Photography: Joe Stevens behind the lens
In the late 60s, New Yorker Joe Stevens made a name for himself as an all-action photographer, covering riots, demonstrations and ant-Vietnam War marches for radical weekly The East Village Other (whose contributors’ list also included Allen Ginsberg, Robert Crumb and Abbie Hoffman).
But Stevens grew restless. “I wanted to do the same thing in London,” says Stevens. “I told my editor I’d probably return in a few weeks. By the time I did 10 years later, the US underground press had vanished.”
In that decade, Stevens was on hand to record the absorption of British counterculture into the mainstream, progressing from International Times, Oz and Friends/Frendz to the music press and in particular New Musical Express, where he was often partnered with such other alums of the underground papers as Charles Shaar Murray (ex-Oz) and Nick Kent (ex-Frendz).
“I morphed into music photography, traveling the world covering the Stones, The Clash, Pistols, Bowie, Bruce, Sting, Gabriel and McCartney with Nick and CSM as well as other writers such as Danny Baker, Chris Salewicz and Paul Morley,” says Stevens.
His favourite photographic subjects were the Sex Pistols (“the most photogenic, and, as people, always up to something fascinating, scary or intriguing. Never boring”).
Stevens came to know the group through his friendship with Malcolm McLaren. “I was based in Fulham, so Malcolm and Vivienne Westwood were neighbours; their store SEX was close by,” says Stevens. “One day Malcolm dropped off some flyers, invites to a party. The wording made it sound like an evening of vibrator usage. Of course I was in attendance. He hadn’t mentioned the Sex Pistols were a rock band. They played their first show. The rest is history. My dreary days of covering ELP and YES were finally over. Soon came The Clash.
“Malcolm wasn’t your Robert Stigwood-type manager. He actually wasn’t into it for the cash, but for the art – the chaos. I regret his passing each day. He was a British national treasure.”
By the time of the Pistols’ January 1978 flame-out in the US, Stevens had returned to the States, and was witness to events on the final American tour. It was to Stevens that Sid Vicious confessed the events surrounding Nancy Spungen’s death in October 1978, and McLaren stayed at Stevens’ Greenwich Village apartment during the chaotic period brought to a close by Vicious’ fatal OD in February 1979.
“Sid didn’t intend to kill Nancy, to end her life,” avers Stevens. “The knife wound he inflicted in her stomach wasn’t deep enough to kill most people. But Nancy had become haemophiliac, due to her heroin addiction. She bled to death.”
Stevens is still very active, not least preparing photographic exhibitions; subjects of recent shoots have included Lady Gaga, Dropkick Murphys, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Dirty Projectors and tUnE-yArDs.
And he has a message for the UK, where he made his bones all those years ago: “All power to the people. Re-elect the President and Happy 60th NME !”