True Vision: One Man’s View of South Florida Punk 1979-1984
Photos by Jim Johnson
Bolstered by heavy media/industry presence, avant-garde art scene, urban trashiness and sheer population (among many other factors), New York City was the obvious epicenter of the early American punk and new wave outbursts, followed closely by Los Angeles and, to a lesser extent, San Fran, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis and on down the line. Markets where the Sex Pistols played in early ’78, such as Atlanta, got a jolt of inspiration. The party scene in smaller college towns such as Athens was renewed annually by a new influx of young people eager to create and participate and play the latest sounds on the college radio station. Before long a self-supportive circuit of scenes and clubs coalesced, nationwide and most certainly regionally, enabling a network for the exciting new rising groups from around the country and world to crisscross the U.S. – and also giving local bands in various places a reasonable roadmap from which to build an appreciative audience in their general vicinity.
And then there was south Florida. Though certainly not as remote as, say, Bangor, Maine, the tip of the country’s geographic dick is still far enough off the convenient trodden path that it was (and often still is) overlooked by bands plotting tours. Hell, Atlanta was (and often still is) overlooked, but at least it’s easier and more sensible to zip from Chapel Hill down to Charlotte and over through Athens and/or Atlanta before heading north to Nashville or west through Birmingham on the way to New Orleans than it is to go from any of those places all the way down to Miami. Sure, maybe you could play Jacksonville or Tallahassee on the way down and Tampa on the way out, if you can even find a club that will book an original band, but if you’ve never steered those highways before you really have no idea just how numbingly hot and long those drives are. Dominated at the time by disco (much like Atlanta has for decades been dominated by rap and hip-hop), Miami was a large enough city but, at least initially, faced a tough task luring new original rock bands to commit to a visit.
So the kids there did what kids did (and still do) in a lot of other places. Instead of just reading about the hot new sound, seeing/hearing evidence of it every now and then on TV/radio and buying whatever records they could find at the local shops, they formed their own bands and ignited their own little musical/social bonfire. I mean, sure, that’s a simplistic, incomplete assessment of the matter, but it’s the general idea. And as with every local scene in every city and town far and wide, the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale punk scene was the best scene ever. If you don’t believe it, just ask anyone who was there – they’ll tell you. And then they’ll tell you some more.
Jim Johnson was there in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale at the burgeoning onset of south Florida’s new music scene in the late 1970s/early ‘80s, and he has the pictures to prove it. Years before Jim took up guitar and bass (relocating with Florida band The Chant to Atlanta in the late ‘80s, subsequently playing with country act The Vidalias in the ‘90s, and for many years now a member of The Skylarks), he was an avid music fan with a camera. Hipped to the scrappy happenings of the local scene by a local zine in the summer of 1979, he soon became a staple at small club shows and parties, snapping away as groups such as The Cichlids, The Eat, Crank, The Bobs, Psycho Daisies, Screaming Sneakers and Charlie Pickett & the Eggs rattled the walls. Befriending bands along the way, he would shoot posed group photos and record covers for several, in addition to his concert shots. It’s a familiar chain of events; look around at any club gig or house party, no matter how known or unknown the bands, and you’re likely to see one or two folks documenting it all with a camera of some sort (not talkin’ cellphones here, which are now held aloft almost constantly by half the crowd) from various angles and positions. May be a band member’s boyfriend or girlfriend doing it, may be a friend or fan, may be a semi-professional photog. These captured moments-in-time might show up in a zine or someone’s website. They might end up stashed away in a shoebox, forgotten. Some might even end up published in a book 40 years after the fact.
Having perilously navigated around the mounds of accumulated clutter piled up in Jim Johnson’s house on one or two occasions, I have no idea how he ever kept track of or found any of the photographs he took of the MIA/FLL punk scene, but I do know that Jim saves everything, and you can rest assured that for every one of the 200-odd photos in Jim’s newly-published book, True Vision: One Man’s View of South Florida Punk 1979-1984, there are ten to 2,000 others that didn’t make it in. If not more.
But what’s included is more than enough. These black & white snapshots could be of any town’s scene, and really, aside from changes in fashion and hairstyles, of any time from the late 1950s forward. There’s not a surfeit of uniqueness on display here, which also means that the depictions herein are immediately familiar. The sight of bands playing little dive bars in their hometowns hasn’t really changed much in the decades since rock ‘n’ roll’s emergence. The fact that all of Jim’s photos are printed in B&W only adds to their anywhere/anytime aspect. There’s nothing flashy or fancy or extraordinary about Johnson’s photography. It’s mostly of the point-and-shoot variety, which may not dazzle but certainly conveys the humble everyday humanity of the proceedings. Young people playin’ in bands, havin’ fun, makin’ some noise and gettin’ a little crazy…but not too much.
Other than that, I don’t know how much appreciation anyone who isn’t a veteran of the early south Florida punk scene – or at least a Floridian with a keen interest in the state’s music history – will have for this book. That’s not a knock against Jim’s photos or the quality of the bands (the ones I’ve heard were really good) – it’s that none of the bands included is well-known in the least, or even marginally known much beyond the Florida scene. A handful found a tiny degree of notoriety later – a generous double-LP collection of the recorded output of The Eat was issued by Alternative Tentacles in 2007, and Bloodshot Records did a Charlie Pickett compilation in 2008. Pickett’s occasionally made music with his famous fan Peter Buck (R.E.M.), and Bob Rupe (of The Bobs) went on to play with The Silos, Cracker and others. The vast majority, though, you’ve never heard of. A few continue to play around south Florida occasionally. Some folks in the book have died over the years. Eventually outgrowing the rather insular Miami/Ft. Lauderdale alternative music scene of the time, most of those pictured in action throughout True Vision went on to careers outside of music and now live relatively normal adult existences, with husbands and wives and kids and mortgages and all that boring stuff. That’s the story of any scene, but more so one largely stuck off on its own. Once you’ve played Tampa, what more is there?
The Atlanta rock scene has actually attracted numerous ex-Floridians into its ranks over the years, though not many from the era captured in True Vision. A very young Walter Czachowski is seen in the book, however, rocking out with The Essentials; Czachowski later formed The Chant, moved to Atlanta, currently plays guitar in Bad Friend and works as a graphic designer (including for Stomp and Stammer). Nowadays, Nashville counts numerous ex-Atlantans and Athenians in its ranks, as the migration of hopes and dreams continues.
Some brief interviews with ex-band members and scenesters, or a bit more text giving contextual history, or even just some lyrics or quotes or anecdotes from the bands would’ve made True Vision a more valuable and fulfilling coffee table souvenir. As it is, aside from a nice foreword by music writer Holly Gleason and a few paragraphs from Jim and Florida friend Jeff Schwier in the back, most of Jim’s photos are simply identified with the band names, particular members pictured, place and date. But anyone that was part of this scene in any way will no doubt have foggy memories brought back into focus by these images. Sure, you can find anything online now, but I hope Jim gets some south Florida indie record stores and bookstores to carry it. And I hope somebody, or some group of buddies, cobbles together something comparable covering Atlanta’s old-old-OLD school punk/new wave scene of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Y’know, before Bangor, Maine beats us to it with their own. – Jeff Clark
True Vision: One Man’s View of South Florida Punk 1979-1984 can be mail-ordered directly from Jim Johnson via the book’s Facebook group page.