Beauty and the beasts: On the edge on two coasts
Sixty of the photographs in the upcoming book "The Beautiful and the Damned" are now hanging in Track 16 Gallery in an exhibit that opens today. All were taken by Ann Summa, a dedicated chronicler of L.A.'s punk scene; these shots are from 1978 to '84.
Journalist and filmmaker Kristine McKenna curated the show. She tells Jessica Gelt in a piece in today's L.A. Times, "When the original punk scene started it was like some silent alarm went
off and every weirdo in Southern California made their way to the
Masque." McKenna continued, "For starters all young people are beautiful and all these people are in
their early 20s. The freedom of that scene is apparent in a
lot of these pictures because the people often look joyful; and they
gave themselves the freedom to dress."
Los Angeles punk lagged a few years behind the punk scenes in London and New York, but it also seemed to operate with more freedom. Freedom, maybe, from the commerce and fashion attention brought in London by impresario Malcolm McLaren; freedom from a media culture that grew up in the close quarters of New York. Maybe it was the freedom to behave badly in the middle of a very large city that wasn't, for a long time, paying much attention.
New York has always had a more centralized culture, and a longer and more anointed artistic history. One of its strangest and most beautiful intersections may have been in the back room of Max's Kansas City.
Nominally a restaurant, eventually a seminal rock club, Max's Kansas City began as a bar hangout for artists and let loose in its back room. The new book "Max's Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll" tells the story of Max's, owned by Mickey Ruskin.
Ruskin, who died in 1983, had a series of establishments in New York that cultivated an artistic clientele; Max's began with artists Donald Judd, John Chamberlin and Frank Stella drinking and arguing in the front room, paying bar tabs with their art. The book includes a Warhol bill, with $200 deducted in trade for a Marilyn Monroe silk screen.
According to the book, Warhol wasn't taken very seriously by some of the other clientele, so he retreated to the back room, which became a center of partying and hedonism, which helped to bring in the rock stars. Owner Mickey Ruskin didn't always know who he was dealing with; he famously seated one rocker at a lousy table, not realizing that he was the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones. Later, upstairs shows were booked by people who knew better.
That story is told in pictures: There is Blondie, looking ferocious; Lou Reed and David Bowie and David Johansen, eating, talking; Bruce Springsteen in mismatched sneakers; Joey Ramone at the edge of the frame, with a big smile; Iggy Pop, performing in not much more than knee-high boots, soaked with sweat, jagged stitches in his chest threatening to bust.
The preponderance of the photos were taken by Anton Perich, who photographed the outrageous goings-on in the back room (including dancing on tables, not always with clothes) often at a remove, shooting without checking the viewfinder. The results are the best kind of snapshots, unposed instants, faces in motion, actual skin texture -- who knew Billy Idol had freckles? -- and clothes in unconstructed disarray. Only Nico always looks beautiful.
McKenna and Summa's selection, here in L.A. on exhibit, looks for a window into exactly the opposite moments: the beauty in the squalor. Was the Clash's Joe Strummer, above, ever so ethereal? He remains that way in the book "The Beautiful and the Damned," which officially goes on sale Oct. 31.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Joe Strummer, of the Clash, at the Roxy, April 27, 1980, from "The
Beautiful and the Damned", a photo exhibition at Bergamot Station's
Track 16 Gallery.