For some reason, this shoot left an indelible impression on my memory. The results were quite alright, but it was the sheer anarchy, the essential absurdity of it all, that stuck in my mind. It was at the same time typical of the sort of jobs I did for the free daily I worked at for the better part of a decade, and also a welcome change, a sort of auto-satire of the whole business of fifteen-minute shoots with visiting rock stars in hotel rooms, which generally dominated my professional life at the time.
"A Flaming Roman Candle Up Your Ass"
(or, my shoot with Green Day)

I MEET MATT, the writer, in the lobby of the Sutton Place, a downtown hotel whose reputation for luxury exceeds the truth; a gaudy gracelessness typical to modern hotels. As we wait, he tells me that he won't need much time, and that he doesn't like the record the band is plugging. This is just, he indicates, a job; Green Day are beneath him. I'm always amazed at the lines in the sand rock writers draw, trying to preserve some provisional image of coolness. It's a vaguely humiliating thought - I was a rock journalist for almost ten years, and just as preoccupied with the maintenance of these ephemeral rituals of cool.

As we wait, a woman I know - an actress - enters the lobby and recognizes me. She comes over to say hello, and I assume my game face; I can't stand this person, a vain, neurotic mess who pursued my best friend for the whole of a movie shoot trying to fuck her way up the status ladder of the set. She asks how Paul is, of course, and asks me what I'm doing here. The question is phrased proprietarily, as if she owns the hotel.

"I'm here to do a shoot with Green Day," I tell her. "You know, the punk band?"

"Really?" she says, feigning interest. "My son just loves them!"

Her son is four. The condescension in her voice would probably register on a seismograph. She hurries to the elevators.

Finally, the record company rep, Roger, comes down in the elevator and crooks his finger, beckoning us to follow him. I don't like Roger. He's typical of the dominant breed of publicists who seem disinclined to assist the press in any but the minimum effort, letting you know that their allegiance - their true place - is with the "artist". They seem to know that you will file your story without mention of the dismissive behaviour, the cramped interview schedules, the stern warnings to avoid certain subjects, the disingenuous pep talks about overhyped and excessively financed acts performing below projected earnings. While capable of sarcasm, they seem blissfully unaware of the sea of irony they inhabit.

We're ushered into the hotel suite - a generic three room layout filled with reproduction antiques and the usual huge television. The band is in the other room, gibbering at some departing journalist. Matt wants me to shoot first - I would prefer not to do, but he seems insistent. Oh well, I can get out of here early, I guess. The band file in, suddenly subdued, and take their place on a couch. They'd prefer the interview first. Matt pulls up a Louis XV armchair facing them, puts his recorder on the ground between them, and slumps down to start firing off some desultory questions.

Suddenly I feel immense sympathy for the band. City after city, hack after hack, the same questions, made different only by the degree to which the writer is glibly enthusiastic or nonchalantly indifferent. They try to make jokes, and to pull coherent answers out of questions like:

Want to read more about the exciting life of a commercial photographer?

- I refuse to shoot rock concerts anymore. Find out why.

- Did you ever have a crush on Ally Sheedy? Read about the day I took her picture.

- Sometimes no amount of money is enough. This shoot was a nightmare.

- A week in my life as I shoot movie stars at the film festival.

"This album isn't too much of a departure from the other ones. I mean, did you try to do anything different, or was there a conscious decision to, like, make it the same, or what?"

I lurk on the edges of the room, trying to figure out how to shoot these guys. They're goofs, fairly typical Californian punk musicians, with a strange mix of adolescent unpretentiousness, a reflexive intolerance for authority and a political viewpoint that would be called politically correct if they had an ounce of self-righteousness, which they don't. They seem aware that they're only tolerated by the corporations that fund their records and book their tours so long as they make money. This gives a vaguely desperate edge to their insistence on having as much fun as possible with the absurdity of being booked into - and kicked out of - snooty hotels and being treated like boy Dauphins, while being able to buy their own houses.

