By Marcelo Sonaglioni and Frank Blumetti
If this article defied its usual style and started by the end of the meeting described here, it should refer to the very minute before the “thanks and goodbye” to the person interviewed, when one of the interwievers took out a book about the New York rock scene in the late ’70s from his bag, of which the interviewee was one of its most distinguished witnesses, and then proceeded to point out the picture he wanted to be autographed. “I know which ones are my pictures, you do not need to tell me!” What could be taken as some real temper is nothing but Roberta Bayley in pure punk attitude, the same that led her to become one of the chosen few who was there to catch the Big Apple punk scene through the lens of her camera close-up some 43-odd years ago and beyond. More than four decades later, at 68, Bayley is in Buenos Aires to host a photo exhibition portraying much of her work. A one-week stay, from Thursday to Thursday,where she was extensively interviewed, and during which she barely had the time to get around the city, which she says reminds her of Paris. Bayley talks a lot, and does it passionately, so much that usually gets ahead of the questions which still need to be asked, even adding something that really seems to make her pleased: not to be inquired “once again” about her famous photo on the cover of the first Ramones album (which, although usually considered her trademark shot, does little justice for the rest of her career) And later on deciding to acknowledge it by refusing to stop when somebody informs her it’s time to wrap up the interview: “No, not yet, I want to keep talking”, and that we interviewers had no choice but to accept.
You were born in the West Coast, in Pasadena, California, but what exactly made you move to London afterwards, and then to New York?
Well, I left southern California when I was 4. I asked my mother not to send me, but she said “we’re going”. So we moved to Seattle, and I lived there till I was 7, and then we moved again to Marin County, which is just north of San Francisco, a very nice area. It’s a very wealthy neighborhood now, but it was middle-class at the moment. There was nature and we had a house on the hill, and a view, you know, and horses and pets. Then after I graduated at high school when I was 18, I went to college in San Francisco. Unfortunately my sister had been killed in a car accident in the same year, which was very disturbing. When I was 19, I had a boyfriend who was a musician, and we lived together for about a year. He’s still a very good friend of mine. And after my third year of college, I just quit, with not really much thought. And then I just said, “I’m going to London”. I bought a one-way ticket. The main reason was that I could be far away, and they just spoke my language, even when a funny accent, but they just spoke English there. Oh yeah, I was making a joke about the “funny language” thing… Anyway I’d always been a kind of anglophile, because I was a big Beatles and Rolling Stones fan, and all that, so I had an affinity for London, and I had a friend from San Francisco who was also a photographer, and who had moved there. We weren’t close friends but we knew each other, and he helped me with photography, ‘cause I was trying to learn. That was around 1970 or 1971, I think. Fred was staying in this very large apartment in London for free, and he said “there’s plenty of room, why don’t you come here?” So I just started living there, maybe getting a little job and working. I didn’t have a camera, I wasn’t taking pictures or anything like that. Out of that, I was really in the music scene, you had all these great music papers like the Melody Maker and the New Musical Express, and occasionally I’d go to music concerts. That’s when I saw The Temptations, or Al Green, in 1973. I was a huge fan of him. You know, the whole white suite, and he played at the Rainbow. And then when he came to New York I went to see him at the Apollo, which was completely amazing, as it was a different show. He was really sexy, and dirty, and cool. But back to London, I’d worked briefly with Malcolm McLaren. I lived in his neighborhood, so he and his wife would use to come in the restaurant where I worked as a waitress. Sometimes he needed someone to help him out, but it wasn’t anything to do with music. Although sometimes we’d go see bands together, and there was this band coming up that kinda was getting talked about a little bit called Kilburn and the High-Roads. They were sort of in the pub rock scene, and there was a radio show on Sundays called Honky Tonk with a gentleman called Charlie Gillett, he’s the one who wrote one of the early rock books, “Sound of the City”. I became friends with Charlie, and he started to manage Kilburn and the High-Roads. So one night they were playing in White Chapel. And there I met Ian Dury, we fell madly in love, and we hitchhiked back from White Chapel. But then I was leaving back to San Francisco, as that was already planned. So we had correspondence, and phone calls, he was begging me to go back to London.
Did you go back to London?
