Scott: Talk a bit about your job as Photo Editor at New York Rocker. Was being an editor something you particularly enjoyed (I mean, in comparison to being a freelance photographer)? What was the atmosphere like there? Was it difficult putting the paper out every month?
Laura: I have great memories of the Rocker. As Photo Editor and chief photographer, it put me in the enviable position of being probably one of the few photographers of the time who had access to most of the punk, post-punk, new wave, No Wave, and college radio (as it was called then) bands of the time. I was there during Andy Schwartz’s reign as Editor, from 1980 until 1983, when it folded. The Rocker was on the second floor of a commercial loft building on lower Fifth Avenue – a few metal desks, a stereo that was always on (and where I first heard Mission of Burma, Prince, and countless other bands), tons of posters and flyers and a few ratty sofas. As a freelance photographer you’re always on the move, but being a member of the editorial staff meant I had a home base, and, without sounding too corny, I was part of a family, which I really appreciated. Once a month we’d pull an all-nighter pasting the issue together, with Xacto blades and melted wax. Since the Rocker was around the corner from Danceteria, we’d generally meet at the office and all head over there for gigs afterwards. I made some wonderful friends there who I am still close with.
Scott: Who were some of the writers and editors you worked most closely with during these years (in or out of the New York Rocker)? Any scandalous rock critic stories you can share with us?
Laura: As writers, Tim Sommer and Michael Hill the most, probably. Editor Andy Schwartz at the Rocker, and Photo Editor Fred McDarrah at the Voice (and indirectly, Robert Christgau and Jon Pareles at the Voice).
I was lucky to work with writers, critics, and editors who had great taste and were aware of certain bands and scenes before anyone else. I learned a lot from them. I also made an effort to shoot certain bands that I personally liked, not on assignment, but on my own, and would place the photos or pitch story ideas to editors later on. So in that sense I probably also had a bit of influence on who got press. A lot of times I’d shoot a band and we’d just click. R.E.M. was a good example of that. We first met when they came over to my apartment for a photo shoot, and then we went out to Chinatown for dinner afterwards. We just connected, and became good friends, and through them I eventually got to know the other bands from Athens. When Michael Stipe’s sister’s band OH-OK came to New York for the first time, he made sure we hooked up, and they ended up staying with me. I documented much of the Athens music scene (Pylon, Love Tractor, the B-52’s) and spent a lot of time down there. Same for the Paisley Underground scene in L.A.; through the Dream Syndicate I met and photographed the Rain Parade, Opal, the Bangles, Three O’Clock, Long Ryders, Green on Red, Mazzy Star, etc. A lot of bands used to crash in my apartment when they were on tour, or some became friends and came just to visit.
BTW, rock critics? Scandalous? Ha!
Scott: Some of the musicians you photographed in the early ’80s were originally situated in the post-punk scene – or at least tangentially related to that scene – and then blew up into something much bigger. I’m thinking specifically of Madonna, Prince, and R.E.M. Talking specifically about Madonna and Prince, describe your experience photographing them, and was there any sense at that point how big they were going to become? (Also, did you do any follow-up photo shoots with them?)
Laura: Funnily enough, you chose two people who I don’t have any interesting stories about! I was assigned by Interview magazine to shoot Madonna in 1982, right before her first single (“Everybody”) was released. No one really knew what she looked like. Like most of my subjects back then, she came to my Chinatown apartment alone, without any kind of entourage. She was incredibly professional and cooperative and took direction very well. Even when I asked her to do seemingly ridiculous things like wrap herself in the backdrop and pretend to scream, she was game. There’s really not much more to the story than that, I’m afraid! It was a very professional and pleasant encounter.
I have even less to tell you about Prince. I think I was sent by the Rocker. He was performing at The Ritz in 1981 and I stood at the base of the stage and photographed his performance. His stage costume was pretty outrageous and very risqué for the time, so I shot a few frames that cropped out his head and focused on the rest of him – I think it worked. I never met him.
I don’t always have the best radar when it comes to who will make it big and who won’t. There are some bands who surprised me with their success, and others who I’m shocked to find never make it big. I tend to gravitate to what I like personally, but that doesn’t always translate into record sales.
Scott: In one of the notes on your website, you mention that you photographed R.E.M. “more than any other band.” You also did a Super-8 movie with them in 1984. In a working situation like that, does it become harder with each shoot to come up with an interesting concept or idea for the shoot? How did you keep things interesting with them in particular?
