Interview with Theresa Kereakes originally conducted in April 2005.
Theresa Kereakes is yet another person I've met (or reconnected with) through Jenny Lens. Like Jenny, she is a photographer and was around to witness and document the birth of the mid-seventies punk movement. She says that she first grabbed her camera to prove to her doubting friends that she had actually been to the rock shows she was always talking about. Thirty years later, she's begun publishing her "photographic evidence" on the web, along with her humorous and insightful memories. Aside from her invaluable documentation, she was kind of a punk rock den mother to some of the scene's most creative personalities.
Theresa maintains a website at http://theresakereakes.blogspot.com/ and has just completed her traveling exhibit of vintage punk rock photos. Unguarded Moments: Backstage and Beyond is the subject matter of this collection from her vast Punk Turns 30 archive. Up next is a book of the images from the Unguarded Moments tour with bonus content, such as tour diary entries and photos from the events.
"I don't have to comply with your rules. I am making my own rules."
1. What was/is your contribution to the punk community?
Back in the day, I thought it was having a reliable car, being the designated driver, having a big apartment, dad's credit card and that I used all these things for the greater good of all my friends by driving them around, making big dinners for my friends, or throwing parties where people could eat (socialist in training!).
I also pitched in to tour manage Stiv Bators and various versions of the Dead Boys from time to time, usually at the last minute, when they fired someone or totally scared someone into quitting in the middle of the night. I realize NOW that it was a contribution to the punk community, but at the time, it just seemed like a fun road trip for which I'd get a few dollars, a few adventures and could visit other cities. Last night, Jimmy Zero told me that me being on the road with Stiv probably kept him alive a few extra years - and he meant it. Stiv really did need a minder, and a Mom figure.
I also worked at the Whisky A Go Go in increasingly more responsible positions over the years. I started in the box office, selling tickets and checking off names on guests lists. Later, I promoted shows - punk shows and "Paisley Underground" shows. That came about because I always just hung around the club, had strong opinions about bands and eventually Elmer Valentine thought he ought to put me to work.
I had my own apartment by 1977 (I was living in the dorms at UCLA in 1976) and visiting bands crashed there, and also people too drunk to drive home crashed there. Paul Rutner from the Mumps lived on my couch for months! ALSO - until Pleasant got her own place, my apartment on Franklin (7231 - just west of La Brea) was the "Famous Lobotomy Apartment." Brian (Kid Congo) Tristan once almost walked out of a floor-to-ceiling window during a party we had for the Mumps there, thinking it led to a patio. Gary Valentine was hiding in a closet, making phone calls to NYC during that party. Little did anyone know that across the alley - my kitchen window looked into the kitchen window of two guys who were in Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
Dad's credit card came in handy when we were starving, or needed to buy tickets to see Bowie (that's how I met Darby Crash - when he was still just Paul. We had camped out in front of the Forum to buy tickets the moment they went on sale).
Taking pictures was a big contribution. I took photos of the Germs playing in Pat Smear's garage and one of them ended up as the cover of their single "Forming." Chris Ashford never paid me for it, nor did I get credit on the sleeve. He still even has that strip of 5 negatives! Well, I HOPE he still has it!
Nevertheless, I felt that being there to capture the moment was a contribution. I took photos almost every night and gave prints away to anyone who asked for a photo of themselves. I also got quite a few pictures published, which was good for me and good for whoever it was in the picture. By 1979, Rock Scene out of NY gave me a sort of regular photo column and it was really up to me to tell them who was happening. I remember they printed a photo I took of X from a Lobotomy Night show - where someone in the crowd was forming an "x" with their fingers - and I shot through that to capture Exene in one of her classic poses. I also shot a lot of band pictures for Bomp, which were used as promo photos, and the occasional 7" sleeve (Pandoras "Hot Generation" is the most well known thing I did for Bomp, next to Stiv Bators solo record).
In retrospect -- I would say pretty much the same -- only, I'd characterize my "Den Mother" role as being a supporter when and where support was specifically needed - in almost a socialist kind of way. So, I think the small every day things - the mundane things are where I think I contributed a lot, simply because I could.
As for the photos and spreading the word visually about LA, I think it will end up being my legacy as well as a way of proving I was indeed around at the dawn of punk. I started taking photos of concerts and rock n roll stuff to prove to people I actually did do what I said I did. But I guess if I didn't feel challenged or compelled to defend myself, I'd still be taking pictures of the juxtapositions of the world... which I still do! But now I have this archive of punk which is dear to me and to my friends whose images I've captured. There are a lot of bands I didn't photograph.
And I have always wondered why - but I realize now that there were some people I simply just hung out with and a camera would have ruined the opportunity I had to become friends with them.
2. Which artist, band concert and/or show had the most impact on your life?
Patti Smith made a major impact in my life because I first heard her late in 1975 when I started college and I was into French poetry and she used it in her music -- and suddenly, I no longer felt alone! She was the first woman in music that I looked up to and wanted to emulate.
