THOUGHTS ABOUT SEX, DRUGS, AND ROCK AND ROLL PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE ART OF SAVING YOUR OWN LIFE
It was sometime in the middle of Baby Erection's last song that I stopped focusing on how much the old neighborhood had changed. The lead singer on stage, vomited out the words to "Lon Chaney Blues" through open mouth, as he jumped up and down, his man- bob style hair tousled and matted, made a frame for his screams. The pubescent androgyny of his doughy bare chest, got me thinking of Andy, the first boy that I met, when I moved to this block 17 years earlier. Back then, Good-Bye Blue Monday, The Cafe where Baby Erection now entranced his audience, was a nearly empty Jamaican bakery, and anyone throwing around phrases like "baby erection" was going to be paid a visit by an investigator from ACS- (Agency For Children and Family Services).
It was 1996 and I arrived in Brooklyn as part of an escape from what my mother called "buckling down and being good". Sadly, my path to freedom was prolonged and consumed all of my youth. I had left my hometown in Albany, New York at the age of 16, took a twenty-year detour living down south, still trying to not be bad, until I came to this block on Broadway in Brooklyn, where at 36 years old, I began to feel, that it was ok for me to stop apologizing for being alive.
My childhood in upstate New York was no more latch-key, rough and tumble than the other kids in our Irish Catholic neighborhood, but there seemed to be a veneer of denial about everything in my family, that made me want to drink vodka till I blacked out, let my record player shake the pictures down from mom's living room wall, and take my clothes off in public. I think that I did things because I could not say things and when I did, no one seemed to speak the language.
Questions about life, beyond our neighborhood, after the holy grail of high school graduation, and about jobs that were different from the ones that our parents had, were never asked. I developed in response to the silence; the sum of a series of provocative acts from which, it was hoped, that, one day I could recover. Despite parental threats of moral and legal consequences that, I was told, would limit my future, I became the opposite of good. I went streaking with Johnny bird - later nick named "The Birdman" for the erection that he got during our run through West Albany Field, I drank in cars with older boys until the sun came up, I got arrested, I slept outside in winter, I got a reputation, I wrote poetry, I hitch hiked, I found amphetamines, I went on probation, I started to sing, I quit high school, I joined the carnival, I left town. By the time I got to Brooklyn, I had learned to channel my bad behavior. Though I had found photography, when I was 30, the unresolved internal debate as to my moral legitimacy, obliged me to turn my knack for it into some kind of stable career. I went back to school and had some work from newspapers, but I used my camera mainly to photograph people that I felt a connection to. My photography was too personal to be journalism, yet not removed enough to be art and I could never photograph anyone that I did not love.
The moment that I arrived in the neighborhood I felt that I could finally stop holding my breath. It was as if everything that I had been kept from talking about as a child was all being said right then. Rap music filled the streets, scores of kids shared play space with passing cars, open air drug sales, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, endless clusters of around the clock people, dogs, lots of dogs, and Andy.
Andy was the smallest, larger than life person that I had ever seen. He was that real street kid in a neighborhood that lived all out loud and where the boundaries between public space and private life had dissolved. He was the prince of the neighborhood with a ghetto pedigree passed down from his parents who had spent most of their lives on that block. Andy was a natural born leader, loved and respected in equal measure by both the seasoned dealers on the corner and his friends' youngest baby sisters. It was Andy who directed his boys' Saturday assembly, and Andy who made a home for the dogs in a burned out apartment and Andy who once befriended a way ward Seagull who had wandered into the neighborhood and walked him down Dodworth Street on a leash. Andy hustled to get the odd jobs in the neighborhood and then spent all his money on ice cream for his friends. IF... Kipling had come to Brooklyn; Andy would have been his inspiration. Andy indeed walked among the streets as if he were walking with Kings and dreams were what kept him alive, yet even as a child he knew he would have been foolish the be a slave to them.
I began photographing Andy and it truly changed my life. If my childhood was one of repression, Andy's was an explosion. He was the conduit for all of the energy on the block, an energy created by millions of small and seemingly inconsequential actions in the rest of the world that were having their equal but Opposite reactions right here in the middle of Andy's life.
