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Why did Bruce Conner threaten me with a chair?

Today I was reading the New Yorker and saw a tiny article on our dead “friend” Bruce Conner, who as far as I can recall had never merited an article before in this snobby East Coast magazine, which we always suspected was highly contemptuous of all things West Coast.

Back in the days when I worked at City Lights Bookstore, Bruce Conner was not famous. He was introduced to me by one of his S.F.A.I. students who I already knew as “Susan” (she had big hair, big dimples and a big smile). I told him that I was publishing the first San Francisco magazine on the nascent Punk Rock movement, and asked him if he would be interested in taking photographs for it. He thought for a second and said, “Punk Rock, eh? I’ve always wanted to be a combat photographerYES!” and I said, “Okay. I could give you a press pass—that way you could get into the only Punk club in town for free; it’s a block away.” The idea of getting in free instantly seemed to be appeal to him, and he must have also realized he would immediately have insider “cred”—as a member of the Search & Destroy staff.

Most people in the “Punk” scene didn’t know who he was, but it didn’t seem to matter—although he was forty-one years old, he was in the front lines athletically ducking and dodging to capture live band-member action (as well as audience members) in mid-thrash. 

That first night he quickly got his down jacket ripped and torn (he must have been the only person in the club ever to wear a down jacket) and it looked kind of “funny” to see white goose feathers flying around, landing hither and yon on shiny black leather coats. He often held his camera in one hand and his flash in the other, and—judge by results—he got some pretty amazing action photos, sometimes with beautiful trails of light. 

Conner’s sense of humor informed how he shot his photographs; he had an eye for the extreme and the absurd. But Conner could get angry very quickly, too; during one visit he picked up a chair and threatened me with it. But I don’t remember why! Oh, well…

Bruce died in 2008. It wasn’t until the huge Bruce Conner retrospective at SF MOMA (70 more pieces than in the NY MOMA show) that I realized just how much work he had done over the years. There was a whole room dedicated to his San Francisco Punk Rock photographs; I joked that if I had not been born, probably not one of those photos would have been taken. The show was so huge that it would probably take a full week to appreciate each and every work of art. Many of his films were playing in their own rooms, and if you weren’t careful you could have easily missed a screening or two. I was walking around with Toni Basil (who was in an early Bruce Conner film); we  turned a corner and suddenly—what timing—there was a much younger Toni Basil totally nude dancing right in front of us on the screen a few feet away, thick-black pubic patch and all. She gasped and said something like, “I didn’t know they’d show THIS!” (SF MOMA had flown her to San Francisco for this opening event.) Oh, well…

Sometimes you only fully appreciate people after they’re dead—maybe, always. When I heard this huge Bruce Conner retrospective was going to happen at SF MOMA (and NY MOMA, and Madrid), I remembered I had these Bruce Conner interview cassette tapes and photographs and quickly cranked out a book of these in record time. The book came back from the press the day of the gala opening night, and I took a handful with me to give out as promotion—what luck. It was only later that I studied the Bruce Conner photographs in my Search & Destroy magazines and realized how revelatory they could be…

I want to give a few readers an opportunity to SEE those amazing punk photos that Bruce Conner took for me. For a short time I’ll offer (3) Bruce Conner issues of Search & Destroy at a special price. Because I haven’t moved for 40 years, I still have vintage issues which were carefully stored—and they look like they were printed yesterday!

I’ll also include a copy of my book Bruce Conner: The Afternoon Interviews (signed by interviewer V. Vale), plus a photo print of Bruce Conner (also signed by photographer V. Vale).

Take a look at The Bruce Conner Punk Art Collection here:

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