By Ivor Levene
Photographer Neal Preston and several of his closest friends are about to change what you think you know about rock history.
How? By releasing a treasure trove of historical rock music photographs that have never been seen. If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, a Neal Preston photo doesn’t need nearly that many words, the viewer rarely gets past one-word exclamations like, “Wow!” or “Damn!”
And Neal Preston gave Goldmine the exclusive.
What exactly differentiates a Neal Preston photo from another photographer's photo of the same subject?
“I grab the viewer by the scruff of their neck," explains Preston, "and I put them right in front!”
There is more to it than that, however. A Preston photo takes you onto the stage, behind the stage, and onto the airplane with the band. Quite simply, he has gone where few photographers have gone before. For instance, he was the only photographer ever hired by Led Zeppelin to tour with them. He was so intimately involved with Queen, he brought Brian May home to meet his mother. Many of his subjects have insisted that Preston be the photographer chosen to represent them photographically. If you call him a “rock photographer,” he’ll quickly stop you and tell you how much he disdains that title, because rock music is only part of his legacy. He has shot four Olympics, numerous other sporting events and is a great writer to boot.
Neal isn’t shy about his prowess, he’ll be the first to tell you, “I am the greatest live concert photographer ever”, while quantifying the statement with, “No matter how great you are, there will always be someone standing beside you in the pit who can shoot rings around you.” Contradictory? Perhaps, but essentially Neal likes to let his photos do the talking for him.
“My ego never required that 'Don't you know who I am?' kind of bullshit. I know plenty of photographers that do play that card, and that's not me. I could care less about whether or not people know who I am. If you know the pictures, then I know I've done my job. The most pleasure I get is when someone gets a print of mine, frames it, hangs it on the wall, and they derive pleasure from it. That's the ultimate compliment for me. It doesn't matter if people know my name or not.
"I'm not a household name, but I am known to a sliver of the rock and roll world pie. The pictures are far more famous than my name will ever be, and that's the way I've always been most comfortable. I know photographers who go on stage and it's all about, ‘look at me, look at me, I'm on stage.’ I could care less about that.”
The further we get from those halcyon days of the 1970s, the rosier the lens we view these things through seems to get. An easy assumption to make is that Neal Preston had the best job in the world, but in the first few minutes after you meet him, he will set you straight. “The job isn’t glamorous, it's stressful as hell. The deadlines are never-ending and there are personalities. Not the individual personalities of the band members, but the tour. Every tour has its own personality, and it can turn on a dime. The band doesn’t like the sound, they don't like the PA, somebody f**ked up a song, the drummer f**ked the lead guitarist's girlfriend in Memphis. You name it, I've seen it all, and then some.”
Led Zeppelin were the poster boys for rock and roll debauchery, their exploits with sex, drugs, and trashed hotel rooms have become almost mythological over time. Given his insider status with the band, it’s a given that Preston would have partaken, but Neal keeps those stories pretty close to the vest, and if you ask him, he’ll typically respond with, “Sure, some of the band members indulged, who didn’t? I was usually very careful about that stuff when I was working, because you've got to deliver the goods, and even though it was back in the day when everyone was doing it and it was condoned, you still had to do your job.”
Neal released his book, Exhausted and Exhilarated in 2017 and it’s filled with great stories and killer photos. One such story recounts Led Zeppelin’s headlining of the Knebworth festival in 1979, and Peter Grant’s concerns that the concert promoters would try and lowball him for gate attendance figures. Grant had ordered Preston to get into a helicopter, where he was almost hanging out of the chopper, and have him shoot as many photos of the crowd as he could. As Neal says, “Peter had gotten access to some new software that could look at a photo and figure out how many people were in the frame. He was able to get a very precise count of how many people were in attendance, and it came in handy because the promoter did try to lowball him on the gate receipts. Peter won that case!”
Interviewing Neal can be a never-ending assignment, and frankly, who would want that to ever end? He has more stories than there is time for. I decided to start with his most recent undertaking: a website with the most exclusive photography the world has ever seen.
Goldmine: When we last spoke, you told me that you were getting ready to put together a website with outtakes, what can you tell me about that?
