An Interview with John Holmstrom:
Watch Out! PUNK is Coming!
by Lee Sobel
If you don't know who John Holmstrom is then you and I probably don't have the same music taste. Holmstrom is a very talented cartoonist whose artwork appeared on albums by The Ramones and whose irreverent sense of humor exploded on the pages of Punk magazine. In the second half of the 70's, Punk, Rock Scene Magazine, and The Soho Weekly News was my Internet to find out about the downtown Manhattan music scene. I was actually a little late to the party. Punk started publishing in January '76 and I saw it on magazine racks and was curious about it, but I didn't start hanging out until '78 at places like Max's Kansas City and CBGB's, the latter of which Holmstrom and his partner-in-crime at Punk, Legs McNeil, immortalized and lived to see themselves portrayed in the 2013 movie CBGB which starred Alan Rickman as Hilly Kristal.
I met John in 2001 when I was publishing a fanzine called Cool Culture. He had an office in downtown Manhattan near the World Trade Center and I came down to interview him. 9/11 was like a light switch being turned off and I folded up my 'zine and lost the interview with Holmstrom. But then I interviewed him again in 2011 for a book I was writing that I ended up aborting. Here is that interview, which has never been published until now.
All images © John Holmstrom except where noted
John Holmstrom in the 70's - photo by Godlis
Lee Sobel: You were a teenager in the early 70s, right?
John Holmstrom: In the early 70s and 60s. See, I grew up in Connecticut so I would come to New York all the time to see music here. I spent New Year's Eve 1969-70 here. Saw Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys at the Fillmore East. St. Mark’s was really hopping then. That’s where I used to go to buy underground comics.
Lee Sobel: Being that you started coming to New York in the late 60s and you started living in New York in the early 70s, was New York already falling apart by that point or did it get worse?
John Holmstrom: Oh, yeah. The White flight had begun after the war.
Lee Sobel: The White flight meaning people moving to suburbia and getting the hell out of New York?
John Holmstrom: Oh yeah, yeah. I grew up in suburbia at the height of Leave it to Beaver. You’d see the suburban tracts going up everywhere and they continued to go up. You’d hear about the status of the city and how it was falling apart and you’d see on TV the garbage strikes, the newspaper strikes. You would come in from Connecticut and you could just see how everything
was old. There weren’t many new buildings. And now you walk around New York, it’s a very vibrant city. You see new buildings and new architecture everywhere.
Lee Sobel: You also see that it’s extremely crowded, which I remember parts of the city being really desolate in my teen years…
John Holmstrom: That’s when I moved here in the 70s. I felt like I lived in Texas. Wide open spaces everywhere and nobody around.
Lee Sobel: It was really a moody film noir looking city back then, wasn’t it?
John Holmstrom: You could walk around the East Village and hardly see anybody. If you saw somebody, there was a good chance you knew them. But now, it’s like traffic central. Everywhere you went back then it was gloom and doom. The Bowery was really the Bowery. The city was very dangerous to walk around then. Union Square Park was really dangerous.
Lee Sobel: When you started Punk, you were able to get into shows, get free drinks, and stuff like that, right?
John Holmstrom: Nope. Nobody knew who we were.
Lee Sobel: So you didn’t get into CB’s for free and stuff like that?
John Holmstrom: After. Before I was a nobody. I went to CBGB’s to see The Ramones. I thought they were great and, yeah, I was aware of the scene. I was also aware of mainstream rock ’n roll and I thought a lot of the bands at CBGB’s could become mainstream.
Creators of Punk Magazine (l-r): John Holmstrom, Legs McNeil,
Ged Dunn - Photo by Tom Hearn
Lee Sobel: When you started Punk Magazine, you were really focused on what was going on in New York, right? Did the Sex Pistols even exist when you put out the first issue of Punk?
John Holmstrom: They did, but no one was aware of them. We both started in November of ’75. They did their first show in November ’75 and we were working on the first issue, but didn’t know they existed yet; it took awhile. We had a clipping service, which is like an early form of the internet. We gave a clipping service the word “punk” and we got almost no results, except for a few articles about us the first six to nine months, and then towards the end of 1976 into 1977, we started getting so many articles, we couldn’t afford the clipping service anymore. It was a world wide clipping service, too. We
were getting a lot of news of what was happening over in London. We also had subscriptions to trade publications like New Musical Express. We were pretty clued in to what was happening in the rest of the world.
