Pickers & Sometime Grinners: A Baker’s Dozen of Images from the ’80s

Pete Seeger | © John Kruth 1985

Back in the early ‘70s, I went to the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, originally studying printmaking until I got into photography (yes… I actually have a BFA in photography!) after my sister Jayne (a swell photographer herself) gave me a Pentax. After traveling to Berlin in 1978 and photographing artists, including Richard Serra, Ed Kienholz and the neon/kinetic sculptor Cork Marcheschi, I turned my lens to musicians in Greenwich Village in the early ’80s, some who I went to see perform and others who I opened shows for, as I was a burgeoning songwriter at the time.
I usually used a Leica M-4, eyeballing it without a light meter. If I needed to shoot with a flash, I relied on a pint-sized Rollei 35. Whatever the camera, it had to be fast, easy, and non-obtrusive. Tri-X film was always best because you could really push it, and the grainer the image, I felt, the better.

My first subject was Richie Havens, who was, as you might imagine very relaxed and easy-going. This image appeared in Relix magazine along with my first published feature article.

Richie Havens playing air guitar at his managers mid-town Manhattan office, 1981 | © John Kruth 1980’s

Next, I photographed Dr. John at his “funky lagoon,” as he called it on October 28, 1980, the night of the final Reagan/Carter debate, for another article I wrote for Relix. I knocked on his door to do an interview, but he didn’t answer. So, I hung around outside for a while and tried again. Eventually, he came shuffling to the door, mumbling. “I wasn’t aware that I wasn’t awake.” We proceeded with the interview as the presidential debate commenced, but with the sound off on the TV. At one point he seemed pretty out of it. I said, “Hey Mac, everything cool? You wanna keep goin’” He said, “Yeah… No problem… Like walkin’ on your nose.” There was just one of him.

Mac Rebbenack (AKA Dr. John) in his “funky lagoon” on the night of the Carter/Reagan debate (he had the sound off). October 28, 1980 | © John Kruth 1980

I often saw John Hammond playing at various Village clubs. His fierce love and dedication to the blues was a great example to a generation of younger performers – find something that you love and dive in at the deep end! This shot was taken in the backyard of his King St. apartment, in Soho, in September 1984 and first appeared in an article I did on John for Sing Out! Magazine.

John Hammond in the backyard of his King St. apartment, NYC. September 1984 | © John Kruth 1984

Later that month, I drove Peter Rowan (vocalist and guitarist with Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys, Seatrain, and later Old & in the Way) from New York up to a gig in Massachusetts, so we could chat in the car. We both dug bluegrass, the psychedelic experience, and poetry (leading me to dub him “The William Blake of Bluegrass”). On the way, we were both shocked and saddened by the news of Richard Brautigan’s suicide. This photo and the article appeared in Relix.

Peter Rowan and his Gibson Mandola (since stolen). This photo was taken in Marblehead Massachusetts in late October, 26 or 27, 1984 after hearing the news of Richard Brautigan’s suicide. | © John Kruth 1984

After the Fillmore East closed in June of 1971, the Bottom Line on West 4th Street became the place to hear music and hang out. I photographed and interviewed Taj Mahal there over two nights – November 30th and Dec 1st, 1984 for a cover article in Sing Out!

Taj Mahal backstage, Bottom Line NYC Nov 30 and Dec 1, 1984 | © John Kruth 1984

Eric von Schmidt could be a truly generous spirit. After knowing him just a short time – hanging out at his Westport, Connecticut painting studio, trading songs on mandolin, guitar, harmonica, and an old upright piano, he invited me to join him on stage at Tom Rush’s 25th Anniversary Concert celebrating the Club 47 at Boston Symphony Hall on December 28th and 29th, 1984, where I snapped this shot of Eric playing my Gibson mandolin, with his old pal Jim Rooney on guitar, backstage.

