Find us on Google+ Sam Sinister Official: John Holmstrom (PUNK Magazine)

John Holmstrom (PUNK Magazine)

Originally conducted via email for OUTSIDER Webzine, circa 2002.

So the legend goes that you, Ged Dunn and Legs McNeil started PUNK magazine in... what was it, 1975? Basically, the whole thing was just something to do, a way to cure boredom. You were the editor, Ged was the "financial backer", and Legs was the "resident punk". You decided to make the mag about all of the things you all liked: fast food, comics, cartoons, and these weird rock 'n roll bands that, to your knowledge, no one but you had ever heard of (the Dictators, the Stooges, the Dolls, Modern Lovers

, etc.). Legs came up with the name "PUNK," and it was decided that the name was perfect in summing up what you were all about, and the rest is history. How much of this is accurate?

That's the Legs McNeil version. Believe it or not, he didn't have a whole lot to do with starting the magazine, so that was his take on it. I actually wanted to start the most kickass rock 'n' roll magazine of all time. I wanted to publish a magazine that would do things Creem would never think of. I wanted a magazine that would be the visual equivalent of a punk rock band. I wanted to put out a magazine that would make the whole world stop and pay attention to [it].

It stemmed from my desire to do an Alice Cooper comic book when I was going to the School of Visual Arts. That was my big idea at the time. But I felt that a rock 'n' roll comic book could not be just a superhero comic with a rock star instead of a superhero (which is what 99% of rock comics are like, which is why they suck.) I felt it would have to be innovative, different, bizarre, revolutionary.

At the end of my stay at SVA, [MAD Magazine's] Harvey Kurtzman recommended me for a job as editor of a new humor magazine. For about two weeks I thought it was going to happen, the publisher hired me, etc. Although it turned out to be a scam, the experience broadened my horizons. I was like, "The great Harvey Kurtzman thinks I can edit a magazine! F'N A!" So I thought about starting a magazine instead of a comic book, and it seemed like a cooler thing to do (especially since most comic book types are total geeks!). Also, I was a big magazine reader, and that's how I knew about The Modern Lovers, The Dictators, Ramones, etc.

I knew we weren't the only magazine that would write about these bands... But I wanted to do it in a way that no one else would.

Legs came up with the name, but it was a "duh" moment, as I remember... Ged didn't like my first suggestions (and his opinion mattered since he had the money!), and I started asking, Well, what would I call a magazine that would be about comics, cool movies, and punk rock? And Legs said "Why not just call it Punk?" And that's why I thought it was a brilliant name and jumped all over it. But Legs doesn't remember little details like that...

It was a few days after we thought of the name that I asked what Legs wanted to be listed on the masthead as, and he said "I want to be the Resident Punk." I was like, "Great!"

You've been quoted as saying that you weren't even responsible for coining the term "punk", that the media was using this term for YEARS before the inception of the magazine... what bands were considered "punk" before 1975?

The word "punk" was all over the place in late 1975. Patti Smith was being called the "punk poetess," and other embarrassing stuff. Bruce Springsteen was a "street punk." When I first heard from the English press in early 1975, I saw articles that called AC/DC & the Bay City Rollers "punk rock." Eddie & The Hot Rods were the first English punk rock band (screw what Johnny Rotten says).

(Off the subject, one of the early terms used to describe what was happening at CBGB was "alternative street rock.")

I think someone told me that Greg Shaw, who published Who Put The Bomp magazine, was the first person to use the term. He used it to describe what is now called garage rock -- the American mid-Sixties bands that were inspired by the British Invasion.

But I picked up the term from Creem magazine. They used it to describe certain bands that were harder and louder than the rest: The Stooges, The MC5, Brownsville Station, Alice Cooper, the New York Dolls and many others. In fact, I have a copy of the June 1973 issue of Creem magazine in front of me right now. Alice Cooper is on the cover for winning "Punk of the Year" in their annual Reader's Poll, and also for their "Alcohol Cookbook."

I was possibly the most fanatical Alice Cooper fan in the world from 1972-1974. Back then, Alice Cooper was anti-hippie, drank beer, wore black leather, and played short, fast rock 'n' roll songs. It seemed like the rest of the world was wearing blue jeans and hippie shirts, smoking pot and playing long jams with interminable drum solos. But by 1975, Alice Cooper had become an embarrassment. The New York Dolls were breaking up. A lot of
bad records were coming out. Disco was starting to become big.

The Dictators first LP came out that summer. Amazing. They were definitely more punk than any band before them.

