Punk Pioneers: When Punk Was Fun: By Jenny Lens, 211 pgs. By Todd Taylor

Aug 31, 2008

Jenny Lens was front and center in the Hollywood punk scene from its inception from around ‘76-’77 until the middle of 1980. It’s undeniable that she not only caught the burgeoning and creative scene playing live—heavy on The Germs, The Screamers, The Bags, X, and the Slash Magazine crowd—but also in their day-to-day lives, providing many candid shots that couldn’t have been taken in posed settings or snapped by an interloper. Jenny also caught the first wave of punk that washed through L.A.—from the Ramones’ first tour visiting Rodney Bingenheimer, to Blondie, to Iggy Pop, to The Clash. Jenny’s picture-taking was voracious, that’s for sure, and the pure power of this book comes from these photos that tell stories of their own. The almost thirty years since these shots have been taken have been kind to these bands’ memories while adding to their already considerable mystique and mythology. (Plus, I never knew that the Kamen Rider “statue” that Joey Ramone was standing next to, with his fist raised high, was a soda machine.)

The book’s physicality is also impressive: the printing’s vibrant (doing justice to the pictures), it’s on heavy paper, and it looks great.

I’m a big reader. The narrative of the book is a simple arc: the photos are chronological. And I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t own many photo books, so this may be out of place, or if it’s proper to comment on the words in a photo book. Even with a lot of focus and keeping my finger in the page to refer back to it, I would often be confused to what Jenny was talking about. The word-narrative skips around. It took me a bit to figure out, but it’s almost like a tape recorder was put in front of Jenny, she flipped through the book’s galley, talked about the photos, roughly in order, and the words in the book are a direct transcription of her talking.

Sometimes, the word-narrative is photo-to-photo where the only break from one photo to the next is normal a paragraph indent, which can be jarring. Sometimes, she’d tell a story that the photo spurred for several paragraphs before commenting on the next photo, so it was hard to get a pattern down. There were often times I was confused because there are no formalized breaks, no little icons that referred to a specific photo, no slight change in font to indicate a memory or a direct picture reference, no systematic differentiation, and the narrative was hard to decipher. I’m still not sure on the “hows” or “whys” Farrah Fawcett Majors taunted Jenny (but she did give her the nickname of Jenny Lens), Jenny’s pregnancy, or why Jenny chose to shoot heroin instead of going to see X. These seem like interesting stories, but they come across a little jumbled and unresolved.

What isn’t jumbled, though, is as a picture book; Punk Pioneers is fantastic. It’s like the best possible West L.A. first wave punk scrapbook you’re bound to come across; Jenny has a ton of compassion and respect for whom she shot, and in this day and age of limited access and many bands “protecting their image,” it’s a refreshing look at an era that looks like it was a hell of a lot of fun. –Todd (Universe, 300 Park Ave. South, NY, NY10010)

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