To help ring in Bicycle Day we welcome in Roger Steffens & The Family Acid who join us with their debut RUN featuring four new blotter editions pulled from Steffens’ expansive archives. After being drafted for the Vietnam War, Steffens’ ingrained nature to document the historic shines through in these photos, always seeming to be at the right place at the right time with his camera. After coming back to the US, Steffens continued to lecture against the war and do everything in his power to show what was going on there. After reading a piece in Rolling Stone describing the emerging reggae scene, Steffens would begin a life long love affair with reggae, going on to write dozens of books about the life and times of Bob Marley, even lecturing on the subject at the US Library of Congress last year. Working in tandem with Steffens’ daughter Kate and the family’s latest ongoing project The Family Acid, we’re happy to unveil four new blotter editions featuring Ken Kesey, the intimate Folk Fest in San Francisco, an iconic gas station sign snapped on the way to the infamous Altamont concert and a serendipitous bus under a rainbow in Marrakech. Read on for this historic look into a small cross section of The Family Acid’s archives of nearly 500,000 slide, negative and digital photos below as we dive right in for Bicycle Day. . .
1xRUN: Tell us a little bit about each of these photos, why don’t we start out with the Ken Kesey photo…
Roger Steffens: That’s what I had on top in fact. This picture was taken inside the latest iteration of Furthur, Ken’s Bus, at Hempfest in Oregon, I think it was 1998. We did back to back shows on Saturday night. I do a show on the life of Bob Marley, and I play a bunch of unreleased videos and tell his life story in between the clips. Then Ken Babbs and Ken Kesey and their cohorts came out in various wild costumes, and they had signs that said,”Support the right of bozos to bear arms,” something like that…the picture itself was taken that afternoon, aboard the bus and that was the afternoon that he gave me a couple of big buttons.
I’m walking over to the shelf where I usually keep them…”Take Me Furthur” and “Are You On The Bus Or Off The Bus”…I treasure those as if they were rare icons. But he wasn’t the most friendly person. He seemed very suspicious of almost everybody. I had hoped to engage him in some conversations about Marley, but beyond saying that he liked his music he didn’t have anything else he wanted to say about that. But I just felt so honored to meet him. One of the greatest writers of our generation. One of the best freaks we’ve ever had.
1x: Before this time had you met him before?
Steffens: No, the first time I had encountered him “fleshically” as the Jamaicans say, and Babbs too, and this was shortly after there were a bunch of kids killed at a school in Oregon, and that was very much in people’s thoughts.
The second picture I’m looking at is the Folk Festival on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. That I believe is in 1974. I was hanging out with a lot of people at the folk music house on Clayton and Haight, in the Haight-Ashbury. These people were all members of that club. Every summer they would have a gathering where people would come and sing to each other. It was very romantic. It was right on the ocean side of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. A lot of acid was consumed at that event.
1x: I can imagine. How many people would come up there?
Steffens: Over the weekend probably about 200 people. Maybe more. It’s not a huge spot, and it was limited basically to people who belonged to the folk music house and their families.
I went there with a woman who lived in that house, Amie Hill, she was one of the great hippie mother figures and young love figures. One year she was the queen of the Renaissance Faire, the next year she was the mad woman. She had blonde hair almost down to her ankles. She was very ethereal and she was the girlfriend of my friend and roommate at the time, Tim Page, who was the most wounded Vietnam War correspondent who made it out alive. He was blown up four times in Vietnam. Dennis Hopper played him in Apocalypse Now. That was based on Tim.
The fourth time that he got wounded he got the right 1/3rd of his brain blown out of the back of his head. It took him a year and a half to recover. He’s still alive. He went on to work for Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone in the early 1970s and Wenner put him with Hunter Thompson to do a couple of stories. After the second gig together Hunter went to Jann Wenner and said I can’t work with this guy Page anymore, he’s too crazy. He was my roommate for two years in Berkeley between marriages. We had some times. So that’s how I got into the folk music scene, through Tim’s girlfriend.
