Though the Ramones exhibition at the Queens Museum in 2016 gained Marc H. Miller a wider audience, he was instrumental in framing the punk scene as an total art movement, organizing a seminal Punk Art Show in Washington D.C. in 1978, then salvaging, storing and cataloging essential punk artifacts at his 98 Bowery loft, which became Gallery 98. Eric Davidson joins Miller on a conversational tour through his amazing career in art.
I first encountered Marc H. Miller when I covered the opening of the amazing Ramones exhibit at the Queens Museum in 2016. It was a couple of minutes into chatting before he even mentioned that he was the guy who put this whole damn thing together. Though curator for the Queens Museum from 1985-89, and consultant curator for the Ramones show, he was more interested in what I thought of it all.
It’s his friendly nature that make Miller an unusually approachable curatorial giant when you see him gazing at something at galleries like Howl Happening on the Bowery, where he’s a frequent scene-maker. That fine space carries on the punk-sprung traditions Miller helped instigate back in the mid-70s in New York City.
After graduating University of California-Riverside in the mid-1960s, Miller high-tailed it to the Big Apple to explore the art world. He had the good fortune to land on the Bowery right when CBGB was igniting. Today, he still has the wide eyes of the 20-something who stepped over dog shit on the way to the stage to see the defining punk acts of the 1970s. His almost shy nature probably aided him in accumulating copious connections and ephemera over the years.
Walking into his lovely, well-manicured Fort Green, Brooklyn home, a fellow fanatic like myself could instantly feel these walls housed one of the largest and most interesting collections of print art, gallery guides, posters, magazines, etc. ever. It took every gut muscle I had to hold back fevered requests to look through all his stuff. For now, we needed to cover his own massive amount of work and experiences.
Miller harbors the humility of someone who had his greatest artistic fruition within a scene that figured no one would care, outside of about fourteen blocks of lower Manhattan. To this day, he is still a little surprised at the hefty cultural import of the Lower East Side punk scene he grew through. Hence his amazing encounters with historic figures amble out of his retelling not as smarmy name-drops, but like someone simply recounting memorable co-workers or old classmates. To wit, the very start of our conversation.
PKM: Obviously, art is your first love, but I assume music was in your life early on.
Marc Miller: Yes. I grew up in Los Angeles and went to Fairfax High School, where one of my classmates was P.F. Sloan, of “Eve of Destruction” fame. He was still in high school when he wrote that. It was a big surprise when later Barry McGuire had a big hit with that song, and a rumor went around that the guy who wrote it was P.F. So I guess that was the first music celebrity I knew.
PKM: What were some bands you saw in your teen years?
Marc Miller: Where I grew up, it was very spread out, no public transportation really. So I was lucky to be in walking distance of the Ash Grove, which was a legendary place, kind of leftover from the earlier folk boom. Basically, it was a coffee shop, so they’d let a 15-year old kid in there to hang out. I got to see the New Lost City Ramblers, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Hoyt Axton, Buffy St. Marie, Jack Elliot – it was an endless list. I got a pretty great background in the blues and old folk music.
PKM: Since that was a small space, did it afford you the opportunity to go up and just talk to these influential people?
Marc Miller: Yeah, well I’m not sure how many I actually did walk up to and talk to. But when folk really went big with Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, etc., I was totally in line with it. Dylan came to my college, and he was still in his folk stage. I hosted an after party at my house, and he showed up with Allen Ginsberg. That was pretty memorable.
PKM: Did you get to talk to them much?
Marc Miller: Not too much, they basically retreated to a room. But I remember Ginsberg getting into a fight with him over an interpretation of a Bob Dylan lyric. He had no mercy for some pretentious kid asking about it. So Dylan came out of that room and just walked around introducing himself to people, shook everyone’s hand. Oh, and I just remembered another great early music moment. There were these girls who lived across the street from my friend, and we’d always go there to engage in, you know, whatever activity. Once I remember we were there, and one of the girls, Marilyn Rovell was her name, and there was Brian Wilson with her. And I remember it was at night. He was already a bit troubled, but anyway he was wearing sunglasses. I remember he said, “Isn’t it cool to wear sunglasses at night.” Later, he ended up marrying Marilyn, and she stayed with him for years.
It struck us as odd because these were not the most attractive girls, and when you’re a kid, they were the last people you’d imagine marrying a big rock star. But they were part of a group Wilson was producing. I don’t remember the name of the group, but the song was called, “Surfing Down the Swanee River.” So that’s how he ended up meeting them.
PKM: What made you decide to leave California for NYC?
Marc Miller: Just to go to graduate school in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. They had a special building up there at 78th. I guess I was part of the first wave of California hippies who went into art. It was a very formal place.
PKM: What were your notions of what New York City was like? Had you visited there yet?
Marc Miller: Oh yeah, I was actually born there, but my family moved when I was like 9 months old. Then I went there with my parents at 13, so there was at least some notion of the city. I left California when I was 25. They sent me to stay at first with an aunt in Brighton Beach. And my cousin lived there. He pulled out some grass, we smoked some, and started walking around Brighton Beach, and I almost began to cry. All these people sitting on their stoops, they’re so ugly. Ha ha.
PKM: Not on the California beaches with the tanned beautiful people anymore, huh?
Marc Miller: Ha, yeah.
PKM: Well it’s still like that. I love going to Brighton Beach, but you see the fat old Russian guys wearing tiny Speedos. But you know, there’s a kind of beauty to all that too.
Marc Miller: Of course, it’s a learned pleasure, but not when you just moved from California, and all you know is this distant cousin. But I did know one other person. She was house-sitting a penthouse on Central Park West, and I moved in there. Then life changed. I found a $60 studio on Thompson Street. Those were the days.
PKM: So you moved into 98 Bowery then in 1969 right? How did that happen?
Marc Miller: Yes. We were the first tenants. Sol Fried, who was the landlord, had just started converting it for artists – he worked exclusively with artists. So, at the University of California, there were a couple very well-connected people in the art department, one of whom, Shirley Blum – who was then Shirley Hopps, married to Walter Hopps, a kind of legendary curator. She was the star of The Cool School, a good documentary on the Ferus Gallery, and she provides the drama because she leaves Walter for Irving Blum. But anyhow, she would always send students out – “Ya gotta go to New York!” So she got me to come here.
The Cool School, Trailer:
PKM: That building at 98 Bowery, what was it before lofts?
Marc Miller: It was a flop house. You could still see on the floor where the partitions were. It was pretty raw. A friend, John Wilmer, was already there. He was given the lease for the top floor of 98 Bowery. They kept putting off when we could occupy it. If I remember correctly, John gained access to the roof through people in a neighboring building and would sneak in to sleep at night. This did not go on for very long, and meanwhile he wasn’t faring so well. He got fed up and went back to California. New York’s a tough place. During those years, I must’ve known at least 20 people who came out from California, and almost all retreated.
PKM: A lot of mythologizing goes on now, like, “Oh, everything was so cheap, it was so great,” etc., but it was a hard city.
Marc Miller: Yeah, well my rent was $175 a month, but yeah. I was living with my California girlfriend who’d moved out. It was all about Andy Warhol at that point, and the grass is always greener. Like in California, I remember we saw the Velvet Underground with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable show, at a place on the Sunset Strip, I think it was called The Trip. And you know, out there everyone was into the Beatles, and the love love love thing – and then there’s this! And the Rolling Stones too, who actually had their very first U.S. appearance in L.A. out in San Bernardino. What was most memorable was the way they advertised them. The ads said, “You think the Beatles are ugly – wait ‘til you see the Rolling Stones!” Ha ha. Apparently, that didn’t get us to go see them though, something I really regret.
PKM: Well, you saw the Velvets, a far more rare opportunity as it turned out.
