She Just Takes Pictures

Photo credit: Roberta Bayley
“In the City” at Modern Culture at the Gershwin Hotel in New York, 6 September – 14 October 2000.

As the door person at CBGB and photographer for Punk magazine, Roberta Bayley was one of the first to document the ’70s punk scene in pictures. Her legendary photos have appeared in several significant books about the era, including the photography collection Blank Generation Revisited: The Early Days of Punk Rock (1997). Besides photographing and making mischief with some of the most important musicians of the ’70s, Bayley is the co-author of an unauthorized biography of Patti Smith and a true renaissance woman. Bayley recently spoke to PopMatters from her home in New York, which she shares with her bird Preston, who occasionally tried joining the conversation.

PopMatters: You were originally from California, so what led you to London and then ultimately to New York City in the early ’70s?

Roberta Bayley: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, about twenty miles north of San Francisco, and I went to school at San Francisco State University until I dropped out in 1971. Then I went to live in London. I basically had some personal things to work out and I wanted to get very far away and that was the farthest I could go where they still spoke English. I ended up in London. I had a friend who was staying at another friend’s house and I stayed there. I lived there for a couple of years, working different odd jobs, some waitressing. I was working at a restaurant in Chelsea called the Chelsea Nuthouse on Langdon Street and Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne [Westwood] used to come in and eat there. They always were very fond of Americans and I had a casual relationship with them. I became involved with a friend of theirs named Gerry Goldstein, who was a good friend of Malcolm’s. Malcolm had offered Gerry a job in the store [Let It Rock] but Gerry couldn’t start right away, so I had offered to fill in for him. I ended up working there just for a few weekends, I think. So I had made that connection when I was in London.

I actually went back to San Francisco and tried to go back to school, but I couldn’t bear that so I went back to London again. I was living with Ian Dury — Kilburn and the High Roads was his band then. That didn’t work out and I just wanted to get the hell out of London, but I didn’t have any money. My friend Andrew got me a one-way ticket to New York and I took it because I just wanted to get out of London. I didn’t know anybody at all in New York. I had a list of names of people to look up and everybody I looked up was great. I ended up staying in Brooklyn for awhile and I started working.

How I got involved with the music scene is that one of the people I looked up was this guy David Nofsinger, who was a rock ‘n’ roll sound guy, a roadie guy. He said, “Let me show you around New York. What do you want to do?” I said, “I want to go see the New York Dolls,” because I’d never seen them when I was in London. When they played in London, I was in San Francisco. When they played San Francisco, I was in London. So I was always curious about them. They seemed to be one of the more interesting things happening, even though the mainstream press seemed very down on them. They thought that they were these transvestites or something.

So he said, “Oh great, I was their soundman in Europe.” They were playing a tour where they were playing a lot of different clubs in one week. He took me to see them at the Club 82, which was an old drag club in New York. The Dolls actually performed in drag at that show, but because I’d never seen them I thought that was their normal act, wearing dresses and stuff. David [Johansen] had on a strapless dress and high heels. I didn’t realize this was a goof for them because they didn’t really dress in women’s clothes. It was an interesting introduction.

Nofsinger happened to live in the loft directly above the Club 82 and he had a party there afterwards. I met David Johansen that night and I met the Miamis, which was the opening band. Little by little I got introduced to the scene that was happening. I went to see Patti Smith and Television at Max’s with Jimmy from the Miamis. That was pretty interesting and I’d certainly never seen anything quite like that before. I stayed in New York from April until September, then I think I was going to try to go back to school again. I went back to San Francisco, but by that time I’d met Richard Hell and we had a correspondence going on and I again couldn’t bear school, so I dropped out and got a job. By December I came back to New York, which was about New Year’s Eve of 1974, into ’75. And I stayed.

Photo credit: Roberta Bayley
“In the City” at Modern Culture at the Gershwin Hotel in New York, 6 September – 14 October 2000.

PM: How did you get the job working the door at CBGB?

