By Tom Zimberoff
I had to buy onions today. I just couldn’t bring myself to write about Jim Marshall, I suppose, until something that ordinary and evocative opened a sluice of memories and tears. Some of you will understand why.
For another reason I waited to see what others had to say. I didn’t want to repeat the obvious encomiums and tropes describing Jim’s irreconcilable and invidious utterances. Nonetheless, in spite of himself, Marshall made very many friends, and every individual memory they share is priceless.
I heard about his somnolent passing—a blessing, but ironic—within hours. It hammered me unexpectedly hard. The news sent me wandering on foot through Golden Gate Park for a couple of hours to take the edge off. Walking home, still restless, I decided to do something cornball and sentimental. (Marshall could be that way himself sometimes.) I bought flowers and a candle—pumpkin-scented, not votive, was all I could find—to lay by the entrance to his home.
As I stooped down with my offerings I saw light under the door. Oh come on! Was it a hoax? Or was I having one of those flashbacks? I rang the bell. More footsteps. Sh*t! I should have gotten really hammered. The door opened and, kindly, Jim’s indefatigable, indispensable, and saintly sidekick, Amelia Davis, greeted me with a hug. She had just arrived herself from elsewhere in New York. She invited me in. Her companion Bonita was there to support her. More tears. I drank some of Jim’s whiskey. I left hoping that these digs, very familiar to me, could remain a shrine for other photographers to visit. Hell of a place.
It’s a so-called "railroad flat," a narrow passageway with rooms off to one side. On either wall throughout its length is a gallery of framed photographs; not Jim’s but those of his friends, including some historic icons (i.e, both the photographer and the subject), given to him and hung with curatorial pride. Jim’s office was in the back on a kitchen table cluttered with tchotchkes and memorabilia, as was the entire abode. An adjacent door led to his rumpled bedroom, where a television usually presented football games or old dramas with the volume turned up loud. His enduring archives are carefully stored in file cabinets in the center rooms; every negative numbered and immediately accessible by card catalog and, hitherto, in Jim’s remarkably acute memory. The front parlor contains stacks of Marshall’s matted and signed prints, lots of CDs and LP record albums and photo books. There, too, were his Recaro racing seat and the saddle from a long-gone Triumph. This room faced onto the street and the blinds were always drawn—in every room. God help anyone who parked without permission in the driveway directly below! A decorative fulmination of epithets applied with a rattle-can of spray paint would be visited upon your vehicle. And Marshall did love cars. I don’t know how many of his acquaintances know that he was also a prolific documentarian of goings on at the Bonneville Salt Flats speed trials back in the late '50s. In his garage was a beloved Mercedes-Benz. The Stealth Benz he called it. It had more side- and rear-facing radars plus other evasive electronic paraphernalia than avionics in an F-117. Speakers and flashing panel lights alerted Jim to perform evasive maneuvers.
I remember a non-stop drive riding shotgun with Marshall from San Fran to Ketchum, Idaho at 100+ mph much of the way. Jim wasn’t wearing a hearing aid yet, and every time we got an audible hit on the reconnaissance gear it nearly sent me through the sun roof. We could hear befuddled state police on the scanners catching sight of us going in the opposite direction, trying to make U-turns as we sped away. We didn’t get caught, continuing even faster and then ducking behind rest stops. Capture would have been costly, to say the least, armaments considered.
Years ago, I shared a hotel room with Marshall after a night of drinking in LA. An early-morning phone call didn’t put either of us in the best of spirits but the picture editor of Rolling Stone, Laurie Kratochvil, on the line from three thousand miles away, must have been sorrier to hear Jim’s curses; not for the wake-up call but for neglecting to offer him assignments in years gone by, and yet asking for stock photos to publish in a commemorative issue. That diatribe must still be ringing in her ears.
Of course, the Chronicle ran Marshall’s obit on the front page. If he could have pulled off a Tom Sawyer, he would have exclaimed, “They didn’t run it above the fold, motherf*ckers!”
One time in New York, when we had failed to hail a cab, Jim ran into the middle of 10th Avenue and body-blocked a limousine. We got in and offered the driver a hundred bucks to take us to a party. I think we were with Robert Farber. Jim offered the driver a non-pecuniary tip that was well received. Later that night in the Whiskey Bar, Jim passed out, asleep in a chair clutching his Leica (I loved to see him react when, during one distraction or another, I would hide it from him.) The apparent groom of a honeymooning couple made a snide remark to his young bride about the lowlife drunk slumped across the table. Oooh, it felt good to point out the pictures on the wall to this now contrite couple. They picked up his bar bill. (I told Jim I did. Oh well. Hey, it worked!)
Jim introduced me to two women, one of whom I married briefly. Much later, I fell in love with the other. But I digress. Jim shot my wedding. The father of the bride almost got shot too. Well, he wasn’t actually the father but my brother-in-law acting in that guise to give away the bride. My sister’s husband is a belligerent and short-fused fellow; but he couldn’t hold a candle to Jim. Thinking Marshall was merely a hired hand, and having no patience that familiar phrase "Just one more!", as my bride was about to descend a staircase in full regalia with string quartet accompaniment, Jim was shoved aside. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone else muster as much self-control as Marshall did that day. That’s really something for him.
When I stopped shooting years ago, I gave Marshall some bricks of film I had in my fridge. He loved Tri-X. But the last time I saw him, at my own recent exhibition opening, he proudly showed me the new digital Leica M9, engraved with the Jim Marshall moniker, bestowed on him by the German factory moguls. I would like to see the pics he made that night.
Last year I was asked by the Doobie Brothers’ manager to shoot a comeback album cover. I had already hung up my cameras. I knew that Jim shot the first Doobie Brothers cover decades earlier. I suggested he do their last. I think that may have been Jim’s swan song assignment. I’d like to think so.
The apotheosis of Jim Marshall begins.
March 28, 2010
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.