Marc Miller: Yeah. It was a smallish club, we were seated at tables. I saw Andy Warhol, he was there projecting, but I was too shy to talk to him. We were already into the album. In those days, you’d go to the record store, and there was a very limited number of releases being directed towards the hippies, so you could spot them by the art design.
PKM: So here you are at the Velvets show, amongst this love love feeling in California, and here’re the Velvets with a darker sound and look.
Marc Miller: Yeah, and our group were attracted to the darker thing. And of course Warhol was a big draw. And with Shirley Hopps, and the Ferus Gallery, one of the first galleries to show Warhol out there. That’s where I got this (he points to an amazing silver/black Warhol portrait on the wall). A signed, self-portrait, silk-screened, which I paid $17 for.
PKM: Whoa! So, you’re in NYC at 98 Bowery, and other friends are moving in.
Marc Miller: Yeah, Carla Dee Ellis then came out, and she moved into the 98 Bowery loft too.
PKM: Did you have a notion of turning it into a kind of work space or…?
Marc Miller: Well, it was on the 5th floor, for one thing. And we were young, the last thing we were doing was being entrepreneurial. But we started painting, and we’d have people coming in from California, rooftop parties, parties in the loft, pretty freewheeling. We knew all the people in our building. But next door was a little more music-oriented people. One of the people I met there was Randy Brecker of the Brecker Brothers. He was a trumpet player, used to do a lot of backup work. I remember him taking me over to Radio City Music Hall to see James Taylor. He was married then to Carly Simon, and we were all backstage, that was interesting. Another person next door was Denise Delapena, she’d been in the cast of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway.
Dylan came to my college, and he was still in his folk stage. I hosted an after party at my house, and he showed up with Allen Ginsberg. That was pretty memorable.
PKM: Before we get off Warhol, did you ever go to the Factory once you got to NYC?
Marc Miller: Well, I was a little after that. I went to the Factory on Union Square after Warhol had moved out. My friend Anton Perich had temporarily had the backing of Huntington Hartford. They tried to convert it into a club, but I don’t think it lasted more than a few months.
PKM: Max’s Kansas City was right near there…
Marc Miller: Yeah, right across the street. I used to go there. Never got into the infamous back room, but this was before the Dolls even.
PKM: So while we tend to think that the Bowery got going as an artist area into the early/mid-70s, there were obviously lofts and such opening up by the mid-60s.
Marc Miller: Yeah, and the funny thing was there were still all the bums, as we called them. The ground floor at 98 Bowery was Harry’s Bar, and so our doorstop always had a batch of drunken men crashed right in front. So, going in and out, you constantly had to push these people out of the way, walk around them.
PKM: Any nightmarish stories of gunshots at night, etc.?
Marc Miller: No, not really. It was just drunks passed out. One time we came up, walked in, and Carla starts screaming – someone had come up and slept in our bed. Generally, it was okay, but you walked around with blinders because you couldn’t really deal with all these people’s personal issues. So you didn’t really know the other people in the other lofts, until eventually you’d meet them, and then you’d spot them on the street. The upper floors were already populated with artists and musicians. I guess ultimately it wasn’t that dangerous.
PKM: I remember talking to Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys) about a kind of similar area of Cleveland, the Flats, in the early ‘70s. It had this reputation then of being “dark and scary,” but he said it was just plain dead, there really wasn’t even anyone around who might jump you or something, just a lot of drunks laying around. Some danger, of course.
Marc Miller: I lived at 98 Bowery for about 20 years, and I I have my website, 98Bowery: 1969-89, which is basically my own personal history and the projects I was involved in there.
PKM: Yeah, that is a really amazing site, really well done, so much to check out. Is there a notion for you to write a whole biography, or make a documentary?
Marc Miller: Well, I’m a little more visually oriented.
PKM: You say that on the site, and I think the few things you do write on the site are meaningful and to the point. But do you not want to dig into old feelings?
Marc Miller: Well, I like the pictures, and if I did a book it would be like a scrapbook. I would like to translate that site into a proper pictorial book. I’m an old-fashioned guy.
PKM: So back a bit, you’re painting at 98 Bowery, and then moved into conceptual art, which by that time was a general movement in the art world.
Marc Miller: Right, but it was again Shirley, from California. She sent this guy Mike Malloy over. He was already here living on the Bowery. He was an artist, and he had this great conceptual piece called, “Insure the Life of an Ant” where essentially he had a box with a kind of Freon pump, and there was an ant inside. And he set up the gallery like it was a voting booth. And you would file in, and you had the choice of whether you’d press the Freon or not, and freeze the ant to death. That really got me. And from that moment on, I started doing participatory art. I’d set up tings and process people through, with word responses or drawings, things like that.
Marc Miller: Yeah. In the end, I had a wall piece, the one no one would ever exhibit, but is extremely popular on my website. I asked people to draw a penis and vagina, and I would photograph the people drawing it. So then there’d be a photo of the person and their drawings. Very voyeuristic, you naturally start making associations. Psychologists and art therapists can do it with some authority, but most others are a little less certain of what they’re seeing. It leaves a lot of room for imagination. I’m still surprised today, I mean it seems so simple and basic, but I’ve never seen it done like that. I had over 100 drawings from little kids to old people. Every day there are 25 or more people from all over the world coming to my site to check those out, but I haven’t seen that done elsewhere.
PKM: Maybe people are afraid of delving into too much sexual imagery these days.
Marc Miller: Maybe. And there’s always the release issues now. At one point, Penthouse Forum – this spinoff magazine of Penthouse, they tried to call it like a “sexual health” magazine or whatever – they wanted to run a story about it, but they kept coming back with more release hurdles. In the end they paid us, but never ran the story.
PKM: Yeah, we’re even more litigious these days. You’d have to have a note at the door: “If you enter here, you may be photographed drawing a penis.”
Marc Miller: Ha, right, but I did write, “I give Marc Miller all rights to this…” on the wall, but that wasn’t good enough. Ha.
PKM: The “Insure the Life of an Ant” instillation you mentioned – not exactly a hippie love fest idea, a little more aggressive, sarcastic intent.
Marc Miller: Yeah, it was pretty original art piece at that time. He backed out of it. He got so much flack, that he never did anything like that again. He left New York and gave up making art.
PKM: Is he an animal rights activist now?
Marc Miller: No. He’s an insurance agent.
Musically, my commitment was to CBGB. It was within walking distance and we could get in free, so that helped! Essentially, the “Paparazzi Self-Portraits” tuned into this extended series we called “Bettie Visits CBGBs.”
PKM: Okay, but again, at that time, 1972-73, you’re in the Bowery, and there’s an art drift towards this kind of aggressive, destructive, sarcastic, angrier attitude. And you’re feeling this kind of, if not exactly a backlash, but some change from that ‘60s peace/love thing.
Marc Miller: Yeah, but I was never a love hippie. I mean, I would go to love-ins, but you could define people kind of early on – that whole people who liked the Rolling Stones vs. the Beatles thing. It was that simple.
PKM: And you were a Rolling Stones guy.
Marc Miller: Oh yeah.
PKM: What were some early memories of seeing an actual sort of “punk” band or event?
Marc Miller: Being in New York, I was happy to attend all kinds of concerts, and one of them was the Stooges and MC5 at a theater in Staten Island. That was adventuresome. Very early, like 1970. I also saw Iggy solo at Electric Circus. Then I was a big jazz fan too, mostly avant-garde stuff. I used to go down to Slug’s which was on 3rd Street, and had people like Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, it was a showcase for the most extreme jazz. And that was a dangerous walk. That was between B and C, if I recall, maybe lower. One time we went there, and we had to like escape into the club, get away from someone hassling us.
