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A Conversation with Mark Roth Print-ready version

by Wally Breese
November 29, 1997

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Wally: When and where did you meet Joni?

Mark: As far as I remember, at a show I was doing at a space that was primarily a restaurant called The Tin Angel...and I do believe that Joni has a song by that title.

Wally: She does, on her second album Clouds.

Mark: That's right. Well, the song is about that space...and about that time.

Wally: Where was The Tin Angel?

Mark: It was right next door to a club called The Bitter End. It was like a coffee house where all of the artists who were playing in the performance spaces in the area, and some of the very hip members of the general public, would tend to congregate. I met Joni at a photographic exhibit that I had there.

Wally: What year would that have been?

Mark: All the events I'm describing would be in that '67, '68 and '69 era; and all of them would have been in Greenwich Village.

Wally: Are you a native New Yorker?

Mark: Yes, I am. I moved to Greenwich Village in 1964 from my previous residence on Long Island. At that time, Greenwich Village was "it." It was the center of consciousness. All of the music of conviction that was being written and performed - sometimes called folk rock, blues rock, you know there's a million different words for it, fusion rock - but it was music that was trying to convey lyrics of conviction and meaning. Dylan was one of the progenitors of the group. It was a swing age, and I don't mean swing age as in big band - it was the swing age between the beatniks and the hippies. It was a very delicate time. We were not hippies, we were long-haired beatniks. There's a great difference in values, as you may or may not be aware. It was not all of this you know "All You Need is Love" type of thing that the Beatles incorporated. In a way, when the Beatles first came out, we looked at ourselves and said, "Who are these people with the simplistic music and philosophies?"

Wally: yeah, yeah, yeah

Mark: Yes, a 'yeah, yeah, yeah' view of the world - exactly. and you know, we were already into a far more - and by we, I mean the people who were living, working, thinking, dreaming, trying to create another reality in this environment primarily concentrated in Greenwich Village. These people are now all over the world, but at that time, there was probably more real talent living, working and performing in an eight block square area than I could ever think of anywhere, before or since. It was in that environment that I met Joni at this place called The Tin Angel. It was a photographic show, an art show in the sense that there were limited prints primarily of my work. Although I did include two or three album covers that I had done by that time. One of which was an album cover for an artist named Steve Gillette on Vanguard Records.

Wally: I've never heard of him.

Mark: Steve is and was one of the masters of unique fingerpicking style. And also one of the writers of a song called "Darcy Farrow," which John Denver, among other people, recorded. It's on the recently released John Denver "Best of." That song was also recorded by a Canadian folk-rock duo named Ian and Sylvia, who were very, very important to the folk-rock movement of that time.

Wally: Yes, they've covered "The Circle Game."

Mark: And Steve also co-wrote "Back on the Street Again," which was recorded by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Ponies. As a matter of fact, he was a guest guitarist on that song under the name of 'Steven B'. So anyway, I had done an album cover for him, and I had done an album cover for a group called Spanky and Our Gang. And it was at this show that I met Joni. She was very interested in some of my photographs, especially the one of a fish-eye nature on the album by Spanky and Our Gang called "Sunday Will Never Be the Same," which is the name of the hit from it.

Wally: Yeah, that was their big one.

Mark: Yes, and I happen to have the unique pleasure of doing the cover of that album. And also, as far I know, that was the first album to ever use a double fold album configuration for a single record in the rock and roll field.

Wally: You mean when an album opens up and you can read the lyrics on the inside?

Mark: Or in this case, it was a two page photo spread on the inside, plus the titles and credits and all of that. So as far as I know, it was the first fold out album cover in the history of rock & roll.

Wally: There were certainly a lot more of them later.

Mark: For a while, it became the signal between you and your record company that you'd arrived. It was the prestige item that a record company could give you along with maybe a billboard on Sunset Blvd. But a fold out album was quite a statement by a record company at that point - for a single record.

