When he was 17, Brooklyn-born Ed Rosenbaum started using a Pentax manual camera he got from his brother-in-law to shoot the biggest rock 'n' roll acts of the late 1970s at various vibrant NYC music venues, including CBGBs, The Palladium, and Madison Square Garden. He saw the likes of David Bowie, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, The Jam, Blue Oyster Cult, and more. Then the photos sat in storage for over 30 years, until the start of 2016, when he showed the pictures to a student at New York University, who in turn told Esopus editor Tod Lippy about them.
Now Rosenbaum, who works a doorman at a Manhattan condominium, has his first exhibit at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, featuring a selection of photographs that appear in Golden Years, a 56-page, clothbound book from Esopus (you can find more info on the book here, and they are available to order here).
Rosenbaum will be at Pioneer Works this Sunday, November 13th, from 5 to 7 p.m., for a closing reception and book-signing event for Golden Years. We talked to him about what the music scene was like back then, why the photos languished in obscurity for so long, and how Brooklyn has changed in the last couple decades.
(Andy Romer Photography)
You grew up in Brooklyn right? Yeah, yeah. Still live in Brooklyn. I grew up in Bensonhurst and I live in Sheepshead Bay now.
So when did you start going to shows? The first concert I ever went to was when I was 13—we went to see Aerosmith at Central Park. And I really didn't go to many concerts in the intervening years, but then when I was about 17 or 18 I really started to go to quite a bit.
When did you get your camera? The camera I got when I was about 17 or 18. My brother-in-law had given it to me. And I really didn't know how to use it that well. I learned on the fly.
Would you bring it to shows just to try it out, or did you know you wanted to pursue photography at that point? We had thoughts about that—it wasn't just me, it was a bunch of friends, we all took pictures. And we had the idea that maybe we could market these pictures at some point. But it didn't really work out back then, it wasn't as easy as we thought it would be.
I don’t know who was the first one to bring a camera to a concert, I don’t think it was me. But somebody did and once somebody developed the pictures the day after the show, we looked at them and were like, "Wow look at that. Next time I’ll come with my camera." And that's how it started.
How many shows were you seeing at this point? We were basically going at least once a week to a different show.
Was it a lot cheaper then? On the cover [of the book], we have all—well not all of them, quite a few—of the ticket stubs from back then, and if you look at the price of a ticket to Bowie at the Garden it was like $8 - $10 back then in 1978.
That's crazy. What were some of the highlights of these shows? No real highlights—I mean when you’re taking pictures, you’re not as focused on the music as you normally would be. You're really trying to look for a good shot or something like that. I didn't always take the camera with me because a lot of the time if you're sitting too far away, you really wouldn't have gotten many good pictures that way.
Were there any shows that you regret not bringing the camera for? Many. (Laughs). Well, I used to go to a lot of the clubs in the city, like CBGBs, and Max’s Kansas City was open back then. And you know, I'd see Johnny Thunder and a lot of these other guys hanging around. In a club, you didn't really bring your camera that often. But there were quite, not one in particular that I regret, there were quite a few that I wish I had a camera with me at the time.
The ones that you did take photos of, which was your favorite? The most memorable nights I had was going to go see The Jam the first time they came to New York at CBGBs. And a bunch of friends said, “We’ll go, we’ll go." And then when the night came around, nobody wanted to go. So I grabbed the camera and I went to Manhattan, took the train that time—I was a little nervous about that, I never went there by myself. I never took the train down there. And of course carrying the camera equipment back in '78 on the train late at night, wasn’t always the smartest thing to do. But that was probably one of the more memorable nights 'cause in the club you can get right up to the front of the stage, and I did take quite a few shots, and the band was incredible that night.
That photo is pretty epic. They were a great, underrated band that never quite made it in America. That is true. And I did see them on their two subsequent trips, I went when they played CBGBs again, but I didn't bring a camera that night. And then the third time they came, on their third album, they played the Palladium which I also didn’t bring a camera that night, but I really enjoyed the show.
How was it seeing Lou Reed? Was he as grumpy as reputation suggests? Not really. I only seen him that one time. To be honest with you, I really don’t remember what tour it was. I did have seats, at the big Capitol Theatre in Jersey, and I did have seats like in the first couple of rows, that’s why I had some good shots that night.
That was a pretty good show. I mean I didn’t really know much about Lou Reed at the time. I only heard "Walk on the Wild Side" and a few other songs that were popular at the time. But it was a pretty enjoyable. And I think Ian Dury was the opening band that night.