PKM: Interesting, because the Stooges and MC5 always said they were listening to a lot of that “out jazz” around that time. I think that kind of freeform exploration that was at the beginning of punk has been forgotten. Any memories of that Stooges Staten Island show?
Marc Miller: Ha, mostly just getting there! It wasn’t your New York sophisticated crowd. It was a really rough crowd, I don’t even know how to characterize it. It was an old movie theater that did rock concerts sometimes.
PKM: Yeah, I remember talking to Wayne Kramer (MC5), and him saying how they often played way out in Long Island or something because there weren’t a lot of clubs right in Manhattan.
Marc Miller: To do a show, no. And those bands had a much broader appeal then just to the intellectuals. In fact, they probably had little appeal to the intellectuals. It’s a whole other kind of people out there, some of them today probably like Donald Trump, but they were living out on their own little edge, completely divorced from “East Coast/West Coast,” whatever. I had a girlfriend from Staten Island, and her claim to fame was that in high school she was David Johansen’s girlfriend. I think she wasn’t ready to give up her virginity, and that ended that relationship, as often happens in high school romances.
PKM: So yeah, you must’ve seen them, the New York Dolls?
Marc Miller: Yeah, I did see them on Christie Street.
PKM: They lived there, right? Used to have rent parties.
Marc Miller: That was exactly what the feel was. It was a ground floor store front, maybe 25, 50 people there, the band in full drag. It was very captivating. I’d never heard of them before, and I really remember that. My cousin from Brighton Beach that I mentioned earlier, he was working in the music industry, doing art, and he got me tickets to see Alice Cooper, kind of their debut here, on their first album, in a nice large theater. And they were totally a knockout band. There’s a lot of music to absorb when you’re living in New York.
PKM: I think maybe the co-mingling of the new music world and the art world was so much closer back then, maybe more than it ever was again. And there was a similar situation of burgeoning art galleries opening in former flop house areas where new music dives were opening.
Marc Miller: Yeah, this was all in the same basic area – downtown lofts and Lower East Side tenements.
PKM: You mentioned you exhibited at the Fine Arts Building in Tribeca around then too. What was that neighborhood like?
Marc Miller: Oh, it was deserted. And this landlord, Julian Pret, made an arrangement to fill the building up with artists. These old small offices spaces would be a gallery. Music people were living there too. A number of the people in the Erasers lived there and rehearsed in the basement. David Ebony, who was part of the Erasers then, had a gallery there. Susan Springfield ran one of the galleries there, and that was the first time, with my partner Bettie, we showed our “Paparazzi Self-Portraits.”
PKM: Yeah, that project of yours, that seemed to also fit into that zeitgeist of more aggressive, sarcastic art that was starting to come around, recognizing and commenting on celebrity culture.
Marc Miller: Yeah, it’s a little ironic when I think about the kind of rhetoric we used to spin around it. It was pretty pretentious rhetoric coming out of conceptual art. And a lot of conceptual art was very didactic, it made you “think about art.” That was its ultimate purpose. But then we had this idea of a populist art. So the idea was to take these photos and sell them. First, the “Paparazzi Self-Portraits” involved a lot of different types of celebrities. It was kind of like lying in wait and plotting out how to get these shots.
One time I became particularly self-conscious about it was when we went to try to get Teddy Kennedy in Washington, D.C. And of course, there was always the thought of assassinations around them. And there was this realization – here’s this person surrounded by security, and here we were, probably making the same sneaky moves that an assassin might make. Me trying to position myself next to him and get the photo. We got the shot. It wasn’t great, but we got it. Couple years later, I got a much better shot with Jackie Onassis. That was taken at the Police Building on Mulberry. They were converting it into high-end condos, and they brought her down there to an opening party.
There was a shot with Andy Warhol, that was the first one. We got Alain Resnais, the intellectual filmmaker who did Last Year at Marienbad. While shuffling into position, I ended up spilling wine on him, on this dapper Frenchman, ha.
PKM: So the basic idea was to get up next to these celebrities of different levels and get a quick photo with them but in an era where way less pictures were being taken, and with bigger cameras.
Marc Miller: Right. At that time, there was nothing like it. It wasn’t a huge camera, a Pentax. But still, the irony now is that it’s become so ubiquitous, it’s become hard to even show it to people as anything other than a kitschy thing, but it was interesting then.
PKM: Of course today, people are taking pics of everyone all over. It’d be nice if they ask, but you might not even notice, there are no loud clicks or flashes. But back then, did you ask these people if you could take the photos, and were they mostly amenable?
Marc Miller: Well at first, they were done surreptitiously. We were doing a wide variety of things. But soon, we’d be walking up the Bowery, going in the back of CBGB. Hilly was very friendly. I guess we probably showed him a card from a gallery show we did or whatever, but he introduced us to Roberta (Bayley). And he’d let us in free, gave us carte blanche to take pictures. Then, we would ask people in there. My friend Bettie Ringma had a very winning way about her. She’d studied art therapy and could make people at ease.
Musically, my commitment was to CBGB. It was within walking distance and we could get in free, so that helped! Essentially, the “Paparazzi Self-Portraits” tuned into this extended series we called “Bettie Visits CBGBs.” We were there at the right time, all the major groups were still playing CBGBs. So this populist art idea, where we would sell pictures cheaply, we took out these classified ads in the photography section of Rolling Stone, and we’d have this “Punk portfolio,” and list the groups we had. At that time, there was very little coverage of this outside of New York. So we were the only ones pushing photos of these groups in advertisements – and it worked! I cut it back considerably on the 98Bowery website, but there’s a section where I include letters we got from all over the country requesting pictures. Mostly very young kids. And at first, we felt like maybe we were pulling a joke on all these kids, because it was mainly about pictures of Bettie with these bands. But she became a kind of surrogate for these kids who were never going to see these bands, and she became their kind of friend or pen pal.
PKM: And all the CBs bands were amenable to this I guess?
Marc Miller: Oh yeah, And it’s part of the confirmation of stardom, right, on a local level? Maybe it wasn’t the big record contract they were looking for, but it showed recognition. The Ramones were good at the photos.
PKM: Yeah, Danny Fields talks about how these goofy guys from Queens just intrinsically knew how to pose and always looked great.
Marc Miller: Yes. And they had their “no smile” rule. Then we had that “Paparazzi Self-Portraits” exhibit at the Fine Arts Building. The show right before or after us was Marcia Resnick, so Susan asked if we could include some of the Bettie band pictures into that show. It was mostly politicians and other people, but we did add in a picture with Joey Ramone. We were selling them at $1 each, kind of cash ‘n’ carry, and there would be about 50 of each image. And we asked Joey to just sign a few of them. And much to our amazement, he signed all 50! Little did I realize until later that he’s kind of OCD, and that played into it entirely. He signed all 50, and of course those were the first to sell out.
We were going to CBGBs three or four nights a week. The thing had this momentum, and you don’t encounter that too many times in your life, where you really see this thing is happening, breaking. So we went with it.
So around that time was when we started organizing the Punk Art Show that would eventually happen in DC. And downstairs from us at 98 Bowery was Curt Hoppe, a photorealist painter who had just moved here from Minneapolis. And he was always hanging around, sometimes going to CBGBs with us, a fan of the music. So he wanted to get involved with the Punk Art Show. He thinks he suggested this painting, but I always feel like I hooked him into it. He was mostly doing nudes.
PKM: So you tried to get him to do a nude of the Ramones?
