Roberta Bayley just looked at me.
I am standing in the middle of a large exhibition hall at the Centro Cultural Borges, nervously gripping an empty soda can on one hand and a cell phone in the other, feeling very out of place amid a growing crowd of press and media figures hauling cameras, audio equipment and lights. We each wait patiently for our turns to talk to Roberta. I have a little black notebook stashed in my pocket that was brought along for note-taking, but will go unused. I am wearing a suit jacket that is slightly too big for me. I’ve been practicing clever lines in my head for the last 45 minutes and talking with my friend Magu to pass the time. And Roberta Bayley just looked at me.
Roberta sits on a red couch at the very end of the hall. She’s been talking to interviewers non stop for the last several hours. She’s had bright lights pointed right at her face and been asked various iterations of the same question. Behind her hang two large photographs she took many decades ago. The pictures are of live performances by the Ramones, the band she’s come to be associated most closely with. They are depicted as fire and fury, pure youthful enthusiasm, white hot rock and roll at its rawest and most streamlined.
When it is finally my turn to talk to Roberta, her press person leans over and instructs me that I should be brief. Roberta has been doing interviews all day and the event is woefully behind schedule. Figures.
I am here to interview Roberta about her exhibit RAMONES & CBGB: Del Caos a la Cultura, which runs until September 30th as part of the Rockn’Doc Festival. The exhibit is largely centered around her time with the Ramones, but also displays her work with artists such as Blondie, The Clash, Billy Idol, the Sex Pistols, and Richard Hell, among many others. Along with magazines, late-70s punk rock ephemera, and pieces of personal correspondence, the exhibit does feel like traveling back in time.
The first thing Roberta does as we approach her is compliment Magu’s hair. The second thing she does is tell us how much she misses her dog. The third thing she does is pull out her phone and show us her dog. “Her babysitter made a little video for me,” she says as she proudly shows off a clip of her sleeping French Bulldog. “I’ve never been apart from her even for one day!”
Roberta is famous for capturing the nascent punk movement in 1970s New York, back when the city was practically deserted as the grownups had all relocated to the suburbs. In the midst of so much drab nothingness, a musical revolution kicked off, and Roberta was there to document it. Her most famous piece of work is the iconic cover art for the first Ramones album. That record felt like a mission statement for a new youth revolution, and the photograph captured it perfectly. It is also a picture that I see every day of my life, as it hangs on my living room wall. I want to tell her that, but I don’t want to be weird about it.
Although closely associated with New York City, she’s not actually a New York native. “I’m from California. I lived in London off and on for three years. And, you know, I was almost afraid to come to New York because of its reputation at the time. Gangs, violence, all that. You’d hear things like… in London there would be five murders, in New York there’d be 700. I’d seen movies like Serpico. I was thinking ‘Oh, it’s going to be so bad.’ But the minute I got to New York, everything was fantastic; I met great people right from the beginning. I didn’t know anyone! Within days, I had a circle of friends, and became involved in the music scene.”
“I liked London, but New York was a whole different thing. I immediately clicked with it.”
Could she pinpoint what brought on that wave of groundbreaking musicians she became so intimately involved with? “Nobody had any money in our group of downtown people, you needed very little to get by. The rents were very cheap at the time. So you had cheap rent and you wouldn’t have to work too hard, which meant you had extra time for creativity and to do things you wanted to do instead of killing yourself working to pay your rent. That definitely played a part.”
It is kind of strange to hear Roberta describe that scene as a byproduct of something as mundane as cheap rent. But it also makes complete sense. For me, some of the most exciting, imaginative, wildly unpredictable art in the entire history of popular music came from that movement. “Punk,” “new wave,” or simply “pop”; whatever you choose to call that shift that happened around 1975, a year that is perceived as the start of something brand new, but in reality– as with most cultural revolutions — was actually an amalgam of what had preceded it.
If Roberta’s theory is correct, that would mean that cheap rent led to the mix of the DIY, back-to-basics approach of garage-rock, the best bits of glam-rock, Kinks guitar distortion, and the 1960s beat-group sensitivity for melody. You had the influence of both Phil Spector and Pete Townshend, who showed this generation how to write songs (with an ear for the sugarshot and melodic) and how to play their instruments (with furious abandon), respectively. Add to that the outsider mentality and heavy bass feel of dub reggae, the deliberately difficult sounds of Krautrock and electronic music being produced in the old continent, and the cream-of-the-crop of the hippie era. Throw in some youthful rage + some utter boredom and what you end up with is one of most fruitful melting pots in the history popular music; a tidal wave of innovative, clever, forward-thinking art that also managed to be ear-splittingly loud and catchy as hell.
