I didn’t know what to expect when I was booked to work with Canned Heat. They had a pretty Rock ‘n’ Roll reputation but then again at that time so did I! As ever I was trying to think of a unique way to photograph this extraordinary bunch of American rockers. The album campaign I was shooting for was called Historical Figures & Ancient Heads. Taking my cue from this I decided to create a scene where their heads where going to be preserved in glass domes as if in a museum. This was the era of ‘head space’ being ‘baked’ and ‘freaks’ so somehow this seemed to be a natural but surreal way to photograph this concept.
I decided to cut holes in the table so then all they would have to do is get under the table and push their heads into the domes. This was great in theory, but I had some trepidation about how this would work in practice. And how exactly I would convince five feisty band members to agree to it. I had a beautiful antique but broken guitar, a cobweb machine and lots of insects and other paraphernalia on the table around the domes ready for when they arrived.
They arrived and they all seemed a bit baked and jet lagged, speaking in slow West Coast accents. Henry Vestine the lead guitarist took one look at the set and said ‘Hey Man, what is this supposed to be?” My heart sank and I said in my best Cheech & Chong ancient “I’ll be back in a second Man”. I dashed into the fashion dressing room where the stylist had left some clothes from the day before and hastily put a bandana round my head and noticed some beads and round small pink shades (like the guy from The Byrd’s Roger McGuinn always wore) and tied another bandana around my leg to complete my West Coast look.
I strode back into the room and said, “Well, guys what do you think?” Henry Vestine said again “It still sucks man, I’m not putting my head under that dome” while pulling on a joint from the clip that you see on the left hand side of the image on the table.
“Well look Man” I said using my best LA hippy voice attempting to get in the mood and not sound too English “If you get under the dome and smoke a joint you can keep the smoke in and get really high”. I wondered if they would say anything about my attire and suddenly changed accent but they just went with it. Almost immediately they calmed down and seemed really up for it with the exception of their drummer Adolfo who was always happy to do what was asked of him. He seemed so self contained and intelligent. The Bear (Bob Hite) said, “Lets give it a try man, the guys worked hard all day” (he called me ‘the guy’ throughout the session). Before getting under the table Henry Vestine put all his drugs paraphernalia on the left hand side and they all crawled under banging into each other and trying to put their heads in the same hole. This was so hilarious and they nearly tipped the entire set over. In the end I had to individually direct members to their holes using a flashlight from above. The tumult helped their mood, as we all ended up laughing so much. Most of the band was very stoned with exception of Adolfo and fortunately Henry’s mood started to lighten to say the least. I positioned him first and he really started to enjoy his stoner’s dome and encouraged the others to do the same again with the exception of the drummer Adolfo who did not smoke.
I began shooting and could tell from the Polaroid’s that this was going to be a great shot. I was excited by the fact that it looked so crazy. I new after a few rolls I had something. It was now getting dark and about 7pm in the evening. I told the guys they could come out now and had to shout loudly because they couldn’t hear me. By then we’d made them comfortable with cushions under their butts. The issue then was to get them out as they had started to really enjoy themselves. I liked what I had got but felt this might be a bit much for the record label so I decided to shoot some more conventional portraits as well once I could persuade them out from under the table.
It took an hour to get them out and I showed them the Polaroid’s and they said “Yeah man, that looks really weird but cool” I shot some portraits in black and white. I really loved their faces, particularly the drummer Adolfo (the silent one) who to me looked like a Mexican Saint. There was something so great about his face and his character, which was almost angelic. He didn’t say much, wasn’t stoned at all and just got on with the work.
In the end the photo was used in a double gatefold vinyl sleeve of the album, which went on to receive the “album sleeve of the year” award in the USA in 1971. So all the persuasion and dressing up was worth the effort. The evening of the shoot I stayed up really late. I forgot to feel freaked out that there were drugs in the studio as I was so relieved to get the picture. I do remember a limo coming to collect them and them floating back to the universe from whence they came. I was jolted from my hippy haze by the loud ring on my doorbell with the courier delivering the film clips, which I carefully placed on the light box and thank God they all looked fine. It was a big deal in those days to have drugs on open display and decades before I stopped drinking and partaking. I was so sad to hear later that The Bear died of a drug overdose and that Henry Vestine died in 1997. I’m not surprised that Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra, has written a book (Canned Heat: Living The Blues) and even toured with Canned Heat in 2017. It’s hard not to view the album image now without some sadness. I do think though that this image is a reflection of those times – that was the 70s caught on camera. At the time we were all so carefree. Pax.