Peter Gravelle by John Gladdy
After Sid Vicious died in New York in February ’79, the details of his last hours alive came under intense focus. There was a knee-jerk search for somebody other than Sid himself to blame. For that reason you might have heard of people like Michelle Robinson, Neon Leon and Rockets Redglare, people whom you would never have heard about if they hadn’t existed on the periphery of the ex-Pistol’s squalid final weeks in New York
Photographer Peter Gravelle (aka Kodik) was also drawn into the blame game that the media insisted on playing. He was the man who put that last gramme of heroin in Sid’s hand; the gramme that killed him later that night. Gravelle was an easy scapegoat for the press: like his mate Sid, a heroin addict, who looked a bit “rough”, and clearly kept some very questionable company
Peter of course had simply been the guy who came through for a friend after another supposed friend had ripped him off. The heroin Jerry Nolan sold on to Sid’s mother Anne Beverly, for herself, Sid and Peter to share that day was so badly cut it was practically worthless. You can be sure if Sid could still be heard, there’s be no ill will directed at his old pal
Peter Gravelle has stories. Lots of them. He has photographed some very interesting people down the years – mostly not the punk rockers he is most known for photographing. Perhaps unfortunately for him, those punks are what I was most curious about
Living in Maida Vale in 76/77 you must have met almost everyone from the early punk scene on one occassion or another. It’s become kind of a mythic place and time
No that`s a London thing. Maida Vale is central and on the right-side of town as opposed to the east-end. Of course they have been pumping money into re-doing the East-end for ages and it`s sort of happening – not. They can always try
I remember the East-End mostly through Brick Lane. A place you went for bargains. In the old Brick Lane you would walk down and they`re would be guys in long coats and as you passed they would open them revealing their goods they had to sell; mostly rows of watches, rings, jewellery of any sort… fantastic, and no, they weren`t flashers, just flash Eddies. This was amongst the fruit-sellers, the bric-a-brac and piles of unsorted clothes. It ain`t like that any more. It`s full of cheaper housing for anyone coming to London and studio spaces for artists and photographers where the west-side now is too expensive
Back in 1977 Maida Vale was an average neighbourhood. It`s location was good. Ten minutes by bus you were in Marble Arch and the West-end. Fifteen minutes by bus and you were in Chelsea or the other way, Camden. Nice big flats too. Now it has become very up market. Glen Matlock still lives there now as do Paul Weller and many others. Back in 1976, let`s see, I had a Mews House there where Patti lived, Barry Jones had a nice place two blocks away, Sid and Nancy moved into Pindock Mews, Keith Levene lived opposite them nearly, Matt from the Boys.. oh I can`t remember who else. Glen lived there, Celia Perry at Barry’s, Magenta de-Vine with me for a while. Yeah, I guess a lot of people did live there. That was cool though. It meant you could walk to a friend`s house. Something unusual for London now
@ Chelsea Arts Club, 2013
Johnny Thunders is named by some as the bloke who introduced heroin to the London punk scene. Do you have an opinion one way or the other on that?
Fuck, what a statement. Yeah, Johnny was responsible for everything. What an asshole. Ok, let’s go back a bit. If early punk had a drug of choice it was puff and speed. People drank but speed was the big drug. It was pure and cheap. £10 a gram. Yes, the whole Heartbreakers crew did bring their drug habits with them from NYC and many people being NY Dolls clones or Johnny clones tried smack for the first time through them. But, it was like a cancer started to affect the whole scene
Now, I don`t know who you think controls the drug market, but I think it definitely comes from above -the top. All of a sudden you couldn`t find any speed at all. Zero. Zilch. What you did find was heroin. Of course the Shah of Iran was deposed around this time and after Britain was flooded with high-grade heroin. At this time heroin was about £40 per gram. Pretty much the same price as it is today
To get back to the original question, yes, London and the punk scene could have done without Johnny and his Heartbreakers but probably the government would have had their way anyway. He, as others have done, merely glorified something, that in essence, is very sad. Let`s blame Malcolm for bringing them over
You’re definitely not the first person who met Johnny Thunders who I’ve heard say he could be an asshole. Did you have many run-ins with him, and did you see him behaving like that?
