Friday, March 1, 2013

John Holmstrom on the CBGB movie and the East Village of 2013

In part 1 of our interview with John Holmstrom yesterday, the Punk Magazine founding editor talked about launching the publication with Ged Dunn Jr. and Eddie "Legs" McNeil that chronicled the burgeoning NYC punk scene and seeing the Ramones for the first time at CBGB in 1975.

Today, Holmstrom, who has lived in the East Village since the mid-1970s, discusses putting the recently released "Best of Punk Magazine" compilation together as well as his feelings about the neighborhood today.

Why did you think the time was right for "The Best of Punk Magazine" collection?

I didn't decide that the time was right — I had been trying to get this book done since the 1980s! I was able to get a small collection of Punk Magazine material together when I was the publisher at High Times, but we had no budget for promotion. So when it sold great in book stores regardless, I figured that a full-fledged collection could do well.

I shopped the proposal around in 2008, after trying to work with Legs on a similar project, which he seemed disinclined to make happen. He was too busy with other projects so I moved on. Then the economic meltdown happened and we couldn't shop the book proposal for a while. Then once it was accepted, I missed a few production deadlines because the whole thing was just so much damn work. I still feel burnt out from it all!

However, as in 1976, I seem to have accidentally brought the book out at the right time. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in all this stuff right now. Which is great, since I did worry that it was being forgotten forever, once again.

Was there a particular issue or feature that you enjoyed revisiting? Maybe something that you hadn’t looked at for some time?

Although I have pretty much memorized all the Punk Magazine material so it's imprinted on my brain forever and ever, I always loved "Mutant Monster Beach Party" the best — even though it sold poorly and became our death knell in a way.

In fact, the main reason I wanted to publish the book was to make this available to the public: MMBP but everything else as well. A lot of people kept bugging me to either reprint back issues or somehow make the material available: not everyone enjoys biding on eBay, I guess.

The most gratifying thing about getting this book out is that I have found out that a lot of people agree with me! They think that MMBP was our high point. At the time, no one made a big deal about it.

I understand that you did some consulting on the CBGB biopic. Depending on if you’ve seen any rough cuts or the final print — what are your thoughts on what you’ve seen?

Please help me quash this rumor: I did no consulting whatsoever on this film. I did meet with the filmmakers early on and showed them Punk Magazine, I might have loaned them a few issues. But they never really consulted with me about anything.

They did send me a film script and asked me for my thoughts but they pretty much ignored all of my suggestions — by that time it was much too late for them to make any significant script changes since they were filming in just a few weeks! It turns out that they had their own plans for me — they wanted to be able to use Punk in the movie, and I enjoyed their script so much I gave them permission to use the magazine however they wanted to. Then it turned out that they wanted to use Mary Harron, Legs and I as characters in the film. They even flew me down to watch the filming of the scenes with my character!

I thought the three actors: Peter Vack (portrays Legs), Ahna O'Reilly (playing Mary), Josh Zuckerman (playing me!), did an amazing job. I wanted to interrupt them during every scene and tell them how everything happened back in the day, but I knew that would be the height of unprofessionalism so I resisted the temptation. And after a while I observed how they were playing it in their own way and figured this was the best way for it to happen.

I did see a rough cut — the filmmakers again flew me to see it a few months ago. Naturally there's no way for me to have an objective opinion but I thought it was great. I loved it. The test screening audience also liked it: After the movie, they asked the 20-person focus group if they liked the film, and every single one of them raised their hand.

Of course, there was some nit-picking afterwards, and I think all nit-pickers will have a field day dissecting any and all mistakes that were made. But what no one can argue with is that the film is a funny and nice tribute to CBGB and the whole punk rock scene. Everyone wishes it could have been longer so it could include more people, but all you have is 90 minutes. So at the end, this is the story of CBGB, how Hilly started the club and how it sort-of accidentally became the home of punk rock.

The weird thing is that... back in the 1970s? It was not the "Home of Punk Rock." All those bands, except for maybe the Dead Boys, avoided that label like it was Poison or any other 1980s hair metal band's name.

[John Holmstrom, left, and friends]

What are your feelings about the East Village of 2013?

Like I have always felt about it: It's a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there.

I am lucky enough to have a cheap rent, thanks to rent-stabilization. On the other hand, if we didn't have it, I probably would have moved to Philadelphia or Detroit or someplace a long time ago. Even so, it's an expensive place to live.

