A look beyond the camera’s eye with Godlis
My first time at CBGB was Halloween, 1977, the Ramones. I was 21.
History Is Made At Night, David Godlis’s new book of photos from that era, jettisoned me right back there to the sights and the sounds: The mega-decibel attack from the stage, the joy of the simple lyrics married to these impossibly catchy two-and-three chord-based songs, the inherent humor coupled to the obvious aggression, the toilets from hell, the crunch of bodies bouncing and pogoing about the room, the feeling of we’re-all-in-this-club together, or as the Ramones put it in song, “We’re a Happy Family.” (Dysfunctional, of course.)
I was music director at my college radio station in Orono, Maine, WMEB, and me and a few mates were in New York for a music biz convention. I also wrote for a regional music magazine called Sweet Potato, while doing a weekly rock column for the Bangor Daily News and bits for the college newspaper, the Maine Campus. (Where Stephen King got his start as a rock critic a few years before.)
Which is to say, I had some cred, but, really, this was New York and I was a very small fish in a big pond. Regardless, CBGB owner Hilly Kristal treated us like royalty, put us up front at a table – of course we stood up like everyone else and went nuts, headbanging – and gave us an open bar tab.
My ears rang for a week afterwards, but my night at 315 Bowery ranks as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll experiences of my life. Still.
Godlis – he just uses his last name professionally – was there too, with a camera, a Leica 3f with a 28mm and 35mm lens. He was in his mid-late 20s. He used TRI-X pushed film. Godlis’s book, with an intro by CB’s habitué and director Jim Jarmusch and an afterward by Godlis, captures scenes inside the club and around the Bowery from 1977-1979. It’s a jaw-dropping 165-page bit of time travel. The “stars” yes – various Ramones and Dead Boys, Television, Richard Hell, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, Johnny Rotten (after leaving the Pistols) etc. – but also the people around the scene, the barkeeps and fans, the street scene outside. Some of the pix are performance shots, others portraits. There’s both a lushness and harshness to what he captured. Some intentional blurriness and sharp focus.
My experiences at CB’s can’t equal what local New York punk fans had. I absorbed most of New York punk from the early Sire records and reading Punk magazine. (I may have been the only subscriber in Maine.) But I got it. I belonged. I saw Talking Heads (as a trio) and Television, and few others. But for me it was an out-of-town trip, not a subway ride or a 15-minute walk through the syringe-strewn strip Alphabet City was then. (We all know about the gentrification of today and CBGB being a John Varvatos store.)
I emailed Godlis some questions earlier this week after spending time with the book. Here’s what came back my way.
Did you have any idea when you were taking these photos that all these years later, we’d be using the world “iconic” and thinking, “Man, those were the days”?
I do remember thinking while watching the Ramones at CBGB’s in 1976, that I’m so lucky to be here in this place, right here right now. I remember us talking about it like we were watching the Beatles at the Cavern Club. We all had high hopes and a lot of youthful exuberance. Lenny Kaye said it was like a lightning bolt hit that place. Honestly, I think, yes, I did think this would play well as history. It just took a couple of decades longer than I expected before that happened.
I love black and white photos. Why was this your choice for back then and the book now? And did you shoot color at all?
There’s a rich photographic tradition there. Robert Frank says “Black and white are the colors of photography”. At the time black and white was something I could easily develop, print and control the look of in my darkroom. Yes, I did shoot color, but I just wasn’t anywhere near as good at shooting it as b&w.
You spent time in Boston, then New York. What brought you to New York?
After seven years in Boston, where I had gone to college and then studied photography, I went to New York to look for work. It was pretty simple – there were just exponentially more photographers in the New York phone book than in the Boston phone book. So, I had a better chance of landing a job. Also, I was a “street photographer”, photographing people out on the streets, and there were more people walking out on the streets in New York. The lucky coincidence in moving down there at the end of 1975 was that I ran into the burgeoning punk scene. I remember seeing a Village Voice in Coolidge Corner with a picture of Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. Must have been just when her first record came out. That was my first inkling that something was going on. I had spent my time in Boston totally immersed in photography. But within a half year I was seeing and photographing Patti down at CBGB.
I know for me, as a rock critic, writing about what I was experiencing brought me closer to it – made me think about it as something beyond mere edgy entertainment. Did this happen to you, too, as a photographer?
Definitely the act of photographing is the same for me. I felt more a part of the scene at CBGB with it. Musicians had their guitars and I had my camera. It’s a good way to meet people. It made me a part of the dialogue that was playing itself out between musician and audience every night. Plus, I got to go home with something tangible – a part of the evening’s experience, so to speak.
