Q&A: John Holmstrom and Punk Magazine
Check out Punk magazine. Put together by Holmstrom and his then-pal Legs McNeil, Punk changed the way the world looked at rock 'n' roll forever. It gave a certain type of music not only a name, but a face as well.
Now it's 25 years later, and I've become pretty good pals with John. Which is an honor. Besides being able to drink me under the table, John got me involved with his 25th-anniversary issue of Punk magazine, which, if all goes well, will become a regular magazine pretty damn soon.
Punk had interviews with all the big-time guys like the Ramones, Iggy, Sid, even Von LMO. But it also had these cool photo-comic stories, where a story is told through photos overlaid with comic-strip dialogue. One, "Mutant Monster Beach Party," featured Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry, David Johansen and even Andy Warhol. Another one starred Dick Manitoba and Lester Bangs.
The magazine also featured "The Top 99," which later became the "Top 100 (or Pot 100)" in High Times, where Holmstrom went after Punk folded.
What follows is an interview I did with John when he came over the other afternoon. Besides having all sorts of questions about what it was like to hang out with the coolest people on Earth, I wanted to ask him about his cohort, Legs McNeil, with whom he has become friendly again after what seemed like a long, bitter battle.
What, are you and Legs friends now because of this 25th-anniversary stuff?
Are we friends? How can I say something funny here? Legs has given me a lot of help bringing out the new issue. He's been great. It's been like working with a whole different person.
I ask because, as you know, I called him a pussy at the New York Press thing at Bowery Ballroom last May, as well as in print, and people seem mad at me. I call him that because I went to a Please Kill Me reading and he was all arrogant, elitist and stuff, saying punk rock died in 1979. What a puss!
Yeah, well, Legs has promised to kick your ass at our CBGB event. This is why the ticket price is so high.
So are you all buddy-buddy now?
We disagree about a lot of things. Like you pointed out. But everybody talks about how his attitude changed on his last trip to New York, so maybe we have a new Legs.
Enough about that sissy. How'd you come to start Punk magazine?
[laughs] Ged Dunn Jr. put up the money and was the first publisher and had more to do with starting Punk than Legs, and never seems to get his fair share of the credit. Basically, the three of us hung out in the summer of 1975, I brought the Dictators' first album over, we listened to it, it changed our lives, and eventually Ged dropped out of college and we all decided to start a business together that fall.
You mean punk rock was a business decision?
Yeah. Back then, punk rock was Alice Cooper. We all wanted to be rich and famous.
The word "punk"?who coined it, where did it come from?
I don't know, but it was all over the rock press of 1975, and earlier. Like punk rock was used to describe that glitter rock Alice Cooper, New York Dolls, the Sweet and Brownsville Station.
I thought it was a Ramones thing.
As I remember it, they did not call themselves punk rock. Nobody else in New York City was calling themselves punk. We [Holmstrom, McNeil, Dunn] were total outsiders to the scene, called everything punk rock if we wrote about it, and forced the word on them. A lot of people at the time kind of resented that.
Ninety-nine percent of the people at the CBGB scene, and 100 percent of the Max's scene. But seriously, everyone we didn't write about.
I never understood how people called Talking Heads punk, or even Lou Reed?to me, that was wuss rock.
The reason I was so proud to put Lou on the cover of our first issue was he was just coming off the Metal Machine Music incident... It basically ended his career. People who went to the store to buy it, expecting a Lou Reed record, put it on, heard this horrible screeching weird noise, figured the record was defective or something, and took it back to the record store and demanded their money back.
I once put out a tape called The Sound of Silence with an old band, Letch Patrol. Nothing but leader tape.
Actually, John and Yoko beat you to that with "Two Minutes Silence" on Life with the Lions, Volume Two. How 70s of you.
I like Yoko.
I like any music that is so obnoxious that it drives people out of a room. I like artists who don't play it safe.
So you must love those boy bands like NSYNC?
I've gotta be honest, I've never heard them. I'm too busy watching Jerry Springer to listen to music.
Yeah, let's talk about that. You're all into the wrestling thing. What's up?
To me, pro wrestling is like rock 'n' roll without guitars and drums. Everybody thought that when Sid Vicious hit that guy over the head with his guitar in San Antonio, that was real punk rock. Well, every night you go see wrestling someone is getting hit in the head with a guitar. We are hoping that Balls Mahoney is going to show up at this thing.
He's from Nutley, NJ. A big star with Extreme Championship Wrestling. I saw him cover a table with barbed wire, douse it with lighter fluid, set it on fire and then get power-bombed through it at the ECW in Philly once. Now that's hardcore!
Why do you hate Patti Smith so much?
I don't hate Patti. Who said I hate Patti?
I dunno, when I look back at old Punk magazines, I see pictures of her all ugly and stuff. With drawings over her face.