RB: I was going out with Richard Hell and Television was the house band at CBGB. [Television manager] Terry Ork just said, “Will you take the money?” They split all the money at that point, which at the time was about fifty dollars. It might have been less. It was two dollars to get in and the money all went to the band. So they wanted to have somebody that worked for them rather than have somebody who worked at the club, or maybe the club didn’t even have anybody to work at the door. It wasn’t a happening place at that point. I just worked on the door and Terry gave me ten bucks or something. When CBGB, about a year or so later, did this festival where they had all the different bands playing every night, then [CBGB owner] Hilly [Kristal] asked me if I would come back and do the door, so I did and it became my regular job for a couple of years.

PM: Do you remember a particular strange or interesting thing that happened when you were working there?

RB: Everything was interesting. I don’t know if anything was strange. It was just kind of a little scene. People would check out a band and a couple of weeks later they’d start a band. It was a very fun and creative time. Nobody was taking it real seriously, but Patti Smith had started to make some real in-roads and there were people who thought she was going to be successful. There were definitely people that thought that Television was going to be successful. The Television with Richard Hell — there was some big excitement about them, that they were really different and maybe they were going to be the new Rolling Stones or something. Looking back, it wasn’t a very long-lived thing. Richard left the band and then they became quite a different band. I was never such a great fan of the second version of Television. But there was an excitement and it was interesting.

PM: You started taking photographs of the bands in November 1975?

RB: I probably got a camera right around that time, October or September, and started taking pictures. My friend Guillmette Barbet, who was the photographer for New York Rocker, kind of showed me. My friend Jamie gave me a darkroom, which was really nice. He just had one that somebody had left in his house and he wanted to get rid of it. So I acquired a darkroom, which really made a big difference because I could print all my own stuff. Guillmette showed me how to develop film.

I’d had aspirations earlier to be a photographer but I never really pursued it. At one point I had a camera but then I sold that. I didn’t really have a clear idea of subject matter, but when I came to CBGB all these bands wanted their pictures taken and it turned out I was pretty good. It was going to work for Punk magazine that really opened things up a lot because they really had an interesting take on things. It wasn’t just the same old boring, posed pictures. We did all these really creative things, like the fumettis. We did these things that were like comic strips and photos. Two of our issues were just complete stories, a whole story told in photographs of different people. Debbie Harry starred in one, and Joey Ramone, and Richard Hell starred in another one. All the different bands played a part. That was really fun to do.

Photo credit: Roberta Bayley
“In the City” at Modern Culture at the Gershwin Hotel in New York, 6 September – 14 October 2000.

PM: How did you get the job at Punk with John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil?

RB: I remember clearly meeting Legs. He came to the door at CBGB and he said, “I’m Legs McNeil. I get in for free.” I said, “Two dollars.” I said, “Give me a copy of the magazine and I’ll let you in.” He said, “It’s fifty cents. You can buy one at the bar.” I thought he had a good attitude, so I let him in for free. Then I went and bought a copy of the magazine at the bar. I went home that night and read it, and it was the funniest thing I’d ever read. That was the one with the Lou Reed interview. I was like, “I’ve got to work for these guys!” We actually did a fumetti that never came out about Legs on the town, and Legs going to all these different places and getting thrown out, which we never used but we had a lot of fun shooting it. They liked me and liked my pictures and that’s how we started working together.

PM: Did you use color much, or did you usually shoot in black and white?

RB: Pretty early on I would shoot both. I did shoot a lot of color, actually — it’s just that there weren’t as many places for color to be printed. I always had the idea that when magazines called you, if you had color, it was a good thing. I didn’t have any artistic pretensions about the purity of black and white or anything like that. I just took pictures. Money was a consideration because color was expensive. I never really made any color prints. I just sent the slides and a lot of them were published. Punk had really excellent color reproduction a little bit later, not in the beginning, but when they went on to much better paper. They did one of my Iggy Pop pictures, a great Ramones picture that was just recently reused on the Ramones anthology, and I did the New York Dolls reunion in color as well.

You have to remember that back then these bands were not really big or anything. Blondie was the only one that people really even wanted color pictures of and that wasn’t because they were big — it was just because Debbie [Harry] was very beautiful. If I had color pictures of the Ramones, Creem might run a little picture of them or something, but most magazines weren’t going to have any interest in color pictures of Richard Hell and Television. There just wasn’t really an outlet for it. It didn’t really get seen.

PM: Did you go into a shoot with an idea in mind of what you wanted to do?

