Interview by Matthew Hutchison | All Photography by Edward C. Colver
Colver Residence, Los Angeles, Winter 2019
“I’m glad I never drank, all it does is turn people into fools.”
Sitting across from me at a wooden table on his back porch, Edward Colver shares this sentiment while lighting a cigarette (a habit he recently quit). The grey, late afternoon sky darkens. Dusk sets across his back yard of trees and dense bushes. From our view of the yard, forest green and scattered ironworks are all we see. His home, a 1911 Craftsman bungalow, is a rustic Shire, practically with the same visuals in his front yard. The density of both the trees and shrubs is enough to keep out the surrounding car noise and neighborhood conversations. It’s peaceful, hard to find seclusion like this in a neighborhood like Highland Park.
Colver’s focus is on his iPad. Rows of pictures he took at a Dead Kennedys show in 1982 at the Whisky A Go Go fill the screen. He’s looking at photo options to showcase for an exhibit he and artist Winston Smith are headlining in up in San Francisco at the end of February. Since the resurgence of interest in his work, Colver’s photos have seen showings in galleries ranging from niche to renowned in both Los Angeles and New York.
“Check this one out.”
Colver slides the iPad to me and takes a drag.
A black and white photo of a distraught looking Jello Biafra on the ground, crawling away from two events behind him. On the right, five guys are crushed into each other, their combined upper limbs resembling an octopus-like form. On the left, two meatheads grapple with an airborne kid. Depending on how you see it, its either a two-on-one fight or vice versa.
We don’t know. We weren’t there.
Colver was there. As a 2010 LA Weekly profile on him noted: “If you were at a concert during this era and Edward Colver wasn’t there, it’s been said you were at the wrong concert.”
At age 70 and long retired from shooting live photography, Colver’s memory is still strikingly on point, recalling incidents and memories from four decades ago with vivid detail. Hardcore punk arrives in Southern California. Violence at clubs like The Starwood, Hong Kong Cafe, and Cuckoo’s Nest are common and expected when groups like Fear or T.S.O.L play. The police are routinely involved. Those who don’t get it hate it. Punk gangs like L.A.D.S, LMP, Circle One, and Venice Suicidal surface and clash with each other. Disenfranchised kids embrace it. No future after all.
Colver saw all this occur from in front of the barricade, stage right/stage left, or anywhere else in the venue with a vantage point. Because he saw it, we and other generations are able to see it too.
Music photographers often are overlooked in the grand scheme of things. Underground rock ones especially. Edward Colver. Alison Braunstein. Jennifer Finch. Glen E. Friedman. Deb Frazin. Keith Marlowe. All these names are a pivotal part of the documentation of events and figures within the American underground, past and present.
Colver’s photos make you feel as if you’re standing alongside him, watching the mayhem unfold and feeling the atmosphere of his subjects across the Greater Los Angeles area. The infamous Chuck Burke flip shot (aka the Wasted Youth flip shot) at a Stiff Little Fingers show in Pasadena. A sultry glare from Texacala Jones near the Santa Monica Pier. A tense and focused Ian Mackaye being caught by four guys after a fall during a Minor Threat show in Torrance. The tragic icon Rozz Williams fronting Christian Death in 1982. The staggering police presence along Hollywood Blvd. at the premiere of The Decline of Western Civilization in 1981. Jello Biafra in a crucifixion stance in the middle of a raging audience in West Hollywood.
Colver sets the iPad down, takes another drag and comments.
“People think I only shot Black Flag, T.S.O.L, and Dead Kennedys type stuff. The truth is, I paid attention to everyone. No matter what kind of draw they had, they were a part of it. Smaller bands were playing who never cut a record, some of them were fucking amazing.”
When asked to name one, he doesn’t take a second to think of his answer, and includes some insight on a few clubs he took photos in.
“The Mau Maus! They finally put out an album too, took them long enough. The Subhumans from Canada were great, not big on the English band of the same name, though. I got a chance to photograph them at The Starwood when the lineup was half members of Subhumans and D.O.A. The Starwood was my favorite club to shoot at, I got a lot of good photos from there. They used to have punk shows there on Tuesday nights. I was there the night Fear closed that venue out, as well as the Hong Kong Cafe. They tore that place apart, totally fucked it up. I have a picture of Lee Ving [guitar/vocals – Fear] with a little white cross that says R.I.P. Hong Kong.”
