“Gram Parsons is on Exile in spirit.”—Dominique Tarle
Dominique Tarle, discusses his photo exhibit at the San Francisco Art Exchange, which features his intimate photographs that were taken at the Ville Nelcotte during the recording of the Rolling Stones’ album, “Exile On Main St.”. Tarle served as the official photographer for the Stones while they recorded what is arguably their greatest album, Exile On Main St. In addition to photos of the band members that are on exhibit from this period, photos he shot of Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards’ son Marlin, and Jake Weber can be viewed.
At the San Francisco Art Exchange, there is also a concurrent exhibition of memorable Rolling Stones photos that were shot by heralded photographer Michael Cooper, which, like Tarle’s exhibit, also include rare photos of the late alternative country rocker Gram Parsons. Among Cooper’s photographic works that can be seen, there is a shot of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards at Joshua Tree, and Cooper’s photo that was used as the cover of the Stones album, Their Satanic Majesty’s Request. These legendary photographs can be seen at SFAE, located at 458 Geary Street, in San Francisco, until late August, 2008. Photos may also be purchased online via the SFAE website. In this interview, French photographer Tarle discusses his time with the band at Nelcotte, and the uniqueness of his photos taken of the Stones during that period, in which they recorded Exile On Main St.
Dominique, this is your first showing of these photos in the States. Why did it take so long? These photos are so well known.
When I came back from Nelcotte, when I got all the negs and the pictures together, since I didn’t work for a magazine or an agency, I started getting in touch with the French press. I found myself very quickly at the time in the mid seventies, I found myself illustrating articles that were the opposite of my pictures. Do you know what I mean? The articles were about sex, drugs, rock and roll and violence. None of it was about the family life, the children and everything. I thought it was completely ridiculous for me to use this kind of pictures to illustrate this kind of bullshit. So I just put the pictures in a box, down in the cellar. I felt I could do something better with my time than illustrating this kind of bullshit.
There was so much press surrounding all the gossip, rather than the band’s work and their music.
Yes, exactly. And forty years later, people are still asking the same kind of questions, and “Oh, it must have been so difficult to leave Nelcotte, you know.” I say, “Why?” They say, “Well because of all of the drugs.” I said, “What was difficult when I left Nelcotte was that I missed all the music.”
A lot of my questions here I have planned have to do with the music, while the band was recording Exile On Main St.
Specifically, that’s why I kept all of those pictures away, just the time for people to realize it was…
It was about the music, not about scandal.
It was stronger; maybe it was a little a piece of history.
Okay. That was one of the questions I wanted to ask you, which was about the historical aspect of it. Do you view your work at Nelcotte as documenting history of the band, and if so, when did that occur to you that was what you were doing, or had done?
I realized that was going on each time I pressed the button.
If felt so lucky to be there and to be so welcome. I felt like one of the keys in the family. I was the official photographer on the Rolling Stones English tour at the beginning of 1971, before they left England. And I think they did that (tour) to have the money to move all their stuff from England to the South of France. During the last concert, Bianca Jagger told me that all of the members of the band were going to move to the South of France. I had been living and taking pictures of musicians in London for three years with a three months tourist visa. So the immigration was chasing after me, you know. “Don’t you miss your family? Don’t you miss the food? Go back to France as soon as possible,” you know! Tarle is amused at the memory.
So that ended your exile in England.
I felt much better in London than I did in Paris. I always did. Well, I had to go back to France. As I knew the Stones were going to be in the South of France, I went down to Cannes, and met with some of the people I knew that were working with The Stones at the time, Jo Bergman, Trevor Churchill and Marshall Chess. I said, “Listen I am here for a few days. Because hotels are so expensive here, so if I could take some pictures, let me know as quickly as possible. The next day they called me and gave me the address of the Ville Nelcotte, so I went down there for an afternoon, and at the end of the day after dinner, I said, “Thank you for the day, and maybe I am going to try to my find to the next railway station to catch a night train back to Paris.” And they said, “Your room is ready.” So that’s how I stayed at Ville Nelcotte for something like six months, as simple as that.
What do you feel your photographs taken at the Ville have in common with the album Exile On Main St. artistically?
