Because he brought a street photographer’s eye to the party, Godlis captured New York’s early punk scene at its most raw and humane. His shots of the CBGB scene are some of the most interesting on record, but Godlis continued to pursue his street photography over the decades, resulting in a new book, Godlis: History is Made at Night (intro by Jim Jarmusch) and an exhibit “It’s a GODLIS World,” opening April 18 at 72 Gallery in New York. Godlis talked to Eric Davidson about CBGB, the MC5, Joey Ramone, his own 35-year battle with MS and his dedication to his art.
All photos © by GODLIS
You’ve seen David Godlis’ photographs. Since the first wave of 1970s punk rock nostalgia in the early 1990s, his iconic shots of the CBGB scene characters, famous and infamous, have popped out of the corners of countless “punk history” photo books, magazine spreads, and gallery exhibits. And for good reason. As a photographer friend told me, half of a great photo is that you were there in the first place. And Godlis was not only there, but he created a deft, non-flash style that didn’t ruin the cool mood, leading to some of the most intimate shots of that era.
Godlis utilized a basic love of street photography to frame his innate appreciation and recognition of interesting scene hangers-on. He didn’t intend to be arguably the most important photo documenter of that original CBGB scene, he just wanted to find a cool place to hang out when he moved to NYC in late 1975.
To this day, that imperative still guides him. Like the ever-presence of his photographs in any punk book worth its spit, Godlis still pops up around town at gallery openings, film events, and band shows—his fuzzy coif and ol’ pal grin a sure sign that you chose the right event to check out that night.
Over all this time, though, he never properly gathered all his favorite shots into his own tome. Finally, and thankfully, last fall, Godlis published Godlis: History is Made at Night, a beautiful collection (which also includes an excellent introduction from director Jim Jarmusch) that offers not only the best quality prints yet of his famous punk pix, but adds many never before published, along with hints into the street photography that will hopefully fill his next collection.
Both of those Godlis totems – CBGB history and New York City alley life – will be featured in his new solo exhibit, “It’s a GODLIS World,” the inaugural exhibit of the new Lower East Side space, 72 Gallery (72 Orchard St., Manhattan), opening on April 18.
I met up with David Godlis in the Lower East Side, a couple blocks from the location of the old Fillmore East – the sight of his first, rock’n’roll dust-ups. Unlike the Fillmore East, CBGB, and so many other LES haunts that have disappeared, Godlis, despite an ongoing battle with MS, ain’t going anywhere.
David Godlis: I went to the Fillmore East when I was in my early teenage years. But before it was the Fillmore East it was the Village Theater, and I saw the Doors there.
PKM: Was it packed?
David Godlis: It was never packed, until after Woodstock, when everyone decided to go to see rock ‘n’ roll. Like everyone saw pictures from Woodstock, and saw that girls got naked at these rock’n’roll shows, then suddenly by the end of that summer of 1969, you couldn’t get tickets to the Fillmore anymore. Like famous basketball players wanted to hang out there. Anyway, yeah, the Doors played the Village Theater first, because it wasn’t yet bought by Bill Graham, it was just an old movie theater turned into a concert space. I think the tickets were $2.50, $3.50, and $4.50. I’d buy the $2.50 tickets, and then just move to the $4.50 seats because it was easy to do. Memorably, it was the late show, and when the curtain went up, Jim Morrison grabbed the curtain and rode it way up into the air, then he jumped back down. He landed, and they started with “When the Music’s Over.” I told that story for a zillion years. I wasn’t a photographer yet, so I didn’t take any pictures. My memory was my memory. Only like a year ago, I found a book at the library, a Doors biography, and there was the show I went to! And apparently that show was the one all the critics got their free tickets or whatever, so everybody wrote about and remembered that show and that curtain thing.
Here’s this guy in leather pants doing poetry and screaming, and they were booing him, “Get off the stage! You suck!” And then they did “Light My Fire,” and it was like, “Ohhhh, we like these guys.”
I actually first saw them in the summer of ’67 at Forest Hills, that tennis stadium. They opened for Simon & Garfunkel. Paul Simon was apparently a big fan, got them on the bill. And those were two very distinct crowds then. Well, there wasn’t really a Doors crowd yet, ‘cause they were so new. And the majority of the crowd just hated them. Here’s this guy in leather pants doing poetry and screaming, and they were booing him, “Get off the stage! You suck!” And then they did “Light My Fire,” and it was like, “Ohhhh, we like these guys.” But they did that long album version, really long, and everyone was back to, “Oh, this sucks!” That show was in that book too, and Jim Morrison remembered it as the worst night ever. I dunno, I loved it.
PKM: I think people forget – with how huge they became, and their rep as an over-played, classic rock staple, and the “He’s a poet, man” junk and all that – I think younger generations especially forget that he was a big inspiration on Iggy Pop, with his kind of fucking with the audience, and bouncers, and making fun of the whole “Rock God” thing, even though he went and became just that, a big, bloated Rock God.
