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Jurassic Punk

The Plain-Faced Portraits of Jim Jocoy Recall the Iron Age of the West Coast Punk Scene

ARE YOU COOL ENOUGH TO KNOW WHO THIS IS?: it's Will Shatter, late bass player for the bay area punk outfit Flipper. So there.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 5/18/2005

The Documentary Portraiture of Jim Jocoy

At G-Spot through June 4

Since their archetypically rock ’n’ roll “discovery” by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore in 2001, Jim Jocoy’s punk rock photographs have already enjoyed a longer shelf life than the glitter-trash West Coast scene he documented between 1978 and 1980. With Moore and Exene Cervenka (of Los Angeles band X) supplying the indie cred in back-of-the-book contributions, Powerhouse Books published in 2002 a volume of Jocoy’s portraits titled We’re Desperate. The book is about to enter its third printing thanks to robust sales at places like Urban Outfitters and Marc Jacobs boutiques (the fashion designer wrote the book’s introduction). Now curator Randy Davis has brought Jocoy’s arresting photographs to Hampden’s G-Spot in a show that proves interesting material produces interesting art, even if its manufacture is intentionally artless.

In 1978, Jocoy was a 26-year-old college dropout in San Francisco living at ground zero of the emerging West Coast punk scene. His roommate was the San Francisco distributor of L.A.-based music magazine Slash, and their apartment became a crash pad for L.A. bands like X and the Blasters that came up to play Mabuhay Gardens, the seminal Bay Area punk club. Finding himself surrounded by the cognoscenti of a vital subculture, Jocoy cast about for a way to get into the mix.

“The people I was hanging out with were all doing something creative,” Jocoy says at the G-Spot opening May 7. “Either they were making fliers for the shows or they were in the bands. I had no capacity musically, but I wanted to be doing things.”

Jocoy settled on photography in part because the copy store where he worked had a photocopier that could make color prints from photographic slides. He soon joined a handful of other photographers who would frequent local punk shows and travel with bands up and down the coast. “Those other guys had magazines and fanzines that they were getting their photos published in,” Jocoy says. “I was just doing it because I needed something to do.”

For someone who claims to have fallen into photography without any forethought, the portraits on display at G-Spot—about 40 prints culled from the 251 images in We’re Desperate, and the rest projected as slides—appear carefully planned. With few exceptions, each is a full-body shot of a young club denizen posed alone against an exterior alley or interior hallway. The uniformity of the photos lend the project an almost scientific air, as if Jocoy’s goal was to control as many variables as possible and make pronounced the ingenious variation in fashions among his stylishly emaciated subjects. You notice the similarities first. Motorcycle jackets, pegged jeans, Converse sneakers, and spiked hair. For a genre often identified with testosterone, the general look here is defiantly 98-pound weakling: skinny arms sticking out of too-short sleeves, gaunt, hairless faces staring vacantly from behind oversized glasses, Alfalfa cowlicks, toes pointed inward.

But it’s actually the variety of cultural references to pre-classic rock in the punk rock uniform—rockabilly, mod, garage, glam—that makes these photographs endlessly fascinating. In San Francisco more than anywhere else, Jocoy explains, the neon subculture took its cues from the earth-toned counterculture.

“The hippies were wearing mellow colors, so you wanted to wear shocking colors,” he says. “Their music was mushy and mellow and there were all these long guitar solos. It wasn’t hitting the notes that [the punks] wanted to hear, to get excited and have fun.

“That whole look was anti-hippie,” he adds. “We wanted to get away from the flairs, the bell-bottoms.”

To look at him now, you wouldn’t guess this unassuming 52-year-old physical therapist at University of California, San Francisco (“I move the patients around”) is shouldering such glamorous memories, but the photos at G-Spot suggest he rubbed them with the crème de la crème of punk society. Among those who pout for Jocoy’s camera are Darby Crash (the Germs), Kid Congo Powers (the Cramps, Gun Club), Sally Mutant (the Mutants), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Johnny Thunders (New York Dolls, Heartbreakers), Johnny Genocide (KGB, No Alternative), Patricia Morrison (Sisters of Mercy), Penelope Houston and Danny Furious (the Avengers), Bruce Loose (Flipper), and a baby-faced John Waters perched behind a toilet.

It would be nice—for those who don’t know Johnny Thunders from Johnny Genocide from Johnny Carson—if the photos were labeled, but as in the book they’re left here untitled to function as a sort of viewer litmus test: Unless you’re in the know, you won’t know who’s a musician and who’s a fan, which inside knowledge marks you as either disciple or poseur.

Jocoy says the decision to avoid captions had the opposite intention. “It kind of equalizes the viewer, in the same way as it equalizes everyone in the photos,” he insists. “At that time, there was this really genuine feeling that you could be an audience member one week and on the stage the next week, that there was this cross-fertilization of creative people.”

When pressed, Jocoy confesses the real reason for leaving out identifying labels: “What happened was my publisher said, ‘Do you want to put captions in it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, is it work?’” He laughs. “Pure laziness on my part, actually.”

It’s a good thing Jocoy isn’t practiced at gallery bullshitting, because the disarming honesty of the photographs—shadowed, awkwardly cropped, sometimes blurry—is revealed in his own personality as he strolls past the images, cataloging his reminiscences: “He died from AIDS. She passed away. She committed suicide. She’s a porn star. There’s a video of her with John Holmes and stuff.” He moves on down the wall. “He’s a film producer now. This guy was in a band in New York called the Fast that I don’t know too much about. That girl on the left is now a henna artist. She was in the band, Noh Mercy.” He shakes his head. “They were brilliant, really brilliant.”

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