You might know Brooke Smith from her role as Catherine Martin in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, the girl Buffalo Bill puts in the hole after catching her driving around to Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” But you might not know that she lobbied for Bad Brains to play in the car. Smith was deep in New York’s hardcore scene in the ‘80s, going to shows and taking photographs of what she saw while she got a toehold in her acting career. “When I was hanging out on the Lower East Side I got my SAG card,” Smith says. “I had to dye my hair for a role—The Moderns, by Alan Rudolph—and it couldn't be purple.”
Using her mom’s Minolta camera, Smith captured kids, mostly, hanging out and playing music. Some kids headlined CBGB’s, some kids quit their bands before they recorded; some were just kids in the mix. The photos are now collected in a book called Sunday Matinee, published by Radio Raheem Records, a Brooklyn-based U.S. hardcore reissue label. Many of the photos included are being published for the first time, and they are startling.
Everyone’s very young. In one, Pete Hines, who played drums in Murphy’s Law, smokes a cigarette with a fresh Mr. Horsepower tattoo on his neck, looking all of 18, against a washed-out street corner. In another, Amy Keim, from Nausea, stands what must be a block away, in a tattered denim vest with a Crass patch, holding her newborn daughter. Ray Barbieri, Warzone’s departed singer, sits on a lawn chair stacked with pool cushions, about to play drums, while in another, two Cro-Mags members mug with one of Ingrid Bergman’s Oscars. Everything’s captured early: bands like Warzone and Underdog are shot with singers who moved on before they put out full lengths, and Agnostic Front don’t have many tattoos.
Everything’s captured early: bands like WarZone and Underdog are shot with singers who moved on before they put out full lengths, and Agnostic Front don’t have many tattoos.
And yet, Smith’s photos are only incidentally about music. They are a democratizing account of a young scene with no money or attention behind it. There are a lot of women in the book; more than have been captured in previous ones, or in some old zines and records. Alexa Poli, Smith’s roommate, shows up often in the front row. Smith’s peers are throughout. Modern Clix pepper the pages.
There’s also a deep sense of loss. Half of the book’s subjects, Smith estimates, are now dead. Many from drugs; some from AIDS. All of them very young kids, or “outsiders,” as Smith describes them, attracted to a music and scene defined by extremes. The East Village neighborhood in which most shows took place—around CBGB’s, on Bowery, and Great Gildersleeves, a few doors away—was in those days more or less a failed state, a ghost town without real infrastructure or a healthy tax base. There were not many rules. Still, that black space may have been what allowed all this music and life and everything else to happen.
Smith, now in her 50s, still takes photos—on set, in Africa, and, recently, at Agnostic Front shows again—when she’s not acting. She’s not alone in being a creative moonlighter: Dennis Hopper, also a director, has photos on permanent collection at the Met and MoMA, and Jeff Bridges does panoramic photography. Is there a through line? “It’s all a way of seeing,” Smith says. Acting and photography have for her, she says, “a similar feeling of losing myself, but being totally in the action and in the center.” Her most striking roles, like Lambs, share the eye of the storm energy that her pictures give off.
Below, Smith walks CREEM through Sunday Matinee photos that jump out at her, and the stories behind them.
A whole bunch of guys in that audience, huh? This is an early Agnostic Front show, after Victim In Pain. They were at their peak then. Carl “the Mosher” Demola is on the right and Jimmy Gestapo [from Murphy’s Law] in the middle. I heard John “Wrecking Machine” Goldin, who’s throwing Jimmy, is a cop now? [Laughter]. I like that ginormous speaker. It gave me tinnitus. For years I’d stand right under it at shows. I love the way, too, you can see all the way to the door, through the venue—all the people, and how small CB’s was. It almost gives you a feeling of being there. John’s gently flipping Jimmy down back into the audience. He was probably bouncing that day. When my husband saw this one, he asked, “What’s all that on the back of his ass?” Dude—sweat. It was like a Bikram class.
