“I always wanted to make a picture where someone looked heroic – that was the way to shoot my heroes.” Neal Preston
By E.M. Fredric
Los Angeles, CA – The real treat at NAMM for me – not discounting the musicians, instruments, vendors, meet ‘n greets or just wandering the various halls and floors in endless discoveries of new technology. It came in the form of meeting Rock ‘n Roll photographer Neal Preston as he readied to sign his latest book entitled Exhilarated and Exhausted where The Lightpower Collection booth showcased some of his iconic images in rock history.
I had just finished listening to a video of Brian May giving accolades to Preston’s abilities with these excerpts: “Neal is one of my oldest and best friends.” “He just has a knack for whatever this it is to always be in the right place at the right time and never be too much because he was part of the life of the band.” Preston was considered to the fifth member of Queen – that’s knowing where to be and when and when not to get in the way. An artist’s sensibility. May said,“The boys would like to hear stories about what he’d (Neal) been doing with Zeppelin and other bands. This exhibition is incredible and what needed to happen.”
With Bohemian Rhapsody at four Oscar nominations, including best picture and actor – it came as no surprise to see Freddie Mercury and Queen prominently on display. A private moment putting on his own make-up which Preston stated would never happen today, Mercury if alive, would be surrounded by stylists, assistants, assistant to assistants and more was Preston’s observation of the loss of connection to the artist today.
One popular photograph of Freddie in concert alone on stage is not from the Live Aid concert as most believe but from a tour Queen did a year later at Wembley Stadium in London. Preston said, “It was the 3rd shot of the day. I could’ve quit.” But shooting with 36 shot film rolls he didn’t know until later. There is Mercury with Michael Jackson and of course, with Queen.
Preston’s work hung downstairs wrapping around the members’ section where he gave a talk while showing his chosen slides with the stories that made them on Saturday.
One Sunday night in February 1964 when the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show his life was changed. Neal said, “Literally a nuclear bomb go off into my brain delivered into my cortex by John Lennon.” He was then around 12-13 years old. From that point on it was rock ’n roll, rock ‘n roll, rock all the time until he was given his first camera. He then had two hobbies but Preston said, “Photography was kind of in my DNA and I started taking my camera to rock shows and now I’m here.” Over 40 years later and he’s still getting paid to do the job that he loves.
While promoting his latest book, the tales he tells along with some of his images give insight into the rockers and the road as well as the life of the roadies. Neal holds roadies in high regardbecause they work tirelessly, sometimes almost thanklessly with little or no sleep.
They are responsible to make sure everything is working and tuned for the show from setup to breakdown. Then its load up, catch what sleep they can get and onto the next town.
Preston learned early on how to form relationships to get the shots he wanted and needed.
His photograph with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and George Harrison happened quickly. They were just forming the Traveling Wilburys. By a quick phone call he was invited up to Dave Stewart’s house and after he arrived Tom and George separately told Neal they had to wait on Bob (who was playing a video game).
In Preston’s eyes no one trumped a Beatle yet the musicians were more worried about Dylan being ready to shoot. He got the shot but told this story. “George pulls me aside and takes me in this small room, closes the door and says: “Now, listen to me, Bob is in a pretty good mood. I’ll let you know when the mood is just right, I’ll give you a sign and then we’ll shoot, but we won’t shoot until Bob is ready.”
He learned that a photo can tell as much about a performer from a rear view like when Frank Sinatra goosed Dean Martin. One look and you know who the subjects are and a very special and private moment frozen in time that most wouldn’t think to shoot.
Stevie Nicks he says is one of his best friends that he counts on one hand and a few fingers and he loves the image he took on a rooftop. It was so windy an assistant was holding her feet. Preston says Nicks is one of the most creative people he knows and if all else fell away, she could be a standup comic. Neal clearly adores her and he shared briefly how she came to his aid when he was being treated for a cut finger at a hospital and got his dog out of his car for him. “Now THAT’S a friend!” Preston exclaimed.
He loves The Who and will buy anything Pete Townsend.
Looking out to the audience before the Q&A took place he said, “Everyone here (at NAMM) has been beyond believable, reverential and truly transformed by what I’ve done. I never dreamt in a zillion years or anyone would know what I’ve done or my name… that’s Twilight Zone shit. I’m known to a little segment of the pie in Rock ‘n Roll but I’m not famous – famous people are famous. I was very lucky and had a really good batting average of 500-600 which easily will get you into the Hall of Fame.”
Neal exudes a boyish excitement with an exuberant smile that’s still in awe of it all – that being the career he happened onto as one of his hobbies took him from photographing bands, to getting published to becoming Led Zeppelin’s official tour photographer (among others), he did over 700 assignments for People Magazine (the most of any photojournalist – ever) and his images graced the music magazines and Life and Time Magazines.
In watching and listening to him both days – I came away wishing for more time to fully interview this gifted, humble and remarkable man. The kind who wears his heart for all to feel.