David Godlis: Oh yeah, Patti Smith too, she was totally into Jim Morrison.
PKM: So you noticed later how that kind of came up through some bands, Iggy, Stiv Bators…
David Godlis: Oh yeah, what I saw first though was the difference between the people who were kind of “correct” rock’n’roll fans – like this is what’s good, and that is some other thing we don’t recognize. But I’m here on a date, and they’re Simon & Garfunkel fans wearing sweaters or whatever, who didn’t get it. So if you really wanted to see the Doors, you went to the Fillmore.
PKM: The story I heard was, once Bill Graham bought the Village Theater in like 1969, named it the Fillmore East, and the first big show he booked was a three-night stand with the Doors, and he didn’t expect the quick response, and it sold out in like a day, and the crowds were pretty crazy, and he immediately developed an attitude towards NYC, that it was too crazy and violent. Like I think that Fillmore East only operated for less than two years or something, right?
David Godlis: Yeah, but where they really ran into trouble was with the MC5. I didn’t go to that show. Earlier, the MC5 played at my high school, like May 1969. How that happened on Long Island, I have no idea. I was listening to Danny Fields on WFMU, in 1968, and he played that first MC5 album when it came out. With Danny, it was like you were listening to inside stories, it was a different kind of radio show. Anyway, all of a sudden the MC5 were announced to play my high school. I was like, wow, what?! I wrote the review for my high school paper, but I lost that a long time ago. They played in our gym, and before the show the “backstage” was the locker room, and I went in, and I remember lots of pot in the air – same locker room I had gym class in! And they played on a small riser. I knew the record already, and it was stunning. A couple hundred people maybe. They were everything I expected them to be. They opened with the “Motherfucker, kick out the jams” stuff. But it was all because I listened to Danny Field and WFMU that I knew who the MC5 and all this was. It was pretty exciting!
Years later, I was with Danny – we were flown to this exhibition in Japan – and I asked him, how the hell did the MC5 end up playing my high school? And he said, “Simple, they needed a gig.” And that had to do with because they had played the Fillmore, and the Motherfuckers – they were this East Village anarchist hippie group around 1967, ’68, that wanted everything to be free. And apparently, they stormed the Fillmore East and got annoyed at Bill Graham for the MC5 show not being free. And when that kind of melee happened, that’s when Bill Graham really got annoyed and was over trying to run a club there. And it gave the MC5 a bad reputation, they couldn’t get booked, because there was a riot. The Motherfuckers got annoyed, but the MC5 took the brunt of it. They got to be known as a band that would bring in a bad element. That’s why they played my high school, ‘cause they couldn’t get booked.
PKM: Did you feel that sort of accidental anarchy when you first went to CBGB?
David Godlis: Yes. Well, when I first wandered into CBGB, Television was playing, and it was the first time I thought, “This is a room full of people who like the Velvet Underground.” I didn’t know much about them, but I could tell from the sound, and the people watching this band, these people like the Velvet Underground, because I loved the Velvet Underground. And here we were in New York City, of course. It was such a stark contrast to anything else going on at the time. And I could easily jump from that back to my memories of the MC5 and see the core of people that would give rebirth to that feeling. So then, by late 1969, I went to Boston University, and Boston had tons of cool college radio stations.
PKM: That’s when you started taking photos?
David Godlis: I got a camera in 1970, after my first year in school. I got it because that was the technology of the time, and I thought cameras looked cool. And I’m sure I’d already seen the movie, Blow-Up, and that affected me a lot. I wanted to use 35mm, and I just started shooting friends. I’d imagine that my friends were in a rock ‘n’ roll band, even if they weren’t. But I very quickly jumped to looking at photo books in the school library, and photo magazines, and starting to get an idea. You could sort of sit and look at these magazines for hours while you were stoned at school. At the time, I thought I wanted to be a writer, and read literature, but I didn’t have confidence in my writing, and I met people who were really good at writing. It seemed to come so easily to them. And then I got a camera, and it came so easily to me. And people liked my photos. People were asking to have me shoot them. So I thought this is what I can do. And then I started reading about the history of photography, and what you could do with it. And then I figured out street photography – like I found Robert Frank, Bresson, Brassai, Winogrand, Friedlander – and I thought, man, this is really cool. My parents were good musicians, but I chose not to play music. The camera became my instrument.
When I first wandered into CBGB, Television was playing, and it was the first time I thought, “This is a room full of people who like the Velvet Underground.”
PKM: And soon enough you move to NYC?
David Godlis: I stuck around Boston, probably a little too long. I met a girl who introduced me to a lot of people, like the tougher people in Boston. I moved from one bad apartment to another bad apartment; got robbed a few too many times. Got robbed at gunpoint, and that was the last time. I thought, I’m moving to some place safe, like New York City.