Punk rock was an offshoot from glam rock, since the Stooges and Alice Cooper were both considered glam bands, but you couldn't put them in the same category as Elton John, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Jobriath, KISS, Wayne County et al. (Slade was kind of in the middle.) There's a lot of confusion lately in that a lot of bands that were glam are now considered punk. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Punk was a reaction against glitter and glam. Glam was about excess. Punk was about minimalism. Glam was about fashion--platform boots, spandex, makeup. Punk was anti-fashion--sneakers, denim, leather. Glam was about theatrics and flash. Punk was about fast and loud.

I groaned when I saw the Pistols become so popular in 1977, because they brought this whole fashion thing with them, and they sported more glam rock influences than any band before them. The music was great, but their image carried a lot of baggage...

I'll leave off by saying that I ran into Steven Tyler in 1978, and when we were introduced he said, "You know, when we first started, people called us punk rock..." Seemed kind of wistful when he said it.

Christ, Aerosmith???

In 1975, Aerosmith was like the hot new loud rock 'n' roll band. What can I say, it's ancient history. There were no Pistols nor Ramones to listen to. Just "Disco Duck," and Disco Tex and his Sex O'Lettes...

How old were you when you started the magazine? Do you ever feel like you're getting too old for rock 'n roll?

I was 22 when we started. At the time, I wasn't sure if I was too old for rock 'n' roll or not. I wasn't thinking long term though.

I know I am too old nowadays to do certain things. F'rinstance, I mention on our website that I am too old to review pop-punk bands -- even though I'll still comment on them (I think anyone over 21 might have to make that disclaimer). But old guys like me are good for certain things.

I worked for Will Eisner when he came out of retirement and started republishing The Spirit -- I left my job at his uptown office to start Punk. I am about the same age now as he was then. No one thought he was too old to republish The Spirit.

It's one reason I decided to be a cartoonist instead of a musician or actor. People don't think a cartoonist is too old to draw funny pictures. But obviously, it's a bit absurd for someone to start a band at my age and expect it to get anywhere.

There's been alot of books coming out in the last few years about "the history of punk" and whatnot. In most of 'em they make it sound like punk ended in '79 and the movement destroyed itself. In a lot of ways maybe this is true, but the movement did go on... it just changed. Throughout the last 25 years though, there have always been bands who kept the same spirit alive as they had in the '70s. What's your opinion..? Do you think punk died and had a revival in the '90s, or do you think it just wasn't in the public eye?

I am ambivalent about ending the story in 1979, but then again, it was an end. When hardcore started, I rarely got the idea that those kids felt they were carrying on the punk rock thing. It was a separate movement. I never felt that grunge was a punk rock revival either.

Punk was definitely considered dead and finished with in 1979 by most of the civilized world -- even though I knew it wasn't. You had to read some of the stuff in the media: "Punk's rotting corpse," "Punk Rock, RIP," etc. Writers and editors were sharpening their pencils to write "Punk is dead!" as soon as it began. There was always a reaction against it, and when there was no commercial success after a while, and then Blondie had a hit with a disco record, well, it certainly seemed dead at the time.

I remember Joey Ramone saying in late 1979/early 1980 that he felt like the Ramones were the last rock 'n' roll band in the world because they would never, ever make a disco record, at a time when every other punk band, from the Clash to Lou Reed, was going disco. It was F'N scary.

I remember Richard Robinson (Rock Scene editor) declared that it was all over when the Ramones' first record came out in April 1976. For him, the scene was interesting when it featured all these great unsigned bands, so the underground rock scene in New York ended at that moment in time.

The thing is -- I knew that punk rock was not dead. Magazine sales were never stronger, and I could sense from our reader mail that it was just beginning to get big out there in the hinterlands. New bands like The Misfits were amazing -- they absolutely knocked me out. I still imagine what it would have been like to continue to publish PUNK with a great cover story on them! The Cramps were still around, bands like The Fleshtones, B-52s, Red Transistor with Von Lmo -- lots of great stuff! The kid punk bands like The Stimulators in NYC and the Stratford Survivors in Connecticut. The Ramones and Suicide were still around. A lot of great punk bands were playing -- many more than in 1976 when there really weren't any.

You also had all that No Wave stuff, which I hated. Would have been lots of fun to rip it to pieces!

