In The Beginning: Ruby Ray Discusses the Earliest Days of SF Punk

Crime at the Mabuhay Gardens. (Photo: Ruby Ray)

In 1977, Ruby Ray landed her first photo assignment for San Francisco punk zine Search and Destroy by accosting editor V. Vale at Tower Records. As she tells it, she caught him as he was leaving and told him his magazine needed more pictures. Her first assignment? Three recently-transplanted-from-Carlsbad punks in a band called the Dils, whose songs "You're Not Blank" and "Class War" would become punk rock classics, covered by many bands to come.

"I got together with them in the afternoon and we shot some photos somewhere in North Beach where they had just destroyed a bunch of houses -- it was like a bulldozer had just come and knocked these houses down," Ray says. "At the time, [the band] were like, 'Why do we want to stand on these broken-down houses?' They didn't get it."

But it was photos like Ray's showing the young, disheveled musicians standing in front of what, at the time, was plain old city landscape -- stacks of house debris, dirty brick walls -- that would help define the aesthetic of punk rock. You couldn't imagine the Eagles or the Bee Gees posing on piles of blight for a photoshoot, and that's partly why it worked for punk bands.

The Dils live at Mabuhay Gardens
The Dils live at Mabuhay Gardens (Photo: Ruby Ray)

Search And Destroy ceased publication in 1979, but Ray is still connected to those early days of punk rock in San Francisco through the Punk Rock Sewing Circle, an organization that's hosted a multi-event celebration of punk for the past three years called SF Punk Renaissance. This year, Ray joins other punk photogs from the era in Tunnel Vision: The Punk Photography Exhibit, the visual-arts portion of the week-long celebration.

Ray recently took some time from preparing for her show to give us a glimpse of what it was like when punk first came to San Francisco. [Answers have been edited for space and clarity.]

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When the scene started up in San Francisco in the late '70s, how big was it?

In the beginning I would say there weren't more than 30 to 40 people at most, and you'd have to include the bands, as that was most of them. And these were people you knew were going to be at the show. It was probably even less. There were times at shows when 10 people would be punks and the rest were people from the outside wanting to see what was going on. But it kept building up; each week there'd be more.

Who were the first important local groups?

Penelope Houston of the Avengers
Penelope Houston of the Avengers. (Photo: Ruby Ray)

The Avengers, Crime and the Nuns. Crime and the Nuns were basically the first punk bands in the city and they even started in 1976, when there was hardly a scene at the time. Hardly anyone knew of them then.

But even when the scene was happening, it was completely underground. Nobody would write about it -- they would try to ridicule it if they had to just slighty refer to it. We just called each other and put up posters for shows. That's why posters became so important -- it was the one way we had to get the word out.

But it didn't seem to take long for the scene to pick up. There's video of the Dead Kennedys playing to pretty sizeable crowds in 1979.

Flipper
Flipper. (Photo: Ruby Ray)

The Dead Kennedys were the second wave, and when I say second wave, I mean 1978. Before then, we'd see [singer Jello] Biafra hanging out in front of the stage like the rest of us. A lot of those early punks became band members, like Bruce Loose [Calderwood, of Flipper]. Bruce Loose and Biafra were always at the front of the stage, checking out the bands and egging them on.

I've loved punk rock for a long time now and I love hearing stories about its early days. But I have to know -- was it as great as I imagine it to be?

We felt that we were really alive. We were doing something and were having a blast. We were all creative and we made it up as we went along. We were making collages, writing on our clothes. We were getting cheap clothes and turning them into different outfits. We were performing.

And these people were smart. They were literate people and that added a lot to it. The lyrics were meaningful and so were the politics behind them.

Ricky Williams of the Sleepers
Ricky Williams of the Sleepers. (Photo: Ruby Ray)

I feel the scene set a lot of us free. We saw what was going on in the world. And you had disco and the Eagles -- after the hippies, it was a really depressing period.

There were a lot of other venues besides the legendary Mabuhay Gardens, and many of them didn't last long. For example, the Deaf Club: a punk venue that started up in what was meant to be a clubhouse for the local deaf population, and lasted just 18 months. What was it like there?

We're going to show Deaf Punk, the Richard Gaikowski short film about the Deaf Club, at the Tunnel Vision exhibit. I'm in it -- there's a scene where I'm at the bar, writing down my drink order because we didn't know sign language. Some did, but we would just write our drink down. And the [deaf] employees were so happy because they were making money.

Negative Trend at the Mabuhay Gardens
Negative Trend at the Mabuhay Gardens. (Photo: Ruby Ray)

They couldn't hear the music but they could feel it in the floor, and that floor was insane. That was the waviest floor I've ever been on. And when people started jumping up and down, it was really like an earthquake. And the deaf members would dance too and have a blast.

You were at both the last Sex Pistols show in 1978 and the Germs show at the Mabuhay Gardens the following night, where Sid Vicious showed up wasted and was a total jerk. What did he do?

You want to know the story? So the Sex Pistols played the night before and I didn't have my camera because Bill Graham was kind of a dick and he used to say that only "certified photographers" could bring their cameras.

But a bunch of us got backstage and that was sort-of a free for all, with beer being shook up and squirted all over the floor so that people could do a slip-n-slide. But that didn't go over well with Bill Graham.

The next day we figured that everybody would go to the Mab because it was the only punk club at that point. Sid came in and he was pretty out of it. He was trying to cause trouble. He went on stage when the Bags were playing, took a piece of a broken beer bottle and started to cut himself.

The Bags weren't too happy about it, and they tried just to ignore him. Eventually he lost interest and went backstage, where I photographed him laying down. He came around a little later -- he wasn't going to die or anything.

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That was the same night that the Germs played and Darby [Crash, singer of the Germs] took up where Sid left off by cutting himself with I don't know what. It was like they were challenging each other to see who could be the more badass. And I think Darby won out in the end because he never had to lay down. [laughs]