|Groovy Religion, Toronto, 1986|
THE SHOT ABOVE IS FROM THE FIRST ROLL OF FILM
I shot with my Mamiya C330 medium format camera. A more prudent photographer would have done a couple of test rolls to familiarize themselves with their new gear, but I was either too heedless or too cheap (or both) to bother, so I brought it along with me on assignment for Nerve
on a late fall day in 1986.
I should have been less confident. I still had a lot to learn - about composing in a square format frame, about posing groups, about available light and depth of field in dim rooms - but the thing I most needed to learn was that the C330 had a design flaw: When you cocked the shutter your thumb would graze the little lever that adjusted the shutter speed, and you'd accidentally end up with shaky, overexposed frames. I would mostly ruin several shoots before I figured out what was happening.
Groovy Religion were a mainstay band on the local scene - a literate and sometimes gloomy group who ended up releasing three records over twelve years and a few personnel changes. William New - the lead singer, on the right - has fostered two generations of Toronto bands by booking his Elvis Mondays series
almost non-stop for three decades. Scott Bradshaw - on the left - was actually a better guitarist than bassist, and still performs weekly with his band Massey-Harris
. I still know both men today.
|The Woodentops, Toronto, 1986|
I learned on the job with my new camera, carting it to every interview I did for magazines like Nerve
, teaming it up with a flash (a Vivitar 285 at first, then a Metz) to try and get enough light in the clubs and hotel rooms where I did all my work. Working with individuals was always easier than working with a group, so my success rate during the first year with the Mamiya was inverse depending to how many individuals were in the bands I shot.
The Woodentops were a particular favorite of mine. Bandleader Rolo McGinty (on the right) had played bass on "Revolutionary Spirit" by the Wild Swans, and the early Woodentops singles were of a piece with the sometimes elegant and often ecstatic sound I liked in my favorite English bands during this post-post-post-punk period. (They've actually re-formed and released a record
, though keyboardist Alice Thompson left the band not long after this was shot and became a novelist
They'd come through town with a North American deal for their debut record and played the venerable el Mocambo, where I set up backstage and managed to fill two-thirds of a roll of 120 with some very sloppy portraits of the band. It was just the third roll I ran through the Mamiya, and I ruined some of the frames because I was still unsure how to load the camera. One of them still made it into Nerve
- it was no small encouragement that, even when my work was substandard, it usually still made it into print.
|Meat Puppets, Toronto, 1987|
The year 1987 probably encompassed the steepest learning curve of my career. By the summer I'd become a lot more confident with the camera and its square format, and had invested in a light stand and umbrella for my flash, which produced far more professional results. Armed with a white painter's drop cloth for an ad hoc seamless backdrop that I carried around in a gym bag, I was striving to get the studio lighting effects with the most minimal gear and whatever power a handful of AA batteries could provide.
The Meat Puppets were a very big deal at Nerve
, mostly because key members of the editorial staff had begun smoking an awful lot of dope. By their third record they'd graduated from a bleary, anxious-sound thrash band to the closest thing to the Grateful Dead we'd admit to liking. I shot them backstage at RPM, a cavernous dance club/concert space by the harbour, with an old Mexican blanket my sister had passed on to me, and which I'd been using to cover my sofa.
I knew - and the band were quick to point out - that it wasn't a particularly original backdrop choice for a group from Arizona, but I didn't care; I was happy to do the obvious until such point as I knew enough to attempt something more subtle.
|Redd Kross, Toronto, 1987|
By the time I shot L.A. hardcore-turned-glam band Redd Kross passing through Toronto touring their Neurotica
album, I knew that I wanted a studio more than anything else, but had to content myself with whatever white wall or clean corner of a club I could find. For this shoot I placed my flash and umbrella close to the band to get the softest bounce light I could - the burned-in shadow in the lower right corner actually hides a leg of the light stand that made it into the frame.
I even found a fan in the room and trained it on the band for the windswept look that was all over fashion magazines. Being from Los Angeles, they responded enthusiastically, posing up a storm while I shouted "More hair! More hair!"
I haven't a clue who I shot this for; there's nothing in the stack of Nerve
magazines I've managed to keep, so I have to assume that it either ended up in Graffiti
or that I had hoped to place the shoot there. In any case, it's doubtful this shot has been seen anywhere since I took it nearly thirty years ago. Amazingly enough, Redd Kross are still at it
|The Primitives, Toronto, 1988|
The Primitives were an English group whose sole hit - "Crash" - is doubtless somebody's favorite song of the '80s. Guitarist Paul Court and singer Tracy Tracy - basically the band - were doing publicity rounds and I ended up shooting them for Graffiti
magazine in some hotel room, long forgotten.
I had scored a steady gig at Graffiti
, shooting promos for the magazine that featured bands passing through town - or the office - reading copies of the magazine. It was some awful lame shit
, but it was a gig and, more importantly, it paid
. I'd set up with my Mamiya and light stand and the C330 and try to get a clean, focused shot of everyone from Faster Pussycat and the Mighty Lemon Drops to Buckwheat Zydeco and Gene Simmons engrossed in a garishly slick little Canadian music magazine.
I'd try to save a few frames at the end of a roll for portraits of the band without the magazine, in the hope of getting a reprint or another sale in the future. It usually didn't happen, but it was valuable practice, and less than two years after buying the Mamiya I was able - provided I found a clean white wall and aimed the flash and umbrella just right
- to produce a portrait that might fool someone into thinking I had a nice, bright studio at my disposal. By 1988 there was nothing I longed for more.