Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The black-and-white world of photographer Bev Davies

Joan Jett sneers while in performance at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver in 1981. All photographs copyright by Bev Davies.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 7, 2012

For decades, you’ve been able to find Bev Davies squeezed against the stage of even the most raucous concerts.

Dressed in dark clothes, armed with a trusty Canon, she is still and contemplative even while all around her is frenzy.

She has photographed the famous (Bono, James Brown), the infamous (Iggy Pop, John Lydon) and the obscure, capturing in an instant a revelatory image from even the most familiar figures.

She’s been doing it for so long that young concertgoers now approach to ask if she has a son in the band.

“They’ve been kind enough not to ask if my grandson is in the band,” she said.

Her black-and-white photographs have graced posters, album covers, and the slapdash pages of fanzines. They have been in the pages of the Georgia Straight and on the walls of art galleries. Her image of the high-flying, scissor-legged bassist Randy Rampage of D.O.A. has even been imprinted on a limited-edition skateboard.
James Brown

Some of her work is ephemeral, some of it timeless, and some of it only lasts as long as there are days in a month.

Ms. Davies has produced her sixth calendar of rock photographs, this one distributed free with each copy of the Busy Doing Nothing! compilation album put together by the Vancouver deejay Nardwuar the Human Serviette.

The photographer’s legion of fans prefer to think of her latest calendar coming with a free vinyl LP.

The calendar runs from May, 2012, until December, 2014, merrily ignoring the pending Mayan apocalypse.

It includes 17 photographs, including a striking cover shot of a teenager doing a jackknife dive off the stage into a crowd at a 1981 punk show in Pasadena, Calif.

Other notable images include a fully-clothed Iggy Pop casting a mesmerizing stare; Viv Albertine of the Slits in a babydoll dress a full decade before Courtney Love ever hit the stage; a sweaty and straining James Brown (“a bit too much girdle,” notes the photographer); an exhausted and shirtless Lux Interior of the Cramps on a leopard-patterned couch backstage at the Commodore Ballroom; and, Bono being grabbed by stagehands before tipping into the crowd at an outdoor festival in California.

One of her favorite images depicts John Lydon of Public Image Ltd. wearing a pajama-style shirt on stage at War Memorial Gymnasium in Vancouver.

“I like the shape of it,” Ms. Davies said. “So many of the shots are close-ups of people singing and playing guitar. He’s listening to the audience. He’s got his hand cupped to his ear.”

She began photographing the nascent local punk-rock scene in the late 1970s, suffering a black eye on her first shoot when she brought her camera to her eye while in the midst of the mosh pit. She quickly learned to keep elbows high while staking a spot stage left or right.

It was an exciting time when unknown do-it-yourself musicians filled out nightly lineups in dingy halls and decaying clubs. Ms. Davies offered a calm presence in a turbulent time. Her images were warmly received by the bands.

They were unknowns, but she thought they’d someday be famous.

She had seen it happen before.

Ms. Davies, the daughter of a auto mechanic and a potter from Belleville, Ont., left home to study art in Toronto. The Yorkville folk scene was “breaking out," she said, "and turning on and and tuning in and dropping out.” For a time, she helped operate the Cellar Club, a jazz and chess venue at 169 Avenue Rd., where musicians would drop by to jam and hang out after playing gigs. Among them was Neil Young, whom she befriended. He announced one day that he was leaving for California in a ’53 Pontiac hearse. Bev was invited to join him, though he wanted her to chip in for the cost of gas to the coast. She was penniless.

“The invite was pulled away,” she said. “Neil said I couldn’t go because I didn’t have any money.” Her reaction? “At that time, Neil didn’t handle women crying very well.”

Two of her roommates joined him on the transcontinental trek. Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, Mr. Young formed a group called Buffalo Springfield and within days opened for the Byrds. It happened for him just that quickly.

(A later meeting between the photographer and the rocker, with Nardwuar in tow, is told in hilarious detail by the Vancouver novelist Kevin Chong in his nonfiction work, Neil Young Nation.)

Later, after she settled in Vancouver, Ms. Davies befriended the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. They first talked when she called an open-line radio show on which he was appearing. Intrigued, he later asked the host for her contact information. They went for dinner — an odd experience for Ms. Davies, still broke, who associated such extravagance with visits by her parents — and established a platonic friendship.

He later wrote her a warm letter in which he described his latest relationship woes — he would be married five times before his death in 1982 — with candour.

“Bev, you were nicer to me than anyone else I met in Canada, and I’ll always remember that,” he wrote. “You made me feel like a person.”

In recent years, acolytes and those studying Mr. Dick have approached the photographer for her insights on the writer.

“He was nice,” she said. “He wasn’t crazy. I know crazy.”

She continues to attend shows, her dedication creating an important documentation of the music scene in Vancouver over the decades. Incredibly, her work has yet to be gathered in a book. Publishers, start your bidding.

Stagehands grab Bono as he teeters toward the crowd at the US Festival in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1983. Photograph ©Bev Davies.


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Bev was there to document an entire generation

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