For me it was Sara. She was the cool kid at oceanography camp, which I guess isn't a hard thing to be. She was from Boston and had a serious record collection at age 14. I was 13 and living in a small town in Michigan where people drove tractors to school. Our conversations during those two weeks in Maine in the summer of 1990, and the mix tapes she sent me after we went home, were the foundation of my indie-rock experience. One day, about a year later, she called me and said I had to buy the cassingle of a song called "Smells Like Teen Spirit" immediately. Like all her suggestions, I followed it without question. I went to Wherehouse and bought the tape. It just about ruined me on the first listen--and for a couple hundred listens after that.
This is the kind of story local photographer Jason Lazarus is looking for. His own work has earned him a slot in the MCA's 12 x 12 series and has appeared in group shows in New York, Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, but for around eight months he's been collecting people's photos of the person who turned them on to Nirvana. (My mom's looking through old pictures to see if she can find one of Sara.) It started when Lazarus and a friend were digging through her collection of snapshots and she pulled out a picture of a kid named Josh, a friend of her older stepbrother's. "He had this very 'I'm a tough kid, I could potentially kick your ass,' great look," says Lazarus. His friend explained that he'd been the first person to play Nirvana for her, and that it had started her listening to alt-rock and dressing weird--baby steps on the path that would lead her to a career in art. Lazarus took the photo home. "I put it on my wall, really thinking, like, I don't know why I'm putting this on my wall. Nothing amazing is going to come of it. And I was thinking, maybe I can start asking people about who their culture maven was when they were that age," he says. "And it struck me that I could use Nirvana as the filter through which I accumulate these people."
That filter means Lazarus is mostly dealing with people in a narrow age range, from their late 20s to early 30s--old enough to have cared about the alt-rock explosion, but young enough to have needed a gatekeeper to guide them through their first revelatory experiences of nonmainstream culture. His Nirvana Project focuses on that gatekeeper--the boyfriend, the friend of an older sibling, whoever--as a way of addressing the universal adolescent experience of developing an independent personal identity. Each piece is a blown-up print of the original photo of somebody's "culture maven," accompanied by Lazarus's handwritten version of the tale behind it. "Sometimes," he says, "there's these great stories that don't unfold unless I ask some question. Like, 'It just so happens that the cops, right after we were listening to this, chased us for skating and we ended up hiding in the YMCA bathroom.' You know, I'm like, 'Oh my god.' Because that's perfect."
In the past couple decades, the guide who leads a young person into the underground has become a postmodern suburban archetype. The Internet may end up usurping that role, but it hasn't yet: Lazarus teaches photography to undergrads at Columbia, Robert Morris College, and Saint Xavier University, and one of his better submissions came from a student. Her photo is of a band called Captain Eyeball, two of whose members she dated. "The picture is of them in what feels like a basement, sitting on a couch, with all of these rock 'n' roll posters," says Lazarus. "Two of the guys have sunglasses on and they look kind of Brit. And the third guy looks more like lumpy American, but he's holding this blow-up eyeball. It's so hilarious and wonderful. The more I ask, the more I find these great surprises really close to me."
Lazarus hopes to accumulate 30 or so pieces. "I have about 15," he says. "Half of those I think are really strong. Half of them I could give or take if I get a better one." To that end, he carries around special business cards to hand out to potential contributors. He can't cheat by using his own story--no one person introduced him to Nirvana. "For me," he says, "it was just MTV." He's not even particularly obsessed with the band. The best-of CD he burns for people who give him photos is fairly expert, but he admits, "I'm not the most fluent Nirvana audiophile. I've just always liked them."
In October Lazarus will be showing some work at the D3 Projects gallery in Santa Monica, and the unfinished Nirvana Project will be maybe half of it. In the meantime he's still collecting material. He can be contacted through jasonlazarus.com.
Promoters in the Crosshairs
Recently the Daley administration proposed an ordinance that would require independent event promoters to get licenses, and the definition of "event" was broad: the rules covered everything from boxing matches to circuses. But the couple dozen promoters and music fans who showed up at a City Hall committee meeting last Wednesday to comment on the ordinance saw the new rules as having a specific target--nightclubs.
When word of the ordinance hit the streets, the question I kept hearing was "Why?" Why would the city suddenly decide to stick independent promoters--the hundreds of people, professional and amateur, who bring bands and DJs into clubs, bars, galleries, and stores all over town--with a $2,000 licensing fee every two years? Why would it ask them to submit to background checks and fingerprinting and require them to secure million-dollar liability insurance policies, especially when so many work exclusively with venues the city has already licensed? The ordinance would apply to the hosts of a house party with a couple DJs, if they asked for door money, as well as to somebody who helped a friend's band set up a show at a bar. The only promoters exempt would be the ones directly employed by venues, by nonprofits, or by the city.
When Alderman Gene Schulter, chairman of the Committee on License and Consumer Protection, explained at the meeting that the idea was to prevent another E2 tragedy, it confirmed the promoters' suspicions about the target of the ordinance. But such oppressive regulations seem more likely to cause disasters than prevent them--driving conscientious folks out of the business just gives scofflaws a leg up. The cost of complying with the proposed licensing scheme wouldn't shut down institutions like Jam Productions or Clear Channel, of course, but rather little operations, including those who've done the grunt work that returned Chicago to the cutting edge of the dance-music world. Flosstradamus's Get out of the Hood parties at the Town Hall Pub would never have happened with an ordinance like this in place--and the same goes for Jillian Valentino and Scott Cramer's Outdanced shows at the Funky Buddha, Valentino and Jordan Zawideh's New Indie Mafia series at Sonotheque, and pretty much anything Dark Wave Disco does anywhere.
What none of the witnesses testifying before the committee knew (though the aldermen did) was that the ordinance had already been quashed--Ben Joravsky, who also attended the meeting, talked to a couple city officials who told him about a closed-door session with representatives from the United Center and other big venues. The venues had argued that the new rules would drive shows to the suburbs--and presumably they weren't keen to ask Madonna's people for their fingerprints. But the aldermen didn't seem bothered by the idea of regulating promoters, just by the overbroad language of the current ordinance. Expect to see a new version hit the table in the next few months--I'm sure it'll only target promoters who don't have the pull to get a closed-door meeting at City Hall.
For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jason Lazarus photo by Rob Warner; Josh; Captain Eyeball.