PKM: Ha. New York in 1976 was safer, huh?
David Godlis: Well it was way safer than the places I was living in Boston. Boston is a tough town. I mean it’s a college town, sure, but underneath it’s a very dangerous town. And I got involved with the tough stuff. I was friends with people in bands, but the kind of bands that stole other bands’ stuff for equipment. Like Boston toughies. And I’ve got great pictures of a lot of them. I actually found some of the people who robbed me on Facebook.
PKM: Did you ask, “Hey, can I get that camera back from you now?”
David Godlis: Ha, yeah. But back then, I noticed that there were hardly any photographers listed in the Boston yellow pages, and in the New York phone book there were tons. So I moved there to get some work – in December, 1975. I saw the Rolling Thunder Review with Dylan up in Massachusetts that December, opening night of that tour, and saw it again. I’d never really stopped listening to Dylan, but I wasn’t listening to much rock’n’roll. I was used to seeing local bands in small clubs in Boston, mainly to meet people and hang out. But those weren’t famous bands, and I wasn’t aware of the Modern Lovers yet. I’d see Aerosmith play out in front of BU early on. But I had crazy friends in small bands, and they thought they were on trajectories to get record contracts, but these were guys that wanted to be Queen or some big glam band. I was following photography more, I liked to listen to music to just go have a drink. But I listened to a little of the glam offshoots.
When I got to New York, I started knocking on doors until I found a job. I was living at a friend’s place on 20th street and 2nd Ave., and looking for a place to go hear music. CBGB looked interesting to me. There weren’t really many small clubs in New York that weren’t just cover bands. The Bottom Line, but that was for those bands that were on a record contract trajectory. I wanted some place that was local. And I saw ads for CBGB, so I went down there, and I thought, oh this is comfortable, this reminds me of a small place where you could hear music and hang out with people. And that’s how I ended up there.
PKM: There are always those stories of dogs hanging around CBs, and dog shit on the floor. But I liked that picture you have in the book of a cat on a pinball machine.
David Godlis: I don’t have a story for that cat, I found that picture while compiling this book, but it went well with the dog taking a shit picture. That was a thing where I was trying to catch whatever was happening in the club. I guess, for lack of a better word, trying to “document” what was going on there. So walking down to go to the bathroom, and there was the dog taking a dump on the steps. I just figured, oh, I’ll get a picture of that. And then years later people would say, “Oh there was always that dog taking a shit – you wouldn’t have a picture of that, would you?” Ha. I had that one – like I was so brilliant that I thought to take that picture. Ha. The cat picture went good with it in the book.
I saw ads for CBGB, so I went down there, and I thought, oh this is comfortable, this reminds me of a small place where you could hear music and hang out with people. And that’s how I ended up there.
I wasn’t there at the very start – Patti and the Ramones had their first albums out already by the time I moved to New York – but things were just starting to get a little interesting, and some labels coming around. Maureen the bartender told me about the Ramones. I wasn’t full up on what was going on yet.
PKM: Obviously, you ended up hanging out with, taking pictures of, and then going on to do books, interviews, whatever about all these subsequently famous bands. But I wanted to ask about some of the other lesser known people in the book, like Maureen.
David Godlis: Yeah, Maureen was this cute chick who worked behind the bar, everyone liked her. So when I started the Kickstarter to raise money for the book, I was slowly posting images that I was thinking about including. And my pictures aren’t always famous people – I always wanted to show all kinds of people who were there, not just the bands or famous people, to show how they were all sort of similar. So I posted a picture of Maureen on Facebook, and so many people started commenting on it immediately – “Oh Maureen! I loved Maureen! What happened to Maureen?! I saw her up in New Paltz at a diner in 1990-something! She was so great!” All of that. Because you have to remember, who would have many pictures of her? Everyone didn’t have a phone taking pictures, and not many people brought cameras with them to shows; plus people getting drunk, whatever. But I had my camera, and I wanted to take a picture of a bartender, and she was there, and she was cute – it fit the bill. So once I posted it, and all these comments, the very next morning someone had found her on Facebook, living in Thailand. So then Maureen got to see all these people saying nice things, and saying how cute she was, etc. And then she commented! She is there working as a teacher. Then another guy, Christopher Parker – he was in Jim Jarmusch’s first film, Permanent Vacation. Around the same time I was shooting Chris hanging around the scene, was when Jim was making that first film while he was at NYU. Chris was the “Kid with the Replaceable Head,” in that great Richard Hell song.
PKM: Why did Richard Hell nickname him that?
David Godlis: Chris was the guy that connected everybody to everybody. He’d introduce this person to Basquiat, Basquiat to that person. He introduced everybody, but he never wanted to be the famous guy. He just wanted to be the cool guy that introduced everybody. There’s that great line in Richard’s song, “He’s so honest that the dishonest dread meeting the kid with the replaceable head.” And that is true, Chris is so honest.