Lee Sobel: You talk about the appearance of the word “punk” prior to using it in your magazine…
John Holmstrom: Alice Cooper was on the cover of Creem Magazine in early 1974 as punk of the year. In 1974 every other word in Creem was “punk.” Suicide was hip to it; they called themselves punk rock in their posters. So, it was being used. I saw the word “punk rock” in England being used to describe Bay City Rollers, AC/DC, Count Bishop… you know, pub rock. Eddie and the Hot Rods to me is still punk rock. People always say "Oh no, they were pub rock." Well, you know they were punk the way the Dictators were punk.
Lee Sobel: How did you find the money to put out a magazine?
John Holmstrom: In summer of ’75, I was an apprentice for Will Eisner (reknowned
comic artist famous for creating The Spirit) making minimum wage and he closed his office for the summer so I needed to find a job and I ran into Eddie McNeil (aka "Legs") and he said why don’t you paint houses for Ged, everybody else is. Ged had a house painting service, he would paint houses, pay minimum wage, buy you beer after work and then you could sleep in his apartment. He had a huge apartment in the middle of town.
Lee: Who is this? Who had this house painting service?
John: Ged Dunn. Ged is the guy I started Punk Magazine with. I didn’t start the magazine with Legs. Legs had very little to do with it, really, outside of suggesting… "What do I call a magazine about punk rock?" "Why don’t you just call it Punk." He came up with the name.
Lee: So Ged Dunn had some money?
John Holmstrom: Yes. He had a few thousand dollars from his house painting business. He was going to college and I was telling him about this punk rock thing that was coming up…you know, The Dictators, The Ramones, Patti Smith (I had the first single, Piss Factory)… and they were really impressed with The Dictators. They thought, "Wow, this is great stuff, everybody is going to like this." Plus, I was starting to get freelance work as an illustrator. My illustration career was starting to take off in a lot of ways. I was meeting a lot of people, getting work here and there, and Legs was working at a hippie commune, a film commune called Total Impact. They had these two apartment buildings on 14th Street and 2nd Avenue and they had the entire two buildings they were leasing from the city. The city had all this real estate they couldn’t
Abiove: John Holmstrom and Joey and Johnny Ramone - Photo By Tom Hearn
Below: Holmstrom back cover art for 4th Ramones album Rocket to Russia
move or figure out what to do with. So if you had an arts
thing, you could rent huge spaces for next to nothing.
He was in a porno film called Blow Dry.
Lee Sobel: He was in a porno film?
John Holmstrom: Yeah, he was like comic relief. A copy still exists.
Lee Sobel: You’ve seen the movie?
John Holmstrom: I never saw it all the way through. My friend, Victor, has a copy. But, you know, he’s in it, too. It’s embarrassing to watch your friend fuck on film. Eddie didn’t want to stay at the film commune; he had bigger ideas. He wanted to make his own movies and I wanted to put out a magazine and Ged wanted to put his money into something (he hated college) so Eddie said "Hey, let’s just rent an office and we’ll talk Ged into working with us." I looked around and found this amazing space on 10th Avenue and 30th Street.
Punk Magazine Gang: Photographer Roberta Bayley, writer and now major film director Mary Harron and John Holmstrom - Photo by Godlis
Lee: You were more or less living out of there?
John Holmstrom: Oh yeah. Set up an office, got furniture, and we moved in on Halloween night and by November I was interviewing The Ramones and Lou Reed for the first Punk issue.
Lee Sobel: You used to see the Hell's Angels hanging out at CBGB’s in the early days, right?
John Holmstrom: Oh yeah. They wouldn’t mess with you unless you started something with them. I think once the music took over, they moved on.
Lee Sobel: Tell me about your relationship with The Ramones because obviously you were very involved
with them and illustrating their albums and stuff. How did you get to know them?
John Holmstrom: Well, we got to know them because we interviewed them. When that first issue came out, it just blew everybody away. Everybody wanted to meet us. The Ramones, Lou Reed… Lou Reed asked to meet me… and from then on, we got into CBGB’s for free and then people were buying us free drinks. We became part of the scene, unfortunately. It would have been nicer if we kept a more objective stance, but we were kids.
Lee Sobel: What do you mean that you
should have kept a more objective stance?
What do you feel that you did wrong?
