When most people reminisce about their teenage years they might recall playing sports, high school friends, a wild spring break, or a couple of really fun summers. When I recall my early teens, I think about the nonstop fun and excitement of spending my nights with rock stars, underground actors, the New York Dolls, drag queens, drug addicts, painters, artists, and the perpetual madness at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. Growing up, the people and places we attach ourselves to make us who we are, and to be a fourteen-year-old under that kind of influence surely shaped who I am today, good and bad. Due to my young age and unconventional surroundings, I didn¹t blink an eye at things that would have made most adults blush. It was like being on a never-ending roller-coaster ride.
By the time I entered high school at the birth of the seventies, I had already been perfectly schooled in rock ‘n’ roll by my older brothers, Miki and Mandy, who had formed a basement band. I would soon find my place alongside them in the music scene as well. I had decided to become a photographer, or should I say, a person who took pictures of rock ‘n’ roll personalities. I wasn¹t sure how to achieve this feat, but I was already going to concerts with my brothers, sneaking in a camera to take photos from the back of the auditorium. Soon after I would find myself on the lip of a much smaller stage, taking pictures of friends in bands that only myself and a handful of others in the New York underground cared about. A few years later the whole world would start to care about them.
My high school years were an academic disaster; the only classes that interested me were art, music, and photography. The photography courses at my school in Brooklyn were so inadequate that they discouraged the use of 35mm cameras, so I ended up shooting photos of underground rock royalty with a 110 Instamatic, a Brownie, and a Polaroid. Even after I got my $65 Nikon 35mm, I didn¹t use it as my main camera, swapping it out for the lesser models indiscriminately. I never thought the camera made a difference, figuring it was the subject that was most important.
In the early seventies no one really cared what you did, and everyone experimented with sexuality and drugs‹at least in Manhattan. Brooklyn was another story. Going out to concerts and clubs until 4 a.m., then going to school by 8 a.m. was rough, especially because I had to remove my makeup for school. But I stubbornly wore my platform boots, satin pants, and glitter shirts, which didn’t make things easy. My brothers and I were determined to establish ourselves in the city and leave our backward borough far behind.
Photographing at big concerts rarely worked out, but when we would go to the clubs I was always comfortable snapping away at friends and bands I knew. And everyone was our friend (it was so easy to meet people at small clubs), and almost everyone was in a band, or thinking about starting one. The New York Dolls; Wayne County; Debbie Harry and Chris Stein; and Patti Smith and Suicide were already performing in 1973 and 1974, and my brothers¹ band, The Fast, began cementing themselves into the scene as well. By 1975 the underground had expanded with the Ramones, Television, and Talking Heads. Taking photos during my nights out was natural, comfortable, and satisfying. Friends wouldn’t be on guard and never shied away from my lens. I was close to them, I was trusted, and no one felt I was being intrusive.
In 1975 I started to sing with The Fast and had less time for photography, so snapping pictures was downgraded from my mission to my hobby. But looking back on my photos I’m so glad I had a camera around my neck throughout the seventies. For a teenager whose playground, classroom, study hall, and gymnasium were the New York underground, these snapshots became my high school yearbooks.
Excerpt from “Playground: Growing Up in the New York Underground.” Copyright (c) 2014 and reprinted by permission of Glitterati Incorporated.