Friday, August 29, 2014

Little Steven's Underground Garagefest, August 2004

Hello All-

Sometimes, when you experience something, you remember every moment of it. What you were thinking, thinking or doing at each moment. However, some experiences lead you to say, "Did that really happen? Did I dream that?" Such was the Underground Garage festival, which I photographed ten years ago this month.

Little Steven Van Zandt, riding the then-current wave of Garage Rock, put together a festival in Randall's Island, a short highway's drive from New York City. It was an astounding 45 bands of anyone and everyone you would want to see. It wasn't so much that I wanted to go, but that I had to go. To have missed it would have silently crushed some part of my soul. I got a photo pass that week, and prepared for the drive.

The night before, I had a client that wouldn't let me leave a show until I had photographed their band. The show was in an abandoned office building in what was then the sketchiest part of Charlotte, NC. You had to pass underneath the highway on a dirt path to get there, with no street lights at all. The locals looked at me as I passed them, sizing up to see what they could get out of me, and my car. Thankfully, my car was not worth much, and I drove on.

I finally left Charlotte at 11:30pm. I slept for an hour at a rest stop somewhere in Maryland, and kept going. I arrived at the festival at 10am, and waited for the publicist to show up. I was the first to arrive. I wandered around until noon, when Davie Allan & The Arrows opened the festival.

The festival's plan had been to have a revolving stage. One band would be playing, and when it was time to have the next act on, the stage would do a 180 to reveal the next act. About seven bands in, the stage broke. And the festival went downhill from there. Suddenly, the stagehands had to set up for 45 bands, and that the remaining bands would have almost no time to play. There was also a Tropical Storm that was due to land on the East Coast later that day, meaning that every band was held to a precious two songs.

Electric Prunes? Two songs. The Creation, with Eddie Phillips on fiddle bow and guitar? Bo Diddley? Two songs. Freaking Pete Best, who was once in a band called the Beatles? Two songs. The set-up for all of these bands seem to go on forever, with several DJs and local personalities forced to talk and fill time, because the show was being broadcast live on Little Steven's Sirius XM channel. The mood of the crowd changed from happiness, to anger and annoyance many times that day.

Photographers had been told that we could only shoot two songs, to begin with, so the stage's breakdown didn't change our plans too much. At one point, I walked towards the Electric Prunes to say hello, and Bruce Springsteen cut in front of me to do the exact same thing. Backstage, publicists scrambled to bring us musicians to photograph and interview. Pete Best was a very nice man, and didn't talk beyond a whisper. Bob Diddley was the bad-ass man, himself. A couple of acts were very drunk. A bunch of us were photographing the Dictators (longtime NYC punk band) when Nancy Sinatra (who also only got to play two songs) showed up for her photocall. The publicists weren't sure what to do, until the Dictators yelled out, "Can we have our photo taken with Nancy Sinatra?" Which we all gladly did.

Another annoyance for the concertgoers was a huge movie camera that constantly crisscrossed the stage. Van Zandt had hired Chris Columbus to shoot a film of the day's music, which would later be shown in theaters. I later found out that someone in Chris' family had fallen ill that week, and someone else manned his director's chair. To this day, I don't know who that was.

Despite all of this, there were some moments of brilliance. Big Star (five songs), the Pretty Things (five songs). The last acts of the day were the reunited New York Dolls, the Strokes and the Stooges. At the time, the festival was going to be the only US appearance of the New York Dolls, and their first show after the death of their founding bass player, Killer Kane. As their show began, singer David Johansen read a piece about the importance of music, and art and life, dedicating the show to Killer Kane. All of the photographers were supposed to leave the photo pit after the fist two songs. En masse, we all went to the side and sat down to watch the show. I've never seen that happen, before or since. And the Dolls were amazing.

The Strokes had to follow the Dolls, and they were flat terrible. Singer Julian Casablancas would probably not like me saying that his drunken state that night reminded me of a really bad Doors bootleg. Those nights where Jim Morrison was so drunk, and the band was so mad at Jim for being so drunk? Yeah, that's what it was like. And then, Iggy Pop and the Stooges came on and wiped the Strokes offstage.

As some of us were waiting to shoot the Stooges, a publicist walked up and said, "The Dolls are now available for photos and interviews." Which meant that you had to choose between photographing the Stooges, and hanging with the Dolls. I chose the former, and was blown away by their set. In the middle of the show, Iggy jumped on the camera in front of the stage, and rode it like a bull. The audience cheered, and I'll admit that I did, too.

In all, the show was done by 9:40pm, and I believe I shot 43 of the 45 bands that day. Still running on adrenalin and spit, I left the festival, escaping about an hour before the tropical storm hit the island. I drove all the way to Delaware, where I finally found a Motel 6 that I could afford, and slept for a while. The next day, I got stuck in a traffic jam in Washington, DC, somehow got off the highway, and found a photo lab to process my mountain of film. I then got back to Charlotte in time to photograph a Lucinda Williams concert, and then went home to scan and email the Garagefest photos. I literally fell asleep at my computer that night.

Was it all a dream? That experience still feels like one, all these years later. In some ways, the concert was the beginning of the end of the Garage Rock movement. To this day, the film of that show was never been aired. And maybe it doesn't need to be. For those of us that were there, be it as a fan, musician or photographer, the whole day played out like a hazy dream. One of those passing moments where the hopes of many outweighs the realities of living, and a beautiful dream emerges from chaos. Not to be repeated, but grateful that you, for a moment, saw it pass in front of your eyes.
-Daniel Coston
August 29, 2014

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