Thirsty interviews John Holmstrom of PUNK magazine

 - By Sarah L. Myers

December 18, 2007

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John Holmstrom is the main authority on punk rock. He even helped cement the genre's title. Taking a cue from Brando's "Wild One," Holmstrom, along with Legs McNeil and Ged Dunn Jr., asked "whataya got?" then rebelled against it. It was prog rock and disco, the patent sheen of Studio 54's New York City.

PUNK debuted in January 1976 - Lou Reed graced that first cover. Holmstrom and company blew the lid off Blondie, Iggy Pop, and the Ramones. Staff writer Roberta Bayley's interview with Sid Vicious captured him at his most vulnerable - "My basic nature's gonna kill me in six months" he says from a bed in Queens. He had just overdosed and the Sex Pistols had just called it quits.

After more than 20 years in hibernation, PUNK is back. Holmstrom is doing it all over again - exposing his New York City the only way he knows how. And that includes comics, beer, snot, bad attitudes, and Bullys. Below is our conversation with the man that started it all.

 

Thirsty: What’s the story behind PUNK magazine’s revival?

John Holmstrom: Well, I was at High Times for thirteen years and I left and it seemed to me that punk rock has still not died even though they told us in 1979 it was dead forever. It just seemed to be getting bigger and bigger, and I figured, hey, maybe I could bring back the magazine. So, you know, I had some money in my pocket from working at High Times and I published an issue in January 2001. And things went really well, we got a lot of publicity, there was excitement about it, and I was preparing a business plan based on our sales and projections of what we could do. And I had a nice office on Fulton Street and Nassau, which had a great view of the World Trade Center and we had our first real business meeting planned on September 11th. So that was that.

How were you able to come back from that?

It took about three years before we could even climb out of the wreckage because the investment scene had already pretty much evaporated between the time I decided to start the magazine and before 9/11. The stock market had crashed and the venture capital scene was drying up already. Then the economy… it took two or three years. People kind of forget now but, you know, people were spooked for a long time and everybody was spending their money on gas masks and parachutes, so they could jump out of the tall buildings when they get crashed into by planes. People were crazy. So, you know, we continued to try to raise the money but, you know, now the story is that magazines are just not an attractive vehicle for most investors, because so many of them are going out of business. There’s a big shake up still going on in publishing. There are still successes and I think the successes are mostly in the fields relating to punk. You know, Juxtapoz magazine has done really well, it went from a small scene to a serious art magazine now. And then AP, Alternative Press, is like, it looks like Rolling Stone now. It’s huge. So I would think we could do pretty well. So thanks to Mickey (Leigh) and we managed to raise a little extra money, we were able to publish three issues. We’re about to do a fourth, and then we’re gonna see. We’ve got a number of investors lined up who are really interested and the possibilities. We’ve got great sales growth and have been received really well, and its kind of nice. I think PUNK could do pretty well. I was at this London Edge New York show and somebody was about to launch a magazine there and they’re talking about printing half a million copies, that’s huge.

How did you get your staff together for that first issue back?

The one in 2001? That was easy. I just emailed and called. Everybody was anxious to get involved and do something. We’re like a band that never broke up. The only people who said no were the people who departed. We couldn’t get Lester Bangs or Pam Brown. They’re gone. Everybody had fun working at PUNK in the old days. Everybody liked it. And everybody was very sad when we were put out of business in 1979.

Why did PUNK go out of business?