His images are visceral, the result of split-second action captured in real-time. Colver is self-taught in photography techniques, but credits his background and practice in the applied arts, something he studied most his life, with how his style developed and made his photos stand out.
“It made me pay attention to composition every time, even when I was getting knocked sideways,” he says. “You have to pay attention. You don’t know what’s going to happen, like someone jumping or something, once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
His subjects’ facial expressions show the intensity of the room with all that was going on in there. He had carte blanche in the venues and with the artists to shoot where he wanted. Every band member was photographed, he was conscious to include each musician and give them face time. Or as he comments: “The band wasn’t only the guitarist and a singer. Also, drummers love it if they’re getting photographed too. It’s weird when only half the band is featured, where are the others? Photographers should think about that.”
A third generation Southern Californian whose family has 100 year-old roots in the San Gabriel Valley, east of the city of Los Angeles, the commuter life was Colver’s destiny at some point. For six years, Colver drove 25- 40 miles each way from his Covina home to shows in Hollywood, Downtown, Riverside, Orange County, and other spots five nights a week to shoot bands. He briefly summarizes his life during that short span.
“I shot the punk scene from late 1978 to 1984, all over the Southland. Cuckoo’s Nest [Costa Mesa], The Ritz [Riverside], Hong Kong Cafe [Chinatown], all those places. It was all done on a Canon AE-1 35 mm with a 50 mm lens and more rolls of Kodak Tri X film than my guess would be. I used to travel to gigs with everything in an old grey canvas gas mask bag, and would unbox film canisters and pop them in the Canon as I drove to the shows. The back of my car was full of those boxes, surprised I didn’t get broken into.”
With heavy commutes like that and a quick turnaround needed, his preparation wasn’t anything grandiose.
“Cheap coffee and gas, that’s all. I don’t know,” he laughs.
During those years, Colver’s family was aware of his outings but didn’t take much interest in his work.
“My photos would have probably freaked them out,” he says. “My father was a conservative guy, a forest ranger for 43 years. He was also the Mayor of Covina while I was out shooting punk shows, which was pretty funny. I took my sister to see Dead Kennedys at the Whisky in 1979, she was scared shitless that she’d be caught up in a riot at any second the way that gig was going.”
Family fact: Ed’s father, Charles, has his name enshrined in the San Gabriel Mountains – Colver Peak, the tallest peak southwest of Mount Baldy
When asked about his work opportunities, Colver is straightforward.
“I never advertised, and punks weren’t going to find me in a telephone book. Hey, remember those? People knew me from the gigs, we’d see each other. I was friends with a lot of them too, drove to Orange County to hang with the Agnews [Rikk & Frank], the guys in Adolescents, Christian Death, and others. Never so much the Hollywood crowd. I always had an unpublished phone number and used funeral sympathy cards for business cards.”
During that period, Colver’s photos were routinely published in alternative and mainstream publications local to Los Angeles. His first photo was published in Bay Area Magazine three months after taking up photography. His work is still featured in publications and retrospective columns catering to underground punk rock worldwide. Colver’s photography book Blight At The End of the Funnel, the retrospective American Hardcore, and the recent Feral House nonfiction book Disco’s Out, Murder’s In are good starting points. Being in demand is a nice feeling, but balance and watching yourself is essential. Colver has words that a lot of creatives can relate with when it comes to this.
“Limit favors, people will abuse the hell out of you with those, or attempt to, especially if you’re a photographer. Get comfortable putting your foot down sooner rather than later, to anyone. My friend Bob Siderman gave me some great advice – tell them no, then they’ll love you.”
Colver lights another cigarette and goes into a story around this scenario.
“I had a friend one time pay me $75 for doing a photoshoot both in color and black and white, only to have him tell me later that he ran a $1,000 ad with my photo. That really pissed me off, that would piss anyone off, and I gave him hell over it. You don’t do that to a friend, fuck you. That photo was one of my favorites too. Cost me time and money in development, the only reward was a bag of ramen afterward.”
Then there are bootleggers, scoundrels among the creative class. These types have hit Colver’s work on bootleg LPs. His sentiment?
“Fuck them, each way twice. They’re not helping anyone except themselves.” An army of people who can relate will agree.
