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If you've spent much time at The Middle East in Cambridge, then you might be familiar with Jay Hale — he's been shooting photos of bands at the Central Square nightclub ever since he moved to Boston in 1995, to start college at Suffolk University.
And if you stop by the club this month, then you can see those photos on display in the exhibit "Get Off the Ramp! 22 Years of Photography at The Middle East."
The title of the show harks back to an earlier time: The downstairs room at The Middle East used to be a bowling alley. Off to one side, leading up to the stage, is a ramp left over from the old strikes-and-spares incarnation of the space.
That ramp, Hale discovered, was just the perch to grab the best shots.
"When you're a young kid and you don't know any better, you just kind of go places until people tell you otherwise," Hale said.
"So I would always find myself ending up on the ramp, trying to take photos. And I would get yelled at — 'Hey, get off the ramp!' All the time."
But Hale and his camera did not get off the ramp. And so, decades later, he wound up with an archive full of photos — and an obvious name for his show.
The exhibit features Hale's images of musicians including Joe Strummer, The Dropkick Murphys, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Peter Wolf and Rancid.
Especially after Boston's Kenmore square nightclub The Rat closed in 1996, Hale said, The Middle East became more or less "the place" for the next era of punk and punk-influenced music — whether artists were local, national, or international in their appeal.
Hale was drawn to the scene by the music, the chance to document it and the close-knit community.
"You'd see the same fans all the time. People would recognize me as the guy with the camera," he said. "And now it's like a homecoming when we're all together here at a show!"
The photos are intriguing — a sort of time capsule. Although the shots are technically sound and the composition is strong, they resonate most powerfully as a reminder of what used to be. The photos have a gritty charm — not unlike the iconic club and its denizens.
Hale says his favorite show of all time at The Middle East was the record release party for The Dropkick Murphys' 1998 "Do or Die," their first full-length album. And he snapped his favorite photo from that gig during soundcheck.
"I've seen hundreds of sound checks in my day, and most people just go through the motions," Hale said.
The Dropkicks are not most people. Hale said the band launched into their songs at full tilt, hopping around the stage in a high-energy explosion, playing to not much of anybody but the sound guy.
Hale also has a particular fondness for a photo he took at The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' "Hometown Throwdown" in 2007. The show had a surprise guest: Peter Wolf, lead vocalist of The J. Geils Band — and a hero to the Bosstones' leader, Dicky Barrett.
When Hale snapped the shot of Barrett singing a duet with Wolf, of the J. Geils Band classic "Give It To Me," Hale said he could "feel the emotions [Barrett] was going through, from being on stage with one of his musical idols."
As a photographer, Hale said, that moment was one of his happiest behind the lens.
One photo stands out to Hale as capturing the essence of The Middle East vibe — an image of Lenny Lashley from Darkbuster. Although the name Darkbuster might not ring many bells in 2018, Hale describes the punk band as great but "cursed."
"They should have been humongous," he said.
The photo depicts a moment at the end of a long set and encore. Lashley — in what he thought would be his last show with the group — is joining his fans for one more farewell by leaving the stage and grabbing the overhead pipe (behavior, Hale acknowledges, of which club management does not approve).
"He just starts crawling hand over hand on this pipe through the crowd," Hale said. "And at that point, I think it kind of captures the energy of what the Boston scene was at that time, downstairs at The Middle East."
And, Hale added, this was before the relative ease of digital cameras. Now, if he is so inclined, he can shoot 700 images a night. Back then, he would pack two rolls of 36-exposure film and one roll of 12-exposure film to chronicle an entire evening.
"But this one photo of Darkbuster I actually got right," he said. "And if I'm not mistaken, that was the very last photo on that roll of film."
"I was saving one photo. Back in the days of shooting film, I would always save one," he explained. "Because you never knew when one of these lunatics was going to do something crazy."
That frenetic abandon is part of what kept Hale coming back to the club.
"There's nothing quite like it," he said. "Even if it's the dead of winter, if you have a full crowd in that downstairs room, the room takes on its own atmosphere."
Hale means that literally: it gets hot inside The Middle East.
"That big pipe that runs the length of the club? You look up and it will be beaded with sweat," he said.
"And then there will be a cloud of haze in the club. And the condensation from that pipe will just start dripping. And that's a way you can tell that this show you are at — any genre of music — if that pipe starts sweating, you know you're at a good one."
Jay Hale's "Get Off the Ramp! 22 Years of Photography at The Middle East" runs through Jan. 31.
This segment aired on January 21, 2018.
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