The next one is Marrakech I believe in April of 1971. I got drafted, and enlisted for a year. And they sent me to Vietnam anyway. I spent the last 26 months of the sixties there, which earned me a five month early out. For most of 1970 I was in a different city each week as I criss-crossed the country lecturing against the war and writing a book about my experiences there. At the end of the year I didn’t want to be in America anymore. I felt like I do now. I feel so ashamed of the country. It seemed antithetical to everything that we hippies were preaching in the 60s. Kissinger was going to bomb Hanoi. Nixon was still in office. I just didn’t want to be an American anymore. So I wanted to live in a place that was warm, where I could learn to speak French, that was a culture that I knew nothing about. A friend, a rare book dealer in New York suggested that I go to Marrakech, he would give me a letter of introduction to a countess who lived in a 40 room palace. Off we went.
My first wife and I, who was a war correspondent in Vietnam, both went off to Marrakech. We arrived at this campground during the first few days when we were looking for a place to rent. These two Dutch hippie couples pulled into the campground at the end of a rainstorm, just as the rainbow was appearing, and pulled up and parked. If you’re looking at this picture face on from the front, the doors would open with a butterfly. The other side was painted with Indians and other stuff. It was an incredible van. It was so appropriate to the time. Here I was on the Marrakech Express, and that was how I was introduced to Morocco.
Finally we get to the treasure. We get out of Vietnam, I think it was the 6th of December, 1969. A few days later The Rolling Stones were going to do a free show in Altamont, so my god, what a way to re-adjust to civilian life. It was something that was as edgy as 26 months at war. So we gassed up on the corner of Ashby and Shattuck at a gas station that had a huge sign that said “Gas Cheaper Than LSD” and I took a picture of it and off we went to Altamont. About six or seven miles short of Altamont the highway started turning into a parking lot. You couldn’t get much further. At the last possible moment, there were six of us, we decided to go back. Nobody was up for walking the six or seven miles. Thank god. On the way back we had to go for a while in the emergency lane. All of the sudden there was this giant hole in the emergency lane, about 8 feet deep, wider than our car and if we hadn’t stopped just in time we might have been killed and gotten swallowed up into that hole. So it was with that energy that off we sped back to Berkeley.
There’s a post script to this, my gallery out in New York, Benrubi Gallery, did an exhibition of my counter culture photography. This was one of the pictures. There was a group from the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts (FMoPA) in town that weekend, going to photographic galleries looking for potential subjects that they could present at their museum in Tampa. Three of the people on that committee lived on the corner of Shattock and Ashby in the summer of 1969 when that was taken. They remembered the woman in white overalls that would pump the gas. So I had this really beautiful exhibition at FMoPA, as they call it, and this was one of the featured photographs in the exhibition. I met the people who had seen it and we had a wonderful reminiscence about back in the day.
1x: Let’s talk about what camera and developing materials you were using at the time for some of these photos.
Steffens: Right from the start they were always mid priced Canon cameras. When I started, I ended up getting an F1. I had an EOS. I had a Rebel. I had a Rebel XT. It was always Canon. I was always involved in dialogs with Nikon shooters about who had the better format. I think I preferred Canon because their wide angles were better.
1x: Your daughter Kate mentioned that you shot almost exclusively Kodachrome and Ektachrome slides, was it all slide photography early on for the most part, or were you also doing any dark room photography?
Steffens: I never learned how to do darkroom work. I’m a Gemini. I’m impatient. I don’t have any patience for the darkroom work, and I didn’t like black and white. The most black and white that I shot was in Vietnam. I can’t see in black and white the way some photographers are able to, and I love color, and I love brightness. The color always appealed me, especially with the slides, because you could project them and really get the richness and depth of the hues. Digital just can’t do what film can do. It still can’t. Digital cannot get a sunset properly. That drives me nuts, because I live on a western facing hilltop.
