Monday, March 30, 2015

Who are they?

Ladies in costume, 1998

A PORTRAIT SHOOT FROM MY LAST YEAR AT NOW MAGAZINE. I'm guessing these are actors performing in a period piece; normally NOW frowned at shooting theatre people in character but for some reason this was an exception and I'm grateful for that.

I have to give credit to these two women and their costumer - they look correct and have risen to my challenge to re-create a period snapshot with suitable enthusiasm, channeled into a plausible formal stiffness. Shot with my dearly departed Canon EOS Elan, which by this point had become almost an extension of my hand and eye, and processed with my favorite film/chemistry combo: Ilford Delta 400 through Agfa Rodinal.

Every now and then I like to recite these scraps of technical data like a mantra, since they remind me of a time in my career I've come to miss. Even for quick shoots like this I was probably at the top of my game. I wish I'd known at the time that things were going to get an awful lot worse in the next few years, or that the industry - including venerable names like Agfa and Ilford - would go through some brutal changes.

Commercial Bank facade, Brookfield Place, Toronto, 2013

I might not remember who these women are, but I certainly recognize the location - the reconstituted facade of the old Commercial Bank as it currently stands amidst the soaring ribs of Santiago Calatrava's galleria at Brookfield Place in the financial district. We're not big on architectural preservation in Toronto, but in the last few years we've been shamed to at least preserve bits of walls to placate concerned locals and their councillors at City Hall, so developers have courteously held back the wrecking ball and displayed artifacts of the former streetscape like mounted trophies

I wrote a feature about "facadomies" for t.o.night a couple of years ago, and shot the old Commercial Bank facade for the piece. Alas, t.o.night went out of business not long afterward and the story has disappeared along with the paper's website. This photo, for now, is all that remains.


Friday, March 27, 2015


Natalie Merchant, Toronto, 1998

I CAN COUNT ON TWO HANDS THE PEOPLE I'VE SHOT MORE THAN ONCE. Most of them were friends or local artists, but one of them is Natalie Merchant. On both occasions it was simply work - a job I took on without particular enthusiasm since I can't say that I've ever been much of a fan.

It's hard to be scientific about a career, especially if it's a "creative" one, but having the same subject years apart offers a benchmark and a control that gives a snapshot of technical achievement and taste. For fans of the subject, I suppose it provides a document of how the same pair of eyes saw someone at different stages of their career.

In my case, these photos are bookends to the zenith of my career as a photographer, taken just before it began in earnest and just as it was subsiding steeply.

Natalie Merchant, Toronto, December 1, 1987

I don't remember who I shot Natalie Merchant for in the fall of 1987, backstage at RPM, the huge waterfront club that was just recently demolished. Since I can't find anything in my collection of Nerve magazines, I have to assume it was for Graffiti, the glossy rock mag that snapped up most of Nerve's writers when it moved to Toronto from Montreal.

In my circle of friends, Merchant was mostly known for being the closest thing to a girlfriend associated with Michael Stipe from R.E.M. I was grateful that I didn't have to interview her, and all I remember is that we didn't exchange many words, and that her demeanor was demure and awkward - Ally Sheedy from The Breakfast Club.

I set up in one of RPM's bright but drab dressing rooms with my portable studio - the Mamiya C330, a flash bounced into an umbrella and the white painter's drop cloth I carried around in a gym bag, secured to the wall with gaffer tape. The slightly telephoto lens on the Mamiya gave a flattering "portrait" depth of field, which I've enhanced in Photoshop years later. I shot at least a couple of rolls but this is the best of the bunch, though it has more than a bit of the "actor's first headshot" vibe about it.

Natalie Merchant, Toronto, 1998

Over a decade would pass before I'd find Merchant in front of my camera again. The client was the National Post's Weekend magazine supplement, where I did quite a lot of work in its first year, before the inevitable staff purge and downsizing. Things were being run fast and loose, so I was able to convince the editors that I could be both writer and photographer for my stories.

A more established newspaper with a staff of salaried photographers would have frowned on this, and most of the time it was an uphill battle convincing two different departments of any newsroom that, yes, it's actually possible to write and shoot with equal competence. (The irony is that today, in the "do more with less" world of journalism, this is actually encouraged, though you're also likely to get paid an awful lot less.)