Neal Preston: I wanted to have a gallery outlet to throw up some great photos from the files that no one's seen. It's a way to gaze a little deeper into the bottomless cup of coffee. It's going to be a kind of playpen for a very limited, all-star group of photographers. As of now, it's me, Andy Kent, Joel Bernstein, Michael Greco and Ken Regan, who's no longer alive. Ethan Russell will be coming on board at some point. It's going to be like the 1927 Yankees, as far as I'm concerned. We want to make a splash when we open.
GM: It sounds very pricey!
NP: This gallery is not going to be for the cavalier or blasé collector, and It's going to go deep. It's for me and some of my photographer friends to be able to offer stuff up that hasn't been seen. The fans will love it!
GM: Won’t that put you in competition with yourself?
NP: No. If someone contacts our outtake gallery and says, “That's all great, but I want to buy the famous print of Jimmy swigging the Jack Daniels”, I'm going to send them back to Morrison or another gallery. I'm not here to be in competition with those galleries. I'm not here to be in competition with those galleries that sell my stuff. This is just for the HARD-CORE fan.
GM: You must have hundreds of thousands of outtakes, how could something like this ever end?
NP: It doesn't end if you don't want it to, it could keep going on forever. I just spent a day last week going through some of Ken Regan’s files. Oh my God! I found stuff on Johnny Cash, The Last Waltz, some work with the Stones. Michael Greco has all this punk and post-punk stuff.
GM: How will you keep people coming back?
NP: I want to make it so that people have to come on the gallery site, like every other day, because you don't know what surprises are going to be on it. That's kind of what makes this fun for us because, you know, not everyone can afford this stuff. These are gonna be short editions, only 10 or 15 of each photo.
GM: Isn't that going to drive the price of a print up? If you're limiting each frame to a maximum of 15 copies.
NP: Yes, they're going to be expensive, but they're going to be very collectible and rare because they are short editions.
GM: What made you to decide to release outtakes after all these years.
NP: People are calling me saying, "I love this picture of Jimmy page but what else you got? What do you have in your back pocket?" I get this all the time. So, we decided to start a gallery site with stuff that no one's ever seen. The website is http://www.outtakegallery.com
GM: Let’s talk about your book, Exhilarated and Exhausted, one of my favorite music/photography books.
NP: You know, every photographer is now putting out a book, but none of them were like Exhilarated and Exhausted. None of them have the humor and the tone that mine has, and I'm very proud of the writing in my book.
GM: As you should be. I loved it; it was honest. You didn't shy away from anything. I thought the writing was what made the book, which says a lot for a book written by a legendary photographer like you.
NP: Well, it was conversational, and it was honest. I think you know that I have a sense of humor and if I can't make it funny, it ain't worth it. So, I tell the story of my job. Not of me, but of my job, what it's like.
GM: I thought that the stories in that book were in some ways, a lot more compelling than the photos themselves. Is that wrong?
NP: No, not at all, I love that you loved what I wrote! The stories in the book aren't stories about the photos, although there are some. For example, I don't really talk about drugs (except for myself). I'm not shying away from the fact that I was a ringleader, but the only two artists that I really mentioned drugs around are Greg Allman and Sly Stone. And the Sly Stone story is fantastic. There are a couple of photos of Sly from that photo shoot, but they don't show him doing drugs. It's not a tell-all book. It's a story of my job because people are fascinated with my job. I've always been asked, "How did you do your job? How'd you get your film developed? How did you sleep? How did you get from place to place? How did you deal with personalities?" You know, that's far more interesting than, "Debbie Harry was sitting here, and I said, "Debbie, let me take your picture, blah blah blah..."
GM: The drug thing has been done to death, it's been told a million times, especially where it concerns Led Zeppelin. I'd be willing to bet that in 9 out of 10 interviews, people say, "Tell me about Led Zeppelin. Did they do a lot of drugs? Did they screw a lot of groupies?"
NP: Yeah, it has been told a million times, and of course they did, but to me, far more interesting is the question, "Why did Jimmy Page need a passport photo? And then when I did shoot it, how was I able to get that processed in time? That's far more interesting.
