Camilla Saly turned her wild stories of a misspent youth in punk bars, and their eventual boxes of ephemeral proof, into the Punk Archives NYC, a developing online database for collectors of punk artifacts related to the city. Camilla talked with Eric Davidson about her early days with the Dictators, New York Dolls, underage habitue of Max’s Kansas City, Club 82, her friendship with Danny Fields and a host of other legendary New Yorkers
The dichotomy could not have been any more glaring, or so it seemed.
As I walked up to the Morris-Jumel Mansion – tucked up on a hill near E. 163rd Street, the oldest surviving home in Manhattan – it was a gloomy, rainy day. A nice elderly man greeted me and introduced me to Camilla Saly, who then gave me a quick history of the locale. Built by the Brits, then run by some German sympathizers, us battlin’ Yanks took it over during the Revolutionary War. After a bit more spirited Revolutionary War details, Saly spent our next three hours regaling me with sordid tales of the punk revolution of the 1970s.
The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Saly was a teenage rock’n’roll runaway, then radio promoter at Bearsville Records, a stint working for Linda Stein, became a teacher, and much more – all the while never swaying an inch away from being a delightful host and storyteller. We took the conversation to her pad a couple blocks away, where my arms grew tired from having to repeatedly shove my eyeballs back into their sockets, as boxes of amazingly preserved rock’n’roll ephmera were unveiled.
Saly’s paper goldmine and penchant for historical preservation have collided with her PANYC (Punk Archives New York City) project – the creation of an online storage house and database for her and her old punk mates’ back-of-the-closet curiosities.
Suddenly, the connection from groupie tragedies, Dictators tour tales, and feminist galvanization, to this gorgeous old mansion museum uptown all made perfect sense. Camilla Saly’s life has revealed itself as a lifelong pursuit of documenting local history, while making sure to live it first. And if her current gig as a trustee at the Morris-Jumel Mansion is a kind of retirement, it’s allowed Saly to hop back into teen obsession mode, which will serve her well creating the PANYC archive.
Rita and I were sitting on a bed, and Johnny came out of the bathroom, leaned against the door, and shot up right in front of us. And I just thought it was not only unnecessary, but just awful. And I remember looking up and covering my eyes. Are you fucking kidding me? He knew we were kids.
Camilla Saly: So, I’m a NYC kid, upper middle-class parents on the Upper West Side. My father was a professor, my mother was a counsellor/therapist. I went to private school, but I was the black sheep of the family. I was reading rock mags from a very early age. We had babysitters who lived upstairs in the same building, one of whom was named Ty. When I was five, he was already bringing down Beatles and Rolling Stones albums. Ty ended up being this scene guy – Ty Stix. He played with the Heartbreakers very briefly. His real name is Bela Bizony, he’s Hungarian. He was a brilliant pianist, lifelong junkie/alcoholic, mostly homeless from his twenties on.
PKM: But it sounds like he was a hell of a babysitter.
Camilla Saly: He was amazing! Like we’d go up to his apartment, and he would just pull out every new album, he was an education in rock’n’roll. And we knew that he went to Max’s Kansas City. So my friend Rita and I, we were like 14, we got all dolled up, I told my mother we were staying at her house; she told her mother we were staying at mine, and we went to Max’s for the first time. You know those days they weren’t carding anybody…
PKM: And no cell phones around to get hounded by your mom.
Camilla Saly: Exactly! They wouldn’t let us downstairs, but we could go upstairs, and saw this band called “J.F. Murphy and Salt.” No idea about that band. That was the only time we went to Max’s when it was still Mickey Ruskin’s club. I also started going to Club 82 to see the New York Dolls. That was on 7th I believe, around the corner from Kiev. What a great place that was! I can still taste that chicken soup.
PKM: So the scene was heading that way, or 82 was just another club to go see a band?
