Guitar Players Central Focus in Rock Prophecies
Written by Chrissy Mauck
“Dear Mr. Knight, can you help me escape this small Texas town like you did Tyler Bryant?” – Matt Tedder, Aledo, Texas.
Such are the pleas that legendary rock photographer Robert Knight receives these days — a by-product of Rock Prophecies, a documentary film about the legendary rock photographer.
Knight holds the distinction of being one of the first photographers to capture Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, and the last to photograph Stevie Ray Vaughan. In fact, the film begins with Vaughan, and the final words the legendary blues guitarist said to Knight before his fateful helicopter ride of Aug. 27, 1990.
“You’ll know me when you hear me,” recounts Knight in the opening moments of the film. “I think what he meant was that someday I’d find that gift in someone else.”
Rock Prophecies, out on DVD on Sept. 14, tells the story of Knight’s own gifts behind the lens and his uncanny ability to discover the next big musical act.
“Some people collect stamps; some people collect butterflies — I collect rock stars,” he muses in the film.
Born and raised in Honolulu, Knight’s massive record collection kept him within the inner circle of a group of musicians and artists during his teenaged years, but the appeal of this eventually wore off.
“They were all artists and musicians and obsessing on these guitar players and I think they were more or less like, ‘You don’t play anything; you don’t paint; you are not a creative, artistic person,’” recalls Knight. “I was left-handed and this was pre-Jimi Hendrix, and I thought I was doomed. But then, driven by looking at those early album covers and a trip to London where I ended up being on the set of the movie Blow-Up with the Yardbirds, I had the idea of becoming a rock ‘n’ roll photographer, and this outlook of, ‘Well, I’ll show these guys.’ I even made a prediction to them that one day I would shoot Jeff Beck and of course that was one of the first guitar players that I ever shot.”
After more than 40 years as a prolific rock photographer, Knight now has a treasure chest of insider rock ‘n’ roll stories. He recounts a few gems in Rock Prophecies, such as the time he attended a Halloween party with Alice Cooper, who went undetected as himself, or how Elton John was once his houseguest in Hawaii.
The 119-minute film features interviews with and live footage of some of the rock idols he’s befriended: Def Leppard, ZZ Top, Carlos Santana, Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
“One of the most exciting things for me was finding Kenny Wayne Shepherd before anyone knew who he was and taking his picture,” Knight says in the film. “Sure enough, Kenny Wayne Shepherd is probably the biggest-selling white blues artist in history, except for maybe Eric Clapton.”
The cameras even follow Knight on a visit to Jeff Beck’s London home and a trip down memory lane with Slash as the pair return to the school the guitarist was kicked out of as a teen. With both musicians, Knight explores the connection with their axes and tries to identify the elements that make these guitar heroes larger than life.
“Believe it or not, there’s a physical manifestation with these elite guitar players — a physical look in their eye,” says Knight. “Usually there’s also some aspect of OCD in their life. And when you talk to them and say, ‘Look, if this guitar thing doesn’t work out, what’s plan B? What are you going to do?,’ the ones that have the ‘it’ factor are going to say, ‘There is no plan B. This is what I’m going to do.’ And then of course when you see them onstage, they don’t look at their fingers. In fact, a lot of them just close their eyes and they are in the zone and you know they are already playing from some aspect of their heart and not their brain.”
Again and again, Knight has captured those soulful onstage moments with his camera.
“I’ve always found the guitar players more interesting than the singers,” Knight explains. “Everybody else fixates on the singer. For me, the Edge is a much more interesting character than actually paying attention to Bono, although he’s a wonderful guy and a great frontman and certainly visual. Still, I would probably spend more time shooting Edge.”
During the film, Knight kick-starts the career of Australian band Sick Puppies, and simultaneously searches for his next guitar virtuoso.
“These young bands that maybe a lot of people don’t pay much attention to are sort of what I look for now,” says Knight. “But if I can spot a guitar player before anybody else, that’s the most exciting thing.”
Knight located his next guitar prodigy in Honey Grove, Texas. Interestingly, that’s less than 100 miles from Vaughan’s birthplace, Dallas.
