Arts & Culture

He’s shot the biggest rock stars of the past 47 years up close and backstage — most of them in Tacoma

Nirvana members Kurt Cobain, left, and Krist Novoselic backstage at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, 1991.
Nirvana members Kurt Cobain, left, and Krist Novoselic backstage at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, 1991.

Darrell Westmoreland’s new photo book is a lot like a family album — if that family included Elton John, Cher, David Bowie, Dolly Parton, Adam Levine, B.B. King, Paul McCartney and dozens of other music stars.

Westmoreland, 67, has spent nearly the last half century photographing some of the biggest names in the music world — many of them in Tacoma.

During that time, he went from high school music festival shooter to house photographer for the Tacoma Dome and the Washington State Fair.

Westmoreland’s book, “Snap Click Flash,” goes from AC/DC to ZZ Top. He’s got stories about most of them.

“And then there’s Van Halen,” he said, looking at several photos in the book of the iconic 1980s rock stars. “It was a party that never stopped. They took it to the epitome of sex, drugs and rock and roll. These guys lived it to the max.”

The photographer still lives in his hometown of Montesano. The rock music bug bit him in 1971 while he was in high school and shooting the Satsop Rock Festival.

After high school he moved to Pierce County and began stringing for The Associated Press and other news organizations while pursuing a photography degree at Clover Park Technical College.

In 1975, he started working for record companies, which would bring their rock stars to local radio stations where Westmoreland made candid shots.

“Within in a year and a half I was shooting probably 50 labels,” he said.

He’s shot concerts — from the front row and from backstage — at the Tacoma Dome, the King Dome and dozens of other venues.

He’s been the house photographer at the Tacoma Dome since 1989, and a State Fair photographer since 2007.

Photos in the 182-page book — subtitled, “All Access Pass” — range from 1974-2010.

AC/DC’s first visit to the T-Dome was a blast.

“Some guys from the military base sent a rocket up and blew a big hole in the ceiling,” Westmoreland recalled. “They stopped the concert for half an hour.”

The next morning, with the concert long over, workers noticed smoke coming from the ceiling, where a fire caused by the rocket had been smoldering.

Some of Westmoreland’s stories can’t be told in a family newspaper. Others are amusing and sometimes nostalgic.

“The record companies had so much money to throw at the artists,” Westmoreland said. “They would do the most ridiculous promotions.”

At a public appearance for Meatloaf, fans were handed meatloaf sandwiches, he said.

At another promotion for ZZ Top, fans had been knocking back drinks before the band entered a reception room.

“(The fans) were so lit by the time (ZZ Top) came in the room. The crowd just went crazy,” Westmoreland said. “It freaked (the band) out so bad they just turned around, went right out the door and didn’t come back.”

The promotions ended long ago with label consolidation and internet marketing.

“By the end of the ‘90s that had pretty much dried up,” he said the lavish treatment.

The Seattle scene is represented in the book with Heart in the 1970s and Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana in the 1990s.

In a pair of quirky 1991 photos, Westmoreland captured Nirvana founding members Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic wearing Santa hats backstage at the Paramount Theater in Seattle.

“That guy was so high,” he said of Cobain.

In one 1994 shot, John Mellencamp looks pensively at the camera while performing at a Seattle radio studio.

“Within one or two songs he stops (playing) and he looks over at me and he gets up and goes into a conference room,” Westmoreland recalled.

The radio staff didn’t know what to do. Finally, Westmoreland walked in to check on him.

“He’s sitting in the window and white as a sheet,” he said.

The staff called 911. It turned out Mellencamp was having a heart attack.

New Kids on the Block and *NSYNC look almost prepubescent in photos shot early in their careers.

“The boy bands really draw (crowds),” Westmoreland said.

The vast majority of the photos in the book were shot on black and white film. He shot with his first digital camera in 1998.

He doesn’t miss film.

“I don’t care if I ever go back in that dark room again,” he said. “All I did was print 8-by-10s for the (music) industry.”

Westmoreland has no plans to retire, but even he is surprised at the longevity of this career.

“I’m shocked that I’m still doing it.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor


What: Book signing.

When: Friday (Oct. 12).

Where: 5:30-7 p.m. at King’s Books, 218 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma; 8-10 p.m. at Peaks and Pints, 3816 N. 26th Street, Tacoma.