Photographer David Godlis Takes us Back to the 1970s Bowery
It’s mid 1970s gritty New York City and you’re perusing through the Village Voice when a large ad for a bar you’ve never heard of catches your eye. Night after night you find yourself heading down to this seedy part of town which has drawn you in with its sweaty air, loud punk music, and self-destructive shady characters. Having become a regular, you’re having another one of your many rounds that evening, when your mind clears for a brief moment long enough to realize the need to document this soon-to-be-famed bar when all the lights have dimmed and the freaks come out. Nights turn into mornings and you gather photos of what you see as just your evening routine, your 20-something wild days of partying and listening to people scream on stage while regulars lean up against the bar smoking cigarettes. Chaos-filled nights go by, but the story certainly doesn’t end here. It is the beginning of a fascinating one that involves the Lower East Side’s well-loved CBGB and iconic photographer David Godlis.
Last week, I met up with Godlis at a coffee shop on Sixth Avenue, and we spent hours talking about his days (and most importantly, nights) at CBGB. Documented in his soon to be released photography book entitled History is Made at Night (it sure is), we are able to get a glimpse into what the real, dirty, sweaty, nightlife was like at CBGB from 1976-1979. Although Godlis admits that it was just his routine, that he was just living his life the way we live ours, he does admit that himself (and others) realized that something special was happening around them. Having previous experience as a street photographer, he was in the perfect position to take it upon himself to start documenting the scene. Although CBGB was filled with now extremely well known and famous bands such as The Ramones, Television, Blondie, The Dead Boys, Patti Smith (I could go on.. and on…and on…) Godlis understood the importance of photographing the locals as well. It is because of this that many moments, which could easily have been forgotten, are preserved. After all, it’s not just the big names, but the CBGB regulars that made the scene what it was.
Godlis’ pictures capture CBGB’s truest form using light that was provided from the street. Taken only at night using his hand held Leica and TRI-X film, they give an accurate picture of what was really happening in the dimly lit surroundings. Taking a closer look at each image, it is impossible to turn the page without wondering what circumstances surrounded them. Who was Richard Hell waving to? What was Handsome Dick Manitoba doing standing outside groping his girlfriend? Why was Merv Ferguson on the street randomly holding two beers? The fascinating part of his pictures is that each tells a unique story. And if you’re anything like me, you want to know more.
One of the great things about Godlis is that he is more than willing to share those details. Remember how I mentioned Merv Ferguson holding the random beers? As it turns out, he used to run down the street and grab them for Roberta Bayley (who worked at CBGB) because she didn’t like the beer that they had at the bar. Richard Hell was hailing a cab on a rainy night, and Godlis took the picture of Dick Manitoba outside of CBGB after Dick called him to let him know that he had his wallet (at the time had no idea he had even lost it). Godlis has some of his own unique memories as well. Like the fact that he was at CBGB so often that his then girlfriend/future wife had to call him on their pay phone just to reach him. These pictures are filled with endless stories like these, and flipping through the pages looking at them you are either reminiscing about your wild days on the Bowery, or wishing you were there to experience it all. It’s a real treasure that Godlis has provided us with – a beautiful compilation of historic memories that has encompassed an era that even those of us who didn’t experience, cherish.
Godlis is still out on the streets taking pictures, and he reminds me that although the Bowery is dramatically altered and CBGB is no more, the sidewalks and streetlights are still there. It is a good reminder not to take for granted the metropolis that we live in, and to make sure we document our experiences to hopefully perserve the memory of the our city that is constantly changing.
The History is Made at Night book launch and signing is at Howl Happening Gallery (6 East 1st Street) tomorrow night, June 23 at 7pm – 9pm. Live slide show to follow a week later, on Thursday, June 30.
All images used courtesy of David Godlis.