There was a whole bunch of things. It wasn’t just one thing. The guy, Tom Forcade, of High Times, had been helping us. He committed suicide. Then Sid was arrested for killing Nancy. Actually, first it was Sid killing Nancy, then Tom Forcade killed himself. Then Sid killed himself. Then our printer refused to print us anymore. And the distributor refused to distribute us anymore. They said, ‘you’re free, you can distribute yourself.’ We weren’t able to… the paper prices were going up. This was when the car inflation hit, and the hostage crisis happened. And I had a number of personal problems going on. My father died. We had problems with our, the guy we had hired as a publisher developed a heroin habit, you know, just one thing after another after another. And everybody was saying in 1979, “Punk is dead. Punk is dead.” Cause Blondie had that hit with “Heart of Glass”, they were like “Punk is dead. Disco is the thing.” …Then around the same time D.O.A, the Sex Pistols documentary that Tom Forcade had tried to put together. He documented the Sex Pistols’ United States tour. It’s bootlegged, you can find it on eBay. This film has the original Sid and Nancy interview which inspired the film and everything else. But that had a lot of footage from the tour. It had Sham 69, the Dead Boys, X-Ray Spex, Billy Idol in the studio cutting “Kiss Me Deadly” with Generation X - great stuff in it. So they approached us about doing a special magazine about the film and that came out in 1981. And the film bombed, and the magazine didn’t get out there, so we produced another collectors item! Cause I’ve seen this issue on sale for 100 dollars, at record shows and stuff. But that was pretty much the nail in the coffin, you know, it seemed like punk was getting big again in 1981. I’d go to discos and people would be, you know, pogo dancing to Sid Vicious, we still couldn’t make any runs. Punk was still a very small, underground phenomenon.

Tell me about PUNK #21 - A Tribute to CBGB.

That one was a killer. Everything came in so late. And what’s happened with every issue is there’s so much work to do after the magazine comes out that it’s been interfering with the ability to produce the next one. Richard Lloyd (Television) approached me about doing his record cover so while we talked about the cover design I did the interview. And Sesu (Coleman), the Magic Tramps I’ve known about, you know, I’d seen that flyer floating around the first show at CBGBs and I was really fascinated by that. And I’d seen the Magic Tramps back in the day. And Eric Emerson was a legendary figure in New York back then. So I thought he’d be good. I looked up Lenny (Kaye) just like six weeks before it went to press, I just figured we needed something like, you know, the guy who was always there. The guy who was there at the beginning, the middle, and the end. And I thought he did a great job of putting everything in perspective, for like the end piece. And then Shorty Shea approached me about getting a few of the hardcore bands . I couldn’t get any 1980s bands, and I put our feelers for that, so I got Sick Of It All. But, you know, Godlis and Roberta (Bayley) are just right down the street so I talked to them about all the photos. So I went through, I wanted originally to get Bob Gruen, Roberta, and Godlis, but Roberta and Godlis had more photos than I could possibly use. I went through Roberta’s stuff and afterwards she’s like, ‘You’re out of your mind! You picked out 70 pictures!’ And Godlis was worse, because he had even more! He ended up shooting into the 1980s. I went through like four books of his contact sheets, and then he’s like, ‘I have all these!’ And I’d been there for three hours looking at all these pictures. I was like, we’ll just stop here. And I wanted to get Clayton (Patterson), I wanted to get a political thing in there so I talked to Clayton about writing something for us. We’d been talking for awhile. I mean, getting someone to contribute to PUNK has been pretty easy because people feel very honored, so we’ve been able to get a pretty cool bunch of contributors.

How did the Sid and Nancy issue coming together? (PUNK #20)

Well, I know Eileen (Polk). Eileen actually did some stuff for me at High Times. She interviewed Tommy Chong, and she did a great job. I knew from Eileen back in the day. Eileen’s mom owned a small townhouse, but to me it was big, on 12th street. And she would throw these great parties. She invited us to a party in January, February 1976 and it was pretty much like coming-out party. It’s when we met everybody in the scene. We didn’t know people in the New York rock scene before then. I had been hanging out at concerts and shows but I didn’t like hang out and get to meet people. I was on the edges. Legs and Ged Dunn Jr. had no idea what the rock n’ roll scene was about. I was the rock n’ roll guy. Ged was like shopping at Barney’s and wanted to become an investment banker or something. So she threw this great party and that’s when I met Joey Ramone and we got to be good friends after that, and this band The Marbles was there, Johnny Thunders was there. All these people were there at this fabulous townhouse. She had a great basement for parties and a really nice living room so, yeah, Eileen was one of the first people I met on the scene. So I knew she had these pictures of Sid. In fact, she has the swastika t-shirt. She was good friends with Sid, as you can see from her article. And we had been in touch over the years. We talked about doing something, we’re talking about doing some other things. She wants to do a whole book, I’m trying to help her get her book published. So that’s pretty much how that came together.

