In 1975, John Holmstrom and Eddie “Legs” McNeil stumbled into CBGB — the legendary and now-defunct punk club on the Bowery in Manhattan — to see the Ramones play eighteen minutes of blaring rock ‘n’ roll. As later recounted in McNeil’s 1996 bestseller, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy stomped into the dark, dingy room clad in black leather jackets and jeans, looking pissed-off and dangerous. Only a couple of notes into their first song, the Ramones started fighting with one another almost immediately, throwing their instruments to the ground and storming offstage. After taking a few minutes to cool off, the band plugged back in to finish up their set as Lou Reed laughed at the spectacle from his table.
The events of that night would serve as the foundation for the inaugural issue of Punk, the seminal counterculture magazine Holmstrom and McNeil founded with publisher Ged Dunn in January of 1976. Throughout much of the late Seventies, the publication helped mold and popularize the genre of punk rock in the U.S., providing a platform for interviews, essays, and cartoons centered around bands like the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols, the Dictators, and the Stooges. This month marks the fortieth anniversary of Punk, and in honor of the milestone Holmstrom has collaborated with Howl! Arts, a nonprofit gallery and performance space on East 1st Street, for an exhibit featuring classic Punk magazine covers and rare memorabilia.
Today, the phrase “punk is dead” has become a worn-out cliché, the expression itself dead and buried long ago. But while punk, in many ways, continues to thrive in 2016 — expanding and becoming more diverse every year — Punk magazine and the exhibit at Howl! harks back to a time when the genre fed off raw attitude, angst, and rebellion.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a scene in the twentieth century that produced as much talent as the CBGB scene,” Holmstrom, who served as Punk’s chief cartoonist and editor, tells the Voice. “The music today is really terrible. You have all these generations today who want to be conformists. They all want to have a Facebook page that people ‘like.’ If we were young, we’d want everyone to hate our Facebook page.”
“It never bothered me at all that I wasn’t popular in high school,” he adds. “I liked being unpopular.”
Holmstrom met McNeil and Dunn while growing up in Cheshire, Connecticut, a small town fifteen miles north of New Haven. But it wasn’t until he moved to Manhattan to attend the School of Visual Arts that he had the idea to start a magazine, hoping to combine his love for music with his training as an illustrator. Having studied with Harvey Kurtzman, the founder of Mad magazine, and Will Eisner, the creator of the comic series The Spirit, Punk would often take on the comedic, cartoonish style passed down by Holmstrom’s mentors.
By the mid Seventies, the term “punk” had already been printed in music magazines like Creem and NME, used to describe everything from hard rock to garage to glam. But Punk magazine is often credited with giving the term its definitive meaning and modern aesthetic, plastering New York City with posters that warned of the impending punk invasion. After getting his friends on board, Holmstrom volunteered to be editor, while Dunn, who passed away last year, would take on the role of publisher. McNeil, they agreed, would serve as their “resident punk,” a mascot and antihero of sorts for the magazine.
“John Holmstrom and his living cartoon creature, Legs McNeil, were two maniacs running around town putting up signs that said, ‘Punk Is Coming! Punk Is Coming!’” remembers Blondie’s Debbie Harry in Please Kill Me. “We thought, ‘Here comes another shitty group with an even shittier name.’”
The name stuck, however, and soon the mainstream media started coming around, asking questions about the new phenomenon.
“You’d pick up Creem magazine and they would write about punk rock as if everybody knew what it was,” says Holmstrom, who also illustrated the album covers for the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin. “I was kind of shocked, because when we brought out Punk all of a sudden the media shows up and they’re asking us, ‘What’s punk rock?’ And to me, it was like, ‘Hey, it’s rock ‘n’ roll.’”
The magazine quickly built up a subscription base of 2,500 and started distributing more than 20,000 copies each issue. McNeil would repeatedly leave the magazine, feeling frustrated by his role and returning as an editor. And though a number of writers published in the pages of the magazine went on to form illustrious careers — McNeil among them — Holmstrom found it difficult to sit many of his contributors down and have them actually write about music. He remembers the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs stumbling into the Punk magazine headquarters, an old office space on Tenth Avenue and 30th Street nicknamed the “Punk Dump.” In the past Bangs had only allowed his poetry to be published in Punk (“His poetry sucked!” Holmstrom still moans today), but having quit Creem in 1976, he came to New York looking for new work.
“He showed up in our office. I think he was probably doing speed and drinking, and he sat down and banged something out on the typewriter,” Holmstrom says. “It was this rambling crazy thing that was unpublishable. I think I edited it and I ended up with about four usable sentences.”
The magazine’s rise was meteoric but short-lived. By the end of the Seventies, the Sex Pistols had imploded, and chants of “punk is dead” were already starting to take hold. Tom Forcade, the founder of High Times, died in 1978. Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler, was shot that same year. Holmstrom considered both allies of Punk, and saw his dreams of having the magazine picked up by a larger distributor drift away. Fear around the unsavory, dangerous aspects of the genre became a hot-button issue in the media, too, and Holmstrom felt the tides turning against him.
“There was political pressure to put us out of business,” he says. “Everybody hated punk. Everybody hated the term; everybody was afraid of it. Debbie Harry and Blondie were [associated with] punk and radio stations were afraid to interview her. They thought that she’d pull a knife on them.”
“Sometimes I think God hates punk rock,” he adds, thinking back to the closing of CBGB and the many calamities that have derailed the movement over the years.
Though Holmstrom briefly revived Punk in the early Aughts, the magazine’s original incarnation folded in 1979. Today, he says he’s been asked to resuscitate the publication once again and is willing to bring Punk back from the dead if he can find the right financial backer. Until then, the exhibit at Howl!, which concludes its run this weekend, provides a window into the glory days of punk — a style that continues to inspire revolt and rebellion among America’s youth even 40 years later.
“If you think about it, these kids are born after the Ramones broke up, but they still love the music. It’s still associated with something dangerous and people still hate it,” Holmstrom says fondly. “No music form is dead. Punk is not dead. Rock ‘n’ roll is not dead. There’s always some band out there that keeps the music alive.”
Punk magazine’s fortieth anniversary exhibition is on view through January 30 at Howl! Arts. For more information, click here.