Milwaukee’s Blank Generation: an Interview with Stanley Ryan Jones


photo of photographer courtesy of Stanley Ryan Jones

Stanley Ryan Jones

 Words by Erin Wolf

While talking about Milwaukee’s long-gone club the Starship, I asked Stanley Ryan Jones how he could recognize the club from the hundreds of shots he’d taken at other venues as a photographer frequenting the Milwaukee club scene where punk and New Wave reigned in 1979-1981. “Oh, the dirty kitchen,” he said. “It was a back room. The dressing room was an old kitchen with sheet metal and vents and grease from a hundred burgers. They never bothered to clean it.”

The greasy walls slide behind the stark black and white subjects in the prints with the singed and charred edges; singed and charred in an apartment fire Jones’ body of work suffered through sometime between then and now. Although the negatives were destroyed, the prints remained, melted together in a block, which Jones peeled apart, the black and white subjects saved to serve as a reminder of Milwaukee’s lively music scene in which Sting, David Byrne, Lydia Lunch, The Ramones and Iggy Pop were regular callers to venues such as the Oriental Theater, The Starship and The Palms as often as local bands such as The Haskels, The Shivvers and Tense Experts.

Jones’ photos are making their history known by becoming part the here and now: the Milwaukee Art Museum will be featuring Jones’ works in a special collection at the Herzfeld Study Center and 91.7 FM, WMSE is featuring Jones’ photos in a special collection grouped as a wall calendar, allowing the Milwaukee to take a good look at a document of the city’s music history through portraits of musicians and scenesters, alike. Jones recently spoke to Fan-belt about his subjects and the scene in preparation for the WMSE calendar release this evening at Transfer Pizzeria and Cafe, where giant prints will be displayed, music from the Shivvers and Iggy Pop will be spun and one local photographer will get much-deserved praise for a scene well-documented. 

photo of Lydia Lunch by Stanley Ryan Jones

photo of Lydia Lunch by Stanley Ryan Jones

When you were growing up was it all about music for you, or photography?

I think we all have powerful musical experiences. Mine was a transistor radio, under the covers at night, listening to Little Rock, Arkansas. I was getting all this, what my father would call, ‘jungle music’. But I had kind of a tin ear; I wasn’t like a music person. As a kid, I hunted a lot, so going from a gun to a camera was a real logical step for a guy with good vision and so I gravitated towards that. There is a fan element in this, though — kind of an autograph hound thing going on there as well, but it was photography, mostly. I just happened to photograph a music scene; the photographs aren’t about music, because they’re silent, you know what I mean? You can play a soundtrack with them, but it’s like more about photography. 

photo of Dee Dee Ramone by Stanley Ryan Jones

photo of Dee Dee Ramone by Stanley Ryan Jones

There are a good handful of live [performance] shots, but they are just so tricky to get. The lights are always changing, you’ve got that stupid mic stand, which is this vertical line, and then you’ve got a diagonal guitar neck and the face hidden by the microphone, and it’s just like trying to get a picture of a sunset, you know? It’s just been done so many times that you almost have to be touring with a band to get that one, good live shot. 

So, you were more into the composition of the photos?

It was just easier for me to ask somebody if I could take their picture and set them up. It was more about portrait photography than stage photography, though I did that as well. I was a rock photographer for a while, and that meant photographing concerts and using different lenses. It’s like photographing sports. You just have to take so many pictures just to get that one. Too much movement, too much going on. It’s a live show. You should be enjoying the live show. Your ears shut down and you’re really not hearing; you’re looking. You’re aware of what’s going on, so I’d leave my camera at home a lot of times just to go to a show for the sake of going to a show, and there were a lot of good shows that I should have probably had a camera with, but you know, whatever.

Were people willing to pose for you?

Yeah, it was usually that kind of thing, and they knew that I was going to be unflattering at times. 

What was one of the first punk shows in Milwaukee that you went to where you had your camera with you?

I don’t think I had my camera at the time, but I think my first, real punk act I saw was the Lubricants, and I found them very offensive at first. I was just like completely put off by the whole thing, but after a second and third exposure, it made sense, and they were fun — they’re just guys in a band, doing it this way. 

What was so offensive about them?

They were just so bad, and raw and punk-y and you know… it’s just like you wanted to beat them up. It was like, what the hell? I wasn’t the only person to feel that way. That was the first punk show, but I wasn’t so much punk as I was pop. I liked the whole more radio-friendly bands: the Yipes!, The Haskels, and nationally, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, The Police, Blondie — all these bands that went on to have real, commercial appeal. Where’s the heart? Looking back, I think a lot of people thought it was all hard and angry and raw and not so much. Not in the beginning. It was a lot of pop-y sounding bands. ‘Power pop’ was a term. ‘New Wave’ was a handle they were using, but that didn’t even quite encompass what was going on. I was leaning more towards the Cheap Trick end of the spectrum. The punk thing made sense to me finally when I saw Iggy Pop, live, and I understood where it was all coming from.

photo of Iggy Pop by Stanley Ryan Jones

photo of Iggy Pop by Stanley Ryan Jones

You took two very different shots of Iggy Pop.