GM: You tell a story in Exhilarated and Exhausted about an incident where you stole Robert Plant and flew him up to Detroit, and when Grant found out about it, he meted out a punishment that you wouldn't reveal. What did Peter do to punish you?
NP: Oh, Peter was not happy! It was me, Danny Marcus, Janine Safer and Robert Plant. We flew commercial from Cleveland to Detroit because that's where the Pontiac stadium show was, and we had some days off. I thought someone else would tell Richard Cole we’d gone. When the rest of the band got to Pontiac, I got a call from Richard Cole, who said, "You have to go see G right now! Stop whatever you're doing. No cameras, go and see him now!” I went up there and Peter said, "You've kidnapped my rock star. Here's your punishment" This was on a Saturday afternoon, late afternoon. He said, "I want six, 11 x 14 prints of John Bonham. I want them slipped under his door by noon tomorrow. And if you don't do that, you're fired." So first I called all the guys at Creem magazine that I knew, because I knew they had a darkroom over there. When I called, they were coked out or hung over and I couldn't get in there. Then I called the picture desk at the Detroit Free Press, begging, "I'm Led Zeppelin's photographer, blah blah blah," couldn't do it. I'm beside myself because I know my whole gig is on the line.
I managed to get hold of the art director at Creem, who, um, well, I was having an affair with his girlfriend and I don't think he knew it at the time, but I managed to get a hold of the keys. I let myself into the Creem offices. I had not been in a darkroom for two or three years before that. I managed to mix the chemicals, I took six frames, and I made the prints. It was a $70 cab ride from the hotel to Creem and back to the hotel, which I couldn't afford, but I had to spend it. And I got those prints slipped under Bonzo's door at about quarter to 12. I just made it! Now did Bonzo ever look at them? Probably not. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't, but that was the last that this was ever discussed. So that was Peter's way of spanking me. And that's part of G's genius. He figured I could get it done, but it was not easy because it was a Saturday. Everybody was off.
GM: It sounds like he knew exactly which buttons to push.
NP: Oh yeah, he knew exactly which button to push, that's why I loved Peter. And he loved me. Every once in a while, you've got to spank your kids!
GM: When we met a few years ago, told me a hilarious story about Jimmy Page in Japan with some bootleg records.
NP: Jimmy went into a record store in Tokyo or somewhere in Japan. I think it was Tokyo where, you know, bootlegs are legal. He starts pulling bootleg Jimmy Page and Zeppelin stuff off the shelves and putting them in a bag, and then just walks out of the store with them. The kid behind the counter says, in broken English, "Mr. Page, Mr. Page, please. You must pay for these." And Jimmy turns to him and he says, "F**k that sh*t, these are mine. These tapes were stolen from me, these are mine, so just f**k off!" And he just takes the bag and gets in the car and leaves.
GM: Any chance that Zeppelin will ever re-unite?
NP: There is never going to be a Led Zeppelin reunion. And if you hear that there is, I authorize you to cash out, liquidate everything and put it on "No, it's not going to happen." It comes up every year and it's not going to happen, and it never was going to happen. It was amazing that they even did the one-off years ago, which I decided not to go to because I need that band to live somewhere in my brain.
They turned down a billion dollars and it just gets under Jimmy's craw, because Jimmy has always wanted to do the adult tour, the sober tour, the musical tour, not about all their shenanigans. Robert just doesn't want to make that music anymore. They offered them so much money for the "Old Chella" thing, the Desert Trip show. It's never going to happen! I don't want to see a 75-year-old Jimmy Page duck walking across the stage. I know that the show at the O2 in London got great reviews, but it's not led Zeppelin! It's three guys from led Zeppelin and Jason Bonham. It's funny cause I didn't feel that way when Keith Moon died because I'm a Pete guy.
GM: Let me ask you about some of the other shots in Exhilarated and Exhausted. You've got a picture in there of Brian Wilson and his doctor, Eugene Landy, sitting on Brian's lap. What can you tell me about that shoot? Dr. Landy, as it was later revealed, was something of a monster. He treated Brian like dirt essentially and was later disbarred from the psychiatric profession for his mistreatment of Brian.