Yeah, we loved each other, so I went back. Then we lived together. The band was really struggling, we weren’t making any money. We lived in a squat in Stockwell, that’s close to Brixton. But it was great music. The Kilburns were really a weird band. I mean, they had a black crippled guy in the band, they had a midget, they had this guy Humphrey Ocean…It was his fake name, but he was a painter. He wasn’t really a musician, he sort of danced onstage…But they were really good and the songs were really original. Ian was an incredible performer, and incredibly charismatic. He was crippled himself. He had polio and ended up with a completely fucked-up leg. But he was completely unique. They finally got a record contract and made this record, but it didn’t do well, so he kind of said “I’m too poor, you should go back to America, as this isn’t a good situation”. I think he was also having an affair with his previous girlfriend Denise Roudette, who was also a musician, and a very beautiful woman.
Maybe that was another reason to go back home again.
Well I didn’t know that but I suspected it, and I didn’t want to have a boyfriend who was cheating on me. And you know, you have to hate the girlfriend, so she hated me and when I left, she took my fur coat. But she’s a beautifully spirited woman and I have great respect for her. I guess she played for a little bit in the Kilburns. So I left for New York. I didn’t know anyone in New York at all. I had one friend I vaguely remembered that had moved from San Francisco, but I had a list of names that my friends in London gave me, like, you know, “I’m a friend of Ian Dury”, and this woman said “yes, come and stay with me”. She had a big loft on Church Street. This was in 1974. But everybody was very helpful. And then I started working and I made some money. My first job in New York was as a nanny, because you had a place to live, and you had a salary, but it was part-time. But then one of those people from the list my friends had given me, he was in the music business, he worked as a roadie, you know, lighting, sound man, for the Rolling Stones and other big bands. He was really nice, he showed me all around New York and said “so what do you wanna do?” And I said “I wanna see the New York Dolls, because I never saw them”. Because when they played in San Francisco, I was in London. When they played in London, I was in San Francisco, and he said he was their soundman in New York, and then he knew them very well. And next week they were playing in this place called Club 82, which was a club in a place that had been owned by the mafia, and all the entertainment there was female impersonators, what we would now call drag queens. That was the history of the club but, by the time I went there, it was sort of a little disco. It became very popular because David Bowie visited, so everybody would go there because of that. The new bands were playing there, so the New York Dolls would play there. There was a disco in-between, so everybody could dance after the bands. So that was the first band I saw in New York, and afterwards my friend threw a party for the bands in his loft above, and some of the Dolls came, and also the opening band, a band called the Miamis, who were unknown, but they were one of my favourite bands at the time.
Yes, we did an interview with Gary Lachman (Valentine) two years ago in London and he mentioned the Miamis.
Yeah, they were one of my favourites. They didn’t have the look, they were just Jewish guys with curly hair. It wasn’t a punk look. They were pop more than punk, but they were very good songwriters and very funny guys, and their songs had a lot of humour, but they never achieved success. I met David Johansen at the party, and he was very nice. And the funny thing is, it was Club 82, and the Dolls had never played there, so they said “well we’re playing Club 82, we should wear dresses”. I had heard the rumours of the faggots and all that, so the first time I saw them, David is wearing a strapless evening gown, a ladies’wig, and women’s high heels, so I said “oh these guys are weird”, but that was their thing, it was kind of a joke. I think that Johnny (Thunders) or Jerry (Nolan) said “oh no, I’m not wearing a dress” ‘Cause they were really macho guys, they were so not gay, you know. The music business was kind of afraid of them because of their album cover. They were in drag and people didn’t understand it. You know, homophobia, and all that.
Looks like seeing the Dolls live was a major turning point for everybody who was part of that late ‘70s scene in New York. Everybody went to see the New York Dolls.
Oh yeah, they were huge in New York. Mick Jagger and David Johansen would be at Max’s Kansas City, and people would go to David. They were bigger than anything. They were the coolest band, they had the best girlfriends and they looked the greatest. Later on the Dolls’ success was kind of going on the downhill, but everybody could see they were having a really good time. They were getting all the chicks, they were getting all the drugs, it was fun, and that’s what rock and roll is, so everybody started bands.
Plus they had some image, it was very striking at the time.
Yeah. And that’s when Malcolm McLaren came to manage the Dolls, and he put them in red pant leather, with the Communist flag, and all that. But the Dolls were amazing at their shows, I saw them, and they had bands like Television opening for them. The newer bands like Television wanted to distinguish themselves from glitter rock, they wouldn’t gonna wear lipstick. So Richard Hell created very specifically and intentionally this new look with the short hair. Nobody had short hair. In rock’n’roll, you had long hair. And they would have ripped clothes because, you know, their clothes ripped, and then they would fix it with a safety pin. It wasn’t fashion, it was something practical to live.
