Photographing San Francisco Punk
When the first wave of punk hit the Bay Area, it signalled that the tired reign of the long-haried hippie counterculture was coming to an end; in it’s place was young, angry, shorn kids shouting about nihilism and death to corporate America with an energy you couldn’t get by vibing with crystals. In the world of marginalized scenes, San Francisco provided space for the punks who never made it in the big three of New York, London, and Los Angeles. Ruby Ray, who shot photos for the legendary zine Search and Destroy, documented the disenfranchised punk world at exactly the right moment, capturing the rapid rise and fall of that initial wave; from the birth of the Dils before they ran off to Los Angeles to the death of the Sex Pistols when they crashed into the Bay.
Now, three and a half decades later, her photos are gaining newfound recognition among both the newly rebellious and the depressingly nostalgic. I came to check out her book signing in Oakland at Stranded Records, which was atteneded by Penelope Houston of the Avengers and John Doe of X. Although time has stripped the older punks of some of their energy and anger, their youthful selves live on in records and snapshots. Stranded was crowded by middle-aged white people with sagging tattoos, so to learn more about the woman behind the camera, I sat down with her at a gay bar across the street.
VICE: How did you get started?
Ruby Ray: I was working at Tower Records and I used to see [Valhalla] Vale of Search and Destroy wandering around North Beach and I always wondered who he was. I mean, he’s Japanese-American, very intriguing looking, you know? So, one day he had a stack of magazines under his arm and I thought, There’s that guy! I’m gonna find out who he is. I asked him, and he showed me the first issue of Search and Destroy, and I was like, “Wow this is so cool, but don’t you need more photography?” A week later I did my first photo session with the Dils, and I was just blown away, I just knew that this was my life from here on in. I was already into Patti Smith and the Ramones and Lou Reed, so it was a fertile ground, and it just went from there. I became a part of the Search and Destroy team, and I got to meet everybody. Vale really had his finger on the pulse, he knew how to galvanize people.
How old were you then?
Twenty-five. I started in ‘77, but by ’79, Search and Destroy had stopped publishing. It was like punk was dead two years later, and we were like, “Oh, fuck.” But still, bands were playing and new bands were forming and there was really still a strong scene, although it wasn’t considered the kind of punk it used to be. So Vale and I and some other people started RE/Search Publications.
That’s the one with a William S. Burroughs issue, right? I have that photo saved somewhere, it’s electric. How’d you get Burroughs?
Well, at that time he had come to San Francisco to do some performances where he would read and there would be music, and we were going to do RE/Search issues four and five on him. So we had the interviews that Genesis P-Orridge did with him and Brion Gysin, and we had some unpublished material that Bill had given us, and then Vale asked me if I wanted to do the cover shoot, so of course I did. We brought some guns, actually, and since he loved shooting and shooting practice… I mean, everybody knows that story about his wife, right?
He shot her, didn’t he?
Yeah, well, a lot of the Beats had been in Mexico getting pretty wild, drinking, doing mescaline and mushrooms and probably heroin, you know, and they were really wasted one night and they were playing William Tell, so [Burrough’s] wife put an apple on her head, Bill shot at it, and, well, he did kill her. But he got off, because everybody that was there said it was an accident, a stupid accident, a wretched accident, and I believe he was tormented by it his whole life.