served my time, "take up journalism" if that still was "my thing." So I made both dreams my dual goal.
Noble, eh? Not, it seems, as far as the head of that journalism course in Rathmines was concerned. A year later, when I told him "I don't read newspaper columnists, I prefer poetry," he practically laughed me out of his office, clearly rejecting my request to become part of that particular institution and this, in effect, finally made me abandon any dreams I'd ever had of ever becoming a journalist.
Now you know why I saw that phone call from Niall as a belated victory for a working-class kid with a dream. No, he hadn't asked me to become a journalist, but this was the next best thing, given that I was, at least, working in the world of journalism. Better still, the following Monday when I met himself and Mairin -- whom I quickly realised were more than professional partners -- I liked them both. Even though they were, frankly, the kind of college-educated, relatively "posh" people who made me feel intimidated in those days. So, too, incidentally, did many of the writers I met in the offices of HP at the time, such as Bill Graham, Julian Vignoles, Neil Jordan and BP Fallon. All of which made me decide that in such a setting -- even during the age of punk, and despite what Lennon said -- a working-class hero was not something to be, and I should never talk about my plebeian background.
That said, I did note, in my diary, after our first meeting, "Niall seems to be a guy with strong principles", and I was particularly impressed by his goals, which became more apparent to me when I read the magazine's first press release, which was aimed at advertisers, and that I, as a lifelong hoarder, stole from the office as a souvenir.
"We won't shy away from the political, economic and social issues that affect you, me, the pound and, in particular, those between 18 and 30," it proclaimed, patently proudly proselytizing for those of us who were between those ages. "But we don't intend to bore or patronise. We write as and for young people, not about. Another point. The Hot Press will be breaking new ground journalistically. Advances that have been made in Europe, Britain, and the States have yet to be manifested on an appreciable scale in this country. A freer use of language, a more immediate and less stuffy style will characterise the writing in The Hot Press. All of this without any diminution in responsibility, concern or honesty."
Hell, this was almost as inspiring as that speech by Jim Bathgate! And I realised, right away, The Hot Press, as it was called at the time, was a magazine I could commit to working for. So, as you can imagine, I was blown away during that first meeting when Niall said he "loved in particular" my shots of Previn, wanted to use "them and one of Berry" for the first issue of HP and gave me my first commissions -- "a photo shoot with Sonny Condell" and "gig by No Buckets".
The latter, at Dublin's Merrion Inn, was a blast -- this, I soon learned, was a word musicians used to describe a great gig, even on those rare occasions when they hadn't played stoned -- but the Condell shoot had ramifications that still echo.
OK, here's what happened. First, when I phoned singer-songwriter Sonny to set up the session, and told him I'd taken my photographic cues from the imagery he used on his new LP Camouflage, he said, "A photographer who listens to lyrics! I am looking forward to this!" This made me realise that being what I regarded merely as a "writer who takes photos" might not be the handicap I'd imagined -- I really was a barbed-wire tangle of self-consciousness in those days -- but instead a decided plus.
The next day, this feeling was further confirmed after I arrived at Sonny's flat, saw he owned a copy of one of my favourite Sinatra LPs, Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, read, again, its sleeve notes and we had this exchange:
"I love these poetic lines by Stan Cornyn, 'Slap one of these fragile songs on the back with a couple of trumpets? Like washing crystal in a cement mixer'," I said.
"So do I!" Sonny replied. "In fact, that's the sound I tried to get on my LP!"
"Really? Then why don't we go for the same lyrical feel in the photos?"
And so we did. But I was in far from a lyrical mood when I saw those shots, and others, in the first issue of HP. Yes, I did pose, smiling, on a street in Dublin, for a photo of myself holding that historic issue, but later I let rip in my diary.
"I love the fact that on the first contents page under Niall's first editorial, the first picture people see is one of my shots of Sonny, and I love the fact that my name is listed in the contributor's box but no photos have individual credits! Fuck that. How will a prospective employer know which shots are mine? I gotta confront Niall . . ."
Then again, maybe that little rant also was influenced by the fact that I'd just seen a new movie called Rocky, and was ready to take on the world! The next day I sure as hell stepped into the HP ring for the first of roughly a thousand rounds, most of which, as with this one, started simply because I mentioned the word "money". Maybe I should have learned to ask for bread, whenever I was looking for dough!
