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Pittsburgh to Cleveland: Four Decades of Rock ‘n’ Roll Anarchy

My career as a rock concert photographer started as an afterthought. I was a music-obsessed freshman at Carnegie Mellon University who had received a Yashica Electro 35 as a gift the previous year. The camera was strictly a hobby, something I used for snapshots of friends and family. One day in 1983, however, as my friend and I were leaving our dorm to catch a Psychedelic Furs show at David Lawrence Hall in Oakland, she said: “Hey, you should bring your camera.”

Within a couple years, I transferred to The Ohio State University. There were a multitude of small clubs that hosted concerts—places like Marco Polo’s, Travel Agency, Neely B’s, Bernie’s Bagels, and Stache’s—with a few bringing in the punk bands I favored at the time, such as Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth. I didn’t take my camera often at first, but over time I realized nobody else was documenting what I thought was an amazing music scene that received little to no coverage. This was pre-Nirvana, pre-Internet. Also, since I wasn’t a musician, photography allowed me to become a participant in that scene, not just an observer. As my technique improved and my confidence grew, I took more photos of more bands. To save costs I shot in black and white and eventually learned to process the photos myself. Those photos would end up on flyers and in fanzines, occasionally a record sleeve. I was dubbed by a local band as Jay Photo Man, and became the go-to guy when a band needed photos.

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Left to right: Hüsker Dü at Marco Polo’s in Columbus, Ohio, 1984. Sonic Youth at Stache’s in Columbus, Ohio, 1986.

My early experiences photographing shows in the mid-1980s and early 1990s were formative. To give an example, at a club like Stache’s I had the chance to photograph bands like Pavement, Cosmic Psychos, Camper Van Beethoven, Samhain, Redd Kross, White Zombie, and countless others. When I first saw Nirvana there in 1990, only 40 people showed up, with half the crowd leaving after the local opening band finished their set. The next year, however, Nirvana sold the venue out (pictured above). There were probably more than 250 people packed in a place that maxed-out at half that number—though over the years it feels like I’ve talked to about 3,000 people who say they were there.

Photographing shows can get chaotic. I’ve had flashes ripped off my camera as stage divers flew over head. A friend standing next to me was buried by a stage diver and came out of the pile with a broken jaw. Another time, a guy next to me had some teeth knocked out by a passing boot. My first camera was hit by an errant pitcher of beer thrown into the crowd and was never the same afterwards. One of my most infamous photos is of Bob Pollard from Guided By Voices spitting beer on a man in the crowd. What you don’t see is the dousing Bob had received leading up to that moment.

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Guided By Voices at Stache’s in Columbus, Ohio, 1994.
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The Gotbeds at Gooski’s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2014.

I often joke that I take loud photos, but in essence that is part of what I’m trying to capture, those unique moments in a concert experience: the emotions, the movement, the sweat, the facial expressions, the flying beer. I not only want you to see my photos, I want you to hear them too.

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Pavement at Stache’s in Columbus, Ohio, 1992.
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Zeitgeist at Gooski’s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2014.
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The White Stripes at Pat’s in the Flats in Cleveland, Ohio, 1998.
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The Cynics at Cattivo in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2014.
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Left to right: Detroit Cobras at Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio, 2002. Paybacks at Beachland Tavern in Cleveland, Ohio, 2004.
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Cosmic Psychos at Stache’s in Columbus, Ohio, 1993.
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Samhain at Neely B’s in Columbus, Ohio, 1986.
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Dead Moon at Pat’s in the Flats in Cleveland, Ohio, 1998.
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White Zombie at Stache’s in Columbus, Ohio, 1988.
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Left to right: Babes in Toyland at Stache’s in Columbus, Ohio, 1992. Kim Phuc at The Shop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2011.
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New Bomb Turks at Ace of Cups in Columbus, Ohio, 2013.
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Kid Durango at Club Cafe in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2012.
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Obnox at Gooski’s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2014.
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The Black Keys at Beachland Tavern in Cleveland, Ohio, 2002.
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Mike Watt + the Missingmen at Club Cafe in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2012.
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Nirvana at Stache’s in Columbus, Ohio, 1991.

Photo Essay is a monthly series on the CMOA Blog that features images from both emerging and established photographers working in a variety of styles—from documentary and conceptual, to fine art and commercial. For past installments, visit the archives.

Photo Essay is an original series on Storyboard that features documentary images examining the social, cultural, and political landscape in Pittsburgh and beyond.

  • Mugg Costanza

    Great stuff! Thanks for writing this.

  • P Fresh

    Amazing work! I love how the Jay’s eye and the camera level the playing field making every band look spectacular big or small.

  • Foo Conner

    Hey Jay, neat work.

    I’ve thrown punk festivals and shows for the last decade. I’ve bumped into many gifted photographers like Hughshows and PGHMusic Report. Their collections have a wider selection of venues attended. Seemingly missing from your collection are house shows. What is your selection process behind shows and venues?

    Secondly, what are the significant changes in your mind as punk enters its thirties?

    Lastly, do you intend to donate this collection to a museum when the time comes?

  • Will Kiely

    Jay has a basic love of music and it shows in each shot