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Doug Clark: This music man was a fan with a plan

Sun., April 22, 2007

Don’t call Darren Balch a professional photographer.

He rejects the term although one can certainly make an argument for it. After all, Balch spent a sizeable chunk of his life pressed against stages at a variety of venues, snapping photograph after photograph of some of the biggest rock acts of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

But Balch says he was always just “a fan with a camera,” a guy, he adds, who wanted to “photograph the bands, drink beer and bring my friends.”

Whatever you call him, Balch’s hobby kept him busy.

Alice In Chains, U2, The Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Metallica, Dave Matthews, James Brown, Rod Stewart, Green Day …

Balch’s camera lens caught them all in such locations as the Gorge Amphitheatre, Spokane’s long-gone Coliseum and the Met.

Balch began to phase out his photography as the century rolled to an end. Now 43, and gainfully employed as asset control manager for Cricket Communications, the Spokane man has decided to share some of his rock ‘n’ roll memories via a 200-page coffee table book.

It’s called “Virtually Onstage.” You can buy it on Balch’s Web site,, for $149.

Shelling out 150 bucks for a book might seem pricy until Balch explains the math. “It costs me $120 a copy,” he admits.

Balch tried several times over the years to get his photographs turned into book form. He queried publishing houses without success. “I gave up – I really did,” he says. “I thought it wasn’t going to happen.”

New technology for self-publishers made his dream possible.

Balch realizes that his profit margin is skinnier than Nicole Richie. But he never considered his photographic excursions in business terms.

He laughs. “I’m still paying off my bar tab from the ‘90s.”

Balch worked on a frayed shoestring back in the day. He claims he gave away more prints than he ever sold and often had to resort to the following five-step creative financing program to keep going:

“Pawn camera equipment.

“Buy photo chemistry and paper.

“Sell some prints.

“Get camera out of hock.

“Repeat process.

But his photographs are a joy to look at. “Virtually Onstage” is a rock and pop time capsule.

There’s woolly-headed Jerry Garcia, his expression intent as he leans into a guitar solo in 1991. There’s a Messianic-looking Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, circa 1992.

Janet Jackson strikes a suggestive pose in 1994, long before her infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction.

Even Spokane’s own Myles Kennedy is represented. Balch photographed the lead singer of Alter Bridge at a 2005 concert in Tulsa, Okla.

Balch was just 17 years old when he decided to become a rock ‘n’ roll photographer. The date was May 31, 1981. He was sitting in the nosebleed section of the old Spokane Coliseum, watching his favorite band, Van Halen.

“It was unforgettable. The largest sound I’d ever heard. The biggest visual I’d ever seen. I never wanted to go home.”

In a flash of inspiration, young Balch came up with a scheme that would get him close to the action – photography.

“I knew I’d never get there as a player,” he says.

Years later, a few weeks before the city razed the Coliseum to make way for a modern arena, Balch smuggled out the very chair he had been sitting in during that fateful show: Seat 13. Section 19.

During a 1995 concert at the Gorge, Balch brought along the seat. He somehow persuaded all the members of Van Halen to autograph it.

“We’ve seen a lot of weird (bleep) all these years,” remarked a laughing Sammy Hagar. “But this is really out there.”

Yes, Sammy and Eddie are given their due in Virtually Onstage.

“Every time I flip the page, I get a smile,” says the fan with a camera. “I can remember the show. I remember what we were drinking.

“That was the time of my life.”


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