NP: Well, that was a People magazine shoot and Brian had kind of come out of hiding for a while. So, it was a big deal to get that shoot because he hadn't done a lot of stuff. Everyone had heard all the rumors about how twisted he was, and you know, it's not that he was high. It was more like he was a basket case from his whole life. Landy was around and that's when Landy was around big time, he was with Brian every second. What I remember is that Brian was a shell of a man, and Landy ran the show. I seem to remember that it was up to him as to what we shot when we shot... It wasn't that he was controlling, it was that he was caretaking Brian, really.
That was a big coup to get that shoot. I don't remember how it came about, but I do remember it was a coup, and, you know, Brian Wilson was one of the all-time musical geniuses in pop music. It's Lennon, McCartney, Brian Wilson, and I believe, Pete Townshend. Pete should be right up there with all the greats. As I've said many times in this interview, I'm a huge Pete Townshend fanatic! If he was walking down the street as we speak, I'd hang up the phone in a second. And one more genius is Lindsey Buckingham. Without question, he is a musical genius!
GM: Tell me about the book on Queen that you did.
NP: It's similar to Exhilarated and Exhausted, same size and everything, but it's only Queen. It's all my photos, a lot of stuff that's never been published. Brian May and Roger Taylor both wrote intros and forewords. The Queen fans have been going off the wall. The South American tour in 1981 was a groundbreaking tour because no one had ever gone down to South America with their entire show. Peter Frampton had gone down there with a couple of guitars a few years back, but in 1981, this was a big deal and it's still legendary to this day. Go to reelartpress.com and you'll see the Queen book, or you could go to queenonline.com and you'll see a picture of Brian and Roger holding up the book. We're all very proud of it.
With the Queen book, we took a picture that is actually Brian May's favorite picture from the '81 tour. It's a shot that I did from the stage that was taken before the show, looking out in a soccer stadium. You see a line of soldiers in the middle of the soccer pitch, like 20 soldiers. I think it was in Argentina. I got an email one day out of the blue from a kid who says, "All of Argentina is so proud to have this photo on the cover!" And he goes on to say that his dad was in the military and he's the third guy from the left in that photo, it's freaky. I told that to Brian and he was shocked.
GM: Wasn't Brian May the only person you ever brought home with you to meet your parents?
NP: Yes, he was. He sat at my mom's tiny little kitchen table eating scrambled eggs.
GM: He must have been very special.
NP: He was, Brian is great. In fact, I just got an email from him yesterday. He's an expert in stereoscopic photography and has got a humongous collection of stereo cameras, old serial cameras, stereo slides, which is fancy way of saying View-Master reels. Whenever I'm in an antique store, and, yes, I like antiquing, whenever I find stereo slides I buy them and send them to Brian, it's kind of a running thing.
GM: Did he like the Queen book you authored?
NP: He was overjoyed with the Queen book. We all had been wanting to do something like that for a while. They've put out a lot of product, which I felt did not honor the band properly, with their work ethic and their perfection. It seemed like they were putting out kind of second-rate stuff. So I said to Brian at dinner one night in South America, a few years back, "Let's do a beautiful coffee table book once and for all!" They said yes, and that's how it came about. I'm very proud of the Queen book. There's a lot of great photos in the book, and maybe we'll do another one someday with even better photos. I mean, it's a bottomless cup of coffee. The Queen book is great and I'm very, very proud of Exhilarated and Exhausted because I love the writing in it. A lot of people don't read it, they just look at the photos, and I tell people, "I'll give you a book if you promise to read it!" But obviously you've read it, and you know, the writing is great.
GM: Your writing is great, and believe me Neal, if you ever find yourself in need of a book review, send the book to me!