I was still in the thrall of cross-processing when I photographed Merchant using what was by then my standard kit - two Rolleis, film and accessories in a small Pelikan case and a small Manfrotto tripod. Outside of the studio I'd come to prefer Fuji's 400 ASA slide film, rated normally and processed through negative chemistry, which gave an inevitable colour shift to the yellow/green but provided a much less contrasty negative than their slower slide films.

Ironically, after scanning the shots above I've desaturated them quite a bit in Photoshop; it was the only way of coping with the colour shift, but I suppose my taste in colour has changed after over fifteen years. I was a lot more confident giving directions to my subject after a decade's passing, thankfully, and I think the shoot's a testament to both of us being a lot less timid in a situation where there's a camera between us.

As for the interview, I don't recall much except her apparent confusion when I suggested that I picked up a few Bowie influences on her album, and that I could understand since we were about the same age and part of a generation that was effectively "Bowie-damaged" in our formative years. To be frank I didn't much care how well the interview went, since even then I just considered it a way of getting one of my portraits in print.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015


THE ABANDONED BALLROOM SITS NEARLY TWENTY STORIES ABOVE THE OLD DOWNTOWN, at the top of a venerable and still-busy luxury hotel. Sneaking in to take photos is something of a rite of passage for budding urban exploration types, so I'm not going to spoil it for anyone else by revealing the hotel's name, though if you live here I'm sure you know where I'm talking about. All I can say is that it's remarkably easy to get in and take your shots; it's like the management actually want you to do it.

After years on my to-do list, last week I finally packed a camera, dressed inconspicuously and headed down to the hotel - oddly enough the same one where my wife and I had our wedding reception. Working from brief directions from a friend, I took the elevator and the service stairs, turned a corner and found myself on the mezzanine overlooking the old dance floor as afternoon sun streamed through the tall windows.

The ballroom has been closed since the late '50s, and while urbex types have captured it in a starker, ghostlier condition, when I arrived with my camera there was plywood and plastic on the windows and surplus hotel furniture stored on the dancefloor. Hotel management has been promising to restore and re-open the ballroom for years now, but it looks in worse condition than it was when earlier photographers discovered it.

There are hundreds of photos of the ballroom online, so finding an original view of the room is a challenge; every time I raised my Olympus to my eye I had a persistent feeling of deja vu even though it was my first time there. The ballroom is abandoned but it's hardly unused, so the bits of detritus from workmen and the hotel flotsam inevitably caught my attention.

Ultimately, though, it was the adjacent rooms and stairwells that I ended up wandering through once I'd spent a half hour or so in the ballroom. They were part of the unglamourous "downstairs" support structure that circulates in and around the public spaces of every hotel, most of them so long empty that their original function has wasted away.

The hallways are painted in the faintly toxic greens and blues of the institutional yesterday, chipped and faded after years of being at the bottom of the hotel's list of priorities. These are the bones of the hotel, seen from the inside and rubbed raw from use.

I ended up taking my favorite shot in a dim little room where the hotel had carefully stored Christmas trees, shrouded in thin plastic and barely lit by a tiny window. Overhead was the only new looking thing on the whole floor - a shiny branch of metal ductwork.


Monday, March 23, 2015


Martin Amis, Toronto, 1987

IT SOUNDS IMPLAUSIBLE NOW, BUT A DECENT ROCK MAG WAS ONCE OBLIGED TO WRITE ABOUT MORE THAN JUST BANDS. Of course we wrote about people like Henry Rollins and the Butthole Surfers at Nerve, but looking over my box of back issues it's startling how much space we devoted to movies and books and writers, alongside the flotsam of post-punk, the grunge precursors, and the hardcore bands going metal.

By 1987 Martin Amis had moved firmly out from under the shadow of his famous father. His guidebook to arcade video games was now a wry footnote, and he had authored five novels, the most recent of which, Money, was regarded as something both zeitgeist-y and literate and a must-read for those of us fully in the grip of the '80s as young adults. No surprise then that he found a place not only in the pages of Nerve but on the cover.

Amis was in town promoting his first collection of short stories, and I set up my C330 on a tripod in the restaurant of the downtown hotel where he was staying - the monolithic Sheraton Centre, I believe, or the much more elegant King Eddy; I honestly can't recall.