Camilla Saly: Well Max’s kind of closed for a second, and then it kind of came back, I mean, this was a while ago. Ha. But we went to the 82 to see the Dolls. and I was a huge Wayne County fan, before Wayne was Jayne, and he played there. I have a Bob Gruen picture of myself there. I didn’t know Bob at the time, I found the picture later. I’m at a Wayne County show at 82, with Debbie Harry walking by me; and another with me at the side of the stage watching, and a guy sitting nearby, who we’re pretty sure is Dee Dee. I showed Danny Fields, and he agreed. This was before the Ramones. My friend worked for Bob, saw me in the picture, and got me a copy. So 82 was a drag club…
PKM: That’s where bands could get shows more easily back then, right?
Camilla Saly: Yeah, right. So I was very young doing all this craziness. Most of the people I was hanging out with were a little older than me. I got into a lot of trouble really young. But one of the great things that made me survive a lot of this was I was never a particularly addictive person, and I’m pretty much a happy person. I did see a lot of people get very fucked up and die. I got a harsh lesson in what can happen to a person. Which also makes me wonder why and how heroin became a big thing again, because it was so apparent how terrible it was then. When people deify junkies, I don’t get it.
I’ll tell you this Johnny Thunders story. I really did not like him. I was hanging out with the Dolls at Syl’s apartment. And Rita and I were sitting on a bed, and Johnny came out of the bathroom, leaned against the door, and shot up right in front of us. And I just thought it was not only unnecessary, but just awful. And I remember looking up and covering my eyes. Are you fucking kidding me? He knew we were kids. He was that kind of an asshole.
PKM: I assume the rest of the band barely noticed.
Camilla Saly: Yeah, but it was anything goes. That was the atmosphere we were in. It’s hard to even imagine that today, because there are so many things that are considered not cool now. There was nothing that was not cool then. And everybody was doing stuff. Parents were doing it, kids were doing it, it was like no one was at the wheel, no one was driving.
PKM: You ever spend a night in the clink?
Camilla Saly: No. I did coke, speed, it was like nothing, it was like a party drug. So why would anybody care to try to bust me? When I just turned 16, I ran away from home. You know, my parents wanting me to go to school, do what I was told. Well, they were busy doing their own stuff too, so they weren’t always around. I lived on the streets for three weeks until I found a crash pad, which was the 5th Avenue hotel, at 9th. There as a wild scene there. Anya Phillips and Roxy lived down the hall. Anya was always around the scene, was eventually in James White & the Blacks too. Roxy, I don’t know her actual last name. She liked to have cigarettes put out on her. She’d show me the burn marks.
Then there were two things that had a massive psychological effect on who I was and what I was thinking. Obviously, Ty had that whole influence on getting me into rock’n’roll. But once I was already in there, I was still in high school, and I became a big Led Zeppelin fan. And I found out they were staying at the Plaza Hotel. I won’t go into all the sordid details, but bottom line is, I changed in the bathroom of the Plaza Hotel lobby, took off my school uniform, put on a little outfit, and I ran around and got chased by guards and went up to the floor where bands maybe stay, blah, blah. And I met this guy in a hallway. Turned out he was a drug dealer, working for this famous drug dealer named Freddy Sessler. Just Google “Keith Richards Freddy Sessler,” and that’ll tell you what you need to know. Keith says he was like a grandpa to him. Anyway, this guy who worked for Sessler, he tells me, “I’m going up to Jimmy Page’s room, I’ll be down, wait for me.” First, he took me out to eat at the Palm Court, then he went up to see Jimmy, then came down and said, “Jimmy wants to meet you.” And I went upstairs, and basically, I got brought in there…
There are so many things that are considered not cool now. There was nothing that was not cool then. And everybody was doing stuff. Parents were doing it, kids were doing it, it was like no one was at the wheel, no one was driving.
PKM: I will assume you were not 18.
Camilla Saly: I was not, I was 16. And I went inside and did what I thought people do when they’re in a room with a rock star alone. I took off my clothes, and I had sex with Jimmy Page. The second guy I ever had sex with. Probably all went down in about 45 minutes. We talked a little, he asked me how old I was. Of course, I told him 18. He was pretty stoned on coke, he was kind of funny, but it was pretty wham, bam, thank you ma’am.
