Friday, May 27, 2016

Jay McInerney

Jay McInerney, Toronto, Oct. 1988

I'VE BEEN WATCHING CNN'S DOCUMENTARY MINISERIES THE EIGHTIES where one of the talking heads called upon to reminisce about and analyze the decade is author Jay McInerney. I couldn't imagine a more perfect choice - McInerney is a quintessentially '80s figure, and I photographed him back in his heyday, a portrait shoot that has never seen the light of day as far as I can recall.

McInerney was in town for the Harbourfront Author's Festival - a year that included Jerzy Kosinsky, Kathy Acker and Andrei Bitov. I still don't remember how I blagged access, but I submitted my list and the publicist duly paraded the authors through my ad hoc studio - a beautifully-lit little space off the lobby of what had just previously been the Harbour Castle Hilton.

It was a good year for McInerney. He'd just published The Story of My Life, his third novel and one whose good reviews had muted the disappointing ones that greeted Ransom, his sophomore book, three years earlier. A movie version of his debut novel Bright Lights, Big City starring Michael J. Fox came out that year, and he was in a relationship with Marla Hanson, a model whose face had been slashed by thugs hired by her landlord.

Jay McInerney, Toronto, Oct. 1988

Hanson stood on the sidelines trading glances with McInerney while I took these photos. Their relationship, a seemingly perfect New York City mix of tabloid, society and culture, summed up the decade so far. He had managed to be two things - a writer and a celebrity - that don't often go well together, and seemed to be succeeding.

As I've written here before, by 1988 I felt my apprenticeship was over; I'd spend just over two years working hard at Nerve magazine to learn how to use my camera and when the paper had gone down earlier that year it seemed like now was the time to get out and compete for the sort of work professional photographers did. I only needed a portfolio of portraits that didn't just feature rock bands, which might explain why I talked my way into this hotel lobby and my little group of author subjects.

Jay McInerney, Toronto, Oct. 1988

The second and third shots featured on this post would be the sort of photos I went in hoping to make - competent, conventional but moody portraits, the sort that would work on the back of a book jacket or the pages of a newspaper books section. The one at the top, however, was the kind of frame I would look at over and over before rejecting, afraid that it seemed a bit "off." My instinct might have pushed for me to look at it again, but my problem for most of my career has been that I didn't trust my instincts.

In retrospect it's hard to deny, and it catches a glimpse of the anxiety behind the swagger of someone like McInerney and the time in general. The stock market had started to slide after Black Monday the previous year, and the money-mad ride of the go-go decade was running out of steam and heading back into recession. (Not that I'd seen much of the coke, caviar and BMW excess of the '80s, which I spent either in school or living in roach trap apartments and working retail.)

McInerney looks a bit tired and deflated despite his haircut and nice suit, and maybe he's already gotten an intimation of the years ahead for him - a couple of decades where he'd deal with divorces and writer's block, the long hangover that follows early success and a period where he'd be better known as a wine columnist than a novelist. He persisted, however, and seems to have landed on his feet, and has a new book coming out this summer.

I wish I'd had the nerve to do something with the portrait at the top. I also wouldn't mind getting another crack at McInerney today.


Friday, May 20, 2016


Lowest of the Low, Parkdale, 1993

MY RECENT POST ON SHADOWY MEN FROM A SHADOWY PLANET got me thinking about my old studio in Parkdale again, where I lived for over a decade, and nearly the whole of the '90s. Until my daughters were old enough to get themselves to school on their own in the last year or two, I passed it nearly every weekday, and I don't think I was ever able to walk by without looking up at the windows of my old place.

I discovered 1499 Queen Street West in 1988, on a tip from someone my girlfriend knew about a cheap, big place that came with a catch. The "catch" was that the landlord had been trying to evict the tenants illegally, hoping to turn the big old pool hall/bowling alley into medical condos. The three of us moved in - my girlfriend, her sister and myself - and I suddenly had the luxury of enough space to set up a photo studio and a permanent darkroom.

