Friday, March 6, 2015

New Model Army

New Model Army, Toronto, 1986

I HAVE ALWAYS HAD A MEMORY OF REGRET attached to my shoot with New Model Army. It has less to do with the photos I took - I still like this simple but effective portrait, even today - than with an attitude I struck when writing up my interview with Justin Sullivan, the frontman who had earlier performed under the name Slade the Leveller.

After having been denied entry to the United States, the band were finally able to tour North America, to promote their album, The Ghost of Cain, and I asked Dave if I could interview them for Nerve. I had very much liked their previous record, No Rest For The Wicked, and found their very earnest, more than faintly apocalyptic presentation compelling. From Sullivan's former alias to the band's name, they evoked the English Civil War - the most bloody and revolutionary period in that country's history after the Middle Ages, in the service of making a very explicit parallel between then and England in the '80s.

Sullivan publicly came across like a mixture of Jimmy Pursey and Wat Tyler, intense and unequivocal in his opinions. It made for a good interview, needless to say, and afterwards I assembled the band - Sullivan, drummer Rob Heaton and new bassist Jason "Moose" Harris - somewhere in the cavernous darkness of the club and took the photo above, with my Mamiya C330 and a flash held in my hand, just above my head - my very primitive portrait set-up at the time. Without a Polaroid back I wouldn't know how well it turned out until it was processed in my kitchen darkroom.

New Model Army live, RPM, Toronto, 1986

I hung around to shoot the show after the interview, but those shots weren't nearly as successful as the portrait; I could try to blame the dim lights in the club, but my own inexperience had a lot more to do with it. (You can glimpse me - briefly - up against the stage with my camera in this vintage interview with the band done by our local TV music show.)

The piece I ended up writing for Nerve made a big issue of Sullivan's off-handed admission that he admired Bruce Springsteen as a popular artist, and hoped to meet him one day. I was as much a snob as any 22-year-old music critic could hope to be, and editorialized this with what I considered just the right amount of a sneer. The piece ran, and I considered it a decent bit of work, though probably more for the portrait than the story, overall.

A few months later Dave handed me a letter they'd received at the office, addressed to me and written by Joolz Denby - the same Joolz whose name was on Justin Sullivan's t-shirt in my portrait of the band. A poet and artist and Sullivan's girlfriend, she was responsible for the band's visual image and frequently performed on the same bill with them.

In the letter, Denby told me that Sullivan had been a bit put off - even hurt - by the cynical and perfunctory tone I'd taken in my interview, and said that while he probably didn't want her writing the letter, she felt a duty to try and explain his reaction to my story, in the context of his own wariness of the media thanks to precisely this sort of story. It wasn't scolding or in any way pleading, but simply laid out her own understanding of how seriously Sullivan took what he was doing, and how particularly my piece had stung him.

The letter was accompanied by another piece of paper - an essay Denby had written about the joys of Bradford, the West Yorkshire city they called home. It was a vivid and lovely piece of writing, painting a picture of the city's virtues and highlights from her own, personal perspective, which she said she'd included to give me some idea of the setting in which she, Sullivan and his band were making their work.

The letter was touching and sincere and very well stated, and I felt quite ashamed after reading it. I was early in my career, learning quickly but not quickly enough, and I was making the classic mistake of copping an attitude instead of having a real opinion. I kept it for many years, but unfortunately Joolz' letter seems to have gone missing in one of my moves - or at least it hasn't turned up in any of the usual places.

Justin Sullivan and New Model Army are still recording and performing, and were subjects of Between Dog and Wolf, a documentary about their career. In 2007, Joolz Denby's artwork for the band was the subject of a traveling art exhibit; she has also published several books of poetry and short stories and a series of well-received mystery novels.

Rob Heaton died of pancreatic cancer in Nov. 2004.


No comments:

Post a Comment