After that though, this drug dealer guy kept stringing me along, and promising we’re going to go back and see him again, and well hang out with Led Zeppelin. He lied to me, but I hung around him for a couple weeks, and he kind of kept me trapped. It was pretty bad. It was actually really bad, but I eventually escaped. He had me and a friend in a dorm, and he was sleeping, and I snuck down and grabbed my shoes, panhandled for change, and went home.
And the other thing that had a huge influence on me was I saw that film, Performance, when I was 13. So those two things were like, well, welcome to the jungle, come on in.
It was psychologically powerful. The ultimate effect it had one me, I mean there was bad stuff, but it was this invitation to partake of the sensual delights, decadence, experimentation of rock’n’roll, to descend into this buffet of experience. And when you do that, obviously bad things can happen, good things can happen, it’s a learning experience. And as I said before, I wasn’t addictive and basically happy, so I wasn’t miserable and wanting to blot out my consciousness all the time. And I found out that sex is really awesome and fun, and can be seen in that way. I also identified with men, because they were the ones having the fun, and weren’t the ones being taken advantage of. So I became a person who could have that sort of fuck ‘em and leave ‘em persona, be fun and decadent.
Roxy, I don’t know her actual last name. She liked to have cigarettes put out on her. She’d show me the burn marks.
PKM: Wayne County must’ve been an important person to you in that regard, as far as gender identity.
Camilla Saly: Yeah, I loved Wayne, but I always liked punk and rock’n’roll that has a sense of humor. Not that there aren’t great bands without a sense of humor. But I loved that about Wayne County – the profound irreverence. There was also this place called Ashley’s where we’d hangout and see all these rock stars come and go.
So I had these mini-forays into that groupie thing. But then when I started to be into the CBGB scene, I wanted to banish that whole thing. So I never talked about that previous stuff. Women were always considered second class citizens, that’s a fact. So to be a female in rock’n’roll, even if you were a musician, it was thought, “Oh you slut,” or whatever. So I started thinking, why feed that? And soon after, I got a job in the music business, so that was definitely a reason to not identify as ever having had any groupie life.
My friend Lee Marshall – who is involved with PANYC – she was this super tough girl, very non-sexual. And we started to hang out at SIR. She knew all the roadies and all that. Eventually I met my first real boyfriend there, a wonderful guy, Rich. That’s how I met the Dictators, hanging out there. We became like mascot-type kids, generally genderless. We weren’t there to fuck anybody, we were just hanging out. You have to reinvent yourself sometimes in these situations, if you want to stay in the game. It’s like reading the room. Like, how can I be here and be legitimate. That’s how I met Lee, and soon Snooky and Tish. All these people. Many gay kids who worked out on the piers who are since deceased. And a lot of sex worker girls, working as expensive call girls. They’d come to clubs like Ashley’s and Max’s and treat us to champagne and steaks. But there was a clear division between all that glam, rock’n’roll, Led Zep scene or whatever, and then — bam – CBGB, and this punk stuff, although it wasn’t called punk just yet.
PKM: So you saw it as that distinct – a scene division, like some of that Max’s crowd didn’t cross over to the CBGB scene?
Camilla Saly: In a way. There was this place, Great Gildersleeves, that was the place where the hair bands and bands from Long Island would play, bands with satin pants or whatever. And those were some of these Max’s transplants. Of course, different bands did play in all those places, but there was clearly a still-glam contingent that continued, but I was much more interested in being involved in punk. I was so into the Dolls and the Dictators, and there were a number of fantastic bands that nobody mentions now. I loved this band, the Demons, with Eliot Kidd. The Tuff Darts were fantastic. I loved Suicide.
But yeah, CBs was like a biker bar, old man bar, junkies. There was nothing pretentious at all about CBs. When it got too loud or we felt like talking, we’d go outside and lean on the cars. There was a scene outside like there was one inside.
PKM: The photographer, Godlis, mentions that, how a whole other party was going on outside. And he developed that no flash style so as not to interrupt people too much.