Marc Miller: Ha, something like that. He was mostly using his wife as a model. I always remember an early review said he was a great painter, but he needed to change his model, which was one of the funniest reviews I’ve ever read. Anyhow, he decided he wanted to do this painting that duplicated the photo of Bettie and the Ramones. That was a total game changer, because that took our little 3” x 5” photos from Bettie Visits CBGBs to this giant 5’ x 6’ canvas. He’s a real first-rate realist, so it was impressive. I sent a letter to Danny Fields, and he agreed to have the Ramones sign it, and that was a big moment. We carried the canvas from 98 Bowery down to CBs, and the Ramones signed it. Then we took a picture of that, so another layer there. I remember Dee Dee walking around asking Danny if he should sign it. They were all kind of in awe.
PKM: Yeah, this was 1978, I guess they were still a little in a mode of not yet realizing how important they were becoming?
Marc Miller: Yeah, I subsequently learned there was a lot of fan art, and this was the ultimate fan art, and kind of justified it in conceptual art terms – with the difference in scale and permanence, and the irony of having someone else in the picture. Ultimately the joke was on us because all the people that were taking pictures at CBGBs were soon selling photos to magazines and record companies – but our photos always had Bettie in there too and had limited appeal. But the idea was catching on, and soon Lisa Robinson was doing these behind the scenes articles for Rock Scene, and she was increasingly including herself into the pictures. But she was already an identifiable part of the scene, and maybe Bettie wasn’t. But we took that signed painting out to the Punk Art Show. Paul Tschinkel bought it from Bettie soon after; and like 5, 10 years ago I bought it from him. I eventually was able to get it into the New Museum, and then the Ramones show at the Queens Museum.
PKM: I wanted to ask about some other acts from the early CBGB days, and how they were to shoot. How about Alan Vega?
Marc Miller: We knew him better than most of the groups because he came out of the arts scene in SoHo. I first encountered him when he had an exhibition at OK Harris, which was the gallery I had two shows at, and that Mike Malloy showed at. Alan had all his electronic mess and junk sculpture in the back room. He would sit inside it, with his sunglasses and leather jacket and bottle of Jack Daniels or whatever. At that time, one of the people I was friendly with in the arts scene was Edit DeAk, who was a big supporter of Alan. And of course, we would never miss a show. We were going to CBGBs three or four nights a week. The thing had this momentum, and you don’t encounter that too many times in your life, where you really see this thing is happening, breaking. So we went with it. Some bands were still doing two sets sometimes too. So we saw a lot of shows.
PKM: Were there bands that really stuck out, that you just didn’t want to miss?
Marc Miller: Well Suicide, of course. The Ramones were already busy at that point, and touring – this is like 1976, but we’d see them when we could. We were maybe just a little bit late to it, ’76-’78; like the Ramones and Patti Smith were almost out of there, touring. Patti was the first musician we shot there for the Bettie pictures thing. She had an MC5 T-shirt on, long before she ever became involved with Fred “Sonic” Smith. So we were selling those shots, and at the same time became aware of others, and of course Legs McNeil, who made himself available as soon as he saw anyone with a camera shooting the groups!
PKM: I should know this, but did you then have photos in Punk magazine eventually?
Marc Miller: Yeah, it was after we did that Punk Art Show in Washington, D.C., in 1978, which we’ll get to that. But at this point, we were just seeing Legs and John [Holmstrom] around. At some point, I spent a year in Washington, D.C., 1974, that’s where I met Bettie. And I had this friend Alice Denney, kind of an arts mover and shaker there. She had started the Washington Project for the Arts, and she wanted to do a new show, and she’d asked us what’s new. We’d been hanging out regularly at CBGB, and it was clear that a lot of the people in the audience and the bands were connected to the art scene in some way. So we thought, well how about punk art? Punk was becoming a word around the music scene, but not really in the art scene yet, so we decided on that idea for a show. Tried to keep it totally authentic by drawing almost all the artists out of CBGBs, with a few from around the edges that fit into the idea. It seemed to us like Legs and John kind of owned that term.
PKM: Yeah. There is that Suicide gig flyer from like 1971 with the phrase, “A night of Punk Music” on it. Crazy.
Marc Miller: Yeah, that was a show at OK Harris gallery. I wasn’t there, but I know the card! Anyway, for all these art people, in a way, punk was their rebellion away from the art world. So the idea of doing a “Punk Art Show” was kind of anathema, there was a lot of antagonism.
PKM: Yeah, there’s that worry – are you going to take this exciting thing and throw it on a white wall.
Marc Miller: Yeah, for sure. But the Washington Project for the Arts space wasn’t like that, it was an alternative space, sort of like how PS1 was in those days. And anyway, John and Legs were not like those people – they seized on it! The idea was they’d do one room and fill it up with whoever they wanted. So they brought in Chris Stein, Roberta Bayley, Arturo Vega. Then we got people for other rooms, like Alan Vega and Steven Kramer, who was then married to Patti Astor. He was in a group called the Wallets. It was a good mix of people.
PKM: And you were able to get some press out?
Marc Miller: Oh, we got a ton of press! I mean, this wasn’t going to be an art movement like Abstract Expressionism, or minimalism, or something where everything kind of looked the same, or had similar mediums. This was more an attitude, and people expressed those in all sorts of ways, whether it was performance, cartoons, paintings, music, whatever. The only precedent for it then was what was then being called Feminist Art, which was all about being a woman, and there was a wide range of how people expressed that. But then when we took the Punk Art Show to Amsterdam later, it was reviewed by a feminist art critic who called it “macho art,” because it was perceived as aggressive and violent. And you had Robert Mapplethorpe in there, with his leather jackets and chains.
So we thought, well how about punk art? Punk was becoming a word around the music scene, but not really in the art scene yet, so we decided on that idea for a show. Tried to keep it totally authentic by drawing almost all the artists out of CBGBs, with a few from around the edges that fit into the idea. It seemed to us like Legs and John kind of owned that term.
PKM: I liked that “Punk Lust” show that’s at the Museum of Sex now. I think as punk has been simplistically defined over the years – often very male, violent, mosh pits, all that kind of thing – that it’s forgotten how influential the gay scene was, and a lot of women who were involved.
Marc Miller: Right. The gay community was definitely a big component.
PKM: So, I guess the artists finally came around to the idea of the Punk Art Show then?
Marc Miller: Oh yeah. We had these different events too. Like with Legs and John, we came up with this idea to do a “Battle of the Bands,” Punk vs. Disco. So Alice hired this disco cover band, and Legs brought Shrapnel. That was interesting.
The bands played in the same space, alternating songs. I thought the disco band would win, because they were going to be playing these popular hits. But obviously, it’s a Punk Art Show, so the crowd was already decided. Ha. So the cover band started with “Staying Alive,” and people started throwing stuff at them. They couldn’t even finish the first song before retreating. I still have the letter from Alice – “I had to pay these guys!” She was so mad at me for this Battle of the Bands that became pretty one-sided, and violent at that!
PKM: It’s interesting, when you look back – it’s easy to say now, but probably not apparent at the time – but there was a kind of kinship between punk and disco. They were both underground scenes full of misfits, though disco was getting huge by then. But the gay culture involvement, the way both genres were pretty derided by the big Rock mainstream early on, they were reactions to square culture.
Marc Miller: Yeah, right. But this Punk Art Show was already just post-Saturday Night Fever, so disco was pretty mainstream at that point.
PKM: Did you ever find yourself over at Studio 54, trying to get some of your “Paparazzi” pictures?
Marc Miller: No, but we did go to Odyssey 2000, which was where Saturday Night Fever was filmed.
We have a portfolio of pix, and everyone there thought they were John Travolta, so it’s a pretty funny portfolio.
PKM: By late 1978, compared to when you first walked into CBGBs in early 1976, you knew punk was getting bigger too, this wasn’t just a New York thing.
Marc Miller: Right, the scene had grown. And the term “Punk Art” was a very strong hype. Whether it actually became an art movement; I mean I’m still amazed people use the term Punk Art, although it doesn’t exist in a History of Art chronology, but it’s still used, and that was the first time it was used in an accepted art venue. People can point to other exhibitions in England and elsewhere, where that spirit prevailed, but they didn’t call it that specifically. So we can still make that claim, for what it’s worth.