But, I went digital in 2007. So from my arrival in Saigon in 1967 until 2007 it was film and slides. The bulk of the photography from ’67 to 1993 was slides. In 1993 I started almost exclusively print, and then in 2007 I turned onto digital and I’ve been doing it ever since. My current camera is my all time favorite, I just bought the fourth version of it. I’ve run through three and just exhausted them. It’s a little pocket camera called a Lumix DMC-LX7. It does double and triple exposures, it does panoramas, it’s got a 1.4 Leica lens and I never use a flash. It’s just the best tool I’ve ever had. I do a lot of street photography. A lot of grab shots. It’s really good for that.
1x: What was the impetus for you picking up a camera when you first started?
Steffens: History. I come from a family that had a keen interest in history. My grandfather graduated from the University of Dublin at the turn of the last century, and he was a history major. My mother was fascinated by ancient Egypt. Both of my parents had a strong sense of current events, and those things that were transpiring that might be considered of historic interest in years to come. I was kind of trained instinctively to know those kinds of things. When I was drafted and got sent to Vietnam I realized I was going to be right in the middle of the historic war of our generation. So I bought a camera as soon as I arrived and taught myself how to use it. Three months later the Tet Offensive broke out and the whole city went up in flames around it. I was shooting pictures like crazy. There were people living in sewer pipes in front of my barracks, and dying every day…
Today is the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive and dad asked me to share some of his photos and memories of that time with you: It was fifty years ago today that Saigon and a total of 77 different cities and sites in Vietnam were attacked by rampaging forces of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. Although they were driven back, these bloody events provided a major propaganda victory for the Communists and marked the beginning of the end of America’s misguided efforts there. Drafted in May of 1967, I was assigned to a Psychological Operations battalion based in Saigon that November. The Walling Hotel, my barracks across from our headquarters, was on a back street parallel to Tran Hung Dao, the major east-west boulevard through the city. On the evening of January 30th, I was awakened shortly before midnight by the sound of gunfire at very close range, punctuated by louder pops like mortar fire. Terrified, I rolled out of bed and sought cover on the floor under the mattress as the explosions rose to an unceasing barrage. I was scared to death – until interwoven through the ominous explosions I heard shrill laughter and children shouting excitedly. Bewildered, I crawled on my belly onto my small third-floor balcony and looked down upon hundreds of people in the streets, tossing firecrackers and cherry bombs at each other, scaring away the demons with their New Year rituals. The next morning, I shuffled through mounds of pink paper, the entrails of a ton of fireworks covering the sidewalk, relieved that my imagined attack was only the Vietnamese version of the Fourth of July. The following evening, I went to bed early and had a deep and uneventful sleep. I awakened as usual around seven a.m. But something was wrong. The early morning tumult of the Saigon streets was missing; the eerie silence was unnerving. I leapt up and ran onto the balcony. The streets were virtually deserted. Below me, the guard at the entrance to our hotel looked up and screamed, “Get your flack jacket on, troop! We’re under attack!!” To the west, billows of ominous black smoke split the sky over Cholon, the city’s Chinese section. Cont’d in comments below:
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…So I wrote to people in the States who had heard me read poetry, a few schools in particular in Racine, Wisconsin. The letter was published in the local newspaper along with an editorial urging support from the town, because all the students in the town knew me. Three weeks later two five-ton trucks pulled into my compound in Saigon with 10,000 pounds of packages addressed to me. To make a very long, two-year war story very short, the Colonel gave me my own quonset hut, I was promoted to Corporal Spec-4 on the spot, and he told me that I could go anywhere in the country, and work on any project that I thought worthwhile, so long as I took pictures. From that point on I had free film and free developing for the next two years. I took home about 10,000 frames.
1x: What was the learning curve for you as far as preliminary shoot and starting to get the photos that you really wanted?
Steffens: I always had a good sense of framing. I hung out at museums a good deal with my mother in New York City, so instinctively I think I knew what good framing should be. Then I had to learn light. I was always experimenting. Even in the very early stages. I was doing night exposures. Trying to do multiples. Zooming in and out of the camera and wondering what the instrument could do. I’ve never had any formal training of any kind. I’ve had friends who have showed me a few things. I guess my best teacher was Tim Page when we lived together for those two years. He had 84 pages in Time and Life Magazine during the war. He knew a lot of tricks. He was the best grab shot photographer that I’ve ever known.
