Generally, when you speak with someone with strong ties to rock history, you either get an earful of tedious name-dropping or you're forced to endure an exhaustive lecture about how kids today just don't get it. This is not the case with Dan Fong, the famed Denver rock photographer who has shot legendary acts such as the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Doobie Brothers, among others.
Fong (whose previously unpublished archive of rock photos will be on display this Friday, July 6, at the Gallery at 760 Santa Fe Street), on the other hand, casually drifts into intimate, backstage stories on music's most treasured icons without a trace of pretense or ego. "I've been doing rock photography since the late '60s, but today is a very exciting time to be taking pictures. Denver has such a great music scene."
When Fong first got into the game, the price of admission to see the Stones or the Who was around the same as a Starbucks latte; whereas today, it can cost as much as $350 to see what's left of the Rolling Stones. And this is only one of the many changes that Fong has seen the music industry go through in the last four decades. "Back then," he recalls, "when you're backstage, you meet everybody, and they know you, and then when you walk on stage during the show to take pictures, nobody freaks out. There's no 'Who the hell is that guy?' Now you only get the first ten minutes of the set. And every newspaper photographer in the United States gets that ten minutes -- so all the photographs are the same."
Less a photo-journalist and more of archival artist, Fong has been focusing his lens on historical moments for as long as he can remember. "I've always been taking pictures -- no matter what," he says. "The way I look at it, I've been documenting my own life. I started taking pictures in Junior High School for the newspaper. My first assignment was taking pictures of Eisenhower when he came to town for a fundraiser. I also took pictures of Frank Tripucka, the first quarterback for the Denver Broncos."
Like any career success story, Fong used his wits to hustle his way into spaces that most would consider inaccessible. "KMFL, the big underground radio station at the time, was a few blocks from my house," Fong remembers, explaining that he got a job reading advertisements on air at the radio station in exchange for being allowed photo access to the bands that were traveling through town. "I met a lot of record people, and they needed food for their events when they were in town. My parents ran a restaurant, so I knew how to cook. So I started a catering company for the events. When the Stones came through in '72, I did the catering for their big party at Barry Fey's house."
The Stones 1972 tour of America -- supporting their career-defining album, Exile on Main Street -- was not only one of the most infamous tours in Stones history, but it holds a place in the legacy of rock-and-roll debauchery that has yet to be matched -- death threats, cocaine, Truman Capote, guns, all captured in a road film titled Cocksucker Blues. The mayhem of this tour has been written into bohemian history as something to be longed for and never forgotten. And Fong was there when the circus came to Denver.
"We had a party, a luau, for the Stones after their show, a thirteen course meal that I made," Fong recollects. "The Stones were supposed to play Red Rocks, but they got rained out, so they played two dates at the Denver Coliseum, and then afterward, we threw a party at Barry Fey's house. Everyone sat on the ground, and we had tiki torches and papier-mache mushrooms, movies projected, and a big tongue and lips." This Denver party itself is documented in the book, S.t.p. A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones.
As an added bonus for catering the Stones party, Fong was allowed on-stage access to the band for both of their Denver shows -- the only photographer granted such a privilege. His photos stand as unique documents of a time in western pop history that has since been lauded as one of the most influential in music culture.
But the story doesn't end there. Fong continued to use his social and culinary talents to grant him access to some of the biggest acts of the time. "I did a lot of album covers, like the Doobie Brothers' What Were Once Habits Are Now Vices, and Takin' it to the Streets," he notes. "They hired me as a media coordinator for about three or four years."
In 1971 Fong landed a gig photographing the Who's live shows. "That was the first group that I ever experienced the mobbing teenagers," he remembers. "I rode around in the limo with them getting in and out of the Denver Coliseum, which was hard because there were kids mobbing the cars." This was the year that the Who released the seminal Who's Next, and the group, along with Zeppelin, the Stones and Pink Floyd, would change the live music industry with their massive world tours. "I went with them to Cobo Hall in Detroit and stood behind Townshend for the entire set, taking photographs," Fong recalls. "It's incredible to watch fifteen to twenty thousand people go crazy all at once."
Being that he was allowed both backstage and on-stage access, Fong's collection of photographs from this era show the mythical ax-masters both on stage before a massive crowd and backstage, humanized by their exhaustion, yet eager to keep the party going. Just before the Denver performance, Pete Townshend cut his hand trying to open a champagne bottle. In one photo, he proudly models his giant bandaged mitt, like Dean Moriarty in On the Road. "Luckily it was his right hand," notes Fong, "not his left, so he could still hold the pick and play."
Unfortunately, Fong was diagnosed with a brain disorder in 1993, which prevented him from taking pictures. He's not dour about the subject, though. When asked about the disorder, he deadpans "necrophilia" before bursting out with laughter and revealing that it's actually narcolepsy. "After that, I was just working on my health," he explains. "It's only been in the last six years that I've started working again."
Fong is surprisingly enthusiastic about live music in 2012 -- though not necessarily at the big, commercial venues. "The clubs around town are just like it was in the '70s," says Fong, whose daughter Megan fronts local band Bonnie and the Beard. "Even though kids today still really like music in your ears, they still really love live music -- they love standing as close as they can get to the band. And you can't do that at a big venue.
"But you go down to South Broadway on Thursday, Friday or Saturday nights," he goes on, "and there are big groups of kids going from one venue to the next. And there are some incredible players there. And it only costs like six bucks to get in -- some of them are free! And it's really good music. I think the kids are lucky right now, because the music scene in Denver is great."
Dan Fong's previously unpublished archive of rock photos will be debuted Friday, July 6 at 5 p.m. at the Gallery, located at 760 Santa Fe Street.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.