Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Nerve portraits: Bands

Gibby Haynes, Butthole Surfers, Toronto, Dec 8, 1987

THE WORST PART OF LEARNING ON THE JOB is that when things work, you're often at a loss to know why. I'm cleaning up the last of the Nerve work now, and these three shoots, running from roughly at the beginning to very near the end of my time at Nerve magazine, sum up the best and the worst parts of growing up, so to speak, in public.

My portraits of individual members of the Butthole Surfers, shot during their soundcheck for a gig at the cavernous RPM club in the docklands, were a notable success for me. Which would have been nicer if they'd actually been the result of a plan, but they weren't.

Jeffrey "King" Coffey, Butthole Surfers, Toronto, Dec. 8, 1987

My shoot with the Buttholes was very ad hoc - I desperately wanted to get a photo of the band, but knew ahead of time that they weren't uncooperative or difficult as much as they regarded photo shoots as just another way of cementing their reputation for anarchic, batshit behaviour. I set up my single light in a corner of the room and tried to corral them together for a group shot, which invited the sort of mugging and gurning I expected.

But after we finished I tried to salvage the shoot by asking them to troop in front of the camera one by one. I couldn't do another set-up, so I had just enough time to do a quick light reading just a couple of feet away from my flash and umbrella. They trooped through and stood still just long enough for me to get two frames of each of them.

Butthole Surfers, RPM Club, Toronto, Dec. 8, 1987

I was sure that I'd walked away with nothing much, but when the contact sheet hit the developer a day later, I was surprised at how striking these rapid-fire portraits were. What I learned at that moment is how a single light, diffused or bounced, produces an even more flattering or dramatic when placed right next to the subject - a Rembrandt kind of light. I suppose a teacher in a portrait course could have told me that but I was, as I said, on my own.

We loved the Butthole Surfers at Nerve. The drugs might have helped, but the combination of potty humour, noise and malevolent psychedelia was practically tailored for our little group of critics and photographers. They're technically still a going concern, though they haven't put out a record in nearly fifteen years. Drummer Jeffrey "King" Coffey's front garden was voted "yard of the month" in his local Austin community paper last year.

Bob Mould, Husker Du, Columbia University, NYC, Feb. 6, 1986

At the beginning of my career at Nerve, I wasn't learning lessons about lighting as much as I was fighting with my camera to get something printable. I had no time to worry about influences or lighting schemes; it was enough just hoping that I had the right lens and that there was enough light in whatever room I shared with my subject to get something sharp and detailed on the film.

In the fall of 1985 I'd flown to New York to visit a girl. A few months later I went back, ignoring my instincts, desperate for something like a girlfriend. Husker Du were playing two gigs back to back at Columbia University and Irving Plaza while I was there, with Soul Asylum opening both shows. I was able to arrange an interview backstage through their new label, Warner Bros., and brought along the girl.

Grant Hart, Husker Du, Columbia University, NYC, Feb. 6, 1986

Things were going badly. Whatever chemistry I'd had with the girl had evaporated, and I could tell that the same thing was likely going on with my favorite band. Bob Mould and Grant Hart circled each other warily in the big room backstage at Columbia while bassist Greg Norton absented himself completely.

I put on a long lens and caught several pensive frames of Mould and Hart, which turned out to be far more representative of the band at the time than the awkwardly posed shots I caught of them together. The new record (Candy Apple Grey) was a bit disappointing, and the one after that (Warehouse: Songs and Stories) would be even worse. The band broke up not long after that, but the girl gave me my walking papers on my last day in New York.

Die Kreuzen, Silver Dollar, Toronto, Jan. 15, 1988

In the last months of Nerve's existence, an impromptu roadshow of bands on the Touch & Go label passed through town, playing the Silver Dollar club. T&G was the sort of label that would become legendary a few years later as the home of a dozen very disparate bands that would, in hindsight, be dubbed proto-grunge. They were, at the time, the sorts of bands that we loved at Nerve - loud and weird and wholly unlikely to end up on WEA or Polygram.

My favorite at the time was Die Kreuzen, a Wisconsin band whose October File LP - taped from my friend Tim's copy - was one of my favorite records. They played a soaring, sharp-elbowed kind of take on heavy metal that the music snob in me was far more likely to embrace than the appalling hair metal on the charts. I have revised my opinion on a lot of things I believed then, but I have not changed my position on this at all.

Killdozer, Silver Dollar, Toronto, Jan. 15, 1988

I set up my studio-in-a-bag - the Metz flash, light stand, umbrella bounce and white painter's drop cloth - in a corner of the club's big downstairs room. As each band finished their soundcheck I invited them to stand between the light and the backdrop for about half a roll of film. The results - at the time and now - were disappointing.

My backdrop had, by this point, become a wrinkly mess from living in its bag. It wasn't such a problem when I shot a portrait with one or two people, where I could use a longer lens and put some distance between them and the drop cloth, where the wrinkles would be out of focus and some judicious dodging in the darkroom could make the background look almost like a studio seamless.

But in a cramped space with a wide angle lens the effect was far less polished. Of the three bands I shot that afternoon only the Killdozer shots look halfway worth the effort, which is ironic since they're the band I find least interesting - now or then. A trick of the light and the band's own wry persona - they were more a joke band than anyone else on T&G - has some humour and personality, while the other two bands are reduced to merely glaring, leering, or passively staring down my lens.

A better photographer might have overcome these obstacles. I wasn't that photographer at this moment, and these shots are little artifacts of me bumping my head against the ceiling of my technical and stylistic shortcomings.

Laughing Hyenas, Silver Dollar, Toronto, Jan. 15, 1988

Years later, Michigan's Laughing Hyenas are the group I still enjoy hearing. Treating the blues much the way Die Kreuzen mutated heavy metal, they had the benefit of a front man (John Brannon) whose intensity was undeniable as he howled and bellowed out the group's hard luck stories. Guitarist Larissa Strickland was also an unsung hero in a scene both full of interesting guitar stylists and groups destined to toil in cult status obscurity.

A few years later grunge would be a kind of vindication of the musical tastes Nerve's staffers tried to foist on the world, unsuccessfully, as people like Kurt Cobain would name check all the bands and labels we promoted at Nerve. I'm a bitter old codger now, and so whenever I hear someone describe some pewling, overproduced outfit of tantruming milk babies as "monstrous" or "intense," I hit the shuffle button in my mind and call up Laughing Hyena tracks like "That Girl," "Just Can't Win" or "Let It Burn" and wonder that anyone could say something so stupid. Yes, I'm that kind of sour old punk.

I just wish I'd taken better pictures of them.

Larissa Strickland died of a drug overdose in 2006.



  1. Great shots!

    But you're wrong about Warehouse.

  2. i'm sure King Coffee and Gibby have these or obviously have seen them? If not. Coffee is on my Facebook friends list. I am sure he'd love it. Great shots.

  3. I loved Killdozer then and still do. The songs are all first-person character monologues, the delivery heavy as heck-all.

  4. I love how Husker Du evolved - from Land Speed Record to Warehouse, they represent the bands timeline and each record is a classic.