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A recent report on NPR suggested that had the library at Alexandria not burned, humans might have walked on the moon in the 18th century. Score that as a moral victory for the record keepers. OCD-inclined chroniclers, such as those whose important work was eventually turned to carbon drifting on the Mediterranean, creep into all cultures, steadily doing their mostly thankless job and keeping us from slipping into another dark age. But as a side effect, events and milestones we often wish we would—indeed, could—forget are also preserved, by those same unwitting accomplices of humility.
Such is the case with rock photographers, who collect images that will more often than not turn out to be embarrassing. Especially those 18- to 25-year-olds in the front row of every single punk show, seemingly intent on taking just anyone’s picture. Thanks to such folks, if you were in any sort of band at all from 1975 up through today, you can probably find a cringe-inducing photo of yourself on someone’s Web site. But some of those intrusive youngsters seem to have known how to pop a flash bulb at exactly the right instant, capturing impossible-to-describe action that might otherwise have been relegated to “You had to be there, man.” Some have, in true D.I.Y. fashion, even gone on to make a career out of their hobby. One of them is Rikki Ercoli.
Ercoli may not be as commonly associated with musical photojournalism as the impeccably timely Glen E. Friedman (the man behind Fuck You Heroes), but he’s just as gifted with serendipity. In the introduction to his Legends of Punk: Photos From the Vault, Ercoli writes: “In 1978 I didn’t even own a camera. I just knew that something was going to happen…” Lucky guess. Ercoli, who was then in college, showed up in New York just in time to snap photos of Sid Vicious performing only weeks before he would kill Nancy Spungen. Those shots, and the ones Ercoli would take of other punk-scene stars—Siouxsie Sioux, Richard Hell, and Jello Biafra, to name a few—aren’t as iconic, or as stylish, as some of their subjects have become. But his collection is still impressive.
Highlights of Legends of Punk include shots of John Lydon flashing a surprisingly genuine smile and a young Glenn Danzig caught sans attitude, looking tired and futzing with a mike cable. The pics of prenMother’s Milknlooking (the photos are largely unlabeled as to date) Red Hot Chili Peppers Flea and Anthony Kiedis are good for a larf, as well as a reminder of the now-well-known rockers’ punk roots. Which is not to say that Ercoli doesn’t treat the Chili Peppers as stars: These photos, like many in his book, were taken from a point just below the stage, forcing the viewer to look up to the ascendant rockers, in effect placing them on a pedestal. Those shots that don’t find the musicians conveniently onstage are, of course, more intimate—Deborah Harry in backstage shades, Lydia Lunch with a sultry moue. (“‘You want a shot. I’ll give you a shot and it’ll be a rare one!’”) Other keepers include the stage-dive and slam-dance images taken when Ercoli “would squeeze [himself] into a corner” of the stage at Circle Jerks shows.
But the best that Ercoli has to offer are the more unexpected photos, including those of such postpunk luminaries as the Slits. And though the essentially mundane pics depict little more than performance, they lend a certain legitimacy—and interest, for those not in need of seeing more of the Ramones—to Ercoli’s mostly wordless scrapbook. Though those bands were by no means obscure, their images are relatively rare, and their inclusion here, in addition to adding some estrogen to a testosterone-infused work, suggests that Ercoli either had a continuing knack for synchronicity or really good musical taste.
The former seems more likely: Ercoli says he can’t remember exactly when he first started shooting rock shows, noting in a publisher-provided interview, “It could well have been Sid Vicious…in 1978.” In any case, he kept snapping through a period so ripe with envelope-pushing musicians that he would have to have been totally inept to have missed such moments. Strangely, though he pays lip service to his fandom, there is little in Legends (aside from a brief mention of Lance Loud’s “Crocodile Tears” single) that might lead you to think that the photographer had much love for the bands he was shooting. In fact, Ercoli’s notes reveal more longing for ego-satisfying rock-star attention; the stories he tells could be great, if only he’d take himself out of them. The tale accompanying an Andy Warhol spread—“I wore all leather and spiked wristbands. Andy told me, ‘Make an appointment and come see me’”—raises only one question: Who cares?
Of course, this shouldn’t take away from Ercoli’s work, which after all provides a durable record of a time and place that is, as the title suggests, already the stuff of legend. Without the likes of Ercoli, and the legions of wide-eyed, ever-eager junior Ercolis, we would be in danger of forgetting those glory days—and the ones still in the making. For better or for worse, whether embarrassing or exhilarating, such images are the upside of obsession—something the world could use a little more of. Just ask any historian who pines for what was lost at Alexandria. CP