Archived Interview with Ms. Jenny Lens. We begin our interview series of influential women in the L.A. punk scene with one of the unsung heroines of the movement, the photographer Jenny Lens.
Jenny's incredible archive is filled with her iconic shots of punk musicians, artists, and fans. Please visit her website at www.punkpioneers.com to see and purchase copies of her amazing photos.
WOMEN IN L.A. PUNK INTERVIEW WITH JENNY LENS INTERVIEW
CONDUCTED IN NOVEMBER 2004
What was/is your contribution to the punk community?
I took some of the most iconic shots in punk. Ever. Most of the following performers told me they loved the shots. Blondie’s Debby Harry on the floor, an early crotch shot (which not only got them incredible world-wide coverage, but I was banned from ever shooting them again. Their management never believed I called to clear the shot first. C’est la fucking vie.) Patti Smith, on her knees with glowing Strat, who “still dares other photographers to take better photos than I.” Doesn’t stop her from crediting my shots to “Jenny Stern,” although I’ve been “Jenny Lens” in print since 1978, having been anointed that name late summer 1977. Nude Captain Sensible of the Damned, which their manager, Jake Riviera, turned into a button and I made zilch from the shot, not one penny ever.
Live Ramones at the Whisky. Dee Dee Ramone in a bath towel. Joey with fist in the air, standing next to a life-size transformer, also fist in the air. Spin mag used those for their obit, paid me and treated me very well. November Spin, with Johnny’s last interview with them, opens with a full-page close-up of Johnny smiling in San Francisco, their first West Coast tour, August, 1976.
Screamers on the bus bench!! Oh that is an all-time fave!
Totally spontaneous. I included 666 spray-painted on the wooden fence, not knowing what it meant!! What does a nice Jewish girl know about the sign of the devil? We found this little old lady, sitting on the bench, with a neck brace, reading some rag, after Tomata purchased his fave mag, the soon-to-be-banned, “Violent World.” The Screamers sat next to her, a man in Bermuda shorts (how LA is that?) walking in the background, next to the obligatory palm tree, and my Alfred Hitchcock touch, my shadow. We asked her if we could shoot her, gave her the mag, I stood back and took one shot. From then on, Tomata kept laughing cos he thought she was so cute. One chance and it was perfect!! Now that’s when the magic happened!! What a great shot! None of it planned. I will never cease to be amazed how that all came together. That happened quite often, but that was the best of the best.
Iggy Pop at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, April 15 or 16, 1977. He told me he liked my photos better than his photographer! I was sitting on two folding chairs with Mary Rat and Hellin Killer, with no flash and a coupler that turned my wide angle into close up, but cut the light down, so I could only take a few shots because he was bathed in dark light, plus it was so hard cos we all were bouncing around. No flash meant having to shoot when he was standing still. Let’s see, no light, Iggy standing still, three bodies on two chairs, two of them bouncing up and down constantly. And everyone thinks it’s so easy to take rock pix!!
They can fuck themselves. I don’t sell my soul for the almighty buck.
Cherie Curry of the Runaways, opening for Devo at the Santa Monica Civic, New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1977, in fishnet stockings and a white merry widow corset, legs spread, torn knee, her curvilinear silhouette shadow on drum kit behind her, pointing to herself as “Cherry Bomb."
The first Germs shots ever published, at Pleasant Gehman’s demand for Slash magazine in 1977. Johnny Rotten and Joan Jett in a Whisky booth, 1978 (also thanks to Plez). First Blasters in Slash (who lost my negs). My 1977 Weirdos for a Slash magazine benefit at Larchmont Hall, with the guard’s fingers in his ears, was called a “Classic” by Johnny Whiteside in the LA Weekly, a couple of weeks after CityBeat ran the photo with David Jones’ Weirdos El Rey preview, November, 2003. The LA Weekly won’t use my photos because I refused to sign their contract, submitted after they published my Dee Dee obit shot, June 2002. Their contract violates a recent Supreme Court decision regarding freelance work. I fight for my rights, no matter the consequence. They can fuck themselves. I don’t sell my soul for the almighty buck.