PKM: I’m a Cleveland guy, so I have to ask you about the Dead Boys.
Marc Miller: Well I just remember them showing up one day and blowing everybody away. They put on a great act.
PKM: That picture on your site of them with Betty is amazing.
Marc Miller: Yeah. And the picture that’s offstage, which had Johnny Blitz, Stiv, and Miriam Linna – who was then still with the Cramps – is great. But on the subject of Cleveland, one of the people who showed up at the Punk Art Show on his own volition was John Morton of the Electric Eels. He called up and arranged with Alice to come in, so he got a night. At that point, his band was Johnny & the Dicks, a visual art band. Everyone was there, and he started mixing fiberglass which is heavy with fumes, and he kept mixing it until everybody left. That was his performance! I went into the back parking area, standing there with John Holmstrom and this local DC punk girl he was hanging out with. And we’re all complaining about John Morton’s act, and his car is there – it had an Ohio license plate. So she went over and broke off the radio antenna. And many, many years later, I told John that story, and he goes, “Oh my god, what?! I had to drive all the way back to Cleveland with no radio!”
PKM: Were people here mad that the Punk Art Show was in DC and not right there on the Bowery?
Marc Miller: No, that’s what made people participate. I don’t think they would’ve had the nerve to do it in New York. And John and Legs got the spirit going that, “We’re gonna invade Washington!” So it wasn’t just an art show anymore, it was an invasion. And Legs – who was a brilliant provocateur, he came up with the “Punk Manifesto,” which got us a lot of publicity before even heading out there. The Village Voice ran it in full, full of this stuff like, “There’s no Rock’n’Roll in Russia, there’s no McDonalds,” etc. At that point they were doing the kind of pro-American, jingoistic thing. Legs led a bunch of punks to throw McDonald hamburgers at the Russian embassy, which was brilliant. That got attention!
I’m still amazed people use the term Punk Art, although it doesn’t exist in a History of Art chronology, but it’s still used, and that was the first time it was used in an accepted art venue…. So we can still make that claim, for what it’s worth.
A low moment of the show though, my friend Neke Carson had a now pretty famous painting, a “rectal realist” portrait of Andy Warhol. He painted it by sticking a paintbrush in his ass; and Andy dutifully posed for over an hour. And that’s all videotaped, Andy posing and Neke executing it. And it actually looks a lot like Andy Warhol. So that was in the exhibition. Neke was in a band with Glenn O’Brien… Anyway, then there was a weekend we set up during it, the “Baltimore Weekend,” where we had some artists from Baltimore involved.
PKM: I assume John Waters must’ve come to the Punk Art Show?
Marc Miller: Definitely. And one night during this Baltimore Weekend, he came with a film, and the next night Edith Massey – who had a group at the time – played.
And during that concert, someone stole Neke’s Warhol painting. It was tragic, because a space like Washington Project for the Arts was not insured, and even if it had been, to establish the value of a rectal realist portrait at that time would’ve been hard. But we were lucky because Neke’s art was so extreme and amusing that one of the local radio stations that was trying to play some punk music made it a kind of cause celebre. They kept announcing it every hour: “If you know where it is, let’s get it back.” And one day, a kid – whose father was actually a Congressman – showed up with the painting. He said he had no idea it was worth anything. I think he did have to sweep the Washington Project for the Arts for a week. Ha. But it was that radio assistance that scared him into bringing it back. In subsequent years, that painting has been exhibited at the Warhol Museum and others.
PKM: You hear stories like that, and they’re terrible at the time, but later take on a kind of respect because, well of course a painting at a punk art show should be stolen.
Marc Miller: Ha, right. A low point of that show that became a high point.
PKM: For you personally, that was a kind of apex for that original Bowery scene. And while it sounds like a lot of fun, I bet it was a ton of work for you.
Marc Miller: Oh yeah, it was a lot of work. It was a major moment, all these artists that were in it subsequently went on to very full lives and careers and many other art shows. Even though I kind of disappeared from downtown New York for a minute, it was a shared experience, and we sort of kept in touch. And that came back into play many years later when I wanted to do the Ramones exhibition at the Queens Museum. That happened very spontaneously. For a while there, I was curator at the Queens Museum, from 1985-90.
PKM: Yeah, you moved to Amsterdam in 1979 first, right?
Marc Miller: Yeah. Lived there for a year and a half. Bettie was Dutch, we were living together, and she’d just gotten a divorce and wanted to get away. So she took her divorce money and purchased a houseboat there. Who could resist that? So I went, and the first thing we did, there was a very small gallery there that wanted a variation on the Punk Art Show. It was a much smaller version, but even before it opened, the local newspaper came in, and we got a full front page of the Arts section, and that caused quite a stir, that show.
PKM: Did you feel a similar artistic or musical bent going on there too?
Marc Miller: Yeah, well by that time the English scene had spread over there. But it was a different kind of punk, much more political, fashion. We naively, in our interview, said, “Oh, there’s no punk in Amsterdam.” And, we called it “American Punk” in the article. That was counter to the more sincere punk scene in Amsterdam. The next day there was a skull and cross bones with a knife stuck in the front door of the gallery. We got creamed a bit, as there was a lot of antagonism. But of course, that actually helped the show. We were unashamed of good hype.
PKM: I think the sense of humor and sarcasm of the New York punk scene – and some of the stuff in the Rust Belt, Cleveland bands, and going back to the Stooges and MC5 in Detroit – well it was just a more serious scene for England, with teenagers still seeing bombed-out buildings from World War II. Not that there wasn’t some serious anger and sadness over Vietnam and Watergate, bad economy, etc. here. But the American scene tended to be more about the music, confrontational art, and kind of just retreating from mainstream square society.
Marc Miller: Yeah, it was a little more tongue-in-cheek. And yeah in England, they were living in squats. The American bands were more play violence. But yeah, so while in Amsterdam, we started up the same kind of “Bettie Visits CBGBs” idea again, but using Polaroids and going to the bars, taking photos and selling them. Honestly, we were looking for a way to make money, but it just clicked right away because no one else was doing that. The first day we got like 25 people to go for it, and that was how we lived for the next year and a half. Literally every night and every different type of bar in Amsterdam.
PKM: So except for the knife on the door, you enjoyed your time there?
Marc Miller: Oh yeah, we did very well. Even though we weren’t really thinking of it as “art,” we were getting really great photos. So eventually we approached Polaroid, and they gave us a case of 500 shots, and then we’d take second shots. By that time, we had regular customers and we knew everybody. So we put together a very nice collection of 500 shots. And the Dutch government gave us a grant to get a video person to follow us around. Then we had an exhibit with all that, and that went over pretty big. In fact, just last year, we showed those same photos in Amsterdam, and the collection of about 250 was purchased by the city archives of Amsterdam. And supposedly next summer there’s supposed to be some big exhibit on the nightlife of Amsterdam, and they’re going to exhibit those. So it was great. But by that time, I was getting a little antsy and missing New York.
And Legs – who was a brilliant provocateur, he came up with the “Punk Manifesto,” which got us a lot of publicity before even heading out there. The Village Voice ran it in full, full of this stuff like, “There’s no Rock’n’Roll in Russia, there’s no McDonalds,” etc.
PKM: You mention on your site how things in the LES scene had changed in just that year and a half, and I assume you mean with the punk scene getting bigger, and the music morphing a bit. But – and it’s of course sad to ask – but did you notice that some friends were getting sick?