What’s your connection with The Bullys? You said they’re one of the reasons you started PUNK again.

This guy, Wayne Rannelli (PUNK magazine contributor, passed away early this year) sent me their CDs and he wrote for them on the Pot List on High Times. And he’s like, “John, you gotta see these guys. They’re just like the Dictators and the Dolls and the Dead Boys. They’re great.” (At the time) I didn’t know who this guy was. But I made a note of it and I went to see them and I was really impressed. It was sometime, I think, in early 2000. And he was right. It was just like seeing the Dolls or one of the old-school bands back in the day. I saw some other good bands, too. I started seeing that there was still - it was a more vital club scene, it was returning to the roots of rock n’ roll. If I saw bands in the 1980s or early 1990s it seemed like they were drawing on glam rock or country or, they weren’t that interesting to me. But I thought The Bullys were really great, especially Johnny Heff (guitarist), who was like their front man. I wanted to start the magazine and put them on the cover. But that was the saddest thing about 9/11 was finding out that Johnny was gone. I had forgotten that he was a fireman, and it was a couple days, it was like the Thursday or Friday afterwards. Alberto from Wowsville, this cool record shop that used to be on this street, gave me the news and I was devastated. Everybody thought Walter Lure (The Heartbreakers) was probably going to be a victim cause Walter used to work in the World Trade Center, but turned out he’d quit his job a few months before, so he was ok.

How long did it take everybody to get back on their feet after September 11th?

I don’t know. A lot of people didn’t. I think there’s people who never came back from 9/11. I know I’ll never be the same, just like - a really horrible event. And the subsequent events did not make things any easier, you know? That fucker Bin Laden is still out there. Bush has everybody running around in Iraq. It’s just madness, it’s all crazy. I can’t make sense out of anything since 9/11. That’s why I take comfort in punk rock. It’s something I know.

What effect did those events have on the music scene?

Well, there was something else going on with 9/11 and that’s this urban renewal project that’s been going on since the 1970s. And since it claimed the club scene, the clubs just keep closing one after the other. So I think (that’s) had a bigger effect on things.

Where do you see the scene going from this point?

Nobody knows. No one knows. Everyone’s asking that question. Where do you think it’s going? I know the Trash Bar (Williamsburg, Brooklyn), which Walt handles in Brooklyn is a destination. There’s a place called Midway in the East Village that I haven’t checked out yet, but I’ve seen some bands I recognize on the bill. I mean, the club scene will survive but it’s getting smaller and smaller. When you think the Continental is like a big club compared to most places now, it’s really weird. Williamsburg is not long for this world. That will be gone in ten years.

Were you at the last show at CBGBs?

Yeah, I was at the last show. It was great fun. It was like a celebration. It was not like a funeral, it was a celebration. I was there all day. I just came down. I didn’t think I could get in the show. I didn’t have a ticket. So I just hung out at the gallery, and I was talking to Karen Kristal, Hilly’s ex-wife, who actually was the owner for most of the time. And she told me how she met Hilly. I guess they met at an opera singing class or something in the 1930s, you know. And she was an older woman and stuff. Before the club closed Hilly told me, you know, he had aspirations to be a musician himself and in 1961 he brought out a single they expected to be a big hit. Something like “Man of the Sky” and it was about the first man in space, John Glenn. Well, the first American in space. And they pressed the single and they got it out there, and then the Cuban Missile Crisis happens. So the record flopped. This is the history of punk rock! Is one disaster after another. Every time it seemed like punk rock was about to take off, there would be some disaster like that. The last one I remember was when The Clash were going to be on the cover of Newsweek magazine in 1979 and they were pulled off of the cover because of the hostage crisis. So Cuban Missile Crisis, hostage crisis, blackout, 9/11, it’s hard to keep things going.

