Rock photographer Robert M. Knight believes in synchronicity. He recalls a walk he took with guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan near Lake Monona in Madison, Wis. Vaughan was in low spirits, and he told Knight that he felt like he might die soon. Trying to be helpful, and wanting to steer the focus away from Vaughan, Knight pointed out that they were walking right next to the lake where Otis Redding died. Knight recalls Vaughan answering morbidly, "Did you know my manager was [Redding's] manager?"
Two days later, on August 27, 1990, Knight had the honor of being the only photographer to shoot a concert Vaughan was playing with Eric Clapton. Afterward, walking out to the helicopter pad, Knight says Vaughan turned to him and said, "Listen, if anything ever happens to me, you'll know me when you hear me."
That's the last time they saw each other. Vaughan's helicopter crashed into a hill late that night, killing everyone on board.
"I did the best photo shoot of Stevie I'd ever done in my life, only to wake up in the morning to find out he'd died," says Knight, in an interview with the Indy from his Las Vegas home. "Those pictures are quite poignant to me."
Knight grew up as the son of a preacher in the backwaters of Hawaii. In his young years, concerts were few and far between. But as luck (or fate, or the law of synchronicity) would have it, Knight found some music magazines on the street. Inside were pictures of British bands he'd never heard of: The Kinks, The Pretty Things, Rolling Stones. Curious, he ordered albums from England and, during the lunch hour, he would play the records over the school PA system.
After graduation in 1968, he convinced his parents to send him off to the San Francisco Art Institute to study photography—not because of the school itself, not even because of photography, but because rock promoter Bill Graham had turned the bay area into a hot spot for live shows featuring Knight's favorite British Invasion bands.
"Those names back in the day—Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin—they were non-sequitur," says Knight. "It's like if I said Panic at the Disco or The Cab, you'd go, 'Who's that?' It wasn't like they were in the popular vernacular like they are today. They were just breaking out."
Knight's first big photo shoot was of Jeff Beck—no shirt, wearing a pair of suspenders—onstage with the Yardbirds for their first U.S. show. It wasn't a professional assignment; Knight paid for his film out of pocket, but it got him a chance to meet Beck in person.
"I couldn't play an instrument, but I had to figure out a way to be in the room with these bands," he says. The camera was his ticket in.
After the Yardbirds broke up, Beck told Knight about Jimmy Page's new band, the New Yardbirds, and Knight called up Rolling Stone magazine to see if they'd send him to L.A. to document the band. The magazine wasn't interested, but they let him use the Rolling Stone name to gain access to the band. But when Knight—not yet 21—got to L.A., the club wouldn't let him in.
"I got really upset," he says. "This lady said, 'Let me call the hotel.' So she called the hotel and it turned out the band was Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page invited me up to the hotel. They brought me in as part of the band and I was able to get into the venue and shoot their very first show in America."
Over the next four decades, Knight shot rising rock stars across the country. (His new book, Rock Gods, shows his best photos during these years). After Stevie Ray Vaughan died, Knight reacted how people typically do with the sudden death of a friend: with the sense that somehow he could have done something to change the course of events and prevent the outcome. And he obsessed about Vaughan's last words to him: "You'll know me when you hear me."
"What he said to me became haunting," admits Knight. "I kept thinking about it. I suddenly began noticing these young, young guitar players. And I'm thinking, 'Is that Stevie?'"
In fact, Vaughan's last words mark the opening scene of Knight's new documentary, Rock Prophecies, which screens this week at the Roxy Theater during Knight's visit here. The film, directed by John Chester and produced by Tim Kaiser ("Seinfeld" and "Will & Grace"), tells Knight's larger-than-life story. It details his early years, his relationships with bands, and it profiles some current rising stars who Knight more or less has predicted—hence Rock Prophecies—will be the next big thing.
In 2007, Knight heard about a 16-year-old kid named Tyler Bryant who'd just won the Robert Johnson Blues award—for a performance that was compared to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
"There are so many things about him that reminded me of Stevie that it was eerie," says Knight. "And he was born in 1991 and Stevie died in 1990. But I didn't want to say, 'Hey, Tyler, you're Stevie Ray Vaughan.'"
Knight has since taken Bryant under his wing, introducing him to Elton John, Robert Plant and Jeff Beck to get the best advice in the industry. He wants him to make it, while avoiding some of the rock star pitfalls.
He's still haunted by Vaughan. But the more he listens to young guitarists, the more he hears other Vaughan-like musicians.
"I met a lot of other kids who are guitar players who are showing the same thing," he says. "It turns out it may not be a single person, but many young guitarists who seem quite taken with Stevie's sound.
"I hope the film will serve as an inspiration to anyone who wants to be a successful musician. Or a successful photographer. There's nothing special about me. If I can do it from the backwaters of a small part of Honolulu, anybody can do it."
Rock Prophecies screens at the Roxy Theater Tuesday, April 6, and Wednesday, April 7, at 7:30 PM, and Thursday, April 8, at 8:30 PM. Free.