John Holmstrom - back in the day
PUNK
John Holmstrom

As we’ve all lived & learnt by now – Punk rock was American way before it was British. The Kinks may have been British but the producer that helped them find THAT guitar sound, Shel Talmy, was American. Atlantic ping-pong has been playing now since WW2. We may well have exported the attitude of The Stones, the showmanship of The Yardbirds & the Pop-Art expressionism of The Who to the USA, but it was The Sonics, The 13th Floor Elevators, The Standells, The Seeds, The Remains & thousands of other US garage bands that planted the roots of what we have come to know & love as Punk Rock.

A couple of years prior to Sniffin’ Glue, 1977 & all that, Punk Magazine was documenting the NY Punk scene of 1975/76. Established by John Holmstrom, Legs McNeil & Ged Dunn Jnr, Punk Magazine soon became the last word in independent publishing & fast established itself as the template all future R&R fanzines would imitate.

Original copies of early issues of Punk now change hands for upwards of £50.00 a copy. Why trakMARX itself recently paid a not insubstantial £35.00 for a mint copy of Issue 8 featuring The Sex Pistols on the cover. We understand negotiations are underway for a Punk Compendium similar to Sanctuary’s recent Sniffin’ Glue collection.

Jean Encoule recently caught up with Punk founder, John Holmstrom, to get the juice on Punk’s history, NYC punk’s history & the John Holmstrom story.


trakMARX - When did you first come across the term "Punk"?

Can't remember. I'm sure it was in a gangster movie or a comic book.

trakMARX - What do you consider the parameters of the term when applied to music/art?

Nowadays things are very mixed up. A lot of what is called "punk" in music doesn't have anything to do with what it meant in the 1970s. In fact, I am not sure there's anything very punk nowadays. The original punk-rock band was probably Suicide. They were shocking in being minimalist - one keyboard player and one singer who made a more threatening noise than ten guitar players - and by confronting their audiences. Alan Vega would start fist-fights with people in the audience, or do crazy stuff that scared people out of the room! He was so intense and insane. They wouldn't measure a successful concert by how many people showed up, they'd measure by how many people left the room. I can't think of any bands that do anything shocking or scary any more. Everything is so tame and boring nowadays.

To me, anything that is punk should shock in a new way. It should take chances by challenging the status quo. When it's at its best it does so in an intelligent but not intellectual way. Steven Taylor, one of our cover artists back then, reminded me that Alfred Jarry, the original Theatre of the Absurd playwright, might have been the first punk when he staged a play where a character came out onstage and said one word, "Shit," that caused riots in the streets. One word. That's punk.

It's become more and more difficult to shock people. And punk is not just about shock value. But there should be an existential, absurd element to it. Like The Stooges were sort of revolting against existence in their music at the same time hippie bands were protesting the war. Nowadays, a lot of so-called punk bands protest whatever war might be going on. Well, that's an easier path to take. No one will vilify you for it. But that's the point - early punk culture WAS vilified. We were hated! It wasn't that easy to put up with it all the time. And it was impossible to stay in business!

trakMARX - Who do you remember as being the first to use the term to describe their music/art?

The first time I saw the words "punk rock" was in CREEM magazine, to describe Alice Cooper. In fact, Alice was "Punk of the Year" in their 1973 Reader's Poll. CREEM was "punk" crazy at the time. Punk rock was an established art form within their pages in the early 1970s.

But apparently the first band that actually called themselves "punk rock" was Suicide. The book "Fucked Up and Photocopied" found a poster of theirs from 1975 where they use it to describe themselves.

trakMARX - How big an influence was the ghost of Warhol's Factory by the early 70's?

In a way the Warhol scene was an anti-influence, like disco or Yes. And in no way was it a ghost -Warhol was very much alive, and completely dominated the art scene. It was almost impossible to establish credibility as an artist without his blessing, which was suffocating at times. He was an intelligent guy, a good artist, but his many stupid acolytes could be obnoxious. These are the fashionistas, the trendoids who descended on punk early on and changed its meaning from rock 'n' roll to fashion.

Warhol stopped by CBGBs once or twice in 1976 but was not a big presence in punk rock at all. Warhol was a disco fan and a social climber - a constant presence at Studio 54, which was the enemy's lair to most of us. It really bugs me when Andy Warhol is given credit for starting the punk scene. Greg Shaw and Lester Bangs deserve credit for "punk rock." Legs and I started the "punk movement", which is when it began to be used to describe art & movies and stuff.

