In 1976, a comic artist named John Holmstrom begot Punk magazine as an excuse to stalk his favorite bands from the downtown scene, and look cool in the process. Needless to say, Holmstrom succeeded (beyond what he ever imagined) in permanently etching the East Village into the throbbing heart of the punk movement, and visualizing an R. Crumb-like vision of the scenes running through Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. Soak up the 40th-anniversary exhibition that opened last week at Howl! Happening and Punk’s lasting influence becomes sharply real.
The mag was staffed (ever so briefly) by the likes of Legs McNeil, co-editor of the definitive oral history of the Lower East Side punk scene, Please Kill Me, and features some supremely awesome “photo comics” with Joey Ramone and Richard Hell appearing as the anti-heroes of full-issue strips.
To this day, the pages of Punk still do a great deal to shape our imagination of the music and art scenes of late ’70s New York City. (Though when you read “White Noise Supremacists,” a 1979 Village Voice essay penned by Lester Bangs, another regular on the scene, it’s clear that some groups are being left out of the histories of punk, even this one.)
But the characters featured in Punk (as portrayed by Holmstrom but also Joe Koch, Robert Romagnoli, “who replaced Robert Crumb at the Village Voice”) support the idea that “punk,” in its truest form, equated to more of an attitude toward life than a specific style of dress that was later co-opted, re-appropriated, and commodified, before it was successfully sold as either high-fashion junk by the powers that be, or dealt as right-wing garbage by fascist ideologues.
It’s strange to think that “punk,” by some definitions, has been boiled down to something you can literally buy at the store. But Punk assures us otherwise. At Howl, a mosaic of blown-up issue covers coats almost an entire gallery wall, chronicling the mag’s helter-skelter run from 1976-1980. Just look at the weirdo cast featured in and on the magazine, and think on the disparate art they produced: Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, and Niagara of Destroy All Monsters (hell, there’s even an editorial piece on how Marlon Brando was “the original punk“).
But the legit meaning of “punk” was something people squabbled over even at the time of Punk‘s publication. There was also the strange anxiety produced by the fact that Punk was instantly popular. As Holmstrom wrote in issue #3, released in February 1976, “It was a lot easier for us when no one read this rag. Now that people read it, we got hassles.”
In a 2012 interview, the editor Holmstrom (as a follow-up to the release of Punk: The Best of Punk Magazine) reminded us that Punk was really only popular for a year. “At our peak, for Issues 7 and 8 [February and March, 1977], we were printing 20,000 copies.” It was a co-founder of the Yippies, Tom Forcade (who also happens to be the genius behind High Times, which had its first run in the summer of ’74) who helped get Punk distributed nationally.
But by no means did Punk produce the scene it portrayed. As John Cale tells us in Please Kill Me, “By 1965 Lou Reed had already written ‘Heroin’ and ‘Waiting For The Man.'” And in 1964, far from the East Village, a band called the MC5 formed in a Downriver suburb of Detroit. (The Stooges would follow shortly after, forming in 1967 in Ann Arbor, just outside of Detroit.)
And yet, for all its radness, Punk (though not on its own), helped define (if narrowly) a cultural movement that was previously amorphous, making the superficial edges of punk accessible to the grubbing norms. Still, it’s not like the underground can stay underground forever.
At the 40th-anniversary opening, Ken Weiner– Punk contributor and the artist behind a series of “insulting portraits”– had posted up with his easel in the corner. A sign read: “Ugly Portraits, Still Only $5.” When I approached Ken, he was chatting up the wife of Rob Romagnoli, one of the OG contributors from the very start whose comics appeared all over the walls. While Romagnoli was cruising through the room, looking like he could have been anybody’s dad, his wife sat for one of Ken’s portraits, which bequeathed her one dangly eyeball and pustulating sores (neither of which she appeared to have IRL).
“I did this 40 years ago in the Village– instead of making people look beautiful, I make them look ugly,” shrugged Ken, who was decked out in a black beret and turtleneck as visitors in leather-jacket-n-pins combos milled about us. “I met Holmstrom and he loved the stuff I did.”