Martin Amis, Toronto, 1987

Ideally I would have liked a neutral wall for a backdrop, but it was made plain that Amis wasn't going to budge from his table, at least not for someone from some weird little rock mag. It's the light that saves it, if anything does - a nice mix of soft light on the face and some natural highlight coming from the sun through the atrium behind the subject. As for the subject, he'd been in front of cameras long enough to give me at least a handful of good expressions, mostly on the spectrum from "coolly appraising" to "nonchalant."

From the perspective of almost thirty years later, I can't believe how young he looks.

What I particularly remember from this shoot was the writer, Phillip M., an Englishman who'd arrived in Toronto chasing a girl (that was his story) and who ended up kickstarting a career as a journalist thanks to some talent and charm, though not hurt by the deference his very middle-class accent aroused in the colonials.

Somehow he ended up at Nerve, though in a room full of misfits, he hardly stood out. Phillip was from a palpably similar background to Amis and understood the social context of his books better than anyone else at the paper, so I recall the interview going well; from my spot behind the camera, much better than my shoot.

The same issue of Nerve that featured the Amis photo also contained Phillip's interview with Mark King from Level 42, a band that we'd normally never deign to cover and a brutal hatchet job that I remember finding funny at the time. In retrospect it was more than a bit condescending - a little slice of class warfare that pitted Phillip's middle class sarcasm against King's working class guilelessness; a bit of oikophobia that played out like the famous "Class Sketch" from the Frost Report, rewritten for the '80s.

My most salient memory of Phillip - now a reputable film and television director in England - is a very Amis-ian one. I ran into him at the tail end of an art gallery opening across from Trinity Bellwoods Park, where he chatted amiably while scanning the room for abandoned glasses of wine which he'd examine briefly before draining.

It showed, I thought, an admirable commitment to getting drunk on the cheap. (It wouldn't have been out of place in a scene written by either Kingsley or Martin.) He would end up playing a small but crucial part in the domestic melodrama that eventually spelled the end of Nerve, which played out with a mix of comedy and tragedy that I also remember as being more than faintly Amis-ian.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Forests and Fields

Bruce Trail, Caledon, Sept.1990

AROUND THE TIME THE LAST BITS OF THE BERLIN WALL FELL AND THE FIRST GULF WAR BEGAN, I headed off into the woods with my camera for what would be the last time in many years. This time I brought along my Rolleiflex on one of my visits to my sister's place in Caledon, which was conveniently located right next to the Bruce Trail.

A network of hiking trails that bisects Southern Ontario from Niagara to Tobermory, the Caledon leg passes through forests and by farmer's fields, with occasional landmarks like the Cheltenham Badlands. The woods are mostly recent growth, logged for almost three centuries and dotted with tumbledown cabins and the remains of mills. Occasionally, though, nature tosses up a red herring, like this rock outcropping that a glance would mistake for masonry.

Bruce Trail, Caledon, Sept.1990

I enjoy taking photos on nature walks because I can't really relax. City streets are far more readable for me than a couple of miles of dirt path wandering through trees. On my own, I spend most of my time trying to read the landscape and look for hazards underfoot, but with a camera in my hand I have something to do, and a way to record the brutal textures of nature.

Perhaps it's a Canadian thing. In Europe nature has been logged, mowed, farmed, mined and landscaped for centuries, even millennia. Nature here is much more raw, and thanks to sparse population and brutal winters, it's not a place you want or need to pass through. Not surprisingly it looks wilder, with thicker undergrowth and denser trees and the scars of glaciation will visible under the dirt.

Bruce Trail, Caledon, Sept.1990

Or maybe it's just me. I have a photographer friend, Sean McCormick, who lives in Alberta and takes landscapes that are regal and majestic and full of awe. I joked with him a few years ago that my nature shots tend to look more like crime scene photography; it was photos like these that I had in mind.

Caledon cornfield, Sept. 1990

A couple of days after I walked the Trail I asked my sister and her husband to let me out of the car so I could take some photos by one of the farms along the highway. It was just before harvest so the fields were tall and thick as far as you could see. This was old farmland by Ontario standards, cleared a century or more ago, and even while it spread over rolling hills you could still see the sky, big and dramatic though not, perhaps, as endless as it is out on the Prairies.