As the interview proceeds, a kind of tension builds up with the band, and the lead singer, Billie Joe, in particular. The bassist and drummer answer most of the questions, alternately trying to be serious or cracking scatologically wise, when suddenly Billie Joe will interject something almost coherent, addressing the band's faintly uncomfortable success, in tones either passionate or viciously cynical.

Finally, answering a question about the tour, he breaks in on his bandmates' flippant descriptions of the overblown, Spinal Tap-style stage show they'd love to inflict on their audience (if that audience had a suitable sense of irony) and starts to elaborate on the scene. He pulls himself out of the corner of the couch and stands next to Matt.

I pull my camera out of the bag.

"We'll have this fifty-foot catwalk, right? Going right out into the audience, and while the other guys are sitting on the stage playing cello and accordion, there'll be this spotlight on me, and I'll be playing an acoustic guitar and ... I'll be wearing angel wings!"

He pulls another Louis XV chair up and stands on it. I start clicking away with a wide angle lens, trying to catch as much as I can: Billie Joe on the chair, his arms arched out in front of him, the band on the couch behind him, either looking up or bent over laughing, and Matt slumped in his chair directly below Billie Joe, the tape recorder a tiny black brick on the ground.

"...And I'll have this harness on, and as I start playing, I'm lifted up in the air, up over the audience..."

"And you're naked!" the drummer snorts between laughs. "With a flaming Roman candle sticking out of your ass!"

This cracks everyone up, and Billie Joe returns to the couch. I continue snapping, trying to get a shot of the three of them. The bassist starts mugging at me, crunching an empty plastic water bottle in his jaws. Finally, the interview runs out of steam, and Matt turns them over to me. I explain that I think I've gotten some pretty good shots of the three of them together, but I'd like to do some individual shots, which I would have run side-by-side, as a triptych. (Results at the bottom of the page.)

As soon as I finish explaining this, I'm about to tell one guy to stand over in the very nicely lit far corner of the room, but Billie Joe is way ahead of me, purposefully gets up from his corner of the sofa and heads right for the spot. He jams himself into the corner with his back to me. I take a couple of shots, then tell him to look over his shoulder at the camera. He looks up with a baleful, demented stare, which I try to focus in on by moving closer with every shot. After a dozen frames, I tell him I've got it and he walks away.

I turn around and the drummer has already positioned himself in the closet, next to the evenly spaced wooden hangers. He's put on a clear plastic shower cap I'd seen sitting on the couch earlier. Obviously he'd dug out the complimentary sewing kit left by the hotel, and had sewn cotton balls into the plastic the night before, sometime before or after the band were almost kicked out by hotel security. (I'm actually impressed by this display of pointless but purposeful needlework.) He's hunched over, his head askew, with a dumbly imploring look. As I shoot, he slowly moves out of the closet like one of George Romero's living dead, and starts reaching for the lens. Just as he almost grabs the lens hood, I tell him I've got it. He pulls off the shower cap and bolts out of the closet.

I close the closet and place one of the Louis XV chairs in front of the panelled doors. I tell the bassist to get in the chair.

"But it's such a lame fuckin' chair."

Well do whatever you want with it, I say, feeling like a harried grade school teacher. He picks it up and starts brandishing it at the camera, peering around the bottom of the seat. I get a few frames of that, and tell him to do something else. He throws the chair to the floor. Only now do I notice that all hell is breaking loose in the room. Billie Joe and the drummer are giggling like mad, tossing around furniture behind my back. The bassist sits on the upturned chair, trying to balance on the edge of the seat with his ass, his legs and arms flailing. Billie Joe pushes past me as I shoot.

"Excuse me," he mumbles as he trots past the lens.

The bassist is still trying to balance, and slips off as I get my last frame. He puts the chair upright, smirks, then kicks it across the room. Without saying goodbye, the band rush past me and out of the room as Roger comes in to collect them.

Standing in the midst of the wreckage, Matt and I notice that the monster television has been turned upside down.

The band were kicked out of the hotel that night.

the band; the triptych
 

© Copyright 1998 Rick McGinnis; written as a post
in the online forum, The Well.

 
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