Marines filling sand bags at Khe Sanh, 1968. Khe Sanh was the longest and deadliest battle of the Vietnam War. It lasted for 77 days and 6,000 Marines were up against 20,000 PAVN (North Vietnamese troops). To support the base the American Air Force launched a massive aerial bombardment – dropping over 100,000 tons of bombs and over 158,000 artillery rounds were fired in defense of the base. Landing or taking off from there was terrifying. Aircraft kept moving on the runway in fear of being hit. To get out of there you had to chase them down the runway and hopefully get on before they lifted off again. After 275 dead and 2,541 wounded (not including ARVN troops), America decided to abandon the base. The lessons of Dien Bien Phu and the defeat of the French not learned.
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Reggae Clash 1977: Much later on, Roger & Mary @thefamilyacid had decanted south to land on Hyperion in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. Once again I was destitute. Roger & Mary had taken me in to their chamber while I endeavored to get back on track. They held regular sessions for their Reggae minded mates, Roger also hosted a Reggae radio show and a magazine ‘Reggae Beat’. A lovely portrait of them.
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The 1968 elections in the U.S. were the first that 18 year olds were eligible to vote, the first where ballot boxes made it into a combat zone. The battle between McGovern/Humphrey & Nixon/Agnew divided America and it’s fighting men. LIFE magazine sent writer/photo teams out in to the field to gather the grunts perspectives. I got a 9th Division anti-rocket patrol. The whole platoon was beyond caring politically, content to smoke liberated Cambodian weed or their own homegrown. Plodding through paddies stoned and almost ineffective, virtually oblivious to events back home. The politicians were all beggars in their view. This trooper recently graced the cover of a new book on drug use during war dating from Greek times, entitled #ShootingUp – a history of drugs in warfare by Polish academic #LukaszRamienski. Worth a read to see what ISIS are on, it’s eye watering.
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I know what I like to shoot. I know what kind of light I want to reflect. Now I have to find subjects. I’m omnivorous. I have a list of about 50 different themes that I shoot all over the world. That was because of Tim. He said “You travel so much, pick a subject and then do it in every town.” I said, “What do you do?” He says, “Laundry.” But I got the drift. Doorways. Windows. Towers. Painted electric boxes. Fire hydrants. Circles. Things that you can find in any daily routine. Living in Los Angeles with the constantly changing ephemera is so stimulating for the eyes. I never even go down to the grocery store without my camera. Every second. It’s constantly at my side and whenever I leave the door it’s in my pocket.
1x: How did you and Tim meet initially, was it during the war or after?
Steffens: I was supposed to meet him in Saigon the day that he almost got killed, when he had his brains blown out the back of his head. But I didn’t end up meeting him until three years later in Berkeley. We both had gotten divorced in the early part of 1973. I think it was either Richard Boyle or Thom Steinbeck…I can’t remember who it was…well it was only 45 years ago…
1x: That introduced you to Tim Page?
Steffens: Let’s say it was probably…well…I can’t say…it could easily be both of them. I was hanging out with Thom, who was John Steinbeck’s son, who directed my tv show in Vietnam reading poetry to the combat troops on Sunday afternoons. Richard Boyle was the guy that Oliver Stone made the movie Salvador about. He was a radical correspondent, and my first wife and he worked on the same newspaper in Saigon. Let’s give it to Richard, he could use a little props, he just died last year. Richard Boyle introduced me to Tim Page and brought him over the house, and he moved in with me shortly after. We had many adventures together. He would come on my poetry tours. We’d drive all day to the next college. Have a 40oz of black coffee in the morning with half a bottle of rum or bourbon in it, a pack of joints in our pockets and off we’d go.
1x: Do you want to talk about some of your earliest psychedelic experiences were? The first time that you got turned on? When was the first time that you tripped that changed things?
Steffens: Well, you know I did acid two years before I had smoked my first joint. I was a very straight person in so many ways, but because I’ve been an actor all my life I’ve been around a lot of freaky people. In my youth I went through 15 years of Catholic schools.
1x: That was in New York?