RB: My first real photo session with a band was the Heartbreakers blood picture, which was on the cover of Please Kill Me, and that was Richard [Hell]’s whole concept. He just considered me an adjunct to his genius. [laughs] Literally, I’d had a camera for about a month. I had no idea what I was doing. It’s just taken in my apartment up against the wall with flash, I think. There probably wasn’t enough natural light the day we did it. Usually I just did very simple pictures with no concept. That was an exception. The Punk magazine pictures, of course, were directed by John [Holmstrom] and Legs [McNeil] and some of them have stories and ideas behind them.

I think one of my skills as a photographer is that I work really quickly and I don’t tell people what to do. Most of the people I shot knew me and weren’t feeling like there was big pressure or anything. Most of these bands, with some exceptions, don’t like having their picture taken. It’s boring to them and they’re just happy to get it over with. If you can work quickly, that’s the key to being popular. With Richard Hell, who was probably one of my main subjects — I probably photographed him more than anybody and I did pretty much all of his records and singles — he felt very comfortable with me. He hates the whole photo process, but with me it was less like that. When I was going out with him, I wasn’t a photographer. I didn’t have a camera. It was after our relationship, so that really didn’t have anything to do with it. It wasn’t like I was his girlfriend photographing him. It was long after I was his girlfriend. We’d been friends all this time and it was just less of a deal if someone said, “You need a picture for such and such,” to just call me to do it.

Photo credit: Roberta Bayley
“In the City” at Modern Culture at the Gershwin Hotel in New York, 6 September – 14 October 2000.

PM: Who was your favorite person to photograph?

RB: Iggy [Pop] I liked photographing a lot and I wish I’d photographed him more. My main stuff of him is live and I only did one session with him off-stage. Debbie [Harry]’s great, very easy to photograph, obviously. She “gives” you the picture. I wouldn’t take many pictures of her, but she’d look right at you and look amazing, as she does.

I don’t know if I think about it that way. I can definitely think of people that I hated photographing, but I wouldn’t want to talk about it. [laughs] Part of the reason I stopped was because some people are so annoying and I just don’t need it at all. I did it as long as it was really fun. Towards the end, people would ask me to do pictures or I’d think I wanted to get back into it, and then I’d have these really negative experiences. It was a big turn-off.

PM: Did documenting the Sex Pistols’ American tour with John Holmstrom, which is discussed in the book Twelve Days on the Road, taint your image of punk at all?

RB: It was a really interesting experience. You have to remember that the guy that wrote that book was accusing John and I of being CIA agents. He was a stupid fucking Warner Bros. roadie, Noel Monk – and I’m not talking about Jimmy Guterman, the collaborator with him. But this Noel Monk guy was an old hippie roadie. When I heard he was writing a book, it was hilarious to me. He was screaming, trying to have John and I thrown out of shows saying we were CIA agents. It was so stupid.

The Pistols thing was a drag, but I think they were really just one band. In a way they have kind of a perfect history. I think lingering is not always the best thing to do. As much as I’m happy they could get together and do a reunion tour and make some money and that they were actually pretty good, at least the second night they played here, that was to me was the only mistake they made. But quite frankly most people don’t remember that, so who cares? If you see The Filth and the Fury, it looks more like a splendid time was had by all.

Yeah, that tour was really quite bleak but John and I were on an expense account. We were hoping we were on an expense account, but really we were on my credit card. It did get paid back eventually. Someone was paying us to stay in hotels with the Sex Pistols and hang out with them. That was interesting. I don’t think we looked on it as the end of the punk movement. We could see the band was not very happy. We didn’t spend much time with John [Lydon] or Sid [Vicious]. They were traveling on the bus and John and I were flying with Steve [Jones] and Paul [Cook] and Malcolm [McLaren]. We didn’t interact that much with John and only minimally with Sid.

PM: Did you think there was a link between the British and New York punk movements?

RB: Yeah, there was. I went over to London. How I got linked personally to that scene was that Dr. Feelgood came over here. They were pub rock but they’d had a number one record in England and they were trying to break them in America. They weren’t punk but their tour manager was Jake Riviera, who later started Stiff Records. Jake was into the whole New York thing, the Ramones. Maybe they got the Ramones to open for Dr. Feelgood — I think that’s what happened. There was something happening and everybody figured it out, whatever it was. Jake was also the guy who managed Elvis Costello. Things started to get linked together also because of Malcolm. Malcolm had been the Dolls’ sort-of manager for awhile and I knew Malcolm, then Malcolm was in New York. All these things were all linking together anyway.