Toronto chefs, Parkdale, December 1990

The shot above was taken in the room I shared with my girlfriend, one of three big, narrow rooms, two of which had windows overlooking Queen Street. If I folded up our futon and moved the furniture to the walls there was enough space to roll out a white seamless and do a group photo like this one - four Toronto chefs shot for NOW's end of year "best of" issue.

Most of the roll I shot was a tight, high-key shot, but I pulled back for the last few frames to show my strobe box and cables, the seamless roll and a bit of the room. You can see my filing cabinet in the corner underneath the window, a big Glenn Gould poster I'd taken home from my job at A&A Records on Yonge Street - my friend Larry Cramer and I holding it down on the roof of his car while he drove me home - and a painting my girlfriend had done.

studio floor, Parkdale, 1991

Here's another view of the room, just after my girlfriend had moved to New York for film school. I'd come back from the colour darkrooms at Toronto Image Works with a set of 30" by 40" prints I'd done of my first really decent floral still life and I was overcome by a rare urge to document the moment. My camera gear is in cases against the wall, my leather jacket on the back of my desk chair, and a new comforter on the bed.

At around this time the landlord stepped up his program of harassing us out of the building, hiring a pair of thugs - one of whom was up on a manslaughter charge - as "superintendents," whose main job involved gutting the empty units as loudly as possible, ripping holes in the drywall in the halls, cutting off the heat, writing threatening graffiti on our doors and plugging our locks with toothpicks.

I came home after visiting my family for Christmas to find that they'd hung a speaker through a hole in the floor into the empty unit next to ours, blasting country music radio at top volume. They'd picked the wrong people and the wrong building, though. This wasn't a typical Parkdale rooming house full of out-patients and recent immigrants; my neighbours included an art director and a buyer for a luxury department store whose sister worked for the CBC, the big national broadcaster.

She got them to produce a news segment on the building which scandalized our landlord's investors. He got slapped with a bench warrant for his arrest and the building ended up getting sold to the social service agency on the main floor who'd also endured his harassment for years. The rent - already cheap at $600 a month - went down for a year or two to just over $450 in consideration of the reconstruction work that would have to be done while we lived there.

Lowest of the Low, Parkdale, 1993

By the end of the summer of 1993 I was living there alone, and turned the other bedroom into a permanent studio after ripping out a closet and painting the walls white. I must have still been buzzing on all this new space when I shot the Lowest of the Low, a local band with a big following, probably for HMV magazine. I cleared out the room, bounced my strobes off the ceiling and went for the most artless, stripped-down group shot I could make - four men in a room - to celebrate what I saw as the beginning of a whole new phase in my career.

I loved this space. It had its problems - it was too narrow and the windows were on the wrong wall - but it was cheap and it was all mine and I learned to really use artificial light there, spending days playing around with strobes and tungsten movie lights, backdrops and colour filters. Every now and then I couldn't resist the urge to make it part of a shoot, like this photo of D.H.I., a local industrial band I shot for NOW just after I'd set up the room.

D.H.I., Parkdale, Dec, 1993

I had always loved old Hollywood glamour portraiture by people like George Hurrell, Scotty Welbourne and Clarence Sinclair Bull, and worshiped at the altar of photographers like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. I dreamed of turning this little space into my atelier, and tried to get my subjects to come there whenever possible. My goal was being able to hole up there without leaving for the winter, using couriers and credit cards to pick up film and supplies and deliver finished shoots to clients. With my cheap rent and low overhead it was almost possible, but I can only imagine now how easy this would have been today, with the internet and digital cameras.

With time I collected more lights and gear, and built flats to help block and modify the light. I bought a 4x5 view camera to get even closer to my retro studio ideal and began wearing suits when I shot. I might have been going a little mad, but it was a long, sustained period of creativity that I still cherish today, even though it distracted me from the fact that, outside my windows, the photo business was starting to contract and change fundamentally.

Suckerpunch, Parkdale, 1994

The shot above is from the peak of that creative period. While shooting the cover of a record for Suckerpunch, a local group, I decided to take out my Rolleiflex and get a shot of the band in the middle of all the studio setup, with my Bronica on a tripod in the foreground. (I can't help but notice a rented Elinchrom strobe on the left - by this point my setups required four or more lights.) I wish I had a way to describe how much I loved having so much control of my shoots; the only way I could have even more was to eliminate the human element and shoot still-lifes.

