December 04, 2017
After years taking printmaking and etching at the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto and what is now the Emily Carr School of Art + Design in Vancouver, Bev Davies found herself at a D.O.A. show in Burnaby, curious to see what all the fuss was about after their show at the UBC campus was cancelled. At the time, she didn’t feel like she had much to photograph other than her son or her friends, but that changed on March 24, 1979, when she got to the show and thought to herself, “Hot damn, now I have something to photograph.”
“My original thought was, “What can I do? This is amazing. What talent do I have that I can contribute?” That’s photography,” Davies says over the phone from her home in Delta, British Columbia, on a rainy day in October. “I had a kid, I was a bit older than everyone, so I couldn’t, on a social level, contribute or become part of that whole scene. But I definitely could take photographs.”
And how. Davies became a staple of the Vancouver punk scene quickly and, besides locals, has shot artists like Joe Strummer, Sting, Henry Rollins, Motörhead, Gang of Four, Billy Idol, and countless others. She would shoot shows, go home, develop the film, make prints, and give the photos away to people at the show the next day. She’s still shooting, too—when we talk, she’s just gotten back from a trip to Europe, taking in the Manchester Psych Fest and Levitation France. When she looks back on her early days shooting shows on the West Coast, she says there was a specific reason she felt taken in by the scene so quickly.
“I’d go to stuff and really, seriously, it was the women who looked after me,” Davies says. “The women would save a seat at a table for me, they’d remind me if I left my coat over at the other table. They were just very attentive. And I think part of that is being around so many alcoholics for boyfriends. They just learned how to pick up after them and make sure they got all their stuff. I felt they were very welcoming, and that happened really quickly. They were, you know, “Come sit with us, what are you doing tonight? How are you doing?” That kinda stuff. The guys, phewf, who knows? Not that there weren’t women on the stage, because of course there was Mary-Jo from the Modernettes, and the Dish Rags. There weren’t lots and lots of women on stage, but they were there.”
Davies eventually took her talents to publications, working as a photographer for The Georgia Straight and The Province, where she was even sent down south to shoot shows in the U.S. If something pretty big came up, like Duran Duran’s first gig in town, she was usually able to score a pass because of her connections to the punk scene, from which bands frequently opened for touring acts. And the shows she was shooting got bigger and bigger until, finally, she realized something about what was happening. She got rejected for an AC/DC show, later finding out that it was only because they didn’t, at that time, allow photographers for the first few dates of a tour. But her reaction to being told she couldn’t shoot bothered her.
“I sat down and thought, ‘What am I so obsessed about? This is not why I started photographing.’ I started photographing because I really enjoyed the shows,” Davies says. “The people enjoyed that there was someone there taking pictures, and I could share them with them and stuff. And I kinda got bent into this fame thing where you have to get bigger and better. So I quit. I just quit. And for about 15 years I guess, I quit. And didn’t take photographs at shows for about 15 years, or if I did, did very few things. I’d lost the foundation of what I was there for. The other direction to go, of course, would’ve been to get a manager and try to get bigger and bigger and see where that goes. That just wasn’t me, so I didn’t do that.”
But, as mentioned previously, Davies returned to shooting shows eventually. And that’s another story in and of itself. During this hiatus, she had read somewhere that Joey Shithead from D.O.A. was having a yard sale, and got a hold of him to see whether she could set up a table and sell her photographs for $5 each. While she was sitting in the backyard with Randy Rampage, a man came up and started quietly, thoughtfully going through all of her photos, and once he was done, turned to Davies and gave her his card, telling her he’d love to interview her.
“I looked at the card and it was Nardwuar,” Davies says. “It was Nardwuar not being Nardwuar—he didn’t have any of the plaid stuff on, he was just a guy. I said okay, so then he would go through a bunch of printed photographs, and get some ideas, and he’d lay a bunch of photographs aside, and then he would arrange to come back in a couple weeks with the questions. He made up the questions based on what photographs he wanted to use.”
During the chats Davies had with Nardwuar, she became quite aware that she was talking to the notoriously wild and in-depth interviewer about what she used to do, the life she used to live. But it was also through those interviews and, of course, a particularly exciting show, that she decided to bring her camera out to gigs again.
“Like, ‘Those were my pictures, and that’s what I used to do,'” Davies says of the interviews. “And I was pretty clear on all of that. Then I met Anton Newcombe from the Brian Jonestown Massacre. I’d seen Dig!, and I went to a show at Richard’s on Richard’s, I think in 2004, and was standing in the audience, and thought, ‘This is what I wanna do again. I wanna take pictures again.’ Nardwuar had brought me out in that kinda sense that I was willing to talk about myself, which no one had even bothered to ask me for 15 years. And Anton brought the music to me. So I started photographing again.”
It’s not like she had stopped going to shows in the meantime, of course. A lot of regular concert-goers sometimes skip out on seeing bands they’ve seen a few times before if it winds up being inconvenient, but Davies doesn’t really buy into the idea that it’s ever an okay time to pass up seeing one of your favourite acts. When she talked to someone who explained that was the exact reason they wouldn’t be going to a show, she was almost shocked.
“That just sounded wrong to me, somehow or another, having never seen that band myself,” Davies says. “And I thought, ‘God, you know, what if I hadn’t have gone to The Ramones the last time they came to Vancouver with Deborah Harry on that Escape From New York tour?’ If I’d have gone, ‘Oh, I’ve seen The Ramones so many times, I’ll see them at The Commodore next time…’ They died! There was no next time. That was the last time I saw them. It feels like it could go on forever, and it doesn’t. Life doesn’t go on forever.”
And on that topic, a life-long dedication to hitting up shows and being involved in the lives of musicians, especially ones you only get to see on tour, means that of course, she misses some people. When I ask who sticks out, she says Lemmy Kilmister, the hard-partying frontman for Motörhead, who died at the end of 2015. “There was a quality that Lemmy had for one reason or another, that honestly made you feel that you were a friend of his,” Davies says. One of her other celebrity connections was Neil Young, who used to hang out at a Toronto restaurant with her and her pals.
“He would go put money in the jukebox to play “California Dreamin'” and talk about wanting to go to California and be a rock star,” Davies says with a laugh. “’Oh, come on, let’s all go to California!’ I didn’t have the money to go. Neil had to tell me I couldn’t go. He’s not good with crying young women. Maybe he’s learned since then, but at that point he was on the verge of tears, too.”
Things have changed a lot in the nearly four decades since Davies started taking her Canon A-1 to shows—at most gigs, you’ve only got three songs to get your shots, and you can’t use flash. Photo pits are a lot more common. Photo passes are almost always necessary. But the basics still exist: you’re in a public place where everyone’s goal is to have a good time, and there are things photographers should always keep in mind when they’re occupying that space. They’re fans too, after all. And she has some excellent advice for people who are looking to get into shooting live music.
“Be kind to the other photographers,” Davies says. “You don’t have to like their work, you don’t have to even see their work, ever. But you’re sharing a space with them, there’s no reason to be an asshole. Be kind to the audience, because you’re standing in front of them for the first three songs. Enjoy it. It’s a special place, as a photographer, that you get to go, between the audience and the band. It’s a privilege to be there.”
So why does she keep shooting shows? Why did she return after 15 years away from snapping bands? Why does she keep her camera on her now when she makes the trek to festivals?
That answer is simple: “Because I can!,” Davies says, laughing.