Five years after the punk wave had washed over New York and London, Legs McNeil looked back in anger and awe at what it had wrought. In this story from his archive—a version of which was published in High Times in 1982—Legs explains the how, when and why of punk from his perspective on the front lines, as the “resident punk” at Punk magazine, friend to many of those in the bands (particularly Joey Ramone), chronicler of the far different scenes in the U.S. and the UK. PKM’s Spotlight on CBGB week kicks off with this stroll down memory lane…
By Legs McNeil (1982)
“Man, you should’ve been at Berkeley for the Battle of People’s Park!”
“Chicago, now that was taking revolution to the streets!”
“And shit, man, I’ll never forget spreading free love and bargain syphilis from one end of the Haight to the other!”
That’s all I heard growing up as a teenager. There was always some boring hippie around to remind everyone reaching puberty in the late ’60s of what phantasmagorical groovy times they’d missed by being born too late. Listening to homages to ’60s dope, sex, intense intellectual conversations and really heavy times became as interesting to me as listening to someone’s parents marveling over the longevity of The Lawrence Welk Show. Hippies and Lawrence Welk: I couldn’t give a fuck about either.
I knew I wasn’t going to end up as a real-estate broker, and at the same time I knew I’d never move to the country, commune with nature and eat dirt all day with a bunch of weirdos. No, thank you, you can shove your herbal tea, ginseng roots and rabbit food up your ass. God Bless McDonald’s, smog and dispassionate crowds pushing and shoving for a foot of space instead of living among a commune full of sincere shitheads with fat pregnant women who never wore makeup, babbling with greasy-looking wimps about the wonders of brown rice and the order of the universe for three days. Needless to say, I never found out what my astrological sign was, so I never got laid. Neither did a lot of kids. If you had to go through this Marx-Buddha-Krishna-Maharishi-banana-chip trip, it wasn’t worth it.
Why not play teenager for a couple of years. Being a real teenager was such a drag, I knew the second time over we could do it right.
That’s why New York City was the only place for me to go in 1975. I knew the world was always going to suck. Sure, there were still those talking up communes, macrobiotics and fascist insects. But there were enough of us who didn’t buy that shit anymore. We weren’t going to get fooled again. Meet the new boss same as the old boss. Just because he had long hair or she wore embroidered peasant blouses didn’t mean they were going to pay a cent more than the minimum wage at the checkout counter of the local health-food store.
The lull in the music scene also created a prime gap for something to happen. Glitter, the foundation for punk (the definition for kickass rock ‘n’ roll), had run its course. David Johansen and the New York Dolls had broken up even though Malcolm McLaren had done his best to turn them into an international threat. Iggy Pop was in hiding, Lou Reed was still suffering from the commercial success of his hit single “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” and Alice Cooper was trying to become a game-show host. Platform shoes were expensive and uncomfortable. New York was ripe for sneakers and a wild, crazed, beatnik musical scene. Punk was born out of the boredom and frustration of waiting for something new to happen. “Fuck it, instead of waiting for someone else, this time let’s do it ourselves!”
Rock ‘n’ roll became exciting for me again when I first heard the Dictators, an obscure bunch of Bronx degenerates who sang songs like “Weekend” and “Two Tub Man” off an album called Go Girl Crazy featuring a teenage anthem: “cars, girls, surfing, beer, nothing else matters here.” I knew I’d found my roots.
The Dictators – [I Live For] Cars and Girls
Though surfing was to the Bronx as miniskirts were to Iran, the humor, obnoxious arrogance and unmitigated gall grabbed me by the dirt under my fingernails and pulled me back into a world where everyone pretended they were something they weren’t and made me wonder why the hell I should bother to grow up. Why not play teenager for a couple of years. Being a real teenager was such a drag, I knew the second time over we could do it right. Time travel. Extended adolescence. Why not star in our own version of “Rebel with a Snotty Nose.”
I remember driving down Broadway with two high-school friends, John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn. John wanted to start a magazine. I told him that was the stupidest idea I ever heard. He wanted to produce a monthly that appealed to teenagers and every teenager at heart who drank beer, liked getting laid and felt frustrated in a world of multinational corporate mentalities. He wanted to celebrate the teenager as the master race. Bold arrogance. I was still unconvinced.
“That’s dumb,” I kept saying, trying to imitate the Winston smoke-ring man.
“Listen, Legs, if we owned a magazine, we’d get to go everywhere for free and you’d get laid.” Now that made much more sense.
John’s titles for this magazine he wanted to create were a bit boring. Teenage News, et cetera, et cetera. I told him they sounded dumb.
He said, “Okay then, what would you call it?”
I thought for a minute and told him, “Punk.” Not as in Lou Reed, Iggy, the New York Dolls or Creem magazine, but being a TV addict I’d heard the word used for a quarter of a century on every cop show, when the good guys on Kojak, Mannix, Starsky and Hutch and Malloy and Reed from Adam 12, after a grueling chase scene, always told the juvenile delinquent or young criminal what a punk he was and how he hurt his parents so, instead of saying, “Listen, you stupid little motherfucker, we are going to kick your ass inside out when we get you back to the lockup so don’t cause any more trouble.” No, they couldn’t say that stuff on TV. Just, “You punk, look what you’ve done.”
Everyone in America knew what a punk was. He was the bad guy, the unrelenting young prick who made his parents cry and didn’t care. He was a misunderstood killer and poet at the time. It was just an unpredictable question of when he should be feared that made him romantic. He was romanticized in every rock ‘n’ roll record ever made. We intended to turn around the word punk, make it palatable, even acceptable. But that proved as hard as turning the word Vietnam into a place American parents could’ve been proud to lose their sons in. No matter how hard we tried, punk would always be a four-letter word. It frightened me that Kojak could use the word but we couldn’t. Surely, no one was going to take us that seriously, but I was naive about the ignorance of the American press.