One thing that does seem obvious from looking at the photos on display is that, with the exception of Debbie Harry and a few others, this scene seemed to be dominated by men. I ask Roberta if she ever found it difficult to be taken seriously as a woman photographer in the scene. “I don’t think I really cared if I was taken seriously,” she offers. “I never thought about how anybody took me. You either like my picture or you don’t like my picture. One way or another, I’m there, and I’m going to do what I’m going to do.”
The conversation veers towards the topic of the traditional rock star / groupie relationship. “Tradional rock guys, and it may be different now but… the reason you wanted to be in rocknroll was to get a lot of girls and have a good party and take a lot of drugs and have fun. And because I was a photographer, and I knew a lot of these musicians, I got to be a part of that.” Roberta starts to hesitate, and I can tell that she’s feeling conflicted about what she’s about to say. “I question it now. I’ve been thinking a lot about it. But it did give me the opportunity to hang out with these sexist pigs! It was kind of fun!”, she laughs. “You get to be on the inside. They didn’t treat me badly because I was just a photographer. But I do question the dynamics of all of that now. When I think back, I’m like, oh wow, that was really gross. I was doing that shit?”
Magu and I tell Roberta about Cemento, the seminal Buenos Aires nightclub that used to be the go-to place to catch an affordable rock show. It is now a parking lot. Magu explains the parallels she sees between Cemento and CBGB, Roberta’s old stomping ground and place of employment. I ask Roberta if she feels any nostalgia about that club, and whether she was sad when it finally shuttered its doors.
“I left as soon as I could!”, Roberta laughs. “It was a job for me. I mean, I loved the bands and everything, but by ‘78, when I left, most of the bands had already signed record contracts, they were hardly even playing CBGB anymore. And the club had become really popular. It was full of people every night. I didn’t dislike any of those bands, but they weren’t like the bands I really liked. So I started going more with some of the British bands like Elvis Costello, Rockpile, Squeeze. CBGB was there for a long time. But it was just a place. Just a nightclub. And it’s the nature of a nightclub not to last forever. A nightclub is a moment in time. Same with music scenes.”
Our conversation then touches on various topics, such as Led Zeppelin (she’s not a fan), pub-rock (she’s a big fan), and her friend’s pet project of ranking the sexual prowess of various musicians on the wall of CBGB’s restroom. However, at this point, the press people are motioning wildly to me to wrap it up, and I am forced to bring the conversation to a close. As we walk out of the interview, I am left with a mix of feelings: the rush of having gotten to interact with someone who knew Dee Dee Ramone firsthand, a slight annoyance about having to cut our conversation short, and a kind of wide-eyed astonishment at Roberta’s outright rejection of scene nostalgia. “A moment in time.”
It felt a bit flippant at first, and a bit at odds with the whole notion of having a photography exhibit consisting of pieces you shot 40 years ago; however, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Roberta’s philosophy is that of documenting and celebrating the past, not mourning it. It makes no sense to lament the end of something that existed, quite happily and quite intensely, for several years. Be glad you lived it, and look back on it fondly, but accept the nature of it as a fleeting moment in time and make sure to be present for the next one.
That night, Magu and I have dinner at our friend’s German restaurant. On the way back home, the subway breaks down and I become hopelessly lost. I have a lot of time to think as I roam the streets of Constitución looking for a bus that will get me home. And I think about that moment in time: the moment when a photographer who wasn’t a photographer picked up a camera for the first time, to capture four musicians who weren’t musicians as they made their own rudimentary little rock songs. I think about how Roberta’s photographs had managed to stretch those moments out beyond the despairing fleetingness of now and towards something resembling immortality; how a picture taken in a New York City street in 1976 now hangs in a living room in Buenos Aires; how three chords and the power of amplification touched millions of people and shaped the narratives of so many lives.
I think about my own little life, and my own little space, and the various trinkets and mementos I’ve picked up along the way to adorn it. The ways I’ve been documenting and celebrating it. And I think of the inevitability of change, and the transient nature of the various intersecting paths that make up my social circle, and how rapidly — yet almost imperceptibly — things fade, and then grow, and then blossom, and then wither away, building and demolishing our own little status quos with every waking day. I imagine a time in the future when my life as I currently know it is long gone, or twisted into something barely recognizable. I try to imagine how I’ll feel when I look back on it all.
I arrive home and feed the cat. I play Johnny Thunders’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” I look at Roberta’s picture, hanging proudly on my living room wall. I feel pretty good about things.
RAMONES & CBGB: Del Caos a la Cultura will be at Centro Cultural Borges all through September. More information here.
We made a Spotify playlist to accompany this post. It features only artists photographed by Roberta in this era. It is very good. You can listen to it above.