Marc Miller: Yeah, true. I didn’t personally notice much yet. But my cousin was gay, and he eventually died of AIDS. And it must’ve been around that time, because I remember Bettie coming with me to visit him with his mother when he was in an advanced stage, and Bettie and I broke up soon after we came back here, around 1981. I guess that’s where it touched me a little more closely.
PKM: What were some other less sad ways you saw the scene changing?
Marc Miller: Well there’s that great cover of the East Village Eye that John Holmstrom did, called “The Death of Punk,” and it’s him and Legs sitting there, and all around him are these people with mohawks, and that was not their style. John’s line on the picture is, “Well Legs, I guess we blew it.” And that was the change. All of the sudden, something that had been a small little thing had blown up, and there were lots of clubs, and almost everybody we’d been involved with at the Punk Art Show had reputations and leading the galleries and stuff.
PKM: Including yourself.
Marc Miller: Well maybe, though it didn’t quite feel that way coming back. In retrospect, I went out of town at just the wrong moment. But it was good to get out, and those were good times.
PKM: So then you helped start ABC No Rio. My memories of that place were primarily as a DIY music venue, but it started as an art space, right?
Marc Miller: Yes. Now if you Google “ABC No Rio,” it’s all about the punk concerts. But it was first an art space that kind of reflected the zeitgeist. It was an outgrowth of “The Real Estate Show,” which was a bunch of artists who, on New Year’s Eve, broke into a city-owned building that was on Delancey Street, and mounted an exhibition about real estate abuses. It was only there a day or two, and the city right away came in and evicted everyone and re-padlocked the building.
PKM: And I guess by then, like around Times Square and “seedier” areas or whatever, things were starting to change a bit.
Marc Miller: Well it wasn’t totally changing yet, there was just a lot of reclaimed properties that the city was grabbing from people who weren’t paying their taxes. This was a particularly nice building, and the city had plans for it. So when there were demonstrations around the closing of that exhibition, Joseph Beuys showed up, he happened to be in town, and that happened to be a major thing. But what the city did was they offered the artists a nearby space, and that became ABC No Rio – so that was actually the result of a squat exhibition.
PKM: And government acquiescence.
Marc Miller: Yeah.
PKM: Interesting, because in Europe, there is a longer tradition of government assistance for the arts like that, people being able to squat and take over the building with government funding help. Although that’s changing. I thought about it so much after going to tour Europe with my band in the early ‘90s, and seeing all this support for the arts. But then I always say, “So who’s your favorite band from Utrecht?” Meaning, there’s something about the struggle American artists go through that created all this influential art, music, and films from the 20th century that Europe loved.
Marc Miller: Yeah, right. I had a friend who has since passed, Anette Kuhn. Her boyfriend was close with Ed Koch, so she got this job as Art Commissioner, right in City Hall. And she was trying to engineer things where artists could take over these abandoned buildings. And in fact, one of the few people who actually succeeded in going through the bureaucratic hurdles and having the construction skills to bring the building up to code, was John Morton. Out in Red Hook.
PKM: Oh wow! I knew he had that place in Red Hook, didn’t know the government funding connection. So, ABC No Rio finally closed recently…
Marc Miller: Well it’s not closed exactly, it’s being rebuilt. It’s an amazing survival story. They’ve torn down the original building, because after an analysis, it was just a cheap old tenement and wasn’t worth the tons of fixes that would’ve to take place. As much as people like to say, “Oh, let’s keep it the way it was,” as a practical matter, it was dangerous. I was on the board of that place for a while. I’d just gotten married and had a kid. I remember one day we were there, and a couple people were fighting, and one pushed the other against a wall, and the person went through a bit, and the outer wall, some bricks fell out and you could see outside! I never understood how the floor survived these punk shows, because it was like a trampoline! So someone had told me, when you’re a member on a board, you are potentially liable. They had no insurance there. So one meeting I just quit. Then the whole board quit.
PKM: Then, around 1985, you became the main curator at the Queens Museum.
Marc Miller: Yeah, amazingly enough, it was an ad in the New York Times that I answered, with absolutely no contacts. At that time, I’d been working with Paul Schinkel, making videotapes about art, and I’d edited the ABC No Rio book, had a PhD in Art History…
PKM: You had a pretty good resume.
Marc Miller: Ha, yeah, I guess so. And somehow or other my punk years hadn’t totally transformed my personality into looking uncooperative. Though I guess they weren’t anticipating me telling any punk stories just yet. They were drawing upon my art connections in New York.
I’d go up to his place in Harlem and talk, and I learned his perspective, which was, to put it in the simplest terms, don’t put Louis Armstrong in only a “black” context, but compare him with Picasso, Stravinsky, and onto the broader world stage as a cultural leader, which is exactly where he belongs.
PKM: What was the Queens Museum like at that point?
Marc Miller: Oh yeah, it was small then. When it got created, they kind of forced on it the idea of that Panorama of the City of New York, that giant scale model exhibit [a relic of the 1964 World’s Fair that the museum was asked to maintain] that is still its main thing. That is like 9,000 square feet; it took up almost a quarter of the museum. It became totally popular with school groups, so it brought some people out. And then there’s the whole 1964 World’s Fair heritage around the whole place. And I got more involved with all those things, and I’d have to say that my success there in those early years was taking on what was obviously its biggest appeal. I’d be doing exhibits around the Panorama, kind of took the lead, though others jumped in, as that was around the anniversary of the World’s Fair, so there was a lot of programming around that too.
But in 1989, I was able to do the Louis Armstrong exhibit. You know he lived not far from there. And Phoebe Jacobs, who was then the Vice Chairman of the Louis Armstrong foundation, kept calling me and trying to get me to come down and look at the Armstrong house in Corona and consider an exhibition. It took a few calls, I’m not sure why, I’m almost embarrassed it took a bit to get it going. See, Walt Disney was really big in the ’64 World’s Fair, so when you’re dealing with that, you’re thinking of Walt Disney a lot. And one day I’m walking down the street, and there’s a yard sale, there’s a Louis Armstrong album, “Satch Plays Disney” – him doing Disney standards. And I put that on, and hearing “When You Wish Upon a Star,” he just nailed it. And it was at that point, I called back Phoebe. It took a couple more tries to get it through the museum, because they’d say, “We’re an art museum, not a music museum.” And what I tried to explain was that I was combining a lot of visual art about jazz – I really had my pick back then in ’89, real first-rate stuff that most museums were still keeping stored away in their basements. Anyhow, that was a big success. I got a NEH fellowship, and that show traveled to seven venues including the National Portrait Gallery. So that was a big deal. I did that as a consultant, because by then, the museum was going through some financial troubles and didn’t have the resources to dedicate a full-time curator to it.
PKM: Yeah, and as time has gone on, Armstrong’s reputation has gotten incrementally huge.
Marc Miller: Oh yeah! I mean it’s amazing. I can’t say he was nothing, he was always big and popular, but he didn’t get respect. I think that exhibit helped, but Wynton Marsalis took the mantle right around that time – he had become head of jazz at Lincoln Center, and was really pushing Louis Armstrong.
PKM: I guess he saw that Queens Museum show?
Marc Miller: Not that I know of. Ha. But once the Smithsonian put on that traveling exhibition, I met the great Marquette Folley, a black woman who kind of created a mentorship for me with Albert Murray, who was also Wynton’s mentor. That taught me his philosophy of how to deal with black culture in America. I’d go up to his place in Harlem and talk, and I learned his perspective, which was, to put it in the simplest terms, don’t put Armstrong in only a “black” context, but compare him with Picasso, Stravinsky, and onto the broader world stage as a cultural leader, which is exactly where he belongs.
PKM: Can I assume that, not unlike his neighborhood back then, that the neighborhood just around the museum was pretty rough when you were curator there?