All good things come to an end, however. In early 1999 we got a notice that the social service agency that bought the building wanted to convert it into offices and affordable apartments for their clients. They gave us months of notice and free rent but my time at 1499 Queen West was coming to an end and with it my studio and darkroom. I was living with the woman who'd become my wife by this point, and we moved around Parkdale for a few years. I'd manage a few makeshift shoots in spaces I'd set up on a rooftop deck or our living room, but I haven't had regular access to a studio since then.

Irving Penn's studio, Paris, 1950

I still miss my old studio. I don't miss the anxious, often depressed man I was for most of the time I lived there, so I can only imagine how much more happily I'd work in one now. Not every photographer needs a studio - my friend Chris Buck has never really considered them a necessity - but I remember how much I enjoyed walking into mine every morning, setting up for an assignment or just a day of tests.

We have an empty garage at the back of our house that I've always hoped to convert into a studio if the money was there. I imagine something like Irving Penn's little shooting space in Paris, with a skylight on the north side. Just a few steps from our garden, it would be the perfect place to shoot still-lifes and maybe - just maybe - the odd portrait.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Guy Clark

Guy Clark, Diamond Club, Toronto, Feb. 1993

THIS HAS BEEN AN AWFUL YEAR FOR MUSIC FANS, and I've had to dip into my archives more times than I want to, searching for photos for memorial posts. The death of Texas singer and songwriter Guy Clark is particularly sad, as it puts a capstone on the career of a man who should probably have been a lot bigger than he was, and sets the stage for the bitter consolation prize of posthumous acclaim.

The last time I pulled out these negatives was just a few months ago, when Allen Toussaint died after a concert in Madrid. I'd shot Clark with Toussaint, Joe Ely and Michelle Shocked at a songwriters' showcase at the Diamond, over twenty years ago. I only barely knew about Clark then, but friends with impeccable taste had told me to make sure I got some pictures of him.

Guy Clark, Diamond Club, Toronto, Feb. 1993

Clark was the sort of figure connoisseurs adore - a songwriter whose biggest hits were recorded by other people, the kind of musician who gets namechecked by much more famous ones eager to burnish their discerning eye for influences or try to let a bit of their fortune trickle down to the sorts of talents who haven't had their luck. He'd been at the centre of a circle of songwriters in Nashville for years before he released his first record in 1975, and managed to get a new one out every few years since then, touring in between with peers and friends like Toussaint and Ely, John Hiatt, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett.

I only shot a few frames of Clark at the Diamond that night - I was supposed to hand in shots of Toussaint - and struggled to get something decent under the dim overhead spots. The frame at the top of him looking up into the light - an obvious choice for a memorial post like this; perhaps too obvious - was the second to last one.

Allen Toussaint, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Diamond Club, Toronto, Feb. 1993

I still don't know why I got these shots of Clark, Ely and Toussaint after the show, or why Shocked isn't in them. I knew getting them together would be a nice document, at the very least, but I still can't explain why I didn't take the trouble to get individual portraits. I like the clear affection and camaraderie you can see in the photo above, and it makes me sad that only one of these men is still alive.

Clark made a lot of good records, but his most poignant might be My Favorite Picture of You, the one that turned out to be his last. The title track is a candid, aching recollection of his wife, Susanna Clark, also a singer and songwriter, who had died just two years previous. It's the kind of song that you can only write once, and which takes years before you can listen to it with enough life behind you to feel its real emotional weight.

Guy Clark died in Nashville on May 17, 2016.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Whit Stillman

Whit Stillman, New York City, August 1990

WHIT STILLMAN IS PROBABLY MY FAVORITE LIVING DIRECTOR, a status doubtless enhanced by how few movies he's actually made. His latest film, a Jane Austen adaptation called Love & Friendship, opened this weekend, which seems as good a time as any to revisit my two portrait shoots with him, the first done at the very beginning of his career.

I'm sure I must have seen Metropolitan at the film festival, because I was already a fan when I arranged to shoot him in Manhattan for a possible NOW cover story, in the summer of 1990. I have a memory - which might be false - that I shot these in a stairwell of the Puck Building, or somewhere very near there.