No, that was our Patti Smith graffiti contest. We sent the third issue off to the printer, really late as usual, and then they called up a few hours before we were to go to press, and said we had a blank page. So, I grabbed the nearest thing to me, which was a publicity picture of Patti Smith, and scribbled, "Patti Smith Graffiti Contest," on the bottom.
I thought you didn't like her. Did you like her second band, "Scandal"?
[laughs] Patti Smith's first single, "Piss Factory," was a real inspiration to all of us at Punk magazine.
On the Dead Boys' first album, Young, Loud, and Snotty, one of the best albums ever made, they thank a "Punk of the Month" for doing vocals on "Down in Flames." Didn't you guys have something to do with "Punk of the Month"?
That must be Ronald Binder, our first ever "Punk of the Month." I was hanging out with Joey Ramone at CBGB one night, and he suggested we should have a "Punk of the Month" in every issue. So this guy, Ronald Binder, sent in weird pictures of himself, so we decided to use him. He won it the next month because no one was able to send anything else in more interesting. He's a college professor now.
Okay, why now, after 25 years, are you doing Punk again?
Because I am able to. I have the time and the money, and figured why not.
But don't you know punk is dead? That's what Legs says.
[laughs] That's what NME was always saying, too. Everyone was always saying punk is dead. It's a funny thing. When we went out of business in 1979, we had never had better sales. The magazine was never more popular, but all those idiot trendies kept insisting that it was over with, and the next thing you know, everybody was playing disco music. The 80s really sucked.
I have to disagree. There were great bands. Black Flag. Circle Jerks. Dead Kennedys. Roach Motel...
I used to go to A7. I saw a lot of the early hardcore scene. But if the 80s had ruled, those bands would have gone further. Sold more records. Taken over MTV.
Hello? Beastie Boys?
They were great. But that was 1988. The 80s were already ending.
You know they started as a punk band.
Did you get laid a lot because you were the editor of Punk?
All the time. Back in the 70s, you still had groupies. You don't have groupies anymore, I notice.
[laughs] They still call them groupies, wearing fishnet stockings, platform shoes and too much makeup?
Wendy Tabb (interrupting): They call them stalkers now.
So, what exactly was Legs McNeil's role, if you were editor?
He was the resident punk. He wrote a few articles, did a lot of press, and hung out at CBGBs. He directed "Nick Detroit" [the first of the fumetti] and that was the most work he ever did.
Roberta Bayley, who did the first Ramones album cover photo, is really hot. I mean, now. Was she that good-looking way back when?
Oh yeah. She's got a gallery show coming up in March at Modern Culture at the Gershwin Hotel that has a self-portrait.
Let's talk about all the dead punks.
Why are they dead?
"All the Young Dudes" turned into "All the Dead Punks." It was drugs. That's what they tell me. But I never saw anyone take drugs at CBGBs. Except the record company guys. The rest of us were too broke to afford them.
You're doing Punk now by yourself. That's DIY, dude. That's what punk has become these days.
Well, it always was. Patti Smith put out "Piss Factory" by herself, and we didn't have much of a choice. Actually, the first person who suggested that I publish my own work and encourage me to do it was Bill Griffith, the cartoonist. He is the guy who does Zippy the Pinhead.
Is that where Ramones got it from?
I think they got it from Tod Browing's Freaks. A movie that was big in the 70s.
How'd you end up at High Times?
The first guy to take a real interest in Punk magazine was Tom Forçade. He was the mysterious founder of High Times. He walked into Punk's offices, the Punk Dump, stuck his cowboy boots on the desk, and said, "I'm gonna make you rich and famous." Then he told us how he was going to do it, gave us each a $100 bill and left.
You ended up working for him?
He died a few years later, and over the years people at High Times would ask me to do this or that. Actually, when Steve Hager, who is currently the editor-in-chief up there, first invited me to HT, he tried to get High Times to bring back Punk magazine.
You hung out with the Ramones. With the Dictators. With fucking Andy Warhol and Sid Vicious. Do you feel you lead a charmed life?
More like a cursed life. I never really hung out with Andy Warhol. But I did hang out with Lou Reed. He is one of the nicest guys I've ever met.
Are you just saying that so he'll play the CBGB show?
I wish. I don't think he will. I'm just saying that because he gets so much bad press.
Probably because he sucks.
That's a horrible thing to say. He is the Frank Sinatra of our generation in my mind. He is our greatest crooner. The Velvet Underground were the greatest band of all time.
They were hippies.
I don't think anybody wasn't a hippie back then. It was the 1960s.
I don't care. They were hippies. And hippies suck.
Well, I was a hippie back in the 60s.
And you seem like one now. Liking the Velvet Underground.
Admit it, you like them, you played their music at the Mars Bar. Stop posing.
Piss off, ya bloke.
Talking like an English punk. Now you're pathetic.
Punk magazine's 25th-anniversary party will be held Weds., Jan. 10, at CBGB, 315 Bowery (Bleecker St.), 982-4052. The 25th-anniversary issue of the magazine will be available at See Hear and Trash & Vaudeville on Jan.12.
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