The worst thing about this part of town is how NYU has displaced so many residents and businesses, and how so many laws, regulations etc. have been kicking the nightlife to the curb. All of Manhattan is becoming a huge, gated community.

I never felt all that unsafe living here, even when I was robbed a few times. So what's the difference when you get robbed a little bit every day by high prices for everything and having someone break into your apartment and steal something? Not much, really, except you can stop the break-ins but you can't stop the high prices. I always vote for the "Rent Is Too Damn High" guy, for instance.

But even he couldn't stop this. This is my main grievance with all politicians: They always take the credit or get the blame for social forces beyond their control. This economic problem happening all over the country — except for places like Detroit or Philadelphia where no one wants to live. But the 1970s were so wonderful because the publishing industry was still thriving, there was still a strong middle class, and even though the country was in a recession and New York was going bankrupt, we were still in much better shape than we are now. Sad, isn't it?

Then again, that's what New York's East Village was when I moved here. No one in their right mind wanted to live here.

Do you think NYC will ever see the spirit of that era again?


First of all, the cell phone and social media have made everyone narcissistic; doctors are making people crazy with anti-depressants (which block creativity, so all the rebellious teenagers like me are now placed on meds!), and well, I could go on and on and on.

The worst thing to me is that I believe climate change is real, and I don't think the world is doing enough to stop it. Especially after Hurricane Sandy, I am afraid that by the end of this century, my beloved Manhattan Island will be submerged under many feet of water.

Hey — it's not like this is the first time civilizations have been submerged. Like Donavan sang: "Hail, Atlantis!"


Find John Holmstrom's blog here.

Find the Punk Magazine site here.

Previously on EV Grieve:
Revisiting Punk Art

Q-and-A with John Holmstrom, founding editor of Punk Magazine


Anonymous said...

"kicking the nightlife to the curb" — what is your definition of nightlife? Do you mean nightlife of the past, because there's lots of nightlife, it's just either high falutin or frat vomit?

pinhead said...

Glad to hear he likes the CBGB biopic...Seemed like it could've been a disaster. Great piece, Grieve.

Anonymous said...

Not to sound like I'm nitpicking or whatever, but he said that he didn't consult on the film at all. But then he goes on to describe things that sound like consulting. Whether or not they took his advice or critiques to heart is a different matter...

Again, forgive me if I'm wrong, and maybe there is a more technical professional definition of "consulting" of this nature; Mr. Holmstrom being in publishing would definitely know better than I would. Just wondering.

But yes, I'm glad to know that someone who was there and a part of the scene thinks the movie is shaping up well!


Anonymous #1, watch the Limelight (2011) documentary. Giuliani made it a personal crusade to wipe out NYC's nightlife, it's well documented in this film. (Nightlife meaning clubs like The Tunnel, The Palladium, Limelight, etc.) It's an excellent documentary.

Marty Wombacher said...

I really enjoyed this interview. I thought that the CBGB movie would stink, but if John like's it, I'm willing to give it a chance. I highly recommend "The Best of Punk Magazine," it's sitting on my coffee table right now!

jason said...

To expand a bit on what notorious lib wrote.

Nightlife back then was a completely different animal. Whether it was downtown in the 70s with the birth of punk, uptown and the boogie down with rap or even the club kid days. The nighlife scene was a hotbed of creativity. Sure, alcohol and drugs were there too but things happened aside from people getting fucked up.

Giuliani came in and found nightlife to be an easy target in his war against quality of life crimes. Shutting down clubs based on newly created noise ordinances waa an easy target. So along with thw open air drug sales and the homeless, nightlife was erased to make way for the family friendly Manhattan he wanted to create. Giuliani won and nightlife became what it is now. Bottle service-lounge-lame-woooohooo everybody get fucked ul amd puke.

It fucking failed. Bars are still loud. People are loud and obnoxious outside of the bars and clubs, disrupting people living nearby. People are still snorting coke in the bathroom. The only difference is that the soul and creative energy was killed.

John Holmstrom said...

Here's why I was never a "consultant" on the CBGB film: I was sent a film script and liked it. So I came on board. But I thought they should make a few changes. My suggestions were not used. So you cannot say I was a consultant. Naturally I gave a little feedback on a few minor matters since then, but that hardly qualifies me as a "consultant." Mostly I have tried to allow the filmmakers to produce their own vision.