And then nobody expected that it would turn out to be a fashionable thing.
Well, Richard kind of thought if they wanted to get attention, they had to be different. You know, Richard Hell did the T-shirt for Richard Lloyd that said “please kill me” onstage. Richard Lloyd tried to dye his hair bleach but it turned green…
How was living with Richard Hell?
With Richard? Weird. He wouldn’t let me water the plants, because he said “let it die, it’s survival, don’t water the plants” And then we had a mouse at the apartment, and I wanted to get rid of it, and he said “no! The mouse lives”
What do you mean? A mouse living with you? Not in a fish tank or something…
No, he was a loose mouse. But then I killed the mouse, and I threw it away, and he went “oh where’s the mouse?” I never told him I’d killed the mouse. We were just living together, and that’s how we lived. You know, we were poor. It wasn’t mean. He was very much into the surrealists, like Lautreaumont and Baudelaire. You know he’s a writer, and he was a poet.
We tried to contact him recently for an interview.
No, he doesn’t talk about music, he doesn’t want to. It’s almost impossible to get him to talk about music. And I respect it because, say, I’m doing all these interviews and I’m always being asked the same thing, over and over again. “What was it like in the ‘70s?”, etc. For him it’s extremely boring. He hasn’t done any music since the ‘80s. He’s a writer now. He’s published novels, books, articles…He makes his living as a respected writer. So he doesn’t wanna talk about punk rock. You know, I understand him completely.
That’s easy to understand…
See, just before I left for Buenos Aires, I had somebody to interview me about Sid (Vicious) and Nancy (Spungen), because I knew them both. So the first question was, once again, “What was it like in the ‘70s?” I said to him, “look, I’m not writing your article for you. There’s many books and articles written about that. You go to the library, and in 2 weeks, you phone me back, and then you ask me some serious questions, because I can’t tell you the whole story. That’s your job, you’re the journalist!” That was Richard’s philosophy, and I understand that. Five years ago I probably would have answered that kind of questions, but now it’s like enough already. Go to the library. I mean you don’t even have to go to the library, go to the internet, it’s all right there. So then you can ask me a relevant question that shows you have some knowledge, and you won’t insult me (laughs)
Hopefully our questions are interesting…
Yeah, they are, it sounds like you kind of know my answers a little bit. I enjoy interviews, but sometimes you get tired of hearing “how did you take the Ramones picture?”
Back in time, how you did get the job at the CBGB’s?
Oh, because I was Richard Hell’s girlfriend. Television was the only band that used to play there only on Sunday night. Their manager was Terry Ork, so he said “Roberta you stay at the door and take the money, 2 dollars” So when the people came to go in, I told them they had to pay and convinced them to pay 2 dollars, they were gonna see a good band, and that’s the deal.
There’s a funny story about that concerning Legs McNeil.
Yes, he came to CBGB’s and he said “I’m Legs McNeil”. I’d never seen Punk magazine, nobody had seen it. It was brand new, it just came out, the first issue. And I said “no, it’s 2 dollars, you have to pay me”. And he said, “no, I get in for free”. And then I said, “well ok, give me a copy of the magazine”. And he said, “no, it’s 50 cents, behind the bar, you can buy it”. So I said, “all right, that’s pretty cool, you go in for free”. So I went to the bar, picked 50 cents and bought the magazine. After work, I went home, and I read the magazine, and then I said “man, I gotta work for these guys, this is incredible!” They weren’t sure about me. But we decided to do something like a photonovela. That meant going around to different clubs, and I’d take the pictures. We did all these great pictures and we had this great chemistry and a hilarious time, we had a lot of fun. So they said, “well, do you wanna work for us?”. So from that moment on, I worked for them till the end of the magazine.
So you had been already working as a photographer by then? What took you to becoming a photographer before entering the music scene?