Stillman is not, at least from my experience, a relaxed subject in front of the camera, so I had to choose my locations carefully and shoot several frames in succession in the hope of catching an interesting expression. I was terribly nervous going into the shoot, and agonized about my choice of frames when it came time to send prints along to the paper. The colour shot below is an outtake from the colour slides I took for the cover, while the frame just below it is a good idea of what I chose for the inside shot.

The frame at the top of the post, however, is one that I agonized over and rejected. One of my biggest problems as an editorial photographer was a lack of confidence in my intuition and taste. It wasn't something my friend Chris Buck suffered from, and I envied him for it. Today, of course, this frame seems obvious, but back then I dithered and left it unprinted until today.

Whit Stillman, New York City, August 1990

I was even more unsure about the photo below. I loved the background and the dim light in the corridor by freight elevator, and carefully posed Stillman to look away from the light source. I knew there was something there when I looked at the contacts but was overcome with doubt once again, unsure if I had the skill as a printer to pull it off, so this frame has also been unseen for over twenty-five years.

I've often wondered why I responded so strongly to Stillman's movies, especially considering the milieu in which they're set - what was called "preppy" when Metropolitan came out, became "yuppie" by Last Days of Disco and has become the even more politically-charged "one percent" today. I went to a private school, to be sure, but an all-boys Catholic one, hardly an elite institution at the time, and nothing like the prep schools that make up the background of Stillman and his characters.

I love how unapologetic he's been about the peculiar virtues of America, a country I'd always admired for its energy and creativity (especially in comparison to my own,) and how there was always some festering violence beneath that comedy of manners; in his first "trilogy" of films there are fistfights and even the (non-fatal) shooting of a main character in Barcelona, where Stillman's sympathies never wavered from his feckless but well-intentioned American protagonists, who have their final triumph at the end of the film by introducing their Spanish girlfriends to the simple pleasure of a hamburger fresh off the barbecue.

What I cherish about Stillman is how mannered his characters are, even the loutish ones, as they banter upstream, trying to articulate their life crises and social dilemmas. Coming from a country that has never been rhetorically equipped to talk about class, Stillman's films are unprecedented in that they're all about the subject; the poster for Metropolitan actually used the phrase "downwardly mobile" to describe itself, one of the first times I'd ever encountered this very prophetic concept.

I've always hoped that someone would come along who'd do for the working class what Stillman had done for the upper-middle. It only occurred to me lately that perhaps that was supposed to be my job, but I never got that memo, and nobody ever tells people like myself what we need to know.

Whit Stillman, New York City, August 1990

True story: Several years ago I was flipping through the channels when I came across The Last Days of Disco playing on Bravo. I put down the remote and started watching. It took me at least fifteen minutes before I noticed that there was a sonorous female voiceover describing the character's actions and facial expressions between lines of dialogue, and a few more to realize that this wasn't in the film when I'd seen it a couple times previous.

It turns out I was watching a "described video" version of the film, made for blind viewers. It made Stillman's movie feel even more novelistic than it was, with narration like "Alice said to Tom, with a nervous look." It would have been ridiculous in any other movie but with Stillman it was plausible. It's no surprise that he wrote a novelization of Disco, and has done another for his latest film - expanding on the obscure and posthumously published Jane Austen story after adapting it into a screenplay.

"I really felt there was another story there, so I tricked Little, Brown into committing to the novel," Stillman told the New York Times. "It gave me the opportunity to dramatize what was in this archaic form that didn’t suit her genius."

(Incidentally, the two books are things I'm dying to read, and my birthday is coming up. Amazon links below.)

Whit Stillman, Toronto, June 1998

I'd shoot Stillman again for NOW, eight years later and just before the release of Last Days of Disco. This was shot at the usual downtown hotel - probably the Four Seasons in Yorkville - and just before I was about to fly off to Barcelona to meet up with my new girlfriend (and future wife), to a city I mostly knew about from one of his movies.