As you say in the afterward, because of how you shot – without a flash – and developed these photos, they weren’t distinct/sharp enough for most commercial use. Did you see that as a hindrance or was it more a matter of This-is-the-way-I-see-this-scene-and-this-is-how-I’ll-shoot it?
I was knee deep into the art of photography at the time. Went to a school called Imageworks in East Cambridge where I was exposed to all kinds of picture making. But I was definitely partial to hand held natural light 35mm photography. Not adding a flash meant that everything looks just like the eye sees it. Doing this at night without a flash meant my pictures had grain and looked “different” than typical newspaper or magazine photographs of the time. Magazine editors preferred a more straight up less experimental look. I didn’t see it as a hindrance though. I wasn’t taking these photographs to make money. I had a day job as a photographer’s assistant and rent was cheap, so that allowed me to forge ahead and create this particular look. It was for lack of a better word, an art project. So yes, shooting as I saw it was of primary importance to me.
You intended to be a street photographer, the Brassai of New York City. What was the pivotal moment or moments of saying, “No, CBGB/Bowery is what I want to capture.”
Actually, I wanted to be all kinds of street photographers. Like Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander. But once I landed a day job, I wasn’t out shooting as much by day. So, when I looked for and found a place to hang out and hear music, and that place was CBGB, and after seeing a book of Brassai’s Paris night photos from the 1930s, it occurred to me that perhaps I could shoot street photographs at night, and in that way document the scene at CBGB in a very interesting way.
Did you form any personal relationships with any of the people you photographed?
I went there virtually every night for 3 years – 1976-79. So, I knew lots of musicians. More the people in the band than the band leaders. But my personal relationships were more with the in-between people. Those who introduced this person to that one. Which is why I included many bartenders, waitresses, the club owner, the bouncer, the sound man and other photographers in my photographs. Everyone was in the mix at CBGB every night – onstage and off.
If so, any fun stories about that?
I wish. My pictures are way more interesting than me. All I’ll say is I got kicked out of Max’s when taking pictures of Stiv Bators, after he started unzipping his pants while I was photographing him. I always seemed to get into trouble at Max’s, which is why I spent a lot more time at CBGB. I have better stories about my pictures, than about me.
It was a really short window for us at CBGB wasn’t it? Did you get the sense when you were there that wasn’t going to last long – at this space – and it really was the nexus of the rock ‘n’ roll universe?
From the first time I walked into CBGB, I had the feeling that something very new and fresh was going on there. I hadn’t expected new and fresh, just a place to hang out. Seeing Television that first night, it seemed to me to be a place where everyone had a Velvet Underground album. I definitely felt like I landed in a room full of like-minded people, passionate about rock and roll, film art etc. But I didn’t expect the club itself to hang around for more than a few years. Clubs don’t usually have long lives for all sorts of reasons. In this case, it was 30 years before the club closed. That was very unusual and it was all because of one man – Hilly Kristal and his passion for the place.
I smile when I think of the Ramones line in “Rock and Roll High School”: “I don’t care about history/’Cause that’s not where I want to be.” And, yet, here we are. All the original Ramones are dead and what people like us are doing now is chronicling the history of that era. Of course, that’s in the title of your book. Thoughts?
I think as much as everyone talked a good game about three-chord rock and roll and no future, everyone at CB’s was in it for the long haul. What Joey didn’t care about was history class in high school. But the Ramones wanted to be part of History with a capital H. I do think they envisioned their “Hey Ho Let’s Go” being chanted at baseball games. Debbie Harry and Patti Smith are both still as passionate about what they’re doing as they were the first day I saw them. And the music still holds up. It brings smiles to all ages. It deserves its history. I’m really glad I put the word HISTORY in the title. Almost changed it at the last minute, but Jim Jarmusch convinced me to stick with it. We should all be making history every day.
When you look at this book – these photos now – do you get nostalgic? Or, what sort of effect does it have on you?
I don’t get nostalgic, because I lived it already. Pictures are always dealing with stuff that’s going to be gone. Sometimes I get sad. I miss people that are no longer here. But seeing photos of them in their prime, is a great way of remembering them.
In terms of where you went after CBs and where you are now, career-wise: What can you tell us?
After CB’s, I did a stretch of music business photography, but quickly tired of that. When looking for a next thing to cover, I ran into the New York Film Festival in the late-‘80’s which perfectly matched my passion for movies, especially what would be called indie films at the time. So, I began covering the New York Film Festival. I got to see a lot of great films and get pictures of directors in their prime. The organization that runs it – Film Society of Lincoln Center – has programs throughout the year. I became their unofficial official photographer over the years. And their main theater – The Walter Reade – became my new CBGB. Life goes on and I’ve been doing that for 25 years now. That and always photographing the streets of New York, the streets of anywhere. Ah, the life of a freelance photographer.