I also have tons of unpublished photos of the performers and fans wearing amazingly creative clothes, at parties, shows, on the street. I documented the natives in their element. I rarely shot studio shots cos I was so shy. I wanted to be invisible and “capture” a moment of reality, people being themselves, being the artists most of us were. We created our own lifestyle, the look, the music, the graphics, everything. I had to document it for history.
I began to photograph the emerging LA music scene in early 1976. Zolar X rehearsed in my home but I threw out the live shots. Silly me -- they were so weird, who knew Jonesy would play them after Jello Biafra released a CD of theirs? I regard shooting the Ramones at the Roxy, the second night I saw them, August 12, 1976, as the beginning of my life as a rock photographer. The show, the group, the shots that changed my life.
Which artist, band concert and/or show had the most impact on your life?
This question has three answers: X, Ramones, Clash (with Patti Smith and the Screamers coming close). X is by far the most important band in my life. Their songs speak to me in ways no artist, whether in music, books, poetry, movies, paintings, etc. comes close. For once, women’s voices — passionate, articulate, strong, sensual, intelligent, angry, hurt, demanding, needing, are heard, along men’s voices with the totality and tonality of real adult issues. Black humor, film noir, street life, eroticism,
exorcism, lyricism, musical heights that reach and transcend words, passions, feelings. I could write a book about each of their songs, especially the earliest, that I witnessed as they performed for the first times and their constant variations from show to show as they continued to explore the many meanings behind the words and ways of expressing the music.
I was there before there was X, knew and lived their lifestyle, and photographed them and others who continue to have such a major impact on so many lives. To see X transform from a rather slow, awkward noisy band, not pleasing to look at because Exene wore the ugliest clothes with such horrible expressions to the tightest, most exciting band, never knowing exactly how they’d deliver each song is among the highlights of my life. Like making love, not knowing exactly how one will feel, which new
sensation and re-awakening those feelings long dormant or bubbling up to the surface, explosive and life-affirming, anticipating those breath-taking moments and what/where will they lead to and feeling one’s body become electric and vibrant while being turned on by one’s lover whose body is radiating mine and mine his. We keep feeling and exploring and coming alive, hallucinating, reaching new heights or revisiting those exquisite sensations — that’s X and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. White heat, top of the world, mom!
I saw Patti Smith on January 30, 1976. I stood in line in that cold winter eve, dismayed people got out of their car and walked right in, while I couldn’t even see her by the time I got in. I made a promise to myself, while in line, that somehow I’d be able to do that. I wasn’t pretty, young or thin, so being a groupie was out, I can’t sing or play or write songs. I had no idea what I could do, but I was going to live this lifestyle, even though I had no idea what it was. I read all I could, which was “Back Door Man,” “New
York Rocker,” some articles in “Creem,” went to some shows and bought “The Ramones” as soon as it hit the streets. I was among that elite group on August 11, 1976, witnessing the transformation not only of our culture but our lives that fateful first Roxy night. I was totally enamored of Dee Dee’s cheekbones. I grabbed my camera, went to the Hooper’s Camera in Granada Hills, in the valley where I lived, the salesman put the film in, told me what setting to use, and shot unbelievably beautiful shots of dear, sweet, tormented Dee Dee and a few of Joey, Johnny and Tommy.
A girl I’d seen at other rock shows asked if I wanted to go to the hotel where the opening act, the Flaming Groovies, were staying. It was 2 AM, so why not? Imagine my shock and delight when da brudders from Forest Hills walked in. Their manager, Danny Fields, invited us up to the room. I photographed and followed the Ramones down to the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach and up to the Savoy in San Francisco. Creem magazine described me as a “250 pound cherub.” Considering that was about 90 pounds more than I weighed, it was a back-handed compliment, but wow, I was in Creem, never dreaming that my name would be on the masthead throughout those early punk years, from 1977 to at least 1980. I didn’t put my camera down from August 12, 1976 until summer 1980, when I was burned out financially, emotionally and physically (a lot thinner due to drugs and little sleep or food), from 4 years of constant sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll. The Ramones forever changed my life. Would I
have ever become a rock photographer if not for Dee Dee’s cheekbones and then meeting them? I doubt it.
