How Rock 'N' Roll Saved Our Lives
Or I knew Linda McCartney before she became a vegetarian!
By David Dalton

From Gadfly August 1998


I first met Linda McCartney at the Scene on West 46th Street. A hip little grotto in a cellar, it was run by the cool Steve Paul. In the fall of 1965 everybody from Slim Harpo to Jimi Hendrix played there. Brit Invasion bands came to jam after their gigs. In a small windowless room in the back, Tiny Tim held court. Actually, there weren't any windows in the whole damn place.

That particular evening I was engaged in a common piece of corporate surrealism: photographing a number of overweight middle‑aged men in bad suits holding a gold record—or was it an enlarged photostat of a check? Whatever. It was the record industry's version of an Assyrian bas‑relief. The only unusual feature this evening was the dapper and inscrutable presence of Ahmet Ertegun, president of Atlantic Records.

In order to make the shoot look more professional, I'd enlisted Al the Beatnik Painter from the loft above mine to act as my assistant. Real photographers always had assistants. But our professional cover was blown as soon as Al started hustling nickel bags to the Atlantic salesmen. He was doing a brisk business.

We did, however, impress somebody. After I'd finished shooting the picture, a tall girl with long blonde hair began asking me a lot of questions. Did I do this for a living? How does one get into this? Is it hard to learn? What kind of camera do you use? Is that a strobe light? All asked with anthropological zeal—as if she had discovered some strange subterranean stroboscopic ritual. The odd thing about her was that while she looked stunningly straight, on her this had the appearance of some sort of disguise. She seemed to be looking for that chink in the wall—a way out.

In memory I hear myself—in modified Austin Powers—saying, "Why don't you drop round the studio tomorrow. I'll give you some pointers—we can smoke some dynamite weed and shag, beh‑beh."

She was dressed in a striped long sleeved T‑shirt and an A‑line skirt down to the knees. This in the very heart of the sixties, when Pop fashion was exploding on the street like a super nova. Mini skirts! Silver foil sheaths! Op‑art dresses!

She looked every inch a WASP (even though she wasn't), and she dressed with the studied bad taste elite WASPs aspire to. They had whole stores devoted to this strange phenomenon: Peck & Peck, B. Altman, Best & Co. It was a bizarre cult of exclusive dowdiness. Vassar girls dressed like this.

She was educated, smart, and hungry. And had the wonderful name of Linda See. See was the name of her ex‑husband, an anthropologist from whom she'd been recently divorced. She also had the most amazing child named Heather who would say things like "My mind is speaking, but my mouth can't find the shapes," leaving us all with our jaws hanging open.

Recently Linda had gone through a bad patch. She slept a lot, snacked on Ritz crackers and hors d'oeuvres from the deli, and existed in a fog of low‑level depression and listlessness so acute it was sultry. She bemoaned the pointlessness of her life. But she did it with such tremendous energy that it belied her apathetic state.

"What is to become of me?" she would ask as plaintively as the Lady of Shalott. It's true that for the life she had been brought up to lead, the prospects didn't look too thrilling. Marriage to the stockbroker who'd been captain of the Harvard sculling team. Or the ad executive who still planned to write that novel. Maybe a Scarsdale house that would resemble a Middle‑Kingdom tomb. All the dreadful certainties and banalities of mid‑century middle‑class life. She reminded me of a suburban Sleeping Beauty. Ah, but just around the corner the blazing path of Pop life awaited!

She had a job. She worked at Town & Country magazine, the very stronghold of the bizarre twin‑set and pearls cult. Her parents were wealthy and she probably didn't need to work, but that's what you did. Another of those peculiar customs of the upper middle‑class!

For my part, I had long ago resigned myself to a life of scuffling. Al the Beatnik Taschist was my guru. His paintings were abysmal kitsch, but the philosophy was impeccable. Al's golden rule was that one should never, under any circumstances whatever, be gainfully employed. To have a job was considered a serious breach of existential etiquette.

On the other hand, anything that involved hanging out was cool. And wasn't this just what a photographer did? At the time, there were only four acceptable occupations: rock star, dope dealer, photographer or working in a boutique. I chose photographer. I hovered nightly in dingy rock bôites awaiting the decisive moment. Although this was alien to the way Linda had been brought up, she caught on fast.

My specialty was the rock tableau. For the Shangri‑Las' "Leader of the Pack" I got Mary Weiss to stand in the foreground looking racked with teen angst. (She was the only one in the group without skin problems. Besides, she was seriously cute.) In the background I positioned her sister Betty and the twins, Mary Ann and Marge Ganser, whispering conspiratorially, "Is she really going out with him?"

I had set up a shoot the next day with the Animals, and I thought it might be a good idea to ask Linda along. She would see me in my David Bailey/Blow Up mode. This was seriously stupid. Like taking your girlfriend along to photograph the Italian soccer team.

The Animals' current single was "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and I'd decided to shoot them down at the piers. I found a very thick length of rope used for tying up ocean liners, and made a knot at one end. I had the Animals straining to burst through this circle of rope. Not a profound metaphor, but graphic.

The image was just okay, but as I looked through the lens it looked fantastic! I mean the way those zen Cockney masters like David Bailey and Michael Cooper did it. Then I figured it out. It was Linda. She had literally magnetized the group and it had done wonders for the composition. Streams of energy poured back and forth between the feral Animals and Princess Linda.