So after posting that picture of Maureen, Chris called me up one night, and he goes, “Godlis, this is Chris. Guess where I am? I’m in Thailand! And guess who I’m with?” And I was like, oh yeah, you don’t have to tell me. “I’m with Maureen – and we’re gettin’ married.” And you know what? They got married! So I post this picture, someone finds out she’s in Thailand. Chris is crazy enough to go to Thailand, and then they get married, and they’re still together.
PKM: That’s crazy!
David Godlis: But these were crazy people! It was a scene full of crazy people every night, so why should they not be crazy when they’re in their 60s?
PKM: How about Jodi, Handsome Dick Manitoba’s girlfriend in that famous photo of them in front of CBGB?
David Godlis: Oh yeah, she was his regular girlfriend for a bit. I took that picture because I lost my wallet at CBs one of the first nights I went there, and somebody called me the next day, and asked, “Hey, did you lose your wallet last night,” and it was Manitoba. I didn’t know him. He said come down tonight and get it. I was amazed, and I took that picture that night as a thank you. But the really weird thing about her, Manitoba told me this like 10 years ago, is that she is now in jail in California for murder. He told me, “Boy, I really know how to pick ‘em!”
PKM: It’s really crazy when you know someone who ended up in jail for something that insane, you know someone who has the capability to do that, and you were just talking to them at some bar.
David Godlis: Well yeah, that’s how a lot of the guys I knew in Boston were like, because there was that regular Irish and Italian goodfellas scene, and I was just this bumbling Jew passing through, I wasn’t fit for that, but some of those guys protected me.
PKM: Whereas I’m sure you found a larger group of bumbling Jews at CBGB.
David Godlis: Ha, oh yeah, Jews and Irishmen at CBGBs. That was great. Stiv Bators would talk about Jews and Irishmen.
PKM: Any Stiv or Dead Boys stories?
David Godlis: Stiv was always just the nicest guy. I would go to Max’s, but just once in a while because it seemed like I would always get in trouble there. And one time I got in trouble there when I was with Stiv, of course. We went there for Sirius Trixon’s wedding, I think. The drummer in Sirius’ band was Dennis Thompson from the MC5. Sirius had this big group of people backstage up at Max’s. Eventually, everyone exited the backstage, and I was left with Stiv. So I started taking pictures of him, and he starts with his thing where he starts taking down his pants. Someone who worked at Max’s walked in and was like, “You people are out of here!” and kicked us all out. Of course, then Stiv called it in to Rolling Stone, and it ended up in the “Random Notes” that we got kicked out of Max’s. Every time I went there, some shit like that would happen.
PKM: As if that was the first time someone dropped their pants at Max’s.
David Godlis: Ha, yeah, really. It was just whoever it annoyed that night. The CBGB people, we were the problematic people.
PKM: For you, CBs was more the friendly, homey feeling?
David Godlis: Well I never got in trouble at CBGB. It was just more my people. People say I’m a nice guy, I don’t have a face you want to arrest, but at Max’s, I would get into trouble. I’d go down black holes. I was there one night with some girl, we’re talking, and she gets up to go to the bathroom and whispers in my ear what her hotel room is at the Gramercy Park Hotel. Then she leaves. And I’m thinking, I don’t have any money. How am I gonna pay the fucking check? I had her hotel room number, but certainly not enough money to pay for both. So now I’ve gotta figure out how I’m gonna sneak out of here without paying. I made my move and went downstairs. And outside I ran into Syl Sylvain. He was with his band at that time, the Criminals. So he stopped me and he was like, “Oh, do a couple pictures of us!” And a cop car pulled up, and the band’s like, “What’re you doing here?” And the cops said someone ran out on their tab, we’re trying to find them. The cops went into Max’s and I told Sylvain, “I gotta go!”
PKM: So you didn’t get a shot?
David Godlis: No, I just went straight over to the hotel.
PKM: So you developed yourself as a street photographer, someone trying to grab a feeling of the streets, the streets you were walking around on; and you’re a music fan too. From early on, did you feel something was kind of bubbling up from these bands and this scene, like stumbling onto something interesting on a sidestreet somewhere?
David Godlis: Oh, of course. How could you not feel it?! I remember walking down to the Bowery, and it was a big, wide open, empty space. You’d see an ad in the Voice, but then you’d go down there, and it’s not like there were a bunch of things happening on the block. It was a wide open boulevard, the Bowery, but nothing was there but gas stations and bums, and there’s that awning over there – I guess that’s the place I’m going. And you’d walk in that door, and the first thing you see is Roberta (Bayley) at the front desk. And she doesn’t look like the usual kind of bar door girl. She had what now would be called a punk look, of sorts, where she wore all black, and she’s not “nice and sweet” – she is just going to take your money and not give you much information or sit and chat, and you’re a little intimidated. And then you think, OK, that’s what this place is.