Asshole? No, that might be a bit strong. I`d say he was juvenille. Yeah, pretty fucking juvenille. Oh, he could be sweet and charming but unfortunately it was usually because he wanted something. Look, Johnny was a junkie. For Christ’s sake, that was nearly all he wrote songs about. Call them what you will, modern street poetry, songs from the heart, whatever, no matter how you try to dress them up they are about junk, doggie, downtown. Most junkies are assholes
I first saw him when he came over with his Heartbreakers. They would headline the Roxy club every weekend it seemed. I mean you have to wonder about someone who takes delight in giving someone their first hit of heroin as he seems to have done. I know a lot of people who claim that the first time they took heroin was with Johnny. I did his So Alone cover later. I had to send over a pretty girl to pick him up. First thing he does upon arriving is have another hit. He was so out of it he couldn`t keep his eyes open. Johnny, it`s your record cover. He wasn`t alone, he was surrounded by blood suckers. The album should have been called So, a loan?
Later I saw him in Paris a couple of times. He played solo, didn`t want to have to share the money with a band. I saw him in situations I know he didn`t want to be in. He would just shrug his shoulders as if to say well, Peter, so it goes. Later, I saw him a couple of times as he toured North America. He would say things from the stage, like there`s a guy here who I fucked his wife or girlfriend. Yeah, and you got leftovers Johnny. What a thing to say and as if I really cared. Well, I would laugh but I thought it pretty low and juvenille. That was the level he worked on. He was a pig when it came to junk. Moderation didn`t come into his vocabulary and eventually, well you tell me what happened? LSD in a junkie`s blood system!? Right, he should have grown up. He was blessed with a charisma of sorts. Died too young. Anyway i don`t want to talk bad of the dead, let`s try to remember the good bits
New York magazine did a piece on you entitled “Peter Gravelle, Vicious Enabler”; was that a fair title? It feels like you were singled out; this idea that you share some of the responsibility for his death. He would have asked the next person he could have if you’d said no, and it’s not as if you were a dealer; you were going to buy it for yourself anyway, I assume
Fuck New York magazine. It`s a free, cheap city magazine. If I lived in the States I would sue them for those remarks. Maybe by not doing so I don`t give them any credence. All I will say at the moment is it was probably a mixture of drugs he took that night with drink on top that led to his unfortunate death
If I could have the chance over again, I would probably have not copped the heroin for him and myself that night. Of course I wouldn`t, but as you said someone else would have. We had tried a number of places that day. The only reason people wouldn`t sell to us was because they didn`t have anything. Jerry had cut the stuff his mother brought for Sid so bad that neither of us could feel it. That`s what started us off looking for more. ’nuff said. Fuck New York magazine.. Do you know a lawyer who’ll work on credit?
Your photoshoot for the Damned, that iconic front cover, the great outtakes… could you tell us a little bit about that shoot. For example, were the custard pies planned? Were they real custard pies? Was anyone in control or was it a food fight?
I knew Judy Nylon quite well. Her boyfriend was in a band. She asked me if I would do some photos of the band; they had no money. Ok, as long as I could do anything I wanted to. I don`t know where I came up with the pie idea. It was my idea. I think it was just because I thought it would be visually effective. On the day of the shoot Judy and Patti were the stylists and in charge of picking up custard or cream pies. We all arrived at the studio and there were no cream pies to be found. They had picked up some flan bases, shaving cream and ketchup and mustard. Well, that will have to do. I have to say the boys were very cool about the whole thing. Mentholated shaving cream does sting the eyes. Yes, I was in control. Someone has to be. It was my photoshoot. Looking back, it was a case of random bits all coming together with no real meaning to begin with. Don`t think about it, just do it
Who/what are the most interesting/entertaining subjects you’ve shot?
