Getting High with the Band: Intoxicating Images of Led Zep, The Who, The Stones


Photographer Michael Zagaris used his camera and a pocket full of drugs as a backstage pass.

The photography of Michael Zagaris has been called “the last untouched rock archive”—a treasure trove of images now collected for the first time in his new anthology Total Excess. Documenting a slice of musical history based largely around San Francisco in the 1970s, Zagaris got up close and personal with many of the most influential rock bands and musicians of the era, often using his camera and a pocket full of drugs as a backstage pass.

In addition to shooting Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Grateful Dead, David Bowie, Blondie, The Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton, Zagaris would eventually join some of these acts on tour, including The Rolling Stones, Peter Frampton, The Who, Lou Reed, and Bad Company, among others. This level of access allowed Zagaris to witness the legendary bad behavior of rock stars firsthand, and he has the photos and stories to prove it. Zagaris spoke to Cuepoint about Total Excess and recounted some of his favorite rock & roll tales.


The first time I went our with The Who, I had just separated from my wife… I went on that tour and I think I had $46.36 to my name. So we’re staying in the best hotels, sleeping until noon. I’d be walking down the corridor to somebody’s room and I’d see a croissant on somebody’s tray that they had not eaten, or jelly with an extra piece of bacon, so I’d be like “Hmm, that’s my breakfast.” So one of the roadies walking behind me says, “Hey mate, what are you doing? Are you nicking food?” So I said, “I’m sorry, I only have about forty bucks and you guys are going to pay me at the end of this, so…” And he says, “What, you’re not getting per diem?” I said, “Per diem?” He goes “Yeah, it’s like eatin’, feedin’ money. Go talk to the road manager, he’ll give you per diem money.”

So I go up to the tour manager’s room, he’s all speeded out, talking on the phone and he says “everything all right?” And I said, “Yeah, I have no complaints. Except I don’t have any money to eat and I could use a little per diem.” He goes, “Per diem? Per diem? Look man, we sleep ’til noon, there’s food backstage.” He then opens up the nightstand drawer and pulls out a three gram, amber bottle with the little cap with the spoon on it and says, “If you’re hungry, have this.” That night, halfway through the gig, I’m leaning behind one of the amps, changing film and the same roadie comes up.

“So did he fix you up?”

“Yeah, he fixed me up,” I said and pulled out the bottle.

“Fucking hell! Well look, man. If you were rich, if you were a millionaire with all the money in the world, what would you spend it on?”

“Uh…,” I said.

“I’ll tell you what you’d spend it on. You’d spend it on birds, on drugs, and on travel. And you’ve got it all here for nothing, so you don’t really need per diem, do you?”

That’s fucking rock & roll (laughs).


When he was with the Faces, they were one of the most fun bands. They used to get fucked up a lot. Some of the guys would take what they called “Mandrax.” They say, “Mandrax, man. It’s like a double Quaalude. It’s beautiful!” They’d go on stage and sometimes they were out of tune and sloppy, but it fucking worked. The sound was diabolical, it was great. They were having fun. They were great to hang around.

Rod would dance around, but at one point he just kind of collapsed. I was behind the amp and I just took the picture. From that angle, you feel like you are in the band.


This was April, 1977. They had just gotten back from Japan. We did some shots on the roof and went to Golden Gate Park and went to the arboretum, which from the outside looks like the Pan Pacific Exhibition of 1918. It’s a beautiful white building filled with flowers. We put them in there and this is just one of my favorite pictures. Debbie [Harry] is one of those people where it’s almost impossible to take a bad picture of her. They had a great sense of presence and playing to the camera. They had that pre-punk, New York way, it all worked.


Here we have Bob Dylan walking off stage and he actually looks like he doesn’t want to be photographed. Apparently Bob does not like to be photographed much these days…

It’s been that way more and more. It wasn’t that way in the beginning, which is why there are so many photos of him in the 60s in New York — at least until the motorcycle accident at Woodstock. The fame thing — I don’t want to say it spun him out, but he got tired of being that guy. Imagine if you can’t go anywhere — and when I say ‘anywhere,’ I mean anywhere — without people rushing up to you and being inundated. That photo was in ’75, when he was still accessible, but he was kind of a recluse.

To shoot Bob, you’ve got to go through Jeff, his manager, they’ve got to know who you are. They’ve got to approve it, to own it, and all the stuff we’re talking about. My friend Charlie Sexton is the guitarist in his band and they don’t see him that much. They’ve got their own dressing room and then there is Bob’s. They play close to 200 dates a year. A true troubadour.


Here Mick is definitely being Mick.

That was the ’72 tour. I was on the ’75 tour as well, but in ’72 they were fucking white hot. That’s to take nothing away from the Rolling Stones now. But the music was great, the shows were great. One of the reasons I printed the proof was — I mean, it’s all about the music — but Mick had an incredible stage presence and never stopped moving. You could be a 22-year-old welterweight boxer and not be in the shape he is in. To continually dance and move and preen for two hours, while you are also singing and bantering. Incredible showman.


That was the final show that Led Zeppelin did in the United States as Led Zeppelin. At that point in time, the band was… I mean, talk about Total Excess. Bill Graham went berserk. There was talk there would be no second show. Tickets were sold for 60,000 people. Peter Grant made Bill sign a paper, basically exonerating Led Zeppelin for any responsibility, promising not to sue. But Bill Graham’s attorney told them, “Sign the paper, it will have no validity in a court of law, because you signed it under duress.”

Bill’s stage manager and a friend of mine, says to me, “Hey Michael, you can’t shoot today with that pass. You’ve got to get one of our passes, you’ve got to have Peter Grant request a pass from us.”  So I go ask Peter Grant and I said, “Look, Bill Graham’s stage manager said I can’t go on stage and that you have to request a ‘Bill Graham Presents’ pass from them.”


The show was over, the band had a flight into New Orleans. So they go to their limos, escorted to the airport by eight or nine Oakland PD, Alameda County highway patrol police cars, escorting them to the airport.

We get to the plane, the cars are all surrounding the plane. Everybody gets out of the limos. They took Peter Grant, John Bonham, and Bindon and booked them for assault. The band flies on to New Orleans where they were going to play the Super Dome. Woke up the next morning and Robert Plant gets a call that his son Karac— who was four years old — had just died, contracting a stomach virus. The band flew back to London, they played there, a couple of months played a gig in Germany, and then Bonzo [John Bonham] died. So they never returned again as Led Zeppelin.


Photographs excerpted from Total Excess by Michael Zagaris from Reel Art Press. Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.

All Images by Michael Zagaris

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