John Holmstrom talks about founding and editing ‘Punk,’ the chronicle of late-'70s New York
In the summer of 1975, John Holmstrom saw the Ramones at CBGBs and bought the Dictators’ debut album Go Girl Crazy!
These experiences, as he recounts in the new book The Best of Punk Magazine, out now, “totally rewired my mind.”
At the time, Holmstrom was a 21-year-old student at the School for Visual Arts in Manhattan. His high school classmate Eddie “Legs” McNeil—who would later co-edit the bestseller Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk—was living at a hippie film commune on 14th Street called Total Impact, and directing the occasional feature-length porn film. But that Fall, their mutual friend Ged Dunn Jr. arrived in town with $5,000. Newly flush, the three men decided to start a magazine dedicated to rock & roll. This, they believed, would grant them scene cred and, more importantly, give them an excuse to hang out with the Dictators.
Punk’s first issue—released in November 1975 and printed on four sheets of folded tabloid newsprint—featured interviews with Lou Reed and the Ramones. Holstrom contributed a salty editorial entitled: “Death to Disco Shit! Long Live the Rock!” and McNeil starred in a photo comic in which he fails to pick up girls outside CBGBs.
The style—raw, messy, witty, inappropriate—nailed the essence of the burgeoning punk scene. James Wolcott, writing in the Village Voice, called Punk “the ululations of the new zeitgeist.”
“Just a few weeks ago, I’d been a nobody,” Holmstrom recalls in the book. “Now, I was the editor of the hottest magazine in New York.”
Punk released just 17 issues before finally flaming out in the summer of 1979, weighed down by overhead costs and a lack of newsstand sales. But in those years, it both captured and shaped the rise of punk in New York City. In the book, Holstrom and his co-editor, Bridget Hurd, have collected the best comics, artworks, rants and photographs that Punk published. An introduction by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein precedes dozens of off-color interviews with artists like Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Brian Eno, and the Clash. Holmstrom strings it all together by supplying the highly amusing back-stories behind each issue.
I spoke with Holmstrom recently by phone to discuss the meaning of punk (and Punk), the inspiration for the magazine, what it was like to interview Lou Reed at CBGBs in 1975, and more.
Punk went out of business over 30 years ago. Why is this book coming out now?
I’ve been trying to get this out for 10 years. There was a failed collaboration between Legs and me, and a failed attempt to pitch the book in 2008, after the economic meltdown. It was supposed to come out a year ago, but I had to get permission from everybody for every photo and drawing, and then scan everything and track down all the original artwork. It took me longer to do this book than to put out the magazine!
Some people think you invented the term “punk” as it’s now understood. What was the status of the word when you started Punk?
Punk rock already existed, but I think we helped define what it meant. I was a fan of punk rock in ‘74. Alice Cooper was on the cover of Creem that year as “Punk of the Year.” I was a big fan of the Stooges, MC5, the New York Dolls, and it was those trashier, grungier, hard rock glam bands that were punk. Glam started to turn punk around ‘74. There was a turn to this sound and look that wasn’t on most people’s radar. Legs thinks the name for the magazine came out of his love for “Kojak” and gangster movies, where cops call the bad guys “punks.” The truth is, I’d asked him: What do we call a magazine about punk rock? And he said: Why don’t you just call it Punk?
And yet Legs left the magazine after the first issue.
The original idea was to have a film company and magazine together. But where the film company quickly fell apart, the magazine took off like a rocket. Legs wasn’t a magazine or music guy, he was a film guy. At the time he was doing these public service announcements and anti-cigarette commercials, one of which involved him pretending to shoot up with a cigarette, equating smoking with heroin. Which is ironic because he’s the biggest cigarette smoker in the world. We don’t talk anymore, but the last I heard he’s still at three or four packs a day.
Why do you think the magazine caught on so quickly? Within a couple weeks, you guys were the biggest deal in town.
