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Bruce Conner’s Mabuhay Punks

Emma Hart

Bruce Conner’s photograph ROZ OF NEGATIVE TREND: SUSPENDED ANIMATION (1978; CAT. 31) is a gritty black and white image that captures both the aggressive energy of a hardcore punk rock show and the character of a punk rock performer. Conner shoots his subject up close and personal. Neck veins popping, Roz sweats profusely in his ripped shirt. A fan extends his arm into the picture to touch the singer or grab his beer. Conner snaps his picture with the beer bottle in mid-air as it slips from Roz’s fingers, fizzing out in all directions. Never holding back while photographing punk rock shows at the Mabuhay Gardens, Conner documents his immersion in the scene, breaking the boundary between spectator and performer and providing a lens into the punk world of late 1970s when Mabuhay Gardens, or Fab Mab, emerged as the center of the San Francisco punk club milieu. 

CAT. 31  Bruce Conner (1933–2008), ROZ OF NEGATIVE TREND: SUSPENDED ANIMATION from MABUHAY GARDENS PUNK PHOTOS, 1978. Gelatin silver print, 20 1/4 x 16 1/4 x 7/8 inches (51.4 x 41.3 x 2.2 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Promised gift of anonymous donor, L.13.2012.23. © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, New York.

In Hardcore California, Peter Belsito cites the 1976 arrival in San Francisco of musician Mary Monday as the impetus for the Mab’s rise to fame in the West Coast punk rock scene. She joined the band the Britches, which had recently arrived in San Francisco from Portland, and happened upon the Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway Street in San Francisco’s stretch of North Beach, an area known for its poets, cafes, and strip clubs. At the time, dancing Filipino girls provided the Mab’s primary source of income, and the club was in desperate need of more business. In an effort to boost its income, Ness Aquino, the leaseholder of Mabuhay Gardens, offered the space for rent for $75 a night.1 Mary Monday remembered her first encounters with Aquino: 

It would have never worked at that point if I had gone in there and been totally Punk Rock, because he wouldn’t have understood. So what I agreed on with him was that I’d put on a “show” with costumes and props and skits. The deal was that I could come in on a Monday evening to try it out . . . the show ran for three weeks and kept building until Ness was so happy about it that I could do whatever I wanted.2 

As Monday points out, punks began their association with Mabuhay Gardens carefully: Aquino was a known conservative. The result? An explosion of punk music at the Mab. 

Just as the Mab began booking Mary Monday, the entrepreneur Dirk Dirksen arrived in San Francisco in search of a nightclub where he could document contemporary music. He found the Mab, and soon became its music promoter and emcee. Shortly after the Britches started playing regularly, an arts and music rag called Psyclone released its first issue. After its release, Dirksen invited Psyclone editor Jerry Paulsen to see one of the Britches’ performances. This initiated a short relationship between the Mab and Paulsen, who became its ticket collector. As the Mab grew in popularity, dozens of bands lined up to book shows, and Paulsen began promoting the bands in his magazine. Even though the club’s reputation was growing, Psyclone was unable to make a profit and the magazine printed its last issue in June of 1977.3 Fortuitously, CBS aired nationally a documentary on English punks that very June, and San Francisco punk artists and musicians got a boost when KPIX Channel 5 (a San Francisco CBS affiliate) launched its own program on the Mabuhay Gardens’ punk scene.4

Just a few blocks away from the Mab, at the corner of Broadway and Columbus Avenue, the writer V. Vale worked at the notorious City Lights Bookstore. Co-founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights came to international attention in 1956 when Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl (1955). San Francisco police seized the book, arrested Ferlinghetti, and had him tried on obscenity charges. Ferlinghetti won in a landmark First Amendment court case that established a legal precedent for the publication of controversial literary work with redeeming social value. Vale approached both Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg for funds to start his own magazine about the emerging punk scene at the Mab, believing that “punk represented the need for freedom, both socially and artistically.”5 They each gave Vale $100 and he launched the first issue of Search & Destroy (1977–79), a punk newspaper that morphed into the celebrated counter-culture magazine RE/Search (1980–present). 

Belsito sites Vale’s publication as indispensable to the time: “The young scene’s thirst for a radical but informed source of information and a suitable graphic style was quenched in June with the premier issue of . . . Search and Destroy.”6 Meanwhile, just prior to launching the magazine, Vale met Conner at the Mab, where Conner, then forty-five, could often be found hanging out, dancing, and photographing musicians and the club scene. Vale invited Conner to contribute his punk photographs to Search & Destroy, pictures that would add significant caché to the publication, as Conner had become a legendary figure in San Francisco for his drawings, assemblages, and films, but also as an eccentric, prickly contrarian. 

