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Rock Shots: Behind the Bands, Behind the Lens

Rock 'n' roll history is filled with people like Tom Wright, who traveled as a road manager with bands like the Rolling Stones, the Faces and the Who from the late 1960s through the early '80s. What makes Wright special is that he's also a photographer, so while he was collecting indelible experiences in those decades, he was also collecting extraordinary images.

Now he's written a memoir, Roadwork: Rock & Roll Turned Inside Out, due out in May. And he recently donated a half-million photographic prints and negatives to the University of Texas at Austin.

The university's Center for American History — what else? — threw a party to celebrate the addition to its archive. A guitar duo played Beatles covers. The Who's Pete Townshend regaled the crowd with tales of meeting Wright, then a young American art student in England. Townshend says Wright was a major influence on him, personally and artistically.

"Without Tom coming into my life, I don't think I would have heard the music that I heard that was so important for me when I was a kid," he says. "Particularly R&B, which Tom exposed me and a bunch of people at Ealing Art School to, around '62 and '63."

"But also drugs," Townshend laughs.

In 1967, Wright managed the Who's very first U.S. tour. Wright says he met the band in Florida. They got on the plane, Wright remembers; it started to take off, "and I guess we were doing 80 to 100 miles an hour."

"This guy is riding along the side of the runway on the grass, in a station wagon, and so we were waving and yelling and all that at the window," Wright says. "I'm sure he couldn't hear anything, because the plane was blasting, but then he pulled out a shotgun and he was aiming at us."

Apparently, drummer Keith Moon had slept with the guy's daughter the night before.

"We couldn't hear the shotgun go off," Wright says. "But we could see the blast of flame out of the two barrels, one and then the other." All that in the first 10 minutes of Wright's job managing the tour.

He still travels with the Who. Back then, he says, the lifestyle was more or less what you might imagine.

"You throw your eating habits and your sleeping habits out the window," Wright says. "You're permanently hung over."

But "being exhausted on the road with the Who lasted only until the first note of the show," he says. "It was just hypnotic."

When Wright wasn't booking hotels and limos and making sure his bands made it on and off the stage, he took photos — hundreds of thousands of them. He carried a camera around his neck pretty much all of the time.

"No flash and no meters, none of that stuff," he recalls. "So I just had only a split second to guess at what the exposure might be. And I 'pushed' the film, which [means] making it faster than it was manufactured to be. So there's always a lot of grain and camera movement and stuff in my shots."

Those shots include basement rehearsals, backstage shenanigans and preening groupies — and some of the era's greatest bands. Sitting down with Tom Wright to look through his photos provokes a stream of memories.

"That was the first photo session with Faces, that had Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart and Ronnie Lane and Kenny Jones — he wound up playing drums for the Who," he says. "This guy went with the Rolling Stones."

Don Carleton, who directs the Center for American History at the University of Texas, says Wright's pictures can give scholars an insight into the material culture of rock 'n' roll.

"It's sort of like being there," Carleton says. "It's sort of documenting and preserving a very important part of our history."

Even the groupie photos?

"Isn't that part of history, too?" Carleton counters. "We study the concubines of Rome. Not that every groupie was a concubine; I'm sorry out there, to those of you who were groupies," he says.

The point Carleton wants to make, though, "is that sex is part of life, and that was an integral part of the lifestyle."

Wright shared the lifestyle of the bands whose tours he managed, says the Eagles' Joe Walsh.

"He was so transparent that you didn't even know he was taking pictures, and that's why we all look natural and unposed," Walsh says. "Tom was just there, and you didn't even know that there was a camera on you."

In this era of the celebrity image, it's difficult to imagine stars being captured in a goofy candid shot like one particular Wright image. It's a grainy black-and-white photo of the Who's Keith Moon in a — well, not exactly a pair of jeans. One leg is entirely ripped off.

"He didn't tear his trouser leg off and reveal his left testicle with a French horn in his hand because he knew that Tom was taking a picture," Townshend says. "This was just a constant, evolving thing."

Townshend says it's a relief that Wright's photographs will be preserved for posterity — if only, he laughs, "to warn future generations of Americans that this baby-boomer thing that happened must never, ever, ever happen again!"

Wright, for his part, says his pictures are good because he had good subjects. He says he hopes his upcoming memoir will remind people of a time when people made music not to succeed in an industry, but to live gloriously through art.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.