Caledon cornfield, Sept. 1990

Nature, ominous and threatening; a storm threatening, twisters forming in every cloud. I am not the guy you want in your backpacking group, but send me out into the woods or a feedlot and I'll probably come back with at least one decent photo, mostly because I'm always certain that something out there is trying to kill me.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Eric B & Rakim

Rakim & Eric B, Toronto, 1987

I CAN'T EXPLAIN WHY NOW, but for at least a year or so at Nerve I ended up being a big part of the magazine's coverage of hip-hop, which is what I'm sure we were calling it by then, "rap" having gone the way of "jass" and "beat music." From 1986 till the early '90s, I ended up reviewing, shooting and/or interviewing LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Schoolly D, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, among others.

The highlight, though, was the shoot I did with Eric B & Rakim to accompany a feature I wrote about the duo. They'd just released Paid In Full and were about to put out Follow The Leader, their probable masterpiece, and I brought along my portable studio to the usual location - a hotel room or record company office, I can't honestly remember which any more.

I had just figured out the optimal angle to put my light that would make my background a mostly bright white, and my new umbrella bounce softened up my bare flash enough to produce a flattering portrait. With some judicious dodging I might be able to give a squinting approximation of a studio shoot, and thankfully Eric Barrier and William "Rakim" Griffin addressed my lens with just enough seriousness that I ended up with at least two portraits worth printing.

Eric B & Rakim, Toronto, 1987

This was just before every rap outfit was obliged to pose with cartoon menace and throw gang signs, and Eric B and Rakim presented themselves with a laconic cool that I was grateful to see as I peered through my focusing screen. The biggest hip hop cliches visible are the massive gold ropes around their neck and Eric's Kangol cap, but I'm grateful for them now - they pin the shots firmly to a point in the history of that music.

Buying a medium format camera was a sort of dare I made myself on my way to becoming a professional photographer, and the first year I owned this piece of hardware became on-the-job learning as I struggled toward creating the simple, classical portrait that I'd seen in books by Penn, Richard Avedon, Beaton and others. With my Eric B and Rakim session, I felt I'd actually reached a milestone of sorts; not that what I was doing was as good, but that their influence was at least palpable.

As for hip hop, it didn't take long for brute demography to leave me behind. Much as I'd loved Public Enemy, they made race an issue, not a context, in the music, and before I was out of my twenties I already felt too old - and too white - to pretend that any of it was being made for me. I still love those first three Eric B & Rakim records, which are now acknowledged as classics on the order of Rubber Soul or Disraeli Gears, which is appropriate when you consider that they're older now than those Beatles and Cream records were when I took these pictures.


Monday, March 16, 2015


A VIEW FROM A HOTEL ROOM WINDOW. But where? My only clue is the date on the back of a 4x6" photo lab print: October 14, 2003.

The only place I remember going in 2003 was Peru. So is this the view from my hotel in Lima, snapped offhandedly as I blew off a frame or two on the front of a roll while loading my Canon 7e, just after I'd checked in, and before a very brief night's sleep preceding the flight to Cuzco the next morning?


The columns of blurred light makes it look like a different city - a colonnaded and arched one - is growing out of the bubbling lights below. Not that Lima wasn't fantastic enough, at least to my eyes.

Here's another trimming, shot from the same spot. A bit less magical and mysterious: a nighttime view of the Palacio de Justicia across the Avenida España, shot on either the Canon or my Olympus Stylus:

And another bonus trimming: A view from inside the same room in the Sheraton Lima:


Thursday, March 12, 2015


Groovy Religion, Toronto, 1986

THE SHOT ABOVE IS FROM THE FIRST ROLL OF FILM I shot with my Mamiya C330 medium format camera. A more prudent photographer would have done a couple of test rolls to familiarize themselves with their new gear, but I was either too heedless or too cheap (or both) to bother, so I brought it along with me on assignment for Nerve on a late fall day in 1986.

I should have been less confident. I still had a lot to learn - about composing in a square format frame, about posing groups, about available light and depth of field in dim rooms - but the thing I most needed to learn was that the C330 had a design flaw: When you cocked the shutter your thumb would graze the little lever that adjusted the shutter speed, and you'd accidentally end up with shaky, overexposed frames. I would mostly ruin several shoots before I figured out what was happening.