PKM: Was she already a photographer herself at that point (Roberta Bayley took the cover photo of the first Ramones album, and much more).
David Godlis: Yeah, but I didn’t know that at the time. She was just a cool girl at the front door. Eventually there was a moment where I noticed that she was the same Roberta Bayley who took the photo on the cover of the first Richard Hell Ork single. And then we started having discussions as photographers.
PKM: Yeah, I ask because I assume back then not too many people were walking around with cameras slung around their neck either.
David Godlis: Right. She sat at the front desk. She probably had it in her purse or it was sitting under the front desk, in case she wanted to go up front and shoot something. But she didn’t walk around shooting. I walked around shooting, or at least walked around with my camera over my shoulder.
The thing is, first of all, it was important to look “cool.” So you didn’t wear your camera on your neck, you didn’t carry a camera bag.
PKM: And you developed a style that didn’t use flash – which I assume some of that was to not be the obnoxious person who blinds everybody in the bar.
David Godlis: Yes! I was a natural light photographer, for lack of a better word, because I was going from street photography – which was natural light – to this dark club. So yes, do what you’re comfortable with, adapt. And if you’re going into a place like that, you want to be cool, right? So walk in, carry the camera over your shoulder. Sometimes people would say, “Oh, you don’t have your camera tonight.” Then I’d pull it out from behind, under my jacket. So basically, I’d be having conversations at the bar, like we’re having right now, and there’d be a moment like, I think I should take a picture. So I’d ask, hey, can I take a picture? They’d say sure, and then we’d go back to the conversation.
It’s funny, I remember sometimes during that time, I would go back to Boston and show people what I’d been shooting. And they were like, “Why are you wasting your time and talent photographing bands?!” And I’d say, well it’s not just bands, I don’t think I’m really “wasting” it. I think I figured out this whole style, and I’m kind of trying to capture this scene that’s going on. But like, how do you explain what Patti Smith is to people who hadn’t experienced it yet? There’s Patti, there’s Television, there’s the Ramones, Blondie, and this was all so new to people. Going back to Boston in 1976 was kind of like going back in time. Even though there were bands there, there weren’t really yet, in that punk way. So I’d show other photographers who’d gone to school with me these CBGBs pictures, and they didn’t get it. I’d play a 45 of the Ramones, and they’d go, “Ohhhh, you’re taking pictures of bad bands.” Ha. But I just said, ‘no, I trust myself, and what I’m doing here is interesting, and I’m going to keep trying to do it’.
PKM: Did you find back then that people were somewhat taken aback when you pulled a camera out and pointed it at them?
David Godlis: No, everyone knew I was the guy with the camera, after I’d been there a little while. I took a lot of pictures outside, so you’d see me out there between the sets. There was more light out there from the Bowery streets. I’d take a picture of someone, and because I didn’t use a flash, they’d go, “Oh hey, your flash didn’t go off.” And I’d try to explain it. Then the next person would say the same thing, and someone over there would go, “Oh, he doesn’t use a flash!” So after a while, everyone in that group knew I didn’t shoot with a flash, and it was likely I’d be taking a picture. But yeah, back then, only certain people on certain evenings had a camera. And usually they were people from the press, outsiders that would come down and want to get a picture of one of the “crazy punk bands.” But I had a camera every night, and everyone knew, and they were ready when I was ready to take a picture.
PKM: So I’m no expert on this, but by not using a flash, you have to keep the lens open a little longer to let some light in, right?
David Godlis: Yes, slow shutter speed.
PKM: I guess there are a ton of blurry photos in your past, as I assume most of your subjects there at CBs were drunk, maybe flying on coke, whatever, and kind of buzzing around and unable to stay still for a minute. It must have been really hard to get a good shot. Like I know that famous Patti Smith shot – she had to hold that pose for a second, right?
David Godlis: Well, I think Patti probably knew at that point how to hold it and pose.
PKM: Ha, yeah.
David Godlis: But I did tell people to stand still, and yeah, drunk people sometimes don’t hear what you’re saying. Plus, some of those band people, the thing they’d usually do in a photograph involves action, and some jumping around they’d do in front of a flash. So they had to get used to the fact that for me, they’d have to stand still a little.
PKM: And that’s probably why you lean towards those shots, and not many live shots – though there are great live shots in the book.
David Godlis: I loved doing live shots back then, but I loved the shots I was doing in that slow speed a little more. I mean it’s not that slow, it’s not that hard to stand still for half a second. But on my end, it’s a little hard to hold the camera steady. So that’s the combo – if we can both hold steady, then we have the shot. Like that Patti picture – I didn’t know I had it until I had it, when I went home and developed it. Or like that Alex Chilton shot out on the Bowery. We tried that a couple times, and I’d go back the next day, and Alex would ask, “Did you get a good shot?” And I’d say, nah, and we’d try it again. Then there was that one night, on the center strip of the Bowery, and it was rainy. And rain landed on the lens by mistake, and I didn’t know until I developed the film. And it happened to not land on the part of the lens where his face was. And I talked to him that night and told him we got it.
