Self-evident as the sediment it bears, this collection revisits a family. Sometimes literal: witness the photo of Joey Ramone in the kitchen at Paul Zone’s parents’ Brooklyn house. Or primal: Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, unabashed and content in the bathroom at CBGB’s. And sometimes surrogate, yet still potent with magnetic affinity: peering out of a large group photo, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and some other people (sic) are just . . . standing there. Being.
Affinities run through Paul Zone’s recent exhibit at DRKRM, “PAUL ZONE: THE NEW YORK UNDERGROUND SCENE – From Glam to Punk 1972-1977,” and what a refreshing candor his eye yields. After decades of sitting on these images, we too are now immersed by ripple effect, as Zone himself genuinely floated through the original period. Just old enough to be exposed by his older brothers to Ziggy Stardust’s emergence, the tail end of Warhol’s Factory, and the twilight of the New York Dolls’ original incarnation – was Malcolm McLaren’s management period a full three weeks? – Zone was still too young to join his brothers’ band The Fast until later. Whence his start as photo-documentarian: not exactly behind the scenes, but rather, a bona fide interlocutor.
As Zone patiently lead me through the gallery with a beguiling stream of anecdotes, his soft-spoken modesty allowed this community’s inherent innocence to bellow forth. Self-effacing, these were people you wanted to know because they were endowed with . . . people-ness. Not star-ness, not punk rock-ness, not New York-ness, not glam-ness; those redolent strains weren’t necessarily absent, but functioned more as wrapping paper. The gifts here were already opened, laid bare. Whence their inner rectitude, possessing that ineffable quality at once Kantian and bromide of the psycho-spiritual: people-ness. And then Zone mentioned that none of these people were playing CBGB’s by ’77: Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, and The Ramones were all propelled far away from that primal vortex. On tour, spun out from the sacral in time and space, they were often then weathered by some or other coarse entity, perhaps an ill-conceived thought-form. Or simply deposited in amber for a few decades.
It’s not the period typically spotlighted. And it is precisely in this mid-decade valley, between, say, the demise of the Velvets, and the calcification of punk as categorical imperative later in the decade, that an amicable neighborhood patchwork nourished and sustained itself. As Zone noted, those iconic groups who were cow-branded by the latter denotation typically resisted “punk” out of their sheer inability to mimic a constricted aesthetic, aside from that of their own DNA imprint. One has a feeling of trial and error emerging here as a way of life, not to mention a modesty that lay congealed underneath far too many flashbulbs in the years to come.
There’s a striking lack of posing or photo ops, save for a few official compositions of Blondie; these too resonate with glowing disaffection. All the more so after Zone told me he took that particular series – early band photos right after fifth member Jimmy Destri had joined – in the Ramones’ loft (because it had a white wall), and for extravagant effect, Zone laid down a (gasp) white sheet on the floor. Here embellishments are but homegrown recipes, mostly savory. Oh, and a few photos down the wall, those furry stilettos Debbie Harry roots down in were a gift from Zone.
As more layers were exhumed, Zone explained that these photos appear so familiar in part due to their origination: 110 shot on an Instamatic, for example, blown up in darkrooms over the past year. No professional sterility here, and he didn’t even have to mention that these come across like a sticky photo album because here was the genuine artifact. This particular album lay buried in Zone’s attic for the past 30 years. Fragments come home.
Color belies this stock origin with varying effect. Two snaps of Divine blow up towards a garish breaking point. Not her ideal representation, nor, I garnered, were they meant to be. On the contrary, a stunning blow-up of Debbie Harry imparts its justice via pungent violet and golden hues. Such intense scrutiny even most icons could not bear, yet something about Harry’s conviction, the robust image quality, and Zone’s casual relation to his subject allow that sublime “-ness” to shimmer through unheeded.
A few seeming aberrations became revelations, tempered as they were through Zone’s wise narration: an early KISS (yes, that KISS), circa ’74 or ’75, playing a sparse club on Long Island. They’re a band; they’ve got make-up, as did the Dolls and T-Rex and Alice Cooper (all amicable neighbors in this exhibition); and KISS too are making their way up by assimilating influences and standing ground. That seemed to work exceedingly well back then, despite lacking a clear prophecy of the business perils in decades to follow. When I – silly me – questioned their inclusion, Zone’s composure regarding the communal continuity straightened me out. Yeah, why not? Was it truly so fragmented as to warrant a separate bin at the record store?
Another such instance comes in the juxtaposition of two elements decisively at home in isolation. One being Suicide’s Alan Vega, whose vigilante ethic matched proto-punk downtown with immaculate justice, and the second being ornate face paint. But . . . Alan Vega in face paint? Regardless of the motivation, Vega’s menace can’t help but pierce through the folly. He won’t be deterred, yet the admixture speaks nostalgically to a passing moment on a bygone playground.
Lance Loud’s inclusion also proves essential to this matrix in a quietly prophetic manner. A blatant modesty pervades Loud’s photos, as if to say, “where were you?” Loud’s An American Family simmered as a precursor to the reality television phenomenon that swept the country with fervor over the past many years. Perhaps like his confidantes in this community, being a gay icon or a television personality seems to take a backseat to being, period.
Transplants too adapted to the neighborhood miasm with fluidity. By the door hung two portraits of Sparks; maybe it was Max’s Kansas City. Wry in their tradition, they nonetheless appear fully integrated within this context, and were likely welcomed by the same handful of people who attended the local bands’ shows. Why not? If you knew why, geography didn’t really make much of a difference, and you probably would have shown up too.
Mined, polished and utterly worthwhile after all these years, even the fool’s gold has something to say. Thank you, Paul Zone.
Daniel Freed is a writer, filmmaker and critic. As a poet, he was trained to stare out the window. Work in a variety of media led inexorably towards his current concentration in film. He has taught and translated at universities in the US and Germany. Previously, he wrote on aesthetic theory with late philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. Daniel currently focuses upon the Los Angeles and Berlin scenes. firstname.lastname@example.org
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