Yeah, that was in 1976, and I’d started at the end of 1975. I had interest in photography since I was a little girl. You know, I had a little toy camera. But then photography was becoming popular among people. But then in high school, when I was 15, I also had a photography class, which was very simplistic. But I learnt how to develop a film, and how to print. I loved photography, and when they graded me, I got more pluses than minuses. My photography teacher liked my pictures very much, and he would give me an assignment, like taking pictures which showed movement. He was a history teacher, but his passion was photography. And then when I was about 19, I bought a Nikon. I wasn’t doing any music pictures at the times, but I did street photography. But at the time photography wasn’t still considered a form of art, it was still the black sheep in the art world. But then when I came to New York, I met everybody in the scene, like I told you…Club 82, and I was working at CBGB’s, everybody was really interesting, so it would have been really stupid not taking pictures.
Any reason in particular why most of the pictures were only in black and white?
Yeah, it was a decision, because I had no money. But I shot a lot of colour, anytime I could afford it, or else I was shooting both. And specially when I became involved with Blondie. But colour is more expensive. I was also extremely lucky that soon after I bought my camera, I had this friend, and he said “oh I have this dark room that somebody left in my apartment, I’ll let you use it for 6 months”. The entire darkroom, which was very large, with everything.
You did a lot of work with Blondie, and they were a very colourful band anyway. It would have been such a loss to shoot Debbie Harry only in black and white…
Yeah, and it was the same with the New York Dolls. And I think about it, because I’m always saying to people part of the reason the Ramones cover made such an impression is because it’s black and white, but there’s also a New York Dolls first cover that was b&w. It was unusual for rock bands. Folk music did a lot of b&w, Bob Dylan too. But rock bands usually used colour. Elvis’ was black and white, his first album for RCA, the one that The Clash copied. I’d do both, I had two cameras, so I could shoot colour and black and white. But the Ramones picture was black and white, as it was for Punk magazine. We couldn’t afford printing in colour. Printing was so primitive, you couldn’t mix colour and b&w in the same page, which now is very common. So all we shot for Punk magazine was black and white. Stupidily, Bob Gruen was there the same day, so he has the pictures of Debbie in colour because, he was rich, and he could afford it (laughs) I mean, he wasn’t rich, but he was richer than me.
Who would you say were the easiest and the hardest bands or musicians to work with? I know you loved shooting Iggy Pop, in fact you once said you wish you had photographed him more.
Oh yes. That’s right. But then I retired. I can call him on the phone (laughs) There’s a very fantastic interview of him and Anthony Bourdain, you can sure find it on YouTube. Iggy’s just the coolest person, and his conversation with Anthony is done at at Iggy’s house in Florida.
Back to the punk scene, a tricky question, which one do you think influenced the other one? Was it that the New York scene influenced the British one, or was it the other way round?
Now you’re showing me you’re ignorant! Sorry.
The New York scene started in 1974. London’s scene started in 1976. So who influenced who? It’s New York! London took all the ideas from New York. The safety pins, the ripped clothing, and all that. But locally the British guys were very talented. You know, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones, Paul Cook…
I actually didn’t mean to be serious. I was playing games with you.
But you wouldn’t believe, when I talk to stupid journalists, I always say “go out, just do your history!” We started it.
The right question then would be, is there a link between both scenes?
Of course! Malcolm McLaren! You know, Blondie became big in England first, before anywhere else, because Debbie (Harry) was very beautiful, and they played in Top of The Pops…Blondie had many hits in London. But then when they came back to New York, they knew that Johnny Rotten had copied Richard Hell, that it was the version of him. Johnny Rotten copied him off.
Somehow most of the people always thought that the whole punk thing started with the Sex Pistols.
You don’t explain to me, I’ll explain it to you, ok? This is how it works.
The Sex Pistols became huge in London because they said “fuck” on TV. You know, their record was banned. You couldn’t even advertise it, but you could sell it. And so, you know, they were huge in the press. At that time nobody knew about any of the New York bands, except in a small area. The Ramones were still obscure, but when they went to London on the 4th of July of 1976 and played at the Roundhouse, there in the audience was The Clash, the Sex Pistols, etc. They couldn’t even afford tickets, and Johnny Ramone went to the window and let them come in. They were just kids, but the Ramones were aware of the fans and the kids, and that they were the future next music. I don’t think the Ramones felt threatened, but I think they were very pissed off when the Sex Pistols sort of became more famous than them more quickly. But not really in the United States. The Sex Pistols were never big in the United States. But England’s a very small country, with three music papers. It was a completely different environment.
And then it just happened the other way round when the Pistols did their last tour in the USA. How was the experience?
