Q&A: John Holmstrom and Punk Magazine

Written by George Tabb on . Posted in Posts.


Check out Punk magazine.
Put together by Holmstrom and his then-pal Legs McNeil, Punk changed
the way the world looked at rock ’n’ roll forever. It gave a certain
type of music not only a name, but a face as well.

Now it’s 25 years later,
and I’ve become pretty good pals with John. Which is an honor. Besides
being able to drink me under the table, John got me involved with his 25th-anniversary
issue of Punk magazine, which, if all goes well, will become a regular
magazine pretty damn soon.

Punk had interviews
with all the big-time guys like the Ramones, Iggy, Sid, even Von LMO. But it
also had these cool photo-comic stories, where a story is told through photos
overlaid with comic-strip dialogue. One, "Mutant Monster Beach Party,"
featured Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry, David Johansen and even Andy Warhol. Another
one starred Dick Manitoba and Lester Bangs.

The magazine also featured
"The Top 99," which later became the "Top 100 (or Pot 100)"
in High Times, where Holmstrom went after Punk folded.

What follows is an interview
I did with John when he came over the other afternoon. Besides having all sorts
of questions about what it was like to hang out with the coolest people on Earth,
I wanted to ask him about his cohort, Legs McNeil, with whom he has become friendly
again after what seemed like a long, bitter battle.

What, are you and Legs friends
now because of this 25th-anniversary stuff?

Are we friends? How can
I say something funny here? Legs has given me a lot of help bringing out the
new issue. He’s been great. It’s been like working with a whole different

I ask because, as you know,
I called him a pussy at the New York Press thing at Bowery Ballroom last
May, as well as in print, and people seem mad at me. I call him that because
I went to a Please Kill Me reading and he was all arrogant, elitist and
stuff, saying punk rock died in 1979. What a puss!

Yeah, well, Legs has promised
to kick your ass at our CBGB event. This is why the ticket price is so high.

So are you all buddy-buddy

We disagree about a lot
of things. Like you pointed out. But everybody talks about how his attitude
changed on his last trip to New York, so maybe we have a new Legs.

Enough about that sissy.
How’d you come to start Punk magazine?

[laughs] Ged Dunn Jr. put
up the money and was the first publisher and had more to do with starting Punk
than Legs, and never seems to get his fair share of the credit. Basically, the
three of us hung out in the summer of 1975, I brought the Dictators’ first
album over, we listened to it, it changed our lives, and eventually Ged dropped
out of college and we all decided to start a business together that fall.

You mean punk rock was a
business decision?

Yeah. Back then, punk rock
was Alice Cooper. We all wanted to be rich and famous.

The word "punk"–who
coined it, where did it come from?

I don’t know, but it
was all over the rock press of 1975, and earlier. Like punk rock was used to
describe that glitter rock Alice Cooper, New York Dolls, the Sweet and Brownsville

I thought it was a Ramones

As I remember it, they
did not call themselves punk rock. Nobody else in New York City was calling
themselves punk. We [Holmstrom, McNeil, Dunn] were total outsiders to the scene,
called everything punk rock if we wrote about it, and forced the word on them.
A lot of people at the time kind of resented that.

Like who?

Ninety-nine percent of
the people at the CBGB scene, and 100 percent of the Max’s scene. But seriously,
everyone we didn’t write about.

I never understood how people
called Talking Heads punk, or even Lou Reed–to me, that was wuss rock.

The reason I was so proud
to put Lou on the cover of our first issue was he was just coming off the
Metal Machine Music
incident… It basically ended his career. People who
went to the store to buy it, expecting a Lou Reed record, put it on, heard this
horrible screeching weird noise, figured the record was defective or something,
and took it back to the record store and demanded their money back.

I once put out a tape called
The Sound of Silence with an old band, Letch Patrol. Nothing but leader

Actually, John and Yoko
beat you to that with "Two Minutes Silence" on Life with the Lions,
Volume Two
. How 70s of you.

Fucking hippies.

I like Yoko.


I like any music that is
so obnoxious that it drives people out of a room. I like artists who don’t
play it safe.

So you must love those boy
bands like NSYNC?

I’ve gotta be honest,
I’ve never heard them. I’m too busy watching Jerry Springer to listen
to music.

Yeah, let’s talk about
that. You’re all into the wrestling thing. What’s up?

To me, pro wrestling is
like rock ’n’ roll without guitars and drums. Everybody thought that
when Sid Vicious hit that guy over the head with his guitar in San Antonio,
that was real punk rock. Well, every night you go see wrestling someone is getting
hit in the head with a guitar. We are hoping that Balls Mahoney is going to
show up at this thing.


He’s from Nutley, NJ.
A big star with Extreme Championship Wrestling. I saw him cover a table with
barbed wire, douse it with lighter fluid, set it on fire and then get power-bombed
through it at the ECW in Philly once. Now that’s hardcore!

Why do you hate Patti Smith
so much?

I don’t hate Patti.
Who said I hate Patti?

I dunno, when I look back
at old Punk magazines, I see pictures of her all ugly and stuff. With
drawings over her face.