Jim Rooney (L) on guitar – Eric von Schmidt (R) on mandolin. Backstage at the Club 47 Reunion at Boston Symphony Hall. The reunion took place over two nights, December 28th and 29th, 1984 | © John Kruth 1984

The Club 47 reunion took place over two nights, December 28th and 29th, 1984, and featured Joan Baez and her beautiful sister, Mimi Fariña, (an angelic creature who everyone fell in love with) Richie Havens, Geoff and Maria Muldaur and a slew of other folk luminaries. Although Mimi was sweet and easy-going, her sister Joan made me pretty nervous when I approached her with my camera. Without glancing up she said, “Who are you with?” “Me First Incorporated,” I replied, thinking I was pretty smart. “Okay then, go ahead,” she said and continued playing. I took this one shot and scrammed.

Joan Baez at the Club 47 Reunion at Boston Symphony Hall. The reunion took place over two nights, December 28th and 29th, 1984 | © John Kruth 1984

I grew up hearing (and eventually playing) Pete Seeger songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” and “We Shall Overcome” around a fire pit full of glowing embers at summer camp. Just what privileged white eight-year-olds had to overcome, I’m still not sure. But he and Johnny Cash were legendary figures in my young world until the Beatles changed everything. I’d seen Pete many times over the years and happened to be backstage at New York’s Lone Star Café when I snapped this shot of him warming up on the 12-string.

Pete Seeger | © John Kruth 1985

I first witnessed Violent Femmes on a Wednesday night, at Folk City, in Greenwich Village in the early eighties. They were from Milwaukee and a mutual friend from Brew City had called, ordering me to go. When I arrived at the corner of 3rd Street and 6th Ave. there was a long line down the block, waiting to get in. With the opening tune, it was clear this trio of acoustic misanthropes from the Dairy State were on fire. They had the crowd whipped into a frenzy in no time. I hadn’t seen a band drive an audience that crazy since the Doors. At any moment, it felt like a riot might break out. This shot of Gordon Gano at his funky crash pad near Tompkins Square, on New York’s Lower East Side. Following Gano is Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie on the Southside of Milwaukee circa 1987.

Gordon Gano, 1984-’85. The Violent Femmes’ singer/ songwriter/guitarist kept a funky crash pad near Tompkins Square, NYC | © John Kruth 19805
Brian Ritchie, bassist with Violent Femmes. Southside of Milwaukee, 1988 | © John Kruth 1988

I met the late/great John Prine in Nashville through his engineer/producer/friend Jim Rooney. We had a few drinks at the legendary Brown’s Diner in Nashville, shot pool, did a few interviews over the years (for Musician, Frets and Sing Out!) and even played some music together. John was a great cat, funny as hell, and disarmingly honest.

John Prine, at his Nashville home. Winter, 1985 | © John Kruth 1985

Ricky Skaggs is one hell of a musician. This fan-shot was snapped backstage at Opryland, where Peter Rowan snuck me and my friend, guitarist Steve Eriksson, after assuring the guards we were “Swedish journalists on special assignment.” Like I look Swedish! I guess Steve had enough to cover both of us.

Ricky Skaggs, backstage at the Grand Ol Opry, Nashville, Winter 1985 | © John Kruth 1985

I went to visit Adrian Belew, “The Twang-Bar King” at his home, an old Victorian in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, sometime in 1989. There were dozens of little grey birds with red beaks singing, flying, and crapping all around, inside the house, as he played a steel-body dobro in the most surprising ways, including tapping and brushing the strings with Japanese fans.

Adrian Belew, songwriter, and guitarist extraordinaire with King Crimson, Talking Heads, and David Bowie, at home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Spring 1989 | © John Kruth 1989

John Kruth is an author, photgrapher, songwriter, and mulit-instrumentalist who splits his time between Los Angeles and New York City.

His previous books include This Bird Has Flown: The Enduring Beauty of Rubber Soul, Fifty Years On (2015), Rhapsody in Black: The Life and Music of Roy Orbison (2013), To Live’s to Fly: The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt (2008), and Bright Moments: The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk (2000).

You can keep up with him on Bandcamp, Wikipedia, and Facebook.