Review: You Weren’t There, but He Was: Kill a Punk for Rock and Roll, by Marty Perez

According to the foreword of Kill a Punk for Rock and Roll, music photographer Marty Perez is a very likable guy. The fact that providing a bio in the book never occurred to him—also revealed in the foreword—only heightens his charm. In a field inhabited by sycophants, egomaniacs, and high-octane bullshitters, it’s refreshing to encounter an artist who lets the work speak for itself—and exhilarating when that work has something to say. Despite its confrontational title, Kill a Punk for Rock & Roll is chock-full of photographs showing what makes live music so damned fun.

Since the late 1970s, Perez has been snapping photos at music events. His earliest images are simple affairs. Medium to medium-long shots of dad rock staples such as the Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and others, though a few iconoclasts like The Patti Smith Group and David Johansen crept in. Perfectly fine, but mostly action shots suitable for Kenner action figure card backs. Something happened in the early 1980s. Perez turned and shot into the crowd, producing grainy-grey images of trucker-capped, surfer-haired, and cop-stached rockers and headbangers, watching the spectacle onstage or gazing into his lens (once upon a time, a camera at a show was a novelty rather than an irritating distraction). Perez leaves the stage’s frame and preserves the event itself.

Marty Perez, by Marty Perez

As time passed, Perez’s eye grew keener. Switching to mostly black and white photography, his shots retained their “color” through action and long exposures. A good chunk of the book consists of (presumably) media kit promo shots. Fortunately, Perez avoided creating a repetitive collection of immobile musicians blankly staring at the camera. Doubtless, Perez offered direction in most of the shots, and we’re spared the various cliches of flipped birds, V formations, and shaggy melancholy bands on abandoned railroad tracks. Posed on ratty sofas, backed by bars, cityscapes, and club murals, grinning or glowering, standing still, throwing fists, holding cigarettes and beer bottles, or kookily forming a human pyramid, Perez captures whatever charisma the bands have or had. Some shots might inspire nostalgia, while others might give the viewer pause. One beamingly cheerful shot of the Minutemen in 1985 comes with a chill, if one knows singer/guitarist D. Boon would be dead by year’s end.

The meat and muscle of Kill a Punk for Rock & Roll are its live music shots. Perez gets away from his early at-a-distance work and into the action—downstage, upstage, on-stage, and backstage. Moving from arena to club brought a greater degree of intimacy and vigor. Film isn’t Perez’s sole medium. He crafts impressive scenes out of light, shadows, sweat, and flesh. We do get the usual light trails and blurry shots of guitarists whaling and vocalists wailing—cool as shit, don’t get me wrong—but Perez achieves transcendence and other-worldliness with a few. Nashville Pussy’s Corey Parks breathing literal fire over the audience. The Seattle-based Best Kissers in the World’s guitarist seemingly turning into flame himself as he shreds. John Hiatt looking more Goth than Peter Murphy. Henceforth, as well, all rock photographers may consider a moratorium on creating further Ansel Adams studies of the sweaty torsos of Henry Rollins, David Yow, and Iggy Pop. Perez locked that down. Among the best photos are ones of now-departed old hands like Cordell Jackson, Andre Williams, Syl Johnson, and Brewer Philips, highlighting the beautiful fragile lines of their faces while preserving the power of their playing.

As mentioned, Perez excels with audience shots, and the cover is his Sistine Chapel. A fuck-ton of dudes (one lone woman in the back) hold aloft a sweaty grey t-shirt with the book’s title in Cooper Black font. The photo appears to be of ’70s or early ’80s vintage, likely a Black Sabbath concert, going by the t-shirts. The sentiment of “Kill a Punk for Rock & Roll” seems comically ironic now, but implies resentment between punks and classic rock aficionados then; recalling Adrien Brody’s punk character getting his spiky-haired ass beaten by his Bronx buddies in Summer of Sam. The pic suggests a bigger story, which is probably why it works, with both factions coming together in Perez’s opus. Likewise, he captures the Roman Colosseum vibe of 1994’s Lollapalooza at the World Theater, as well as the rich and gritty feeling of Maxwell Street that same year. Conversely, and hilariously, Lounge AX looks like a total drag, from the notoriously humorless doorman checking IDs out front to the patron hanging over his beers in a Skid Row skell pose. I mean, I don’t remember it that way. Well, most nights.

Unlike some art forms, live music is impossible to perfectly preserve. Film it, record it, bootleg every minute of every performance of your favorite band, it will never be the same as being there, surrounded by the crowd and sound. Fortunately, Perez was there—many, many theres, in fact—seeing and capturing impressive silent but telling glimpses of rock’s spectacle.

Kill a Punk for Rock & Roll is available at bookstores and through the HoZac Records website

Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.