NP: We're developing Ex/Ex for a TV show. It's not the story of this shoot or this picture or that picture. It's me telling the story of my job, how I do it, what the stresses are, what the pitfalls are, the ups and downs, stuff that works, stuff that doesn't work. That's far more interesting than "Robert Plant stuck his hand out, and the bird landed on his hand, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." And with all due respect, you can write this, but with all due respect to friends of mine like Bob Gruen and a few others, when they get interviewed, it's dry as a bone. I may not be the greatest photographer in the world, but I've had my moments. I've shot more bad pictures than anyone on the planet earth, but I know that I have charisma, and you can definitely print that I laughed after I said that.
GM: I think the thing that differentiated you from a lot of other photographers was your access. It's not like Led Zeppelin had a pool of photographers flying around with them.
NP: Yes, but It's what you do with the access. Just because you have the access means jackshit. You have to deliver the goods.
GM: Obviously, you need to know what you're doing with a camera, but if you don't have access, you have nothing.
NP: It's not that you need to know what you're doing with the camera; you need to be able to complete the assignment you're given. There's a difference.
GM: Can you explain the difference?
NP: Every time I'm on the road with someone, it's an assignment. Am I there just to be a fly on the wall and document everything? That's one assignment. Are we shooting a live album? That's another assignment. Are we looking for certain publicity shots? You know, I'm there to deliver the goods. That's why I have that chapter of my book called "Deliver the Goods." That's the ultimate goal, deliver the goods, complete the assignment that you've been given, whether it's a one hour magazine assignment, whether it's a month or two months on the road with Led Zeppelin, or whether it's blah, blah, blah.
GM: You're famous for being on the Starship with Led Zeppelin, but apparently you got on a plane with The Who. Tell me about the shot where Pete Townshend is flipping you off.
NP: I love that shot because you don't see Pete dress that way. When I see Pete Townshend like that, he's in his own world. Peter is the most interesting guy on the planet. I don't know what his actual IQ is, and I don't know what his genius level is according to MENSA, but I would bet the mortgage that he exceeds genius level. Whatever the number is, he tops it.
GM: That's kind of funny because there's a line in Almost Famous where the Jeff Bebe character says, "Nobody can explain rock and roll, except maybe Pete Townshend."
NP: Yeah, and Pete will explain it to you. If you read Pete's autobiography, titled Who I Am, It's sick. I knew it was going to be when I bought it, it's 600 pages of torture. You know, the smarter they are, the more tortured they are. But bar none, he's the most fascinating guy in rock, and generally his default mode is grumpy.
My best Who photo is my reverse shot of Pete and Roger. Pete's jumping and Roger's blurry, it's shot from high up and in back of them looking out towards the crowd. Pete is wearing these tight, white pants. Five years ago, Cameron Crowe and I saw The Who at Caesar's and I had made a couple of prints of that to have Pete sign. At the end of the show, we're backstage. Pete is always grumpy, ninety-nine percent of the time, the look on his face is, "Don't even think of f**king talking to me!" He starts to walk by me, and then does a double take and says, "Oh my God, it's you!!" He gives me a hug and we talk, and I ask him to sign both of the photos, one for me and one for Cameron. Of course, he signs his name right on his ass! As he's signing it, looking down at the photo, he says, "That's quite a fine ass!" So I said to him, "Well, Pete, it's not as fine as Prince's ass was." He didn’t even look up, he just kept signing.
GM: That doesn't surprise me. Pete Townsend's ass is almost the focal point of the photo. I mean, without going there.....It's hard to not see.
GM: Did you ever do darkroom stuff yourself, just purely for recreation?
NP: Not for recreation. The last time I was in a dark room was 1977. Me and my then partner, Andy Kent, who is a very fine photographer in his own, right. He got out of the business in '78, moved up to Idaho. God bless him, but he's shot the best David Bowie's stuff ever. Andy and I used to do darkroom work, we had a dark room in our office in LA where we would develop black and white and colored transparency, but I'm too "Type A" for darkroom, especially for color. The temperatures have to be plus or minus a degree and a half or blah, blah, blah. I'm just not made for darkroom.
GM: I used to love working in the darkroom with black and white, I loved it. I can still smell the chemicals.
NP: The yellow stains on my fingers....
GM: Do you have any of your own photos framed and hung?