Steffens: Yea, the first three grades in Brooklyn, the rest in North Jersey. I was basically brainwashed by the Irish Christian brothers and the nuns. I was a conservative. I voted for [Barry] Goldwater in my first presidential election. I wept the night that he lost the election. Then I went and worked for William Buckley, the founder of The National Review, I worked on his mayoral campaign in 1965.
Then I got a chance to act professionally at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater for 8 months. So I went out there in September of 1965. I met all of these crazy hippies. Prototypical hippies, in a very very socialist city. Milwaukee had a socialist mayor from the like the ’20s to the ’60s. It was a pretty cool place, with a lot of poets and artists. They were people who I really enjoyed being with, but they didn’t vote Republican.
1x: How old were you at this time, you said this was 1965?
Steffens: I was 23 when I first got out there. In early 1966 I began doing the one man show, “Poetry For People Who Hate Poetry.” I was living for a while with two guys who were importing Sandoz acid in bags that looked like 5 pounds of powered sugar. They had them loose on the table, and they filling gel caps by hand. God only knows how many mics were in those things. Because they were doing it by hand they were absorbing it through their fingertips, and they were awake for like seven or eight days with virtually no sleep at all. Giggling and having so much fun. I had never even touched a joint in my life, and saw this and said, “Well it can’t be all that bad. Let me see.” I dropped acid that night with one of the most amazing characters on earth, Bob Watt, an exterminator poet, who writes bad poetry, so you can compare your stuff to his, and feel better about your stuff. He exterminates cockroaches by telling them to leave. And they go. He was pretty amazing. He used to write lines like “Don’t forget, I am you, disguised.” So Bob Watt’s poetry was part of my one man show. I dropped acid with him and we were up all night. I saw things I never new existed. I saw the very air that we breathe. Then we went down to the shores of Lake Michigan at sunrise, and we both saw Vietnamese peasants in conical hats planting rice in Lake Michigan. Which I guess is a premonition for me, because two years later I was watching that in real life.
I had a few more trips…ohh god…I once turned on three brothers, a nun and a priest.
1x: All at once?
Steffens: Yea! It was in that place I was living at the time with the guys who were dealing the acid. It’s a long story, but I spoke at the National Conference of Catholic Art Educators Convention in Milwaukee, Sister Corita, the great anti-war artist, was supposed to be the banquet speaker and she dropped out at the last minute. So I got hired. I had mentioned LSD in the middle of my talk and afterwards these three brothers, a nun and a priest came up and they were all painters and art teachers. They said, “Have you ever tried it?” I looked around and said, “Is it ok to answer?”
Dad, freaking out Catholics since ’67. Here he is at a poetry show at Barat College in Lake Forest, north of Chicago, with Mother Ceil Castecker, who shortly after left the order, married an ex-minister and moved to San Francisco. Dad considered it a personal triumph.
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They said, “Yes! Yes! We’re very interested.” Bear in mind this was when it was still legal. They said, “Did you like it?” and I said, “Absolutely. It’s incredible.” Then there’s this pause. And the nun says, “Do you know where we find some?” I said, “Come home with me.” So I took them back to this hippie pad, Rolling Stones and Joan Baez records were strewn all over the place. Blonde On Blonde was on the record player, and we “administered the medicament” to them. They all really went off into some incredible spaces. One of the brothers was a really short guy, barely 5 feet tall. Brother Lawrence. He was lying on a couch, and he was kind of bobbing things up in the air with his flat palms. Going “ohhh. ohh…” I looked over and said, “Brother Lawrence what are you seeing?” He said, “I’m rolling balls of air. Inside each one of them is the Madonna.” So he had a good trip.
I stayed in touch with each of these five people when I went to Vietnam. When I came home I looked up each one of them. Each one of them had left their orders, and in some cases had left the church. So my job was done.
1x: How common of an occurrence in your conservative circles for someone to jump to the complete other end of the spectrum at that time?