But what really fascinated me, as I rapidly lost my virginity to this new world of journalism, was the way Niall, after agreeing, albeit reluctantly, it seemed to me, to "give single picture credits in future", turned into a hippie Houdini and disappeared after I asked, "By the way, how much do you guys pay for a single picture?" But not before saying, "Ask Mairin; money is her department." So I did. Round One.
"How much do you expect?" she responded, making me wish I had gone to that College of Commerce, if only because I hadn't a clue what to charge. I assumed union rates applied -- I'd later learn that even though HP and the NUJ may have had a date or two, they never married -- so, reckoning a photo cost me 50p, I charged 75p in the Dandelion, and HP charged £340 for a one-page advertisement, I said "£2".
"That's too much, Jonathan only charges 75p, don't you?" Mairin replied, hauling in Jonathan Hession, Hot Press's other photographer at the time and to whom she introduced me as "our new, very expensive photographer!"
"Yes, and your price is ludicrous," he said, before adding, "Besides, you shouldn't even be getting your pictures published because you aren't in the NUJ."
At which point, feeling both were ganging up on me, I became the stubborn bastard I can be, and said, quite definitively, "Maybe so, but my price is £2."
Now that, I know, may seem to some like little more than the -- maybe even potentially boring -- minutiae of my first tiny fight in Hot Press, but the truth is that it set the pattern for most exchanges that were to follow, between Mairin and myself, in particular. In fact, the following Sunday after I happily allowed herself and Niall to sell that first issue of The Hot Press on my stall in the Dandelion Market -- where Niall would later claim he "discovered" me! -- I got the distinctly icy feeling at one point that she even disapproved of my flirting with a 16-year-old. So, too, did the girl herself.
More to the point, later that summer, Mairin would say, again in what struck me as a palpably disapproving manner, "What is it with you? You have your girlfriend delivering photos to us, but every time we see you, you're with a different woman!"
But what Ms Sheehy didn't know was that my girlfriend was not only fully aware I was living out what we, only half-jokingly, called my "retarded adolescent, Elvis-movie fantasy," she agreed with my need to do so. If only because my relative lack of experience in matters of the heart had left me as a bit of an emotional retard!
Yet, there was another dimension to all this. By this stage I'd become so haunted by a sense that the age of innocence was about to end for me that I titled my latest diary, The Last Summer of My Youth and started to write what I called, "a long, short story" about the season as it was unfolding. I even began to draw parallels between events that were happening to me and scenes from Presley films. Such as? The Sunday afternoon I was photographing a concert in Blackrock Park and said to a friend, "Jesus! This is just like a scene from Presley's movie Paradise, Hawaiian Style," because five of my, eh, female co-stars had turned up at the same gig! While, at the same time, on stage beside me as I took my photographs, was a band with the perfect name for this particular occasion, and my fantasies: Sheer Havoc!
But these, and more, really are the reasons I see the early summer of 1977 as so gloriously representative of my halcyon days at Hot Press. And things got even better for me after the second issue was published. It included not only, as Niall had promised, those single photo credits, but also one of my shots of Condell, thrillingly blown up to half A3-page size and used in an ad for Camouflage. Then, Syd Bluett, from In Dublin magazine, phoned and offered me work. So, too did "some guy called Dave Fanning, who is editing Scene", as I said in my diary.
However, what really helped my shaky self-confidence, especially given that I felt I'd become a photographer by default and was, in this sense, a fake, was being told by my girlfriend that while she was delivering my latest shots to HP Niall declared, for all to hear, "Joe is the best man in Ireland -- the only one -- for this kind of work, because he has a feel for music."
And so, as a symbol of how fast I was moving up in the world, I moved out of my soul-cramping little bedsit and into a three-room apartment that, naturally, reminded me of Elvis's pad in Live A Little, Love A Little, in which he played a photographer. That's why at 11.52pm, on August 16, I was listening to his soundtrack LP from the movie Speedway, which included what I saw as, "my new Elvis theme song, Let Yourself Go", when I received the following phone call.
"Prepare yourself for some terrible news," said my girlfriend.
"What is it?"
"Oh, Joseph, it's Elvis -- he's dead."
"He can't be."
"He is. Your mother phoned me, she couldn't bear to phone you, because, as she said, 'Elvis was Joseph's life.' But I checked the news on TV, and he is."
"Sorry, I can't breathe. Call you back."
Thus, as I had somehow sensed would happen, the age of innocence was over. In other words, my little Elvis movie, eerily enough, ended with the death of the King. And my mom was right. He had been my life. Starting when I was nine, I saw GI Blues, then read The Elvis Presley Story, discovered he had been a truck driver -- just like dad -- before becoming King of Pop, and this gave me the strength to dream -- to cull a phrase from my anthem, his song, If I Can Dream -- that I could, myself, become whatever I wanted, even if that meant the next Elvis, or a journalist.
