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Punk nostalgia?
A photographer checks up on the aging Class of ’77

It’s sad to watch senescent hippies still pining for their flower power. In a way, of course, it’s to be expected. But punk — young, loud, and snotty — was supposed to be the antidote to all that mush. So it’s disconcerting to notice a rose-tinted revisionism settling in as the Class of ’77 starts getting on in years. And that’s why Cambridge photographer John Nikolai is unveiling "Nevermind Nostalgia: The Last Photo Exhibition on Punk Rock (Part One)," collecting his recent photographs of first-wave punks who’ve ambled into middle age. It hangs at ZuZu through July 20; meanwhile, a slightly raunchier companion show at Zeitgeist Gallery opens July 6.

"This whole nostalgia for punk rock, I think, is really stupid," Nikolai says over drinks at ZuZu. "The exhibit was in reaction to that sort of stuff. I wanted to photograph these people as they are now." Nikolai — who hopes to collect these images in a book he’s been working on since 1996 — brings a humane but unsparing eye to his dynamic black-and-white photographs, which include both on-stage shots and portraits. It’s striking to see the different paths taken by these artists over the past three decades. Iggy Pop, leaping like a salmon headed out to spawn, is as lean and lascivious as ever. And the Damned’s buffoonish bassist, Captain Sensible, is still a ham. (He dragged Nikolai to the public toilet where George Michael was caught in flagrante delicto so he could pose, arse-out, with Wank Me Off Before You Go-Go scrawled on a toilet seat cover.)

There are some surprises. A former guitarist for Johnny Thunders’s Heartbreakers, Walter Lure now makes beaucoup bucks in the world of high finance; looking at him smirking in shirtsleeves in front of the Wall Street bull, you’d never guess that he still bashes out punk rock with the Waldos. There’s an empathetic portrait of Greg Van Cook, guitarist for Jayne County and the Electric Chairs, who’d fallen so far into drug-addled obscurity that the New York Press reported he was dead. "The Electric Chairs were really bold artists, culturally very important," Nikolai says. "Some of these people don’t get a lot of credit. That was part of my motive."

With Robert Quine, Joe Strummer, and Joey and Dee Dee Ramone all now gone (and, depending who you believe, Johnny Ramone perhaps soon to be), many of the portraits take on added poignancy. "Most of what I’ve been covering lately is memorial concerts," says Nikolai, who started shooting for John Holmstrom’s seminal (and semi-resuscitated) magazine Punk after Joey Ramone died three years ago. It’s actually moving to see Joey and Dee Dee smiling at Dee Dee’s 1996 birthday bash, burying the hatchet after years of acrimony. Or even, in a way, to see Jayne County and the Dictators’ Handsome Dick Manitoba cheek-to-cheek on stage (in a photo called — what else? — Dick and Jayne): they’re speaking for the first time since County smashed Manitoba with a mike stand (almost killing him) in response to his homophobic heckling several decades ago. "Some shots I’ve taken, I’m just glad they exist," Nikolai says. "That one’s historically important."

So yes, the young punks aren’t so young anymore. But many have settled into middle age quite nicely, thanks. Take Terry Chimes, who was the drummer for the Clash at the beginning and the end of their existence and is now . . . a chiropractor. Nikolai posed him in front of the statue of Atlas ("the king of back pain") at Rockefeller Center. Later, he had a chance to talk to Chimes backstage when the Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "He was saying, ‘There’s a revolution going on!’ And I was like, ‘Cool! This guy sounds like a member of the Clash!’ But he was talking about a revolution in health care. He’s as passionate about being a chiropractor as Joe Strummer was about everything the Clash sang about."

"Never Mind Nostalgia (Part One)" runs through July 20 with a reception this Saturday, July 3, at ZuZu, 474 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square; call (617) 864-3278. "Never Mind Nostalgia (Part Two)" opens this Tuesday, July 6, at Zeitgeist Gallery, 1353 Cambridge Street in Cambridge, with an opening reception on July 8; call (617) 876-6060.

Issue Date: July 2 - 8, 2004
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