PKM: So [Alex] was living around the Lower East Side for a while, right?
David Godlis: Yeah, around 9th Street.
PKM: You’d see him around?
David Godlis: Well, I’d see him more likely at CBGB rather than “around.”
PKM: How was he? Because that was leading into that era where people would write about him and say he was getting crazy and all that…
David Godlis: Yeah, everybody’s got a story like that, but I never did. I didn’t even really know much about Big Star when I met him around those CBGB years, like 1977. So I wasn’t some Big Star fanatic, because I wasn’t a musician. I was so into photography, I missed certain things.
I wasn’t looking to sell to Rolling Stone and be Annie Leibovitz. I was looking to be like Weegee and Robert Frank.
PKM: Well, lots of people missed Big Star until later because the records went out of print so quickly.
David Godlis: Yeah. But we bonded over photography. I very quickly found out that he knew William Eggleston. Eggleston had just had a show at MoMA, which was the first show of color photography at MoMA. When I found out Alex knew him, then I understood that he really knew photography, he’d grown up around it. We’d talk photography a lot, not music really. He started to look at my pix, and he understood the slow shutter speed/no flash thing. So he would push me to do things. Like one night he introduced me to the Cramps and tried to have me shoot them at a table. Not sure if it was CBGB or a bar around the corner. This was when Alex was getting ready to record their album, and he was there talking to them about it, and he wanted me to take a picture of him and them at this table. There was absolutely no light at all. Alex was setting up all these candles, and the Cramps didn’t even know I was gonna take a picture, but Alex knew – he was machining the whole thing. Didn’t get much that night, but eventually the Cramps had me do their picture. Alex was the same age as me in 1977 – 26. Well, he might have been a little older. I know Joey [Ramone] was the same age as me.
PKM: Okay, a Joey story off the top of your head?
David Godlis: He was always nice. I always remember how he said my name, with that Joey accent – “Hey Gaaawd-less!” He came up to my apartment to shoot a cover for Trouser Press, which turned out to be their last issue. It was a birthday/anniversary issue.
PKM: Oh, that great shot of Joey with the birthday cake.
David Godlis: Yeah, ‘cause it was an anniversary issue. So the mag’s art director – or whoever qualified as the “art director” at that time – came over to my apartment, and we lit all the candles on the cake, and they made this sign that said “Gabba Gabba Happy Birthday,” and immediately the sign caught on fire and burned up. Joey was all done up, he had the gloves on and all that. And he didn’t have an assistant or anything, or even a girlfriend that was there. And the shoot ended up with him grabbing the cake and smooshing it with his gloves. And my girlfriend at the time – now my wife – had to help him get the gloves off Joey’s hands with the cake all over him. I called him like two days later to try to go show him the pictures – ‘cause it was color, and I had to send them to a lab to get developed – and he was already in the hospital, with a foot infection. That was kind of the beginning of a lot of his health problems. I went to the hospital to show him the pictures.
PKM: You have some pictures in that new Epix “Punk” documentary series?
David Godlis: Yeah, we sold pictures to that, and Roberta’s asking me if I’ve seen it, and I’m like, no, and I haven’t talked to anyone who has. I don’t see anyone posting about it on Facebook or anything. No one has Epix. I don’t know where I can see it. That was a funny one. It was like close to New Year’s Eve, and I got an email from John Varvatos – that’s his doc. And I get this email, “Hey, Happy New Year’s!” I don’t get emails from John Varvatos! He wanted to introduce me to the person who’s compiling the pictures for the doc. And I brought Roberta in, though she knows him. I’m just curious to see it. There are so many posters all over the subways and around town, but I haven’t seen anyone talk about it.
PKM: You’ve got some pictures in that doc, and lots of your shots have ended up in books and galleries over the years. So I guess you just decided to finally get all the best shots from that era into one book?
David Godlis: Well I always wanted to do a book of that stuff, but that punk stuff went in and out of fashion. From between the early 1980s to when Please Kill Me and Nirvana were happening, I couldn’t get a publisher to do a book of this. They didn’t want to bank the money on a photo book, which costs a lot of money to produce. And I didn’t have a famous name that was locked in to sell a book. Chris Stein was in Blondie; Bob Gruen had all those John Lennon photos. Then I’d go to publishers, and they’d balk.
I was listening to Danny Fields on WFMU, in 1968, and he played that first MC5 album when it came out. With Danny, it was like you were listening to inside stories, it was a different kind of radio show.
PKM: You know Paul Zone I guess?
David Godlis: Oh yeah, love Paul.
PKM: So here’s a guy who was 14, sneaking into CBGB and taking pictures. But because he wasn’t some big famous name, he had a hard time finding a publisher for years, though he had all these amazing photos. Though he finally did get his great photo book, Playground, out there.
