Newly Acquired Photos Capture a Slice of D.C.’s Musical History
Photos by Don Hamerman, courtesy of University Libraries
A black-and-white image of a ragged but focused Joe Strummer of the Clash, trudging through fans to take the stage at Washington, D.C.’s now-demolished Ontario Theatre. A defiant Patti Smith with her cowboy-booted foot stepping on the American flag. A mesmerized Willie Nelson, having a moment with one of his beloved joints at a College Park motel.
They’re all part of the new Don Hamerman collection of performing arts photographs, an addition to the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library’s (MSPAL) D.C. punk collection helmed by John Davis ’99. These nearly 200 images, acquired this year from photographer Hamerman, add to the University of Maryland Libraries’ archive of photos, fan zines, concert fliers, recordings and more that tell the story of the most frenetic side of D.C.’s music scene in the 1970s and ’80s.
The music of influential D.C. bands like Government Issue, Minor Threat and Bad Brains was faster, more aggressive and less melodic than the songs that came before them. (Davis himself was the drummer of the post-hardcore band Q and Not U.)
When major punk acts came through Washington on tour, Hamerman often shot portraits and performances for Unicorn Times, a local arts and music newspaper published from 1973 to 1985. As Davis combed through the magazine’s online archives while conducting research, he kept finding himself drawn to Hamerman’s work.
“So many of the subjects of his photographs are these larger-than-life characters, and Don does a really great job of stripping that away and really showing you the person,” Davis said. “He brings a lot of humanity to his subjects.”
This year, after receiving a “cold email” from Davis, Hamerman agreed to donate his photographs with Unicorn Times to MSPAL. Here, Davis takes Maryland Today through a few highlights from the new collection.
Urban Verbs at the National Gallery of Art
If you’re asking, “Who are the Urban Verbs?” you’re not alone. Despite being signed to Warner Bros. Records, “it didn’t work out for them commercially,” Davis said. But it was one of the founding groups of the D.C. punk scene, helping to solidify the now-famous 9:30 Club as an important venue in the city. “They really brought an artistic sensibility to their work,” Davis said. This February 1979 photograph was taken outside the sleek, sharp East Building of the National Gallery of Art. “The soaring element of the building behind them and the modernity of the architecture of that building is a great symbol for that band at that moment when they were right on the edge of getting their chance to make it at a bigger level,” said Davis.
Willie Nelson at the College Park Holiday Inn
Though not a punk artist, country legend Willie Nelson was always a rebel, and the subject of Hamerman’s gaze at the College Park Holiday Inn in 1979, while waiting to start a gig. “He just has one of those faces that’s so extraordinary,” Davis said. “His face is sort of a map of his life when you’re looking at him.” Here, Hamerman captures “this almost romance in his stare,” said Davis. “It’s sort of a deep appreciation” for the burning joint in his hand. “I love the details, the clarity, the light and color, a sense of the shadow that’s employed in the photo.”
The Cramps at Little Tavern in Bethesda, Md.
Lux Interior (left) and Poison Ivy (right) were the husband-and-wife team behind The Cramps, the New York City-based group who coined the term “psychobilly” for its fusion of rockabilly and punk music, putting on “extremely transgressive and often shocking live performances,” said Davis. The two of them had a startling sort of glamour, but here, they’re looking sweaty and rumpled after a gig at Bethesda’s Psyche Delly. The small venue across Cordell Avenue from alternative radio station WHFS’ offices often drew artists like Stevie Nicks, Mick Jagger and Jerry Garcia for a beer or a gig. On Aug. 23, 1979, after performing, The Cramps were craving a late-night burger and wandered over to the iconic green-gabled Little Tavern, where Hamerman snapped the photo. “As somebody who comes from Montgomery County and loves those little details of local history, it’s so incredible to me to imagine that these totally larger-than-life people ever stood in that spot,” said Davis.
Patti Smith at a Washington, D.C., hotel
“How is this not one of the iconic photos of Patti Smith?” asked Davis. Wearing cowboy boots—emblematic of one facet of the American psyche—she places her foot on the American flag. “She’s doing it in this way that’s almost nonchalant, even though it’s extremely defiant and provocative.” Looking tired but resolute in this 1978 shot, Smith gazes directly at the camera, ready to take on anyone who has a problem with her. “She’s so different and unique and powerful, and all of that to me comes through in the photo,” said Davis.
Joe Strummer of The Clash at the Ontario Theatre in Washington, D.C.
The former Ontario Theatre, in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, was a frequent venue for punk, new wave and alternative bands, but it came with a catch: To get to the stage, the act had to walk from the upstairs dressing room and through the lobby. “It’s really no frills, and that’s what I like about this photo,” said Davis. On Feb. 15, 1979, Joe Strummer, front man of The Clash, made his way through a scrum of fans before taking the stage in what would become a fabled show for the D.C. music scene. Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye and other boldface names of the city’s punk world were “galvanized” by the performance to forge ahead in their musical pursuits, said Davis. In Hamerman’s photo, Strummer looks intent but also rough around the edges, an occupational hazard. “When you’re a touring musician, you’re tired all the time, it’s nonstop, you’re staying up late, you’re performing for an hour or two every night—it’s not the healthiest lifestyle,” said Davis. “You can sort of see the toll of that on him in this photo and maybe even this self-consciousness at this scene.”
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