What do you see as the main difference between the UK punk scene and the one in New York?

They had it so easy. The thing you gotta remember about England is back in the 1970s they had three weekly newspapers devoted to music and nothing but music. Here in New York, we had the Village Voice, which ran a music column and covered all kinds of different music in one or two columns, and then you had the Soho Weekly News, which had even less coverage. So if you had a band in the UK, and you were doing something really interesting they would blow you up big and make you sound like the biggest thing in the world and then as soon as you started selling records their writers were attacking savagely and tear you down. There was a classic build ‘em up, tear ‘em down mentality over there. So in New York the punk scene started and nobody really paid attention. It was pretty much over with by the time the English scene started … They had a thriving music industry in England. That was their main export. The Beatles created this big industry in England and it was like a machine, churning out one band after another. A lot of English people bought singles, they bought NME, they bought Melody Maker, they bought The Sounds - the three music papers. Glam rock was huge in England. It barely made a dent over here. So you had a whole different culture, a whole different mentality, a different appreciation of music compared to here. Much more passion in England. I mean, I love the English punk scene. I think it was great. It was really what we were hoping to see happen over here. But the problem with the Ramones was there was whole litany of failure in New York. Los Angeles is where you make it in the music industry in America. New York - people said you’re never going to have a band make it out of New York. Look, Velvet Underground - they never sold records. New York Dolls - spectacular failure! After the Dolls nobody thought any band would ever make it out of New York. So New York had this huge roadblock, this huge detour sign. And in London it was like ‘punk rock!’ But here in the States, Linda Ronstadt went to CBGBs and she’s like, “Punk rock? They should call it garbage rock. It really stinks!” In London, you had Jimmy Page and Robert Plant going to see the Damned and having their picture taken and going, “Wow, this is great! This is the kids making rock n’ roll, this is what it’s all about!” It was night and day.

What about that first night in November 1975? The night Lou Reed was interviewed at CBGBs. Was that the night PUNK was born?

To me it was born a few months earlier when I went to see the Ramones. I went to see them in August of 1975 and it was on a Sunday night and I was just blown away. I was just like, “Wow, this is the best band ever. Finally! This is like my favorite band. Nobody’s here to see it.” There’s like twenty people, nobody was like going crazy for it, everybody was just kind of like - you know how it is when there’s nobody in the club. That’s what it was like. And from that moment on, I mean I was into punk rock in 1974 cause I was a big Alice Cooper fan. The mythology that Legs has built up where he’s convinced people that he thought of the name but the name came out of me saying, ‘well, what are we gonna call a magazine you know with comics in it, and stuff about fashion and you know, coverage of punk rock?’ And he’s like, ‘why don’t you just call it Punk?’ And that’s when I was like, ‘yeah, Punk!’ But the punk rock thing was already there. Punk rock was something Creem magazine was covering. Lester Bangs had written about it extensively. It was in there all the time. Suicide called themselves punk rock in 1974, so it was out there. It was defined when we brought out the magazine, it was called Punk. We called Marlon Brando the original punk, and we had the picture of him in “The Wild One” - leather jacket, blue jeans. So we had the fashion thing. We said the Ramones are the new band. We put Lou Reed on the cover. And that’s what made the issue. I had my rock star. And I was a big fan of Lou from “Metal Machine Music” and “Berlin” and the Velvet Underground. But I never thought of him as a punk rocker, so that was kind of a mistake. If I had put the Ramones on the cover I don’t think we would have gotten all the attention we got. And the interview he gave me was so good. That’s what really made a big difference. He put us on the map by just giving me the best interview I ever could have hoped for. People say, “oh, Lou’s being such an asshole!” I’m like, no he’s not! He’s being Lou Reed! And he’s giving me the best interview ever! Legs and Mary Harron were with me and they were like, “who is this jerk?” They didn’t know who Lou Reed was!