Well, you know, people did ask this question about Gram. Gram Parsons was around, and he was playing and singing with Keith all day long, and a journalist asked Keith, “Did Gram play on Exile?” and Keith’s answer was, “Graham is on Exile in spirit.” And that’s what I feel about everybody around the band at the time, Anita Pallenberg, and all the technicians, and the friends. I think it’s a very peculiar album, because for once in their lifetime, The Stones were all staying in the same neighborhood. They didn’t know anybody. They had to see…|The only people they knew were also members of the band.
They were isolated.
Yes. And which was not the case in London, where every member of the band has his little code with his friends, and things like that, and they were each living a very different type of life. But you know, Charlie was kind of lost, and the first thing he did when he arrived in the South of France was to go visit Keith, and it was the same with Bill (Wyman), Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger. So in fact, they were really in a very different situation from the one…The Exile situation, the way it affected their way of life, was definitely that they were much closer to each other than they were before.
One of the questions I wanted to ask you regarding the band was how was it different in the studio downstairs when the band was recording and working, from when they were upstairs, where they lived together during that period. What was different in the interplay between the band members when they were upstairs versus downstairs? What was the difference when it came to what music they played together when they were downstairs, versus the musical interplay between the band members when they were upstairs?
Well, what I did notice for example, for instance, was when Charlie (Watts) was upstairs, maybe sometimes he would sit and play the piano, and downstairs, he would play the drums, you know. So I can tell you that to listen to Charlie Watts in 1971, playing free jazz on the piano, it’s a real experience, you know.
He later started his jazz albums in the ‘90’s.
Yeah. But at the time, he loved just sitting in front of the piano and playing a few notes, like all the jazz men do, trying to find their way through this kind of music. Well, of course, it was a great experience. Keith also spent a lot of time playing the piano, which he did not do on the albums. And through the music they were playing upstairs on the grand floor in the living room, they played the songs that they liked for many years, the old classic rhythm and blues and country music, and things like that. Basically nothing to do with what they were going to record downstairs.
That is fascinating. One thing I found really intriguing in the photographs of Keith and Gram was the guitar playing, and I wondered what they were playing. These were the pictures of them playing music. Do you have any recollection of what they were playing? Especially the photo of Keith sitting in the windowsill, playing guitar, and Gram is sitting in the chair next to him, listening intensely. And there was another photo you had shot, and they were sitting at a table, Keith, Gram and Mick, and Gram was playing. Do you have any comment on that? I am so mesmerized by this. You actually watched the interplay of the music, and I am just so curious, from a musical point of view, when you were shooting those pictures…
I think it was a very strange period of time, because for many years, The Stones could not play in America because of Brian Jones, because Brian could not a green card, or something like that. So they fired Brian, who died a few weeks later, while they were working with a new guitar player, and then they left the record company to create their own record company to work with new people, with a different target. They had to start from nothing again. And at this time, Keith and Gram were so close, that one side, Mick was trying to get the band as efficient as possible, so that they could be able to go back on tour in the U.S. And each time Mick came down to Ville Nelcotte, he saw Keith and Gram singing and playing together, and they were really, really ready to record. It was perfect, you know? I never heard anything like it before or after.
Were Gram and Keith playing country? Were they also playing, dabbling, in some other…
Yeah, yeah. A mix of some very old country songs, but they were approaching so many different kinds of music. But I think that Mick was a little bit afraid that if those two guys decided to record an album together, then they would have to promote the album, to go on tour, you know. The Stones who had just recovered from the fact that they could not play in the States, and all this work trying to get the band efficient again after all those years, all this work would go down the drain. And if those two did record what they were playing, and went to promote it, too, The Stones would be waiting for another couple of years or two, and of course, Mick knew The Stones could not afford it.
As it ended up though, Keith did not record a solo album, or embark on his own solo tour, until he put together the X-Pensive Winos in the 1980’s.
It did not see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s like the train going around the mountain, and you do not see what is coming up around the corner. I think that definitely Keith did not see, wasn’t sure, what was the future of the band at the time, because of the relationship between the members of the band, so he felt free to work with his own bands, since Mick did the same on the side with his solo recording.
