Mike Stahl wrote an excellent article on the NYC hardcore scene of the 1990s that was published last week by Narratively. He'd been working on it for a long while before he asked me to get on board to photograph the story. He and I began freelancing within a year of each other and in all this time, we had yet to do a project together. I was excited to finally work with my friend on this story.
He and I had grown up on hardcore punk. Most of the bands I listened to were from California and Miami although we had some overlap with artists such as Sick of it All and Madball. Much of the NYC hardcore world didn't make it south to Florida so I discovered what I could. Biohazard was a big one, a band whose bassist previously replaced me in a band that I started in high school. There were other ones as well but that world was very far away during the pre-social media days.
This story began for me in Santa Monica, after a phone call with Mike Stahl when I offered to cut my monthlong West Coast trip short to photograph this piece. I had to. It was a subject I cared about and the chance to work with my pal was too good to pass. I was able to complete my trip uninterrupted. Once I returned home to New Orleans, I was back on a plane heading north to New York.
A group of ten to twelve people had gathered around a tour guide who was explaining the history of St. Marks. "This is where punk bands, you know, like grunge, played in the 90s." Mike and I chuckled as we passed them. We were walking to meet the subjects of his story in front of the former location of a music club -- now a sushi restaurant. Many of the people in the story trickled in, greeting each other, some for the first time in several years. I was able to put faces to names of those I had read about in previous drafts of Mike's story.
We walked to several of the old locations, all turned over to the dark side of New York; a gentrified reconstruction of a developer's idea of how the modern residents wants to live. Nearly every location we visited was polished, varnished; a smooth coat of stucco on the wall or worse. It was my romanticized vision of New York in the '90s that I missed but these men and women who went throughout town to see their favorite bands or play shows at these venues actually lived it.
I imagined gutter aroma wafting in the air, triggering a memory of a beer stained, old bar. A broken window or a smashed face, blood on the walls, a rumbling street, heaving with the energy of wandering hardcore fans going to church. That was all gone now and that's okay. New York changes. We change.
My favorite moment was walking into John Varvatos, the former location of CBGB's. The new store preserved a surprising amount of the old space that CBGB's had occupied, including the bar, wall paneling, fliers tacked onto the walls, and even the stickers on the air ducts. I watched these musicians and fans who played their asses off here, drank with friends, saw unknown and favorite bands, that smell of that stinking legendary bathroom, recall memories and seeing, for the first time, what this high end clothing store had done with the old place...THAT was special. There wasn't any amount of photography I could do to capture that. You had to be there. You had to drink it.
I knew that many of the photos from our trip to CBGB's wouldn't make it into the final cut of the article. Some of the context didn't make editorial sense. These photos were for us -- Mike, me, Lenny, Cesar, Dean, Kent, Alan, Virginia and whoever else's name I've forgotten.