Wally: So, tell me about the fish eye picture of yours which Joni liked.

Mark: There were pictures I had taken with the fish-eye process and I'd worked with other very experimental forms of photography that I was into at that time. Joni was intrigued, we started talking and we became pretty good friends. You know, we were in each other's company for awhile planning for a photo presentation for her, and also for me to learn a bit about her music and all.

Wally: What was your impression of Joni as a person back then?

Mark: Joni was very focused on her art. it really mattered to her a lot, you could tell.

Wally: Her art, meaning her music and her painting?

Mark: Yes, all forms of her art. That's what she was living for - you could just tell.

Wally: Was she a very open, talkative person back then?

Mark: Not when you first met her, but more so as you got to know her.

Wally: She was kind of shy at first?

Mark: She seemed to be at first, but you know, yet, there was this sense of purpose about her. I had a place in New York City in a brownstone which had been converted to apartments. It was half underground, half above ground because of the unique structure of a NY brownstone. We took some shots there. But most of the stuff that we did that mattered was done outside or at Joni's apartment.

Wally: That was the ground floor apartment at 41 West 16th Street? That's where she wrote "Chelsea Morning," I believe.

Mark: That's correct. It was in the Chelsea district, right across the street from a church. We accumulated some photographs, and Joni had this idea of doing a cover that included her drawings and my fish-eye photographs. She envisioned them, one of them in particular, as a jewel on a crown within one of her drawings, which is that little one on the front cover.

Wally: Yes. Was David Crosby around then?

Mark: The first time I met David was when we had already taken most of the pictures and he came in to look at them as part of the final selection process.

Wally: Did the record company give you money to do this?

Mark: Not until later. This was all pretty much on spec.

Wally: What's happened to all those photos?

Mark: They pretty much got winnowed out through the years. A lot of them wound up in the Warner Bros. collection.

Wally: It's a shame that those photos aren't readily available because they'd be really wonderful to see. Tell me about the picture you took of Joni with the candle.

Mark: That was taken at Joni's apartment late one night. We had just been wandering around. As a matter of fact, we had met Buffy St. Marie and Duane Bugby that evening, and for some reason or another ended up on the seesaws (laughs) in the middle of a park in New York City. We went back to Joni's, and did a couple of photographs, and they were done entirely by candlelight. That's one of them that was considered as an alternate for the center picture, but was not used.

Wally: Now the picture you're referring to is the one from the inside of the album where she's facing the camera - tell me about that.

Mark: That was taken outdoors, and essentially the reason I think they went with that one was because it was black and white. We had originally wanted an all color package, but you know Warners...

Wally: They wanted to save some money.

Mark: They wanted to save some money.

Wally: So there were photos taken outside and that was done specifically for the album cover or was that just a session?

Mark: We weren't as focused on a specific project as people are these days. We just knew we wanted to do some pictures together.

Wally: Well you know it's funny, the fish-eye photos used on the first album really represent to me the beginning of the story of the songs on the album. It represents the line "I came to the city."

Mark: That's pretty much what we wanted to do.

Wally: So Joni must have had a sense of the themes on the album by that time.

Mark: She had a sense of her story by that time, but judging by the songs that Joni played for me, some of them were not recorded until her third album.

Wally: Right. Such as "Little Green" or "The Circle Game."

Mark: Yes. Of course, Tom Rush had already done "The Circle Game."

Wally: And "Urge for Going."

Mark: Yes.

Wally: And he also did a version of "Tin Angel."

Mark: He had already done a few of them, so some songs Joni was not holding on to her reserve on. And some of them she was.

Wally: What do you mean by a reserve?

Mark: The writer has the right of reserve, which means that the artist has the right to record any song that they write and copyright first, unless they specifically waive the right.

Wally: Once they've recorded it, can anyone record it as long as they pay?

Mark: Yes, anyone can do a cover version of it, as long as they agree to pay what's called the statutory rate.

