Nights of the Living Dead - Ben Eberbaugh Ten Years Later:
Dirty, smelly, sweaty, not quite putrid, but absolutely glorious. The Somber Reptile, or as we called it, the Somber Shitpile was a home to the Atlanta bands of (my) yore. I did my time there from 1997-2001. So did my friends. They took the stage like they were playing CBGBs in New York and not a club in Atlanta that was notorious for treating bands like crap. But there they were, The Reruns: Devin reared back and screaming into the microphone, Ben dropped in a partial Chinese split - knees hitting the stage as he played, Brett quiet and seemingly unassuming bass in hand one foot with his toes pointed toward the ceiling, and Gunnard in the back banging on the drums. They were opening for TEEN IDOLS and Mr. T Experience. It was May 11, 1998 and I was armed with my Kodak PhotoFX 35mm camera, ready to take photos of a band for the first time. I was fourteen years old. I’d found my way there with my friend Emma and my mother (ugh how embarrassing) in tow. I walked proudly up to the scary door woman with the terrifying mullet and told her I was on the guest list.
My life changed that night. My friend Gunnard said “Since you’re always taking photos with that camera and you’re coming to the show anyway, why don’t you take pictures of the show? I’ll put you on the list.” Hey Gunnard, thanks for that. He didn’t know it, but he was setting the course for what would be the rest of my life to date. That’s what I do now. Rock n’ roll pays the bills - most of the time. Who knew that could actually happen to a nerdy fourteen year old from Atlanta, GA? I spent the next five years in places like the Somber Reptile, the Point (sadly now the Clothing Warehouse), 9 Lives Saloon (or as you may know it Corner Tavern), The Echo Lounge, The Masquerade (varying levels), MJQ (before the Drunken Unicorn was open), Under the Couch, and the ever disgusting 513 Club. These were the places that marked my adolescence.
Other kids my age spent most of their time at school functions and…well, I really don’t know what “normal” kids were doing. I just know that most of them weren’t hanging out with me and college kids at these clubs. I know I was at shows where I wasn’t always “supposed” to be, but whatever man, I was living the dream. The Vandals, The Queers, TEEN IDOLS, NoFx, The AquaBats! (featuring then drummer The Baron von Tito - now known as Travis Barker of Blink 182 and his own solo fame), and great local bands like The Reruns, 17 Years, Catfight!, The Mouthbreathers, 6x, Jet By Day, The Varsity Orange, and the Black Lips before it was cool to like them in Silver Lake (the hipster area du jour of Los Angeles). Occasionally someone “big” in the indie scene like Cursive would roll through town, they’d play Under the Couch, and someone we knew would open so we’d all go.
Yeah, I spent a lot of my high school years hanging out at Georgia Tech on the weekends or holidays if I could get away from school. I spent three of my four high school years at boarding school. One in Connecticut, half of one in Maine and Atlanta, and one in Rome, GA. For my senior year I returned home, to these shows, these clubs, these bands, these friends - oh yeah, I did that school and graduating thing too.
You should have seen the walls of my boarding school dorm rooms. Littered with cheap xerox flyers for shows in Atlanta. I had a couple tapes that I’d wear out like it was my job. If the band had a “big” following they had a CD or two. I’d listen to that four song demo tape of the Reruns and the tape I had of them playing live on 88.5 over and over again. Freshman year my alarm clock was my boom box and I woke up every morning to the 17 Years CD. My roommates wanted to kill me, but each morning the sounds of Lara and Scooter singing would catapult me out of my top bunk.
These nights in the parking lots, bars, and clubs - they made me. I run, dive, slide on my knees, and muscle my way through the biggest arenas in the country now - because I did it in the Atlanta music scene first. Because I stood on railing with drunk people with mohawks spraying Pabst Blue Ribbon on me to get a shot, I come off the stage at the Staples Center in LA with my legs bleeding and not know or care why. I’m a klutz, I often trip over absolutely nothing. I walk scared - unless I’ve got a camera in my hand and there’s a rock show happening. It’s that simple. The music scene in Atlanta in the late 90s and early 2000s gave me that gift.
We were young, we were free. Life was staring us in the eye and we each stood there and gave it the finger, proudly. This is our reason for being, this music, these nights, it’s what we do, and nothing can or will change that. We party in basements and parking lots and we love it, so there. That was how it felt anyway.
