Punk Magazine Revisited (1976–1979)
Text by Michael Macrone
1. Tonight's the Night – Rod Stewart
On New Year's Day, 1976, PUNK Magazine hit the streets of Manhattan, and the downtown music scene was never the same. Editor John Holmstrom and high school buddies Eddie “Legs” McNeil (“Resident Punk”) and Ged Dunn (“Publisher”) had seen the future of rock ’n’ roll—and of Western Civilization—and it looked pretty grim, so they decided to take matters into their own hands. At the time, they were a bunch of “nobodies”; a few weeks later, they were local celebrities.
Why? Punk was hardly a success on the establishment's terms—or even by most aesthetic criteria. Perhaps it was the sheer hatred the magazine inspired, or the disgusting behavior and public depravity of the magazine's staff, their disdain for all things Bright and Beautiful, their praise for all things Cheap and Offensive.
But is this the real story of Punk magazine? “What about the music, man?” some of you rock fans may be asking. Well, in the beginning that was mostly cheap and offensive too, and that was the point. The “Punk Sound” was a product of the seedy downtown NYC environment in which successors of the Velvet Underground, the Stooges and the New York Dolls crunched and wailed their automatic response to the mid-70s corporate rock and consumer culture. (Remember FM radio at that time? The clothes Mary Tyler Moore wore? The shopping mall boom? “Hollywood” Rod Stewart? Jerry Ford?) It would be kind to call this New York punk scene a “movement” or “cause”; most of the people who made up the scene were just bored hippies—transplanted suburban brats who had become disgusted by what the “counter-culture” had evolved into. Sheer hatred of any thing that either the mainstream or “left-wing” media hailed was what bound them together, and Punk magazine was their sounding board.
Punk, like the music and “art” it promoted, was irreverent, crude, iconoclastic and incoherent. Parodying the fawning, ignorant gush lavished on rock superstars in lifestyle/personality rags, Punk lavished ragged, chaotic, flippant gush on their own Hero proponents of their junk-culture tastes. If Punk found inspiration in the French Revolution (“Ecrasez l'infame”—“Crush infamy”—it trumpeted), it hardly expected the revolution to be popular. “Nobody reads this rag anyway,” Holmstrom snickered in Issue 2. But even then, he and his co-conspirators knew they were on to something, something more than obscurity if less than “real” fame.
In fact, Punk was, briefly, the rage. McNeil in particular milked Punk’s notoriety for all it was worth. Legs, as the magazine's mascot, was a real-life Alfred E. Neuman—a walking-talking advertisement for both the magazine and the punk “lifestyle.” A master of self-promotion, McNeil (like everybody) was looking for a little fame with all the fringe benefits. But fame, at least for Holmstrom, turned out to be a pain in the ass. For all the hipsters and sycophants hanging out (and living) at the Punk office, Holmstrom (by his own account) usually wound up doing all the work on the magazine by himself (at least until Bruce Carleton joined the staff on issue 11), and it seemed like Holmstrom was under attack on all fronts right from the start—both he and Ged Dunn had become estranged from their families and home-town friends who were less than impressed by their publication. Plus Holmstrom's ways of “doing business” and his all-too-blunt honesty rarely won him many new friends, and he has frequently found himself on the receiving end of everything from black eyes to bomb threats from those who took the results of his “no-holds-barred” editorial policy a little too seriously.
Even some of Punk's supporters turned on the magazine. Some of the more bitter stories involve the late Lester Bangs, the brilliant maniac of rock criticism and editor of the then-interesting Creem magazine. Bangs got involved with Punk early on, when he first moved to New York City. He was quite gung-ho at first for exposing the big shots of the music biz for what they were, and figured that Punk was the place to do it, but he began to have second thoughts when he started to receive the same kind of threats that the Punk staff had by then grown accustomed to. Unable to stand the heat, he and Punk eventually parted company. A few years later, in a what Holmstrom describes as a sleazy move, Bangs tarred him with a brush in an article for the Village Voice on punk’s “racism.” His principal evidence was a joke Holmstrom told at a party.
This kind of thing went on a lot, and it was obvious that the liberal arm of the publishing community couldn’t swallow Punk’s brand of satire. Papers like the Voice and the Soho News acknowledged Punk’s existence, but generally didn’t approve. The Voice was especially fond of quoting Holmstrom and McNeil out of context. “But what hurt the most,” said Holmstrom, “was when they started to ignore us.”
Hatred from without was complemented by backstabbing from within. Dunn was given the boot for mismanagement of funds and other shady dealings, and a parade of different “publishers” began to come and go, each change-over causing more complications. Occasionally High Times publisher and crazed hippie mogul Tom Forcade would take care of Punk's finances, and was planning on taking over and turning Punk into a “real” magazine (much to the chagrin of the High Times staff). Punk's future finally seemed secure, but Forcade's poorly-timed suicide put an end to that. This more than anything spelled the beginning of the end for Punk magazine.
Such goings-on became business-as-usual at Punk, but all the inner hostility, coupled with trying to keep up with the insane world of the music biz, began to take its toll. After a while, Holmstrom was pretty fed up with the politics of it all and started running more “wacky” articles and reviews on anything from pinball games to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. But then again Punk was never just a “music” magazine. It has always used just about any subject to express its unique attitude – towards art, success, sex, money and so on. They experimented with graphics, comics, and photography, and the most successful experiments may have been Holmstrom's “mixed-media” interviews. By combining comic art with photos and hand-lettered text, Holmstrom had developed a new way to use comics as a journalistic tool.
Another experiment essential to Punk's format was the fumetti, or “Photo-Funnies.” Holmstrom claims his inspiration for the now-legendary issue-long fumetti—“The Legend of Nick Detroit” (nr. 6) and “Mutant Monster Beach Party” (nr. 15)—came from the bizarre and anonymous Archie Strips, a 1970 “photo-comic” starring the Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol. Unfortunately, as well done as these epic fumettis were, they were complete bombs. Ironically, the best-selling issues of Punk, nrs. 5 and 16, were, as far as Holmstrom is concerned, the worst issues.
Some of Punk's experimentalism was almost noble, but a lot of what looked like experimentation was just part of the chaos. Whatever ended up printed in Punk was usually a matter of favors, compromises, whim, and cash. The format would change drastically from issue to issue, and the only consistency the magazine had to its look was its inconsistency. Yet Punk did have a sensibility. Everything from the varied hand-lettering to the bizarre letters from inmates at an asylum, to their notorious “Top 99” list to their even more notorious “Bottom 99” list (the same names would often appear on both lists) all came together to form a clear, if twisted, vision.
By 1980, the NYC punk phenomenon was all over except for the requisite flogging-of-the-corpse by the record and fashion industries. Ten years after its birth, the punk aesthetic had lost all sense of danger or titillation. What's left is pretty damned respectable. But some of the momentum that Punk magazine started, or at least carried through the late '70s, still survives not only in the publication you're holding right now but in thousands of raunchy little xeroxed music/comic fanzines that are being churned out today by kids who may never have seen or even heard of Punk magazine. As long as there's some misfit out there—and there's always plenty of ’em—who feels compelled to express his or her enthusiasm for something the general public wants to ignore, there's always going to be some crazy li’l magazine making a big stink and inspiring even more to follow suit. It's unlikely that anyone ever will get rich pulling these kinds of pranks, and those who get close usually find some way to shoot themselves in the foot. Yet as long as these misfits see a chance to kick up a little dust and send the “normals” into a state of fear and confusion, it'll always seem worth it.
LONG LIVE THE HATE GENERATION
– 30 –
First published in Weirdo #16 (Spring, 1986)