But here's where the story takes, arguably, another cosmic turning. After hearing that Elvis had died, I, maybe not surprisingly, spent much of that night writing. Then, the next morning, I phoned Niall, asked if he was interested in "an article that tells of how a true fan is feeling about Elvis's death" and even though all he said was, "why don't you write it, I'll read it, and we'll see", that was enough for me.
All of which brings us back to that Thin Lizzy gig the following Sunday, which also had on its bill, Graham Parker and the Rumour, Fairport Convention, Stepaside, The Boomtown Rats, "and more", as the ads said. But, for me, Lizzy dominated the day. From their opening number, Soldier of Fortune, through their new single, Dancing In The Moonlight -- even if it was raining -- to that final killer punch, The Rocker, this was them at their peak and, as I said at the start of this article, I knew I was blessed not only to be there but also photographing the gig.
Better still, I got at least 20 of my greatest rock shots that day, particularly of Philo. In fact, that photo of the guy bathed in an incandescent light, which I, incidentally, imagined came not just from heaven but also from Elvis, is my favourite. And the King continued to shine his light on me. A day later, Niall read my Elvis article -- in which he changed the phrase "idolatry has its assets" to "idolatry, like dope, has its assets" -- and commissioned a second, then a third.
Then, as if that wasn't enough, the latter article, which I, tongue-in-cheek, titled "Elvis at Dalymount Park", inspired the collage for the cover of the next issue of HP. But even though Niall said to me, during the wee hours of one Monday morning when I was in his office writing captions for my photos, "Joe, you sure are the man of the moment," I didn't know, exactly, what he meant. At least, not until the following Thursday, when I saw that issue of the magazine -- "our best yet," he told me -- and learned he had spiked articles by Rory Gallagher and by BP Fallon, in order to include three of mine, and that it featured nearly 40 of my photos.
Not only that -- and here all dreamers can cheer -- my name now was included in the contributors' section as part of the list of the magazine's journalists. Meaning: yes, Elvis's death had finally given birth to my career as a writer. It was as though he was giving me one more gift, even from the grave. Cue, as we near the end of my little textual documentary of sorts, the King himself, singing If I Can Dream. In fact, given that this song is, ultimately, a song of inspiration, to which I have always tried, in my way, to be true, especially in my writings, and I'd love this article to inspire even one kid to want to become a journalist, here I will start to make my exit. Rather than reveal, at least now, how over the following six months my career, my relationship with Niall, Mairin and HP fell apart.
Seven years later, I did ask Niall why, in his opinion, my career as a photographer with HP "hit the skids". He replied, "Well, when you joined us, I knew you were someone who was hugely creative and thought you might find an outlet for that creativity by taking photos for Hot Press, but in the end it seems you lost heart."
That I did. But Niall seems not to have identified his role in the fact that I "lost heart". Indeed, Stokes has never acknowledged that, despite the success of those Elvis articles -- which, much to his delight, were quoted by Larry Gogan on radio, thus "reaching an audience we wouldn't otherwise have reached" -- he, at the time, failed to tap into my talents as a writer. So much for his claim of having "discovered" me!
On the contrary, for the record, as we hacks say, In Dublin gave me my first interview assignment in late 1977, with Sonny Condell, at his request.
So, seven years later, how did I get back with HP and kick-start the series of "probing interviews" for which the magazine -- according to the paper of record, The Irish Times -- was noted at one point? Can't you guess? The King led me back.
Look at it this way. One day, around this time 25 years ago, I saw in a newsagents a copy of Hot Press Greatest Hits, their latest yearbook, which featured the first HP article I'd written and that now was headlined, fittingly enough, The King And I. This surprised me, because I hadn't been asked if it could be used. So, sabre in hand, metaphorically speaking of course, I stormed into the Hot Press offices. Stokes and I sorted things out, had a great chat and thus began the second phase of our mutually beneficial working relationship, which lasted until 2007.
However, now, in 2011, we are at war over an issue that I am not at liberty to disclose or discuss. That's why I won't be appearing in the documentary celebrating the magazine. And why, if this is where it all ends, that really will be a sad and a graceless coda to the story of my halcyon days in Hot Press.
See Joe Jackson's photos and articles at joejacksonjournalist.com
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