You see him on the Lust for Life album cover. Same smile. It’s the eyes — he’s just got these big, saucer eyes. I’d been following him around all afternoon, waiting to take a picture or set this up, and it was at the end of the night, he’d come off stage, and I was like, ‘Look, I’ve got to get your picture — I haven’t done it yet,’, and he was reluctant, but picked the spot, set it up, took a couple shots…

If you look at his lapel [in the photograph], he’s got a little safety pin, there, on the inside of his lapel. So it’s like, ‘What’s that? Your secret punk pin?’ And that’s sort of what cracked him up. I was making fun of his safety pin. But, he’s a real nice guy, you know? From across the lake. Same accent. Intelligent, friendly. Onstage, a monster. Maybe that going-onstage-coming-offstage, kinda thing was still there. A dangerous fellow. Especially, onstage.

photo of Iggy Pop by Stanley Ryan Jones

photo of Iggy Pop by Stanley Ryan Jones

You caught him at just the right moment.

Yeah. I think we were both peaking. 

Have any particular run-ins with your subjects?

Most of the run-ins were with security. I was leaving Summerfest one night, and there was a guy getting arrested, and I took a picture; the security sort of pinning him against this car hood. And then when the flash went off, they sort of came at me and did a sort of pin on me, which left like five fingerprint-bruises on my throat, but you know, it was just kind of rough and tumble. Not because it was punk rock. Just because you were hanging out at that time of night in bars and at venues and it was just like…’yeah, you kids. You don’t want to be hanging out at bar time because that’s when fights happen’. It’s bar fights. It’s not like punk rock or rock n roll or anything like that, it’s more like ‘glug, glug, punch, punch’ sorts of things going on. And in every era. Even the hippies — beating each other up over the last Heineken.

As far as Milwaukee music history goes, what importance does your body of work have?

People at the time would look at this stuff kind of with a raised eyebrow, but after thirty years, I think most everyone sort of understands what’s going on. At the time, it was kind of avant garde, now it’s kind of rear garde. If you’re in junior high, this could be your grandparents, you know what I mean? So, time has tempered it, the fire has tempered it, and they’ve become historical documents just because that’s what happens to photographs.

Now, for me as a photographer, it’s all changed because photography has changed. Somewhere in the early 90’s they stopped doing photography in this particular way, which I never saw coming. It didn’t matter, though. I mean, I don’t take pictures anymore, but it makes them 20th century photographs, so the whole history thing; the fact that it’s Milwaukee? 

All these New York performers came through Milwaukee. I never went to New York. You don’t have to go to this other place for fun when you live in a major, metropolitan area and the next U2 is playing at the Cactus Club, kind of a thing. If you’re in tune with what’s going on and you suffer through all these bad acts, bad shows, bad nights, you’re going to get some of the real stuff — the current stuff, the live version. This isn’t the live version. This is nostalgic and kind of pathetic because it is nostalgic. And historical because these people aren’t young and pretty anymore. They’re grandmas and grandpas. So I think the importance is to me, personally, as a a photographer and a as a body of work, it just points to how vital the local scene was and most-likely, still  is. 

photo of Jill Kasouris by Stanley Ryan Jones

photo of Jill Kasouris by Stanley Ryan Jones

Milwaukee had a kick-ass beat scene, the whole hippie scene was well-represented. Most of this was on the East Side and Riverwest, but it’s a big city. Industrial, rave, basement — this is a whole room in the underground that the mass media missed. This whole thing happened in the past ten or twelve years in certain houses and cities and people photograph it and I assume that when I was taking these pictures that it was going on in Kansas City and Des Moines, and all of these other Midwestern towns, and I think it was, but I think there were other photographers that ran around like I did, Whether they were photographers, or music fans, or musicians that also had cameras…but there’s more of this stuff out there, so I think that Milwaukee had a special scene. 

I think it was more vital than San Francisco — well, L.A. was pretty potent — but that came later. I always compare Milwaukee to San Francisco at the same time, and really, it was a vital scene. It was kind of an art movement, and it gelled. There’s always this loose-knit thing that people call a ‘scene’ which either revolves around a band, or a club, or more like drinking clubs, you know what I mean? As long as you’re in that club and there’s a scene. It’s just such a temporary fabrication that when it falls apart, that’s it. And, it’s a young person’s sport. You’re not supposed to do this when you get too old, because you’re wrecking the fun for the kids. They think you’re a cop or somebody picking up their daughter. You should be doing other things and let these kids have their shows.

Milwaukee’s Blank Generation 2010 WMSE wall calendar will be released tonight at Transfer Pizzeria & Cafe (101 W. Mitchell Street) at 9 p.m. More information at  Stanley Ryan Jones will be present, signing copies. His own portrait (first photo at the top of the page) was taken by a friend in a  bathroom after a scuffle at an Elvis Costello show. 

photo of Tense Experts by Stanley Ryan Jones

photo of Tense Experts by Stanley Ryan Jones


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2 Responses to “Milwaukee’s Blank Generation: an Interview with Stanley Ryan Jones”

  1. cat dirt Says:

    Again, a very good post. Loving this blog!

  2. Jon Anne Says:

    Love this. Amazing images. Thanks, Stanley. And Erin, of course.

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