Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Jon Spencer, Toronto, Sept. 21, 2004

I ENDED UP PHOTOGRAPHING JON SPENCER more than almost anyone who wasn't friend or family. This happened mostly because Jon and his band, Pussy Galore, made Right Now!, my favorite record of the '80s and still in my top ten today.

My good friend Tim Powis was the first person I knew to jump on the Pussy Galore bandwagon, and most of the staff at Nerve magazine rode it for at least a little while. (For what it's worth, Tim and I have never gotten off.)

The band were one of the few things my then-girlfriend and I could agree on, but then I know she fancied Jon more than she'd let on to me.

It's not hard for me to understand what I loved about Right Now!, even today. The '80s are remembered as a colourful and crass decade, where consumerism rallied after a decade-long lull, pop culture embraced slickness, and the first stirrings of what we called political correctness were making people a little less free than they should have been, especially in the endgame phase of a century-spanning struggle against totalitarianism.

Pussy Galore and Right Now! were, by contrast, ragged, reactionary and lo-fi; pallid, black-clad, foul-mouthed, pointedly offensive and animated by either cartoon morbidity or sullen horniness. I knew how I felt, and it was certain neither Wham nor Whitesnake represented my mood.

Pussy Galore, Toronto, 1988

I photographed the second (or third?) line-up of Pussy Galore when they swung through town touring in support of Right Now!, playing at the Silver Dollar - a former Vegas-style showbar that had just recently been a strip club. It was the perfect place to see the band, who were themselves more interested in going down to the bigger room downstairs to watch Schoolly D.

My friend Chris Buck also shot the band around this time, and I always thought my portrait of the group stood in the shadow of his shoot. I probably used my Nerve connection - and a friendship with Elliot Lefko, the promoter - to arrange a few minutes with the band, shooting them in a room behind the bar with my C330 and a flash bounced into an umbrella.

The result was a hard negative to print, in either the darkroom or Photoshop. I don't know that it's ever been published anywhere until now.

Pussy Galore, Apocalypse Club, Toronto, Aug. 1989

The band passed through Toronto again a year later with yet another lineup, Julie Cafritz having left the band and Neil Hagerty re-joining. It was the Dial M for Motherfucker tour, and I shot the band live for the first time in addition to a hasty portrait session in the dressing room.

Pussy Galore, Toronto, Aug. 1989

After the gig, my girlfriend suggested that the band stay at our loft in Parkdale if they didn't have a hotel. They accepted, and so began a tradition of Jon's bands crashing with me whenever they passed through town.

It was on this tour that I noticed that Jon, who had striven mightily to seem inarticulate and even monosyllabic when I met him the year before, was letting that facade slip and allowing the onetime Brown University semiotics student behind it all out for a roam.

My sole lingering memory of the band's stay at my place is Neil Hagerty staying up all night drinking beer and listening to old bebop records on headphones. We woke up the next day to find him slumped in the chair, headphones still on, a pile of empties on the floor. He'd drained every bottle and can in my fridge.

Once again, I don't know that anybody has ever seen these photos, which show more than a little bit of incipient grunge-era aesthetics happening.

Boss Hog, Apocalypse Club, Toronto, April 1990

Pussy Galore was pretty much defunct when Jon returned to town a year later with Boss Hog, the band led by his then-girlfriend and future wife, Christina Martinez. The Unsane were their support act - Boss Hog also used their rhythm section, drummer Charlie Ondras and bassist Pete Shore - and both bands stayed at my place. (The Unsane would stay with me again when they passed through town on their own not long afterwards. Charlie screwed a girl he picked up on my kitchen floor and she stole one of my towels.) 

I shot the show on assignment for NOW but for some reason I didn't try to talk the band into a portrait shoot. I regret that now, but I have always been intimidated by really good-looking women, and couldn't think of a way of broaching the subject with Christina. This is the first time I've printed any of these shots in almost 25 years.

Not long afterward we began hearing rumours that Jon had formed another band. I ran into someone who'd seen them in the States and he said that it was a trio, and that they basically just vamped on blues riffs while Jon shouted "blues explosion!" over the top. I thought that sounded great.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Toronto, June 13, 1993

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion finally arrived in Toronto after releasing three records in rapid succession, with a fourth about to come out. They played the Opera House, a former cinema on the far side of the Don River, with the Muffs opening, and once again I offered the band a place to stay.

I asked Jon if we could do a photo session the next morning, and I suppose he said yes as a sort of payment for years of offering a place to stay and a relatively clean bathroom. I took the band and my Rolleis out to what was once Parkdale's train station, a weedy stretch of tracks near where Queen West met Dufferin and Gladstone. I shot the band out under a cloudless sky with a deep orange or maybe even red filter over the lens, then took them to the old stone stairs that once led from the street to the station and shot a couple of rolls of cross-processed Fujichrome 400.

I'd been working on a retro look to my work for some time by then, and I'm pleased to discover that my colour shots actually came close to aping the peculiar cast of old colour prints or fading Kodak slides. I'd have been pretty happy then - if I'd ever bothered making prints from this shoot. Once again, the first time these have ever been seen.

Jon Spencer, Toronto, Sept. 21, 2004

I would meet Jon and Christina again after that when Boss Hog and the Blues Explosion passed through town, but I didn't bother bringing a camera and they no longer needed a floor to crash on. It would be a decade before I trained a lens on Jon again, when I talked the free national daily into assigning a writer to interview him when he was passing through town promoting Damage. As the paper's photo editor, I assigned myself the shoot.

I told the writer that Jon and I went way back and that he'd know who I was, but long minutes passed in the hotel room before Jon finally did a triple take as I stood waiting with my camera and said "I know you, right?"

We caught up, and mostly talked about our kids. When the interview was over I sat Jon in a corner of the room where the sunlight seemed to skim the back of the wall and took what I think are the best shots I ever did of Jon Spencer. And this time they actually got published, but I had to be the photo editor to make that happen.


1 comment:

  1. Great stories and great photos Rick. Also a long time fan of the band(s) Jon's been involved with over the years. Thanks for sharing these.