That’s pretty cool. But were you tuning out the music a bit when you were photographing these shows? You have to, you can’t fully get into it if you got the camera in your hand and you’re trying to focus, and get the lighting right and get the flash right. But yeah, it definitely did detract from the actual show and the music at that time, but you're still pretty much caught up it even while you're taking pictures.
Did anybody in particular sort of inspire crazier crowds or anything? Not that I can remember. I mean I went to a lot of Springsteen shows.
What were those like back then? I certainly know what they’re like now! It was pretty intense. I think this was '78, around the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour or something like that. That was one of the few concerts I remember that there was no real barrier in front of the stage. And he actually would walk off the stage and walk up a couple of rows into the crowd. But people would mob, they would be right on him, but they would let him continue on, and nobody would touch him, nobody would interfere with him. He would walk sometimes even a couple of rows into the first few rows of the Garden or wherever we would be watching. That was pretty unusual.
Was his fanbase as devotional as they are now? I think so, because I would remember going to multiple shows, like they were playing the Garden five or six nights, I went two or three times, and I would see some of the same people there every night. He was one of the few that that happened. I never actually went to Dead shows, but I know that Grateful Dead fans are like that too and stuff.
What was it like seeing Bowie? Was he otherworldly at all? Did he feel removed? He’s a very cool performer on stage, but it's an incredible show he put on. I mean that was the only time I ever got to see him, but it was a very nice experience. I wish I had taken more photos at the time.
When you saw Queen, was that before they were big? Or had they already taken off? I think that was when they were pretty big at that time. I think that was ‘78 or ‘79. Yeah they were pretty popular. I think that was the time "Bohemian Rhapsody" came out and everybody said, "Oh, that's not going to fly" because of the opera thing and stuff like that. Meanwhile, they were more popular than ever.
Do you have any favorite photos in particular from the book? Yeah, the Elvis Costello one from the Palladium, that was a really, really incredible show that night and I guess I don’t know where the rest of the negatives are, I only have that one print.
(Andy Romer Photography)
Have you ever had any contact with any of these artists? Well, this is the first time these pictures are getting out there. A lot of the times when I took the pictures they were just printed up on a contact sheet, and maybe just pick out one or two to print out cause back then photo development wasn’t that cheap and I didn’t really have access to a darkroom or anybody that could do that for me.
Did you think of this as a full-time hobby? It was a hobby, but not a full-time hobby. I mean I did other things. I was working, I had a friend that was a drummer in a band, I traveled with them. And they did open for a lot of big shows, like Foghat, Stray Cats, and other groups like that, but you know when you’re working and you’re backstage, it really wasn’t appropriate to be running around with a camera taking pictures of people, unless they sanctioned it.
Were the crowds back then generally more hostile or friendly? Were people kinder to each other in the crowds compared to today? I would definitely think the atmosphere was a little more friendly back then. I haven’t been to too many concerts lately, because it’s so difficult to get a decent pic of it, even just to get a ticket sometimes, you go online on American Express, no matter what it is, as soon as you go on, the tickets are sold out. But there was definitely a more amiable atmosphere in the crowd, but I don’t know how they do it now. But back then, people used to have big beach balls and bop them around the crowd during breaks or before the show started. It was a fairly nice atmosphere back then.
Did you have a favorite venue to shoot at? Not one in particular, but any small club or anything like the Palladium was always a better way to shoot. Because if you were at the Garden, unless you had something fairly close, you really couldn’t really take many pictures. Smaller venues are definitely better.
How much time did you spend at CBGBs? I did spend a quite of bit of time there, and my friend was in a band that played there regularly, and we used to hang out there quite a bit.
What was the atmosphere like in the late '70s there? It was pretty grungy back then. We used to have quite a few of the Hell’s Angels hanging out in the club there too. You had to watch yourself, didn’t want to step on the wrong toes there.
There are a lot of classic rock and '70s arena rock acts in the book. Did you enjoy punk at the time, and get into that aesthetic as well? I sort of shot the whole gamut there from all different types of music. And punk rock was one of them, and I saw groups like Television, Talking Heads and stuff like that, but never really took pictures at those concerts. But there was an incident I remember at a Dead Kennedys show in Brooklyn one time. It was getting a little rowdy, people throwing beers at the stage and you know, crowd surfing, and stuff like that. That was one of the few times I witnessed that. I’ve never really been to too many shows that got out of hand like that.
Was there a feeling that the atmosphere of the punk shows were not as welcoming? It was a little more edgy, I would definitely say that. It wasn’t the regular like rock concert-type crowd, like a Rolling Stones crowd or something like that. Those are definitely more mellow.