Because of Patti Smith, I started reading all the NY-based magazines. So she cleared the path for me to make all sorts of explorations on my own. Even though I started seeing her in 1976, the show that made a major impact on my life was the first Blondie/Ramones show at the Whisky - February 16?, 1977. At that show, I met so many people that I became friends with and am still friends with. These people went on to do great things in music, art and film. AND I just loved Blondie. I got a huge rush of what Beatlemania must have felt like because my friend Kathy and I just SCREAMED over the Ramones the way girls our age did for the Beatles in 1964.
After that, I pretty much started going out EVERY NIGHT and seeking out local bands - the ones formed by all the people I had just met. I'm pretty sure it was that Ramones show where I met Charlotte Caffey (the Eyes, the Go-Gos).
So, that Ramones/Blondie show was the one that cleared the path for me in another way. I was still in college and trying hard to graduate in less than four years (I did) and wanted to put in as much study time as possible. After those shows, I developed a strategy where I would stay on campus and do my homework before going back to my dorm, and then later to my apartment. I would go to the late set at the clubs - remember, there were two shows per band per night at both the Whisky and the Starwood. Unfortunately, some of the classes I took started kind of early in the morning. But it all worked out.
"There wasn't anything we couldn't do because we refused to take 'No' for an answer."
3. What was the role of women in the early punk scene?
I think that women in the early punk scene completely defied whatever restrictions straight, non-punk women felt bound by. We did whatever we wanted. We dressed cool and weird and the empowering thing about that is that you're saying "I don't have to comply with your rules. I am making my own rules." We designed awesome flyers, took pictures non stop of our beautiful
friends, we wrote great articles, stories and journalism. There wasn't anything we couldn't do because we refused to take 'No' for an answer. We were the really liberated women. We took all the chances and said "fuck you" to people who tried to stop us.
I don't know if everyone knows this - but except for the owner, Elmer Valentine, the Whisky and the Roxy were completely 100% run by women - from the late Michelle Myers, who was the original booker, to Michon Stanco who booked after her for a long while, and me - who booked sporadically early on and then a lot more later. On a business end, there were women in charge also: Marsha Green and Dee Dee Haddix at the Whisky, Lisa and Kathy at the Roxy. While it was Elmer who said, "bring in the best new music," it was Michelle and then Michon who actually booked the punk acts. My small claim to fame is that I gave the Bangs their first gig.
The best punk bands had women fronting them, or writing the songs - or otherwise being the center of attention: The Bags, The Eyes, X, the Alleycats, the Avengers, the Go-Go's, Annette fronting the Bangs and then Blood on the Saddle, Joan Jett as a stand-out in the Runaways --
and that's just scratching the surface. So women actually changed the face of music for the future generations of women who wanted to do music. None of the pop stars who made the big money in the '80s would have been able to do what they did if not for the pioneering done by punk women. People like Pat Benatar and Madonna took some cues from the way punk women dressed and the energy they exuded and they made mainstream money from their mainstream songs while looking a little cooler than mainstream ladies. Even Cyndi Lauper, who has indie cred, she relied on her punk friends and influences to bust out of the indie scene. The Go-Go's took it on the chin for everyone by enduring the comments that they "sold out" and everything else that came with their major label deal. Civilians may see the Go-Go's as famous, but I think we all know the price they paid for that.
Also, on a pedestrian level, it was a lot easier for women punks to get jobs and hold on to them. We supported the scene financially because we bought the records, bought the tickets to the shows, paid for drinks. We kept money in the scene. Not to say that the guys didn't - but it just seemed to me that more of the women punks had jobs in the real world and that gives you a tangible power - purchasing power.
4. What is the legacy of punk in your life?
In a lasting way - my cantankerous attitude. I still do whatever I want and never take no for an answer. I usually end up doing things myself, too. Which we all did out of necessity and it is an ethos that has served us all well. Then there's the photos -- documenting our life from the mid-70s onwards so no one will forget us.
5. What are you listening to now?
Of the current bands, I listen to a lot that were highly influenced by punk, such as Reigning Sound from Memphis, the Dirtbombs from Detroit, and The Witches from Detroit. All those bands have extra added soul to the punk mix. I'm also still listening to all the records I bought
back in the day - old Dangerhouse singles. I just listened to "Adult Books" today! My current roommate is only 34. He's clueless to punk because he was like seven when we started, so I try to shove it down his throat as much as possible!
There's another Detroit band, The Paybacks, fronted by Wendy Case, that is just awesome. They lean towards the hard rock side of garage, but Wendy is a bonafide punk at heart and will be a great role model for the next crop of young women. She's 42, writes her own rules, has
young boyfriends and a young band. Patti Smith's son, Jackson, all of 21, plays bass in the Paybacks after leaving his own group, Back in Spades.