Wally: I see. So when it finally got to the point where Joni was in the studio recording her first album with David Crosby, were you around for any of those sessions?

Mark: No, that was out in California. I was in New York.

Wally: You mentioned a shingdig to me (in a pre-interview conversation) that was an approval party for the cover?

Mark: It was an approval party and a showing party. For some reason, Joni wished to have a lot of her contemporaries and friends see the pictures and help in the final selection.

Wally: Who was there at the party?

Mark: I remember David being there, I remember Laura Nyro being there...

Wally: I love Laura Nyro's music!

Mark: Oh, she was a wonderful, wonderful lady. I'm so saddened by her loss.

Wally: Yes, me too.

Mark: And I remember Mary Martin being there- not the actress who played Peter Pan, but the manager of Leonard Cohen. As a matter of fact, Leonard Cohen was himself there briefly, but he said there were just too much heavy vibrations in the room and he had to leave. (they both laugh). And Buffy St Marie was there. It was all so intense.

Wally: Had you met most of those people already?

Mark: I'd met most of those people- David and Leonard were the least known to me. Everybody else was part of the regular New York scene and I'd seen and talked to them at various times. As a matter of fact, I very shortly in the future did a project with Buffy.

Wally: What album was that?

Mark: "Illuminations." I finished the project because she and Maynard Soloman had come to an impasse on it and I was brought in to finish it.

Wally: At this party where Joni had all these friends to look at photos, were they on the wall, were they projected?

Mark: We projected everything on a wall and everybody was oohing and aahing and we just kind of partied through it all and came up with the ones that seemed to get the strongest response. Those were the ones that were considered later. I think after that was all done, Joni and I, if I remember correctly, looked through everything once again remembering how everybody had reacted. We made the final selection.

Wally: Ok. So it wasn't totally just by what other people thought.

Mark: Exactly. We already had a pretty good idea. We knew, for example, that the one with the umbrellas, which were almost needed because of the weather on the day that we shot it - it was kind of misty and overcast, rain was a feasability; but the ones with umbrellas that are on the front just seemed to make an extra kind of statement about the nature of the city.

Wally: Do you remember what street those photos were taken on?

Mark: Those were taken down on what is now called Soho, at that point we just called it the lower west side. They were down around Spring Street.

Wally: It looks like kind of like an alley, not a full fledged NY street.

Mark: Well, with the NY streets, especially as you get down to the area below Greenwich Village, were originally designed for horse and carriage traffic and they get very narrow.

Wally: That's what it looked like. So Joni's first album came out in March of '68, it wasn't your first album cover, but was it maybe your biggest?

Mark: At that time, Spanky and Our Gang was the largest selling group that I'd done a cover for. It remained that cover for some time because they had that breakaway single ("Sunday Will Never Be the Same") but probably now, in retrospect, Joni's would be considered to be the most important cover I've ever done. Joni, of course, has become an ongoing source of lyric and music and poetry and inspiration for other artists.

Wally: Yes, it's pretty amazing. Did you feel a great deal of personal satisfaction when you held Joni's first album cover in your hand?

Mark: Oh, yes. I remember at that point it was coming to me from California and I was still based in New York. I didn't move out here until a couple of years after Joni did. She moved here and started working with a rather interesting team comprising David Geffen and Elliot Roberts. I stayed in New York working with Richie Havens until about 1971 when our record distributor moved from New York to California.

Wally: Yes, you worked with Richie Havens. As well as album covers, I believe you wrote songs with him.

Mark: Yes, I've composed with him. I also wrote a song that Bob Marley recorded.

Wally: Very cool! What's it called?

Mark: Richie and my version of it was called "Indian Ropeman," Marley's version he called "African Herbsman," and that was a bit of a surprise to me.

Wally: He didn't get advance permission to change the song?

Mark: No. As a matter of fact, we're still dealing with the repercussions of that and it's been 25 years. But for 20 years I didn't know that the project had been recorded.