NP: The only pictures of mine that I have up in my place are stuff that is signed to me, like, "To Neal from Greg Allman or from Stevie or, you know, Pete, blah, blah, blah." I've got a framed shot of Jimmy Page, the passport photo that he used for the cover of his book.
I've got a Terry O'Neill shot of David Bailey, which I treasure because in it, he's using the same tripod that I still use, a Gitzo 500. I have a very old tripod, which I'm thinking of getting rid of because it's getting a little dicey, and the stuff they make now is lighter weight.
GM: So were you a really big fan of Led Zeppelin or Queen or The Who when you were shooting them?
NP: Yeah, of course. I loved The Who, Zeppelin and Queen. I love a lot of bands. I love Foreigner. I love Heart. I love The Stones, I love Peter Frampton. I love many other kinds of music, not only classic rock.
GM: If you had to pick one band...
NP: The Who are my guys. When I'm at a Who show, if I'm not working, I turn into a 13-year-old watching Justin Timberlake, I'm all over the place!
GM: What about as individuals? I'm not talking about musicality; I'm referring to them as people.
NP: The two most important men in my life, other than my dad, are John Lennon in the early part of my life, and as I grew up, Pete Townshend, bar none!
GM: How did you get those great candid shots where you get right in front of someone, and take a shot like that without them trying to present what they wanted the fans to see?
NP: When I'm on the road, I blend in with everyone. The rule of thumb is you want to be invisible, but the irony is that to become invisible on a rock tour, the way to do it is to be visible at all times. It's like hiding in plain sight. No one blinks an eye if the drum roadie comes in a with a practice pad, or the guitar roadie goes into the tuning room to tune the guitars, if the manager comes in or if the agent comes in. No one should bat an eyelash if the photographer comes in. And the way you do that is by being visible at all times, then you become part of the fabric of the tour.
GM: So, why did Peter Grant choose to fly Led Zeppelin around using large passenger planes? Was this just another way for Grant to flout his band?
NP: It made sense on an economic level. Even though the planes and the jet fuel were expensive, it enabled Led Zeppelin to base out of one city, say New York. They would play the New York shows, get on the plane, play Philly, get on the plane, fly to Boston, get on the plane, fly to Montreal, fly back. You'd never have to check out of the hotel, it gave the touring party a sense of normalcy, and it allowed me to use the same lab. You didn't have to pack Jimmy and Robert's and Bonzo's stuff. It just lent a sense of normalcy. And it made sense if you think about the hassle of checking in and out of a hotel. That's the real reason that those planes came in handy, although people don't think of it that way, they think of it as an ego stroke. To a certain extent, it was an ego stroke, but there was a reason that those planes made sense, and I hope that explains it.
GM: Oh, it does. Referencing Almost Famous again, Jimmy Fallon’s character says, "Get rid of the bus and get an airplane, you can do more dates, and you don't have to check into all the hotels."
NP: Right, there you go. Everything depicted in Almost Famous is real, and you know that by now.
GM: I like to believe it is, I don't know that everything in it is real. I'm sure there are some great stories centered around those airplanes that weren't in Almost Famous.
When you were on the road, how did you manage to get all the film developed and stay on top of all of that? Having been a photographer myself, I know that photographers have specific labs they use and trust no other labs. It's not like you could just pull up to the local one-hour photo in Cleveland and get your stuff developed.
NP: Well, for Led Zeppelin, which is a good example, we would base out of a certain city for X number of gigs. So, for instance, we'd base out of New York and play The Garden, Nassau, Philly, Boston, whatever's in that area. Then we'd base out of Chicago and play Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis, etc. So, yes, we would set up labs in different cities that I was basing in and whenever I had a couple of days’ worth of film, I'd send it over to the lab.
GM: Did they know who and what they were dealing with?
NP: They knew to rush everything. I would have to have six proof sheets of every roll of black and white. One for each band member, one for Peter Grant, and one for me. And then all the slides would come in. Within three or four days of being on the road, I would start having nothing but boxes of film everywhere, and envelopes, and collating all that stuff was a bit of a nightmare. I used to have to make sure that copies of all the proof sheets were slipped under every bandmember's door by 12 noon the next day.