Groovy Religion were a mainstay band on the local scene - a literate and sometimes gloomy group who ended up releasing three records over twelve years and a few personnel changes. William New - the lead singer, on the right - has fostered two generations of Toronto bands by booking his Elvis Mondays series almost non-stop for three decades. Scott Bradshaw - on the left - was actually a better guitarist than bassist, and still performs weekly with his band Massey-Harris. I still know both men today.

The Woodentops, Toronto, 1986

I learned on the job with my new camera, carting it to every interview I did for magazines like Nerve and Graffiti, teaming it up with a flash (a Vivitar 285 at first, then a Metz) to try and get enough light in the clubs and hotel rooms where I did all my work. Working with individuals was always easier than working with a group, so my success rate during the first year with the Mamiya was inverse depending to how many individuals were in the bands I shot.

The Woodentops were a particular favorite of mine. Bandleader Rolo McGinty (on the right) had played bass on "Revolutionary Spirit" by the Wild Swans, and the early Woodentops singles were of a piece with the sometimes elegant and often ecstatic sound I liked in my favorite English bands during this post-post-post-punk period. (They've actually re-formed and released a record, though keyboardist Alice Thompson left the band not long after this was shot and became a novelist.)

They'd come through town with a North American deal for their debut record and played the venerable el Mocambo, where I set up backstage and managed to fill two-thirds of a roll of 120 with some very sloppy portraits of the band. It was just the third roll I ran through the Mamiya, and I ruined some of the frames because I was still unsure how to load the camera. One of them still made it into Nerve - it was no small encouragement that, even when my work was substandard, it usually still made it into print.

Meat Puppets, Toronto, 1987

The year 1987 probably encompassed the steepest learning curve of my career. By the summer I'd become a lot more confident with the camera and its square format, and had invested in a light stand and umbrella for my flash, which produced far more professional results. Armed with a white painter's drop cloth for an ad hoc seamless backdrop that I carried around in a gym bag, I was striving to get the studio lighting effects with the most minimal gear and whatever power a handful of AA batteries could provide.

The Meat Puppets were a very big deal at Nerve, mostly because key members of the editorial staff had begun smoking an awful lot of dope. By their third record they'd graduated from a bleary, anxious-sound thrash band to the closest thing to the Grateful Dead we'd admit to liking. I shot them backstage at RPM, a cavernous dance club/concert space by the harbour, with an old Mexican blanket my sister had passed on to me, and which I'd been using to cover my sofa.

I knew - and the band were quick to point out - that it wasn't a particularly original backdrop choice for a group from Arizona, but I didn't care; I was happy to do the obvious until such point as I knew enough to attempt something more subtle.

Redd Kross, Toronto, 1987

By the time I shot L.A. hardcore-turned-glam band Redd Kross passing through Toronto touring their Neurotica album, I knew that I wanted a studio more than anything else, but had to content myself with whatever white wall or clean corner of a club I could find. For this shoot I placed my flash and umbrella close to the band to get the softest bounce light I could - the burned-in shadow in the lower right corner actually hides a leg of the light stand that made it into the frame.

I even found a fan in the room and trained it on the band for the windswept look that was all over fashion magazines. Being from Los Angeles, they responded enthusiastically, posing up a storm while I shouted "More hair! More hair!"

I haven't a clue who I shot this for; there's nothing in the stack of Nerve magazines I've managed to keep, so I have to assume that it either ended up in Graffiti or that I had hoped to place the shoot there. In any case, it's doubtful this shot has been seen anywhere since I took it nearly thirty years ago. Amazingly enough, Redd Kross are still at it.

The Primitives, Toronto, 1988

The Primitives were an English group whose sole hit - "Crash" - is doubtless somebody's favorite song of the '80s. Guitarist Paul Court and singer Tracy Tracy - basically the band - were doing publicity rounds and I ended up shooting them for Graffiti magazine in some hotel room, long forgotten.

I had scored a steady gig at Graffiti, shooting promos for the magazine that featured bands passing through town - or the office - reading copies of the magazine. It was some awful lame shit, but it was a gig and, more importantly, it paid. I'd set up with my Mamiya and light stand and the C330 and try to get a clean, focused shot of everyone from Faster Pussycat and the Mighty Lemon Drops to Buckwheat Zydeco and Gene Simmons engrossed in a garishly slick little Canadian music magazine.