Legs McNeil was always trying to hang out with Andy because it meant publicity and connections, but I was wary because I was wary that those fashion trendies would chew up punk and spit it out. Which happened. But I guess they couldn't be stopped once they started.

trakMARX - Was the mid 60's US Garage scene a big influence on NYC Punks?

Huge! It's never been given the proper credit for it. The CBGBs jukebox was almost exclusively 1960s garage music, and it was a big reason people came down there and stayed to hang out. Everyone was also aware of the Modern Lovers and Beserkley Records, which was issuing a lot of garage-type music, and of course Greg Shaw's Who Put The Bomp magazine, which covered all that good stuff. As you know, "punk rock" basically meant "garage rock" to most people back then.

Bubblegum was another big influence. People came to see the Talking Heads for two things: "Psychokiller" and their version of "1, 2, 3 Red Light." When we interviewed the Ramones for the first time they said their biggest influences were bubblegum, hard rock and Elvis.

trakMARX - The importance of the Beat Poets & the French Symbolists has often been cited as a major influence on the style & feel of the nascent NYC Punk scene - how important were Burroughs, Ginsberg or Rimbaud to the attitude on the street at this time?

Outside of Patti Smith and Television, I never heard anyone talk about them. The Ramones & The Dictators certainly didn't talk about that stuff. The Ramones talked 1960s rock, The Dictators talked baseball and pro wrestling.

Patti Smith and Television were the two most important bands in New York city in 1975 - before we came on the scene and ruined everything for them. PUNK magazine turned the whole scene upside down. The Ramones were considered a joke by most NYC bands in 1975. PUNK came along and said they were the only band that mattered. The media was trickling down to CBGBs in 1975, but when PUNK magazine came out it was like the dam burst. But we changed the agenda from poetry readings, quoting Rimbaud, long guitar solos and beatnik outfits to punk, burgers, beer, leather jackets and sneakers.
Most of the NYC musicians resented us. They didn't like the idea of the scene being labeled with the 'P-word." Seymour Stein, president of Sire Records who had signed The Ramones, Talking Heads and Dead Boys, even ran a promotional campaign in 1977: "Don't Call It Punk." It appeared on all their letterhead and press releases.

There has always been a Bohemian scene in NYC that all of us respected, but most of the bands weren't poetry students.

trakMARX - NYC had some classik proto-punks in the shape of The Fugs & David Peel - how important were their uncompromising stances to the development of punk?

I think the Fugs and David Peel had a very influential role in NYC rock, but by 1975 they had no direct influence on the punk rock scene. I am friends with David and respect what he did on the Caravan of Love tour with Tom Forcade. (They disrupted a hippie/peace & love festival by playing anarchic noise from some loudspeakers housed on top of Forcade's "deathmobile" Cadillac.) But I don't think any punk rock bands were aware of it. And The Fugs were great writers and put out some interesting records, but they were also both part of a hippie tradition that we at PUNK were out to destroy. We wanted to blow up the music industry and start over again.

I thought one of the cool things back then was how many ex-hippies loved to death the idea that we were out to destroy hippie culture. People like Forcade, Bob Rudnick, Lisa Robinson, Danny Fields etc.

trakMARX - How important was the Detroit axis of The MC5 & The Stooges to Punk Rock?

The biggest influence of all. The Stooges were probably the most important band of all. Their first 3 albums were the blueprint for all the early punk bands all over the world. But at the same time, people did not want to repeat his mistakes. And the MC5 were right behind them in terms of influence, along with Alice Cooper. Those were the three greatest punk rock bands in the early 1970s.

trakMARX - The sounds of the original first wave of NYC Punks were as diverse as they were challenging - where did that diversity come from?

Well, depends on which bands you call "punk." To me there were just two punk rock bands in NYC in 1976: The Ramones and The Dictators. Blondie and The Talking Heads had some punk influence, as did the Tuff Darts and many others. But some of those bands on the CBGB record were just...I mean, Manster? I guess someone had a good angel dust dealer.