Along with his live photography, Colver’s career includes shooting well over 500 album covers, some of them being iconic shots in the hardcore punk world. Two covers in his repertoire will always stand out: Black Flag’s Damaged and another one which is marking a significant anniversary this year. Group Sex, the eponymous debut from South Bay hardcore pioneers, Circle Jerks, is marking 40 years in 2020. It’s also the first LP cover photo Colver shot back in 1980, at a staged wedding party held at a Marina Del Rey skatepark.
“That job was presented to me when I was bringing the band photos I shot of a gig they played at the Whisky. We were over at Lucky’s [Leher – drums for Circle Jerks] apartment on Laramie, a block east from the venue. They looked at the photos and asked me right there to shoot the cover, and include what I already had on the package.”
The neon-colored crowd shot of a bunch of punks standing in a punch bowl was a two-step process: a Colver on-site shot and a stat print effects overlay by Frontier Records graphic designer, Diane Zincavage. Colver’s vivid memory recalls how that day turned out.
“Mostly, I remember almost getting crushed by a van that was backing into me, and a whole lot of punk kids skating all over hell and getting drunk. The lineup that night was a four-piece: Circle Jerks/Adolescents/The Singers/Unit 3 & Venus. Members of the Circle Jerks were corralling everyone into the center of the pool while I was climbing an 8-foot ladder. I got the perspective from the punch bowl, and I needed to go back to my car to get some more film. So, I went back and am loading this roll of film with my car door open. I’m on the ground focusing on getting the film in the camera, and my door jarred open. I hear somebody shout my way, ‘look out!’ and this drunken idiot named Reno was backing up a van straight into my car door where it could have slammed on my legs! That was so scary. I couldn’t have noticed it. The car was running, big deal, all I knew it wasn’t coming at me. I was wrong.”
Colver looks back on the photo. “Pretty shitty picture. No, I’m kidding [laughs]. I shot it on color film that came out blurred. The one Lisa [Fanchier – Frontier Records owner] chose was slightly blurry itself, but it worked. I used to be embarrassed that it wasn’t in crisp focus. Likely it was a too long exposure. I must have been jiggling on the ladder. In the end, it works. Some people think that the t-shirt Bill Bartell [vocals/guitar – White Flag] is wearing which says ‘Punk Sucks’ was edited out on purpose – it just disappeared in Diane’s high contrast stat print. That renders everything a solid black and white and loses all grey tones. I think it would have been great if that stayed in there. Diane did some real new wavy looking stuff and some cool stuff. She did that Stiv Bators [vocals – Dead Boys] Disconnected album graphic, that’s a nice album cover. When I got the album, I was like, ‘oh cool, I did an album cover!’ I’d flip it over and can’t find my name. It’s on the linear sleeves. My thought was ‘damn, everyone else got credit here but the photographer.'”
With the rise of thrash metal in Los Angeles happening at the end of 1983, Colver switched from shooting live gigs to more studio and location photography, including being a freelance photographer for I.R.S. Records.
“I wasn’t into that music, totally lost me,” is his reason for the change.
He also expanded into the art world, becoming a sculptor, something he regularly did up until 2002. His sculptures drew heavily from the surrealist/dada movements, with a dose of political absurdity added.
Being a photographer wasn’t something that Colver planned. It was an opportunity presented to him, and he had the background, curiosity, and skill set to take it far. Blight At The End Of The Funnel is a comprehensive retrospective of his work behind the lens that proves this – it’s currently fetching four figures in the secondary market, save up. Colver is now assembling photos for a follow-up photography book. When asked about it, he’s mum on details but assures us “it’s going to be a fat book of all-inclusive photos of the punk scene, it’ll be cool.”
Those six years in which Colver photographed were critical in shaping Southern California culture. He was in the right place at the right time, amongst the right people. When asked about his thoughts of everything he witnessed during his involvement, he’s straightforward.
“The punk scene was a whole bunch of outcasts and an amalgamation of drunken morons to geniuses. It wasn’t popular, it was underground and unappreciated back then. Now, it’s a different story, it seems.”
For more info about Edward Colver & his photography work, visit his website.
Welcome to 1984, 2020: Punk In The Western Front opens February 29th at Art Attacks (San Francisco, CA), for more information visit the event page.
Shut The Punk Up! a panel discussion and Q&A with Edward Colver, Jello Biafra, Winston Smith, Rikk Agnew, and special guests will be hosted on March 14th at the Oakland Metro Operahouse. Information and tickets available on the event page.