Steffens: Very common in the 1960s. Acid changed so many lives, affected so much reality. I got to know Oz, Oscar Janiger. He was like the West Coast, much more responsible, version of Timothy Leary. He was a research psychologist at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in the early ’50s. He got acid to experiment with 100 artists. One night he brought 300 slides over to the Reggae Archives to show my wife and me. It was of this project that went on for a couple of years from 1951-52 mainly. He got an artist to come and do a representation of whatever their art form was. Watercolors, sculpture, painting, cartoon, whatever…to do a kachina doll.
So let’s say the painter comes in, they paint the doll and then — the phrase that I’ve already stolen from Oz was “I gave them the medicament” — in the midst of the trip, the absolute height of the trip he would ask them to do the picture a second time. When they came down from the trip they had to do two things, they had to write out everything they remembered from their trip and then they had to do the painting a third time. The series of images were just incredible. Most of the second ones were just exploding in every way possible. Then the third ones were nice combinations of the original sensitive style that they had, and then their acid vision giving them a whole new way to look at the world. Every one of them was an incredible picture. Every one of the 100 artists, according to Dr. Janiger, said that it was the most profound artistic experience they had ever had, and that they would never see the world the same. That they would be happy to do it again.
1x: For you personally what was the effect that it had onto your work. Were you already into these double exposures, did you already kind of see that happening?
Steffens: Psychedelic imagery was around, especially in Milwaukee. There was a great flute band that should have been as big as Jethro Tull, they were called The Shags. They were all art students at the local college of art. The leader was a flute player named Paul Greenwald, he was marvelous. They would go off into long Dead-ian riffs and 25-minute songs that would put you into a wonderful trance in the basement of a mafia club theater called O’Brad’s. And they had light shows there. Back in the beginning of 1966 I met two artists, Tom and Pam Linehan, who were teaching at Webster College, a far out Catholic experimental school in St. Louis. They were making psychedelic imagery by hand on 2 1/4 inch holders with kitchen fluids, cleaners, food dye and chemicals. They got these incredible psychedelic images. I gave them 10 poems by e.e. cummings and I said, “Give me backgrounds for each of the beats in these poems, I’ll give you $500,” which was a huge amount of money back in those days. They were starving artists. It was a win-win. Early 1966 I would go to a Catholic high school junior English class for example, and they’d set up the screen and I’d bring the slide projector and I’d read e.e. cummings poems and show psychedelic images to these kids. Most of them in the Midwest hadn’t seen a light show in their lives. It would be mind blowing.
I was into that kind of imagery. I didn’t really try to reproduce psychedelic imagery…no, I don’t have much of that. I have time exposures, and things like that, but no, it wasn’t until much later until I started to make psychedelic imagery in conjunction with a neon artist named Brian Coleman. We had a show of our work at the Museum of Neon Art here in Los Angeles. They are 3-4 second exposures, and I’m moving the camera as I’m exploring these neons. They are really mind blowing images.
I love to experiment, especially with double exposures. There have been two major influences on those. One was when Tim Page described the work of one of his mates in Vietnam, Sean Flynn. He was Errol Flynn’s son and worked as a CBS cameraman. He was lost in Cambodia in 1970. It was he and Johnny Steinbeck who brought me to the Island of the Coconut Monk for the first time.
Thank you to everyone that came out to our show at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and to @fmopa and @benrubi_gallery for making it happen. Here’s to showing this and many more images at as many museums as possible! The Coconut Monk. Mekong Delta, Vietnam. January 1969. In the middle of the Mekong River in South Vietnam was the Island of the Coconut Monk. The Coconut Monk was a 4 ½ foot tall pacifist. Trained by the French colonial authorities as a chemical engineer in France, he returned to Vietnam, dropped out and became a monk, living on a perch in a palm tree, fasting and praying for peace. As his following grew, a wealthy Chinese benefactor gave him an island to gather his flock. It was a mile long sandbar in the middle of the Mekong River. Anyone who came without a weapon was welcomed, no questions asked. When dad visited in 1968 and 1969, there were thousands of deserters from both sides of the conflict and an equal number of Taoist adherents.