I photographed 311 for the first time when I was 17 years old and a senior in high school. It was November 2000. None of the Atlanta clubs came close to preparing me for that. A high budget rock show was like trying to photograph an alien landing in Roswell, NM to me. Too many people, I had…space, no one around me. They were behind the barricade. It was terrifying, but I was able to figure it out. I also figured out that it felt like where I was supposed to be. Turned out that shooting that very band was where I was supposed to be for a little more than the next decade. A few others too.
I remember The Reruns reunion show in June of 1999. They were my favorite local band, Devin, Ben, Brett, and Gunnard were the most fun to see and shoot. But when Gunnard and Ben graduated high school in 1998 two years ahead of the other half of the band, they were off to college. Gunnard stayed in Atlanta to attend Georgia State, but Ben headed to Alabama to matriculate at Auburn University. With The Reruns being one member short, they re-formed as a three piece called duluoz that wore shirts and ties. It was…different from what I had experienced. But in 1999 for one glorious night at Under the Couch, the Reruns reformed and headlined the Harvard Farewell Show. Brett had been accepted to a summer program in Cambridge and we were celebrating.
That night I finally got to shoot the guys with an SLR (or “real camera” as I was calling it), Brett did something on stage besides lift his foot up, Ben did his splits, I sang Stephanie K with them, and they dedicated the show to me. It remains to this day, one of the best nights of my life. I never wanted it to end, but when it finally did I took the only photo of me and all four guys that exists. After helping with load out I climbed in to Gunnard’s blue volvo station wagon and he returned me to Computer Camp - where I was a counselor. I was beaming. It had been the best night I could have imagined at fifteen years old.
Things changed as time went on. Bands broke up, reformed, reorganized, and broke up again. The clubs started closing. By my senior year The Pointe had become that awfully overpriced “vintage” hell hole, and 513 was constantly closing for good, they swore. I graduated, I went to art school. 311 started letting me shoot any show I could get to, and we all grew separate from one another. The Black Lips got signed to BOMP! records. Cole, Jared, Ben, and Jack were about to embark on their first tour. I remember waking up to the phone ringing on December 2, 2002 - Alex LaRoche was calling, early. Ben Eberbaugh was dead at twenty two years old. He had been driving south on 400 when a drunk driver driving north in the southbound lanes hit him head on. Both drivers died on impact.
That week was a nightmare. I had lost friends before, but I had never grieved as a group like this. Everyone from those shows and those clubs were there. First the wake, and then the funeral. So many people showed up they were spilling out of the door of the funeral home. I was standing near the back with Jason from 17 Years hugging me as we both cried. I could see photos I’d taken of Ben in his Reruns days on the collage board up front. We continued to the cemetery where Cole spoke. Then all of us went to Mary Mac’s Tearoom to eat. At Mary Mac’s we found comfort in each other, we found food, and more food, and then through our tears we found laughter. We laughed at each other and the moments we remembered with Ben.
That was one of the last times I was with all of those people at once. I miss them. I miss Ben. I miss those days. I do my best to not dwell on the sadder parts of them. I still see some of them when I’m in Atlanta. Gunnard is still one of my oldest and closest friends. Some are people I bump in to on the street when I’m in town. They look like stand up members of society, it’s foreign to me. Some of them come to Los Angeles on occasion for business and I see them when they do.
David Matysiak of Jet By Day organized and produced a compilation record in memory of Ben a few years back. It brought everyone together in music again. I suspect this has come up in my mind with it being December and ten years since we lost a guy who was a lynch pin to a group of people. Maybe it’s because I’ve just turned 29 and I’m a little afraid to let go of my 20’s since they tie me back to that time in my life? Maybe ten years later I just miss my friend who was fun to shoot. Who knows.
We’re all adults now, scattered across the country, and sometimes the globe. We’re all living our different lives. The important part I take with me is those nights, those people, that music, and that smell, it’s a huge part of what made me the woman and the photographer I am today. Without their dreams I would never have found mine. There aren’t words to express the gratitude I have toward them for this. So for now, all I can say, is thank you. Without Ben’s dream, I couldn’t have found mine, so a very specific thank you to him - for being the first most exciting musician I shot, and I miss you buddy.