Camilla Saly: That’s how he got all those great pictures. You know that famous one of Handsome Dick and Jody in front of CBs? I have that same jacket. I put it in that “Punk Lust” show at the Museum of Sex. My boyfriend, Rich, was their roadie, and I went on tour with them and got that jacket. I went on tour with the Dictators and the Dead Boys. We went to Ohio and all over the place.
One time, some of us were in a car with Steve Schenck, Rich, and some of the Dictators. Stiv Bators was in the other car. We had been throwing I believe it was tomatoes at the other car, just fooling around, tailing each other. As the cars were speeding down the road, Stiv climbed out of the window of the speeding car, pulled down his pants and mooned us. Then climbed back into the window.
And I remember one time, I was with the Dictators at a show in Toledo, and we drove all the way from there to Detroit because the Dictators wanted that Greek flaming cheese. Then drove all the way back to New York City.
Also with the Dictators, they were booked at this “Miss All-Bare America” show in the City somewhere, this kind of porn-connected thing. So at one point, after they played, there was this woman masturbating on stage, and saying all this nasty stuff, and Mark “The Animal” Mendoza, who later joined Twisted Sister – fantastic bass player – he and his girlfriend left in disgust, they were horrified. I remember them storming out, ha. But I would go to every gig of theirs.
I always liked punk and rock’n’roll that has a sense of humor. Not that there aren’t great bands without a sense of humor. But I loved that about Wayne County – the profound irreverence.
PKM: I see you’ve got some of these amazing old groupie magazines, like Star, that had a mini-moment in pop culture in the early ‘70s.
Camilla Saly: Those groupie mags, I mean no teen magazine was doing these things – having these pictures and articles from the point of view of the women. The advertisers didn’t like it, and that mag went under. That’s happened over and over, with female-oriented magazines that don’t satisfy the male gaze.
PKM: So you’re going-out life had reached a kind of peak, but you soon worked for Bearsville Records, right?
Camilla Saly: Yeah, they were a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. It was Albert Grossman’s company.
PKM: Oh yeah. They were based Upstate right, in Bearsville, obviously?
Camilla Saly: Correct, so sometimes I had to go up there, but they had an office on E. 55th Street, that’s where I worked. See, my parents belonged to this spiritual community which was up in that area, near Woodstock, and my dad knew Todd Rundgren’s manager at the time through that. It was through my dad that I got that job. I started by answering Todd’s fan mail. Then I morphed over into secondary market radio promotion. I would call up a station in like Anchorage, Alaska, and try to get them to play the latest Foghat record or whatever. It was a wonderful job. I was 16, had my own office, had an expense account, I could take people out to lunch. It was crazy. I think they thought I was some kind of protégé, though I wasn’t sure that was going to be my life. But people were very kind to me; and I absolutely did not want any of them to know about that previous groupie stuff, I never talked about it.
Women were always considered second class citizens, that’s a fact. So to be a female in rock’n’roll, even if you were a musician, it was thought, “Oh you slut,” or whatever. So I started thinking, why feed that?
PKM: Well, they knew you went to shows.
Camilla Saly: They did, but it was all CBs and that punk stuff. So anyway, about 1976, I had dropped out of high school, and later got my GED. I got that Bearsville job on the contingency that I would get my GED.
PKM: What were some early memories of that CBGB scene?
Camilla Saly: Well, I have to say, I can tell you that I used to fall asleep to Blondie. I’m sorry Debbie, you seem like such a nice person, but I found them kind of boring.
PKM: You liked the Stilettos before them, right?
Camilla Saly: Oh yeah, they were great! They didn’t play CBs, they’d play the 82. It was Elda, Debbie, and Amanda Jones – that was the version I saw, I have one of their posters. But it’s funny, many of the bands I thought were just, meh, became famous, and others I loved, nothing happened. First time I saw Television they were opening that New York Dolls “Red Patent Leather” show.
PKM: What about the Ramones?
Camilla Saly: Yeah, I liked them, but I wasn’t crazy for them. You know – and this relates to my introduction to this whole rock world – I’m an extremely sexual person, and…
PKM: Wait, are you saying the Ramones aren’t sexy? Ha.
