“I’m an East Village girl”

New York Doll:
An interview with Roberta Bayley

By: Sarah L. Myers

Roberta Bayley - signature

Roberta Bayley is one of the original punk rock chicks. One of the first to work the door at CBGBs, one of the first to photograph the Ramones, one of the first to capture backstage moments with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. Her documentation of the New York City punk scene in the 1970s is matched only by the other great rock n’ roll photographer, Bob Gruen. Bayley was there every night. Her black and white photo of the Ramones crouched in an alley became the cover of their debut album. Now it’s one of the most famous images in rock n’ roll history. Her photos of CBGB bathroom graffiti reads with all the sentiment of a punk rock yearbook: “Johnny Thunders is pregnant by Richard Hell”, “The Dictators are great!”

Debbie Harry and Roberta Bayley photo by Bobby Grossman

Bayley still lives on St. Marks, seven floors up, overlooking an avenue packed with noodle shops and street vendors. While most of the storefronts have changed, Trash and Vaudeville remains, as does Café Orlin, where we met for brunch. “The $4.95 breakfast special keeps the East Village alive, literally,” she told me. Our interview touched on everything from the changing neighborhood to her relationship with Richard Hell. She’s still gorgeous and funny, especially when talking about her time with Blondie. Bayley traveled with the band, and her collection of photos was recently released as a book - Blondie: Unseen 1976-1980 (Plexus).

While Bayley mostly takes pictures of her pug, Sidney, she recently worked with Mary Weiss, singer for the Shangri-Las and huge influence on the early punk scene. Her latest project is the book Bande a part - New York Underground 60s, 70s, 80s, to be published in the fall of 2007 by Gingko Press.

You shot the cover of the Ramones debut album. How did that come about?

That picture is probably the most famous picture. That came about - that was a shoot for PUNK magazine, actually. It wasn’t shot specifically to be an album cover. So John (Holmstrom) and Legs (McNeil) set it up with the Ramones. We went over to their loft and shot some pictures inside, and you know, it wasn’t really going that great. We decided to go outside and then we found this playground that was right around the corner from Arturo Vega’s loft, he’s the Ramones art director. And so basically it was two rolls, almost three rolls of film I guess for the whole session. But that’s how the second roll of film, that’s the 12th frame. That’s what you do, you go through, you look at the contact sheet, you can see the different images and then

Ramones album cover - photo by Roberta Bayley

it’s obvious that that one image is like the perfect one where they all kind of equalize their height. Tommy standing up on the brick, Joey’s kind of slumped down so that they don’t look really awkward in their sizes, which in reality they kind of were. And also there’s one sequence where Dee Dee steps in dog shit, and then he’s looking at the bottom of his shoe and then he takes a stick and he scrapes its off and then he chases everybody out of the shot, it’s just this one demented image of Dee Dee waving a stick! Everybody else is running away! So that’s in there, too. Little stories.


Are you planning to release a book with those unseen photographs, similar to what you did with the Blondie book?

I don’t have structure for writing. I worked a lot more closely with Blondie, I traveled with Blondie, so I shot almost an equal amount of black and white and color. Most of what I have of the Ramones is… I did a Ramones calendar with each of the twelve months with my images so we used about fourteen images, so that was a good chance to get the images out there. And recently I started to sell outtakes, like Ryan Adams’ manager, he collects photographs and what he collects is outtakes from album cover sessions, so he bought a couple of my shots. You know, a lot of people when they have collections they try to get a theme of what they collect, you know. They take an area and just narrow it down. So, little by little, the images are coming out, but I don’t know if I have enough for a book. I mean, I’m going to do another book for Powerhouse next year, but I don’t really know exactly what it’s going to be. Again, you have to narrow it down. For the Blondie book, they asked me to give them 100 photographs and 300 words for the introduction. They ended up using 200 photographs and I wrote 6000 words for the introduction, which they cut down to about 4000. So in a way, for Blondie, I kind of shot my wad.


Roberta Bayley with Debbie Harry at CBGB

Are you and Debbie still close?

