Visual Art Preview: “Days of Punk” Showcases Hallowed Era in Boston’s Music History
By Susie Davidson
This is the first time Michael Grecco, who was a photojournalist for the Associated Press from 1978-83 and then a staff photographer for the Boston Herald — while regularly shooting shows at night for WBCN and Boston Rock — will exhibit this collection in the US Northeast.
Michael Grecco: Days of Punk at the Anderson Yezerski Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave. Unit A16, Boston, through June 17. Opening Reception on May 19, 5-9 p.m. Artist Talk on May 20. (The latter event is free and open to the public, but registration is recommended because capacity is limited.)
The late ’70s-mid ’80s was a golden era for a certain subset of black-clad music enthusiasts who hung out in underground Boston clubs. If you attended say, the Rat, the Channel, the Paradise, the Underground, the Bradford Ballroom, Spit, Metro, and other cutting-edge nocturnal haunts, you might have seen a man and cam positioning his focus stage-front. Then again, he could have been behind the curtain, or wherever the featured acts were hanging.
“I was with the band,” Michael Grecco, 64, explained by phone from his L.A. office. “This was my life from 1978 to 1986, in sticky black-walled punk clubs at night, in the bowels of Boston, with bands that would eventually become legends, as they started off on tours around America.”
(Sticky wasn’t the word — two years ago, a Facebook meme stated: “If you survived the bathroom at the Rat, you are immune to COVID.”)
Those who did survive have never forgotten those nights, and that historic musical insurrection. And now they can see it all once again exhibited in Grecco’s work, most of which was shot in Boston, in Days of Punk.
An opening reception and book signing will be held on May 19 from 5 to 9 p.m. On May 20 at 1 p.m., Grecco will appear at an artist talk with Oedipus, former program director and DJ during the halcyon days at WBCN, and local rock critic and former Boston Globe arts staff writer Jim Sullivan. That will be downstairs at Bang & Olufsen SoWa, which is furnishing speakers to play soundscapes created for Days of Punk by Roger Miller and Peter Prescott of the major cult band Mission of Burma.
“Michael sent galleys to Pete and I to create soundscapes for this show, suggesting an approach resembling David Lynch’s work,” Miller wrote in an email. “Fine with us!”
“Pete gave me ambient loops and punk rock soundbytes, to which I added guitars, then tweaked and collaged like crazy.”
This is the first time Grecco, who was a photojournalist for the Associated Press from 1978-83 and then a staff photographer for the Boston Herald — while regularly shooting shows at night for WBCN and Boston Rock — will exhibit this collection in the US Northeast. Days of Punk originally premiered in 2021 at the international photography fair Photo London, and is currently touring in the US and Europe. Past venues have included the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona, CEDAR MOAH in Lancaster, California, La Termica Museum in Malaga, Spain, and The Photo Gallery in Gothenburg, Sweden.
“We have two traveling, fully framed printed museum shows,” Grecco explained, adding that upcoming sites will include Centro Cultural de Cascais in Cascais, Portugal, and Leica Gallery in L.A.; his team is currently in talks with other galleries in Europe.
Days of Punk, presented in partnership with the Lisbon, Portugal-based production firm Terra Esplendida, is based on Grecco’s 2020 book Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face, 1978-1991 (Abrams Books).
Grecco’s archivist had prodded him to unearth his old negatives, and that led to the book, now in its third printing. Inside, photos are augmented by Grecco’s personal anecdotes.
Grecco enlisted Sullivan to write the introduction to the book. “I saw my role as to frame the scene in words much as Michael had done with his photographs, to give a little more context,” Sullivan said. The book also includes a foreword by the B-52’s Fred Schneider.
Reviewers have cited Grecco’s aptitude at encapsulating the gore and the glory of the punk era: “In 162 gorgeous color and black-and-white photos, Grecco takes readers back to a vibrant bygone era as his camera captures the performers’ raw energy and outrageousness both onstage and off” (Newsday); “You can feel the intensity in every shot collected” (Boston Globe); “…like so many great eyes of his time, the punk rock scene of the late ’70s and ’80s, on both coasts, helped formulate his artistic individualism. Now that heady decade and a half are collected not only in his camera, but in the lavish new coffee table book” (LA Weekly).