When and why did you stop taking the photos? Strange thing. I mean, I was traveling with my friend’s band and gradually didn’t go to as many concerts. In the mid-'80s it wasn’t as easy to bring a camera to a concert anymore. They started searching bags and stuff like that. So you really couldn’t bring it in that often. And that’s sort of the reason it trailed off, I really stopped taking pictures cause you didn’t want to go to a concert and then when you show up with a camera, they find it in your bag, and say you can’t go in or you gotta leave it here or something like that. That sort of was the turn-off and where it started to trail off, I sort of put everything into a box or two, and left it in the closet and didn’t really mess with it that much after that.
Had you been trying to get them published or anything before that? I hadn’t really tried, and this whole thing came about where I work. I work at a large condominium as a doorman and one of the residents, he's an older guy and he was into photography, he was talking to me about having thousands of negatives that he never printed out. He just bought a little digital scanner and was scanning them into his computer and you could see what they were. I though that was an interesting idea, so I went and got one myself and I started going through the negatives. I scanned them, I actually had my daughter, she transferred them from the computer to my phone so that I could look at them.
Then one day at work, I saw one of the girls in the building, a student at NYU, and she had a camera and I said, "Oh, you're interested in photography," so I showed her some of the pictures and she was very nice. And a week later at NYU, Tod [Lippy, who runs Esopus] was giving a presentation or speech about looking for unknown artists and photographers. Afterwards she happened to show it to him, and he was interested, and he wondered if it would be okay if he contacted me? I said sure and I gave him my email, and once we started talking about it and he saw the pictures, that’s how the whole thing came about. This all came together about six to eight months ago.
That’s pretty amazing. Yeah, it was a very chance happening that the whole thing came about.
I suppose you haven’t been expecting anything necessarily to come of it? No I wasn’t. I was just looking at the pictures for my own enjoyment, recently. And that’s how it started coming about.
(Andy Romer Photography)
What has it been like working at a Manhattan building all these years? Were you at the same building? It’s been almost 20 years at Union Square. Yeah, there’s been some celebrities and people in the building but I really can’t talk about that.
But you've seen the city change quite a bit over the last — Oh yeah. I remember when we used to go to a concert at the Palladium in the late '70s, and we were not a real tough bunch of guys, but we weren’t pushovers, and we’d be scared walking around the park there at night after a show. Cause of the crowd that would hang around there.
How else has the city changed over this time? It’s changed for the better I would say. It’s much safer than it used to be back then. When you go out at night, you don’t have to think about things like that. There's definitely been some improvement.
Even if the tickets for everything have gotten more expensive. The cost of everything has gone skyrocketing. I’ll tell you right now, I'm not that up on the music scene now. So many different clubs, so many different bands, you look at the back of the Village Voice and there’s hundreds of different bands playing every week. If you look at a Village Voice from the late '70s, you saw maybe like ten clubs in there. It's a big difference.
How does it feel to have your first book and gallery exhibit? It’s pretty exciting. I went to the gallery the first day the show opened. And it was pretty nice to have people appreciate the pictures, they’ll come up to me and talk about it. It was a very nice experience.
Do you have any plans for any other photos or anything? I do have some of them. I'm still trying to locate some of the negatives, I have some of the photos and stuff that I’ve made scans of. I got to start scanning them into the computer and trying to do something with them, I just have to locate everything. Over the last 30 years I've moved a few times, and you know a box of this goes missing or something, can’t find stuff. It’s hard to keep track of everything, but I’m trying to go through some more photo albums and see what I can pull out of there.
Did your kids know about your photography before the project took off? My daughter had known about the pictures because she helped me put them on the phone and stuff, but she wasn’t aware of the scope of it. And she’s not that much into, she’s more into the contemporary music now, she wasn’t that much into rock music at that time. It was barely before she was born and stuff.
Do you think your kids have a new appreciation for you as a cool guy? Yeah, not just my daughter, my nieces and other relatives, they were shocked when they heard about it. Because they were like, "we never knew you did anything like that before!"
At this point, do you have any idea how many shows you photographed? I would say it would probably be have to be at least a 100 or so. And I haven’t really kept up with some of the friends I had back then, but I know a lot of them also had photos back then, so. We’ll see, maybe I’ll get together with them and we’ll unearth some more.
Do you still love living in Brooklyn? This is where I grew up. I actually almost moved to Puerto Rico when I first met my wife. We spent a few months down there. I had the plan of staying down there, but we decided to come back to Yew York for schools for the kids and stuff like that.
Has Brooklyn changed a lot in your view? It’s definitely changing. Eventually it’ll be like Manhattan, it seems like, if you look on 4th avenue, all these high-rises going up and stuff, that wasn’t there before. Downtown. It’s changing.