I think the Ramones had a huge influence on what happened in London, which is kind of left out. Say, when you see the film The Filth and the Fury, they don’t really talk about that. It doesn’t take away, to me, from [the British bands’] originality. The kernel for the New York people was the Dolls. Although the Dolls were never successful or anything, they inspired everyone from Richard Hell to whoever because it was like they were acting like stars and they were huge in their own world and they were having a lot of fun and they weren’t virtuosos. But there they were, getting more girls in Max’s than the Rolling Stones could get in that one particular moment. They were bigger than anybody just within that world, which — that’s the only world you’re in, is the world you’re in. If Max’s back room is your world, and you’re the biggest person there, then you’re the biggest person in the world.

People want to put some noble thing on it, but part of it is about getting chicks and getting adulation. It’s not all about “I have to create the new art.” There’s self-expression, but people have all kinds of motives for doing things in popular art. And that’s a good thing. I think the Dolls made people see you could do this. You could start a band, you could be pretty big, you could have a traveling party, you get fans, you hopefully might get money, and get a record deal. It can be done. It’s not some far off thing.

Malcolm saw that with the Dolls and he tried to put bands together with Chrissie Hynde, Richard Hell, Syl Sylvain, and all kinds of different people. Then he realized, “Why don’t I just get a band from these younger kids?” Then the Ramones came in and influenced the idea of the short song, then came the Sex Pistols and the Damned, who were also managed by Jake Riviera, and they were the first punk band to come over here. It was a very big intermixing.

The scenes were very different in terms of the look. That whole punk look in England didn’t really come here until later. There wasn’t really a look to the New York scene particularly, which to me was what was nice about it. There was individualism within the bands. That was probably true among the British bands as well, except there was a second wave of copy bands, like the Cortinas and stuff. Remember that? [sings] “You’re a fascist dictator.” [laughs] All these weird bands that were just really dopey, but that’s OK — they were kind of dopey in a fun way. They just threw the politics on top of fast beats. That’s always how it goes. There’s always one thing and then ten other imitators and some of the imitators are amusing and some aren’t.

The Ramones and Blondie and everybody were touring in England by ’77. I was over there at that time. I was very good friends with Jake Riviera and that’s when the Stiff tour happened, and the Anarchy Tour with the Sex Pistols and the Heartbreakers. It was all very intertwined. I don’t think one thing was better than the other. I’d always been quite a bit of an Anglophile and I’d lived in England and knew people there, and I liked that. I never thought about it as two separate things. I just thought we were all having a party.

PM: In Blank Generation Revisited you said you dropped out of sight because you were in danger of losing your amateur status. What did you do in the ’80s?

RB: Oh, God, everything. What I really like, and it took me a long time to realize what I was doing, but I like to do all kinds of different things. I worked a lot of different jobs. I worked at the Peppermint Lounge for awhile and I worked in sales. I like to take what comes along. It’s like an adventure to not be tied into one thing. To me, the most boring thing I could have done was to become a professional photographer. [laughs] If I’d gotten professional and I’d gotten a studio, I’m sure I could have made a lot of money. To me, that’s just as boring as being an executive at IBM or something.

My camera was a tool to explore things and have fun and I luckily coincided with something. I never made a living from photography — I always had another job pretty much. Now I’m making almost a living from my photography because of what I did then because I wasn’t doing what I did then for money, if that makes sense. I’m making the money now, luckily, because what I had interest in has sustained itself. I do think that there was some artistry in what I was doing even though I don’t come from a background where I articulate the great theories that I’m trying to put forth in my work. That’s for other people to say about what I do, rather than me. I just take pictures.

PM: You were the only one of the Blank Generation Revisited photographers who didn’t seem to do it in a careerist way.

RB: Well, they’re all still photographers. That’s what they do. I’m not sure how much Stephanie [Chernikowski] still shoots, but does she still do sessions. Godlis is a street photographer. He photographs authors and things like that for jobs, but basically he’s just doing his own work out in the street. But Ebet Roberts is working professionally every day, goes to every concert and all that stuff and I’m sure she likes it. For me, I would have killed myself years ago if I still had to go out and photograph bands. Some people like it, so that’s good, whatever. [Bob] Gruen is obviously still a working photographer and he’s doing a lot of different things.

