The Rocks Off 100: Richard Griesser, Vintage Camera Hound With Enviable Archive
Welcome to the Rocks Off 100, our portrait gallery of the most compelling profiles and personalities in the far-flung Houston music community -- a lot more than just musicians, but of course they're in there too. See the entire Rocks Off 100 at this link.
Bo Diddley (left) and Dr. Rocket & the Sisters of Mercy backstage at Rockefeller's, 1984
Photos courtesy of Richard Griesser
Rocks Off "met" Richard Griesser a couple of weeks ago, when we were looking for pictures of Houston music venues that had closed, and he went above and beyond the call of duty. When we posted a notice on Facebook, we figured we'd be lucky to get a handful of shots we could use. Griesser sent us dozens, from all sorts of long-defunct local venues -- Rockefeller's, the Rhythm Room, Mary Jane's, Fabulous Satellite Lounge, and more.
But Griesser also sent just as many from places that are open to this day like Dan Electro's Guitar Bar and Last Concert Cafe, which will host an exhibition of his photos starting Thursday. After he did us such a huge favor, we couldn't help but induct Griesser into The Rocks Off 100.
Carolyn Wonderland (right) at Last Concert Cafe, 1995
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Who? Griesser says he's been a "photo nut" since he was 11 or 12 and cutting yards to buy a Polaroid Swinger and some film. (Griesser didn't give us his age, but the Swinger was manufactured between 1965 and 1970.) When he got tired of mowing yards in the Texas heat, Griesser says he started shooting "things neighbors wanted or needed photographed."
A couple of years after that, he says his grandfather gave him a Zeiss Ikon from the 1930s, known to us younger folks as a sweet-ass camera. Around this time, "the late '60s Houston music scene was starting to become quite a happening," he recalls. "With many local music venues for teens only, it became for me a great place to photograph musicians, and I was hooked on it."
He says he spent many Sundays taking photos in Milby Park, and remembers not being the best student, so his dad offered to get him a better camera if he raised his grades. He did, and steadily began using better equipment.
Sadly, a water leak in the house he was renting ruined all his shots taken before 1974, but after that Griesser says he has about 250 Kodachrome negatives "looking like the day they were shot." Working at a Houston camera store and seeking to recapture the feeling he got at those old teen clubs, he eventually gravitated to Dan Electro's and Last Concert, drawn in by the feeling "where everyone knows your name."
Still, he admits, he'll always go somewhere new to hear a band a friend tells him to check out. Today, Griesser reckons he has more than 2,100 images of almost 60 different subjects.
"One of the things I learned was the closer I got to the musicians they would start to ham it up and put on a show for the camera," Griesser says. "It started to feel like when I was in the back and shooting a longer lens the musicians acted natural, and I felt that the images were better."
Why Do You Stay In Houston? "I have traveled to many other cities as an assistant and a photographer and would always try to check out the local music, but on weeknights it can be hard finding live music in most of the towns, unlike Houston," says Griesser. "Houston is my home, with all my friends and people that know me, giving me a base to photograph from. At most clubs, when I slide to the stage to take a photo the crowd makes a path for me so I can get the shot."
Railroad Earth at Last Concert Cafe, 1999
Good War Story: "One night backstage at Fitzgeralds between sets I asked Bo Diddley if it would be cool to take some photos with his opening band Dr Rocket and the Sisters of Mercy together with him," Griesser recalls. "He said, 'Sure, is that a Leica M2?' Talk with me while I shave -- got to look good for the women.'"
I said no, it was an M3... and we talked about how photography was like music trying to catch an early feeling a monument in time. He asked if I had any photos that I took that he would love to see them after the show. After the show, I showed him my prints as he was changing of Dr. Rocket [Rock Romano] and he said they were great and he looked forward to seeing the photos from the night's gig. He pulled his camera bag out of a guitar case and put his camera on and starting taking photos of me, and then a few minutes later of Rock.
I saw him a few months later he had called and told me I had my name at the door. The people I worked for did not believe me when I said I need a day off because Bo Diddley wanted me to photograph him. I had sent the photos of that night to him in Florida. He had a print of me and him standing in front of the mirror. Mine did not come out so good, but my band shots he liked.
Dr Rocket had given him my album to sign my album and I showed it at work the next Monday. The people I worked for thought I just had someone else sign it -- til he came in the store a few months later and asked for me by name. I sold him a Minox 35ML and a few darkroom items and took a Polaroid photo of us together. Sadly, I lost them.
Griesser also told us a story about Charlie Daniels at Gilley's that's just about as good. Maybe we'll tell that one next week.
Beans Barton & the Bi-Peds at the Big Horn Saloon, 1996
Music Scene Pet Peeve: "Young, earnest musicians and their drunk friends with cell phones all talking at the same time they want to film and show their friends," he sighs, also singling out "Big pitchers of beer drinkers doing shots and acting like it's spring break in Mexico and are not there for the music."
Five Desert Island Discs:
- Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
- Bob Marley & the Wailers, Kinky Reggae
- The Clash, London Calling
- Paul Simon, Graceland
- The Beatles, The Beatles ("White Album")
Best Concert You Ever Saw: "Texas International Pop Festival 1969, Dallas"
First Song You Fell In Love With: Griesser says both Joey Dee and the Starlighters' "Peppermint Twist" and the Beach Boys' "Surfin Safari": "It's 50/50 on these two."
Griesser's 18-year Last Concert Cafe (1403 Nance) retrospective starts Thursday. See who else has joined The Rocks Off 100 this year on the next page.
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