He looks a lot more tired than he did on that day in Lower Manhattan when I'd met him last, but it had taken him eight years to make three films, and just before his "terrible period" began, it would take him another eighteen to make just two more. I was feeling a bit frustrated and worn-out myself by this point in my career, so I guess our moods bounced off of each other in this portrait. The good news is that Stillman has discovered his stride again after years in the wilderness; I can't help but look at it as a hopeful sign.


Friday, May 13, 2016

The Lawn

The Lawn, Toronto, Aug. 1991

I DON'T KNOW IF IT SAYS MORE ABOUT ME OR ABOUT TORONTO that my favorite local band of the late '80s and early '90s never made a video, rarely ever toured, released their best record in minuscule quantities and made the one you could actually buy when they were breaking up. Being a fan of The Lawn really did feel like being part of an exclusive club because, near as I could tell, they did their level best to make sure that club would always be as small as possible.

Their story begins with the city's post-punk scene in the early '80s and Woods Are Full of Cuckoos, who should have been a lot better known, though almost nobody in that scene was, thanks to the almost total indifference of the local music business and Toronto's impressive obscurity. The Cuckoos made a few cassettes and went through a few members, but by the end they comprised the Gregory brothers - David, Patrick and Richard - along with drummer Mike Duggan and vocalist/slide guitarist Gord Cumming.

When I arrived at Nerve magazine I was told curtly that it was my tough luck that I'd just missed the Cuckoos, but then news broke that they'd effectively reformed, minus David, as The Lawn and that I should really go out and see them sharpish. Since they seemed to play the Cabana room several times a month I did, and I'd end up seeing them more times than I can remember over the next seven years.

The first twenty or thirty rolls of film I ever shot include several Lawn gigs, but it would be a while before I'd figure out how to shoot live music, so the results are unprintable. But at some point in early 1987 I got my hands on a flash and the band said yes when I asked to get onstage and shoot them while they were opening for someone - I can't possibly remember who - at RPM, the big dance club/concert hall by the harbour being booked by the pivotal Elliott Lefko.

The Lawn live, RPM Club, 1987

I still wasn't sure what I was doing, but at least I was close enough - and I had enough light! Going through my photos of The Lawn for this post revealed the painful uphill battle I had overcoming the technical and artistic challenges of my first five or six years with a camera. I might not have known much about shooting bands at this point, but at least I knew that when in doubt, do something arty.

One of the most maddening things about being a fan of the band was knowing how much time they were spending in the studio, and we all anxiously waited for a record. I managed to invite myself to one of those recording sessions - probably at Wellesley Sound - and after struggling to get a handful of worthwhile shots in the dim light, I promptly forgot I had these photos for nearly thirty years.

The Lawn in the studio, 1987

These might have been the sessions that produced Peace In The Valley, their first record - self-released with less than 500 copies, only a third of which had a handmade silkscreen cover, and never reissued. Before I even knew it was out they were all gone. I'd kill for a copy today.

The Lawn became part of my circle of friends, and I particularly remember a Christmas Eve where the Gregorys invited a bunch of strays - people stranded or without families to go home to - over to their dad's house for a very lovely British evening. Another night found us there after R.E.M. had played Massey Hall, where three fourths of the band (Michael Stipe was a no-show) showed up for what became a very low key after-party. (Peter Buck held court at the dining room table and talked about records; Mike Mills looked - fruitlessly - for girls.)

My love for the Lawn is easy enough to explain: They had a fantastic repertoire of songs, and the most unique combination of guitar parts, with Patrick's striking chord voicings and arpeggios filling in most of the space beneath Gord's slide, which had a character more like a horn, and functioned like an extra vocalist. They also had the best rhythm section in the city, which I finally managed to capture in action after much painful striving at a gig (probably at the Cabana Room) in 1988.

The Lawn, live, 1988

By the end of Nerve magazine and the end of the '80s I'd rarely bring my camera along to shoot shows that weren't assignments, so there's a big gap in my photos of the Lawn. I didn't stop seeing the band, though, and assumed that first record was a test shot of sorts, shortly to be followed up by the album that would capture the wit and musical agility of their best live shows.