When people say “What do you do?” I still say “Photographer,” but I think the excitement of life is to not define yourself as being one thing. You have to do that if you want to make a lot of money, but luckily making a lot of money was never my motivation. In theory it is, but I know in reality it isn’t, because the people who really want to make a lot of money do make a lot of money, I think. So, I must not want to make a lot of money because I never did. That’s OK because it gives me a lot of freedom, which is what I really like about life – just seeing what rolls down the path. Luckily, I have Barry Neuman taking care of the gallery, photo, art side of my career, and I have a really good photo agent, Kevin Kushel, who’s taking care of the commercial side so I don’t have to bother with that stuff, because it interferes with goofing off, which I like doing a lot.

PM: How did you end up working on the Patti Smith biography with Victor Bockris?

RB: Victor was stuck in a place where he’d done the basic research, but he just couldn’t get started on the book. He hired me to come in and help him write the book. I’ve been a writer when I’ve been asked to write or forced to write or paid to write. If someone asks, “What do you do?” I don’t say, “I’m a writer.” I don’t wake up every day and write. I don’t have a novel that I’m working on. I should be writing my own book, but I’m too lazy and I haven’t gotten around to doing that. But I’m working on it because I’m living my life and that will be part of the book. So I’m still doing the research.

PM: Would you ever consider doing another biography?

RB: No. I think some people have a real talent for biography. I had dinner last night with Nick Tosches, who’s probably one of the best biographers. The kind of thing he does I could never aspire to. I’m not a writer in that sense. The only way I would do a biography is if some subject matter gripped me so much that I wanted to write about it. I’d really rather read books than write them.

I have my story that I have and nobody else can have. I mean, God forbid — I suppose my payback from Patti is going to be if someone writes my biography. [laughs] I’ve had an entertaining life, but I certainly wouldn’t want it all in print. If I write my book, it’s mainly going to be from ’74 or ’72 to the ’80s. I certainly don’t have an interest in telling people my whole life story, even though it’s mildly amusing. I began as a Beatles fanatic, then there was the whole San Francisco psychedelic scene. All these different things came together, so I think I covered a lot of water.

PM: I was wondering if you were into the San Francisco scene, since you grew up there.

I was going to the Fillmore from the time I was about 17 or 16. We were pretty young, but you still saw all the psychedelia and everything. We went to all the be-ins and love-ins, and this and that. Basically, we were going to see the bands. We weren’t going to take LSD — not quite yet. I went to the Monterey Pop Festival, was involved in that whole scene. But the early British Invasion stuff was what I was really into — the Beatles, the Stones, and all that stuff.

PM: You still live and work in New York. Do you feel like the city has retained its cultural importance?

RB: I don’t think New York’s cultural importance ever is going to change. There isn’t any other place like this. Since I’ve been here all this time — 26 or 27 years — maybe I can’t even see. I don’t know what’s happening in the rest of the world and maybe there’s a whole big thing out there, but still I don’t think there’s any place like New York. I don’t think I’m that involved in the cultural life or anything except by osmosis. I go to museums or galleries rarely. I just walk around and to me, that’s the cultural influence of New York, just walking down the street. I don’t think there’s any streets like these, but I could be wrong. If I could find another place to live, I’m sure I’d like to live there, but I think I’d really miss New York. I’m from San Francisco, but when I go back there, it’s a very nice place but it doesn’t even seem like a city to me. It seems like some kind of a weird, clean village. [laughs] Not a lot of grit.

PM: Do you feel like the grit is still in New York in spite of Mayor Giuliani?

RB: The parts of New York that Giuliani has cleaned up, like Times Square — I liked the old Times Square better, but I don’t go there. Why would I go there? I’m in my crummy neighborhood. To me, it’s improvements. People are saying “Gentrification, gentrification.” Hey, if gentrification means I have fifty movie screens within a three-block walking radius of my home, I’m happy about that. I used to have to go uptown for the movies. I don’t have to go uptown for anything anymore. Literally, there’s five or six theaters within five minutes of where I am. That, to me, is the culture that I like, even though I never go to the movies anymore. But if I want to I can. The same thing about restaurants — I have six good, cheap restaurants within a two-block walking radius. I like that. They can’t clean up New York too much. They can do it somewhat, but there will always be some kind of an underbelly here.