I'd try to save a few frames at the end of a roll for portraits of the band without the magazine, in the hope of getting a reprint or another sale in the future. It usually didn't happen, but it was valuable practice, and less than two years after buying the Mamiya I was able - provided I found a clean white wall and aimed the flash and umbrella just right - to produce a portrait that might fool someone into thinking I had a nice, bright studio at my disposal. By 1988 there was nothing I longed for more.



Tuesday, March 10, 2015


Anton Fier, Toronto, April 1987

I'D BE LYING IF I SAID I WASN'T SCARED BEFORE EVERY JOB I DID when I was starting out. But Anton Fier arrived on my doorstep with a fearsome reputation (no pun intended) for belligerence that he didn't deny, and in any case we hadn't gotten off on a good footing.

I'd interviewed Fier on the phone for Nerve a year previous, after the release of Visions of Excess, the second album by his Golden Palominos supergroup. He was in a poor mood when he picked up the phone, and my own nervousness did me no favours when I asked him if he saw himself as having a career like drummer/bandleader (and renowned tough guy) Buddy Rich, I'd said Buddy Miles instead.

He immediately took offense and asked if I thought he was going to do prison time for drugs. I backpedaled fiercely and managed (barely) to salvage the interview, but it wasn't a shining moment for either of us. In retrospect it was a lousy question regardless of what Buddy I was talking about; a few more like this and I'd start thinking I was probably a better photographer than rock critic.

Which begs the question of just what I thought I was doing when I asked for a re-match with Fier, in person, when he brought the Palominos to town a year later on their Blast of Silence tour.

Anton Fier, Toronto, April 1987

I recall that Fier was staying at a hotel not far from my roach trap apartment in Boystown, just next to Maple Leaf Gardens, then still a hockey arena and major concert venue. His room was small and remarkably bare, and I shot him with the same set-up I'd used for John Cale a few months earlier - my Mamiya C330 cradled in one hand, a bare flash in the other.

I'd been doing this long enough to know what it could produce, and that when it worked it produced a simple, dramatic portrait lighting that evoked (starkly) the Hollywood glamour portraits I loved so much. I printed the Fier shot for Nerve's cover with a lot more contrast, but revisiting the shoot for scanning today, I like a version that pulled out more of a range of grays and preserved some skin tone and texture.

The top picture captures a bit of the confrontational nature of Fier, though to be fair our second interview went much better than the first, though he was as blunt as ever. Onstage later that night, however, he beamed from behind his drum kit for most of the show, which probably only proved that he'd rather be playing that enduring more press. I can't say I blamed him.

Fier is one of those drummers who actually deserves the adjective "powerhouse," and a recording of that show captures that well, I think. He'd go on to make several other Golden Palominos records, each one a virtually standalone project, different from the others in mood and sound.

Nerve covered bands like Fier's Golden Palominos for obvious reasons: Visions of Excess, with its guest vocals by Michael Stipe, Fred Frith and John Lydon, was an obvious product of the whole skronk/indie/post-punk world we covered, while the band that toured Blast of Silence covered a whole lot of musical bases.

I'd end up getting into bassist Matthew Sweet's work a lot later in the '90s, and guitarists Jody Harris and Peter Blegvad were already in my record collection, but the real draw for me was Bernie Worrell on the organ, just a couple of years from his time as an adjunct member of the Talking Heads. Worrell was, of course, a keystone member of the Parliament-Funkadelic collective and my real reason for spending my day with the Palominos and risking a second bout with Fier. I'd even manage to sneak a (very brief) portrait session with Worrell, but more about that later.


Friday, March 6, 2015

New Model Army

New Model Army, Toronto, 1986

I HAVE ALWAYS HAD A MEMORY OF REGRET attached to my shoot with New Model Army. It has less to do with the photos I took - I still like this simple but effective portrait, even today - than with an attitude I struck when writing up my interview with Justin Sullivan, the frontman who had earlier performed under the name Slade the Leveller.

After having been denied entry to the United States, the band were finally able to tour North America, to promote their album, The Ghost of Cain, and I asked Dave if I could interview them for Nerve. I had very much liked their previous record, No Rest For The Wicked, and found their very earnest, more than faintly apocalyptic presentation compelling. From Sullivan's former alias to the band's name, they evoked the English Civil War - the most bloody and revolutionary period in that country's history after the Middle Ages, in the service of making a very explicit parallel between then and England in the '80s.

