Remembered in mural
The mural of Fred Gamberg is a staple in downtown scenery, much the same way Fred once was in life
Wall painting pays tribute to musician Fred Gamberg
If you live in the area or have visited historic downtown St. John’s, chances are you’ve seen Fred Gamberg’s face immortalized on the concrete wall near the LSPU hall on the corner of Prescott and Duckworth streets.
Gamberg was 24 when he drowned on the night of July 10, 1995. He and some friends had gone swimming near Flatrock, and Gamberg had slipped from a cliff and fallen into the water. Close friends of his say he didn’t know how to swim, and it went unnoticed when he fell.
As a curious kid growing up I always wanted to know who Fred was. I would walk by the original mural — in the same location as the current rendition — with my parents and wonder who this person was and why someone had painted his portrait there. I imagine others who don’t know have wondered, too, whether they are visitors or locals. For years Gamberg’s face has remained on that wall, even with the paint peeling, random scribbles of graffiti and the wall physically crumbling under its own weight.
After speaking to many of Fred’s friends from the era, and to my own surprise, it turns out Gamberg was instrumental to the punk rock and metal scene in the late 80’s and early 90’s locally.
To me the story of the portrait had come full circle. My initial curiosity of the painting of Gamberg as a kid, coupled with discovering punk rock as I got older, and then being in the position to uncover the story as a journalist has really made the story of the mural something special for me.
Brian Downton has fond memories of Gamberg and said he never wants him to be forgotten.
“I want his face to be on that wall next to the LSPU Hall to remain in memory of a great man who appreciated the alternative arts of this city,” Downton said. “A monument of a legend that impacted my life at an early age. I loved him. He is missed every day. The scene has never been the same since he departed. When he died a major piece of the scene died.”
Frank Nolan, a close friend of Gamberg, echoed similar thoughts about the mysterious man on the wall.
“I left the Rock a few years back. I’m surprised the mural is surviving,” Nolan said. “Fred was an inspiration to the scene. While music was indeed a passion, he touched on so many lives, in so many mediums. He was as unique and genuine as the ground you walk.”
Today the wall is painted with an updated version from the original mural, and was commissioned by the city of St. John’s with advocacy for restoration from local musician and writer Mike Heffernan. Heffernan is currently working on writing an early history of Newfoundland punk rock titled “Scum Tribe,” and in there is an entire chapter dedicated to Gamberg.
“I’ve never met Fred Gamberg. I feel like I kind of know him though having spoken to a lot of people that were close with Fred,” Heffernan said, which is a similar discovery I’m making after speaking to several of Gamberg’s friends for this story.
“He was one of these indie concert promoters, he worked at the (LSPU) hall as a, if I remember correctly, a kind of jack-of-all-trades,” Heffernan said. “Whether that be shoveling or putting up lights, and he was putting off a lot of allages shows. He was kind of, for that scene, a bit of a force.”
As much as the mural of Gamberg has been a fixture downtown, so was Gamberg when he lived.
“I mean he was a fixture downtown. I guess that’s Fred Gamburg in a nutshell,” Heffernan said. “Nostalgia is a very powerful thing. Fred kind of represents for me, and I’m sure a lot of people who would call him a friend, he represents the excitement of the 90’s indie rock scene in St. John’s which exploded. Fred is kind of the icon of that.”
Heffernan says that the mural is as much nostalgia for him as it is for me when the idea came about to write a story about the man on the wall.
“I happened to interview one of his best friends, and I thought to myself ‘Fred represents the enthusiasm and nostalgia for that time and place in people’s lives,’” he said. “Going to shows as young people, Fred was responsible for a lot of the all-ages shows. The underground music scene is so important to the cultural history of St. John’s I wanted to do something about it. Like memory it fades, and I didn’t want Fred or the memory of what he represents to people who were around then (to fade).”
The original mural of Fred Gamberg on the corner of Prescott and Duckworth Street.
The current mural of Fred Gamberg on the corner of Prescott and Duckworth Street.