CAT. 94  Elizabeth Sher, Untitled (Bruce Conner taking pictures at a Johnny Rotten press conference, San Francisco), 1980. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 inches (25.4 x 20.3 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Promised gift of anonymous donor, L.13.2012.38. © Elizabeth Sher All Rights Reserved.

Photographing shows at the Mab deepened Conner’s involvement with punk art, music, and culture, and he relished likening his experience there to combat photography:

I had always liked the idea of action photos. . . . Like—sport events. Basketball. They’re floating in the air, part of this suspended sphere, and they’ve got these beatific looks on their faces, they’re in anguish. Or combat photography. I always thought, gosh, combat photography. Maybe I could work on that.7

Conner’s appreciation of action photography had a counterpoint in his own experience in the pits and trenches, as he embraced the aggressive moshing, drinking, and dancing in the raw, gritty punk scene. “I’m up there in the front with my knee pads,” Conner explained of his experience photographing the Avengers, “and the stage was shin high, so I was always damaged: I had to protect my camera!”8 In Untitled (Bruce Conner taking pictures at a Johnny Rotten Conference, San Francisco, early March 1980), Elizabeth Sher caught Conner in the very act of thrusting himself into the flurry of action in the name of his art (1980; CAT. 94). As he integrates himself in the scene, Conner crouches down and intensely focuses on his subjects, capturing a genuine punk moment. Conner had nothing but enthusiasm for the raucous authenticity of the punk scene and his photographs both document the shows as historical events and capture their emotional vitality in works of art. Conner’s photographs live in the interstice between an historical record and an art image, capturing the spirit of the place and activity in space and time.

Conner was “a key figure at the Mab, despite being characterized as a late-1950s Beat, assemblage, and funk artist and filmmaker,” according to Kristine Stiles, Conner’s assistant at the time.9 She adds that Conner had not found such kindred artistic spirits since the 1950s as the artists performing at the Mab, and describes the cultural situation in San Francisco in the late 1970s like this:

From 1960 to 1980, the Bay Area was the site of rapidly altering beliefs, a situation that resulted from the compression of different generational countercultures between which the 1970s were pressed. The pessimism, anger, and rejection of mainstream American culture smoldering in the Beats skipped a generation to become punk abnegation, while hippie entrepreneurial impulses morphed into the upwardly mobile professionalization of yuppies. Most artists coexisted in this congested hyper-pluralism, such that their interaction produced effects “multiplicatively (one might even say chemically).” In addition, everyone knew everyone. Ideas cross-fertilized generations, groups, and communities, and artists intermingled fully with poets, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, critics, and scholars.10 

Conner and V. Vale were among the many “bridge figures” that “reached out” and contributed to the “overlapping intersecting communities [that] pulsed through the period with an earnest and simultaneously irreverent wry sense of collective purpose.”11 Moreover, Conner’s affinity for photographing the musical groups merged with his filmmaking when he collaborated with the new wave band DEVO on a film for the group’s song “Mongoloid.” Conner set his film MONGOLOID (1978; see fig. 16) to their music, montaging 1950s television advertisements with educational and industrial film footage. As film scholar Bruce Jenkins explains, Conner’s brilliance was his “use of a popular medium to comment on popular culture; appropriation from the culture leading back into culture.”12

CAT. 30  Bruce Conner (1933–2008), ROZ MAKES A GIANT STEP FOR MANKIND: NEGATIVE TREND from MABUHAY GARDENS PUNK PHOTOS, 1978. Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Promised gift of anonymous donor, L.13.2012.43.3. © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, New York.

CAT. 29  Bruce Conner (1933–2008), ROZ LEAVES THE CHAIRS IN DISARRAY: NEGATIVE TREND from MABUHAY GARDENS PHOTOS, 1978. Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 inches (35.6 x 27.9 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Promised gift of anonymous donor, L.13.2012.43.8. © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, New York.