Ken also recalled being “featured in the Village Voice” way back when. However, the cartoonist failed to mention that his work was all over the walls, and an important part of Punk‘s aesthetic vision. One comic depicts Joey Ramone eloping with Debbie Harry: “Do you, Joey, solemnly swear to take Debbie as your lawfully wedded wife, for better or worse in sickness and in health to cherish and knock up forever and ever, amen?”
As the show at Howl makes clear, Punk is more than an artifact, it’s actually a register that we (as cynical, post-post-internet, post-post-post-modern citizens of the world) can learn something from. As iconic as those musicians and artists featured in the mag were, Punk managed to maintain a certain level of humor and self-deprecation. It never took itself too seriously– which seems to be a serious problem of many cultural anti-whatever waves moving through our field of vision today. That’s not to say that Punk somehow took an earnest and naive tone– it didn’t. And, importantly, it’s not to say that Punk was an end-all, be-all accurate historical document (that, no one expected it to be) of all of New York City underground art or punk as a whole. Nor is that to say the mag wasn’t irreverent as all hell– it was. Maybe this special combination grew out of the fact that Punk was essentially a fanzine, created by a couple of guys who just wanted a way to hang out with the bands they idolized.
Hanging on the wall at Howl is the very first comic that started the mag, drawn up by Holmstrom, it depicts a gaggle of nervous kids, shaking like freaking puppy dogs, descending on the untouchably cool Lou Reed who’s seated at a booth for an “interview” of sorts. Reed seems confused, startled even, and pauses for a moment to put on his sunglasses. While the comic clearly shows Holmstrom and his pals to be in some sort of desperate prostration before their punk rock god, we’re still able to see Lou Reed’s non-charms: his too-cool-for-school inaccessibility, his notorious asshole attitude. I mean, c’mon, the strip is titled “Lou Reed: Rock n’ Roll Vegetable” and explained as “an exclusive interview with the original street punk turned artist.” If that’s not poking at the king, I dunno what is.
At the exhibition, sometimes it was hard to tell if I was being punked. Hanging kitty-corner from the blown-up issue covers, were two depictions of “the missing issues.” According to the explanation, had it gone to print the cover of #9 would have featured Kiss. Instant barf. Everywhere. But wait, continue reading and you’ll find: “No wonder Holmstrom thinks that the CIA covertly blocked publication.” Right.
But the stream of photos included in the show didn’t appear to be trickery. A snippet from the Roberta Bayley‘s work included photos of the Dead Boys (’74), Debbie Harry, Richard Hell revealing a ratty t-shirt with “The Voidoids” scratched in marker (’77), and that iconic image of a long-legged Joey Ramone holding a massive surfboard on Coney Island, his black curly tresses whipping in the beachy wind (’77), among others.
True, this is all stuff that I (and most people who are obsessives of the era) have seen before. (Save for some of the more behind-the-scenes stuff, like the contact sheets featuring the Ramones in leather jackets and jeans backed by a brick wall, including the duds that didn’t quite make the cut for the cover of their 1977 self-titled record.)
But there was something very alive about the whole scene at Howl, too. The crowd was full of new faces and old ones (Holmstrom, Clayton Patterson) alike, as well as a much more diverse (i.e. not necessarily white) set than was foregrounded in the pages of Punk, all checking each other out, and ogling the artwork with a mix of fond remembrance and nerdy glee.
Yes, anyone who says the punk scene is thriving in the East Village is a liar– it’s decidedly not. Though, the closer you travel to Tompkins, the more specters emerge– reflecting off of dive bar bathroom walls, echoing from the traveling kids who congregate around the park, and billowing out from Umbrella House. And oh yeah, right here at Howl, an organization whose mission is to preserve the East Village’s trashy treasure and to welcome in new people, or as Punk refers to us, “born too late”s.
Punk magazine may have come and gone almost 40 years ago, but as a state of mind, punk will stick around– it’s sort of always been everywhere youthful rebellion (no matter what your age or your background) lives. It might have a new name and a new style, but as long as someone’s flipping the bird to the norms, they’ll carry the torch.
Punk Magazine 40th-Anniversary Exhibition is on view at Howl! Happening, 6 East 1st Street in the East Village, now through January 30. Gallery hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 11 am to 6 pm.