That was really insane. They were just fed up, and Sid was detoxing from heroin. As a drug addict, he felt terrible. We had an idea of playing these weird cities, obscure cities in the south like Memphis, Baton Rouge, San Antonio…But that was all intentional.
I wouldn’t say risky, but definitely tough places. Like people throwing bottles at them…
Well, we were punks, we would take it… (laughs) But that was part of what was frustrating for the band because the band was really good. I missed the first two shows of the tour. My first one was San Antonio, with many people throwing things at them, insulting the band, “fuck you!” and all that. They were treating them like freaks. But there were still people that liked them, although a minority. You know, when you go to the south, Tulsa, Oklahoma…there are people who are Jesus freaks, like protesting, the devil’s music, and all that shit. So they were just frustrated and fed up with the whole thing, and Johnny said, “enough”, that’s in San Francisco.
Why do you think there’s so much interest in punk after all these years?
It’s the last underground music. There’s no way now to stay underground, you’re discovered immediately. You’re discovered before anything, even before you go to the studio and play. That’s my opinion. I don’t follow music anymore. It was like the ‘50s, which was true punk music, like Little Richard. Nobody more punk. Elvis Presley, nobody more punk. People say, “oh punk was the most revolutionary music”. Oh no, ‘50s rock’n’roll, and even more, black music. You know, and then the mid-‘60s and psychedelic bands, which was a different kind of music.
Just to think of Little Richard…He was black, gay, he used lipstick, he shook his ass at the piano. And that’s in the ‘50s!
Yeah, and that was David Bowie’s biggest influence, and his first as well. I heard Little Richard as my sister was 7 years older than me so, even as that little, I heard ‘Tutti Frutti’. I loved Little Richard. And Jerry Lee Lewis, another punk.
What about New York’s culture? Do you think of any change involved in the last years?
You know, New York will always be a center of culture. Today, it’s very hard for artists to live there because of the high cost of living. In the ’70s you could get a loft, a huge loft, for $200 a month. Now that would be $10,000 a month. For young people now, coming to the city, I don’t know how they do it.
I guess it’s the same with many bohemian areas in the main cities. Like Chelsea, in London. It used to be like that in the ‘60s, and affordable, and suddenly big companies or big clothing stores arrive and they turn into expensive and fashionable places.
Oh yeah, it’s the same with Soho in New York. Because at the time it was dead. Tribecca was also dead. Any neighborhood you name. Only the Bronx is still probably rough. My neighborhood is too crowded now. It used to be more serene. But I never go out at night, so I don’t give a shit.
How long have you’ve been living in the same place?
Almost 45 years, since 1975. It’s a tiny apartment, 400 square feet. 7 floors, no elevator. So I go 7 floors up and down. I have no choice. Or I could sleep on the floor. It means nothing to me, I’ve been doing it a long time. It’s quite healthy. And the other thing, it’s actually illegal in New York to have seven, so all the buildings around have six. So I have an incredible view, and beautiful light. Because there are no buildings next to me. This is what I say to myself when I’m on the stairs, “you have good light!” (laughs)
Regarding your exhibition, do you feel like an artist showing her works, or more of a witness of an era? Did you visit Buenos Aires around already?
Oh, both. I haven’t really seen anything except the gallery, the gallery, the hotel, the gallery…But I will. I long to come back.
Doesn’t it feel a bit strange coming down here to show your works?
I feel wonderful! I don’t feel strange. It’s a fantastic feeling, I’m very pleased and it’s really exciting. I get a little bit in New York. I also got quite a little bit when I went to Tokyo. You know, they’re also big fans of the Ramones and Punk Rock. I was like a mini-celebrity there, but still not as big as here. I don’t want to do it every day of my life, I‘d lose my mind.
So this is your first time in Argentina, but is it also your first time in South America? Not even in Brazil?
Yes. Not even in Brazil. First time down the equator.
What would be punk’s biggest legacy to the world?
It’s the idea of “do it yourself”. Don’t wait to be an expert. Give it a try, make a mistake, it’s ok. You know, if you feel like doing something, you don’t have to sit in your room practicing the guitar for 5 years, just go out with three chords. That’s all you need. Do it. Because that’s why we did. I didn’t know how to do photography.
One last question, considering lately we saw you in many pictures with your dog. So looks like suddenly you changed from pictures with “punks” to pictures with “pugs”.
Yeah, dogs and musicians are not different.