GM: Were there any 24-hour processing places in those days, or did you have to wait for the next day?
NP: After a gig, Richard Cole would give me the use of a limo for one hour. And I was told early on, no hanky panky, no stealing the limo. We had six or eight limos on call for each band member in the touring party. I would write up my film orders, take the limo, and I'd put it in the night drop of the lab. And the guys would come in at six in the morning. It wasn't a 24-hour thing, but it was as close to 24 hours as one would need.
GM: Did you ever end up sleeping outside a lab?
NP: That's a good question. Only when we did one photograph — when I did Jimmy's passport photo, which became the cover of his book. Someone came over to me on the plane and said, "Jimmy and Robert are going to Egypt after this leg of the tour, and Jimmy needs a passport photo or a visa photo for the Egyptian consulate." So, I just go into deadline mode. “When do they need it?” 2:00 PM tomorrow. "Hmm, that's tight, but it's doable." So, I took Jimmy in the back of the plane. I shot three or four frames, knowing exactly what a passport photo needs to look like because I've done enough myself. I took the film to the lab and waited there and made sure they didn't bang out any extra prints. We got it to the Egyptian consulate with plenty of time.
GM: That's that brings up another question I was going to ask you. Did you ever have any images bootlegged off any of your negatives, and then find it later on?
NP: Oh yeah, I'm the most bootlegged guy on the planet by far. No one touches me.
GM: Well, that's kind of like the best of anything also has the worst of anything as a record, like baseball teams and what have you.
NP: One day, and I'm only dropping this story because I know you like the colorful stories, but I was at Bruce Springsteen's house. I was grousing about some bootleg KISS album or a bootleg Led Zeppelin record or whatever. Bruce turned to me and he said, and I'll never forget this, he said, "Don't forget something. If they didn't dig this, they wouldn't steal it." And I figured, well, that's pretty precious, taken from a guy who'd had his tapes stolen early on and made into bootlegs.
GM: Having your work stolen and bootlegged is both a compliment and a curse at the same time.
NP: Yeah, what are you going to do? Now we go after these people, but you know, a lot of the people are in chop shops outside of the USA. We were working on a movie called, We Bought a Zoo. One of the girls in the art department sent me an email one night saying, "Look what I've found!" It was a Stevie Nicks shower curtain with my photo on it. So I said, "All right, I'll bite, I'll buy it" I send my $11 in or whatever it was, and about a week later, I get this little box, which seemed not much bigger than a box you'd put a wedding ring in. I'm on set that day, and I opened it up and I take out this folded up into a little ball shower curtain. I'm telling you, it's such bad quality, if it got wet, it would have dissolved. Stevie's photo is printed badly on it, its all stretched out. I used it to cover my camera cart during lunch.
GM: A fitting ending for it.
NP: Like I said, you go after these people and their chop shops are all overseas, and they shut down one day and they open up two doors down and you can't do anything about it.
GM: Are you still in contact with any of the members of Led Zeppelin?
NP: Directly and indirectly, but I don't want to go into it. There are certain people I talk to, certain people I talk to through other people, certain people call me. The last time I spoke to Robert on the phone was probably about five, six years ago. I talk to Brian May every once in a while, I see Stevie [Nicks] every once in a while. These people are my friends and I'm probably closer to Stevie Nicks and Brian May than anybody.
GM: I remember the first time we met, you told me you were the greatest live photographer ever. And I was like, wow!
NP: The greatest live photographer. But that doesn't mean the greatest photographer. Those are two different things. Oh no, I've shot more bad pictures than anyone on the planet. And I'm here to tell you that! I idolize the photographers I idolize. And so be it.
GM: Well, all photographers do. For me, you are it, Neal! I used to see pictures you'd shot when I was a teenager and think, "F**k!"
NP: Well, that's very, very sweet. I was too busy shooting the pictures, I didn't even know what I was doing, you know? And that's the thing, time goes by so quickly. One minute I'm 17 years old at a Jeff Beck concert in Queens and with a snap of your fingers, I'm sitting in my car going up Las Vegas Boulevard talking to you. It goes by that quickly, it really, really does. When you get to be my age, you start appreciating the little things in life, and you really do have to stop and smell the roses. It's super important.