The most incredible, exciting, vibrant, always brilliant live act was the Clash. Their energy, clothes, songs, group dynamics guaranteed the most heart-pumping, thrilling, awesome shows of my life. X comes close, but the Clash had a mission and all of us who ever saw Joe, Mick, Paul and Topper know what I’m talking about. I saw them not only up and down California, but also in England, June – July 1980. The ironic part is at different times, I was intimately involved with 3 of their road crew, hung out back stage, but was so intimidated by them I have few off-stage shots. I just couldn’t shoot them offstage and who can explain that? Their magic just paralyzed me. Don’t ask me why.
Patti’s Roxy show was amazing, transcendent, magical, never-to-be repeated. That’s the sad part – other bands got better or if the Ramones or Clash, were always consistently amazing. Others enjoy Patti even now, I just don’t react as I did and that would be a reflection as to who I am now.
The Screamers show on my birthday, July 20, 1978, at the Roxy. I just came home from Houston after shooting the Rolling Stones, took some mushrooms and shot the best Screamers and among the best live shots in my life. How I focused, let alone got a shot of Tomata du Plenty (their lead singer) and Sheila, punkette and perfect foil for Tomata, both looking EXACTLY like Edward Munch’s famous “Scream” painting is like a miraculous comet, one of those art moments where everything lights up in alignment and mysticism. How could they look like that painting and be called the Screamers and I don’t think it was planned? How did I focus – all I remember was hallucinating outta my mind. I also took a shot of Tommy Gear, their brilliant songwriter, backup singer and keyboardist, looking exactly like Antonin Artaud as a priest in Danish director Carl Dreyer’s great silent masterpiece, “La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc,” (1928). Earlier I told Tomata that Tommy always reminded me of Artaud, so Tomata told me to tell Tommy cos he loved Artaud. Tommy stood in the Roxy backstage door, facing in, with a blank
expression when I told him. That’s Tommy! Then I took that shot!
What was the role of women in the early punk scene?
The analogy is that of the early days of the movie industry. In both cases, the men in power dismissed punk and the “flickers.” That enable women to do anything they wanted to do. Perform, write songs, write reviews, create fanzines, manage, photograph, book shows, be fashion plates, lovers and muses but with our own power. We decided what we wanted to do and were treated as equals to the men. We set our own agenda, our own goals. Nothing could hold us back except ourselves. And because so many of us were young and wild, the drugs, booze, sex and frantic lifestyle guaranteed some of us would not participate for long. I am really sick and tired of hearing how drugs and booze destroyed the scene. Look at any art movement, any rock revolution and see they are all like comets: blazing across the sky, memorable, but short-lived and influential. So why not live fully and explore all of it? Drugs did not destroy the scene. Lack of recognition by the rock industry and constant denigration by the media destroyed our initial burst of energy and creativity. If anything, women kept it going.
Mary Pickford was the very first star as well as the first woman to co-own/found a movie studio (United Artists) and often directed. She was much more than “Little Mary” and “America’s Sweetheart”-- bigger than Madonna at her most famous. Her frequent collaborator, Frances Marion was the most powerful female screenwriter in movie history, Lois Weber and Alice Guy, noted film directors who added humanity and social, personal issues to the lexicon of movie making.
So many others lost to history but whose impact affects culture to this day. “Anonymous was a woman.” But in punk, we had our say and wow, what a great time! Even with all the crap, we had our place
in the sun, I mean, moonlight!
What is the legacy of punk in your life?
Punk is my life. I denied it for two decades and was miserable. I missed so many great shows and people. Only when I listened to people who constantly told me my photos have value did I start to come to life. My biggest regret is losing all that time. Things are so expensive and I have minor but irritating health issues that limit the time and energy I can put into my archive. I’m working on it. If not for punk, I would have jumped off the bridge over the freeway across the street 2 years ago. Punk is an attitude, it’s the way some of us are hard-wired and there’s lots of us. Even if I never fulfill most of my dreams, I lived a life many envy. I am proud of my legacy and participation.