Camilla Saly: There’s nothing sexual about them.
PKM: Of course, but that’s, well, kind of sexy.
Camilla Saly: Ha, of course.
PKM: Well, Dee Dee certainly had his sexual past.
Camilla Saly: Yeah, but “53rd & 3rd” isn’t exactly a sexy come on. It’s a sad, seedy tale. And I liked more of that kind of sexy thing.
PKM: So were the Dead Boys sexy?
Camilla Saly: No, not at all. But they were so fun, and I like things that are fun and funny.
PKM: What grabbed you about that scene then?
Camilla Saly: Well, there were bands that I thought were sexy, I thought Eliot Kidd was sexy. I mean, there wasn’t much sexy about the Dictators, ha. I thought Patti Smith was sort of asexual and sort of boring. You know, there’re people you respect, but you’re like, meh. But like I said, a lot of the bands I liked no one cared about.
A wonderful song that captures it all perfectly is “Rip Her to Shreds” from Blondie. That is a fantastic song, a perfect little snapshot of life right outside CBs there. I’ve got to give that to Blondie – that first Blondie album is fantastic, one of the best punk records.
PKM: Today, there’s a pretty well-manicured mythology about the “cool old bad days” of the Lower East Side. But of course, it wasn’t all great, and sometimes obviously dangerous, but that’s inspiring in its way.
Camilla Saly: Well, for instance, there was a band called Slander Band, and Jessie Blue was the singer. She died with a needle in her arm, and my friend discovered her body. Stuff like that. There was a lot of tragedy. A lot of sex workers and young boys who were rock’n’roll fans – this was a little more in the Max’s scene – and they were having fun but surviving basically by being prostitutes.
PKM: Were there some women coming down from the 42nd St. peep show places?
Camilla Saly: Well, the girls I knew who were buying us champagne or whatever, they were call girls, not street walkers. I remember one time, I was out on Staten Island with an especially kind girl, Astra, and she’s like fucking this guy, and in the meantime, we’re talking, I’m just sitting there talking to her. Ha.
PKM: So by the time you’re working at Bearsville, you’re living where?
Camilla Saly: When I was 18, I moved in with Rich who worked for the Dictators and Blue Oyster Cult too. They were managed by the same people. So then around 1978, I was working for Linda Stein, and the Ramones Rocket to Russia was out, and Rock and Roll High School was being made, so that was fun.
PKM: So the punk scene, especially from the vantage point of living in New York, was getting pretty big at that point. Did you notice a scene shift, like more squares were coming into CBGB?
Camilla Saly: Not exactly. I mean there were these bars, like Trax, that started having these industry “showcase” shows that started charging bands to play, which was fucked up. At the same time, there was like this high school / private school scene going on, kids hanging out at bars on the upper east side, and there was some crossover there. Like Trax was on 72nd St. And I guess some of those kinds of people came down to CBs to see bands, but we were just having fun.
I remember when the Runaways played CBGB, it was packed to the rafters. I was standing on a table. It was really good! And there were record people there. See, lots of people got signed, but that’s what record companied would do – they would gobble up these bands, and then not do much with their records.
As I got more into the business, I started hanging out less. I mean I was also going to the big Foghat and Todd Rundgren shows, and doing company stuff. I went to the premiere of Song Remains the Same; the band was there, it was amazing. I had friends at Swan Song that got me into that, though even to them, I didn’t mention, “Oh, by the way, when I was 16…”
PKM: And I guess you didn’t try to go up to the band after?
Camilla Saly: No. That’s the thing, you don’t do that. I was too cool to do that. Like, “Oh, do you remember me? You were really coked out, and it was at the Plaza.” Ha, I don’t think so.
PKM: Ha. So when did Linda Stein come into the picture?
