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Phillin Phlash
Photograph: Phillin Phlash

Meet the man behind Boston’s most notorious music photos: Phillin Phlash

Discover the crazy stories behind these iconic images, now on display and free to visit at Time Out Market Boston.

Written by
Susie Davidson
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There were broken bulbs, broken glasses. "It was anarchy, it was crazy interaction, and you had to be close to it to feel it," Philin Phlash says.

Phlash found himself in the center of Boston’s rock and punk scene—in the pit. Bopping into the clubs around the Fenway-Kenmore area, he collected photos, memories and the random shiner from a frenetic elbow. The black eyes have cleared up, but what remains on film are those sweaty, raw nights when a cultural movement emerged from The Hub. While the metaphysical mark made is indelible, some of the landmarks have been long forgotten—The Catacombs on Boylston, which hosted The Doors and Andy Warhol, is now home to Subway sandwich artists. Through Philin Phlash’s “Fenway Phlashback” we remember the sights and sounds of Boston’s sonic revolution, which happened right around Time Out Market Boston.

Time Out Market Boston is proudly exhibiting 60 of Phlash's most epic photos of the ‘80s underground music scene in the Fenway and Kenmore areas. "Fenway Phlashback," a production of Time Out Market Boston and Gallery East, is Philin Phlash's largest show in 10 years, curated by Gallery East director Duane Lucia. The visceral images will be on display through the month of November, and Phlash will return to his hallowed grounds from Nov. 5-7 for a socially distanced reception featuring guest DJs.

"I am the public eye," says Phlash.

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Phil Spring was born and raised in South Boston and Quincy, Mass. He studied the art and history of photography, and earned a B.F.A. from Mass. College of Art in the late 1970s. He went on to chronicle the Boston rock music and club scene of the late 1970s-1980s, and his candid “in the pit” photographs, extracted from the depths of many a mêlée, documented the Boston punk and hardcore scenes of the early-to-mid ‘80s. With these historic shots and his streetscape and portrait photography, Philin Phlash created a colossal photographic catalog of rock ‘n’ roll artists, film and art world celebrities.

The work of Philin Phlash has been displayed in many solo exhibits and published in hundreds of local and national media outlets. It was chosen by Jean Claude Lamage, photography curator at the Biblioteque National, for inclusion in the Selections 5 (from Polaroid’s International Collection) exhibit at Photokia 1990 in Cologne, Germany. A solo exhibit was also held at the GMBH Fotogalerie in Stuttgart.

The weirdest thing for Phlash is seeing all the photos that now appear at Time Out Market. "It does not seem like it's been 30 years," he reflects. "I think to myself that there's no way I could have taken all those photographs. To look at that amount..." he trails.

Punk rock has had a sort of influential resurgence of late. Joy Division shirts are everywhere; the movie White Riot was just released. This is rock history now, and Phlash helped document it.

"Yes, but when I look back on it, I never thought that what I did was important or part of anything," he quietly observes. "Still, there was a driving force there. When I took them, it was like I was engulfed in an energy force. I didn't give it a thought."

And the man—who says he’s been forcefully removed from more places than a Vegas card-counter—claims nothing got in the way, either.

"It was always great to see Phil down in front of the stage at a show," says Willie ‘Loco’ Alexander of Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band, a venerable Boston-based rock outfit. "He added to the excitement, and he captured the excitement."

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"Mission of Burma played the Rat [the epicenter of Kenmore Square's punk scene] so many times, and not all the shows were great, as they say, but enough were," says Roger Miller of the legendary Boston-based band that was chosen by Dave Grohl to open for the Foo Fighters’ 2015 Fenway Park show. "Phil was ubiquitous there with his leather jacket, glasses and that bulky camera," Miller recollected. "He caught it all—glad to see his vision coming back into the world."

To Phlash, it was simply doing his nocturnal duty, "Like the line from The Blues Brothers movie, I felt I was on a mission from God, and my assignment was to get the best photo I could.”