So going back to the musical relationship between Keith and Gram, how did this affect the relationship with Mick Taylor? Did it ever cause any tension for Mick Taylor towards Gram, because of the obvious musical bonding between Keith and Gram?
No. I think that while I was staying at Nelcotte, the first person we went to visit one evening, Keith Marlon and me, was Mick Taylor, and I think Keith did everything he could as another guitar player in the band to make him feel at ease.
To make him feel a part of everything that was happening.
Yes. I think that it’s a usual thing between musicians. They don’t have a strong viable relationship. The communication goes through the music if they can play well, then it means that they get on well.
It’s sort of like how sometimes a relationship between a man and a woman may not be real good, but if the sex is good, the relationship can keep on going. It can be the same way with music.
Tarle: (Laughs) Yes! You can…Of course, Mick Taylor was pretty young. He did most of his work with bands that were unknown or confidential without a great commercial potential like with John Mayall. John was the first musician to give me the possibility of doing the work I the way wanted to do, the way I wanted to take pictures. He was the first person I met in London when I arrived in 1968, and I was in the studio with him, and that’s where I discovered Mick Taylor, while Mick Taylor was recording Blues From Laurel Canyon with John Mayall. I knew Mick Taylor for a long time before the Rolling Stones.
I live very close to Laurel Canyon. I had interviewed Mayall in the early ‘80’s. That’s pretty interesting it was John who hooked you up.
When Brian Jones was fired, I think that Mick (Jagger) was looking for another guitar player, but it is kind of difficult for a band like the Rolling Stones to make some kind of audition, you know, and to put an advert in the paper saying the Stones are looking for someone. So the first thing he did, he knew a lot of musicians at the time, who played and recorded with John Mayall through the years, and he knew that maybe John Mayall, or another musician who had played with him, could help them find the right person, without spending too much time or energy.
So Jagger made more of an effort to find another guitar player than Richards did?
Well, he needed another guitarist anyway.
But Jagger took more of the initiative to go about the process of finding that other guitar player than Richards?
Well, maybe it may be easier for Mick to make this effort than it is for Keith. Because Keith is the guitar player, so maybe the singer can look around, make a few phone calls, meet a few people, like it’s much more difficult for the actual guitar player. Maybe it’s more difficult for Keith to move around. It’s a big choice to make; it’s a big responsibility.
Although you shot Rock and Roll Circus, and you shot the band while they were touring, you are most known for your work with the band while they were recording Exile On Main St. Aside from the fact that Exile is arguably the band’s best album, why do you think these photos of yours from this period of time mean so much to the fans?
Well, they mean a lot to me. I was never aware the people in the photos loved the pictures. But that period of time for me was like when you’re young, you’ve got your family, the school and the church. And what did the people in church tell you when you were maybe around ten or something like that? If you’re a good guy, maybe one day you’ll go to Paradise, right? But you’ve got to be dead first, which I didn’t like at all. So from the age of ten, I said, “It’s completely stupid to be dead to go to Paradise. I’m sure that I can find Paradise on earth. I’m sure it does exist, and I’m sure I am going to find the people that think like me.” And of course, the first people we discovered, we had nothing for teenagers in France in the Sixties, you know, there was no radio, there were no magazines, no television programming, no movies. Everything was made for the young kids, like Disney movies, or things like that. So there was nothing for the teenagers. No clothes, jeans, no t-shirts, nothing. So certainly you get the picture. And later on, you get the Rolling Stones, and at least, there is something going on for you, something you can really understand, because those people, even if you don’t speak the language, you know that they are speaking your language.
That is so brilliant…Okay you brought up the church, and since I am Jewish, here is the segue where I have to bring this up. This house had the basement where the Rolling Stones recorded what is arguably their best album, and that basement had swastikas on the vents, because the SS had taken over the Ville during the Nazi Occupation of France. What irony did the band ever express that they were recording there, and what do you personally feel the karmic significance of this is? Meaning, Hitler’s henchmen, who represent the ultimate in repression, having been replaced in the house by the people, who were, at that that time, the world’s most prodigious rock and roll hedonists?
What I could say, is first, is that they (the Stones) didn’t know what happened during the Second World War in this house. They discovered kind of pieces by pieces.