The Warzone Women—a small gang of us girls who were part of the scene and weren’t groupies—it was our gang, a way to organize ourselves as natives of the NYHC tribe. Hard to believe now, but you could really get in trouble dressed like this if you were on your own. I’d take the train to meet a friend downtown and people would give me shit and spit on me. People the same age as me—trying to remind me that I was a freak. Those uniforms at shows: Braces, boots… Doc Martens—I never had Docs, only the American combat boots. There were girls with fringed hair and the peace punks had a different look. People were wearing homemade clothes, trying to figure out their style: what it meant to be a skin, a hardcore kid, that thing.
I'm struck, when I look back, that we wore these uniforms—these similar things. Someone making a movie that takes place then might overdo it, and make everyone look the same. I re-read [Cro-Mags’] Harley Flanagan's book recently, and he said he grew his hair out later on because he didn't want to be like everybody else. It's a slippery slope, but everybody was just genuinely using what they had.
Dear Lord, I've wondered what happened to that kid. I know that the two adults, Lazar and Hal, are no longer with us. Someone said the kid’s doing okay, and I'm hoping that's true. The kid, Darby, was Hal’s son. It wasn’t Lazar’s kid. I would watch Darby when they went off on benders.
Lazar scared the hell out of me. I feel bad looking back: I was so scared of her. You'd be walking down the street with her, and all of a sudden you'd be in a fist fight, and you didn't know why. I tried to just say “hi” and move on. She was older than me, in the first group [of hardcore kids, from the early ‘80s]—early C Squat.
This scene was all different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, everything; lots of people’s politics then were about shock value and disagreeableness. MaximumRocknRoll didn't help: they wrote that New York was an epicenter of this reactionary movement. But later on, actual Nazi skinheads came from outside, trying to break into the scene, from wherever the hell they came from. That was towards the end of my time.
Alexa Poli, my roommate, was so sexy. All the guys wanted her, and she would try to turn the straight edge boys on to partying. She was quite successful. I have pictures of Tommy Carroll [from Straight Ahead] smoking weed! Straight edge wasn't my experience. Though I knew Ray Cappo [from Youth of Today], Richie Birkenhead [from Underdog], all the straight edge guys.
We were all on ecstasy. The girls, I mean—Alexa, myself and Natalie Jacobsen, who was at NYU, and was dating Jimmy. There were a lot of drugs. I saw a lot of drugs. We had anger in common, and maybe, childhood trauma. We didn't talk about it, but the ones who didn’t die, who are still around, faced it. Maybe 50 percent of the people in these photos I took died. So many people died of drugs. AIDS, too.
If you went east of Avenue A, there were no cops. Or they didn't do anything. It felt like the Wild West. They weren’t a presence, and left the neighborhood to whoever was there. There were fights. The locals didn't understand why all these people showed up looking this way in their neighborhood. There were gangs. And when bands came into town, we wanted to be the hardest, because we're New York, so there were fights then, too.
The boys sat in the van, in front of the Pyramid Club. They all worked there. Jimmy Gestapo and [Warzone’s] Raybeez Barbieri were doormen. Probably taken before they went to work. People did whatever the hell they could to pay bills. Some of the boys were bouncers. A bunch of girls did phone sex, as dispatchers: Alexa would connect the right person with the right girl. I had a dominatrix friend who got me to walk on this guy, Kevin Carpet, in heels. He's a bit known now; I only did it once. I worked at the Ritz—coat check and bag check. I saw whoever was playing. I saw the Cure—I can’t believe they're still around. Robert Smith was so high he fell off the stage at the Peppermint Lounge. I must have worked 10 Ramones shows. At a Bobby Brown record release party, someone picked a fight with me and I quit. Some people were robbing people, and there was panhandling early on. I never did that. I had a mom who I could call when something went south. Not everyone did.
I held a pool party at my parents’ house in Orangeburg, N.Y. They were away. Warzone, Nausea, and Whole Wide World played. Warzone had Ray on drums, with Tomasso “Tommy Rat” de Rosa singing, so an early incarnation of the band. Carl Dimola from Underdog is singing in one photo, but they didn’t play. It may have been a karaoke before karaoke thing: “Anyone wanna try?"
