Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds 1989

Nick Cave with the Bad Seeds, RPM Club, Toronto, Feb. 14, 1989
Nick Cave, RPM Club, Toronto, Feb. 14, 1989

I AM NOT A HUGE FAN OF SHOOTING LIVE MUSIC. I have done a lot of it – at first with enthusiasm, as a fan, trying to capture my favorite artists in performance, and later as a professional, on assignment but with rapidly decreasing enthusiasm. It’s hard to shoot concerts well, but the really discouraging part is that, even when you think you’ve done a great job, it’s entirely likely that anyone else standing within a few feet of you with a camera has a better than even chance of producing shots as good as yours.

I took these pictures of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in the former phase of my (d)evolution as a concert photographer, when I was a huge fan and desperate to get some really great photos. I know I was enthusiastic because I shot three whole rolls of the show at the cavernous RPM Club (now long gone) down by the city’s port lands; naturally parsimonious and intent on keeping my overhead low, I wouldn’t have shot that much film of anyone if I wasn’t committed to getting a result.

Cave’s reputation for being prickly and difficult was probably why I didn’t bother trying to get a portrait of him when he was in town. (I could be that timid with subjects back then – a failure of nerve I felt acutely, then and now.) I wasn’t on assignment so this was a labour of love, which probably explains why, when I got the negatives back, I was so disappointed that I never bothered making a decent print from them – until today.

A bit of technical gobblydegook: Shooting concerts has always been a battle between having enough light and capturing action, so one felt obliged to use flash (annoying to performers so often prohibited and too hit-and-miss for me) or – as I did here – using the fastest film then on the market: at this point Kodak’s T-Max P3200. It was a “miracle” film, but misleadingly named: It actually had a base ISO of 800, but you could push it two, three or even four stops, from 1600 to 3200 to 6400 and even as high as 12,800, if you could handle the extreme grain and complete lack of shadow detail.

It was nightmarish to print, especially if – like me – your darkroom skills were untrained and fairly rudimentary. Highlights would blow out even in the flattest light, so under concert spotlights they were thick and hot, while the greys dropped off steeply to nothing. Scrutinizing the negatives while they were still wet I could see that they looked almost like ortho litho film, the kind they used in design houses to shoot black and white artwork.

The contact sheets looked even worse; I kept them on my desk for at least a year, scrutinizing them for something vaguely printable, but gave up after a few test prints. I admitted defeat, and into the files they went for almost thirty years.

Some lucky people can forget their failures. I’m one of the unlucky ones cursed with a long memory for them, and when I began excavating my archives for my old blog, this shoot came back to haunt me. It showed up again the other day while searching for another live show I shot around the same time, so I decided to give these photos one more crack.

I’d like to say I’m a better printer, but the truth is that my darkroom skills never evolved as fast as my ability with Photoshop. After a few days of wrestling with my old negatives, I was able to wring out more detail than I could ever have managed (at much greater cost in time and money) in the darkroom. Digitally, I can reach much deeper into each frame and pick out detail or smooth out grain. Shots I’d marked on the contacts thirty years ago, like the one at the top and the frame of Bad Seeds guitarist Blixa Bargeld, finally look like I’d hoped they would when I got home from the show and stayed up expectantly souping my film.

The cruel joke is that, even after all that work, anyone who might have been standing at the edge of the same stage that night, with a decent camera and just a bit more skill and luck than myself, would have got almost exactly the same pictures. And at the end of it all, I probably should have tried harder to get a portrait.

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Butthole Surfers coffee table book

Gibby Haynes, Butthole Surfers, Toronto, Dec. 8 1987

FIRST OF ALL I’M AMAZED THIS THING EVEN EXISTS. If you’d walked up to me while I was packing up after shooting portraits of the Butthole Surfers after their soundcheck at the RPM Club in 1987 and said “Hey man – you should take care of those shots. They’ll be useful in about thirty years or so. Probably end up in a big old coffee table book,” I’d probably have said you were out of your mind.

“I mean, have you seen these guys? Have you heard their records?”

Well hey, time traveler, you were right, and here’s the proof:

When I posted photos from my Butthole Surfers portrait session on my old blog, they ended up catching the attention of Jeffrey “King” Coffey, one of the band’s drummers. He linked to them on Facebook and said nice things about being organized enough to save my work and get it out into the digital ecosystem. I was flattered but I thought that would be about it.

Butthole Surfers live, RPM, Toronto, Dec. 8 1987

About a year ago I got a call from Aaron Tanner of Melodic Virtue, a publisher that specializes in books about music. He said they were doing a book about the Buttholes and asked if I’d like to contribute. I did, and the result arrived in the mail yesterday. It’s called Butthole Surfers: What Does Regret Mean? and you can buy it here.

I’m pretty proud of this, and still more than a bit amazed that I’m in my mid-50s and I own a Butthole Surfers coffee table book with my photos in it. Going through the book, my sequence of portraits are the first really clear, straightforward pictures of the band that appear in the book’s chronology.

I suppose I could have tried to do something nuts that reflected the band’s weird, dangerous, psychedelic image but my lack of technical skill and whatever nascent aesthetic I was developing made me go as straight as possible with Gibby, Paul and the rest of the band. As subjects, they were like herding proverbial cats, but Coffey did mention later that they were probably tripping balls.

I was always pretty happy with the portrait of Gibby at the top of this post – it worked for me thanks to some “old masters” style lighting that I discovered by accident, after having to come up with a hasty setup to take individual shots of the band in a corner of the club. I’d spend another year trying to duplicate it, but this particular shot of Gibby gets better every time I print it.

I was never satisfied with my live shots from the show that night. I didn’t have a hope in hell of capturing the more than vaguely sinister chaos in a Buttholes live show, so I never really bothered doing anything with the negatives – until this week.

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Northumbria

Northumbria.live.12.2018_07

I SPENT THE FIRST TEN YEARS OF MY CAREER IN AND AROUND MUSICIANS. Toronto had a great – and undersung – music scene in the ’80s and ’90s, and many of my friends from that scene are still performing and recording. Guitarist Jim Field was a mainstay on the scene back then, and last Sunday he and bassist Dorian Williamson played a gig for the release of Vinland, the latest from their group Northumbria.

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I don’t love shooting live music – I’ve explained that in the old blog – but it’s not easy to do, and every now and then it’s time for a challenge and trying to get a decent photo in dim, changing light with a subject who isn’t paying attention to you will make you work hard as a photographer. Jim and Dorian sounded great, and it was refreshing to photograph a show without having to work around microphone stands. Check their record out – if you like that sort of thing you’ll love what they do.

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