But the mass media had declared that the Sex Pistols were punk rock, and once they broke up, the game was over. Record company people laughed at me, asked me when I was going to change the name of the magazine... I'd answer "Punk is forever" and they'd think I was nuts. So obviously we weren't going to get much record company support if we kept publishing. (Then again, we never did!)

It took me a long time before I gave up on the idea of reviving PUNK magazine. I shopped a book compilation around, I tried to make a Nick Detroit movie (HBO was very interested at one point), I did what I could. Probably the last straw came when we published the DOA Filmbook.

DOA: A Right of Passage (Sex Pistols US tour documentary) came out and flopped. And the special issue we published didn't sell all that well. So that kind of convinced me to move on.

So did "punk" end in 1979? Sure it did! That's when PUNK magazine stopped publishing.

Any current favorites as far as bands? What's been on your playlist lately?

Peelander-Z is a great live band, I like them a lot. I'd say they have "superstar" potential. The Mud City Manglers from Pittsburgh sent us a CD that is truly great, as good as any punk CD from the 1970s.

Of course, The Bullys are already an immortal punk band here in NYC, I sometimes forget to mention them 'cause I don't think of them as a new band anymore. Anyhow, Johnny Heff was a true rock 'n' roll original, a great songwriter and a true punk rocker and he should never be forgotten.

I enjoy Charm School, they remind me of early Blondie in a lot of good ways. Jolly (PUNK's eternal Resident Punk) is very high on The Kings of Nothin' from Boston.

I want to restart PUNK because I think there are a lot of great bands worth writing about & working with. And I am hoping to find some maverick young journalists. But magazines and websites publish so much crap it seems like there aren't many examples of good writing to inspire people. Most of the writers who send me stuff send me samples of the same old crapola. So if I can pull this off I will have my work cut out for me.

[In Please Kill Me,] Legs McNeil makes it seem like he was buddies with all of the bands. Did you guys really knock around with bands, or were most of 'em really like "rock star" types?

We (Legs and I, and others from PUNK) hung out at CBGB's all the time (stopping by Max's once in a while), so the bands that hung out there, we hung out with. That'd be the Dead Boys (esp. Stiv, Cheetah, and Jimmy), Joey Ramone, Dee Dee (but not Johnny and Tommy, who didn't hang out), and many other people from the scene. James Wolcott (big name writer now), Andy and Jonathan Paley (Andy became a producer and worked with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys) and many other people.

I was often working on the magazine. Legs barely worked on it, so he had more time to hang out, therefore he got in tighter with a lot of people. But he was also homeless -- especially on the occasions that Ged Dunn, Jr., the publisher, would get fed up with Legs' bullshit and throw him out of the Punk Dump. Legs would end up staying with Dee Dee, Joey and Arturo for awhile.

Legs also became very close with Dee Dee from [doing] Please Kill Me, which started out as Dee Dee's autobiography. It's funny that they were working together, since Dee Dee and Joey wrote the first draft for the book when Legs and I did an article for SPIN called "We're a Happy Family," where it was revealed for the first time that there were animosities within the Ramones.

I ran into the Ramones shortly after it was published and never felt so much hatred from a group of people in my life! And Dee Dee said, "I should KICK YOUR ASS for that! I am gonna KICK YOUR ASS!" So, it was the big bad journalists picking on the poor Ramones... Forget the fact that, before it was published, they were all so eager to dish dirt on each other. And Legs and I tried to run the most innocuous material. Nope!

We were their mortal enemies!

So what does Dee Dee do? He works with Legs on his autobiography, of course! Guess he forgot about kicking our ass for writing that horrible article. But Dee Dee would always threaten to kick someone's ass, then forget he said it a day later and be so sweet and innocent... It was one of his lovable qualities. He really was a nice guy down deep. You could never hold a grudge against him because he was so innocent, really.

In the beginning, all the bands would hang out together at CBGB's, and there was absolutely no rock star bullshit from any of the Ramones. They were always approachable, friendly, etc. It was only later that bands developed attitudes.

What did you think of the L.A. scene (X, the Germs, the Weirdos, Plugz, etc.)?

Never liked them, really. I thought that was the beginning of no-wave and hardcore, which I didn't like. Guess I was too old by then.

I can understand about the Germs, they were basically the first hardcore band (even though they came out in '77). But X came out in '76 and were basically a rock 'n roll band. There wasn't much difference between what they were doing and what the Ramones were doing, only instead of bubblegum and Alice cooper, X were pulling influence from country and Chuck Berry. I've only heard a few songs by the Plugz, and I thought they were really good. They were a Mexican punk band whose songs included a cover of "La Bamba" and a spanish version of "Secret Agent Man". Most of the L.A. bands came around the same time as the British first wave. It was all really Beatles and Doors influenced, only faster.