CBGBs did enjoy a wide assortment of bands, but I think music in the 1960s and 70s was more diverse, so all these different influences led people to create their own music. PUNK magazine ruined all that. Once we came out and totally dominated the rock scene, all the bands wanted to sound like the Ramones, Pistols, Damned, Stooges etc. Music back then didn't sound the same, the way it does now. No computers.

What is weird is that it was a blueprint for how to be unsuccessful! So you had all these bands who didn't care about selling records, they just wanted to live rock 'n' roll and have fun.

This might sound egotistical but really - it happened. PUNK magazine was, in the words of Glenn O'Brien: "The most important magazine in the world for one year." And that year was 1976, when Legs McNeil created the idea of the "punk movement." There was punk rock before PUNK magazine, but Legs turned it into a movement, and my magazine gave it a forum. The media believed us and punk rock as we know it was born.

trakMARX - Boston & Cleveland had vibrant scenes in the early 70's too - were NYC scenesters aware of people like Rocket From The Tombs, Mirrors & Jonathon Richman @ the time?

I never heard of The Mirrors. We were aware that Rocket From The Tombs and Frankenstein were early incarnations of The Dead Boys but no one had any music by them. Back then, even cassette tapes weren't very common. Everyone listened to vinyl. So unless someone had a record out, most people didn't hear it. I didn't think anything great was happening in Boston except the Modern Lovers, who I think had broken up by 1976. People would tell us about some great band from Boston but they'd turn out to be just another bar band.

trakMARX - Popular consensus rates "Please Kill Me" by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain & "From The Velvets To The Voidoids" by Clinton Heylin as two of the most definitive records of the times - is this a view you subscribe to?

"Definitive records?" You mean books, right? To tell you the truth, I haven't read both of them all the way through. The book I think is the best punk history is "Between Montmarte and the Mudd Club" by Bernard Gendron. Only the last third of the book is about punk, but it contrasts the punk scene with the art cafe scene in Paris in the 1880s (where apparently people were just getting drunk and having fun, just like the early days of punk), and with the early jazz scenes. It's the only book I've read that covers the early history of punk rock at CREEM magazine. Legs' book is a great read but a lot is sensationalistic gossip. It's not a true history of punk, nor does it pretend to be.

trakMARX - What did you make of Griel Marcus "Lipstick Traces" & its theories of a lineage from medieval heretics via the Dada Movement, The Lettrists & The Situationists to Punk Rock?

I never read it. I rarely read books about rock music. But it sure sounds like a bunch of crap to me! I don't remember seeing Griel Marcus at CBGBs in 1976.

trakMARX - Did you have any contact with Malcolm McLarren during his tenure as The Dolls haberdasher (erm, sorry, we mean "manager")?

I didn't have any contact with him then but I did see the Dolls at the Little Hippodrome and I talked a lot with Malcolm on the Pistols 1978 tour. The Dolls were great almost every time I saw them. No one really liked the silly outfits or the Commie flag but what could you do. They were obviously desperate for commercial success, and that's never a pretty sight. Television opened for them the last weekend and that's when I learned about CBGBs - this really cute girl picked me up and told me all about this exciting new rock scene, then somehow she got us into the NY Dolls after party, but I was too nervous to talk with anyone.

Back in 1975 I was just another fan. I had no connections within the scene. That was another thing that was so shocking about the debut of PUNK magazine: No one knew who we were or where we came from. And yet we took New York City and then the worldwide rock 'n' roll scene by storm. Then again, it was such a tiny scene back then! Just two clubs hired bands that played their own music!

Malcolm was the reason why the Pistols became so famous for nothing. His contributions shouldn't be overlooked. He was a very smart guy and played the media brilliantly.

trakMARX - Did Malcolm rip off Richard Hell's attitude & style, Johnny Thunders gtr sound & The Ramones brevity?

I think Malcolm took a lot of elements of the New York scene and transplanted them to London. Steve Jones has said that Thunders was his biggest influence, so I don't think Malcolm had anything to do with that.

An indie filmmaker I know is working on a film about early Television and wants to make the case that they were the first punk rock band in the world. He has a videotape of a rehearsal from 1974 or 75, and they really do look and sound like a punk rock band from London 1977! Everyone in NYC always talked about how great they were before Hell left the band. They weren't all that great when I saw them open for the Dolls in 1975 but that was when Hell was about to leave and they decided to stop playing wild rock 'n' roll.

trakMARX - Around 1975 you were working as a cartoonist when yr. life was changed by Handsome Dick Manitoba, The Dictators & an LP called "Go Girl Crazy" - how did you discover The Dictators & how did they change yr. outlook?