The Lawn, Toronto, Aug. 1991

Finally, in the summer of 1991, I was asked to shoot the band for a spotlight in NOW magazine, but was surprised to see them show up for the photos as a trio, Mike Duggan being unable to make it that day. They had a deal of some sort and a record to make, which pleased me no end, and we wandered in and around Little Trinity Church and Enoch Turner Schoolhouse on the fringe of the old east end warehouse district taking some of my favorite shots of the band.

I don't think I ever connected emotionally with any other local group the way I did with The Lawn. It might have had something to do with Gord's lyrical persona - a hapless everyman, baffled by life, nature and fate but never cynical or despondent. Or it might have been the way certain lines from their songs rang in my memory for days after I saw them: "If I was an animal I wouldn't go down there;" "I was the one that never got away."

I was especially taken by the way Gord rhymed "Jesus Christ the Lord" with his own name in "Reconsider Baby." As a Roman Catholic - lapsed then, practicing now - I have a keen ear for blasphemy, and I considered this impressive.

The Lawn live, 1991

Excited by the news of a new record, I took my Nikon along to a gig at the Rivoli, hoping to capture some decent shots of the band live that they might be able to use. I'd had a lot of experience shooting concerts by this point, a better camera and lenses, and an idea of what to watch for having seen The Lawn so many times.

I liked what I saw on the contact sheets, and it seemed like I had a good shot of every member of the band, so I took them along to their next Rivoli gig and handed them to Patrick, then stood back while he looked them over, feeling very pleased with myself. The dressing room was crowded and one of the band's fans - a young fellow I'd never seen before - walked over and stood beside him, studying the contacts as he did. Patrick looked up and asked, "What do you think?"

"I don't know," he said. "Don't they look a bit too ... professional?"

At which point I finally learned that, no matter what, you just can't fucking win.

The Lawn, Parkdale, April 1992

The last time I photographed The Lawn was a year later, when Debussy Fields was about to come out, and they needed promo shots. Mike Duggan had left the band and Lonnie James had taken his place. I set up my studio with a blue seamless backdrop and a big, soft light overhead and simply let the band cut up and be themselves in front of the camera, hoping to capture the sort of informal camaraderie I loved from old glossies of the Modern Lovers or other Bomp! Records acts like the Shoes or 20/20.

I hadn't looked at these shots in at least twenty years until I started making the scans for this post. They have a nice energy and I like to think I delivered what the band wanted, but they're a sort of epitaph. Debussy Fields wasn't the record I was hoping for; it sounded overworked and lacked the energy that would keep me buzzing for days after their shows. Lonnie was a great drummer - he's probably one of the most beloved people from that scene - but I missed Mike Duggan's pinpoint ferocity; I didn't think The Lawn were the same without him, and it wasn't long before it didn't matter, as they quietly broke up, another casualty of the neglect - very rarely benign - of the Canadian music industry.

Mike Duggan, Toronto, Jan. 2010

But that isn't quite the end of the story. The band went their separate ways and somewhere along the line Mike Duggan became a brewmaster and set up his own brewery. I interviewed him at his new brewpub for blogTO, just after I'd learned that the band were rehearsing in the basement for a reunion gig.

We talked about the band as much as his new business, and I went to see them play a couple of months later. The first few songs had some rusty hinges but they loosened up and a room full of old fans beamed as we heard "Beluger" and "Shady Street" and "Reconsider Baby" again. I went home that night struck with an ache from how much I missed hearing those songs.

Five years later the band are in the basement of Mike's new restaurant rehearsing for another reunion gig, this Sunday, in honour of No Flash Please!, a document of the bands and the scene that produced The Lawn, the Plasterscene Replicas and Change of Heart, written by my old Nerve colleague Phil Saunders and featuring Derek von Essen's photographs. I wouldn't miss it for the world.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Change of Heart

Change of Heart, Sunnyside, April 1994

THE BEST BANDS THAT CAME OUT OF TORONTO in the '80s and early '90s all came and went at least a decade too soon. At least that's how I see it, looking back from the world of the internet and iTunes and the "post-music industry" era. And of all the groups I used to see in that half-dozen or so clubs on Queen West and Bloor and in Kensington Market back then, this most applies to Ian Blurton and Change of Heart.