No, that was our Patti Smith
graffiti contest. We sent the third issue off to the printer, really late as
usual, and then they called up a few hours before we were to go to press, and
said we had a blank page. So, I grabbed the nearest thing to me, which was a
publicity picture of Patti Smith, and scribbled, "Patti Smith Graffiti
Contest," on the bottom.

I thought you didn’t
like her. Did you like her second band, "Scandal"?

[laughs] Patti Smith’s
first single, "Piss Factory," was a real inspiration to all of us
at Punk magazine.

On the Dead Boys’ first
album, Young, Loud, and Snotty, one of the best albums ever made, they
thank a "Punk of the Month" for doing vocals on "Down in Flames."
Didn’t you guys have something to do with "Punk of the Month"?

That must be Ronald Binder,
our first ever "Punk of the Month." I was hanging out with Joey Ramone
at CBGB one night, and he suggested we should have a "Punk of the Month"
in every issue. So this guy, Ronald Binder, sent in weird pictures of himself,
so we decided to use him. He won it the next month because no one was able to
send anything else in more interesting. He’s a college professor now.

Okay, why now, after 25
years, are you doing Punk again?

Because I am able to. I
have the time and the money, and figured why not.

But don’t you know
punk is dead? That’s what Legs says.

[laughs] That’s what
NME was always saying, too. Everyone was always saying punk is dead.
It’s a funny thing. When we went out of business in 1979, we had never
had better sales. The magazine was never more popular, but all those idiot trendies
kept insisting that it was over with, and the next thing you know, everybody
was playing disco music. The 80s really sucked.

I have to disagree. There
were great bands. Black Flag. Circle Jerks. Dead Kennedys. Roach Motel…

I used to go to A7. I saw
a lot of the early hardcore scene. But if the 80s had ruled, those bands would
have gone further. Sold more records. Taken over MTV.

Hello? Beastie Boys?

They were great. But that
was 1988. The 80s were already ending.

You know they started as
a punk band.

Cookie Puss.

Did you get laid a lot because
you were the editor of Punk?

All the time. Back in the
70s, you still had groupies. You don’t have groupies anymore, I notice.

I do.

[laughs] They still call
them groupies, wearing fishnet stockings, platform shoes and too much makeup?

Wendy Tabb (interrupting):
They call them stalkers now.

So, what exactly was Legs
McNeil’s role, if you were editor?

He was the resident punk.
He wrote a few articles, did a lot of press, and hung out at CBGBs. He directed
"Nick Detroit" [the first of the fumetti] and that was the most work
he ever did.

Roberta Bayley, who did
the first Ramones album cover photo, is really hot. I mean, now. Was she that
good-looking way back when?

Oh yeah. She’s got
a gallery show coming up in March at Modern Culture at the Gershwin Hotel that
has a self-portrait.

Let’s talk about all
the dead punks.


Why are they dead?

"All the Young Dudes"
turned into "All the Dead Punks." It was drugs. That’s what they
tell me. But I never saw anyone take drugs at CBGBs. Except the record company
guys. The rest of us were too broke to afford them.

You’re doing Punk
now by yourself. That’s DIY, dude. That’s what punk has become these

Well, it always was. Patti
Smith put out "Piss Factory" by herself, and we didn’t have much
of a choice. Actually, the first person who suggested that I publish my own
work and encourage me to do it was Bill Griffith, the cartoonist. He is the
guy who does Zippy the Pinhead.

Is that where Ramones got
it from?

I think they got it from
Tod Browing’s Freaks. A movie that was big in the 70s.

How’d you end up at
High Times?

The first guy to take a
real interest in Punk magazine was Tom Forçade. He was the mysterious
founder of High Times. He walked into Punk’s offices, the
Punk Dump, stuck his cowboy boots on the desk, and said, "I’m
gonna make you rich and famous." Then he told us how he was going to do
it, gave us each a $100 bill and left.

You ended up working for

He died a few years later,
and over the years people at High Times would ask me to do this or that.
Actually, when Steve Hager, who is currently the editor-in-chief up there, first
invited me to HT, he tried to get High Times to bring back Punk

You hung out with the Ramones.
With the Dictators. With fucking Andy Warhol and Sid Vicious. Do you feel you
lead a charmed life?

More like a cursed life.
I never really hung out with Andy Warhol. But I did hang out with Lou Reed.
He is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.

Are you just saying that
so he’ll play the CBGB show?

I wish. I don’t think
he will. I’m just saying that because he gets so much bad press.

Probably because he sucks.

That’s a horrible thing
to say. He is the Frank Sinatra of our generation in my mind. He is our greatest
crooner. The Velvet Underground were the greatest band of all time.

They were hippies.

I don’t think anybody
wasn’t a hippie back then. It was the 1960s.

I don’t care. They
were hippies. And hippies suck.

Well, I was a hippie back
in the 60s.

And you seem like one now.
Liking the Velvet Underground.

Admit it, you like them,
you played their music at the Mars Bar. Stop posing.

Piss off, ya bloke.

Talking like an English
punk. Now you’re pathetic.

Punk magazine’s
25th-anniversary party will be held Weds., Jan. 10, at CBGB, 315 Bowery (Bleecker
St.), 982-4052. The 25th-anniversary issue of the magazine will be available
at See Hear and Trash & Vaudeville on Jan.12.