Wally: So you haven't made any money on his version?

Mark: Well, I have made some from a version that his son's group recorded.

Wally: Ziggy Marley.

Mark: Ziggy & the Melody Makers. They came to the realization of who owned the song and they cleared up their obligation. but the other version, the primary one is still in limbo, although it's supposed to be approaching resolution.

Wally: Well, if it does, you should make a little bit of cash on that because he's so big around the world. It's probably been available on many albums.

Mark: Well, I know of at least 10 CD compilations that it's appeared on. I have no idea of how many cassette versions and how many LP versions and what else there may have been at this point.

Wally: I see. You told me in our pre-interview conversation that you and Joni had had a traumatic experience around that time.

Mark: This was when we were finishing the photography and Joni was over at my house. It was getting late at night and she decided to go home so I told her that I'd walk her. We had just gotten on to 6th Avenue, which kind of divided my neighborhood from hers (cause I was living in the West Village and she was in the Center Village). We were just south of this place called the White Horse Tavern, which is famous for being the place where Brendan Behan drank himself to death. We were walking up the street when these three individuals passed us by. One of them shouted "Hey Cinderella!" and another one shouted out "Hey beautiful!" or something like that. As they walk by and our backs are turned to them, they pulled bottles out and hit us both on the head.

Wally: Oh, my God!

Mark: Joni takes off running one way, they take off running the other, I'm in the center. I didn't know quite what to do, so I chased off after them, for about 20 or 30 steps, then I realized it was futile as they were way ahead. So I went back to comfort Joni and I walked her the rest of the way home. She was quite freaked.

Wally: Were either of you left bleeding?

Mark: No, neither one of us got badly hurt physically.

Wally: Thank goodness.

Mark: Within two years, her before me, we both left New York City, never to resume residence there again. It was one of the most traumatic incidents in my life in a curious kind of way. You know, this idea of just random cruelty and random violence that can happen to anybody.

Wally: So tell me a little bit more about your work with Richie Havens.

Mark: I started working with Richie by doing an album cover with him. We were discussing the album project and he told that he was not particularly happy with the production of that particular album. We talked for a while, and we believed that we could do better, so we decided to form an amalgamation that involved traveling together so that we could write together. We began to develop an artistic collaboration that went beyond that of an album cover photographer and an artist whom you were doing work for. We became pretty much creative partners for the next 5 &1/2-6 years, including the Isle of Wight Festival and the Woodstock appearances.

Wally: Were you at both of those festivals?

Mark: Yes, I believe when all is said and done there are probably less than 100 people in the history of the world who were at Woodstock and at both of the Isle of Wight Festivals, and I'm one of them.

Wally: And you took photographs at all of these festivals, didn't you?

Mark: Yes, I took pictures at all these locations.

Wally: Who did you get to meet there? Dylan maybe?

Mark: I already knew him. I'd originally met him at a very small bar called the Kettle of Fish, which was upstairs from the Gaslight, which was one of the absolute launch pads for probably more talent per square inch than any club in the history of the world. You name the artist, including Joni, and they've played there.

Wally: So you've written songs with Richie Havens, including some pretty famous ones. Didn't you write "Minstral From Gault" with him?

Mark: Yes, I did.

Wally: That's a song which I love. I was a huge Richie fan in the '70's.

Mark: Thank you very much.

Wally: He's an Aquarian, like me.

Mark: Yes, indeed, he's Aquarius.

Wally: Like Melanie and Donovan and Carole King. Are you still in touch with Richie?

Mark: Yes, I see him from time to time, we talk from time to time, and now that he's also part of the internet, we exchange email from time to time.

Wally: Does he have a website?

Mark: Yes, he does.

Wally: I'll have to check it out. Did he build it himself?

Mark: No, he has someone who does it for him.

Wally: And he still performs pretty regularly in clubs.