In the farther East Village, like Avenue A, B, C, and D, that used to really be very rough, poor, dangerous, drug-dealing, all that. Some of those blocks now are just beautiful. They’re not modern or anything. They’re just nice. I think that’s a good thing. It’s unfortunate that everything becomes expensive, but you can’t just let things run down and become the South Bronx so they’ll stay cheap.

If you want to find bad neighborhoods, there’s plenty of them if that turns you on. They’re always there. I have a rent stabilized apartment so my rent has only gone up minimally since I’ve been here. If I lost this apartment and I had to go out and look, I couldn’t live in New York. I don’t want to work hard enough to pay fifteen hundred a month rent. That’s of no interest to me. When would be my time to enjoy my life? So then I would just leave. If gentrification has made the rents go up, I don’t know what you can do about these things. I don’t have an answer about that stuff.

PM: What are you doing now?

RB: Up until Monday morning, when e-Bay suspended me, I was selling on the Internet. I had a cracking business on there. EBay has an anti-free speech policy. They have this thing called keyword spamming. I was selling designer clothes, so if you say the dress is “Pucci-esque” or “like Pucci,” that’s illegal. So I had a Leonard of Paris, who is a very expensive designer. I had an eleven hundred-dollar silk top and I said “Leonard of Paris Pucci silk top” and someone reported me. I looked today under “Pucci” and there’s seventeen auctions that do that exact same thing that are listed currently — that have “Pucci” but they’re not Pucci — but all those people are still there. But somebody reported me. Who could that be? Could it be my competition? So they took my whole business away. I’m incorrigible. I was really enjoying that, but now it’s over, so I have to figure out what to do with all these designer clothes.

That’s what I was doing — shopping, sending things out to the post office, selling them. It was like I was a personal shopper for the world. I was going to people in Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Australia. I really liked it and maybe I can do a Web site or something. I just hate that eBay. I just started doing it for a goof and then all of a sudden I got really into it, I got addicted to it, and then I started making money. We’ll see what the next thing is. One day at a time.

I also have a job. I have a regular job on the weekend where I work for the city. I work with the AIDS hotline. I’ve been doing that for five or six years. I went back to school a few years ago and got a degree in public health. I was really sick and thought I was going to die, so I thought, “As long as I feel this bad, I might as well be in school.” I finally got my BS.

PM: As a last word, what do you think is the greatest gift punk gave the world?

RB: It’s a hard question, because I live on St. Mark’s Place between 2nd and 3rd. Anyone who’s been in New York knows this block — the “punk rock block.” There’s still all these kids who are dressed like 1977 in the bondage pants, the mohawk, this and that. What we thought it would have given was the idea of originality and you can be any way you want, you can be different. The idea of punk that I liked was that you don’t have to be an expert. An amateur is a good thing. An amateur is somebody who does something because they like doing it. You don’t have to be an expert. You can try different things. You could try going on-stage before you were a virtuoso. You could pick up a camera if you hadn’t gone to photography school. You can do these creative things.

I guess there are some people that picked up on that idea, but instead they seem to pick up on the bad fashion. I guess that’s just the visuals. I’m sure plenty of people were inspired by the punk thing, from R.E.M. to Green Day. Outside of the music thing, though, I find a lot of young people are whiny. They’re saying, “We don’t have anything. Everything is harder today. You had this. You had the good bands. You were around when…” It’s like, “What?!” No, we were around when nothing was happening, so that’s why we did it. There were no good magazines around to inspire Punk magazine. Punk magazine came out of itself. I find so many of the young people are whining about how life’s so boring now. No, life was boring then! That’s why we did this.

People always say, “Why do you think there’s still so much interest in the punk thing?” The reason is because nothing else has happened since then. I’m happy about that because I’m making money. I’m selling my pictures because there’s still this continuing, unending interest in the ’70s. But why not something new? Wouldn’t that be interesting? I always think maybe it’s happening out there and I don’t know about it because I don’t pay attention to these things, but I don’t think it is. That’s what’s scary. I don’t think there’s anything interesting happening. I wish that wasn’t true.