David Godlis: Yup. Someone I know bought one of my photos and said, ‘why don’t you do a Kickstarter?’ I knew a little about it. I do a lot of work with the New York Film Festival, so I’d meet people who were raising money through Kickstarter to supplement their films. But it never occurred to me to do it for a book. This person showed me what to do, offer the incentive gifts, and so on. So it put the idea in my head, and it quickly sprung from that to a feeling that Kickstarter was a DIY thing like punk was. And it was always people who sprung up from that punk scene who were asking me, “When are you going to do a book of all your photos?” So maybe they’d be into the whole idea. Once I put it together, it went a little viral, and bing – I had the money to do the book. What people told me was, this is why you didn’t find a publisher before – because on Kickstarter, you could make a little film, share it, and really tell your story, and explain how you were part of that scene, and you took pictures of that scene, and publishers didn’t get that. But people got that quickly on Kickstarter. And so I got the money.
PKM: You have some shots in that great “Punk Lust” exhibit at the Museum of Sex too, right?
David Godlis: Yeah, that show is unbelievably great! I also was asked to be on a photography panel connected with that upcoming punk graphics exhibit at MAAD.
PKM: I like the pictures of outside CBs during that blizzard of 1978. We got that blizzard in Cleveland that year too.
David Godlis: Yeah, there was that huge blizzard and a snowstorm right around the same time. And I’ve always linked that with when my father died that year on January 24, right around then. And it was right when the Sex Pistols were touring the U.S. too. So I have that picture in the book of Bob Gruen standing on Bleecker Street. He was coming to CBGB that night. The Sex Pistols tour abruptly ended…
PKM: Oh, and Johnny Rotten left straight from that last show in San Francisco to New York to kind of get away, right?
David Godlis: Yeah, he was staying with Joe Stevens, who was a photographer for the NME, and Joe had brought him over to CBGB – there was no show that night, it was like a quiet Monday, the blizzard and all – and Joe brought me over to say hey to Johnny. He was sitting in the darkest, quietest part of the bar, near the cigarette machine. And he said I could take a picture, but there was no light at all. That picture in the book was like a one-second exposure. So Gruen was coming over to meet Johnny to show him new Sex Pistols pictures that he’d taken from that tour. And then he gets to CBGB, and Johnny tells him, “We broke up, man.” And Bob thought, “Oh damn, now I’ll never sell these pictures ‘cause the Sex Pistols broke up.” I just happened to get that picture of Bob as he was showing up, with the Pistols pictures under his arm.
PKM: Was there a story or moment with that original scene where you personally thought, “This stuff is getting too big,” or even kind of ending a bit and you wanted to move on?
David Godlis: I went there because it was really interesting. Then I started photographing it, and then it became kind of a project to me. I knew there was a way I was shooting it, and I wasn’t shooting it in a way to sell pictures to magazines. I was in it to do what the book ended up being. I came from that era, and area, where you would do photos to eventually have exhibitions and then do books. I wasn’t looking to sell to Rolling Stone and be Annie Leibovitz. I was looking to be like Weegee and Robert Frank. I was heading in that direction, in my mind. And there’s not much you can do with my mind. Ha. I had a day job – I was an assistant to a photographer – so it wasn’t like I was doing it to make money, I was doing it to make certain kind of pictures. I was photographing at CBGB at night, and working during the day. And there’s a photo in the book of John Cale and Nico outside CBGB in 1979. She played there that night, and in my mind, that was the end, the last interesting thing I did there. The scene was already moving off to other places.
PKM: And that’s a good full circle, from being into the Velvet Underground years ago, to back around to that show.
David Godlis: Oh yeah. It’s not like I stopped going, but I’d finished this project. And whatever was happening in front of me was starting to move elsewhere. And I wasn’t really a “rock ‘n’ roll photographer,” so I wasn’t looking to go everywhere that was happening.
PKM: The usual trajectory of a photographer in your position at that time was, as the mainstream profile for a small scene increased, the scene kind of moves on, and someone like you might’ve ended up as a house photographer for a major record label or bigger magazine. You didn’t have any ambitions to do that?
David Godlis: No, I wasn’t good at that, or the politics of doing that. You know, like you’d maybe have to be the drug dealer too, because being the photographer was not the highest paying job at the record company. And I didn’t want to do that. I was this art or street photographer guy. I did get assignments at some magazines, like New York Rocker or Trouser Press. But by 1982, ’83, when MTV really started to come along, there was maybe the Pretenders, but otherwise, things were getting to be not my type of music or photography, I wasn’t getting those assignments.
PKM: Oh, like that 1980s, in a studio, primary colors in the background, band posing asymmetrically with asymmetrical hair, etc.?
