Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Milestone Club Exhibition Essay

Milestone Club Exhibition Easay
from the August 2016 issue of Tangents Magazine

There's an old house on Tuckaseegee Road that’s had many lives. Home, grocery store, church, and best known of all, longtime home in Charlotte for Punk Rock, and many other subgenres of Rock & Roll. When the Milestone Club opened in 1969, it was originally intended to be home for artistic creative endeavors. By the end of the 1970s, it had become the place that many went to hear the music that they couldn’t find on any other stage in town, which is where the Milestone has preferred to stay, ever since. 

The roll call of bands that have played the Milestone are nearly as famous as the stories are about the venue itself. It’s Hole In The Wall nature. The dirt on the floor, and the graffiti on the walls. The bathroom, dare you should enter it. It’s a dump, but it's a world famous dump. But it’s a world famous dump. When the Milestone used the tagline in recent years, “Rock On Ghetto Fortress”, they weren’t kidding. But neither were they kidding about the importance like this on the local scene, as well as those that have toured and ventured to this venue over the past 47 years. 

Earlier this year, it was announced that the Milestone Club had found a new owner, but that the renovations that would complete the sale would total over $150,000. With the recent closing of Tremont Music Hall and Tommy’s Pub, and the impending closing of the Double Door Inn later this year, the news of the fundraising efforts that hit many in their hearts and wallets. How do you speak to that history, and the need to preserve it? When the Levine Museum Of The New South approached me about an exhibition of my photos of the Milestone, I knew immediately that I wanted to be involved.

The Milestone Club is where I took some of my first-ever photos of a Rock & Roll show. It was December 31st of 1995. Tangents Magazine had only been on the newsstands for only three months, and I started to become friendly with a number of bands that were living and rehearsing in an old warehouse on North Tryon Street. I had gone to high school with the guitarist for one of these bands, It Could Be Nothing. It was their New Year’s Eve show with another band, Black Plastic, that I went to on that night. I had just started taking photos, but I wasn’t taking it seriously, yet. It Could Be Nothing wore an amazing collection of homemade outfits for the show, with the singer wearing a suit entirely made of duct tape. Twenty-one years later, Tangents Magazine is three months into its second incarnation. I’ve never stopped taking photos since then, and one of my photos from that show will be featured in the Levine Museum exhibition. 

Unlike the Double Door Inn, the Milestone has not been continuously open over the past five decades. It’s had its stops and starts, ebbs and flows. Even on its better days, you made sure that you park in their lot, and you used the restroom before you went there, so that you didn’t have to use THAT bathroom. After a hiatus of several years, Neal Harper re-opened the Milestone in 2005. I had first met through our mutual friendship with It Could Be Nothing. It was Neal who invited to see the crop of new and cool groups over past decade. Wavves, Battles, Greg Ginn, Adam Franklin of Swervedriver, Oakley Hall, Kid Congo Powers, Owen Pallett, and more local and national bands than I can ever count. Some of the photos, you will also see in this upcoming exhibit. 

The second thing that the Levine Museum agreed upon for this exhibit was that we had to include the work of Chris Radok. Chris was known by many names, around Charlotte. Chris, Radok, Kodar. That guy. That weird guy. That weird guy that loved to put a fisheye lens in your face. Yeah, Chris was all of that, and more. When I started photographing music in earnest, Chris was only other photographer in town. And he still didn’t talk to me for a couple of years. Chris was an individual, through and through. He shot what he wanted, when he wanted to. The shoot, or the subjects, had to have some interest to him. Anything else was “A job”, as he once told me, and he really didn’t care for something that didn’t interest him.

My favorite story about Chris is the time that he and I were photographing Francis Ford Coppola. Each media outlet got ten mintues to photograph Francis, and it was second-ever shoot for Charlotte Magazine, and I was more than a little nervous. Chris saw me waiting to take Mr. Coppola’s photo, walks over to me, and says in my ear, “This is bullshit. I could be home watching cartoons right now,” and walked off. And all I could do was smile and laugh. Chris had no interest in the artifice, or the rules that often come with working in this business. 