Sullivan publicly came across like a mixture of Jimmy Pursey and Wat Tyler, intense and unequivocal in his opinions. It made for a good interview, needless to say, and afterwards I assembled the band - Sullivan, drummer Rob Heaton and new bassist Jason "Moose" Harris - somewhere in the cavernous darkness of the club and took the photo above, with my Mamiya C330 and a flash held in my hand, just above my head - my very primitive portrait set-up at the time. Without a Polaroid back I wouldn't know how well it turned out until it was processed in my kitchen darkroom.

New Model Army live, RPM, Toronto, 1986

I hung around to shoot the show after the interview, but those shots weren't nearly as successful as the portrait; I could try to blame the dim lights in the club, but my own inexperience had a lot more to do with it. (You can glimpse me - briefly - up against the stage with my camera in this vintage interview with the band done by our local TV music show.)

The piece I ended up writing for Nerve made a big issue of Sullivan's off-handed admission that he admired Bruce Springsteen as a popular artist, and hoped to meet him one day. I was as much a snob as any 22-year-old music critic could hope to be, and editorialized this with what I considered just the right amount of a sneer. The piece ran, and I considered it a decent bit of work, though probably more for the portrait than the story, overall.

A few months later Dave handed me a letter they'd received at the office, addressed to me and written by Joolz Denby - the same Joolz whose name was on Justin Sullivan's t-shirt in my portrait of the band. A poet and artist and Sullivan's girlfriend, she was responsible for the band's visual image and frequently performed on the same bill with them.

In the letter, Denby told me that Sullivan had been a bit put off - even hurt - by the cynical and perfunctory tone I'd taken in my interview, and said that while he probably didn't want her writing the letter, she felt a duty to try and explain his reaction to my story, in the context of his own wariness of the media thanks to precisely this sort of story. It wasn't scolding or in any way pleading, but simply laid out her own understanding of how seriously Sullivan took what he was doing, and how particularly my piece had stung him.

The letter was accompanied by another piece of paper - an essay Denby had written about the joys of Bradford, the West Yorkshire city they called home. It was a vivid and lovely piece of writing, painting a picture of the city's virtues and highlights from her own, personal perspective, which she said she'd included to give me some idea of the setting in which she, Sullivan and his band were making their work.

The letter was touching and sincere and very well stated, and I felt quite ashamed after reading it. I was early in my career, learning quickly but not quickly enough, and I was making the classic mistake of copping an attitude instead of having a real opinion. I kept it for many years, but unfortunately Joolz' letter seems to have gone missing in one of my moves - or at least it hasn't turned up in any of the usual places.

Justin Sullivan and New Model Army are still recording and performing, and were subjects of Between Dog and Wolf, a documentary about their career. In 2007, Joolz Denby's artwork for the band was the subject of a traveling art exhibit; she has also published several books of poetry and short stories and a series of well-received mystery novels.

Rob Heaton died of pancreatic cancer in Nov. 2004.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015


SOMETIMES YOU'RE IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME. It hasn't happened to me often, but it did in the summer of 1985, after I'd dropped out of college and found myself at loose ends. My college journalism buddy Mark mentioned this weird little rock mag that was being put out in the same place he'd gotten our typesetting done, and told me to check them out. That was how I met Dave and Nancy.

In an age before blogs and websites you could either xerox a few pages of your own writing, staple it together and throw your lot in with the wholly subterranean world of fanzines or you could find some oddball publication that looked, for all intents and purposes, like it was supposed to be on a newsstand. Like blogs and websites and fanzines there inevitably wasn't any money involved, but provided you somehow clicked with the usually offbeat personalities involved, you'd get published and read and - probably most important - get access to the things and people that took up cultural real estate anywhere from the fringe to the mainstream.

That was me, and that was Nerve magazine.

Dave had recently graduated from fanzine subculture and Nancy had a journalism degree. They were an odd but charming couple, and between Nerve's various offices and their Queen Street West apartment, they ended up providing a home of sorts to an equally odd collection of writers and photographers notionally united by our interest in weird music, movies, books and art.

The greatest gift you can get as a young person with creative ambitions is a place with an audience to either succeed or fail. Looking back on Nerve today, I did one or the other in roughly equal proportions. It was challenging to throw myself amidst the Replacements in the drunken aftermath of a particularly sloppy show, but it was morale-boosting to have the only really decent shot I took that night blown up full page in Nerve.

