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interview with john holmstrom (PUNK magazine)
FORUM
PUNK magazine online

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 the things you all liked: fast food, comics, cartoons, and these weird rock n roll bands that, to your knowledge, noone 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 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 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 werent 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 the 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 & 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??? what a bunch of fuckin tossers.

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 youre 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 what not. in most of em they make it sound

like punk ended in 79 and the movement destroyed itself. in alot 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 70's. what's your

opinion...? do you think punk died and had a revival in the 90's 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.

 

legs always 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 CBGBs all the time

(stopping by Max's once in a while), so the bands that hung out there, we

hung out with. That's 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 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 CBGBs 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 wasnt 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 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 50's?

Yeah, I always liked Chuck Berry. I saw him open for Frank Zappa many years

ago and he was 1000 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 didnt 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 CBGBs 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 2500.

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.

 

-SS