Verb Hotel Exhibits Rare 1980s Photographs of Bands at Boston Venues

'They're like little altars to single rock shows,' says JJ Gonson, who photographed Nirvana, Motorhead, Megadeth, Jane's Addiction, and Black Flag.

jj gonson verb hotel photo exhibition

Clockwise from top left: Black Flag, Jane’s Addition, Motorhead, and Megadeth. / Photos by JJ Gonson

When you surround yourself with musicians day in and day out, as JJ Gonson did in the 1980s when she worked as a photojournalist covering punk and metal bands coming through Boston, there’s a pretty good chance that eventually, some of them might actually become famous.

A new exhibition in the lobby of the Verb Hotel focuses on Gonson’s early encounters with five bands who were well on their way to making it big—Nirvana, Motorhead, Megadeth, Jane’s Addiction, and Black Flag.

The installation features a total of ten sets, two dedicated to each band, each containing one to six images. The photographs have been printed in a square, six-by-six-inch format, inviting the viewer to get up close. Many of them have never been seen before.

“They’re like little altars to single rock shows,” says Gonson.

In one photograph, Henry Rollins—now known as a radio talk show host, then as the vocalist of Black Flag—is seen as a 20-something-year-old with a mane of flowing dark hair. At the time, the band was performing at—of all places—Brandeis University.

“I’ve been in music my entire life, and one of the secrets is to just get a couple of college gigs,” says Gonson, who once managed Heatmiser, Elliott Smith’s first band, and worked briefly as an executive at Virgin Records. “If you could just nail a couple of college gigs, you could finance an entire tour.”

In another photograph featured in the exhibition, Kurt Cobain’s legs are seen sticking out of a drum kit. In the same series, the drummer is seen climbing out of the resulting mess—and it’s not Dave Grohl. It’s Chad Channing.

“Some people don’t realize Nirvana even existed before 1992,” says Gonson. “People want to see pictures of Kurt, and they know the drummer as being Dave Grohl, but they don’t realize that there was a drummer before him.”

Another photograph shows Cobain reaching up to adjust the stage lighting in a low-ceiling venue. It was captured either at ManRay, a Central Square club that closed in 2005, or a fraternity house basement in MIT—Gonson, who spent five years photographing up to three bands a night, seven nights a week, can’t remember exactly.

“I never labeled the negatives properly,” says Gonson, although she says a friend who attended shows with her at both venues could confirm the location.

That’s the other story the exhibition tells—one of Boston’s beloved small venues, including those still standing, like the Orpheum Theatre, and those closed down, like T.T. the Bear’s Place.

Large-scale prints of three photographs by Gonson, including one of Jane’s Addiction that’s featured in the exhibition at the Verb Hotel, used to hang inside T.T. the Bear’s. The Verb purchased two of them, as well as the venue’s stage backdrop, when T.T.’s held a garage-sale-type event over the summer.

Gonson was at the sale herself, purchasing the sound system for her own venue, the ONCE Lounge in Somerville, which she operates in addition to catering company Cuisine en Locale. Gonson, who had rented a U-Haul to transport the sound system, delivered the large backdrop to Fenway. That’s when she met Lauren Recchia, the hotel’s marketing director who helped to organize the exhibition.

In addition to showcasing local venues and then-up-and-coming bands, the installation also offers an ode to a retired medium.

“There’s no such thing as photography anymore. It’s gone. There’s no darkroom moment,” says Gonson, who stopped shooting about a decade ago when her film camera broke and the manufacturer no longer made the parts needed to fix it. “It’s made me painfully aware of impermanence. You don’t have a negative that you can take and shine light through again. That thing in the ether that you made—that digital thing—even if it’s on a disc, you can’t hold it up to the light and see what it is.”

Still, Gonson remains an avid champion of documenting, taking snapshots of her children on her phone and encouraging the bartender at ONCE Lounge, who happens to be a photographer, to leave the bar at least once every night and capture something—anything.

“I’m happy because it’s getting documented, and that’s all I care about—it doesn’t have to be me documenting it,” she says.

Gonson views the pieces featured in the Verb Hotel exhibition as digital images rather than photographs—it’s a completely different art form, she says, made possible by high-resolution scanning technology that’s recently become more affordable.

“The reason you’re seeing these images is because for the first time ever, I’m able to produce them,” she says.

Following the current exhibition, Gonson is open to printing more of her earlier work. Somewhere out there, for example, are photographs of Elliott Smith, with whom she lived in Portland, Oregon, while he was recording his first solo album, performing at the Middle East.

“It’s in a box somewhere, but I’ve never seen it,” she says. “I want to make tons and tons of them, these little sort of homages to moments.”

The exhibition will be on view at the Verb Hotel, 1271 Boylston St., through the end of 2015.