Do you consider that the best interview of your career, even to this day?

Oh yeah I was jumping up and down afterwards. It was like, wow. It’s hard, you never… how am I going to do a better interview than that? It was getting the musician in a crucial point in his career and it’s such an interesting time. Music is not as interesting as it was then. It just isn’t. No musician ever self destructed in public like he was self destructing. There were stories about him… I mean, Britney Spears, if you could get an interview with Britney Spears where she really opened up and she actually had a brain and she gave you a great interview. Like when she was melting down, when she was shaving her head and attacking cars, that’s where Lou was at that time! He’d been carving iron crosses into his head and dating Rachel (a transsexual). Nobody really ever figured out what she was. You didn’t ask Lou. And I didn’t go there with him. I figured it was nobody’s business. But that was a really weird thing to do in 1975.

What was his behavior like during the interview?

Oh, he was wonderful! He was very polite, you know. I mean, Legs would chime in with some really stupid comment and Lou would put him in his place. But I thought I was getting along great with Lou. In fact, when Lou saw it on the newsstand he invited me over and, you know, I had a drink with him and he just thought the interview was great, and we became friends. Unfortunately, I did something to offend him, and the way Lou is, he never speaks to you again after that, so I kind of blew it.

What was your relationship like with Joey Ramone?

We were good friends for a very long time. We used to hang out at CBGBs all the time. We’d always, like, brainstorm together. If there was a journalist in the club and they found one of us we’d tell the other one so we could help each other get publicity. I got along with all of the Ramones, really. I had a great relationship with Johnny. Dee Dee I didn’t know that well. But I always had a good rapport with Tommy. But Joey used to hang out at CBGBs so we became very good friends cause he was the guy who’d really hang out. And he ended up dating one of our writers, Pam Brown. Very beautiful woman, very tall, very elegant. I think it was like one of Joey’s first serious girlfriends or something. I guess we’ll find out when Mickey writes his book. Joey did some illustrations for PUNK #4. He helped set up the interview with Iggy Pop that Pam did. He thought of “Punk of the Month.” We did Mutant Monster Beach Party together (a very special issue of Punk that starred Joey alongside Debbie Harry). We stayed friends and he ended up writing a column for Stop magazine and he was always very supportive of a lot of people. He was great but I did this story about the Ramones with Legs and it was going to be like the truth. I think it was going to be called “We’re a happy family.” It was about all the bickering going on in the group. And after it came out they stopped speaking to me, and I thought it was unfair since I wasn’t the editor. I was just helping Legs do some interviews, but I took all the piss for it. And it was very ironic that Dee Dee was so angry he wanted to kick my ass, and then a few years later he was going to do his life story with Legs. That’s what became “Please Kill Me.” It was originally going to be the Dee Dee Ramone biography.

Did you stay in touch with Joey in the later years?

I ran into him in 2000 a few times. We kind of patched things up but we never got to have a heart to heart. And I was hoping he would come to our launch party for PUNK #0 but he had his accident right before. (Joey slipped on the ice outside his apartment in December 2000 and broke his hip. The resulting operation caused him to temporarily stop treatment for his lymphoma and he never recovered) His family didn’t want him to have any visitors so I respected their wishes.

What new bands are you excited about? Who else can we expect to see in PUNK?

We have this Myspace page for PUNK magazine and I gotta say I am knocked out by the number of great bands all over the world. There are too many to mention but you have people that put their music up there and so much of the music is just great punk, surf, garage, psycho billy, whatever. There’s a lot of really good to great bands out there. I’m very excited. And I’d like us to do more about new music. The unfortunate thing is it hasn’t been selling well, as well as the old school but I think we can. The way I look at it PUNK magazine is 30 years of history we can draw on. We have the past, the present, and the future.

 

 

>> Click here to view this page with photos and audio from the interview

 


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