There has been a few interesting cases. I find nearly everyone sort of interesting but top of my list has to be Dr John Cunningham Lilly. He seemed to glow as an individual. Didn`t like the camera. A wonderful, fascinating man. Invented the flotation tank. Altered States, the movie, was based loosely on his life. He gave me pure MDMA and Ketamine and put me in a flotation tank. I fell asleep I think. You`re not supposed to. Read up on him, truly remarkable
Is there anyone you would have liked to have photographed that you never had the chance to?
Yes. A studio session with Iggy Pop
Outtakes from the Damned album cover shoot
And is/are there portrait(s) or photo(s) you are most proud of?
Depends on the day and how I feel about photography in general so it varies. I`m working on a book so you will have to wait on this score
You and Barney Bubbles had a company called Exquisite Covers. Who were some of the bands you designed sleeves for?
Dear Barney. I met him after he had done the Damned first cover with my pics. I was sort of horrified with the big yellow Damned logo to be honest, but Barney justified it by saying he wanted it to look like it was off a garage wall, like a cheap calendar. Well, OK. We did Nick Lowe`s single ‘Bowi’ after but Barney wasn`t getting paid at the time so we came up with Exquisite Covers where by we could work for the commercial industry. Humble Pie’s greatest hits was one, the Nice greatest hits another. There were a few more and that was the money work that enabled him to carry on. We were both doing work for other groups. Me for Snatch, Generation X; Barney for Elvis Costello and Ian Dury. I remember being annoyed with him for not getting me to do those pics but that was more Jake and Robinson`s doing. They would only call me if they had a real problem as when me and Barney had to do Albertos y los Trios Paranoia`s album Italians from Outer Space, with photos in a day or photograph five ugly guys for the cover of a Rumour album. That`s when they called me. Barney was a lovely bloke though. Maybe too sweet if that`s possible
How do you feel about NYC? You were married to Patti Palladin. Did you feel like you became a New Yorker by association?
I love NY. I regret ever leaving there. I first visited NYC through Patti but that was mostly Brooklyn. A big no-go for me. Later I moved there and lived there for over two years. It was during this time I finally felt like a New Yorker. I couldn`t stand the place when I first arrived, but after a year it was home. Sometimes people think I`m still from New York now which is sort of funny for me. I guess if NY is an attitude, yes I am. Certainly as much as I feel English anyway, or Canadian
You lived in Italy for a long time. Was it a place you grew to love?
Yes, Milan was my home for over 15 years. I lost count after that. Of course Milan isn`t the nicest of Italian cities. In fact it`s one of the worst but that was where the work was. So yes, I love Italy; the people, their food, their lifestyle. Their love of family (something the English should learn). Yes, I don`t really have anything too bad to say about Italy. Wouldn`t live there now but I have many happy memories of Italy
You’ve lived an interesting life. People associate you with Sid Vicious but you have photographed countless well-known people. Does it bother you that most people think of you in tandem with Sid, because of that night?
Maybe people in music or into music might think that but believe me others know me for a lot more. No, it doesn`t bother me. What can I do about it anyway??
Did you get to know Nancy at all? Your good friend Steve Dior is one of the few people to defend her. He says she bought him a pair of shoes one time..
Of course I knew Nancy. Lucky Steve, she never bought me anything. Anytime I met her she would try borrowing money off me. Her voice was pretty jarring mind you, she was another contradiction: generous one minute, hard as nails the next. What can I say? People weren`t too nice to her behind her back but nearly everyone put up with her mainly because she went out with Sid and Sid liked her
If Sid had lived, what do you think he’d be doing now?
If Sid hadn`t become Vicious would he still be alive? Probably. Punk is TOXIC. It`s the title of one of the chapters in my book. And no, Sid and I were never an item and don`t believe Leee Black Childers. Maybe he didn`t want to become the next Alvin Stardust
A nice addition to your home if you’ve got the dosh (for sale @petergravelle)