Reading about celebrity deaths is always an interesting proposition. In most cases, how hard the news of those deaths hits us, primarily depends upon how closely we connected with their work, how personally their craft had touched us or how religiously we might have followed their career or their lives both in and out of the spotlight.
So it was recently that I was caught off guard to read of the death of British photographer Terry O’Neill, who died of prostate cancer on Nov. 16. O’Neill was mostly known for his career-defining work shooting celebrities and rock stars of his era. Some of his standout work was capturing iconic images of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Elton John.
Indeed, for years, I was a fascinated fan of his work without even knowing it. O’Neill, as it turned out, was the one responsible for pretty much most of the professional quality photos of John’s two career-defining concerts at Dodger Stadium in 1975. The second of those two shows turned out to be my very first concert — a day that literally changed my life and unknowingly started me on a career path of being a music and entertainment writer.
So, I was always immediately struck whenever any photos from the Dodger Stadium shows crossed my radar in the pre-internet age. In fact, the first time I can remember seeing any photos from the show — other than the few snapshots I took from the faraway stands with my own Kodak Instamatic, I mean — was two years later when I slit the plastic off my new “Elton John’s Greatest Hits Volume II” vinyl record, and there on one side of the inside album sleeve was a photo of John leaning against his piano in his sequined Dodger outfit while gazing out upon the crowd of 55,000 fans.
For years, that photo in particular fascinated me. Many of my school friends and I were all in there somewhere, blurred faces in the crowd, lost in the sea of humanity in attendance each day. All of us had our own memories and our own stories to tell from those raucous two days — but little did I know that it would be the serendipitous sharing of my own story that would lead to my path intersecting O’Neill’s nearly 40 years later.
When the 35th anniversary of the show rolled around in 2010, I was drawn to write about my experience — blogs being all the rage at the time — and it felt good to put a lot of my thoughts and memories to keyboard and posterity. Having done so, I kind of retreated from the task — except when the anniversary date would roll around each year. Seeing October 26 on the calendar each year never fails to register and briefly circulate those memories again.
In May of 2015, however, I was contacted by a literary agent who was working with O’Neill. She asked if I would consider tweaking my blog essay a bit and giving them something original for use in a planned photo book, which would be released to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the shows? Was this a trick question? Of course I would!
They also wondered if they could use scans of my notebook scribblings of the setlist from that day. For some reason I’d felt compelled to take along a notebook and document the songs performed at my first concert. (Career foreshadowing much?) So it is that photos of my notebook pages, featuring my teenaged chicken scratching of the setlist — not to mention a now embarrassing misspelling of “Philedelphia Freedom” — appear in a photo book documenting one of the greatest concerts ever held. Mind blown.
There are six essays included in the book, which is titled “Two Days That Rocked the World: Elton John Live at Dodger Stadium.” Tennis star Billie Jean King, a personal friend of Elton’s who performed a couple songs as a backing vocalist that weekend, wrote the forward. O’Neill, of course, added his perspective, and there were also essays from band members Davey Johnstone (guitar), Ray Cooper (percussion) and Kenny Passarelli (bass). The sixth essay was mine. For those scoring at home, that’s five essays from people who were literally on the stage that day and one from a wide-eyed 15-year-old, squinting his eyes to glimpse music’s biggest star from the second deck of the stands behind the third-base line. (Or, as Dodger fans might translate: Even farther than a one-legged Kirk Gibson World Series game-winning homer traveled off a Dennis Eckersley backdoor slider.)
The day the book finally arrived, I spent hours poring through the nearly 150 pages of amazing photographs, the vast majority of which had never been publicly released before. O’Neill said he used around 50 rolls of film to document the two performances, rehearsals and backstage environment and that’s easy to believe when you see the melange of color and black-and-white photos filling the book.
My participation in the project didn’t result in any monetary payment. Essentially, I got a free copy of the book — and to this day I feel I got the better end of the deal. I still frequently pull it out and flip through the pages, marveling at the visual grandeur of it all. O’Neill signed the cover page for me, generously thanking me for my contribution. It is one of the favorite pieces of concert memorabilia I’ve ever collected.
When it comes to the written word, as Bernie Taupin so eloquently penned in the “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” song “Writing”: “Will the things we wrote today, sound as good tomorrow?” O’Neill faced no such worries in regards to his photographs. They still jump off the page.
“I was able to go and shoot anywhere I wanted,” O’Neill wrote in his essay. “Because of that access, I was able to capture what it must have looked like from Elton’s perspective; looking out at Dodger Stadium in front of tens of thousands of fans, screaming fans, people who were singing along with him, songs he and Bernie Taupin wrote — that is an incredible view. It must have been an amazing feeling for Elton — and Bernie and the band — because it was an unbelievable feeling for me, and I was just the photographer. I consider myself very lucky to have been there and given the access I had. I always felt a part of the group. We were all friends.”
Just after publication, O’Neill’s literary agent again reached out to me to proffer an invitation to attend a gala launch party for the book at a swanky Beverly Hills, California, museum. My one regret is not making that trip happen, and having the chance to meet O’Neill himself and thank him for the photos which have become the overriding way I remember that momentous show.
So, while O’Neill and I have probably never been in closer physical proximity than we were that day at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 26, 1975 — him on the stage and me in the faraway stands, just a blip in his lens — we shared a much nearer brief professional intersection where the dogs of society howl along the yellow brick road. And my experiences are much richer because of it.