The other day, I was prompted to write a post after yet another sighting of Jon Spencer. For those who may not recognize the name, Spencer is the driving force behind the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and formerly the lead singer/guitarist of Pussy Galore. Technically speaking, he also sang and played guitar for Boss Hog (alongside his wife and fellow former Pussy Galore member Cristina Martinez), Heavy Trash and, briefly, a band called Shithaus with future Cop Shoot Cop/Firewater mainstay, Tod [A] — but that’s more for my fellow rock geeks out there.
I’ve seen Jon on the streets before, notably at a Christmas display on Union Square several years aback (an exchange the led the famously potty-mouthed singer to wish me a Merry Christmas) and again inside the Astor Place K-Mart. It’s not really a big deal. We both live here.
In any case, after dropping my own kids off at their school, I was walking south on Second Avenue and who should I spot but the man himself, attempting to hail a cab with his teenaged son. My post was ostensibly going to be about how odd it is to see your idols become parents. If you’re familiar with Jon’s work in Pussy Galore and the Blues Explosion, you doubtlessly know him as a tight-trousered, sweary rock hellion. To see that same guy out of character is always striking to me. There he was like everyone else, trying to get through the day, with his son at his side — a seemingly normal kid in a high school varsity jacket, although he’s clearly inherited his folks’ good lookin’ DNA. Knowing better than to bother Jon at this moment (no one wants to be hassled when they’re with their kids), I said nothing and kept walking.
So, yeah, like I said, I was going to post some sort of tenuously insightful entry about how great it is that we’re all in the same boat and blah blah blah, and I wanted to illustrate the point with some images from Jon’s notorious past. Being a long-time, slavish fan of the gloriously rude Pussy Galore, I wanted to capture an image that really summed them up. In searching for same, however, I managed to strike the particular type of oil that really fuels this weblog…. a shot of the band photographed in what is clearly New York City, but not necessarily that immediately obvious. That picture is the one below.
Just as a bit of quick backstory, Pussy Galore originally hailed from Washington D.C., but moved to the grittier pastures of New York City (like Bad Brains around the same era) to make their mark. Alongside similarly inclined acts like Sonic Youth, SWANS, Foetus and my beloved Cop Shoot Cop, they helped carve out New York City’s post-punk, post-No-Wave identity. While ostensibly named after Honor Blackman’s busty Bond girl from “Goldfinger,” make no mistake — Pussy Galore intended to offend you at every turn (select song titles include “Fuck You, Man,” “Adolescent Wet Dream,” “Cunt Tease,” “Pretty Fuck Look,” etc.) Their records (still in print — go get’em) are a giddily profane blitzkrieg of barely contained chaos. In other words, they were brilliant. Here's a quick taste...
Anyway, I’d stumbled across this photo on Tumblr, appended with the legend “Scanned from Away from the Puslebeat fanzine, 1988.” Though quite grainy, it depicts the 1987 line-up of Pussy Galore (from left to right — guitarist Neil Hagerty, guitarist/vocalist Julia Cafritz, vocalist Cristina Martinez...she's on the table, drummer Bob Bert and vocalist/guitarist Jon Spencer — Pussy Galore had no bass player) being characteristically provocative at what looks like a city park’s chess table (note what Julia’s doing with her hand). Here's another look...
I know what you’re thinking: “Alex, this could be taken anywhere in New York City! There’s not enough information to provide an answer.”
Well, maybe so, but from the looks of the photograph and the clothes the band are sporting, it looks to have been taken during the same session that resulted in the back cover photo of the band for the 1987 re-release of Groovy Hate Fuck (Feel Good About Your Body). See that back cover below.
Here’s that photo on its own...
And here’s a further shot from that same session.
Okay, so where does that leave us? From the looks of those photos, it appears that Pussy Galore might have been photographed in the garden on Avenue B at East 6th Street (where Eddie Boros’ Toy Tower used to stand). There used to be a lot more junky metalwork in that particular park. Moreover, they could have also have been photographed a little further down the way on Avenue B at The Gas Station, which had become a mangled garden of scrap metal sculpture circa 1985. In any case, if either is the case, neither spot is particularly far from Tompkins Square Park … the park I suspect my mystery photo was taken.
Given that I’m friends on Facebook with the great Bob Bert (Pussy Galore’s then-drummer, and also a former member of Sonic Youth, Bewitched, Chrome Cranks and Lydia Lunch’s Retro Virus, I thought I’d ask the man to see if he could shed any light. I posted the photo on his timeline and waited. In short order, Mr. Bert wrote back saying the following: “Photo was taken by Monica Dee whose whereabouts I do not know!”
I did a little searching for Monica Dee, but didn’t come up with much, other than she’s taken a huge swathe of great photographs of loads of my favorite bands.
Anyway, I had a little extra time today, so after spending a large portion of my morning doing some work, I decided to take a breather and head to Tompkins Square Park. I printed out the photo for reference and headed east.
Now, granted, I’m sure a lot has changed with the very topography of Tompkins Square Park since 1987, but I figured that some of the specifics would still be there. Given the row of building facades in the back, I figured the picture — if indeed snapped in Tompkins Square — would have found the band seated on the northern edge, believing that to be East 10th Street behind them.
Now, obviously, Tompkins Square Park in 1987 was a WHOLLY different affair than it is here in 2014. Today, it’s a comparatively genteel patch of green in the middle of an increasingly desirable swathe of lucrative real estate, replete with a dog run and a state-of-the-art playground. Back then? Not so much. That all said, there are still some areas of the park that are more hospitable than others.
Suspecting that the chess table and accompanying benches in question might be located in the little courtyard on the north side of the park behind the public restrooms (bookended by basketball courts), I strolled in. Around the edges of that courtyard lurked a gaggle of none-too-subtly dope-smoking high school hip-hoppers, who eyed me with thinly veiled derision (although, to be fair, with my greying hair and in my blazer, I probably looked more like preoccupied high school math teacher in search of truants than any sort of serious threat to their leisure time). I left them alone and tried to stake out the scene, looking for the knobby tree to the right of Jon’s head. Here’s that shot again.
I’d been hoping that it would present itself to me, but I couldn’t find that tree. Here’s a pan shot of the area in question. Click on it to enlarge.
From the looks of it, a tree or two has been taken down, but I didn’t seem to find the exact location. But I feel I’m really close.
What do you think?