It’s a busy morning at Diesel Cafe in Somerville. JJ Gonson stands by the wall, studying a row of black-and-white photographs as harried commuters brush past. Gonson wears her hair long and dyed bright blue, though dark roots are growing in. She moves in to give one of the photos a closer look.
“The reason I love this picture is because the arc of his body is the same as the arc of the people,” she says.
The photo depicts a grimy nightclub stage from a vantage point high above. A man stands on the edge, rearing back as a crowd surges toward him in a blur of faces and fists.
“And this little magical thing happens that you don't notice right away, which is the pair of feet sticking out of the audience,” says Gonson. And sure enough, there in the throng is a pair of legs — presumably attached to a body -- being hoisted through the crowd. Gonson continues, “But that's not what you see first, because that's dark. So you see that body curving and you see those people moshing and the guy that's coming out of the back and he's like, ‘Yeah, I'm having the best time of my life!’ ”
The photo is one of thousands Gonson took during the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when her nights were spent shooting punk, metal and alternative rock bands in clubs around Boston. The exhibition at Diesel, which is on display through the end of the month, is Gonson’s first attempt at collecting the best photos from her archives, some of which have never appeared in public — though plenty have been printed in magazines and books. She calls it “First Edit.” (A second edit of the exhibit will show at Springdale in Framingham during May and June.) The show sums up an era: the moment when underground rock burst into the mainstream, and punk and metal collided to beget the movement that would become known as grunge.
There are photos of some of the most iconic artists of that time: Sonic Youth in a rapture, Perry Farrell from Jane's Addiction looking cool in a cowboy hat and Boston’s own The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, youthful and chaotic. There's even a baby-faced Kurt Cobain, snapped in a van with sunshine pouring in from outside, years before Nirvana blew up, or the singer spiraled downward. Gonson used to put the band up in her apartment in Watertown after their shows. She remembers seeing them play in Jamaica Plain to a crowd of "something like 14 people."
“They were phenomenal. They were the best band I’d ever seen,” she says. “A few times in my life I’ve watched a songwriter and just been like, ‘OK, that’s perfect. It’s perfect, it’s wonderful and every nuance of it is perfect.”
Douglas Cawley — better known as Sluggo — spent a lot of time with Gonson in those beer-stained rock clubs. He played in a Boston band called Hullabaloo, which Gonson managed for a time. He remembers her scaling stacks of speakers to get the best shot, hefting her camera as she dodged moshing punks and spilled beer.
“She just had an inner sense of when to start taking pictures, I mean, I don’t know how she knew when to take ‘em,” Cawley says. “She also got herself right in front. ‘Cause we’re not talking about bands that were playing big arenas where you got security and everything, we're just talking about little grimy clubs, where if you had the guts to go up there in front and risk having beer spilled on you, being bumped into, being knocked about, you could get great pictures. And that's what she did.”
It wasn’t the type of thing you could learn at Boston’s Museum School (now the School of the Museum of Fine Arts), which is where Gonson was enrolled at the time. But one night, while she was waiting in line for a Hüsker Dü concert at the Paradise, she got to talking with another young music fan, who invited her to shoot photos for his fanzine. That zine was called xXx (pronounced “Triple X”), and the guy was named Mike Gitter.
“We were basically reshaping our world in the image that we wanted to see,” Gitter says of that time. “The DIY ethos — that was the spark of radicalism in the ‘80s. That was where kids, really worldwide, could create their own universe and sort of determine their own course, basically with their own sort of initiative, ambition and imagination. We were articulating rage. We were articulating the energy of youth.”
Gitter, who is now vice president of A&R at Century Media Records, went on to write for major magazines. Gonson went along, and was soon shooting for publications like Spin and Rolling Stone. Today, she remains close to music as proprietor of the Somerville rock club Once. (Gonson also owns the catering company Cuisine En Locale.) But it's nothing like those scrappy early days.
“I miss the vans,” Gonson says. “I miss the bands sleeping on my floor, I loved that. And it was fun, it was like — I don't know. There was no internet, you didn't meet people through Facebook. You met them because they got in a van and they came to your town.”
Gonson liked to turn her camera on the bands during downtime, too — in the green rooms, or over breakfast on those lazy mornings after shows. It came from an impulse to preserve the moment, rather than grabbing a shot to sell to a magazine. And those are some of the most compelling photos in the exhibition.
One of Gonson’s favorites is a picture of Elliott Smith, taken backstage before a show in LA with his band Heatmiser. He sits on a sagging couch, head bent toward the acoustic guitar in his hands. The camera’s flash reflects off the wall behind him, illuminating a phantasmagorical, dark green surface. The photo was taken right around the time Smith left the band to pursue a solo career. It feels contemplative, private. But Gonson — who managed Heatmiser for several years, and was romantically involved with Smith for a time — says that’s misleading.
“I think there were other people back there. I think I just composed it without anyone else in the photo,” she explains. “When a band breaks up and falls apart, it really is hard on everybody. And so I think that photo, I think at that time I was actually feeling a little — I could feel it was coming to an end. And so I think it might have been me that was showing that, more than him.”
Someday, Gonson hopes to assemble her photos in a book. No doubt there are many more gems to be discovered — each with its own set of mysteries, and its own stories to tell.
This segment aired on February 21, 2018.