Camilla Saly: The Bearsville offices were moving to L.A., and I wasn’t moving there! So then Coconut Entertainment – it was Danny Fields and Linda, a management company, and they were with the Ramones. Now how I got hooked up with Coconut, I don’t remember exactly. I will say Danny was an angel, but Linda was extremely difficult, a very unpleasant person as a boss. Probably the worst job I ever had, in that sense. Linda wanted me to do lots of things that were not my job. Like writing out little invitations for their daughters’ baby birthday parties, pick up dry cleaning, stuff like that. And I was like, I’m not your personal assistant, that’s not my job. So it was tough working for Linda, but it was great working for Danny, and I’ve stayed friends with Danny. He’s excellent.
PKM: I guess you saw that great documentary about him, Danny Says? [directed by PKM wunderkind Brendan Toller].
Camilla Saly: Not only did I see it, but I helped to get it out there. You know, every year Bob Gruen has his birthday party, and I walked up to people and was telling them, “They’re making a doc about Danny, and he’s a national treasure, and you should please contribute!” I got Handsome Dick Manitoba involved. Richard was really grumpy about being involved, but I convinced him. Danny’s story should be preserved, y’know? Then I became quite friendly with the director, Brendan Toller. I mean really, without Danny, there might be no punk, he’s the thread that connects the whole thing. But then, like even Judy Collins is in that doc. I mean Danny has affected so many people’s lives.
PKM: How long did you work for Coconut? Did you start going out with Danny?
Camilla Saly: I worked for them about a year, but no, I didn’t really go out with them. They were really going to Studio 54 a lot at that point. And let’s just say there was some arm candy being shared, or at least it seemed that way.
In between there somewhere I worked for Danny Goldberg, just stuffing envelopes, whatever. He had a publicity company before he became a record mogul, and I worked for them a little, right before Coconut. And then after, with Mike Klenfner – he had a tiny role in the Blues Brothers where he played a record executive. He was a kind of hulking guy, difficult to work for. I was working out of his home, because that was for Frontline Management, and they were still establishing a New York office. That was Irving Azoff’s company.
They were managing the Eagles, Boz Skaggs, Steely Dan, that whole thing. But I only worked for him for about three months. I told him, I want to go back to college, twice a week I need to go to class, and he decided to ditch me. As I moved closer and closer to the more powerful, beating heart of the record industry, the more disgusted I became at how corrupt and creepy it was. And I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to lie, cheat, and steal for the rest of my life.’
PKM: Not to mention, you were probably increasingly disinterested in the music you’d have to promote.
Camilla Saly: Right, exactly. I can’t push things that I don’t love. And they would string us along, acting interested in some good artists, but never doing anything. They were treating musicians very badly. I just didn’t want to work for these horrible people who ran the music business. But I still have great admiration for people who work live shows. Like road crews, huge respect. To this day, the people who stand out to me as the solid, great people in that business, it’s them. Musicians, they’re allowed to be capricious and act like a baby. And there’s something to the idea that someone has a talent, and that’s what they do, and you need to create that space so they can create, and you have to put up with a lot of shit. But then there are all the other people around those talented people, and they are hard workers, get up early, breaking it down late, reliable. And then there are the bullshit people in the business, and a lot of hangers-on, and you get to understand where you fit in all that. I also made a very smart decision very early on – I abandoned all interest in dating musicians. And that was an extremely good decision.
As I moved closer and closer to the more powerful, beating heart of the record industry, the more disgusted I became at how corrupt and creepy it was. And I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to lie, cheat, and steal for the rest of my life.’
PKM: Then you went to college.
Camilla Saly: I did. My father was a professor at Pace, downtown, so I went there. I was a straight-A student, never missed a class, I had a radio show where I would play like Laurie Anderson and then Phil Ochs. Kind of Music to Be Upset By. Ha. I did some volunteer work for a magazine called Broadside that published a lot of political music.
PKM: I’ve been watching that HBO show, The Deuce, and they have a storyline about the sex workers who are trying to bring some legal help and health care info to sex workers around 42nd St. Were you aware of that work back then?