GM: Who did you not shoot, and still regret it?
NP: I'm not old enough to have shot The Beatles, so that's a bummer, although I've shot three of them solo. You know something? Not too many people. Christina Aguilera for sure, I've always wanted to shoot Christina, I think she's one of the most talented people on planet earth, bar none. Her pipes are unmatched. The only person I've ever known who had pipes like that is probably is Donna Summer. Someday, I'll shoot Christina.
GM: When you were shooting, how many bodies did you have? Did you have just two, one for black and white and one for color?
NP: Two or three, I mixed it up. It wasn't a matter of all black or white, I had whatever I felt like.
GM: Did you ever bulk roll black and white film?
NP: Yes, I did, Yes, I did! Back in the day! Yeah, we used to get those big rolls of Triax and bulk load them. I used to do dark room work. I used to develop E4 and then I developed E6 six.
GM: When you were shooting, I'm guessing that you shot full manual, no aperture, shutter priority, any of that kind of stuff?
NP: Correct. Manual override every step of the way.
GM: Of all the places you shot, did you have a favorite venue?
NP: Yeah, I have good luck venues. Funny, no one's ever mentioned that to me or asked me that question.
GM: Perhaps I'm the first photographer to interview you.
NP: My good luck venues, and in no particular order are, The Forum in LA, Wembley Stadium in London, and the Omni in Atlanta, which is no longer there. Those are my good luck venues.
GM: Let's talk about your love for aviation, something I bet that not many people ask you about. You flew out of Van Nuys airport, right? Did you get your license?
NP: I never got certified, but I've gone up in every conceivable kind of aircraft. I've been up in helicopters with the doors off where I'm being held in by something that seemed to be not much thicker than dental floss.
I also learned to fly here in Southern California, but I flew out of Burbank. I flew in and out of Van Nuys once, and I hated it, they had those parallel runways, and if you weren't careful, you could drift right into the path of someone taking off beside you. You'd do that and the tower would yell at you.
Well, the thing about Van Nuys airport that I learned early on is, when you're taking off from Van Nuys airport, if you balloon your altitude too quickly, you're right in the flight path of a 737 landing at Burbank. We almost bought the farm once. My instructor and I were flying around in uncontrolled airspace in Simi Valley and I'm doing clearing terms. A clearing turn is when you bank left a little, make sure there's no airplanes in the area, then you bank right a little bit to make sure there's no planes there either. So I'm doing these clearing turns, and when I straightened up, I saw a plane, at my altitude, coming right at me! When two airplanes, or two trains, or two cars are traveling directly towards each other, sh*t happens in half the time. I'm flying pilot, my instructor is flying copilot, and I said, "Oh my God, there's a plane!!!" So he takes the stick, pushes it down, and we do a f**king death-dive. When we leveled off, I said to my instructor ,"Do we have to report that to the FAA?" I didn't know, it was a near miss. It's funny, they call it a near miss, It should be called a near hit. The instructor said to me, "You're not going to say f**king anything to anybody!"
GM: And you never certified?
NP: No, I came about an hour away, but I was too busy. I wrote about the Pearl Jam flight in my book. That was when I flew their plane and didn't tell them.
GM: How did that happen?
NP: I was sitting in the cockpit, in the co-pilot seat, and then suddenly, the pilot says, "Hold this altitude, I gotta take a leak." Jesus, this was not a Tomahawk or Cessna, this was a plane!I thought I was going to eat my own stomach. I didn't know if the head was right in the back of the pilot's door, or if it was in the back of the plane, but it was the longest 20 or 30 seconds of my life. I never told the band that I flew their plane and I think they probably didn't find out until they read my book.
GM: That's funny. Probably the best way to find out is when it's too late to worry about it.
NP: Have we covered everything?
GM: I don't know if we ever will, but thanks for all your time, Neal!
Neal's site can be reached by clicking here.