I showed up at Nerve with a camera I could barely use and some college journalism clippings that showed that I could form a sentence though not, perhaps, an original opinion. Dave and Nancy gave me the opportunity to learn in public, and to this day I'm convinced that it was the best place to do it.

Working for Nerve gave me an apparently insatiable appetite for the fast, cheap thrill of being published, and while on most days I might lower my voice and intone "...and this is where it all went wrong," just for today I'm going to pretend the glass is half full and say that I'm grateful.

Nerve also gave me my first girlfriend and a whole new network of friendships, some of whom have actually survived to this day. Tim Powis was the sort of person I needed to meet - a decade older, with undogmatic taste in music and a huge record collection he was happy to loan out for manic, speed-fueled home taping sessions. I don't know anyone who doesn't like Tim, but I'm grateful to be among his friends.

I've written about Chris Buck before; I might have pursued a career in photography if we hadn't met, but I doubt if I would have worked as hard to develop taste or style without having him as a competitor, confidante and editor. It's one thing to want to get better, but it's another thing to have someone who can tell you how or why you need to do it.

My time at Nerve lasted barely three years, but it comprised a steep learning curve as a writer and, even more, as a photographer. Which is why, after dipping into the work I did there here and there, I'm going to devote the next couple of months to the best work I did from 1986 to 1988, almost all of it for Nerve.

I wrote a lot of rubbish for Nerve, some of it heartfelt, some of it simply regrettable. I was young; it's what you're supposed to do. I'll let the paragraph above stand in for most of it. There's not an awful lot of evidence of Nerve's brief lifespan online, and since no Nerve fonds were ever deposited in an archive somewhere, it's almost wholly absent from books written about that period of loud, sloppy, unprofitable rock music made just before Nirvana hit and punk "broke."

One of those books took the title of an old Minutemen song to describe what it was like to really love bands that never made money but could, potentially, end up sleeping on your floor. I interviewed and photographed those bands and even let them sleep on my floor, but for three years, Nerve was my life.


Monday, March 2, 2015

Some old pictures I didn't take: A boy and his dog

Jimmy Barnes, Hamilton, 1940s

WE WERE A KODAK FAMILY. Mount Dennis, the neighbourhood where I grew up, was built around Kodak's Canadian plant, and my mother, cousin and sister all worked there for a cumulative eight decades. So it's no surprise that among the things passed down to me are envelopes full of snapshots, slides and film negatives.

The boy holding the struggling dog is my cousin Jimmy Barnes, probably shot in the backyard of their family home in Hamilton, where my aunt Cecilia Murphy went to live when she married John Barnes. My mother probably took this shot, on a visit to her sister sometime in the '40s. I never knew Jimmy - he joined the navy and spent two decades at sea before buying a bar in Halifax. He might still be alive today, but I haven't heard about him since I was a boy.

I have always loved snapshots, with their foursquare composition, artless lighting and occasionally awkward poses and expressions. Some people like to describe them as capturing moments of the past, but given the effort required to find the camera, choose a backdrop and corral friends and family into the frame, they're more like the a moment in time forced awkwardly to slow its onward rush for a brief, stumbling pause.

The boy has a name but the dog doesn't, as he struggles to elude the camera's gulping shutter. There might be, at this moment, less than half a dozen people alive for whom the boy's name and the houses glimpsed behind him might evoke a real, lived memory. I am not one of them; I am merely the caretaker of this image, for now.

I've been going through these old photos for the last few months, scanning the negatives and asking my brother and sister if they can remember names or places, since almost all of these photos were taken long before I was born. After all of this work, I've decided to share them as the first blog post of every month, if only to justify the painstaking labour required to clean them up, spot the dust, repair the scratches and squeeze as much detail as I can from images taken on whatever Brownie or Instamatic my mother or cousin had bought with their employee discount.

Jimmy, Gloria and Joanne Barnes, Hamilton, 1940s

Here's another shot taken on the same day - Jimmy and his struggling dog with his sisters Gloria and Joanne. I knew them as my cousins but they were, in fact, my uncle and aunts, though I wouldn't learn this until nearly twenty years ago - a not-uncommon circumstance in Catholic families, where an unplanned baby might have been inconvenient but not unwanted. But more about that another time.