Romantic notions often eddy around rock stars who die too young. But then there’s how it feels when they were people you hung around with.
The first images you see when you visit JJ Gonson’s exhibition of her rock and roll photos at Somerville’s Diesel Café are Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who died at age 27 in 1994, and Elliott Smith, who died at age 34 in 2003.
Gonson—the proprietor of the catering firm Cuisine En Locale and the Somerville nightclub Once—began photographing rock shows in 1985. The Cambridge artist had been waiting to get into a Hüsker Dü concert at the Paradise, when she struck up a conversation with a guy named Mike who had just started a punk rock and hardcore fanzine called xXx: Triple X. He needed photographers. She had recently enrolled at Boston’s Museum School to study photography, so she volunteered.
Over the next five years, Gonson tagged along with Mike, photographing bands in Boston, Maine, Rhode Island, New York, and landing her pictures in Thrasher Magazine, Rip, Spin, Creem and Rolling Stone.
And so these two photos at the start of her exhibition. “These,” Gonson says, “are my two friends that are dead.”
Kurt Cobain (not pictured here) sits in the passenger seat of a van, a Melvins sticker above the window, dressed in the grunge uniform of blue jeans and a plaid shirt. “That’s actually a really, really early photo. I took it one of the first times they came to Boston. It was ’88 or ’89. I was in the driver seat of their van. I don’t know why. I think we were in Harvard Square. He was holding up the cross and taking pictures of it superimposed,” Gonson says. “Very young and very not doing drugs yet. Very okay. Very not messed up yet.”
She’d been photographing bands play for a while then. And had hosted some Seattle bands at her Watertown apartment when they were touring. Which led to her getting a call asking her to host a band by the name of Nirvana.
“They played Green St. Station in Jamaica Plain and there were 11 people there,” Gonson remembers. (This may be a recording of the show.) “And I didn’t have a camera because I went with my boyfriend and it was a date.” If she brought her camera, she feared she’d focus on taking photos and neglect her date. “We lived in Watertown. So they stayed with us that night. The next morning I took the picture.”
Looking at the photos of Cobain and Smith, Gonson says, “I really love both of these photos and I think they have a lot of similarities. There’s something private about both photos.”
Gonson says, “I’ve always thought the one of Elliott had a lot of sadness to it. Even though I don’t think he was sad at that moment. He was lonely. They were both lonely.”
The second photo shows Elliott Smith some time around 1994 “back stage in Los Angeles. Maybe The Viper Room.” He sits on a skanky couch in front of a green and black wall decorated with a painting of an eclipse. He seems focused on his guitar to the exclusion of everything else.
“He’s tuning his guitar backstage. I think Heatmiser was probably over at that point,” Gonson says. Heatmiser was the band that Smith was in and Gonson managed before Smith went solo. She and he had been a couple for a time. (She’s said,“He was the love of my life in a lot of ways.”) “I think I wasn’t working for him anymore. So I was sort of visiting.”
“We had worked really hard [on Heatmiser], so it was sort of heartbreaking when it fell apart,” Gonson says. “The odds are against a band staying together. They don’t really have a chance.”
Gonson says, “I was far closer to Elliott than I ever was to Kurt. I feel a lot of sadness about both of them. I feel they were both remarkably gifted. I think they had celiac disease. That’s my theory. They were both in pain a lot. … There were a lot of similarities. … They were both haunted. So bad that they couldn’t live with it. Lots of people have demons. Their demons were pretty bad demons.”
Among the other bands featured in the 26 photos in the exhibition are The Bosstones (“The Bosstones’ second show. Before they were Mighty, Mighty. Before they were even Mighty.”), Jane’s Addiction at T.T. the Bear’s, Motörhead (“This is at the Orpheum. Slayer played on the same bill as Motörhead and their fans got in a big fight outside.”), Megadeth (They’re in a hotel room doing an interview. … I like that one. I like the hair. I think the hair is really funny.”), Henry Rollins of Black Flag (“He always looked to me like he was going to eat the audience. H was real aggressive.”), and members of Lazy Susan posing at Mount Auburn Cemetery (three of them, including Gonson’s sister Claudia Gonson, went on to play in The Magnetic Fields.
“There aren’t a lot of women in the photos. There were mostly men,” Gonson says. “I think that’s still true. There are very few women in music.”
Many of the photos, Gonson says, have “to do with a moment when heavy metal was mixing with punk rock and becoming grunge.”
One of the icons of the era—roughly the late 1980s and early ‘90s—was the mosh pit, which Gonson defines as “hardcore dancing with wild abandon.”
“I think the mosh pit is a place you can do things. You can kind of let your energy out that you can’t do in other places. There’s this feeling when you’re listening to music when you just kind of want to let go,” Gonson says. “It’s still dancing, your body being involved in the music. And I think that’s really important.”
Gonson says, “It was a real commitment to carry your camera into these situations. You only had so much film. You were always at risk of getting hit and having all your equipment broken. There was this thing that the punks would protect me. Because if my camera got broken they wouldn’t get any photos. So they would form a ring around me. … They would put their bodies between me and the mosh pit. So I could get right up close to the stage.”
“This one I’m on top of a speaker,” she says of one shot. “Because I used to climb to get above. … That was my way to not get killed in these mosh pits, but still get right in.”
“There were all these bands that helped create this sound that was more melodic than hardcore punk and less bangy and hairy than metal,” Gonson says. “The metal bands were a lot of screaming guitars and hair. The punk bands were fast, but not very melodic. … Grunge took the melodies of metal, but combined them with the independent culture of hardcore. But then what really matters, ultimately the bands that gleaned from both areas and they made it pop. They made it palatable in a way.” Bands like Jane’s Addiction and Nirvana. “I’m not sure they did it intentionally. Their songs have melodies you can sign along.”