Conner’s genius for syncopating film imagery to the beat and rhythm of music finds a corollary in his punk photographs, which become metonymies for the loud, aggressive, and fast-paced music. Capturing a different aspect of the chaotic dissonant scene, Conner’s photographs silence the noise, stripping the Mab down to its raw, visual core. In ROZ MAKES A GIANT STEP FOR MANKIND: NEGATIVE TREND (1978; CAT. 30), Conner shoots the musician as he leaps in mid-air, still screaming into his microphone. It is possible to imagine Roz hitting the ground, crashing into and knocking over furniture, leaving the place in the shambles that Conner pictures in ROZ LEAVES THE CHAIRS IN DISARRAY: NEGATIVE TREND (1978; cat 29). This photograph, taken during a raucous show, pictures the floor of the Mab littered with trash, and one can imagine the stink of beer, sweat, and the heat of the performers’ and dancers’ energy. Chairs and tables are overturned and punks hang around enthusiastic about the dismantled state of the Mab, a metaphor for the state of the world outside that they deplored.

CAT. 32  Bruce Conner (1933–2008), WOMEN’S ROOM AT THE MABUHAY from MABUHAY GARDENS PUNK PHOTOS, 1978. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Promised gift of anonymous donor, L.13.2012.43.6. © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, New York.

CAT. 26  Bruce Conner (1933–2008), FRANKIE FIX: CRIME from MABUHAY GARDENS PUNK PHOTOS, 1978. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 8 1/2 inches (27.9 x 21.6 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Promised gift of anonymous donor, L.13.2012.43.1. © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, New York.

With few exceptions, Conner’s photographs hush the moments of mayhem, creating a silent space to experience and interact with the punk scene visually, as if viewers also stand in the trenches at the Mab. Conner displayed an array of images of the Mab’s environment, such as the scene he depicts in WOMEN’S ROOM AT THE MABUHAY (1978; CAT. 32). There in the bathroom, two women stand at the sinks, a paper towel dispenser hangs on the wall. The rest of the surfaces are covered with graffiti written in marker and spray paint. The graffiti writings vary from people’s names, such as “Marian E was here,” to more comical musings, such as “Sid Vicious is a light weight,” “Never mind the media,” and “Iggy is God.” One woman grins at Conner, while he has overprinted the face of another, presumably to protect her identity.

In FRANKIE FIX: CRIME (1978; CAT. 26), Conner shows the self-conscious, ironic side of Frankie, a guitarist with Crime. The band formed in San Francisco in 1976 and that same year released the first single by a West Coast punk band featuring the songs “Hot Wire My Heart” and “Baby You’re So Repulsive.” In Conner’s photograph, the tall, slender Frankie strikes an aggressive, leg-spread stance, holding his guitar tightly against his body. Dressed in black pants, a black tie, and a white shirt with the collar nattily turned up, Frankie only lacks the ubiquitous vest characteristic of Crime’s mockingly formal attire. He faces the camera boldly and sings. Although this photograph differs significantly from WOMEN’S ROOM AT THE MABUHAY, both illustrate Conner’s ability to convey a strong sense of the atmosphere and quality of the experience inside the Mab, leaving a pictorial record of a unique loud, boisterous, and highly creative moment in the history of San Francisco music, art, and film culture.

The unique strength of Conner’s punk photographs is how he stilled the excited and wild punk scene, heightened viewers’ visual acuity, and offered a rare opportunity to see action arrested, which is typically experienced sonically. Drawing on his expertise in editing film footage to music, Conner reversed his process in his punk photographs. Immersing himself in sound, Conner quieted music to animate the visual.

Notes
  1. Peter Belsito and Bob Davis, Hardcore California: A History of Punk and New Wave (Berkeley: Last Gasp of San Francisco, 1983), 68. 
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Ibid., 73. 
  4. Ibid., 74–75. 
  5. V. Vale, “About Us,” RE/Search Magazine Online: http://www.researchpubs.com/about/
  6. Belsito and Davis, Hardcore California, 75. 
  7. Greil Marcus, “Bruce Conner at the Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, 1978,” Aperture 183 (Summer 2006): 65. 
  8. Ibid. 
  9. Kristine Stiles, “Negative Affirmative: San Francisco Bay Area Art, 1974–1981,” in Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981, ed. Paul Shimmel (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 2011), 30. 
  10. Ibid., 27–28. Stiles quotes within her text Richard Edward DeLeon’s Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco, 1975–1991 (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1992), 9, 13. See also Dennis J. Coyle, “The Balkans by the Bay,” The Public Interest 91 (Spring 1988): 67–68. 
  11. Stiles, “Negative Affirmative,” 28. 
  12. “Devo and the Dark Psychedelia of Bruce Conner's Pop Apocalypse,” DANGEROUS MINDS (15 October 2013): http://dangerousminds.net/comments/devo_and_the_dark_psychedelia_of_bruce_conners_pop_apocalypse

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