David Godlis: Ha, yeah. And, the assignments I was getting – and the way I was shooting – it was costing me more than I was making. Then I was diagnosed with MS in 1984. Right around the same time as I did that Joey birthday cake picture. Joey was getting sick, and I was getting sick, and I realized I had to sort of stay off the scene for a year or two. When I came back on the scene, I thought I don’t really want to go on with rock’n’roll photography, which means staying up and out all night. I had an interest in film, and I found the New York Film Festival, and I could cover that, and started shooting with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and I started getting to see a million great films. I’ve been able to shoot Godard, Wong Kar-wai, Jim Jarmusch, etc., and I thought, this is what I want to be photographing next. And I continued on with my street photography too.
PKM: Oh, I didn’t know you had MS. My dad had MS. It slowly got worse over like 30 years, but then I had a friend whose mother had it, and she passed away within 10 years. If you don’t mind me asking – you were diagnosed in 1984, you seem like you’re doing great.
David Godlis: I’m at my 35-year anniversary of having it. Spring of ’84. Joey was in the hospital, and then I was in the hospital. I’m lucky. I’m on medication.
PKM: Good to hear. So is there a notion, now that you got the CBGBs stuff out there, to maybe doing a pre-CBs or non-rock related photo book, like what Chris Stein has done?
David Godlis: Yes! I always loved Chris’ photography. I didn’t know he was a photographer until I saw his pictures in Punk magazine, and I thought he’s a really good photographer, essentially doing the same style I’m doing – natural light, no flash, B&W, in a certain style. I didn’t realize he went to SVA at the time, and had a background in street photography. I was always a street photographer, I was starting around 1974 to getting to New York City in 1976, knee-deep in street photography. And I think I was doing really good stuff. But it was hard to get a show of that stuff, because it was still kind of new.
It was a wide open boulevard, the Bowery, but nothing was there but gas stations and bums, and there’s that awning over there – I guess that’s the place I’m going. And you’d walk in that door, and the first thing you see is Roberta (Bayley) at the front desk.
PKM: Yeah, it’s crazy to think color photography wasn’t even in museums until the early ‘70s.
David Godlis: Yeah, that one at MoMA, and that was a big deal, even controversial. So anyway, then I sort of abandoned street photography as I was working all day and at CBs all night. I did a little bit of it but put it aside while the punk stuff was going on. In 1979, I came back to it, as I wasn’t out all night as much. I also took a seminar with Garry Winogrand in 1979. I remember telling him, ‘I stopped doing this for a few years and I’m kind of lost,’ and I showed him the street stuff. He guided me – like this is your good stuff, this is your better stuff. And then I just went back to that, and there was this big burst of creativity from that Winogrand seminar in ’79 to about 1984 when I got sick. People, like Glenn O’Brien, would tell me the street photography is fabulous, do a book of that first. But I just always thought, no, I have to do the punk stuff first.
PKM: Oh, Glenn O’Brien. They should make a documentary about that guy. Though there was that great doc about his cable show, TV Party.
David Godlis: Oh yeah, Glenn! He was a smart guy. For a while he was living in my building when he was doing that show. See, there was no cable in the Lower East Side, none of us had cable. There was only cable in the parts of town that had big buildings they could wire and make money off of. But if your building was a small Lower East Side tenement, there weren’t enough apartments for them to care. You’d call Manhattan Cable, and they’d say, “Oh yeah, sure, we’re gonna hook you up sometime.” But it took years! So we’d go over to Paul’s Lounge, which was on 3rd Avenue, near where Joey lived. They had a big screen TV for sports, but we’d go over and ask them to put TV Party on. That was a brilliant show. It was like a big occasion when they finally hooked up cable in the Lower East Side.
So people liked my street photography, but it was only in the last couple of months really, I started posting street pictures on Instagram. I only randomly posted a few once in a while, and people started responding, and I quickly realized people were seeing them in context with each other, not in context with my punk pictures. It was like they were turning a page with each one. I’ve already received a book offer. With this exhibition coming up, even though it’s mostly going to be my punk pictures, I added in some street pictures because people want to see them now.
PKM: How did this gallery show happen?
David Godlis: This guy is opening his new gallery space – 72 Gallery – and wants to focus on punk exhibitions, and he wants me to be the first one. There’s going to be a large screen where the photos are projected, kind of slide projector style, with audio of me talking about them; and some wall-sized images, and another projector in another room with my street pictures. And I’m also picking music to play. It’s more of an installation than an exhibition. We’re still piecing it together, it’s a work in progress. It’s pretty exciting. It’s like walking into my world.
It’s a GODLIS World
April 18 – May 9, 2019
OPENING: Thursday, April 18 from 6-9pm
72 Gallery is delighted to announce It’s a Godlis World, a solo exhibition of photographs by David Godlis—the inaugural exhibition at 72 Gallery @ 72 Orchard Street, New York City 10002. The exhibition explores David’s early work as a photographer in New York in the mid 70’s and early 80’s.