We’re still friends. She’s just, like, the busiest woman in the universe. She has a solo album coming out next month. They’re on tour right now in Europe. They just played London. They just are - it’s not like she has any down time, where we could hang out. Chris Stein lives right around here, with his wife and his children. So that’s nice. I run into him once in awhile. But I saw them - they played on the Today show, about three weeks ago with Lily Allen. They just did three songs. I heard the behind the scenes on that because apparently, even though Debbie’s a Lily Allen fan, that wasn’t really their idea. The record company just said, ‘Oh, Lily Allen’s going to be up there with you.’And they’re like, what? It’s just kind of a diss in a way, you know. In a way it’s stealing their fire, like, what, Blondie’s not good enough to play by themselves?


What was the Lower East Side like in the 1970s?

My block, especially, there was nothing happening when I first moved here. Then Manic Panic opened, and I thought Manic Panic was earlier, because I moved here in 1975 so Manic Panic didn’t open until 1977. Between that - I think Trash and Vaudeville was, like, the only thing on the block. And then in the 1980s it got really horrible, like a lot of drugs and people on speed and crack started coming in, and it was horrible. Then it just got better.


Are you from New York originally?

No, I grew up in California. North of San Francisco, it’s a little town called San Anselmo, Marin County.


Roberta Bayley - Self Portrait

What made you come to New York?

It was an accident! (Laughs) I was living in London, in 1972, 1973, 1974. You know, I had broken up with my boyfriend, I just wanted to get the hell out of there. And my friend Andrew was in the airline business, and gave me a one-way ticket to New York and I said, ok yeah. And I just got on a plane and came. That was that. I liked it immediately. I liked it more than San Francisco. New Yorkers are really usually very welcoming. They want to show you everything. I mean, this whole idea that all of the New Yorkers are the worst doesn’t really affect you when you’re twenty, you know. It didn’t seem bad to me. It seemed fine.


Did you start working right away when you came here?

Yeah. The first job I got was as a governess, you know, like a live-in nanny. And then my first real job was at a pastry shop that unfortunately closed about a year and a half ago, and they made French pastries. It was just one of those jobs where they always had an ad in the Voice saying, you know, the hours, which I liked were noon to 9pm, so you could sleep late. And then it would say, “great pay.” Well, it pays three dollars an hour. But you got to get all of the pastries at the end of the day, you could fill up your purse. So it was a crazy job. You could fill up on cookies. But then the New York Dolls were playing at the Hippodrome and there was a big fire on 12th street and 2nd avenue and all the phones on the Lower East Side went out, so I went to see the Dolls anyway, so I didn’t call in sick from work, and I didn’t go to work and then they fired me. Oh well.


What was like it like to see the Dolls for the first time?

Oh, no, that wasn’t the first time I saw them. The first time I saw them was when I first came to New York in April of 1974, the Dolls were playing a tour where they were playing a different club every night in New York. So this one person that I called on my list of people to call up with this guy, David Nofsinger. And he said, ‘what do you want to do in New York?’ And I said ‘well, I’ve never seen the Dolls’ because when I lived in London they weren’t playing there then and when I lived in San Francisco, they played in San Francisco, I wasn’t in San Francisco. So he’s like, ‘oh, I used to do the sound for the Dolls on their European tour and they’re playing downstairs of where I live. So we’ll have a party there afterwards at the loft.’ So I went to see them because the club where they were playing, I think this story is in my Blondie book,

the club that they were playing in had been a drag club in the 1960s, and then it turned into a discotechque, you know in that early 1970s period like David Bowie had gone there, and it kind of got famous for that. And so the Dolls decided ‘we’re gonna play in drag for the show.’ Like in tribute to the history of the club. But I didn’t really know that, so you know, they come out and David was wearing a dress, bouffant wig and I thought, ‘oh, that’s their regular look.’


They really do look like dolls!

Yeah! Cause everybody was like, ‘oh, they’re a bunch of faggots, blah blah.’ But I figured it out that it was a one-time thing.


What was the after party like?