By that point, he had been photographing bands for over twenty years. The business of music photography can wear you down. You can work with some of the biggest names in music, and you can care about your work more than you’re ever willing to admit, but it doesn’t always pay the bills. It’s something that I’ve dealt with at different times, and I’m sure that Chris did, as well. His prickly demeanor was a defense mechanism to keep out of clutter that he sometimes had to deal with in his work. But thankfully, he never stopped taking photos, until the day that he was taken from us in 2012, and his friends have since organized and scanned the prints, negatives and slides that Radok left behind.

I recently went to the Levine Museum to look through Chris’ color slides for this show. Yes, I said color slides. Chris shot color slides for various people, and himself for over twenty years. For many years, color slides were the gold standard for magazine publishers and record labels. There was no fixing color slides in post. You got it right the first time, or not at all. And yet, here was all of Radok’s fantastic photos of legendary Milestone shows. Fugazi, Rollins Band, Bad Brains, and so many more. There were also a number of shows that Radok shot elsewhere, that he would have never admitted that he shot them. Kiss, in 1977. The Rolling Stones, in 1981. Def Leppard, on the Pyromania tour. Flock Of Seagulls, at the Carowinds Palladium in 1983. I kept expecting Chris to walk in the room and growl, “How did you find those?” If I’d asked him about these shows, he would’ve shook his head with his goofy, endearingly condescending look, and said, “It was a job.” “Good gig, then,” I probably would have replied. 

I also came away from looking at these photos with an intense trepidation about exhibiting my photos next to his. Yes, I’m proud of my photos- I prefer to take the photos, and leave hyperbole to others- but Radok got great photos of now legendary bands. Twenty-five years or more after he took them, Radok’s photos have a power that I would to see my work to, given time. But for now, I realized that Chris’ photos were the star of the show.

I also realized that for all of our talk about the Milestone, neither of our archives had much in the way of photos of the venue itself. The bar, the stage area, the graffiti. Yes, even the bathroom. Sometimes, a place can speak volumes about the people that inhibat a place, without said people being in the photo at all. I realized that this was my new charge for this exhibit. As often happens, the photos that you’ll see in this show almost didn’t happen. I had worked three events that day, and I had clients that were emailing me for photos that they wanted as soon as possible. Thankfully, that voice- the one in my head that has pushed me for over twenty years- said, “Daniel, go. You’ll be glad you did.” And once again, that voice was right. 

I’m really glad that the Levine Museum Of The New South has asked me to do this show. While I am still fully committed to my retrospective at the Charlotte Museum Of History, which is back up on their walls, the Levine show is a chance to speak to an opportunity we have at this critical moment to preserve the history and legacy that many of us that have spent many of our lives’ greatest experiences in. The forthcoming loss of the Double Door Inn pains me in a way that is difficult to comprehend, or verbalise. Talk is cheap, and land values in Charlotte aren’t. So, we will do what we can, and carry on the message of life and hope to anyone that will listen. 

One of my hopes with this show is to also open more conversation with those that attended, or documented shows at the Milestone over the past 47 years. Did you take photos at shows by Nirvana, REM, Black Flag, Moe Tucker & Half Japanese, Sebadoh, or countless others? Do you have stories from those shows? Contact us at www.tangentsmag.com, or at the Levine Museum, and let the conversation continue, again. 

At the core of Punk Rock, or any artistic expression, is the idea that an individual or group that create something that speaks beyond themselves. Speaks of its creators, for its creators, and for those that are receiving these works. On paper, combining a Punk Rock venue with a major Southern museum might not work. But life is not just lived on paper. It is lived by those who create said works out of their heads, or put them into the open air. To the likes of Nirvana, REM, Bad Brains, and millions of others that have played this old house. To those that ventured into its dark dwellings, night in and night out. To two kids- Jeff Clayton and Joe Young- who saw half of the Sex Pistols play at the Milestone in 1980, and soon formed their own band, Antiseen, that inspired other kids around the world to do that they had also done. And in so doing, whether it is playing three chords, taking a photograph, or enjoying a life experience, places like the Milestone Club can live on for as long as we sing its praises. And if that ain’t Punk Rock, then I don’t know what is.

Here’s to Chris. Here’s to the Milestone. Here’s to Museums, and eyes and ears that listen. Rock on.
-Daniel Coston

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