Lee Black Childers: Photographer and writer who chronicled the New York scene of the 1970s and managed Johnny Thunders
Thursday 17 April 2014
Two years ago, the photographer Leee Black Childers published a book entitled Drag Queens, Rent Boys, Pick Pockets, Junkies, Rockstars and Punks, a collection of pictures he had taken over the years in San Francisco, Los Angeles, London and, most of all, New York. But Childers didn't just chronicle the happenings around Andy Warhol and his entourage at The Factory, in the backroom at Max's Kansas City or on stage at CBGB's, he also played a part in the careers of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and managed Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, the turbulent band that emerged from the ashes of the New York Dolls and took up residency in London in December 1976.
Childers began working for the Heartbreakers just before Malcolm McLaren, who had briefly managed the Dolls, asked them to support his new charges, the Sex Pistols, on what would turn out to be the ill-fated Anarchy tour of the UK. Following the furore over the Pistols' appearance on the Today show with Bill Grundy, most of the dates were cancelled, leaving the Heartbreakers in the lurch. Childers convinced them to remain in London and play as many gigs as they could. "We were a sensation but the Heartbreakers were junkies. That was what they were most famous for," he admitted.
Against all odds, Childers got them a record deal with Track Records, run by the former Who manager Chris Stamp. By March 1977 the Heartbreakers were in the studio with Speedy Keen producing. "The recordings were brilliant – one of the 10 best rock'n'roll records ever made," said Childers. Their version of "Chinese Rocks", written by Dee Dee Ramone and former Heartbreaker Richard Hell, and issued as a single, sold 20,000 copies, but the eventual album and sole studio release, L.A.M.F., didn't pack the punch of their live shows, and only charted briefly.
When Track went out of business the following year, Childers broke into their offices and retrieved the album's multi-tracks. He subsequently sold the rights to the Jungle label, paving the way for various re-releases including the 4-CD Definitive Edition two years ago.
Born in Jefferson County, Kentucky, in 1945, he was given a camera by his older brother and found it enabled him to overcome his natural shyness when he moved to San Francisco during the Summer of Love. By 1968, he was sharing a Lower East Side one-bedroom apartment in New York with Wayne County and Holly Woodlawn, the Warhol superstar immortalised in Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side". "Andy Warhol told me to find your spot, grab a chair and let them come to you," he recalled.
He was assistant director on several Warhol-related plays, including Pork, which created a stir when it was staged for six weeks at the London Roundhouse in 1971, with Cherry Vanilla in the title role. Childers went on to work for MainMan, the company set up by Tony Defries to manage Bowie's affairs. Given the grand title of "vice president" of the US operation, he served as advance promo man on the Ziggy Stardust US dates. "We were encouraged to drink champagne and eat huge dinners and sign everything," he said of the lifestyle that lasted until Bowie left Defries in 1975.
Childers also served as minder to Pop and the Stooges while they holed up in Hollywood after issuing Raw Power, until MainMan lost interest. He returned to Warhol's circle in the early '80s and continued documenting the New York scene but fell on hard times in the mid-1990s. After being evicted from his apartment and moving into a homeless hostel, he presumed his precious photographs had been lost until a friend discovered several bags containing most of his negatives. This allowed Childers to make new prints, license them for use in Chris Sullivan's Punk book in 2001 and paved the way for his own chronicle and several exhibitions of his work.
Childers bleached his hair white and always wore black. He would get teary-eyed when recollecting Thunders and Sid Vicious at book launches and say: "I love all those crazy, self-destructive people. You can't change them. You have to make the decision to accept them for who they are."
Leee Black Childers, photographer, writer and band manager: born Jefferson County, Kentucky 24 July 1945; died Los Angeles 6 April 2014.
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