Sid Vicious - photo by Roberta Bayley

Um, I remember David went, Arthur (Kane) went. I don’t really remember, but I mean, I had just been in New York for like a week or something. So, but to me they were like stars. I thought it was pretty cool. And the band that opened for them was this band the Miami’s, who had also been Wayne County’s backup band before, and I became really good friends with them. They were a band that never really got successful but they were one of my favorites, and they were really nice. They didn’t have much of a visual, but they were kind of like short, Jewish, you know, guys, who had a good sense of humor and all that stuff.


Are you still taking pictures in addition to the published projects?

A little bit. Once in awhile I’ll do little things. A successful project that I had was I did the record cover for Mary Weiss, who was the original singer for the Shangri-Las. That was really cool because in 1978, 1977 or 1978, the Shangri-Las, a version of them got together and they, you know, they kind of had a demo deal with Sire Records and they recorded some songs with my friend Andy Paley, who’s producing it. And they’d never released anything from it, they really weren’t satisfied. I did pictures for everything, you know, pictures in the studio, pictures with the group. Then I hadn’t seen Mary since then, which is 25 years. And she asked if I could do the pictures for her. And at first the record company tried to get someone else, and you know, the pictures didn’t turn out the way she wanted. So I ended up doing her album cover and her CD cover and her single cover. You know, plus it was cool to see her. It’d been literally forty years between the last time she recorded and this record. And her record’s pretty good. Her voice is still good. It was nice, to have that connection and be able to do it.


Did you take pictures of that last show at CBGBs?

No, it was very weird though because for the last night at CBGBs we were in Tokyo for this show, me and Godlis. So literally, we had satellite through the computer so at 10 o’clock in the morning we’re watching on the television set, listening to Patti Smith live at CBGBs. Very surreal.


Do you still take pictures at CBGBs after you stopped working there?

Nick Lowe - photo by Roberta Bayley

Well, I worked there up until 1978, I think. And then I got the job with Blondie for about a year. So I would go once in awhile but, you know, I was following a lot more of like the British bands and Elvis Costello and different people. The original CBGBs bands weren’t really playing, it was a new group of bands and I wasn’t as interested in them. So I just drifted away from it, and I only took pictures into the early 1980s and then I just kind of retired. So I came out of retirement in 2003, something like that, and then I thought I’d do digital, you know I bought a digital camera. You know what I end up taking most pictures of? Dogs. I mean, people really like pictures of their dogs. I haven’t really figured out how to make a living out of it, but you know, you have to take pictures of what you like and what you love because even if nobody ever buys it, at least you’re taking pictures of stuff you love. Back in the 1970s, there was no possible bottom line that I would be selling those same pictures now. In fact, I make a lot more money now. I mean, I’m not rich, but I can almost support myself, which is what I came to New York for. If I hadn’t, at least I would have had fun anyway. I mean, PUNK magazine was a lot of fun and I took pictures of people in bands I liked and believe me, the only people who paid me were people I didn’t like and I can’t give those pictures away.


Do you still stay in touch with Richard Hell? What is he doing now?

He’s mostly writing. He doesn’t do music, he doesn’t want to do music. He’s sort of cranky, you know. I mean, I have to deal with him all the time because I took his picture so much in the 1970s. I never got paid anything back then to do a photo session. If the image was used on a record, I got paid. Usually. Richard has used my photographs on t-shirts that he sells on his websites, and never paid me. He’s used my pictures in books, never paid me. I was okay with that. Recently, when I got a licensing deal in Japan and I asked him if I could license a couple of pictures of him for Japan, and pay him, he basically said no. With Elvis Costello, I had a deal with his manager, a friend of mine, Jake Riviera. They were very careful about controlling Elvis’s image but they let me take pictures all I wanted as long as I didn’t use them without their permission, which they basically never gave! That was the deal. But now, because of that, and it’s the same thing with Blondie, I have all these pictures that nody else has or has seen, and now I can publish them. And I can make more money from those pictures because I didn’t sell the hell out of them back then. I ended up doing the cover of Elvis’s last CD, “Rock n’ Roll,” which, oddly enough, is a picture of Elvis playing at CBGBs with Richard Hell.





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