6. Do you have any funny or interesting stories to share?
Well, there was that time - Easter night in the Hollywood Cemetery. I was with Pleasant and Brian/Kid Congo. We were really just wandering around, admiring the Easter lilies and probably going to smell Douglas Fairbanks. Some cholo kids saw us there. I think they thought we were going to defile the graves. They hassled us inside, but outside, they got a pipe out from their car. We were TERRIFIED. I had just gotten my Honda Civic - the tiny kind that looks like a lawn mower with a roof. We never ran so fast to the car, I never unlocked it so fast and never drove so fast. Thank goodness for the tight turning radius that car had. We lost the low rider after I made several donut turns on Melrose. On Easter Sunday! When we returned to my apartment on Franklin, Paul (Mumps) was there and asked us why we were white as sheets. As we retold the tale, he said he knew we were telling the truth because our voices were quavering with fear. Pleasant and I told this story for months. I figure that so many years later, time to share it again.
I think not long after that, there was the beginning of the Hillside Strangler victims being found. The second one was found about four blocks from my apartment. My parents made me move. That's when I moved to Clark St., behind the Whisky and the famous Lobotomy apartment was abandoned. I guess those stories border on the gruesome and not funny. Is it interesting?
Pleasant and I were once stopped at the border between Tijuana and San Diego in that little Honda. She'd bought firecrackers and switchblades. I don't remember what contraband I bought, but I did buy some. We got the full pat-down by matrons and Pleasant suggested we whisper pick up lines so maybe they'd have mercy on us. The guy who searched my car disabled the horn and it never really worked after that.
7. Are there any punk women from the early scene that you feel have not been been adequately recognized?
ALL OF THEM! While I am so happy that the Go Go's got their due and world wide fame....everyone else is still deserving of recognition. When I was living in the UK, a lot of people over there paid respect to Patricia Morrison (Bags) but not enough respect to Alice Bag - so I'd like to see the Bags get more due because they were incredibly influential in terms of music, style and ethos - but the people they influenced get more attention than the Bags. Diane Chai is not given enough notice either and I think she was really powerful as a musician and she had a great look. Penelope Houston has made forays into a solo career in fits and starts and it would be great if it could be a continuum for her. I thought she was a riveting performer, had a great look - could have wandered into that same territory as Billy Idol. I think she stuck with her principles, however, and for that I applaud her.
8. What is something we should know about you that we probably don't know?
I have a superfluous education that I'm only now beginning to be able to use. I wanted to be an English teacher until Lance Loud introduced me to the guy I would date for years - and that's why I got into the music biz. Now, I think I am in the position to teach - and I'm using my punk photos to do that. You'd be amazed at how I've relied on the stuff I learned in grad school while writing treatises on the importance of 70s LA Punk! I took the long way around to come home to punk, however.
I left LA in 1988 and moved to NYC where I had a successful career producing film and television. I was the head of prime time production for VH1 when they relaunched in a "Music First" format, creating, supervising and/or developing the series, "Legends," "Storytellers," and some great mini series and specials ("VH1 Presents the 70s," among others). You wouldn't believe how many people there did not believe me when I told them about my punk past in LA --- not until Spock (who was in Backstage Pass) got a job at VH1 and basically backed me up. Why they'd believe her and not me is something I found really hurtful. That's partly why I started taking rock n roll pictures in the first place.
In 1973, when I had my learner's permit, I went to a lot of shows and came back and told my friends --- Elton John at the Hollywood Bowl, The Faces, ELO, the Eagles, Queen - you know, all the mainstream stuff in LA that got advertised in my newspaper in Santa Barbara. However,
none of my friends believed me, so I started taking my camera along to shows. For proof.
I think a lot of people who know me now, know me from my association with Little Steven's Underground Garage, the syndicated radio show. However, most people don't know that I met Little Steven because of Stiv Bators! Stiv lived with me in the Island Records corporate
apartment I got to use in London in the early 80s. One day, here's the guy from Bruce Springsteen's band hanging around with Stiv and wanting to produce demos for him. I was suspicious, but Stiv claimed the guy was a big fan of the Dead Boys. Years later, it turns out that
Little Steven does indeed enjoy some punk music. However, he too, seemed to doubt my associations even though an important early punk introduced us - and for me, after spending years helping him build his radio empire, there was a last straw moment. At the request of Greg
Shaw, about a month before he died, I brought several copies of the 25th Anniversary reissue of Stiv's solo record to the office so that Steven could have a copy and play it on the show, and the people in the office could have copies too. I'd also just returned from the Dead Boys reunion show. Instead of being pleased about getting this record and hearing about the reunion show of a band he supposedly liked, Steven was dismissive. When I told him the album's photos were all mine but for one shot, he said, "Congratulations, Theresa. Whoop de fucking doo." And that was the last straw for me in terms of working with this mainstream celebrity who was getting the halo effect of the good punk works my friends did for no money and no recognition back in the day. It was really an inspiration to go back to my roots and prove what happened when - by empirical evidence. Photographs.
You see, I don't just get mad. I get even! I'm glad you're telling the story here too, and thanks for asking me about my part in it!