Roberta Bayley: Punk Photographer
by Lee Sobel
All photos (c) Roberta Bayley, except where noted
I first met Roberta Bayley twenty years ago at a Punk Magazine party and we went out for sushi and I interviewed her for what would have been the second issue of a magazine I had recently launched at that time called Cool Culture. Unfortunately, print magazines are expensive so a second issue of that magazine never happened and that interview disappeared into the ether. Take two: about 8 years ago I was attempting to write a book about being a teenager in the 1970's in NYC and I called up everyone who was in New York at that time to get their take on that period. Why? Because the NYC of the 70's was particularly unique and the city of that time will never come again. It was a period where the drinking age was 18 but even at 16 I never got carded. It was a time of garbage and dog shit in the streets, cheap rents, and an amazing downtown music scene that I got to experience a little late in the game, 1978-80. The explosion of bands that became icons happened a few years earlier and Roberta Bayley was there -- working the door at CBGB's and taking pictures of bands that music lovers all know -- for one thing the cover of the first album by The Ramones and tons of great photos of other
Roberta & Sid - Photo by Bob Gruen
bands, either performing or just being themselves backstage or on the street. Roberta wasn't in a band so she was a truly objective observer as the bands went from unknowns to rock stars.
Lee Sobel: When you moved to NYC in the early 70's, you were pretty daring to live in Alphabet City.
Roberta Bayley: When I first moved here, I lived at East 12th Street and Avenue A, and it was just kind of deserted then, but the thing about the further Alphabet City, except for drugs, there really wasn’t any particular reason to go there. There
weren’t boutiques, there weren’t restaurants, it was a living neighborhood. There were a lot of drugs. Tompkins Square Park became a place you didn’t really want to go. You wouldn’t want to take your kids to the playground because there were a lot of drug addicts and homeless people and it was a little bit scary. Now, it’s quite nice.
Lee Sobel: Did you live in the same building as Richard Hell?
Roberta Bayley: I did live with Richard for awhile and then I sublet his building after we broke up. It was an interesting building. Alan Ginsberg lived there and Rene Ricard lived there. It was very inexpensive rent. The apartments were basically about a $100 a month. I knew people that were paying $66 a month.
Lee Sobel: What else comes to mind about New York at that time?
Roberta Bayley: I had come to New York from London in 1974 and my preconceptions of New York were based on the movies. I didn’t come here on purpose, I came here because I couldn’t afford a ticket to California. I was really kind of frightened, I’d seen Serpico and I just though it’s going to be like murder central and horrifying. To be honest, from the day I got here, I never had a negative experience. It just seemed normal to me. London was also not doing well economically and they had lots of strikes in the 70's. Everything seemed quiet to me in New York and in this small neighborhood, I never thought of it as being dirty. The cliché that everyone says is, "Oh the city was bankrupt, it was so horrible." Blondie was living down on the Bowery so even though it was only 10-15 blocks from
me that was a different neighborhood. The Bowery was very kind of grungy, a lot of homeless men or very poor and alcoholic, what we used to call bums, congregated that neighborhood, but they weren’t really dangerous. They had just fallen on their hard luck. It seemed relatively harmless. When Debbie Harry and Chris Stein are interviewed, and they will say a guy would be dead outside their building, they’re not making that up. That was a neighborhood where there were a lot of derelict people. It wasn’t that they were murdered, they just probably dropped dead of liver failure or something.
I used to walk home from CBGB’s when I didn’t feel like paying $1.50 for a cab and I never felt it was dangerous. Maybe I was just naïve and oblivious.
Roberta & Debbie - Photo by Pati Giordano
You just mind your own business. St. Mark’s Place was dead as a door nail. There were two or three shops on the block. It was just very quiet and I never really thought about that idea of "Oh it’s so horrible and dirty." I was very excited to be in New York. It just seemed very friendly and welcoming and everybody was poor so you weren’t even thinking about it. The rents were so low. If you couldn't afford $100 a month rent, well then yeah, go home to mommy, but everybody managed to either have a crummy job or have a girlfriend to pay their rent or something like that.
Lee Sobel: So you didn’t have any negative experiences? You didn’t get mugged or anything like that?