I discovered the Dictators from reading CREEM magazine. I think it was a combination of the record review, a comment made in a Letters to the Editor reply, and the advertisement that encouraged me to buy the Dictators record. This was the first rock 'n' roll record I ever heard that made me laugh out loud. They were funny, different, politically incorrect and great to listen to. A few weeks later I went back to my hometown of Cheshire, CT and played the record for Legs and Ged Dunn Jr.(who became the publisher a few months later), and they seemed to like it as much as I did. We’d get drunk, put on the record and play air guitar and stupid stuff like that.

In 1975 I was working as Will Eisner's apprentice. His office closed down for the summer (like many do in NYC), and that's how I ended up in Cheshire. Ged was running a house painting business, and I worked for him and we hung out with Legs because he was shooting a movie.

trakMARX - You soon founded Punk Magazine with Legs McNeil & Ged Dunn - was the objective really just to drink for free?

No. That was Legs' objective. I wanted to put out the greatest rock 'n' roll magazine of all time.

I knew I had to get Legs interested in contributing, and that was how I got him to do stuff - buy him cigarettes and beer. I still have a contract we wrote when I hired him to do some writing. He scrawled it on the back of a cigarette pack: "I will do writing for John in return for a pack of cigarettes and a six pack of beer."

trakMARX - You originally wanted to call the magazine "Teenage News" after an unreleased Dolls song - what made you change yr. mind?

Ged was putting up the money for the business, and he didn't like the name "Teenage News." I had several other names in mind as well. The name wasn't as important to me as the ideas I had for combining comics & rock 'n' roll and photo comics.

trakMARX - You were the editor, Ged was the publisher & Legs was the "resident punk" - how did you decide on yr. respective roles?

I forget how we decided exactly who would do what, since neither of us had any publishing experience. Ged had expected to be able to raise more money for the business, but was never able to raise enough for PUNK to be run as a real business. He also wanted to back Legs' film ventures, but that quickly fell apart. Legs asked to be the Resident Punk on the trip from Connecticut when we decided on the name PUNK. At the time he wanted a limited role in the magazine because he wanted to work on his films, but he soon regretted that he didn't ask to be a partner. By then it was too late - the stock certificates had been issued.

trakMARX - On yr. 1st trip to CBGB's you caught The Ramones & met Lou Reed - was this a road to Damascus kind of night?

No, there was no epiphany. It was more like a "Hitting the Zillion Dollar Jackpot in Vegas" kind of week.

We had no idea if The Ramones would talk to us that night. Not only did they agree to talk with us, but we had front row center seats! It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and they had played Friday and Saturday as well so there were only around 30-50 people there that night.

Then when we found out that Lou Reed was there, and that he'd give us an interview I was really, really excited. I could not believe my luck. It was almost an out-of-body experience when I realized what this meant. I thought Metal Machine Music was a great record, and had read his interviews with Lester Bangs in CREEM and knew I'd be stepping in the ring with the world heavyweight champion of rock 'n' roll interviews - and this was the second time I ever interviewed anyone - The Ramones being my first! After one minute I knew I had an amazing interview and could barely contain my excitement - although I played the whole thing very cool. I did my best to maintain my composure.

I knew that this interview would put PUNK on the map. Mary Harron and Legs were with me during the interview and didn't understand why I was so excited afterwards. They thought Lou was just some nasty jerk. Neither of them understood Lou's importance in the world of rock journalism at that time. I think they had a vague understanding that he played in the Velvet Underground but were unaware that he had become one of the hottest concert acts with his live record "Rock 'N Roll Animal" or any of his controversial solo stuff like "Berlin." And they sure didn't understand that he gave me exactly the kind of interview I needed so I could make a funny comic strip out of it - I was like writing it in my mind as we talked. It was the greatest night of my life.

On Thanksgiving I had dinner with Harvey Kurtzman and his family. Robert Crumb was also there. I was really excited to meet him, I was a huge fan of his work. So it was quite a week! I think we named the magazine that week too! And it was printed about a month later - on New Year's Eve.

trakMARX - Lou Reed had a reputation for being difficult in those days – how was that 1st encounter?