They'd release their first album, 50 Ft. Up, just as I started writing for Nerve magazine, and would release another five over the next decade. They were a quartet with a percussionist, but became a trio for their next record, Slowdance, Keyboardist Bernard Maiezza, who I'd met when he was in A Neon Rome, joined just as the drum and bass spots in the band started changing semi-regularly around Ian, who also played in a handful of other local bands.

Change of Heart live, Toronto, 1987

The band had an incredible work ethic, opening for pretty much every other band on the scene and countless other touring bands. I brought my camera along to a pair of gigs they did in 1987, opening for a Vancouver band called Oversoul Seven, just after Change of Heart had released their second album, Slowdance.

Change of Heart live, Cameron Housoe, Toronto, 1987

I was clearly on the shallow part of my learning curve shooting live music, and for both rolls I'm almost entirely focused on Blurton and bassist Rob Taylor - getting a decent shot of drummer Ron Duffy was clearly beyond my competence. As the shots above demonstrate, I was basically taking the same photo over and over, hoping I'd get it right at least once or twice.

Unlike a lot of my other favorite local acts, Ian and Change of Heart would go on the road and tour across Canada, playing the small cities and towns between the provincial capitals, working to build a reputation as a great live act and exploit whatever publicity they got when songs like "Pat's Decline," "Trigger," "Little Kingdoms," "Winter's Over" or "There You Go" got regional or national airplay.

In 1992, while still playing small local clubs, Ian decided to make a double record, live in the studio, with a cast of extra musicians including backup singers, strings and horns. Smile was an ambitious project, and it earned the band the respect of musicians in bigger acts who'd offer them support gigs all over the country. A couple of years later, as they were getting ready to release Tummysuckle, their follow-up album, Ian asked me to shoot publicity photos for the band.

Change of Heart, Parkdale & Sunnyside, April 1994

Over the course of the afternoon I tried to give Ian as many options as possible, beginning in my studio where I'd set up something basic using a white seamless and a black curtain, then walking down to the beach at Sunnyside nearby for another bunch of rolls.

I was trying to deliver a solid promo glossy, and as a result nothing really seems like it has much of whatever style I was trying to develop, though I'm fond of the shot at the top of this post today, which seems to hint at some new direction I'd discover in the next few years. I remember feeling disappointed at the time, though, that I'd never really gotten the decent portrait of Ian I'd been trying to take for years.

Tummysuckle ended up being remixed and re-released when the band won $100,000 in a radio talent search, and their last record, Steelteeth, came out on the Canadian arm of Virgin, who deleted the album just as they came home after touring to support it. This was too much for Ian, who broke up the band, finally exhausted after over a decade of trying to make it in Canada.

Ian Blurton, Sunnyside, Oct.20, 2012

Ian didn't give up, though - he formed Blurtonia and C'Mon and a few years ago, during a brief break before his latest band, Public Animal, he put together some reunion gigs for the release of There You Go, a Change of Heart anthology. After months of talking and rehearsals, he got every musician who'd played in the band to join him onstage for the shows.

I interviewed him for blogTO in advance of the Toronto gig, and took his portrait on the bridge to Sunnyside, where I'd shot the promo photos eighteen years previous, and just a few yards from where the cover of 50 Ft. Up had been photographed. I think I might finally have gotten the photo I'd always wanted to take. The reunion show was astonishing; as the musicians around him shifted and changed for over two hours, he played ferociously heavy versions of the band's old songs, and for at least one more night, Change of Heart were the best live band in the city.


Monday, May 9, 2016

Plasterscene Replicas

Plasterscene Replicas, Toronto, 1988

SOMEBODY I KNOW HAS DONE THE MADDEST THING. An old colleague from Nerve days, along with photographer Derek von Essen, has published a book on the Toronto music scene that flourished - perhaps that's too hopeful a word; let's say it endured - in the small clubs on and around Queen Street West in the late '80s and early '90s.