Roberta Bayley: I did get mugged when I first moved into my apartment in 1975 during the day. Some guys ran in after me, I was carrying groceries, and they tried to choke me and knock me down the stairs. Then I was screaming and the guys from the apartment below came to my “rescue” and the guys who were mugging me said "Oh, this is my girlfriend, it’s a personal matter" so the other guys were going to go back into their apartment and I said "Excuse me, you guys are robbing me!" - then they just ran away. That’s really the heroes of the day where it’s like "Oh you’re just beating up your girlfriend, well that’s cool, okay, don’t want to butt in." They got a dollar. I was trying to give them my money and I had tight jeans on and I had a few dollars in my pocket
and I couldn’t get my money out to give it to them. Once I was also mugged around the corner from Max’s Kansas City, but again, they just tried to choke me or something. Another time in the late 80's, I did get mugged again in my building. The guy just said he was going to kill me, but then I screamed. I have really good lungs and I scream really loud, you know when you were a Beatle maniac you learned loud screaming, learned to scream for the Beatles, so I have really good lung power and I guess it scares them away.
Lee Sobel: You mean you were one of those teenage girls we’d see in footage of The Beatles when they came to America?
Danny Field, Roberta Bayley, Debbie Harry and Lester Bangs.
Photo by Allen Tannenbaum
Roberta Bayley: Oh yeah, definitely. I have several pictures of myself. I was on the front pages of the paper a couple of times and being thrown off the stage of The Beatles. I was definitely one of those girls. We would really get dressed up to go to see The Beatles. We’d wear our coolest outfits, our mod outfits that we specially made to go see them and everything. That’s when I was 13-14, it was fabulous.
Lee Sobel: Where was that?
Roberta Bayley: That was San Francisco. I saw them four times.
Lee Sobel: What other parts of New York do you remember back then? You mentioned going to see movies in Times Square.
Roberta Bayley: I used to go with Richard Hell to see movies on 42nd Street in Times Square. There were all these old movie theaters and they had double bills for a dollar and so we would just go to see any movie, it didn’t matter. There were a lot of people probably masturbating or homeless people that would spend the whole day in the theater for a dollar, but we just went to see the movie. To me, it was paradise. I wish I was taking pictures then because I would love to have those photographs with all the marquees of all the terrible movies they were showing. That was a little before it got really heavily porn, but a lot of the people I knew in the 70's worked as Times Square strippers. Compared to what people think of now as degenerate and everything, it was kind of tame. That was when the strippers still would start out with clothes on and be like an act and they had a name and character. It was still kind of 50's. All the girls at CBGB’s except for me and a couple others were strippers because that’s how you could make a lot of money and then you could have a rock star boyfriend, well, a punk rock boyfriend, and then you could afford the rent and the drugs because you were making a $1,000 a week, which was like a million dollars.
Lee Sobel: Bob Gruen said the pervasive feeling was that these bands were not going to make it, that it was kind of hopeless and they were not radio friendly.
Roberta Bayley: Bob had been in New York longer than I had and he was much more a seasoned person than I was, having come from London. Bob had already gone through the whole experiences of The New York Dolls. The Dolls had the whole arc of being the next big thing and then didn’t go anywhere. Everybody felt The Dolls were going to be huge and they were huge in a twenty block radius. If you were in New York, you thought they were like the local Beatles. They were rock stars in their own area and they were the hottest thing so it didn’t really occur to you that they were not actually selling any records.
When I came to work at CBGB’s for the door when Television was playing, I was thinking Television was going to be the biggest band in the world and I would tell everybody that while I was trying to take their money. I don’t know if it
Roberta Bayley at CBGB's - Photo by Godlis
ever crossed my mind that Blondie would be successful because they were pretty terrible then. I thought Television was going to be big. I thought all the bands were good. I thought The Ramones were going to be huge. I thought The Ramones were going to be like the Bay City Rollers and Television was going to be the next Rolling Stones. I was just very naïve.
Lee Sobel: The nice thing about that period was that there was a nice gestation process for these bands to get better, right?
Roberta Bayley: Oh yeah. Blondie kept at it. The reason that Television went and asked Hilly for the residency to work at CBGB’s is because that’s how you get better by playing. That’s how The Beatles got to be The Beatles because they’d
play like five shows a night in Hamburg. It’s better than rehearsing. One performance in front of a live audience is like 20 hours of rehearsing. That’s how you learn -- you just keep playing and playing. CBGB’s always had two sets a night. There would be two bands, they’d each play two sets a night. That’s how you learn to be a band -- you have to play live. You can be in that rehearsal room forever and it’s really not going to be the same thing as playing in front of an audience even if it’s a small audience. But the small audience at CBGB’s was always enthusiastic because usually it was their friends or fellow musicians. You weren’t just playing to people who would just go "Uhhh this is a piece of shit." I mean, who would even be there in this dive bar if you didn’t like the band and support the band. When The Ramones went out to open for whoever, like Johnny Winter, people just threw rocks at them.