What most people might not understand is that Lou was very generous with his time. I was a no-body. He just as easily could have told us to get lost. There was no obvious benefit for him to do an interview with me. For all he knew I didn't even have a magazine!

And I thought he was being very funny! I understood he was just living up to his image. I thought he was treating me with kid gloves, really. He was more than capable of verbally kicking my ass, but he didn't.

After the issue came out, he told me he had completely forgotten about the interview and then saw the PUNK cover at a newsstand and was totally blown away by it. He loved it! Danny Fields set up a meeting and we became friends for a while. He's one of the nicest people I ever met.

trakMARX - The first Issue of Punk featured yr. cartoon of Lou on the cover was it meant as a radical departure or just cheaper than paying a photographer?

I wanted PUNK to be a rock 'n' roll humor magazine. My original idea was to do an Alice Cooper comic book, so I had planned on a cartoon cover from the beginning.

trakMARX - Those "Watch Out - Punk Is Coming" flyers must be collectors items by now, right?

I don't think there are any original flyers left. They weree all glued to lamp posts and walls. I have been toying with the idea of issuing a limited edition of them.

trakMARX - How many issues did Punk run for?

Fifteen issues, from 1976-1979, plus a special edition "Filmbook" for the release of the "DOA: A Right of Passage" movie published in 1981. Of course, then there's PUNK #0, published in 2000, to add to the collection.

trakMARX - Was it a financial success?

Never made money with it. It never sold well on newsstands. It sold great through direct accounts like record stores, bookstores or even clothing stores, but at your typical mom & pop newsstand it never moved. Plus, the major labels rarely advertised because they didn't sign many punk rock bands and there weren't any independent record labels to speak of at the time.

Most important, with magazines you have to publish three or four issues in a row to attract advertisers and get newsstand display. We always had some disaster prevent us from putting out three in a row.

trakMARX - You issued a 25th anniversary edition in 2000 which hinted that Punk may return full time. Is this still a possibility?

Yeah, I am trying. But I want to set it up so we publish those three in a row, at least!

trakMARX - Sniffin Glue recently appeared as a compendium in the UK with additional essays & comments from Mark P & Danny Baker. Is this something you would consider for Punk Magazine?

Yeah, of course! Hey, maybe I should talk to those guys about a deal, eh? The biggest complaint I heard about the PUNK: The Original "best of" book I put out in 1996 was that we didn't publish all the issues. A lot of people have been after me to publish reprints of the back issues. I think a complete collection of PUNK back issues would sell great! And I'd enjoy commenting on it. I got a lot of war stories. Once in a while I put them in the Listening Parties on our Website (www.punkmagazine.com).

trakMARX - Finally, enuff about the past already. What has John Holmstrom been up to in the ensuing years? We understand you run The High Times (Sativa & Indica consumers bible - Dope Ed.). How is the present & what does the future hold?

In 1987 I was enticed into working at HIGH TIMES magazine. The founder, Tom Forcade, was a backer of PUNK back in the 1970s and even paid our way on the Sex Pistols US Tour, where he made the "DOA: A Right of Passage" movie, so it's always been a friendly place for Legs McNeil and I. The editor at the time wanted to make HIGH TIMES more like the original PUNK. We did put out some great issues in the late 1980s, but then things changed and they wanted to be more like a hippie magazine so it was a tough situation for me to adapt to. After practically starving as a freelancer in the 1980s I didn't want to go back to that. So during the 90s I switched jobs to the publisher, and did a decent job, and then switched to Web Producer, and learned a little bit about this and that. I left in 2000 to start PUNK up again.

We published PUNK #0 in early 2001, but events since then - Joey Ramone passing away, 9/11, the stock market crash - have made it almost impossible to revive PUNK like I thought I could. I have a bunch of other ideas for books and comic strips and stuff. Things are very up in the air for me righ now. I really have no idea what the future holds. I get a lot of weird offers though!

Guy Debored - trakMARX.com – Sept 2002PUNK issue fourteenPUNK issue elevenPUNK issue eightPUNK issue fourPUNK issue threePUNK issue one
PUNK covers
Links - get some punk culture, get some culture punk
Check it: www.punkmagazine.com
Harvey Kurtzman: members.tripod.com/harveyawards/2000_HKTributept1
Will Eisner: willeisner.tripod.com
Robert Crumb: www.crumbproducts.com


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