Mark: Yes. He performs primarily around the eastern seaboard area, but from time to time he does appear on the west coast.

Wally: He's from New York, isn't he?

Mark: Yes, he is.

Wally: So, besides working with Richie, and doing album covers for Joni and other artists, I understand you've done work for magazines.

Mark: Right. I had the very distinct privilege and unique pleasure of photographing Paul McCartney and John Lennon for Fortune magazine at the time they formed the Apple corporation. When they were doing the initial press conferences to establish the new company with the media.

Wally: That was when they made their famous Tonight Show appearance.

Mark: The one which Tallulah Bankhead was also on?

Wally: Yes, exactly.

Mark: Yes, it was just about that time. They were staying at the Plaza Hotel.

Wally: Your photo of them, is that at the Plaza?

Mark: Yes, in their hotel room. That was an exclusive interview for Fortune magazine and the only people who were there at the time the photographs were taken were them, myself, the researcher from Fortune, and Derek Taylor, who was their press agent at the time.

Wally: Was that the only opportunity you had to photograph them?

Mark: Yes, that was the only time I photographed them. I'd met them at other occasions, but that was the only time I was there in the capacity of being a photographer.

Wally: And you've also worked for Life magazine?

Mark: Yes, I've done a couple of assignments for Life. One of them was during the famous New York City blackout. The other one was not an assignment, but was one of the strangest things that ever happened to me during my life. I happened to see a UFO, get a photograph of it, and Life ran that photograph. That's also on my website.

Wally: Was that one of the first photos of a UFO in a national magazine?

Mark: It probably would qualify as that.

Wally: Whatever convinced them to run it? Was there a particular interest in UFOs at the time?

Mark: Yes, that was shortly after the Exeter, New Hampshire incident. A situation where an object was seen by military aircraft.

Wally: Were you interested in photography when you were a kid?

Mark: I started getting interested in photography when I was about 14 or 15. I also had an abiding interest in amateur radio, which led to an interest in radio and recording and all of those mediums and it all started to come together during the late sixties when there was a crying need for anyone who seemed to have knowledge in those fields.

Wally: Who were your photographic influences?

Mark: I would say that after I'd developed enough of a technical proficiency to work at a professional level, I was very lucky to get involved with some of the people from the Life magazine group of photographers. Aside from the very early classic photographers such as Steichen and Stieglitz, my living mentors were photographers such as Alfred Eisenstaedt and Gordon Parks.

Wally: The same Gordon Parks who became a filmmaker later on?

Mark: Yes, the same person who directed "Shaft."

Wally: ...and "The Learning Tree."

Mark: Yes, he started with that film.

Wally: What a great movie!

Mark: Not only that, it was autobiographical- it was based on an incident from his own life.

Wally: I didn't know that.

Mark: I would say that I was encouraged by these people to feel free to come to them for fine points, criticism, not so much criticism, critique, on my work, after I'd already developed a working knowledge of the basic principles of photography. When it came down to the sharpening of my aesthetics, I think that by studying their work - it helped form my style. Then I moved a little bit to the outside of them all, as anyone from the 60's tended to do. I became intrigued with things like fish eye lenses and false color films - things that were, for lack of a better word, psychedelic.

Wally: Yes, ok.

Mark: So I developed my own kind of spin, but the basic photographic ideas of composition and illumination was through studying the masters. I also found enrichment that one could find in NYC by living close to so museums with the work of the great masters, not only in photography, but in art.

Wally: Are you a painter also, Mark?

Mark: No, I'm not a painter, per se, but I am influenced by the lighting that the great painters were able to convey to their canvases and the way the lighting provides a glow sometimes, or an insight into the persona.

Wally: So to get back to Joni a little bit, were there other meetings or collaborations with her?

Mark: Well, during the time we were working together and kind of hanging out, because we were neighbors and friends as well as strict working collaborators, there were some meetings and sometimes she would just play me songs.