Of course, the people who rented the house, the lady who was responsible for the house when people were renting it, or maybe when the house was empty, she was living there, she was German, and she knew perfectly what did happen in the house during, and at the end of the Second World War. But it’s just pieces by pieces. It wasn’t written on the front of the house that this was the situation.
So in other words, people in the house would notice things.
Yeah, they did notice things. We discovered things, and we discovered clothes, and we discovered equipment. There were a few people like me staying at the house, there was another guy, an American guy, who was doing the lighting on tour for Chip Monk and the Rolling Stones, and one who had been involved in Woodstock, because Chip was also involved in Woodstock.
There were just a few people like that who were allowed to live in the house, and of course, we, at had time, were going around and discovering things, and we were talking to each other, and most of the time, we did not say anything to Keith or Anita about it. Nothing. Like one night, we went around, as you said, in the basement, as is the case, and we discovered this huge wooden box with swastikas printed on it, and we opened up the box, and it was full of morphine.
Morphine that had been there for quite some time.
Yeah, in glass. In those, what we call ampoules.
In vials, yes. For injection.
And so we discovered that, you know. And there were hundreds of those things in the box, so we waited for everybody to go to bed, and maybe at three or four o’clock, we carried the box outside, and we took all the stuff, and from the top of the house we could put it into the sea there. The house was built by sea.
So when did you later tell Keith about this?
I never said anything at all. (Laughter.) Nothing. In fact, when we did that (Tarle is barely able to speak because he is laughing), we went down to the beach to see if the fish did survive those old things.
Oh, that’s funny. That is really wild.
Well, things were happening so quickly, you know, that you did something, and you were on…
To the next.
To the next. You did not have time to think for hours about something.
What has the band said to you about these photos? I assume they have seen your beautiful Exile book, containing your photographs.
Mick loves it. Mick thinks it’s not only a good book about the Rolling Stones. For Mick, it is a beautiful book about the Stones, which is different. That is what he wrote. I went to see the Rolling Stones while they were staying in Paris a few years ago, and I took the number one copy.
The limited edition book was signed by you, and they were numbered.
I took the book to the studio and the entire band signed the book, and Mick just put those few words, “What a beautiful book” in French. For Keith, “It’s thirty years of beautiful memories.” And it’s the same for Charlie.
When you were shooting, just from my having seen the Stones perform so many times, and seeing Jagger’s acute awareness of himself as a performer, even though the pictures are amazingly intimate and casual, very candid and open, did Jagger seem to be more aware of the camera when you were shooting, while the rest of the band seemed more oblivious to the camera, or less reactive to it, or perhaps more unphazed by it?
No, I don’t think so. Everyone was really relaxed, and I can tell you that I had started taking pictures of the Rolling Stones in Paris at the Paris Olympia in 1964. So I saw all the concerts in Paris, and I followed the 1970 tour of Europe with them, the 1971 tour of England, so really, I did so many concerts of the Rolling Stones, so to listen to them playing unplugged, acoustic, and playing a different type of music from what they did on stage, it was a complete knock out. It was fantastic. Keith could play the main theme of West Side Story or songs by Barbara Streisand. And he did it very well.
Keith was playing Barbara Streisand songs?
Yes. And he loved to do it. And it was fun, and he sung very well. They were enjoying themselves and the music was everywhere.
I have obviously seen a lot of photos of the Stones, and one thing that is amazing to me about your shots is that yours are so candid. They seem so spontaneous. They don’t look posed. Most rock photography today looks very wooden.
Most rock photography today looks very wooden, very posed. Very stiff. I want to ask you how you feel rock and roll photography has changed since you first started shooting the Stones.
I don’t feel I’m in a situation to give my opinion on what’s going on in rock photography now, because the evolution of music sticks to the younger generation, and the type of music they’re listening to. But the comment I can make is, for me, there are two types of pictures, whether it is of musicians, fashion, anything. As long as you are taking photos of people, you’ve got two choices. The people being aware of you being around, and you make them look at the camera, or you don’t. And you try to be invisible. And the main target is to have no impact at all on what is going on, and to be able to wait for hours, and then sometimes for days.
To get that shot that you want.
