Jay Blakesberg exhibit at Morris Museum captures magic of rock scene, both on and off the stage

jay blakesberg

JAY BLAKESBERG

This photo of Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane is part of the “RetroBlakesberg Captured on Film: 1978-2008” exhibition at the Morris Museum in Morris Township.

I’ve seen many exhibitions of rock ‘n’ roll photography. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that devotes as much of its wall space to those who are listening to the music, and not necessarily playing it, as “RetroBlakesberg Captured on Film: 1978-2008,” currently being shown at the Morris Museum in Morris Township, does.

Jay Blakesberg with some of his photos, including one of Jerry Garcia.

There are many photos, in the exhibition, of musical luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden hanging out together, and so on. But Blakesberg also includes striking photos of his own concert-going friends and other music devotees who made up the various scenes that have swirled around the musicians themselves since his career began.

Among the 126 photos that are on display in the museum — and, in many cases, were featured in a slide-show presentation that Blakesberg gave at the museum’s Bickford Theatre the night before the exhibition officially opened, in October — is one of his ’69 Chevy Nova. He said that this was the car that took him to about 150 Grateful Dead concerts, starting in the late ’70s.

“We dreamed that somehow, somewhere in life, we would get to touch magic,” he said after showing that picture in the slide show. “Because when we go to see the live concert experience, that’s what we’re going for. We’re going and hoping that magic happens. And it typically does.”

He was talking fast, as if he was having a hard time containing his excitement.

“There’s a lot of people in this room that are friends of mine, that I know from going to see live,” he continued. “And we go do it over and over and over again. Because we know that’s where the magic happens.”

JAY BLAKESBERG

Audience members at a Swans concert at the I-Beam nightclub in San Francisco in 1988.

Blakesberg, a native of Clark, was published in print for the first time at the age of 16 (in the Grateful Dead-oriented magazine, Relix) and paid for one of his photos for the first time (by the New Jersey-based weekly newspaper, The Aquarian) at the age of 17.

He has remained a professional photographer ever since then, doing shoots for various publications as well as for the musicians themselves. And he has continued to be strongly connected to the world of the Grateful Dead and its offshoot bands.

But he also has branched out to capture memorable images of artists from the worlds of alternative-rock, grunge, hip-hop and more. And their fans. (So in addition to pictures of hippies dancing in fields, in this exhibition, there are shots of mosh pits and stage diving.)

During the pandemic, with the encouragement and curation of his daughter Ricki, he created a Instagram page, @retroblakesberg. That led to a coffee table book, “RetroBlakesberg: Volume One: The Film Archives,” that was published in September — with a foreword by Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, and an introduction by Michael Franti (both were photo subjects of his who became close friends) — and now this exhibition, which is his first ever in a museum.

JAY BLAKESBERG

Michael Franti, in 1997.

Highlights from among the photographs include Springsteen at one of the No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden in 1979; shots from different shows at the long-gone Capitol Theatre in Passaic featuring Roger McGuinn, The Who’s Pete Townshend, Willie Nelson and others; Jerry Garcia performing with The Grateful Dead at Giants Stadium in 1978; and Lowell George at the short-lived nightclub Alexander’s Sunset Inn in Browns Mills (Burlington County), three days before his 1979 death.

Also, there are photos of The Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Green Day, Carlos Santana, Tom Petty, Dr. Dre, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young, Radiohead and many others, plus memorabilia such as programs from the Capitol Theatre, and photo passes from decades worth of major tours and special one-time events.

Details about Blakesberg’s own life (including his 1981 drug arrest, for which he served prison time), his friends and his hippie lifestyle are also included in the exhibition, making it, really, a look at how a person has carved out a place for himself in the counterculture, and the music industry, as much as it is a collection of great photos.

JAY BLAKESBERG

TOM PETTY

“I was truly saved by photography,” Blakesberg said toward the end of his slide show. “It truly saved my life. No risk, no reward, you know: Find that spark, turn it into an inferno. And take those risks, because that’s how you can make things happen. I always say, let your freak flag fly, because it makes us more unique and individual.

“Jerry Garcia once said following the Grateful Dead truly is the great American adventure. I couldn’t agree any more. …

“I do visual anthropology. We are the modern day hippie tribe. And I’ve been documenting it, now, for 45-plus years. …

“I was saved by rock ‘n’ roll. … That adolescent stupidity that started here, 20 miles away, in Clark and Westfield, N.J., has now turned into life-long magic. And I feel very, very fortunate that I’ve been able to touch that magic, experience that magic, and document that magic.”

For more on the exhibit, which runs through Feb. 5, visit morrismuseum.org.

For more on Blakesberg, visit blakesberg.com or retrophotoarchive.com.

Here (a little before the 19-minute mark) is a HomegrownRadioNJ.com interview with Blakesberg by Robert O’Donnell (DJ Easy Wind):

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