The Go-Go’s performing “We Got the Beat” at CBGB in 1980.
I love when Belinda from the Go-Go’s says, “Come on, don’t be too cool!” to the crowd in one of your videos. How did the audience react to their shows?
EMILY: When I saw them at Danceteria, I cheered them on. They were SO young and bouncy in their nutty DIY outfits. They projected this light, upbeat, smiley-face persona, but I knew how totally hard it had to have been for them to get there: All girls, playing all the instruments and writing their own songs. I bet they had some really hard knocks along the way.
PAT: The Go-Go’s were a West Coast band, and they showed up [in New York] in 1980, which was pretty late. People enjoyed them for the kind of fluffy pop they played, but they could rock too, and they were an all-girl outfit, so we liked that. They were more New Wave-y and not as introspective as some other bands from that period. It’s all good—New Yorkers weren’t dogmatic about what fit into the “punk scene.” If you were real, that was enough. With the Brits, it seemed like a purity test, like “Are you punk enough?” We gave each other all the space in the world to be yourself, and that especially extended to women.
What was it like for women in the scene at the time?
PAT: Women were total equals—I think far more so than in most other music scenes. We had had it with the earth mother/handmaiden stereotypes of hippie culture. We actually didn’t really think about it. We just were who we were. It probably helped that Patti Smith was there from the beginning, as was Debbie Harry. It was socially acceptable to wear makeup or not; it was up to you. You could wear a thrift store cocktail dress one day, and combat boots and black jeans and a T-shirt the next. It was all pretty fluid.
EMILY: Pat and I get asked a lot about being woman in the scene at the time—about dragging this heavy equipment around and doing “men’s work.” From the first shoot, Pat and I were the first to arrive to set up and the last to leave after we packed everything up. We were not hanging, we were working. Once we gained the respect of the tech people and staff, I don’t think they noticed we were girls. We were reliable, tenacious, and knowledgeable technologically. We gave unknown bands exposure on Nightclubbing, broke artistic barriers, and showed video in cinema venues like the Anthology Film Archives. It didn’t matter that we were girls.
Bush Tetras performing “Too Many Creeps” in 1980.
Did you have any idea what would become of the footage years later? Why did you hold on to the tapes for all these years?
EMILY: When you work so hard on something for ridiculously long hours, pour your own money into it, and beg, borrow, and steal equipment and editing time to create it, you know it’s worth keeping. If I had a dime for every person who said, “Oh, you and Pat will make a lot of money from your videos!” I’d be a millionaire. Restoring the Nightclubbing archive was something we could never afford, but the positive reaction to the tiny amount of footage we did restore and showed over the years at museums confirmed that we had a historical record of that time that was worth holding on to.
The videotapes took up entire closets and walls of shelves in our two small apartments, and I was beginning to fear I would die and my kids would throw the tapes in a dumpster, like I did with my parents’ unwanted stuff. Thankfully, the Fales Library came along, and that didn’t happen!
Did people ever question why you’d want to archive the punk scene?
PAT: Constantly. Boyfriends, family members, buddies, and a lot of other people thought I was crazy for doing this without getting paid. But I knew from the very start how ephemeral and important the scene was. I had faith. I think it helps to be part of the scene you’re documenting. As a result, I was practically invisible as a filmmaker.
Punk was a real DIY culture. Everyone contributed something, whether they made zines, played in bands, or were photographers or writers. It was a really small scene, so it was easy. I would always fall in love a little when I was shooting a band. I wanted to feel that closeness that band members feel, and I think that comes through. Can you throw away something you love?
EMILY: Pat saw the importance of preserving the scene, especially the music, from the very beginning. I had plenty of friends and family who thought I was nuts, but I was having too much fun to notice. They never turned down an opportunity to be on the guest list! The majority of the screenings we did over the years were because we were invited by a curator or festival. They have been wonderful opportunities to build our fan base, meet young people who love this music, and catch up with old friends who are spread out all over the world. We love doing screenings. Our Q&A sessions are often longer than the videos, and we are continually amazed by the breadth of knowledge that kids have about this music that they never saw in person.
Have many of the people you shot have seen your footage? What have the reactions been like?
PAT: A lot of them have seen it, and I don’t really think anyone dislikes it. Richard Hell is very self-critical, so he thought he could have been better the nights we shot him, but I was happy that we captured him at all. Lightning in a bottle. But usually folks say, “Look at me; I was so young! Was I really that cute?” Lesson to the young: You are way cuter than you think!
EMILY: The bands love seeing our videos. They’re happy to have been preserved. Mostly, people are thrilled about how good the sound quality is and about Pat’s intuitive, amazing camerawork.
CBGB closed in 2006. Have you been back there since?
EMILY: Yeah. I miss the front and interior of CBGB, which is now a store no one I know could ever afford.
I visited it while I was in New York a couple years ago and cried while standing in the changing room, which used to be a bathroom.
EMILY: What kills me is that the back of CBGB is now a restaurant-filled promenade. As staff members, we had access to the garbage-strewn, rat-filled alley behind the club. It was the ultimate VIP experience to prop the door open and smoke a joint or breathe some fresh air with the staff at an insanely packed Ramones show.
PAT: I haven’t been inside since it became a store. I used to say you could blindfold me and have me walk through CBGB and I’d know every creaky floorboard. It’s better to leave it that way in my memory. ♦