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Sean went to Angkor Wat and shot this whole roll of 36 of the ruins. Because the ruins were home to a hundred different species of butterfly he ran the film through the camera a second time shooting close ups of butterflies. Tim had some of those pictures. They were really remarkable. Then in 1975 I was helping a veteran friend of mine write a book and he had to go back to Vietnam — he was crippled from the chest down — and see the fall of Saigon.When he got back from that in April of 1975 I was reading poetry in Ohio and he came back to go on the road with me. Somehow a roll of film that he had shot in Cambodia ended up not wound back all the way on the spool in my camera bag. I saw it in there and thought it was a fresh roll, so I shot a roll mostly of stained glass windows in a pre-Civil War mansion on the edge of the Ohio River in Cincinnati. So there was a lot of abstract stained glass, but when I got it back there were all these Cambodian images coming through the stained glass. There was one in particular where you had two eye shaped pieces of stained glass in the top portion of the picture, then coming through those eyes is the face of a Cambodian woman holding her baby in a Cambodian refugee camp. It was pretty startling. That was when I really wanted to do doubles purposefully. I knew it could have some power. I’ve been shooting them ever since and seeing what I can do. In fact I shot a bunch of triples yesterday.
This is one of the images that led to dad’s long history with double exposures. He shot what he thought was a fresh roll of film in an ante-bellum mansion on the Ohio River in Cincinnati, ornamented with gorgeous 1800s stained glass windows. It turned out that his friend Ron Kovic had used the camera the previous week to shoot a roll of refugees in Cambodia but didn’t wind it all the way back. Dad thought it was a new roll and thus a series of wild double exposures took form, inspiring him to this day with the absolute randomness and synchronicities that ensued. Ohio/Cambodia, March/April 1975.
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1x: So taking them now you’re doing them with the intention of saying “I’m starting with this photo…” and then…
Steffens: …The serendipity is lost, Pietro, because you couldn’t see the image you originally shot, you just had to really remember where the little nuances of it were and try to match that. I didn’t even have a grid on my cameras. When it really worked it was…a real surprise. A real happy accident. Do you have my first book?
1x: I don’t, I think it was sold out on your site. But I have the Jamaica one here and it is really great. Just looking at this book, from the cover design, the lettering, all of the layout, when you’re working on a project like this how do you work it so that you’re letting other people make sure to have their voice in it as well?
Steffens: I like to see a final product, but I don’t think I should have much of an artistic voice in whether you should do it or not. I love seeing what people come up with and use as part of their designs. It’s always worked out really nicely. There are three ice rooms on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood at the Standard Hotel, and I have murals on three of the walls behind the ice machines on each floor, the ground floor is pot, the second level is psychedelics and the top floor is mushrooms. Ted Feighan his name is. He used about 100 of my pictures and collaged them and that was tremendously exciting to me. There’s also a man named Dan Benesch, he would do these big Hollywood studio movie posters, and he’s made some artwork out of the pictures that he’s seen on The Family Acid. It thrills me. I’m so happy that people are interested in…I’m going to say my work…but I’ve never used that phrase until a couple of years ago. But…(loud joking booming tone)…I’ve had a body of work. It was just a whole bunch of stuff sitting in a closet.
1x: What were you doing for work primarily throughout all these years? You were always having fun with your photography over the years?
Steffens: Acting, voice over work, writing. I’ve written 10 books. I didn’t want it to get too super serious, or turn it into a business. I was having fun with it. I shoot for fun. Whether I’m paid to take a picture or not I’d be taking it anyway. Whenever I did get paid (which wasn’t often) it was great fun.
1x: Looking over some of your other projects you’ve got a very rich musical history. Do you want to touch on some of those projects related to reggae?