John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil with The Ramones
Photo By Tom Hearn
John Holmstrom: We were too quick to become the CBGB’s fanzine. If I look back on it, it might have been cool if we’d done something besides Patti Smith as our second cover. It would have been a lot cooler if we did Robert De Niro or Martin Scorsese.
Lee Sobel: Meaning if you were a little broader and not just about one specific thing?
John Holmstrom: Yeah, we limited ourselves right off the bat. If we had done film instead of music for the second issue… but we had limited resources.
Ramones 4th album "Road To Ruin" cover by John Holmstrom
© Sire Records
Lee Sobel: You didn’t really have any great plan, right? It must have felt like every time you put out an issue that could be your last one, right?
John Holmstrom: It was like that after awhile. In the beginning I thought punk rock was going to take off. I thought it was going to be this big thing that would take over the country. Patti Smith’s first record was certainly successful enough to make you think it could happen. You figure, wow, the Ramones are so much better than Patti Smith -- when their record comes out, it’s going to change the world. Records come out and you would actually hear DJs smash it and say you’ll never hear that on this radio station again. They were like "This is crap."
Lee Sobel: You mentioned in Monte Melnick’s book something I thought was really interesting… that the name of the magazine became a detriment after Nancy Spungen was murdered. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
John Holmstrom: Even before then, but after Nancy died it was just like punk meant heroin addicted rock star who liked to kill their girlfriend with a knife and that was really the image. The night that happened, we had our big award ceremony and we heard stories of gangs of New Jersey teenagers driving around New York looking for punk rockers to beat up.
Lee Sobel: What did you think when punk took off in England the way it did?
John Holmstrom: I thought it was great. I was like "Wow, somebody finally gets what we’re doing." All these morons in
Joey Ramone and John Holmstrom, 1976 - Photo by Eileen Polk
New York were avoiding punk rock. They didn’t want to be tagged with the stigma; they didn’t want to be labeled. But, the English guys knew they could use it and they did.
Lee Sobel: You talked about in interviews that in 1979 punk rock was over, is that because hardcore started happening or did something happen in 1979?
John Holmstrom: Everybody was broken up by then. Look at the landscape. The Dead Boys broken up… Patti Smith was long gone, flew the coop…. Blondie went disco, the Clash were going disco… the last band in the world left was The Ramones. By ’79 we felt like the opposite of ’76. In ’76 you had all this potential, all these great bands out there; ’79 you didn’t have many great bands coming up and nobody wanted to call it punk.
Lee Sobel: Punk has a gay connotation or a gay definition, if you will, was that something you were aware of?
John Holmstrom: I was totally unaware of it. I think if you were part of jail culture,
you knew what the word meant, but growing up in Connecticut I never knew what the word meant. To me, punk is what you lit firecrackers with.
Lee Sobel: What did you think of disco in the 70s?
John Holmstrom: I kind of liked it.
Lee Sobel: I’m assuming you never went to Studio 54, right?
John Holmstrom: I went. Blondie had a party there so we went.
Lee Sobel: When did you stop Punk Magazine originally?
John Holmstrom: We went out of business in summer of ’79. That’s when Rock ‘n’ Roll High School came out.
Lee Sobel: Can you tell me a little bit about the shift in relationship that you had with the Ramones? Didn’t you have a falling out with Joey?
John Holmstrom: Well, that was after a Spin Magazine article that Legs wrote. He insisted on putting my name on it and I ended up taking all the piss for it. That was ’86, much later.
Lee Sobel: Any other incidents that come to mind when you think of New York in the 70s?
John Holmstrom: Well, the bathrooms at CBGB’s weren’t so bad back then. You didn’t have all those stupid stickers all over the wall. You really had kind of a homey feel. You had a couch in the front and you had bookshelves. When you went to CBGB’s you really felt like you were going in somebody’s basement; you didn’t feel like you were going to some rock club. You also had the sense that you’re in the Bowery and you had those crazy posters of Al Jolson and the other Vaudeville performers. You’d really get the feeling of being a part of the Bowery’s history. Going to the Bowery was part of the allure because of the history of the Bowery and everything and the fact there were bums there. The bums kind of made it safer. There were a lot of people around. The scary places were the side streets where there were no lights and no people. I always felt like if you walked up and down the Bowery, you had a little bit of protections because there were bums and New Yorkers, so you’d have a witness.