What are you listening to now?
Ramones “Anthology,” X’s “Los Angeles” and “Live at the Whisky,” Dangerhouse CDs (unfortunately out-of-print, but amazing stuff!), Kristian Hoffman (especially “&”), Iggy’s “Brick by Brick,” Electricoolade’s “Taste Me” (produced by the Kessel Brothers), Talking Heads “Sand in the Vaseline,” disc 2, Patti Smith’s bootleg, “Teenage Perversity and Ships in the Night” (taped the night I first saw here while I was in line) and “Land,” disc 1 (two is crap), “The Clash,” Sex Pistols’ “Bollocks,” Elvis Costello’s
“Armed Forces,” Screamers releases from Xeroid, Cole Porter original recordings, and tons of indie 103.1, especially Henry Rollins, Joe Sib and Steve Jones. Yeah, Steve was an asshole when I was his guest on the show. I said I had a question from Alice, but he threw me out cos he doesn’t know early LA punk. But he plays a wide variety of music, so I try to catch it every day. I can’t stand hearing the same crap all the time, especially when they don’t have the DJs on.
Do you have any funny or interesting stories to share?
Oh Alice, where do I begin? It’s 1 AM, I’m watching a melodramatic film, “Frenchmen’s Creek,” a great romantic fantasy about a pirate lover and rich, bored, married woman carrying on. Phone rings and voice says, “Do you have any ludes?” I sat up and said, "Who is this?” It was IGGY POP downstairs in a neighbor’s apartment. I grabbed my slides, mounted in plastic holders, 20 to a page, and ran downstairs. He grabbed me and I left my precious slides with his manager and my neighbor Laura. We went back
upstairs and all I can say is: he has the biggest tongue! I wanted him to autograph my “Raw Power” LP, but he said later. Of course he never came back up, but I went down to get my slides. Iggy Pop seduced me in my own apartment! Iggy Pop? ME? Yep!
Then a couple of years later I casually mentioned to Laura and her friend, Dimita, my Clash black and white shots, which I took while standing on the side of the stage at the Santa Monica Civic, were at a lab. That night they broke into the lab and stole my work. I have the color slides, but as many times as I shot them, nothing compares to those black and white shots. Which I’m sure they lost or traded in a drug deal. That still hurts. A lot.
How about how I got my name? “She started to hate the niggers and Jews and the Mexicans who gave her a lotta shit, and the homosexuals and the idle rich, she had to get out, get out . . .” This Jew was all too happy to see Faye Hart, aka Farrah Faucet-Minor, leave. She would taunt and torment me, stopping me on the street, standing so close to me, saying, “Hitler was right. Jews should be burned . . .” beyond that, I couldn’t listen. I could only look at Exene, staring at me and watching my reaction, which was stunned shock and tears. But they let me hang out at their apartment and I took some awesome party shots. One night Farrah was attacking me, maybe trying to hurt me or take off my clothes. I remember screaming and leaving. Later the police arrived because someone reported a woman in trouble! I wish I had stayed to see the looks on their faces!! I laugh thinking about that! Another night, drunk as usual, Farrah called me a barrage of names. Holding chicken in one hand and a constant
bottle of beer in the other, she screamed “Jenny chicken breast! Jenny Lens!” My face lit up and from then on I was Jenny Lens, to her everlasting dismay. Ha ha, you never know where something good will come from someone hateful.
And to those who read, “We Got the Neutron Bomb,” Farrah meant it. The book
debated if she just said things to get a reaction. She didn’t taunt Jews, including
getting into a fight with the New Yawk girlfriend of the Dictators’ lead singer,
Handsome Dick Manitoba, and being 86’d (thrown out) of the Starwood just cos she
wanted the attention. The Dictators, who started as early as the Ramones at CBGB’s,
were primarily Jewish and proud of it. Farrah was as anti-Semitic as they come. Take
it from someone who knows. There were tons of Jews in punk, more than people
admitted in those days. But Jews are rebels and under-dogs who never stop believing
in their dreams. Art and music kept us alive during the Holocaust. One stupid woman
wouldn’t deter us. No one could, although many tried.
