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Photo Finish

The life and times of Tom Wright: just add nitro to glycerin.

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In the spring of 1962, Tom Wright was in his late teens and an American studying photography at Ealing Art School in London. He was also already a heavy drinker and pot smoker, but he had two things going for him: talent and an impressive R&B record collection. Then he met Pete Townshend. Townshend was at Ealing too, and Wright turned Townshend, guitarist at the time for a band called the Detours, onto both the blues and to pot.

In the fall of '62, however, English authorities busted Wright for marijuana possession. They ordered him out of England, but his albums fell into good hands — Townshend's hands. Townshend, for his part, went on to found the Who. Wright fled to France and ... and ... well, you name it, Wright did it. But you don't have to name it. Wright, in Roadwork, a memoir and collection of over 200 of his black-and-white photos, does it for you:

"From the late '70s until the early '90s, I was a walking garage sale, moving from one place to another. I wound up doing odd jobs, and if I wasn't asleep, I was drinking. Not just drinking, but revenge drinking: passing out, not wanting to wake up."

But he did wake up, and he was armed.

"For two decades," according to Wright, "I wore my camera like a gun in a belt. I'd wake up with it around my neck — I didn't want to miss anything ... . To me, a new roll of film was like a fresh clip of silver bullets."

So Wright began to shoot his friends, onstage and off: the Who, the Blues Magoos, the Faces, the James Gang, the Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger, and the Eagles. But Wright wasn't always on the road. He once managed Detroit's ground zero of hard rock, the Grande, which meant he got to hang out with (and photograph) the MC5. He also once married and fathered a son by a woman he hardly knew, which meant the marriage didn't last. And he once established an art school in a derelict building in downtown Austin, but he took off from it too.

Where Wright ended up (in the mid-'80s and in his mid-40s) was Divine,Texas, where he lived alone inside an abandoned bank building — abandoned except for his boxes, trunks, and footlockers full of photos: an estimated half-million photos, including early publicity shots of the Who (in a field outside Jackson, Mississippi); of Joe Walsh atop a motorcycle (for the James Gang's Rides Again); of Rod Stewart (blotto) after a show; of Ron Wood enjoying a joint; and of Don Henley looking as you always pictured him: a real sourpuss. Count in, in Roadwork, an assortment of groupie shots and roadie shots, and you have a portrait of an era, but it isn't all rock in Roadwork, and it isn't all fun and games. There's fine-art photography here too. And there's some personal coming-to-terms:

"If someone had told me back in '62 that I'd be living alone, smoking cigars, and watching my hair fall out when I was forty, I probably would've blown my brains out," Wright writes of his days in Divine. But Wright didn't blow his brains out. He simply survived a heart attack and rehab. And as for his prints, negatives, slides, writings, and tapes: The University of Texas has done its duty. It's keeping Wright's work in safekeeping.

But first, it was Wright's duty to get it right — not the least of which: introduce Pete Townshend to his library of the blues. Townshend returned the favor and, according to Wright, turned him into rock's go-to "photo guy." Back in the '60s, the times were right for it. Wright and Townshend were right for it:

"Both of our lives were changed drastically by meeting each other — and therein lays a microcosm of the era. Nitro was splashed on glycerin all those years ago, and people's lives and new dreams were exploding all over the place ... all over the world. As a witness to that rock renaissance, that rock revolution, I was a sort of custodian of cultural and social history. And it was my duty to get it all down."

Wright did and in Roadwork does.

Roadwork: Rock & Roll Turned Inside Out

By Tom Wright, with Susan VanHecke

Hal Leonard Books, 303 pp., $29.95

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