Camilla Saly: Oh yeah, I knew a lot of people who were involved in sex workers rights from early on, and people who were involved in more progressive, female-oriented porn, and others who did a lot of cool, activist things. But I stayed away from 42nd St. It was a very scary place for a teenage girl. You didn’t want to walk around there, it was dangerous, the whole pimp thing, all that. I had some experiences when very young, because of the Max’s connection. One time these guys, who were probably pimps, picked me and Rita up, and said they’d give us a ride home because we didn’t have money for the train, and they drove us around for almost an entire day. It was very terrifying. Finally, I said my father was waiting for us, so they dropped us off. Another time, again I was like 15, and my friend Rita – she eventually became a prostitute, and, well, that ended very badly. But she was working for this guy on 8th St. he had me up there, putting me in these clothes and taking pictures, and it was very creepy. I could have easily ended up in that life.
I think about all the relationships I’ve had in my life, and my biggest relationship has been my love affair with New York City. And lately, it feels like I‘ve been spurned by my lover.
PKM: But you said, you didn’t have that addictive personality and had a positive attitude.
Camilla Saly: Yeah, you see a few things, saw a few people around me ending up badly, and you just say, hey I do not want this. I remember my friend was staying in this hotel, and she had these warts, and was lying in this bathtub; and we’re in this crash-pad scene, and having to walk over passed-out people on the floor – and I just stopped and thought, “Nah.” But there were friends who turned out OK too.
PKM: So back to music, you definitely felt an attitudinal and sonic difference between what had been happening at Max’s, and this stuff at CBGB? CBs was different fashion, more street…
Camilla Saly: Absolutely. The Dictators are a great example of that. But we look back at the Dolls, and there wouldn’t have been, sadly, Motley Crue, Poison, all that, that’s all from the Dolls. But they really were the perfect combination of both of those scenes. And they were so genuine. They were exactly who they were, they weren’t imitating anyone, they were just being outrageous. There aren’t a lot of bands like that. So then it was either glam, or fuck you, I don’t have to dress up, I don’t have to play well, I can just do my thing. And sometimes out of that you got quite a lot. Like I did love seeing Blondie just for Clem Burke sometimes. I just think he’s like the greatest fucking drummer.
PKM: You don’t have a ubiquitous Lou Reed story?
Camilla Saly: Not really. But I have to say, in Please Kill Me, the stuff that Lou Reed says sticks with me to this day, because he is so dead on about the creepiness of the sort of sex trafficking, rent boys, gay mafia, all that crazy shit. There were people in that I love, but there was a lot of exploitation, people not being treated nicely. One of the big lessons I learned from that whole experience was, if you’re going to have casual sex, treat the person as nicely as if you were going to go out for coffee. You don’t have to swear eternal love, but have a little courtesy, a little grace.
PKM: So you got out of all that and started teaching.
Camilla Saly: Yes, I taught for 26 years. I worked with kids from troubled backgrounds, and it was something I felt I could relate to. The idea of helping teenagers and knowing what I’d been through myself, it was a natural fit. When I was a kid, I felt there was no support for me. I mean, I know every kid thinks they’re not understood, but I felt I wasn’t heard or seen by any adults that were genuinely helpful, so that’s why I ended up being a teacher for what they call “at risk youth.”
PKM: Did your music past ever come up with kids?
Camilla Saly: Well, there were a lot of kids that wanted to be rap stars and stuff, so I would drop some knowledge on what they were getting into. I would try to explain, there is nothing more difficult than trying to be an artist. You have to bust your ass, your competition is as fierce as anything, and you may never make a penny. But I didn’t really talk about the groupie stuff.
I retired from that about four years ago, and now I get to do whatever I want, which has meant historic preservation, because that’s what I care about. I saved all this rock stuff as a fan. And the question is, what’s going to happen to all this crap when I die, or whatever? And the answer is, it’s all going to end up in the garbage. And that’s what’s going to happen to the stuff of all the cool people we’ve known, the ones older than us too.
PKM: And that’s how PANYC germinated?