I remember reading a music mag around the time the Go-Go’s released “Our Lips are
Sealed.” Bigwig record execs were so aghast this all-girl band, who wrote their own
songs, played their own instruments, were managed by a woman, and were having
such a hit! They put them down! But that didn’t stop the girls I hung out with and shot
from shooting to the top! I am so proud of them!! I remember telling Jane earlier to
save her receipts for guitar strings and things for her taxes. She thought I was nuts. I
saw her at Tangiers summer 2004 and she gave me several big hugs. I am always so
pleased people remember me fondly.
Oh, late the life I led, the most amazing memories. Never in my wildest imagination did
I think fat, shy me would get laid all the time, dance all night long, take amazing shots,
see the best bands, party all the time, take tons of drugs and live this lifestyle for 4
years! That’s when living in LA was cheap, when the scene was small and tight.
Yes I cried all the time. It was hard to get photo passes, bands who I helped get a gig
cos of my published photo(s) would give me such a hard time and give their friends
not only passes, but promo items. I missed out on a lot, I was teased, I felt belittled by
record company personnel and fellow punks. I was too thin-skinned, too gullible and
vulnerable. But I never gave up. I hated taking photos, lugging the heavy equipment
and the flashes that took too long to go off, the cameras that over-exposed or didn’t
work. Having to roll my own film, often double-exposing or developing my own film and
prints, often wrong. Or driving to both a color and black and white lab when everyone
was going to sleep as the sun came up. Sending off so many photos that were
credited to someone else or not at all and getting paid was rare and being ripped off
was common. The technical aspect was awful.
But I persevered because the music, the scene, the ability to live on our own terms
while creating and enjoying something so lasting and influential and important and I
was in the middle of it all, propelling it along while being swept along with it. The tidal
wave of a rare cultural revolution, something I dreamt about when reading so much art
and movie history. It was certainly the most vibrant and defining moments of my life.
Was I supposed to waste my energy and youth on some stupid job? Buy a house for
$50,000 worth $2 or 3 million now? Naw, I couldn’t do the 9 to 5 required for that. I
had to do what I did. As they sang in “Chorus Line”: “what I did for love.”
Are there any punk women from the early scene that you feel have not been
Photographer Melanie Nissen, but that’s her choice. Her photos, so unique, thrilling
and stunning, were better than anyone from America or England and that includes
some famous names as Annie Liebovitz, Lynn Goldsmith or anyone, male or female.
British Pennie Smith, well known for her Clash shots, is another incredible
LA punk scene: Marina del Rey and Genny Body from Backstage Pass. They have
incredible stories! Jade Zebest, who created the fanzine, “Generation X.” Redheaded
Natasha, and blonde, sometimes violet haired Mary Rat. I was so very shy that I didn’t
know the names of many of the people I hung with and shot. Brian Grillo and Kristian
Hoffman, who spent many more evenings at the Masque than I, would know. They
have great stories!
What is something we should know about you that we probably don't know?
I have a BA in Art from CSUN and a Master of Fine Arts Degree from California
Institute of the Arts in Valencia. I was an exhibiting artist and college teacher when I
rejected my boring, safe life to take photos. I was involved with Judy Chicago’s “Dinner
Party” and my name has traveled around the world with that project. I left it cos I
preferred Patti over Judy. I wanted to go out on my own! I never had a normal
teenage life – all I did was study and keep house, so this was my chance to finally live!
I studied modern art history on my own and jumped into punk cos I knew this was
comparable to the great art movements, be it Surrealism, the Ballets Russe
(Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” debut in Paris and subsequent riot was nothing in
comparison to what we did nightly), Impressionism and other movements. I knew what I
was doing. I had no doubt punk would change our world, not just music. That’s why I
shot so much fashion, both men and women. I just wish I kept more flyers. But looking
back, it is truly a miracle I’m still living, still have my photos and my mind. Now to do
something with them. I still dream too much.