Of course, you know. And then, even when something happens, you’ve got the choice of pressing the button or not. This is a question of choice. Photographers are always in a hurry. I mean, you do a session…Remember the pictures of the Rolling Stones and The Beatles at the beginning? It’s all photo session, maybe for fifteen minutes, twenty minutes; we need a picture of the band for a magazine article, for an album cover, something like that. The band goes into the studio, the street, and puff, the band is together for fifteen minutes, the photographer works very quickly, and everyone seems to be very satisfied. With me, I can wait for days until everything until everything is perfect. I can wait for years to find the right publishers and do the right book. I’m really working on such a different level from the other professional photographers. I do not see myself as a professional photographer. I’m thinking maybe, I’m sixty now, I was twenty-two when I was shooting the Stones at Nelcotte. So you see, I think through those pictures, I was trying to give back to the Stones a little bit of what they gave me for years, with all the music, the road, the concerts and everything. And I knew that with those pictures, the band would not disappear in the next few months or few years, because there were thousands of people buying the albums, and going to the concerts, because we wanted that band to be together forever, right?
And the job I did in the South of France was to try to capture another side of the band, and to interest people in something different from the image of Mick Jagger on stage, or the bullshit about the drugs, the sex and everything, that there is another side of them. And maybe it’s not interesting for the daily papers, because they need strong emotions and things like that.
But I wanted something to show they did survive throughout the years because they are fantastic musicians, family men, and they know their responsibilities and they know how to look after their children. And this part of their private life makes them able to record songs and go on tour, and to give beautiful concerts. But this is once the curtain is closed; it is their private life.
I understand this.
Their private life has nothing to do with the concerts they give when they go on stage.
Right. I also noticed you had a photo you shot of Mick playing a Flying V. I was not aware that he was playing guitar off stage as much as he was back then. Of course, he plays more now on stage when the band is on tour than he used to. Do you have any comment on the state of his guitar playing back then?
What I would say is that the Stones, each member played many different instruments. Bill Wyman was playing the acoustic guitar, the bass, the double bass, the piano, and the electric piano. He was curious about many new instruments. Charlie was playing a little bit of jazz on the piano. Keith was playing was playing the piano, acoustic guitar. They are not limited in that way. I think Brian Jones was a good teacher for that, because he would go into a studio, and you rent it out and have work to do, you try everything.
Do you have a favorite song from Exile?
It changes with the months, the seasons, and the years. There are so many great songs on there. I think at the moment, and for quite a long time, I like most, the last song on the album, “Soul Survivor.” I regret, that to my knowledge, they never played it live on stage; it is a beautiful song.
Yes. You have a photo on exhibit at the San Francisco Art Exchange where Mick is smoking a cigarette, and Keith is playing guitar. Do you remember what Keith was playing?
In fact, Keith was playing with Gram. I took a picture of Gram singing, Keith playing, and Mick listening. And then I took a few pictures of Keith playing, with Mick in the background, smoking a cigarette. Mick is sitting there listening to Keith and Gram.
Right. There were a few different combinations in photos. Do you remember what song Keith was playing in that shot?
I would love to have been a fly on the wall, because I would love to have heard what Keith and Gram were doing together musically.
No, I don’t remember what they were playing. They always played acoustic when they jammed together, Keith and Gram.
Whose motorcycle, the Honda, was that in the shot where Jagger is riding?
Oh, they all went to buy Harley Davidson motorcycles, and they could not get any, so they all went to someone selling Japanese bikes, and they all had the same bike, the 350 Honda.
I love the Smirnoff photo with Keith.
That was during the 1971 tour of England. It was usual that backstage there was stuff from different events that were lying around. I think what some people did, was to use all that was left from events to do the decoration.
It was a large promo item that looks like it was made to stand up in a liquor store.
It was backstage, where I could not tell you. They were giving a concert every night, and we were moving around very quickly.
I love my Exile book of your photos.
I am really happy to do this exhibition with (SFAE co-founder/director) Theron Kabrich at the San Francisco Art Exchange. We get on well. I am really pleased to do this first exhibition ever in the United States in San Francisco.
All photographs by Dominque Tarle.
PHYLLIS POLLACK lives in Los Angeles where she is a publicist and music journalist. She can be reached through her blog