“It started with a book, became a museum show and a bunch of shows after that,” Grecco said. He’ll soon be heading east for a spell (his wife Elizabeth Waterman, also a photographer, will have an exhibit, Money Game, at the Yezerski Gallery from June 23 through July 29, with an opening reception on July 7 from 5 to 8 p.m.). The couple have three children.
Artists featured in the exhibit include The Clash, Billy Idol, The Cramps, Wendy O. Williams (Plasmatics), The B-52s, and Devo. “The majority are from 1978-1985,” Grecco said, “though there are a couple of Al Jourgensen and Daniel Ash from Love and Rockets that were taken in 1991.”
Almost all the photos were shot in Boston, where Grecco began his professional photography career after graduating from Boston University as a broadcasting and film student with a minor in photojournalism. But it started long before that. “I’ve been a photographer since I was a kid, learned in summer camp how to print and work the darkroom, and I went to school knowing I wanted to be a photographer,” he said. “I thought I would study a tangential profession like filmmaking, but the reality was that I was a lover of photography.” During a photojournalism course, his teacher saw some promise and got him an internship at AP. It happened to be the Blizzard of 1978. “I was living at Mass. Ave. and Marlborough Street, and I skied to their office on Summer Street,” he recalled. He was soon a stringer, and the rest is pictorial history.
But back to those formative clubbing years. Living at the “700” Comm. Ave. towers, he would frequent nearby Kenmore Square, especially the Kenmore Camera store. “Michael Romano was the owner,” he recalled fondly. “One night, instead of going to Fathers Too, I walked into the Rat.” It was the Rock and Roll Rumble, La Peste was onstage, and that was it.
Grecco was born in the Bronx and grew up in Hartsdale, north of New York. “I was a jazz snob in New York, and radio was so f’d up and so overproduced,” he said. “I was at all the jazz clubs, but I was into Iggy, Bowie, and Velvet Underground, and even Bowie didn’t get that much airplay.” He left for Boston in 1976. “I did get exposed to the Ramones, but I thought they were an aberration,” he added. “They hadn’t really taken off yet. I heard their first record, and that was my sort of cursory exposure to punk and that type of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Not all that much later, he was slinging his reliable 35mm film camera and snapping up punk stars (there were no digital cameras then, no upgrades). Favorites? “I loved the Cramps, and from a visual perspective, they were amazing to shoot.” He also cited the Buzzcocks [may Pete Shelley rest in peace]. “I was so into the music,” he said. “Philin Phlash [punk photographer now based in Chicago] would be shooting next to me, and Jim Sullivan was always there as well.”
Not that the scheduling was easy. “I had a day job where I was a respectable photojournalist and was getting paid by assignment, and I had a night job, shooting for Boston Rock, BCN, whoever,” he said. “So I had this dual life.”
How did he hold onto his camera and self during moshing and slamming? “I was trained by some of the best photojournalists at the AP,” he said. “I knew how to handle myself, because I covered the Seabrook, New Hampshire, nuclear protests and other rough events.” But, he said, he couldn’t sustain the lifestyle forever. “I had to be at work at 10 every day.”
He left Boston for L.A. in the late ’80s after an invite by People Magazine to be a celebrity photographer for them. His images have appeared in publications including Time Magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire, the Boston Globe, the Guardian, and Rolling Stone. “As a magazine and a commercial photographer, I felt I needed to be in that environment,” he said, adding that he was always a Starsky and Hutch fan.
In Boston, he’ll be hanging out with old pals like current WGBH morning anchor and former WFNX news director Henry Santoro, and is excited to see folks he’s lost touch with. “There were no cell phones, no email then,” he said. “If you lost somebody’s number, that was the end of it.”
Susie Davidson is a longtime freelance correspondent based in Brookline, MA. Her articles have appeared in news outlets including the Houston Chronicle, the Huffington Post, the Forward, Boston Globe, WickedLocal/Gannett, Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post.
Tagged: 1978-1991, Anderson Yezerski Gallery, Backstage, Days of Punk, Dead Kennedys, Devo, In Your Face, Jello Biafra, Michael Grecco, New Wave, New Wave: Onstage, photographs, post-punk, Punk Rock, The Clash, The Cramps
Outstanding story! A well written bio which highlights the best punk and post punk/new wave music genre! I hope to catch the exhibit.
Wow that article and photos really bring me back. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that Devo show at the Paradise in 1978!
Lived it, loved it, and would do it all over again!