Marc Miller: Well you never really got into the neighborhood much, It’s a park right around it, and I used to drive there. But the thing about Corona and keeping the Armstrong House there was it became a lynchpin of that neighborhood. And as far as never moving, I mean he was basically a workaholic, he would tour constantly, so he was rarely there. And I guess you could say that, although the Ramones moved out of Queens, they were workaholics and constantly toured like Armstrong.
PKM: Speaking of which, by ’89, you were a consultant for the museum.
Marc Miller: Yeah, then that was it. By the early ‘90s, I was no longer affiliated with the Queens Museum. Then I did consultant work with the Flushing Town Hall. And one of the things I did there was develop the Flushing Queens Jazz Trail Map. The Flushing Town Hall was more a performance venue. And they were saying that a lot of jazz musicians came from Queens, so they suggested to me an exhibition about jazz in Queens. They didn’t have a big budget, and I thought I was going to end up with a lot of just trinkets and LP covers and books. But out of the Armstrong show was E. Simms Campbell’s Nightclub Map of Harlem, which was a pictorial map of Harlem from the 1930s. I loved that piece, was able to get it from his daughter – who was also then married to Gordon Parks – to add to the Armstrong show.
PKM: So you were a jazz fan, as these curating opportunities came around?
Marc Miller: Yeah, back in high school and college I listened to a lot of jazz, but mostly the far-out stuff – Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders, Eric Dolphy, the whole kit and kaboodle. And my great regret is that, when I moved to Holland with Bettie, people told me, “Oh, you can sell these for a lot in Holland, they love jazz over there!” So I brought them all over there, only to discover that the only jazz they liked in Holland was Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. I don’t know who liked all that back then, besides James Chance. So all these classic avant-garde jazz records stayed in the boat. And after I’d left, Bettie sub-leased the boat, and it sank. There was a fortune in records sitting in there.
PKM: Ugh! So how did the Ramones exhibit at the Queens Museum finally happen in 2016?
Marc Miller: So very simply, it grew out of my website, 98 Bowery. I had a good 20-year hiatus out in Park Slope. I got married, had a kid, my wife had a successful costume jewelry business; and while I kept up with some projects, I helped her a bit with that. Then I started my website as a way to cover my life from 1969-89. As I kind of relived my life, it was bringing in all these people I’d once been involved with back in those days. And one of the things I did was put up the Punk Art Show catalog, and reconnected me with those people.
But it was when I started putting up the section on my time at the Queens Museum, well I went there, and I started talking to Tom Finkelpearl – he’s the director of cultural affairs now, but he was the director of the museum then. We talked, and he might’ve had an agenda, as he said, “Hey, let’s do a Queens Hop Hop map, like the Jazz Trail Map,” which had become a big deal, because it wasn’t just a few jazz people, but there was a whole section over in St. Albans, Queens that was like a jazz hall of fame. Everybody lived there – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Waller, Count Baise. It had become a kind of defining identity for the borough, as well as the World’s Fair. So Tom knew of that, and suggested the Hip Hop map. You know, I wasn’t averse to it, but my quick reaction was, what would be really great too is a Ramones exhibition. I thought, you have where Louis Armstrong lived a mile to the right, and the Ramones growing up a mile to the left. And it took about one second, and Tom said, “Let’s do it!”
I didn’t take him too seriously, but then about a month later, I ran into Carla McCormick, and she said, “Oh I was talking to Tm Finklepearl, and he said you’re going to do a Ramones show!” Ha. So that kind of woke me up – he was serious! I called him, we talked, I brought in Arturo Vega, who was the Ramones Art Director for the whole stretch of the band; and Monte Melnick, who was their tour manager the whole time. Arturo especially was a pack rat, but Monte had a lot of stuff too. A few months after the initial meeting, I remember walking around the museum with Arturo, and him pointing to a wall and saying, “That’s where the Ramones backdrop is going to hang….” But then sadly he died unexpectedly, and pretty much his collection was off limits after that, as they had a lot to resolve with that. But in the end, they coughed up a few things I really needed, like that Richard Hambleton collaboration painting with Arturo, based on the first album. Monte and Arturo said this exhibition idea is great, it’s the perfect place, but the hurdle is going to be Ramones management, and in part the feuding going on between Johnny’s wife Linda and Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh.
PKM: Yeah, I mean, if you can’t finally get along and find common ground when a huge, respected museum offers to do a show, I don’t know when you’re going to!
Marc Miller: It was that, and it was also coming up on the 40th anniversary of the first album. And they had a top-notch manager of their legacy, Jeff Jampol. He has an operation called “We Manage Legends,” where he has a big stable of dead rock groups – Janis Joplin, the Doors, a lot of ‘60s stuff. But he also had the Ramones, and he had a lot of ambitious plans for the Ramones 40th anniversary. I remember his line to me was, “The Ramones may have come from Queens, but they’re not going to end up there.”
PKM: Oh, gawd.
Marc Miller: Yeah. So it took two to three years to get together. The Scorsese docu-pic idea evaporated. Jeff’s fantasy of having a Ramones exhibition at the Guggenheim was based on him not really knowing the New York art world. So as it got closer, Tom had left the Queens Museum, and there was a new director, Laura Raicovich. I thought I was of that generation where everybody hated the Ramones in the beginning, except me and us at CBGBs, and I hadn’t quite realized how much their reputation had evolved. So I walk into the first meeting with Laura, and she said, “I love the Ramones!” We went through some torturous interactions with the management.
Then the Grammy Museum got it in their heads to do something with the Ramones, but their venue was kind of small in L.A. Anyhow, we ended up partnering with them, and frankly I was a little fearful I’d lose curatorial control, being co-curated then with me and Robert Santelli. I was a little intimidated by all his credentials. But in the end, I had total control.
PKM: So he was okay to work with?
Marc Miller: Well, he was distant. The thing is he never quite realized how on top of things I was. I may not have had those deep connections with the rock’n’roll community, but I knew every photographer and artist connected to that scene out of which the Ramones had come. And I had a real vision from the Louis Armstrong show about how to do it.
PKM: Yeah, growing up in Cleveland, when we first “won” the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Santelli came on as director there, I was glad we got it; and I think it’s kind of silly at this point when people still bitch about the idea of a Rock Hall. But that said, there always does seem to be a little desperate groping involved in their curating, They don’t exactly take chances, and things are really dependent on big hit names to get people through the door. At the same time, they have become a pretty huge storing house for artifacts, and have been a little better at highlighting regional, less well-known acts.
Marc Miller: Yeah, that’s where he started, then he went up to that museum in Seattle, the Experience Music Project (now called Museum of Pop Culture), then he went to the Grammy Museum. And I have to say, in some ways he was brilliant in that he had figured out how to franchise the “Grammy Museum” name. So the funny thing is, I’m co-curating with Bob Santelli, and the first person I called to tell about it was Danny Fields, who’d been 100% behind the Ramones exhibit idea. But then he was like, “The Grammy Museum?! The Ramones had nothing to do with the Grammys. I’m out!” Ha. And I thought, oh Jesus, did I make my deal with the devil? But it’s that name, Grammy Museum, and once the Ramones show traveled to the Grammy Museum, a lot of people suddenly had incredible respect for it. So Bob had recognized the power of that name. They had a blues show down in Mississippi; they had one with African music in Senegal, I believe. It was a way of creating tourist attractions too. Technically, it was brilliant.
But he was already distracted by that, and he did learn that I was very much on top of it. It wasn’t exactly the type of exhibition he would have done – as he expressed a number of times with some frustration. The way it worked was the Queens Museum was much larger than the Grammy Museum, but the loans went through the Grammy Museum, and he selected what he wanted when the show went to the Grammy Museum, which essentially meant eliminating the art, which to me was the heart of it. He went for the more general ephemera. The Shepard Fairey pieces were included there because Linda Ramone was very close to him, but otherwise, most of the art pieces were not included.