That wasn’t their audience. Whatever it was, nobody was ready for that, but at CBGB’s you were going because you wanted to see them.
Lee Sobel: How did you come to do the door for Television?
Roberta Bayley: I was Richard Hell’s girlfriend and Television was just doing Sunday nights. Terry Ork, their manager thought, "Oh we’ll just get Roberta to do the door" because it would be less confrontational to have a cute girl and people would more want to give me their money than if Terry was sitting going "I’m the band’s manager" because he probably felt way above that and had to take care of business or something. You have to realize, the take on door would be $40 so they weren’t taking a big risk with their money or anything like that. It was $2 to get in and I’d sit there and I would know who was supposed to get in, which
was pretty much everybody got in for free so there would be 20 people paying $2 and that would be the door take.
Lee Sobel: So the whole door would go to Television and they wouldn’t have to give any part of that to Hilly?
Roberta Bayley: Oh in the beginning that was the deal. The idea was they would bring people to the bar even and if they were getting in free, they still would drink something. This was a bar where nothing was happening. It was just an empty place. A few people had actually played there before Television like Jayne County actually played there. Maybe the Magic Tramps had played there, too. Before that, it was a pure alcoholic bar for the guys on the street. They would line
up to get in at nine o’clock in the morning. The professional drinkers I call them. Then, it became a Hell’s Angels bar and then, little by little Hilly wanted to have music. His vision was Country, Bluegrass and Blues, and then Television was like "Well can we play Sunday nights?" What did Hilly have to lose from that? And then little by little other bands started playing and Hilly just let it happen.
Lee Sobel: Do you remember the first time you walked into CBGB’s and what did you think of the place?
Roberta Bayley: Well, it’s an awfully long time ago, but I don’t know if I had an opinion. You go into a place and… you know, it was a dump, but all these places, especially when you go into a place before people are there it always smells horrible and CB’s smelled terribly. Although, I don’t remember the dog shit or anything; everyone remembers that and it’s well documented, but I don’t really remember that. It was a funky place, but you know, all bars are kind of like that. That horrible beer kind of smell, but it had the really cool beer signs which were always very wonderful. Then it had those big photos on the wall which were left over from vaudeville or something, you know that were behind the stage in the early days. It had a pool table in the back. It was just a dive.
Lee Sobel: What do you remember about Hilly and Merv?
Roberta Bayley: Well, Hilly was just a big teddy bear and he was really nice to everybody. In the early days and even later, he didn’t actually make a lot of sense, but he was really nice so we all liked him. He was like the father figure. Merv was much smarter and more educated and we used to talk about movies and books and things like that. He was a really smart guy. Merv picked up on that something was going on here with these kids. They want to play rock’n’roll. There were a lot of smart people that were in these different bands. There was just a little vibe that something was more interesting than just some band doing a cover of top 40 songs or something.
Lee Sobel: So you knew inevitably that some of these
Photo by Bobby Grossman
bands were going to take off? You definitely had that feeling?
Roberta Bayley: Well, I think I did because I stopped working at CBGB’s in ’78 and I went to work for Blondie. That’s when Blondie had management and Blondie started to actually, not in America, but in Europe, Australia and England, get big. All the New York bands started to tour over there around ’77 because that was when the punk thing was happening in England, too. Again, in England, the bands did get big quickly. The Ramones made a huge impact in England, but they didn’t really sell too many records, I don’t think. I don’t know if I was even thinking about it, I was just having a good time and taking pictures. Of course, I suppose I had a vested interest if somebody got famous and I
thought these were really good bands and they should get famous. Although, the second version of Television, I got a little bored by that.
Lee Sobel: When did you start taking pictures of the bands?
Roberta Bayley: That was the very end of ’75. One of my very first sessions was the picture that was on the cover of Please Kill Me. That was literally like my fourth roll of film. I had aspirations as a photographer earlier, but I didn’t have a decent camera. Then after I broke up with Richard, I was thinking "Oh all these bands need their photographs taken" and so I just bought a camera. Nobody had money then and everybody needed their picture taken so you would just say "I’ll take your picture" and you did it, which is great because that’s how I own the copyrights to everything because if no one ever pays you, they don’t own their pictures.
Lee Sobel: What was it like to photograph those bands? Do you have any specific memories?