Penny Brignell, our charming, beautiful and intelligent English publicist, just sent me three X CDs that have been re-released by Rhino. I always heard good things about them, and so I will listen to them... Apparently these CDs are the band's later work though... from 1983 on. And I'll keep an eye out for those other bands. I think New York's first exposure to LA punk was The Screamers, and I went to see them and could not stand them.

I am looking forward to hearing new bands now. I don't really care where they come from. One thing struck me though, you rarely hear about The Saints, they're one of my favorite bands from back then and they were from Australia. So punk rock was a worldwide phenomenon from early on.

(Just out of my own curiosity,) What do you think of George Thorogood and the Destroyers? Joan Jett and the Blackhearts? Green Day?

I like a lot of different music. All three of those bands are A-OK in my book. I like the Pretenders also. And a lot of 1960s and 1970s stuff.

Like any music from the '50s?

Yeah, I always liked Chuck Berry. I saw him open for Frank Zappa many years ago and he was 1,000 times cooler. Zappa was an arrogant, overrated hype.

Always liked Bill Haley & The Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis. I got into Elvis in the 1980s (early Elvis only). But I even like doo-wop. Like the first hit song I remember hearing is "Duke of Earl." I think there's a conspiracy theory that I don't like "black music," but nothing could be further from the truth.

Why do you think it is that more black people didn't get involved in punk?

I think the whole problem started with the British Invasion. Can you name one black band from England in the mid-1960s? I can't. I think the British Invasion is when the black audience lost interest in rock 'n' roll. I mean, how could they relate to all those effeminate, English white guys playing bad blues covers? Then the US garage thing, surf music, and all the music that inspired the punk rock thing was all by white teenagers... I haven't come across a black surf band from the 1960s. On the other hand, I've never read any criticism of surf for being so lily white.

The hippie psychedelic thing was mostly young white males, wasn't it? How many hippie psychedelic bands were black? You could say Jimi Hendrix, but he was forced to hire two white guys to back him up so they wouldn't be perceived as a "black group." How many heavy metal bands were black? I can't think of one. How many glam bands were black? How many MTV hair bands were black? How many Seattle grunge bands were black?

I think your question should be "Why didn't more black people get involved in rock music at all, after the early 1960s"? Too many people make this a punk rock problem, but I think we were the inheritors of a despicable white male supremacy thing in rock music, which peaked with the hippies and Rolling Stone magazine. I think punk rock helped tear it down. Yet the rock critic establishment -- comprised of white males who were responsible for establishing this Boys' Club in the first place -- are also responsible for branding PUNK magazine, and me in particular, for being racist... Interesting, eh? I guess we really pissed off those fucking hippies after all. But they never understood what we were up to.

I read somewhere recently that it took Rolling Stone magazine 20 years to hire their first black writer. Well PUNK's staff has always been multicultural -- blacks, Asians, women, whoever -- from the beginning up to the present day. We were never as lily white or male dominated as the scene we were covering. And it's not that easy to find black writers when almost everyone onstage at Max's or CBGB's is white.

You could also ask, "Why do you think it is that more black people don't get involved in punk NOW?" I receive lots of CDs by Hispanic punk bands, Asian punk bands, Scandinavian punk bands, etc., but I don't see any black punk bands sending me tapes. I would have to guess that they're more likely to get into rap music, since it's more lucrative. Maybe if punk rock takes off, a black punk band will come out of nowhere and make it big.

What's the count on you subscribers now? Is the mailing list bigger or smaller than in was in '79?

We aren't selling subscriptions yet. One reason I had to pull the plug on PUNK in 1979 was that we had so many subscribers -- something like 2,500. Printing and mailing an issue to that many subscribers meant we were beyond the "let's stage a benefit and raise the money for one more issue" stage. I needed serious financing by then, but the economy was in even worse shape then than it is now!

So why revive PUNK now? What would you say is the agenda of PUNK Magazine in 2002?

At first, I just wanted to mark the 25th Anniversary with a special issue. But since getting back into the scene I am amazed at the number of good, even great, punk rock bands out there. It seems to be a renaissance. It's as if, after 25 years, people have finally figured out how to do it right. So I am hoping to get PUNK back so we can kickstart the scene into high gear and help separate the good underground bands from the mediocre bands that know how to market themselves.

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