Donna Santisi didn't really dig into her file cabinets for 30 years. "I am just a huge rock fan, I never really believed in my photography talent," she confides. A grey haired cat-lover, she is curled up on a couch in her modest, souvenir-filled house a few blocks from LACMA. For several months now, she has been looking through her archival boxes in her living room, pulling out, one by one, never-printed, never-seen photos of the rock scene in 70s Los Angeles. Each image brings back off-the-record comments and intimate anecdotes.
Although Donna became close friends with Patti Smith, Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde, she never reached the level of recognition achieved by some other official rock and roll portraitists. Donna was a loyal friend, and didn't care about the money or fame. As the shy daughter of an Italian working class family from New Jersey, she led a double life until the 80s: anonymous accountant during the day, rock stars' BFF and photojournalist by night. She couldn't quite believe it when UCLA offered to preserve her archive of over 10,000 photos and ephemera last year ("They plan to call it the Donna Santisi Collection. How cool is that?").
In 2010, to celebrate (belatedly) the 30th anniversary of her cult 1978 book Ask the Angels, Donna issued a second edition. More iconic images went in, mainly of the early explosion (and almost simultaneous implosion) of the extraordinary female West Coast punk rock scene. In the 80s and 90s, Donna continued to photograph touring bands from the US and UK, but only on occasional assignments. And eventually she grew apart from the music world's marketing machinery. These days, she takes photos of her natural surroundings in California, the pelicans on Redondo Beach and the sweetgum tree on her street.
But at the end of November, a selection of Donna's images of LA's female rock scene will go on display at a mini retrospective at artistic director Juju Sorelli's store, The Evil Rock 'n' Roll Cat, in Los Feliz. Here's a sneak preview along with Donna's favorite stories.
The day I hung up on Janis Joplin
"I saw Janis Joplin in concert 12 times in 1969. She's the reason I bought my first Mamiya Sekor camera. She played my college, Rider College in New Jersey. She was staying at the Howard Johnson Motel in Lawrenceville. My friend and I followed her back that night. I wanted to tell her something, but she was so wasted that [her band] were pretty much holding her up to get into her room. The next morning, I called the front desk - I was just trying to find out if she was still there - and they put me through! She said 'Hello.' I just panicked. 'Is Susan there?' I was not prepared to talk to her! I was 19 years old. She replied, 'Oh, you have the wrong number.'
I didn't say good bye or thank you, I hung up on her. Then we drove to the motel. They were just checking out. The motel was famous for its 21 flavors of ice cream, and Janis had a cone. They got into the car and we followed them on the highway towards Manhattan, until I felt silly enough to turn back. She was in the passenger seat eating her ice cream. It's an undocumented moment that I will never forget. I saw her in concert three more times. Later, I received that phone call in my college dorm announcing that she had died. I was devastated. I put my camera away and didn't pick it up until Patti [Smith]."
Patti Smith got me my first publication
"She was playing the Roxy on Sunset for two nights in January 1976. She had just released Horses. I went to see her and her band two nights in a row, the second time with my camera. A few days later, I went to have brunch at Dukes, the coffee shop at the Tropicana Motel. I had four or five prints with me. We walked in, and there she was with Lenny [Kaye]! I introduced myself and showed her the photos. She asked if she could keep them. A few weeks later, I went to the Tower Records store on Sunset. I saw the fanzine "Back Door Man" with her on the cover. I opened it, and there they were: two of my photos, with my credit. She was doing an interview with them that day at the Tropicana and had passed the photos along. It was my very first publication, in April 1976."
I started hanging out with Joan Jett
"My friend Marcy was friends with Vicki Blue, who was about to replace Jackie Fox, the bass player of the Runaways. Joan lived across from the Whisky, on San Vincente Boulevard and later we started hanging out at her apartment. We became good friends. I would take her to see her favorite roller derby team, the L.A. T-Birds, at the Olympic Auditorium downtown. A couple of times, we even went to their practice rink at Monterey Park, and skated alongside them. Joan loved doing that.
I was there when the Runaways broke up. Sandy [West] and Lita [Ford] wanted to go into metal, Joan didn't like it. She had a terrible period of doubt. We became closer. I did the behind-the-scenes photos during the filming of a feature film inspired by the story of The Runaways (it came out as Du-beat-e-o in 1984). She became ill, and landed at Cedars hospital. I kept her company. One day, she wanted to sneak out. I took her to Hollywood Boulevard, to an Indian restaurant she liked. Before I drove her back to the hospital, we hung out at a Hollywood carnival that we found incidentally."
The night I introduced Chrissie Hynde to Joan Jett
"I met Chrissie in April 1980. The Pretenders were playing their second concert, at that Santa Monica Civic. I was already a huge fan. It was also Joan's first performance at the Whisky with the Blackhearts. I went to The Pretenders' hotel and dropped off a copy of my book with my phone number. Chrissie called me that night. I told her that I had put her and her musicians on Joan's guest list. After their show, I took Chrissie upstairs to meet Joan. When we arrived, she was in front of an enormous garbage can, sick from stage fright. Later, we went back to see her after the show. Chrissie was sisterly with her, giving her advice. At one point, they start dropping their pants to compare the black and blue marks they got from their guitars. Joan would let me photograph anything I wanted. But I had just met Chrissie and she was more guarded, so she wouldn't let me take the photo."
When Debbie Harry was goofing on stage
"I never became an intimate friend of Debbie Harry's, but she was genuine. I liked her a lot. In February 1977, Blondie was playing the Whisky with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Tom had spray-painted "TP" on the front of the wedding dress that Debbie was wearing. She started ripping it during the second show that night, during the song "Rip Her to Shreds". When I ran into her at Dukes, she asked me for a print. She and Chris [Stein] had it for a long time in their kitchen in their New York apartment, before it burned down. Another night, Debbie invited Joan to join her on stage. They were playing "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Debbie started crawling around, sticking out her tongue, panting like a dog while Joan was playing the guitar with one black glove."
About my 1978 book Ask the Angels
"After a couple of years shooting the LA punk rock scene, my friend Marcy Blaustein offered to put a book out. I dedicated it to Patti, as she was the reason I picked up the camera again. It was sold in local record stores, like Licorice Pizza, for $5. Patti Smith's mother, Beverly, offered to send promotional flyers for it, along with Patti's autographs. I had no idea that Ask the Angels was cult until I found it for $10,000 on Amazon last year. I wanted to celebrate its 30-year anniversary with a new, augmented edition in 2008. I added photos from the 80s: the Bags, X, The Alley Cats, The Go-Go's. The price for this 2010 version is now up to $250. (So, a tip: order it through the publisher, Kill Your Idols - they still carry it for $29!)"
Donna Santisi's exhibition will run from November 20, 2015, to January 31, 2016, at Evil Rock 'n' Roll Cat in Los Angeles.
Text Carole Sabas
Photography Donna Santisi