After I'd shot the picture, Linda asked if she could use the camera to take some informal pictures of Eric Burdon and the boys. While she was snapping some very tightly framed shots of Eric, he confided a passionate interest in photography. Funny that he'd never mentioned it to me.

"You know, love, I always thought if the rock 'n' roll thing don't work oot I'd go into the photography dodge. Do you think you could give me lessons?"

God, that little Tyneside creep!

"Oh, is that right, Eric?" I said bitchily. "And I always thought your ambition was to open a fish and chip shop."

"Yes, well, photography and fish are my favorite pastimes." Wink, wink.

Linda was a quick and eager student of photography. There wasn't that much to learn! By the mid‑sixties, photography had divested itself of its gothic complexities. With the single‑ lens reflex camera all you had to do was frame the image through the lens, keep the light‑meter needle steady in the middle, and click. Well, there was the mildly arcane business of the F‑stops but even this could be explained in under 40 seconds.

The technical aspects weren't that demanding. The problem was photographing obnoxious, excruciatingly self‑conscious teenage yobs. It was a bloody pain in the neck. There was always someone with his eyes closed or fly unzipped or giving you the finger. Or you'd get a really great shot of the group only to discover someone hadn't shown up.

"Pity Chas couldn't make the shoot, innit? Uvverwise it woulda made a bloody great album cover."

But with the lovely Linda all this changed. Photographing a yobby group like Tommy James and the Shondells was usually problematic. Now their eyes were pinned on Linda.

And then the Stones came to town. I thought I'd learned my lesson when I introduced Linda to the Animals, but once again I couldn't resist. After all, the Stones were going to cruise around Manhattan on a yacht—the "Sea Panther"—with various members of the press.

Gloria Stavers, editor of Sixteen, was the doyenne of teen fan mags and she was somehow in charge of invitations. I worked for rival Hullabaloo so there was no hope of my being invited. But Linda was a different matter. I told her to call up Gloria and "tell her you're from Town & Country—she'll cream in her jeans." Linda got on the "Sea Panther" and she shot some great pictures, which is how the Rolling Stones ended up on the cover of Town & Country.

Her pictures perfectly captured the frisson of the afternoon. The inimitable elite bohemians insolently lounging in outfits of razorblade hipness.

That night, Jerry Schatzberg was giving a party for the Stones. In those days, hip photographers were seen as epic figures. Schatzberg had taken the cover photo of the Stones in drag for their single, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows?" The party was in his studio. Andy Warhol, Baby Jane Holzer, Tom Wolfe—le tout New York was there.

I took Linda to the party and watched as she stepped through the looking glass. She was reborn. The rock life had claimed another victim. Rock itself was a drug—once involved in this life, one wanted nothing else.

No camera that night, of course. This would have been like the girl with the graphex camera at the Copacabana. Around midnight Linda came over to me and said, "Mick just asked me for my phone number—what should I do?"

A rhetorical question, clearly.

With the Stones, Linda had finally met rock royalty. The Animals and the Dave Clark Five would now be cast in the supporting role of peasants clamoring at the gate. She would never take their picture again.

The following spring she went to England and came back raving about all the new groups she had met. Traffic, the Who, the Soft Machine. Oh, and Paul.

"What's he like?" we asked. She wouldn't say.

That fall I was married on acid at the Scene by Art Kreps, Boo Hoo of the Neo American Church and publisher of Divine Toad Sweat magazine. The Doors were playing that night and Linda was there to photograph them. Afterwards in the dressing room, Lord Jim sat as impassive as the Maya while Linda snapped pictures of him. Her leonine gawkiness, that incredible smile. She didn't look like anybody else in the room—all leathers and tatterdemalion finery. She didn't look like anyone on the scene for that matter. One thing about Linda, she stayed in her own movie.

"The cosmos is communing with itself," said Lord Jim. He'd obviously done a bit of the sacrament himself. We all thought about that for a while.

Outside, I was having a hard time catching a cab. My arm stretched right across 8th Avenue but none of the cabs seemed to notice. Finally I said to Linda, "I'm having a hard time catching the little yellow fish."

"Just wait for the light," said Linda. "Then the cab'll catch you." She was utterly unfazed—always!

The following year I was in London. Linda and Paul were a couple. They would show up early at the Let It Be sessions and bemoan Yoko's "interfering." One got the impression that John thought of the Beatles as some sort of cosmic battering ram with which to wipe out the last pockets of intolerance and unhipness. But for Paul and Linda, the Beatles were like the Firm. Sort of a family business, which must be protected at all costs. Yoko's antics were endangering the Empire!

I saw Linda again at the end of 1969, shortly after she married Paul. She was walking in Kew Gardens in London with Mary Hopkin. We talked for a few minutes underneath the Chinese pagoda. Have you seen this one lately? How is that one doing? Did he ever go to Bali? Did they get married? Light gossip and the social weather. Even though she herself was the subject of so much gossip—having stolen Paul from the thousands of women who thought he was meant for them!—Linda did not have a bad word to say about anyone. She never did.

It was the end of an era. A terrible vortex was forming that would lead on the one hand to self‑destruction (Jimi, Janis, Morrison) and on the other to fanaticism (Mark David Chapman). Not all the heroes of the sixties survived. But music had given Linda's life meaning, and she in turn provided the secret door through which Paul escaped the fire storm that was about to envelop rock 'n' roll.