Camilla Saly: Yeah. One day I’m walking down the street, and there’s this guy who sells books on the street, and he used to work with this band The Poppies. I had this very brief boyfriend, we’ve stayed friendly, his real name is Artie Weinstein, but his stage name is Jet Harris, and he was in the Poppies. The sweetest guy. Anyway, in that conversation with the bookseller, we had this idea – wouldn’t it be great to preserve all this stuff, maybe a punk museum or something.
The first thing I did, was I went to Danny Fields and John Holmstrom. Also was talking to a couple others, like Snooky & Tish; and Eric Danville, who has this amazing audio archive of punk shows, and was an editor for Penthouse Forum for years. Also, my friend Lee Marshall, Allison Aguiar, and my friend Karla Merrifield. We all got together to meet and discuss this idea. And eventually it evolved from the idea of a museum to an archive. The obvious problem with a museum is you have to have a space, and real estate is expensive, blah blah. So over time we established that the only practical way to do this is as a digital archive.
PKM: How will it work?
Camilla Saly: Let’s say you have these boxes of cool crap sitting in your closet forever. We come over, take good photos of everything, upload the pieces, input key search words, etc., code it all so that those pieces connect to you, and you now have a separate section in the archive. Then we have created a database with everyone involved in it. I can create a pdf catalog out of that to send to people to get an idea of what we offer. So then someone would contact us and say, “We need a picture of Blondie in front of CBGBs in 1978,” or what have you. We can enter that and quickly find those images, and we can get them scans, or original pieces if desired for display or whatever. Each item is coded for the person that owns it, so I would then call you up and say, “Hey, this person, magazine, museum, whatever would like to utilize your images.”
The idea has existed for over 10 years, but we only got this going about a year and a half ago. It’s always in the building process, and we’re just now really trying to get the word out there. So far, the main activity has been with that recent Museum of Sex show, “Punk Lust,” where they found us through Manic Panic [Snooky and Tish], and wanted to use a lot of pieces.
Carla, Lee, me, Snooky, and Tish contributed thousands of dollars to build this database. We worked with a woman, Loni Efron, who has a gallery in Harlem, and has built databases for Keith Richards, Bob Gruen, and more. She built it, but it’s morphing further from that. Eventually, the idea is that anyone who has their collections on the site can get in and add more, etc. But we are still working on the interface. It’s all a time-consuming process for sure.
PKM: In a sense, it’s a kind of digital storage house.
Camilla Saly: Yes, except we’re not taking your stuff. It’s a perfect situation, because people usually don’t want to let go of their stuff. But on the other hand, if you never make a record of this stuff, it’ll get lost. At the very least, this will provide a digital version in our database.
I have a domain name and am working on a basic PANYC website, where you can sort of check out what we’re all about, though it won’t have access to the full archive. That would be private between those involved. And I’ve been adding things to my Instagram too, to drum up interest.
Ideally, we want to find a way to monetize this a bit, but this isn’t really a money-making project. We just really love this stuff and want to find a way to preserve it. This is historic, it needs to be preserved. And there are just so many people like me who have boxes of this stuff, and it’s falling into ruin. So how do we save it?
PKM: And it’s becoming important, with people like you who still have the memories and actual tactile evidence, to counteract some of the mythologizing that goes on with the “good old bad New York.”
Camilla Saly: Yeah, there is some of that. But a city should be a place where artists can afford to live, it’s just that simple. And now, I feel the soul has been sucked out a bit. Because of that, I’m interested in hanging on to whatever they can’t destroy and take away.
PKM: Which kind of relates to your Morris-Jumel Mansion gig.
Camilla Saly: Yes. I live in this neighborhood, I discovered this place, started to go to events there, and I got more and more involved. Then I started to create events there. Every year I do this Victorian Holiday Party, where we all dress up in Victorian garb, do mulled wine, all that. I started to really get into Revolutionary War history, and am fascinated with certain characters, especially Eliza Jumel, who lived in the Mansion. Then less than a year ago, I got on the board there. I just love history. And I just want New York stories not to be forgotten.
I think about all the relationships I’ve had in my life, and my biggest relationship has been my love affair with New York City. And lately, it feels like I‘ve been spurned by my lover.