Jay Hale moved to Boston for college in 1995 at “the tail end of the alternative era.” Bands like Buffalo Tom, Juliana Hatfield, Lemonheads, Pixies were making way for punk, hardcore and ska acts like the Dropkick Murphys, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Bruisers, The Business, Rancid, The Ducky Boys.
“I come from a really small town, Georgetown, Massachusetts,” Hale recalls.”My graduating class had 58 people. None of them came to Boston, especially none of my friends. I was alone in a new town looking for something to do.”
So he searched out rock concerts in The Boston Phoenix’s listings and brought his Kodak Star 735 point-and-shoot camera along. He photographed his first gig—The Upper Crust at Local 186—shortly after his college move-in day that September. “I never had any photography training. I didn’t have any real equipment,” Hale says. “So it just took off from there.”
He went on to photograph Joe Strummer, the Bosstones, Peter Wolf, Dropkick Murphys, Darkbuster, Rancid, The Amazing Royal Crowns, Death, The Hives, The Bruisers, The Misfits. Highlights are on view in the exhibit “Get Off the Ramp! 22 Years of Photography at The Middle East” at the Cambridge nightclub through Jan. 31.
Hale—who is now 40 and living in Littleton—studied public administration and journalism at Suffolk University. He worked on the college newspaper, The Suffolk Journal, becoming editor in his junior year. He proceeded to turn it into (in the words of a former editor) “a glorified punk zine.” The paper won The Rolling Stone magazine College Journalism Award for Feature Writing for Hale’s interview of Bosstones sax player Tim “Johnny Vegas” Burton about the band’s fourth annual “Hometown Throwdown” at the Middle East. He went on to found the music magazines “RUDE: International” and “Fat City.”
Hale took his old Kodak with him to photograph the Ramones, Rancid and Screaming Trees at the “Lollapalooza” tour when it arrived in Vermont in summer 1996.
“I had a better camera, but I didn’t know how to properly load the film. So I wore it around my neck to look cool,” Hale says. “There was a Boston Globe photographer next to me. He said, ‘You have that nice Nikon around your neck, why are you shooting with that little point-and-shoot?’”
Hale claimed the Nikon was broken, that film wouldn’t load right. The Globe guy took a look and showed him how to load film into the thing. “I was able to shoot the Ramones halfway decently with my good camera,” Hale says, opening up better technical possibilities as he moved forward.
Then Hale photographed Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray on August 2, 1997. “It was in the middle of the summer. The band that opened for Sugar Ray was Smash Mouth. They were right on the cusp of breaking big,” Hale recalls. “The whole front row is all young girls. They were all grabbing and tugging at him. I’d never seen that. Most of the shows I go to were big guys with tattoos. The girls would end up on stage, kiss him and hug him. … Sugar Ray ended up being one of the big bands of the summer. For that one week in time, they were at a real small club in Boston right before they broke big.”
In Boston, though, things were about to change. Hale says, “The scene in ’97, ’98 with local bands and national punk rock bands, it was a very strong scene. Then there were a couple incidents around town, so all-ages [shows] became less frequent.”
“From what I heard there was a hardcore show,” Hale says, “someone got up on stage, the guy was a 300-pound guy, and did a black flip off the stage and landed on a girl and broke her neck. … I think that was the incident that made them reassess all-ages shows. I think that lasted for five years.”
Hale says, “When the all-ages shows became less frequent the Boston scene started to dry up. … There wasn’t a new crop of bands coming up because they didn’t have a good place to play.” And so ended an era.