Wally: That must have been wonderful.

Mark: Yes, a wonderful and unique experience that I'll treasure for the rest of my life.

Wally: She was bursting with creativity then. I mean, she still is, but back then, she was writing 5 or 6 songs a week.

Mark: Right, some of which have never even gotten recorded.

Wally: Tell me a bit about your experience at the Woodstock festival.

Mark: They had written our contracts in such a way that a hotel in Liberty, N.Y. was the place where we were to report, not the actual site, because at the time they wrote the contracts, they literally did not know where the festival was going to be held. They'd been kicked out of two sites, and had not yet acquired Yasgur's farm. So a hotel in upstate N.Y. was designated as the assembly point.

Wally: How far away was the hotel from where the concert was actually given?

Mark: Well, far enough away that if you took a car, you didn't show up until two days later. [laughs]

Wally: And of course, it was impossible to get a car there anyway at that point.

Mark: They were trying to send some of the acts through by limousine. However, I'd come up to the site by a limousine, which happened to be owned by a friend of mine. and he came up to me and said, "Mark, whatever you do, do not get into one of the limousines that they say are going to the site, because they are not getting through." So I said, "Thanks John," and then next thing that happened was that one of their flunkies came up to me and said, "OK, take your group and get 'em into that limousine there, we're gonna take them out to the site." I told him, "No way. First of all, my papers don't require me to go to the site to get paid, they just require me to get my act to this hotel. We're here, so you have to pay me. Second of all, I'm going upstairs with my group, we're checking in, we're going to order room service and charge it to you. When I see a helicopter land in that parking lot outside of this hotel, we'll get into it and we'll go play at your gig. However, if that helicopter doesn't arrive, I'm going to pull the plug and give you the riot you deserve."

Wally: So you're the reason that the helicopters were there.

Mark: I am the reason. They finally came to the realization that if they intended on my act moving anywhere, it was only moving by helicopter.

Wally: And Richie was the first act - how did that come about?

Mark: He wasn't scheduled to be the first act. He was scheduled to be the seventh act on, but the first six acts didn't show up in time- they got caught in traffic.

Wally: So really, you're responsible for Richie opening the Woodstock Festival, which is an important thing.

Mark: Yes, when all is said and done, in very many ways, I am. So 3/4 of an hour later, I got this call in my room, and the person representing the festival said to me, "Well, we can't get the helicopter to land in the parking lot, but we can get it to land across the street. Will that do?" I said, "That'll do just fine."

Wally: Yeah, cool.

Mark: As long as I knew that we had a helicopter to get out of there too, because we had a show to play the next night.

Wally: In another city.

Mark: Yes, in Baltimore. The tour manager has essentially three responsibilities. Number one is get the act there; number two is to get paid; and number three is to keep track of all the receipts. And I was not going to mess up on number one. [laughs]

Wally: Well, you know the reason Joni was not at Woodstock was that Elliot didn't think she'd make it back out in time to be on the Dick Cavett Show that Monday. And, of course, Crosby & Stills did make it back and made a surprise appearance on that same Cavett show because of the fact that helicopters got them in and out.

Mark: Exactly.

Wally: So Joni probably could've made it back in time.

Mark: Very possibly.

Wally: But then she wouldn't have written the song with quite the same perspective. It was more romanticized because she wasn't actually there with all the mud and rain and stuff.

Mark: Yes. As I said, I was lucky enough to miss all the mud and rain too. Richie and I were gone by the time that all happened. We went back to the hotel that night, and the next morning we took a private plane directly from Liberty Bethel airport to Baltimore.

Wally: So everything worked out.

Mark: Yes.

Wally: Well, Mark. Thanks so much for talking with me today.

Mark: You're welcome.

My thanks to Mark Roth for the conversation and for permission to reproduce his photo. Thanks also to Barbara Burst for transcribing the interview.

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Added to Library on November 17, 2005. (11729)


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