Compared to today, the means were technically primitive, requiring lightning-fast instincts and Herculean skills.

"I didn't have a telephoto lens," he says. "I had a 35 mm lens. It wasn't digital, or automatic focus. I focused—in the midst of getting kicked in the head. It really makes you evaluate."

His success is apparent in the reputation of his body of work, each unforgettable, iconic image a signature achievement. Nobody posed, all were in the moment. And Phlash got those moments.

"Hardcore show photos were Phil's forté, but obviously he took a ton of others," says Joanie Lindstrom, a longtime DJ at the MIT radio station WMBR. "Yet, his pics of 'Punky Paul' on the 'Boston Not LA' and 'Unsafe at Any Speed' [1980s punk compilation album] covers are classics, and feel like they were yesterday, not 35+ years ago.”

"It was a human interaction and energy force that I could feel," explains Phlash. "I felt that I was given a gift, and I went with it. I believed my flash protected me, as I forged into that world."

Thank goodness for that, as it's not only the scene, but the circumstances that we may not see for a while.

"Given the situation this year, when I look back at all of that, I think it may never happen again," he muses. "All those sweaty bodies together...The whole human thing is different now."

Yet he is unchanged.

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"Now when I hear the Ramones on the radio, or the Clash, it still affects me in the same way," Phlash says. “But now, yeah, it is music history. I have kids, and I tell them stories about it, all the people that I met. I tell them, 'all the people you hear now on TV, on the radio, well, I met Bryan Ferry, The Ramones, Joe Strummer. I was with them.'"

Like we are his offspring, he tells us an anecdote involving Johnny Rotten at a 1984 PiL show at the old Lansdowne Street haunt Metro: "After the sound check, I said to him, let's get a drink. I wanted to take him to the Rat.” But when the two got to the corner where the Cask 'n Flagon sports bar (still) is, Rotten wanted to go in there.

"I said, But it's a jock bar, man," Phlash continues, segueing into a semi-spot-on English accent as he describes how Rotten ordered a shot and a beer. "There we were in a jock bar, with orange hair, all punk. In front of us was a brick wall. Johnny put the shot glass down, then picked it up again and smashed it against the wall.”

“What could I do? I did it too."

Two burly bouncers came over, picked them up and threw them out. "WTF? we said. It just happened," Phlash recalls. Surely, that had happened before at the Cask during Red Sox victory celebrations. Maybe the teams lost that night, and it was somber?

"But we were still going against the grain," Phil said. "Maybe Johnny needed to sing, "God save the ...."

"Teams?"

"Yeah, God save the teams!"

Both emerged unscathed, and Phlash was soon back at what he did best.

"The photography of Philin Phlash is absolutely an American treasure," says New York-based filmmaker and musician Drew Stone. "In an era when very few people were documenting the local Boston music scene and even fewer were doing it with decent equipment and could actually compose a shot, his work stands alone. As a teenager, I will never forget looking over and seeing him in the trenches with us. He captured an important moment in our history that still resonates today."

"Philin Phlash was a smiling gentleman among heathens, rascals, and sweaty Aquanet oddballs," said Dan Zanes, former lead singer of the Del Fuegos and currently, frontman of the Grammy-winning group Dan Zanes and Friends and producer of the Social Isolation Song Series.

"A gentleman with a unique vision and love for the subject," he continues. "Sometimes it was only through Phil’s photos that I could access the humanity of the scene, and I’m grateful that this humanity—his and ours—is on display."

That collective snapshot of a pioneering era in musical time still cherished by so many will again be celebrated, albeit distanced, masked and with fewer safety pins through our noses, at Time Out Market Boston. And nothing, not even 2020, will blunt that reconvergence of the music, the scene, or the "man and cam" who preserved it.

"The people who come, maybe they lived it, maybe they never saw it. But it is now among the history of photography,” Phlash says. "When the people are there this time, I will know that they are smiling under their masks."

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