Laura: With R.E.M. my approach to the photos was pretty straightforward, as they are. They’re a friendly, down-to-earth and unpretentious group of guys and I thought the photos should reflect that, so I didn’t try anything high-concept. It wouldn’t have been true to their nature. Mostly I’d shoot in different environments and settings, of which there were plenty down in Athens and on the road. Michael and I also did a lot of sessions privately – for fun and for practice and as two artists collaborating – and those were always more experimental and different and, for lack of a better word, arty. I went on the road with them a lot, so I was able to shoot them backstage, in the van, sleeping in their motel rooms… all the behind-the-scenes documentary stuff that I loved to do.
I made the film, Just Like A Movie, during one of my longer visits to Athens, in the fall of 1983. I’d gotten a used Super-8 camera the year before and had been shooting a lot of home movies on the road with them and some other bands, so I decided to try my hand at a more narrative film. I had just seen D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back so I used it as a jumping-off point; there are parts that are an homage to that film (for example, Michael Stipe presents the credits with cue cards a la Dylan). I was aware that R.E.M. at that time were in a similar place to where Dylan was when Pennebaker made his film; you know, just on the cusp of fame but not quite there yet, taking it all in, dealing with it. So I brought my camera, 60 minutes of black-and-white Super-8 film, and my Walkman down to Athens. The film was very much an improvisational affair – the cast came up with their own characters’ names and costumes and we pretty much improvised the scenes. The basic premise was that there were two rival musicians performing on the same night (similar to the Dylan/Donovan rivalry that existed when Dylan came to London to perform), each with their own entourage. They meet and fall in love, but evil forces keep them apart. Linda Hopper from OH-OK played the “Donovan”-inspired character, and Michael Stipe, the “Dylan”-inspired one. The other players included Lynda and Cyndy Stipe, Matthew Sweet, Jerry Ayers, plus of course all of the members of R.E.M. and Oh-OK. Members of Pylon and pretty much anyone else from the Athens scene who was in town that week also made an appearance. A few of them were in drag.
I recorded all of the original music live on my Walkman. Michael and Matthew Sweet performed a gorgeous version of “Pale Blue Eyes” and a song called “Tainted Obligation.” R.E.M. had scheduled a secret show at an abandoned factory called Stitchcraft while I was there, so we combined their rehearsal with filming, and they played “I Got You Babe” and some other songs while we filmed a scene with the actors. They and Oh-OK were also playing an outdoor performance at the University of Georgia football field, so I worked sound check and concert footage from that into the film as well.
I used pretty much every minute of footage I shot – from 60 minutes of raw footage the film itself is I think 45 minutes. Which, if you know something about the ratio of raw footage to a cut film, is absurd! There were no re-takes, needless to say.
The film has a special place in my heart not only because of the friendship and the music, but because it documents a time and a place that disappeared soon thereafter. There’s a real innocence to that time, documenting the band before they moved on to the wonderful successes that they did.
Scott: I love some of your photos of D.N.A. – they’re such an exciting looking band. And musically pretty extreme. Were you big on much of the music to come out of the No Wave sub-genre? Were DNA a fun subject to work with?
Laura: Between you and me, I had a hard time listening to much of the No Wave music, but visually it was a treat to photograph. How can you not love shooting someone like Arto Lindsay? That face! That body! That fashion sense! DNA were a pleasure to work with, very cooperative and accommodating. In fact, a number of my photographs from that scene were recently published in a book about No Wave written by Byron Coley and Thurston Moore. Byron and I had a great time going through my archives and contact sheets, picking out images for the book.
Scott: One of the first photographs of yours I remember loving was your New York Rocker cover featuring Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and Grandmaster Flash, both holding giant boom-boxes, standing in front of a wall of graffiti. For me that photo – which is very straightforward in a way – just kind of crystallizes such a major moment for me personally, the melding together of punk and rap, black and white, etc. Any thoughts on that whole timeframe and era?
Laura: I can’t take any credit for pairing those two up – that was the brainstorm of Andy Schwartz, who obviously saw what was happening in music: the cross-pollination of the uptown and downtown music scenes… the Tom-Tom Club, Grandmaster Flash, Liquid Liquid, everyone influencing everyone else. The session was a joy – Tina and Flash had never met before, and got along wonderfully. I took them to a playground on the Lower East Side just a few blocks from my apartment, around Cherry Street or Monroe Street. They were terrific – they played, they danced, they had a great time, as did I.
Scott: I think the New York Rocker lasted six years, and went through at least one major stylistic change (with its short-lived stint as a glossy). What, from your perspective, happened to the paper?
Laura: I honestly couldn’t say. I had nothing to do with the Rocker (nor did any of the original staff) once it was sold and resurrected as a short-lived glossy. It didn’t really bear any sort of relation to the original.
Click here for part 3 of rockcritics.com’s interview with Laura Levine