“I get Google alerts for ‘Stevie Ray Vaughan,’ and I got one for this 15-year-old boy who had won the Robert Johnson Blues award, and it was Tyler Dow Bryant,” recalls Knight. “So I found this online video of him and I just freaked when I saw him play.”
Knight immediately decided Bryant would be the perfect young guitarist to endorse in Rock Prophecies, but the young Texas musician thought Knight was crazy.
“I was playing at Clapton’s Crossroads Festival (2007) in Chicago, and here comes this famous photographer with his beanie on,” recalls Bryant. “He said, ‘I want to put you in this movie,’ and then told me that Jeff Beck was in it, Carlos Santana and Steve Vai and all of these amazing artists that I look up to and I thought, ‘This guy is crazy. He’s lost his mind.’ I didn’t give him my phone number.”
Tyler’s mom took care of that for him, and eventually Knight persuaded the teenager and his family that he was serious.
Photo by Robert Knight
“I just saw something in Tyler,” says Knight. “And when I asked Tyler about his backup plan, he looked straight at me and said, ‘I was born to do this.’ And when you see that kind of commitment out of someone who is 15 or 16, and his parents tell you, ‘Once he starts with the guitar he can’t put it down. He locks himself in his room and plays and sleeps with the guitar,’ you believe that he can succeed.”
We see all of this and more for ourselves in Rock Prophecies. The film poignantly chronicles the huge dreams of small-town Texas native Bryant, who began living his life for music at age 11, when he encountered 63-year-old bluesman Roosevelt Twitty playing the guitar at a music store in Paris, Texas.
“He was playing a Lightnin’ Hopkins song,” recalls Bryant. “The soul just got me. It was all about the feeling. Mr. Twitty was performing with such emotion that it translated deeply, and I understood. Whenever you hear someone play with that much soul, where they really believe what they are singing, it’s so inspiring. When I met him, I realized I wanted to be a musician and do this the rest of my life.”
Rock Prophecies served as a springboard for Bryant, who has since moved to Nashville, Tenn., where CAA signed him on the spot after his first showcase.
“It turned out to be a really big thing for me,” Bryant says of the film. “So much has happened since then, but I feel like I’m a little bit closer to figuring out who I am and what I want to do with this. I feel like I’m going to keep changing over time — I think most artist do — but right now I feel like I know what I want to do for the next couple of years, so I’m just going to keep writing songs and keep going until I get there.”
And given Knight’s track record, it’s almost a sure bet he’ll get there. Rock Prophecies producer Tim Kaiser characterized Knight as “the Forrest Gump of rock ‘n’ roll” because “He just had this knack for being right in the middle of history in the making.”
But Knight’s historic rock ‘n’ roll archive — which he debates selling in the film in order to afford medical care for his ailing mother — is no happenstance.
“The minute you stop reaching, you will be irrelevant,” says Knight. “Being a photographer is like a gunfighter’s reality. You could have shot the top 100 bands in the world, but you miss one and you’re done. I never see myself retiring, but there’s always a fear because the music industry is a young man’s game.”
Juxtaposed against the Sick Puppies and Bryant’s youthful pursuits to make it big in Rock Prophecies is Knight’s own far-fetched Cinderella tale — a storied career that continues to be fueled by desire and perseverance.
“I think some of it is destiny, yes, but it’s also the sheer force of will on my part to figure out, growing up in the backwater of Honolulu, Hawaii, how I was going to get to the most powerful guitar players in the world, who lived in England,” shares Knight. “How do you do that? You have to have a plan and then make it happen. So when I go around and we do the film festivals and talk to students, the one message I leave them is: ‘Listen, if this can happen to me, who is nobody special — a son of a Baptist minister in a very weird part of Hawaii — and I’ve photographed every major hero I’ve ever had, then it can happen to anyone.’”
So for 15-year-old Matt “Mojo” Tedder, dream big and you can escape your small town, with or without Knight’s help.
Pre-order Rock Prophecies here and keep an eye out for details regarding its national television broadcast on PBS this month.