Roberta Bayley: Well, The Ramones, like a lot of other people, think that if they’re in the picture, they own the picture. It wasn’t until many years later that I even knew, because I don’t really follow T-Shirts and stuff, that they had used that
Photo by Bill Leissner
picture a lot in promotion and t-shirts, and they never paid me. They thought that because it was their album cover, they kind of owned it or something and, in a way, because I got paid $125, I suppose I can be angry and bitter, but I’ve done really well by that picture and it’s a very famous image and I think it’s really helped me because I took it. People definitely know me and they know that image. When I went to Japan I was worshipped.
Lee Sobel: Everybody always talks about the fact that if you were freak, you would go to New York and you’d fit right in…
Roberta Bayley: Richard Hell was considered really attractive and, if you look at him, he looks like a freak. I mean, no one was freakier than Joey, but after you knew the person, you never thought about that again. Somebody thinks Patti Smith looks normal? I mean, she’s a freak. I don’t know what the attraction is. Actually, Patti, in her early days, was really kind of cute and sexy and had this whole look, but she was still bizarre looking in terms of what the world looked like. The Brady Brunch with the flared trousers and the Queen haircut and everything. That’s what everybody else was going around looking like. You couldn’t get away with anything like what Patti and The Ramones were looking like except in New York, I think. You’d be beaten up in the rest of America.
Lee Sobel: What about the drug scene?
Roberta Bayley: The police at CBGB’s was Karen Krystal, Hilly’s wife, and she’d go around and grab people and take their marijuana joints away. I guess people were doing cocaine openly, but they were doing it at night clubs that were kind of almost semi-private or something. I wasn’t much of a druggie. I have nothing against it. I had my different phases of drugs, but I really wasn’t paying attention. Alcohol is pretty much my drug of choice. I really liked cocaine at a certain period in the late 70's/early 80's, but it just kind of wore off. It was a good time to do certain drugs. You have to time your drugs. Luckily, I never got into heroin, which I’m sure is a wonderful drug, but it usually ends in tragedy.
Lee Sobel: Well heroin was obviously very prevalent in the 70's in New York, right?
Roberta Bayley: That’s what everybody says. See, that’s another thing, I always see these documentaries and everyone was doing heroin. Well, you know what? We were doing beer. We were doing Budweiser. We were mainlining Budweiser. Nobody could afford drugs. That was one of Danny Fields' greatest lines. He was in front me in a documentary once and they asked him "What was your drug of choice?" and he looked at them incredulously and said ‘Whatever was free." If omebody offered it to you, you just did it. Who had money to buy anything?
Lee Sobel: How about Nancy Spungen, did you know her?
Roberta Bayley: Sure I knew Nancy, who has gotten a pretty bad rap. She was kind of neurotic, but she was a nice girl. She was always very generous. It was like she was one of the girls who were strippers and would make a lot of money, but then she also used drugs so then she wouldn’t have money so she’d borrow money from you. She was an okay person. She may have become more obnoxious as she got power, but she was a very intelligent girl. I think she graduated from high school when she was 15 and she was really actually smart, but she had kind of a mental illness, some kind of undiagnosed thing -- she came out of a not good family situation. She wanted to be a musician’s girlfriend and she finally found Sid.
Lee Sobel: Today people with emotional problems get diagnosed and get put on meds or go to therapy. People weren’t really doing that back then were they?
Roberta Bayley: No. Unfortunately Nancy’s mom wrote a book about her, which was really a very uninformed book. Isn’t that your worst nightmare, your mother writes a book about you after you’re dead? In that scene, no one was going to go and get diagnosed. The drugs they had then, I think, were much less sophisticated. If you had mental problems, they’d put you on Thorazine or give you shock treatment. Or would they even be open minded that you might be gay. I mean, yeah, that’s a good reason to give you shock treatment, right? They didn’t have very sophisticated drugs. That really came around the era of Prozac, which I guess is somewhere in the 80s when they started to get more into balancing you and making your natural chemistry more available to you. They got more sophisticated with the drugs.
Lee Sobel: Tell me about working with Punk Magazine.
Roberta Bayley: Oh, well that was just the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I really owe a big part of my career to working with John Holmstrom. They were so creative and so fun and so funny. In that one moment for two years, it was the hottest thing, and everybody wanted to be in it and we did all these really creative wonderful things. It afforded me to take a lot of images that wouldn’t have ever existed ever that I did for them. My career would have been very ho-hum were it not for Punk Magazine. I owe John a very, very big debt.