It's a scene I remember well since I was either covering and shooting it or simply standing in those clubs enjoying those bands, who comprised what I considered a musical scene as coherent as the ones I was reading about, in cities like Athens, Chicago, Louisville, Detroit and Seattle. At its peak it comprised at least a dozen bands like the Rheostatics, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, 13 Engines, Pig Farm, the Dundrells, Fifth Column, A Neon Rome, Third Man In, Phleg Camp, Groovy Religion, Scott B Sympathy, Heimlich Maneuver, King Cobb Steelie and more than a few I can never hope to remember.

They didn't have much in common besides the magpie's nest of disparate influences that fueled '80s indie rock, and most of them survive, at best, on some well-worn LPs and CDs in the back of some used record store bin, or some cassettes and singles sitting in a box in someone's storage unit. I thought they deserved better.

At least a couple of those bands - the Rheostatics and Shadowy Men - managed to make careers for themselves that outlasted this finite time period and resonated beyond downtown Toronto. Three of them, however, were particular favorites of mine, and I have no way of knowing how many times I saw them live, on the tiny stages of the Cabana Room, the Rivoli, the Cameron House or Lee's Palace. I'll talk about The Lawn and Change of Heart soon enough, but I want to start with the poets of the scene - the Plasterscene Replicas.

Plasterscene Replicas live, Toronto, 1987

They were already the favorite band at Nerve when I began writing there late in 1985, after releasing a four-track EP the previous year whose songs were undeniable despite the primitive recording quality. Like most of the bands that had sprung out of the city's post-punk scene of the early '80s, they had an unconventional lineup with a drummer and percussionist in addition to the band's core: Singer/songwriter/guitarists Charlie Salmon and Steve Stewart and bassist Brenden Cavin.

They'd break up before the year was over; Charlie would form another band, One of One, with a woodwind player, and then the Replicas reformed, with a string of drummers moving through the group while the core trio remained intact. I'd see them whenever I could, but I only brought my camera along once or twice; there was something so intimate about the group, especially at the Cabana Room, which felt like someone's living room when my favorite bands played there, that it seemed absurd to think about documenting the night.

I only have a few rolls of photos of the band playing, shot when my lack of skills and the scant stage lighting meant either using flash or risking blurred frames; they're primitive shots that only come across with a glimpse of the personality of the musicians onstage.

At some point however, I shot most of a roll of portraits of the band on slide film. Shooting transparencies always felt risky, like testing the ice on a lake in late winter by leaping off a dock. The results this time weren't good - I ended up with nearly every shot but one hugely underexposed, and I'd forgotten about the shoot until last year, when I discovered them in a binder and was able to (partially) rescue them with Photoshop.

I don't know where I shot these, and I don't know why, but they capture the band when Wayne Stokes was their drummer, and just around when they recorded their only LP. This is the first time anyone has seen these shots.

Plasterscene Replicas, Toronto, 1988

The Replicas' career was short. They released Glow the year I took these portraits and broke up the year after that. For a while, though, with the album out and two videos getting decent airplay on music television (Charlie's "We Can Walk" and Steve's "All I See") it seemed worth hoping that a really good Toronto band might stand a chance at the sorts of "careers" enjoyed by groups we loved from the States, Britain and Australia.

Which basically meant long, gruelling tours, grudging support from whatever label had signed them, and occasional leaps through whatever hoops that marketing and PR people thought necessary to "break the act." It took a while to notice that this treadmill usually did break the acts - literally - but at least they'd end their careers with more than one album.

Charlie kept writing songs, and the band reunited for a one-off gig in 2007, but Charlie's health issues kept any further talk of getting together again out of the question. And then, as fall turned to winter a couple of years ago, Charlie was gone.

Charlie Salmon, Toronto, 1987

I'd end up knowing Steve much better than Charlie - for a while we were neighbours, living a few doors apart in Parkdale. But I can still recall the handful of times I talked with Charlie. It was never small talk; he had an awkward intensity, and I suppose he was the sort of person that gets called an "old soul." I remember, reeling from the first big break-up of my life, how I'd opened up about it all to him, hoping that he'd have some wise words that would help. He looked down and to the side, then gave me a regretful, lingering look and said that the pain was going to last as long as it did, and that if nothing else it was something we'd all have in common.

Charlie Salmon died in Toronto on November 20, 2013.