Andy's defining challenge was his mother's drug use. I grew to love Andy as I photographed how her addiction shaped his life. Eventually Andy's mother went to prison. Andy stopped going to school and started dealing drugs. He got sent to juvenile detention and started drinking beer when he came home. His father died, his brother got shot to death on the block and over time he lost some of his closest friends to gun play in the streets. The same energy that Andy harnessed into a regal stature, as a kid, was now, in his teenaged years treated as a threat. Starting with the days that child welfare sent a worker home if Andy's hair was not combed when he arrived at school and progressing to random stop and frisks in public without explanation.
I became obsessed with making people understand Andy and the social forces at work his life. The visual appearance of his struggle gave me an outlet to express the hypocrisy, and injustice that I felt had shaped my own life. He was the artistic outlet that I needed to justify my own existence. The cruelest irony of all was that I was photographing the systematic suppression of Andy's own enormous creativity. I became addicted to making a record of his life, photographing him was a physical manifestation of the inner pain that I felt for him, for me, for everybody. If I couldn't take photographs, I might have had to make cuts on my arms.
The photographs that I took of Andy provided me an introduction to a world of people that I would not otherwise have met, editors, writers, scholars and academics. Conversations with this broader circle of acquaintances were painful and awkward for me. I was terrified that they would see that I had gotten on the path of goodness only later in my life. I still nurtured my mother's fear that we begin as failures and the only path to redemption is a straight one. I slowly learned that major element of college life is to experience the things that I did in my youth that were supposed to keep me from getting there. The more accomplished that I became as a photographer, the broader the safety net it gave me. Under this protection, badness became worldliness and was revered and sought after. These were the experiences that under different circumstances were to be cherished rather than punished. My old streakier friend Johnny Bird, who still lives in the same neighborhood upstate, remembers how what was a scandal then, is one of the enduring memories of his youth now.
Andy and I had become family, by the time I moved into a house a few blocks away. I no longer had to go to the block to photograph it, the block was in him. After his father died and his brother got shot, he and his other brothers moved a long subway ride away. Still on most days, their homing devices brought them back to the corner of Broadway and Dodworth, the streets that they spent most of their lives on. The person who killed Andy's brother was never arrested, even though Andy's family knows who it is. On the block "snitches get stitches" and even death is not a reason to talk to the cops. Andy, him self was shot in the summer of 2012, He had been drinking and he gets loud when he drinks - fight ensued and a gun came out. Andy is in a wheel chair for now. In 2011 I began to photograph on the block again. There has been a transformation over the past few years and the neighborhood is filling up with musicians and artists. Most of them young like Andy and wild. The same corner that Andy's brother Pepe stumbled over after his fatal shooting is now alive on Saturday nights with patrons of the new Lone Wolf Bar. The kids that huddle in the doorway of The Lone Wolf to smoke Western Spirits have replaced the kids that hustled small time bits of crack there, over the years when the same doorway lead to a series of incarnations of anonymous bodegas that couldn't quite make a go of it in the crime riddled neighborhood.
Good-bye - Blue Monday, the first cafe in the neighborhood where Baby Erection is playing was The Jamaican Bakery. Wild chaos ensemble performance troupe's like Juggernut, who uses a stun gun in his act, frequent these stages. Andy peeks his head in from time to time and once upon seeing Juggernut he ran out the door. He said "I been tazed by the police before - "it ain't no joke"
The sheer volume of baby erection reaching the climax of its performance has the attractive and repellant power of magnetic force. Lon Chaney Blues is ending...
Baby You're So Pretty. I'm Your Biggest Fan. Why Won't You Go Out With Me? Is It Because I'm A Wolf--- Man? The guitar gets manic and louder and in a frenzy of feedback and noise. The singer exhausts himself to be heard, his tone becomes primal his lyrics distill into growls, then... he just screams.
© Copyright 1989 - Brenda Kenneally. All rights reserved.