PKM: Yeah, that’s unfortunate because that was one of the cool things about that Queens Museum show. I mean, I’m a huge Ramones fan, I’d pay to go in and look at just another 100 pictures of the Ramones. But you put it in a context that this all happened within an art scene, and not just a few bands in a bar – which is fine – but that art grew out of that scene, that artists can be inspired by a music scene, and that there were in fact a lot of visual artists in the scene from the beginning. It even implied a little, in my interpretation, that this might have been the last great comingling of an underground rock music and art scene. And of course, the fact that the Ramones, especially from Tommy’s point of view early on, were a kind of art experiment, beyond these kooky Queens guys who sang about B-movies or whatever – though again, nothing wrong with that!
Marc Miller: Of course. The thing I learned from the Louis Armstrong show too was that the memorabilia and artifacts tell the story, but the art tends to create the mood. So when you combine them, you don’t have a dull exhibition of just small B&W photos, but you can incorporate large paintings, pump in some music and video, liven up the whole room, and give it more context, a full experience and story.
PKM: One of my favorite moments was when, during the press opening, Monte Melnick was walking around, and as I gazed up at the original Freaks movie poster…
Marc Miller: Yeah, Linda donated that.
PKM: I got talking with Monte, told him I was from Cleveland, and he said that the Ramones were on tour very early on – Cleveland was one of the first towns they played outside the East Coast – and he said they had a night off there and went to see Freaks at a local movie theater. And they all loved it and talked that night about the idea of having a pinhead come out with a “Gabba Gabba Hey” sign, which of course they ended up doing the rest of their career. So there was another little proud Cleveland r’n’r history story.
Marc Miller: Ha, yeah. And we also had in the show that pinhead mask that Monte had, and now Linda does. That’s what was incredible, in the end, almost everybody came together for the exhibition.
PKM: I know there’s always been a lot of drama around the Ramones camp after they broke up, as far as rights and such. Whenever you have to deal with a number of band members, some who’d passed, wives, managers, etc. What were the camps that were harder or easier to deal with? I know Marky always seems in the mood to hype the Ramones.
Marc Miller: Actually, Marky was completely not into helping out. And he wouldn’t let me put in all that incredible video footage he has of the first time they went to Brazil and Argentina, where it’s like Beatlemania, with kids chasing after the van and all that. He was totally non-cooperative. The other was Dee Dee’s estate, Barbara, who I never talked to. Who I dealt with was John Cafiero. He had been Linda’s manager, or the Ramones manager before she jumped to Jeff Jampol, and they then had rights. Anyway, everything eventually coalesced into Johnny’s estate being run by Linda, and Joey’s estate represented by Mickey [Leigh]. Just to get out of the group, Tommy and Dee Dee had to sign away a lot of stuff. So there was resentment there.
PKM: As time goes on, and I see these old rockers who hold onto this stuff, and I just don’t get it. I mean you’re aging, you’re seeing people die off, and it’s like what situation is going to come along that is going to be better? Do they think the Louvre is going to come along and offer a year-long exhibit?
Marc Miller: Right, well I remember standing on a street corner with my cell phone talking with John Cafiero for an hour, and they were really pushing Dee Dee as a visual artist, and I think he was a really strong artist. And this was a museum, and a showcase that was emphasizing art along with the music. And so it was frustrating when, not only wouldn’t they loan pieces, but, they wouldn’t let me borrow Dee Dee’s paintings from the Rock Hall that they had lent there. Of course I was able to scarf up some Dee Dee paintings from other sources, but it wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been, that wall.
PKM: But that’s the whole point – you get something like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to store and preserve your stuff so that it can be lent out and seen by others later, right? That’s the point.
Marc Miller: Yeah, it was unfortunate. But meanwhile, Mickey got cooperative. At first, he didn’t want to lend the portrait that his mother had done of Joey, but then he thought, “Well gee, my mother was an artist, so she would be totally thrilled to have a painting in a major museum.” So he came around. Then I went out to L.A., and kind of hit it off with Linda. The management had kind of put themselves between Linda and I initially, because they’d been doing inventories of her collection. But I had a different eye, and we were looking at some of the art she had accumulated, and we ended up with a lot of great stuff. And she would buy things as the exhibition developed, you know, to get that Johnny jacket and his guitar in there. They were both totally cooperative. I was really happy. I mean I think Mickey is a musician and has put out some great music; and I think his book, I Slept with Joey Ramone, is a kind of masterpiece, so I had nothing but respect for him. And when I went out and met Linda, she’s a first-class promoter and booster, a real keeper of the flame. So they might have had issues with each other, but I didn’t have any issues with them.
Tommy was much more difficult. His widow, Claudia, she’s very reclusive. It took Linda with a few nudges to get her to cooperate. When Tommy died, Claudia had shut up the apartment and moved to another place and continued to pay rent on the apartment that had in essence become a storage facility. I was able to get over there. He was the real pack rat. He had a lot of stuff in boxes. One of the things that really got me was a very early press kit. When the Ramones were just getting started, he’d put together these press kits that included a tape of four songs. So there was the tape, and an early photo of the Ramones where Dee Dee’s wearing a scarf, and Johnny’s wearing tight silver pants, like still into the glam thing, they hadn’t quite got their image totally together yet. I believe the early demos on that tape have been released on a box set, but they weren’t when the exhibit happened. We played that tape in the first room, and people swore it was from the first album. Craig Leon has taken credit for producing that first album, but in truth, they were fully formed before he got to them. It was an incredible press release Tommy wrote. I don’t remember exactly, but something like, “People who come from Queens either end up in a nuthouse, jail, or become dentists, and the Ramones are a bit of each.” Some other local references from Forest Hills. It had been sent out with a return envelope, and there it was sitting there.
So anyway, it was really great to do that show. I was really happy to work again with John Holmstrom. Since we started with a Queens hip hop map idea, John ended up doing the Queens Ramones map [for the exhibit catalog]. Then Legs was in town, and we connected. For the Punk Art Show, he’d written that Punk Manifesto on the wall of that gallery. So I asked him to come out to the Queens Museum and write the lyrics to “Pinhead” on the wall, which he did. I was surprised at how diligent he was at it, he really worked hard. It looked great! I was glad he was part of it. A lot of people from that Punk Art Show were once again a part of it, a nice full circle. Like how you had Joey Ramone eventually do that version of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
PKM: And so now, you’re knee-deep in Gallery 98, your online art storage house.
Marc Miller: The inspiration for 98 Bowery was that I’d felt I was at the center of things from 1969-89. But of course, the whole world doesn’t see things from my perspective, ha. So I thought, well history is ultimately just a bunch of individuals’ experiences. I really just wanted to get my personal history down, the world I had seen. In a way, it was a little bit of a propaganda site to promote myself and the people I knew, some who had become very successful and some who were still on the edges. So that was the purpose, to put out a vision of those years.
But at the same time, I was working on this project, collecting cartoons of Teddy Roosevelt, from like 1880 to 1920, and I was spending a lot of time and effort on eBay, tracking down old magazines, etc. It was easier to just buy them there. And I began to realize that people learn about things through a buying experience as much as a passive reading or academic search, which was really what the 98 Bowery site experience was. So I thought, shit, I’ve always been a pack rat. I’ve got all this stuff from over the years, and I’m going to make a commercial site for 98 Bowery, call it Gallery 98, and that’s it. I started scanning cards, posters, etc., and making them available for sale. It’s caught on well, and the next thing I know, I’m being offered a lot of stuff to sell. I was offered a giant collection, maybe 50,000 pieces, which went way beyond my personal interests, but had a market probably larger than my personal punk market, so the site began to evolve. But now I’m in an existential crisis – what am I doing here?!