I never wanted to be a photographer. Photography had no hold on my imagination. And given my dedication to a career in music, it didn’t start to shape my life until after I dropped out of college. Or maybe photography was the reason why I did. That was 1972. I was confused.
I was already confused in 1968 when I was 16 years old and my parents moved us from Las Vegas to Beverly Hills. I felt as out of place as Jed Clampett: “swimmin’ pools, movie stars.” 1968 was confusing enough for all kinds of reasons. Nonetheless, I was a clarinetist; that’s how I defined myself. But I was soon carrying around a 35mm Pentax camera, custom-clad with red snakeskin. As if that wasn’t affected enough, I’d stolen it.
Yes, I stole my first camera. I don’t mean to imply it was the first of other cameras I’ve stolen, but it was my very first camera, the only one I’ve ever stolen or ever will. To put it less egregiously, I expropriated a forgotten artifact; forgotten, obviously so, because its very ostentation went unrecognized, despite having taken it with me everywhere I went. Besides, to paraphrase Honoré de Balzac, behind every great enterprise there lies a crime. Let me introduce some personal history and mitigating circumstances for my misbehavior.
My mother joked, she’d buy a gun and shoot my toe off to keep me from getting shipped off to Vietnam if I got drafted right out of high school. But having finished my junior year at Las Vegas High School, I was about to start my senior year, not just in a new city, and not just at any new school, but the fabled 90210, Beverly Hills High School.
It was a neck-snapping transition from the conservative mores of Nevada to the comparative decadence of California Dreamin’. At Vegas High, if your hair inched over your ears or — God help you! — if you wore bell bottom trousers, you’d be bullied and called a “faggot hippie.” You’d do serious time in jail — hands down — if caught smoking a joint. I didn’t know anyone who’d succumbed to “reefer madness,” but one of the kids I’d hung out with, despite my poles-apart devotion to the clarinet, got caught robbing a convenience store at gunpoint. That was somehow less morally reprehensible than smoking a joint; he got probation. Maybe my departure was timely, an escape; even if my prospects weren’t good for college and a student deferment…