Steffens: I’m the first generation of rock ‘n roll. I saw Buddy Holly in person. Fats Domino. Jerry Lee Lewis. Bo Diddley. Chuck Berry. Jackie Wilson. I grew up on Alan Freed in the ’50s in New York. I was a teenager in the ’50s. What better time in the last century to have been a teenager? New York attracted all the biggest names in music. I listened to Alan Freed every night for five years. He played the black versions of the popular songs. He didn’t play Patty Page and Perry Como, that crap. But the big labels hated him. They busted him off the air on these payola charges. Dick Clark took ten times what Freed ever took, but they never fucking busted him, because he played all the mafia artists. So I’m still bitter about that guy. I don’t like Dick Clark at all. But Freed was my hero, he was a white man who championed black music. I met him several times, I told him once when I was 16 that I wanted to be Alan Freed when I grew up. I’ve been called the Alan Freed of reggae by people that knew Alan Freed, and I felt that was a huge compliment.
So in the ’60s the doo wop music that I loved so much had faded away, and then it went into the folk era and consciousness, but by the ’70s the lawyers and the accountants took over the music business and we got crap disco. I was looking for something to re-ignite my passion in music, so in 1973 I read this incredible article in Rolling Stone about introducing reggae to America. The writer was a gonzo journalist from Australia named Michael Thomas, he said, “Reggae music crawls into your bloodstream like some vampire amoeba from the psychic rapids of Upper Niger consciousness.” (Read the full article at Rolling Stone.) I read that and I said, “Man, I don’t know what any of that means,” but I went out that day and bought a used copy of Catch A Fire, and the next day in North Berkeley I saw The Harder They Come in a tiny theater. The spliff scene came on and everybody in the theater lit up. I bought the soundtrack on the way home, and my life changed into a reggae trod ever since. In 1976 my wife Mary and I went to Jamaica looking to buy rare records. We couldn’t find any Bob Marley records for sale in his record shack, and within two minutes of our arrival one of the biggest reggae stars of the time picked my pocket in Bob’s store. That was an interesting intro to Jamaica. That was the week they declared a state of emergency in Jamaica.
Jamaica by The Family Acid
They had the army throw the opposition in jail with no charges and they put tanks on all the crossroads. Ahhhhhh. So I’ve been going back ever since. I started a radio show with Hank Holmes in 1979; our first guest was Bob Marley. Shortly after Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, all the major figures would come through town and we had four commercial free hours every Sunday afternoon. It was the most popular non-commercial radio show in all of Los Angeles according to the LA Weekly. Then I got invited — after we were on the air for six weeks — to go on the road with Bob Marley for two weeks.
The happiest guy on the road with us was the bus driver, because he got to sweep up all the roaches at the end of each evening. He used to go home with ounces. I got to be friends with Bob and all these other great artists. I just fell in love with them. Eventually our show syndicated to 130 stations all over the world. I had a television show and a magazine, and then I started lecturing on the life of Bob Marley in 1984, I still do. I just did one recently at the Library of Congress in conjunction with my new book: So Much Things To Say: An Oral History Of Bob Marley. It’s been an exciting thing. I’m getting ready right now to go to England next month to do 15 shows with John Masouri, a fellow Marley biographer. We’re going to tour the United Kingdom talking about Bob Marley and show unreleased films to people.
1x: So as your daughter Kate [and son Devon] have just been going through your archives, in total how many do photos do you think you’ve got?
Steffens: 490,000 frames.
1x: And how far through them are you right now?
Steffens: Devon did all of the slides, from 1964 – 1993. Kate has been gradually doing the negative strips of the prints. She’s up to 1998 now and will take that to 2007 and I’ve got everything digitized. About 350,000 digital frames. It’s nuts.
1x: That’s crazy.
Steffens: Yeah, I must have some form of Aspergers. (In fact, our son Devon has a internet handle of Digital Aspergers, so he must have caught it from me..) I’ve certainly got a chronic case of Reggae Mylitis. My kids will have it for the rest of their lives I hope.
1x: Anything else that we didn’t touch on that you want to talk about?
Steffens: There’s about a dozen things…but I think that’s enough for the time being.
Roger Steffens was interviewed on the phone at his Los Angeles, California home by 1xRUN Editor-In-Chief Pietro Truba while at his home in Los Angeles, California. He has previously interviewed Niagara, Leni & John Sinclair, Ricky Powell, Doze Green, Fred Armisen, Janette Beckman and Shepard Fairey among others for 1xRUN. Follow him @pietrotruba.