We were at the right place at the right time, and I knew it. There’d been a few articles about bands like Television and the Ramones, and CBGB’s was also just starting to take off. CBGB’s fascinated everyone at the time because it was on the Bowery. People were afraid to go there. There were bums drinking at the bar, begging for change outside. But we captured the moment, I guess. We got the CBGB’s door girl, Roberta Bayley, to shoot our photos. She was an amateur photographer but she took the earliest group shots of the Ramones, one of which wound up on the cover of their first record. Mary Harron [director of I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho] did her first interview ever with the Ramones for issue one.
And you did your first interview with Lou Reed, which must have been interesting.
I’d actually tried to interview the Ramones at CBGBs a few minutes before, but it didn’t really work out. Then somebody told me Lou was there. I was this dumb kid, but for some reason he let me hang out with him all night. He wasn’t exactly friendly, and I kept waiting for him to say ‘OK, put away the recorder.’ But he didn’t. I’d recently bought Metal Machine Music [Reed’s notoriously cacophonous, experimental fifth solo album] in quadrophonic sound, so you could listen to it on four speakers, and Lou tried to buy it from me. He also offered to buy my reel-to-reel tape recorder, which he was impressed by. But when he saw himself on the cover of the magazine a couple weeks later, he really liked it. He called me up about it.
Did you guys think you were making a music magazine or an art magazine, or something in between?
Musicians played rock & roll. So what we wanted to do was make a magazine that was rock & roll, instead of being about rock & roll. I wanted the visual equivalent of rock & roll. Back then, rock & roll was being used to describe bands like Air Supply and Simon and Garfunkel and all these horrible soft rock bands. To me that was just pop music. But punk was faster and louder and more like the original rock & roll that scared people in the ‘50s. Growing up in the ‘50s, rock music was a menace. And so were comics. Rock & roll was bad for you, and comics rotted your brain, so I thought: What about a comic book about rock & roll?
Despite being the most talked about magazine in 1976, Punk struggled for the rest of its four-year run. Why was it so hard to keep it afloat?
Glenn O’Brien, a writer for Interview who later became an editor at High Times, once said that Punk was “the most important magazine in the world for one year.” Our first issue got a glowing write-up in England’s New Musical Express. It was selling out in London, where people paid the equivalent of about 12 bucks an issue. But it was tough to get the newsstand guys in the states to display it. Then the English punk scene exploded with the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and suddenly the Brits were bored with the USA’s brand of punk. This was also during the Carter administration. Carter, who was a Southern Baptist, is said to have walked onto the White House lawn and said, “We have to stamp this punk rock thing.” I voted for Reagan because I hated Jimmy Carter so much.
But you had still plenty of supporters in New York.
We did. At our peak, for Issues 7 and 8, we were printing 20,000 copies. A guy named Tom Forcade, an underground journalist and activist, was helping us distribute it nationally. Tom was a huge fan of punk. He founded the Yippies, and when they stopped being radical enough he started the Zippies. He also founded High Times. He once threw a pie in the face of the chairman of the Committee on Obscenity and Pornography. Anyway, Tom was going to start a distribution press to help magazines like Punk, Interview and Trouser Press get on newsstands. But then somebody shot Larry Flint, who distributed Hustler and High Times, and that screwed up their cash flow. Issue 18 got pulled off the press by the owner of the company. Then everybody started dying. Tom killed himself. Sid killed Nancy, then Sid killed himself. All the bands were breaking up. Around 1979 I remember Joey Ramone saying to me ‘We’re the last rock & roll band left!’ We didn’t know about the hardcore scene yet or the West Coast bands. Some people blamed the death of punk on Punk. When it died, we thought that was the end. But, of course, it was really the beginning.
John Holmstrom will appear to launch 'The Best of Punk Magazine' at Powerhouse Arena on January 11 from 6–8 p.m.
All images by Roberta Bayley, courtesy 'Punk' magazine.