I took people in my station wagon from the city and [Agnostic Front’s] Roger Miret dropped off a bunch of kids in his van before doing his errands. Forty, 50 people were there. I don't know where the hell he was going. Unfortunately, he got arrested that day. The cops in my hometown pulled him over. They had an awareness of me, and he looked weird to them. In his book he said something, I think, about going across the river.
I was always trying to capture the energy of what was happening onstage. None of the Bad Brains footage on YouTube captures what it was really like to see them. HR is the best frontman I’ve ever seen. To this day, no one comes close. He was so commanding. When the music was going crazy, and everyone in the crowd was going crazy, he’d stand completely still, putting his arms out and holding the energy in. They were on a totally different level musically. Greatest shows I ever saw.
Years later, I lived with Jeff Buckley in L.A. Through me he played with Jimmy and Petey from Murphy’s Law. They jammed at a friend’s empty toy store on Ludlow, which I believe eventually became Max Fish, the bar. I turned Jeff onto the Bad Brains, and he loved them. Once he flew himself to Chicago for a show. He was so excited. “I'm gonna see em!” Then HR hit someone with a mic, I think, and went to jail. The show was canceled; Jeff never saw them.
Bad Brains were a little above the rest of us kids, either older or more rockstar, whatever you want to call it. I didn't see them at shows much. They listened to Farrakhan, and I got confused. I spent the most time with HR—we hung out when he wasn’t playing. I met him through the Cro-Mags’ John Joseph (“JJ” or “John” to some) and Harley Flanagan. He’d ask to store a suitcase at my apartment and would come back for it.
We were looking for a squat. We became aware of a maybe viable one so we toured it. English Mark—I never knew his last name—checked out the building’s bones, Olivia Larrain, one of my closest friends to this day, who’s a painter now, and Amy Keim from Nausea and I were going along. [Nausea’s] Neil Robinson and Amy were good at squatting, Mark knew how these things worked. Amy might have been pregnant by then. When I met her she and Roger [Miret] were living in a van—they had to find a place to live for them and the kid. There was a network of people who’d look for buildings and set them up. I saw gorgeous rooms—they would tap into the electricity. But this one wasn't any good.
There was a way to do it. I was lucky to have an apartment. I never had to squat in the winter. I spent time in one, but not a long time. I remember those garbage can fires in Tompkins Square Park to stay warm. I wasn’t big on squatting.
Cindi B, one of the Warzone Women, is giving the finger at Amy’s baby shower, lovingly, as everyone has their coats on. “Fuck you, bitches, we're leaving.” The women are always a little more together than the men, aren’t they? We organized the shower at someone’s apartment, between B and C, on Third Street. Amy got everything from diapers to lingerie. The women all worked. Cindi was a bartender at the Ritz, and Kathleen “KT” Tobin, a Warzone Woman, was there too. I had the same solo cups at my party, in different colors. They don't come like that anymore. When I grew some weed a couple of years ago—you start them out in those—I went to get some and they only had red.
The boys—Brian, not sure his last name, is on the left [Petey Hines (Muphy’s Law, Cro-Mags) at center and Brad Davis (Warzone) at right]—showing off their tattoos. A color photo. They're so fucking young. When I took these pictures I was around the same age, but younger than them. They seemed so grown up to me. My kids are the same age now as I was when I took these photos. We were kids, little kids, and they're acting like men.
I almost got a tattoo—I can’t believe I don’t have any. I got very close. Harley drew my design. I was on the table, with the gun about to go in and just felt, “I'm having second thoughts.” It was a peacock, but instead of circles on the ends of the feathers, Harley drew skulls. Our friend Cass, who's in some pictures, and has since passed, did stick and poke [tattoos] in my apartment. Some of the guys opened up tattoo studios later. In another picture [Cro-Mags’] John Joseph’s getting a tattoo in Nyack. That’s what you did.