“I just ran up and gave him a hug and got fake blood all over him. I was like, ‘Fuck you dude!’”
Nathaniel Shannon—a man not shy about getting his hands dirty (or bloody) in the name of good pictures—is recounting a little photographer-on-photographer conflict at a typically messy GWAR show and the realities of documenting concerts.
“Part of that is having the thick skin of (what) you have to do to get the best work sometimes. I’m not gonna say that I enjoy any of that. I don’t want to be aggressive. I’m 41. I want everything around me to be calm.”
After 20 years as a photographer, Shannon has no shortage of war stories. But one place in particular has been pivotal in Shannon’s career (just as he’s been central to visually documenting its history): NYC’s Saint Vitus Bar. Who better, then, to put together Saint Vitus Bar: The First 10 Years: An Oral and Visual History?
Chronologically documenting the bar’s shows up to 2021 (before its temporary COVID-enforced shutdown), photos, flyers and posters are accompanied by essays and interviews with a rogue’s gallery from the bar’s history (including Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, Descendents’ Bill Stevenson, and Mike IX Williams of Eyehategod).
Initially sold on a limited run through Kickstarter, a launch party is being finalised at Saint Vitus Bar, where extra copies will be available. A full print run is in the pipeline, with more details to follow.
The story begins in 2011 when business partners George Souleidis and Arty Shepherd opened Saint Vitus in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York. Initially just a metal-themed bar, the co-owners soon changed their approach, when, according to Shannon, they realized the difficulties of sustaining a bar. They started putting shows together, small-scale at first. Attracting Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi for a book signing was a major lift, the bar’s first “milestone,” as Shannon recounts, and a significant step in publicizing the bar.
“Very quickly in the first five years it became the IT place for people to play,” says Shannon, with a who’s-who of metal acts like Carcass, Neurosis, Trivium and Obituary taking the stage.
But this isn’t the full picture. Shannon points to the eclectic tastes of the managers. “I think part of the success of the bar is that every genre of music, with the exception of maybe country, has kind of had the opportunity to participate there.”
Such diversity echoes Shannon’s own formative years spent listening to local radio station 89X in the early 90s, with shoegaze acts like Catherine Wheel, featuring alongside Jane’s Addiction and local Detroit groups. Witnessing the exposure that local bands were getting (on the radio and at local venues) planted the seed that the music world wasn’t only available to rock gods like Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots. And despite Saint Vitus having hosted its share of big names like Johnny Rotten, it maintains its DIY atmosphere. As Shannon describes it, performers are often surprised by how small the venue is.
Capturing the spirit of shows at the bar informed how the book was laid out, with Shannon wanting to “bombard each page with as much information as possible. You walk into a room, and you hear all this loud noise and it’s just chaos, because you’re going to a show, right?”
Another key feature of the venue (and book) is the Saint Vitus logo. When Shannon asked the owners what they thought the successes of the bar were, they highlighted having “friend of the bar” Carolyn Holland paint the bar logo behind the stage. Naturally it’s on the book’s front cover.
The idea of documenting the visual history of the venue began as a series of art exhibitions. “I had found a gallery space not far from the bar. I wanted to maybe just once a month do a photo show or painting show.”
While Covid put an end to that, it did pave the way for putting a book together. For all the woes of the pandemic it gave Shannon a rare opportunity to get hold of musicians to interview. For once he was at home for an extended period of time and all these musicians, usually on tour, were similarly cooped up.
Praise the age of the Zoom call.
With the book containing so many posters, flyers, photos, interviews and stories, a dozen people could all pick out different highlights. For Shannon, a shoot he did with Today is the Day frontman Steve Austin stands out. “Steve just looked fucking terrifying, drenched in sweat. I feel like the portrait captures the Today is the Day Steve Austin so perfectly.”
Another memorable shoot was with noisy cult legends EyeHateGod, including an iconic photo of the band reflected in the venue’s eternally cracked dressing-room mirror. Poignantly, this would be the last band photo featuring original drummer Joey LaCaze (before his untimely passing in 2013). The band went on to use the photo for the back cover of the self-titled 2014 album. Surreal as it was for Shannon to go from discovering the band’s CDs in the ‘90s, to having his work featured on one of their albums, now with the release of the Saint Vitus Bar book their stories (and those of many other bands) have become even more intertwined.
Photos courtesy of Nathaniel Shannon.