During the famous car ride when John asked for a title of a magazine I thought would be just another pipedream, Ged said he would be the publisher and John said he would be the editor. I was pissed. “So what the fuck am I going to do?” I demanded.
“You can be the resident punk. Hey, Legs, you’ll get all the girls you want being the first living cartoon character.”
It was the most inviting prospect I ever heard. Shit, if that’s all it took, I was prepared to become Archie, Jughead or Charlie the Tuna. As resident punk my job was to shine as the Alfred E. Neuman of the microwave, computer-chip, potato-chip-in-a-can generation, the cartoon character of television addicts everywhere, and bring them news from the front line of rerun heaven. I became the spokesman for everyone who waited for Ronald Reagan to wash up in the lagoon at Gilligan’s Island. The only philosophy we had (if you can call it a philosophy at all) is best described from the ultimate famous line in The Wild Ones, when Marlon Brando’s girl friend asks Johnny/Brando, “What are you rebelling against?” He looks at her with his sensuous, grainy black-and-whites and asks, “Whatta ya got?”
That attitude drew Holmstrom and me to CBGB for the first time in late summer 1975. Patti Smith was injecting music to poetry with a backbeat and already was an underground star. Talking Heads had left some Rhode Island art school after their Etch-a-Sketch portraits of all 50 states were not taken seriously enough, and Deborah Harry and Chris Stein were living in a loft right on the Bowery past Houston and planning world conquest. We were newcomers to this mercurial beatnik scene, unfounded, unproven and unnamed. But with a lot of enthusiasm and an uncorruptible magazine that promoted the groups instead of Suzukis and stereos, we fit in fine with the help of lots of beer.
I was cocky the first night I walked into the Bowery bar, getting in free for the first time in my life, saying I was a reporter for Punk magazine. Although the first issue wouldn’t come out for months, the person at the door just shrugged her shoulders and let us in anyway. But my cockiness was nuked into annihilation as the Ramones hit the stage with the intensity of the Jets meeting the Sharks at the playground to knife it out. They did four songs in the course of 95 seconds, broke the strings off their guitars, slammed them down onstage in frustration and stalked off. My heart was in my mouth. It was like watching Niagara Falls from the tourist boat underneath the spray and seeing it suddenly stop pounding down over the top as if some giant hand had suddenly turned off the tap. If Ed Sullivan were alive, he surely would have realized the potential. But Ed was dead and the music director for I Dream of Jeannie, the founder and creator of the Monkees, was now hosting late-night rock ‘n’ roll on his show In Concert. Don Kirshner, the man with the visual personality of a Waring blender.
I couldn’t imagine Don Kirshner electrifying the nation with live rock. No, instead, the music business had discovered something more revolutionary than even elevator Muzak: a horrible menace called disco, music that invited its followers to dress up in cancer-causing polyester suits and wiggle their asses to such exciting songs as “The Hustle.” Whereas a few years earlier, thousands of screaming fans exploded from the TV on Sunday nights at just the mention of the band’s name, now kids went through two-hour rehearsals in applauding before they taped for a show that would air in six months. Yeah, real inspiring stuff. Rock ‘n’ roll had become safe.
The more that was written about punk rock and its subculture, the less anyone knew.
The following night I returned to CBGB and Talking Heads were playing. The contrast between them and the Ramones was startling. Here were three weird preppy kids dressed in La Coste shirts and corduroys singing “Psycho Killer” and “The Girls Want to Be with the Girls.” The lead singer, David Byrne, looked like one of those shy, studious types from high school who, one day, after finishing his homework, hacks his family to death with a pair of K-Tel electric hedge-trimming shears. And they even had a woman in the band. She didn’t sing but played bass like a stoic Barbie doll. The sound was a 180-degree turnabout from the Ramones, but they were saying the same thing. Boredom, alienation, frustration and mindless media sucked. Break the rules!
In a single week at CBGB or Max’s—the only two rock clubs in New York at the time—it was possible to see Blondie, Richard Hell and the Voids, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Television with Tom Verlaine, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Robert Gordon and a batch of other, less prominent innovators creating new forms of music that I was convinced would shake this country out of its deep slumber and force people to do something besides wait for jigglevision to get their blood flowing.
Though we at Punk magazine had plastered every brick wall and lamppost below 14th Street with posters reading, “WATCH OUT! PUNK IS COMING!”, no one knew what we were talking about. Even the bands on the scene thought it was the name of another new group and no one gave it much thought until issue number one of Punk debuted January 1, 1976. Featuring a hilarious interview with Lou Reed done in half comics/half Q&A for a cover story, a centerfold on the Ramones, a tribute to Marlon Brando, a few hysterical humor pieces and reviews coupled with Holmstrom’s genius in graphic arts (the entire issue was hand-lettered, which would become our trademark), we produced a premier issue that rivaled Mad magazine and Robert Crumb, never mind the standard rock press. Now the scene had a name and a vehicle of exposure.
There was one bad part about working on the first issue. Though our printer, Freddy Perez, was enthusiastic and supportive of our new venture, he lacked a web press and the entire issue had to be folded by hand. All 5,000 copies. After these sleepless nights (a few all-night sessions), we’d return to the Punk Dump, our home and office in Hell’s Kitchen (home of West Side Story), and excitedly talk about how to spend all the millions we were going to make from taking over the world with this new revolutionary magazine. The first profits would be used to have a shower installed so we wouldn’t have to keep bothering friends. And I wanted the leak from the toilet above my bed fixed so I could reclaim my cubbyhole instead of sleeping on the couch. And to live on something more appetizing than liver and onions and pancake batter you mixed with water that hardened like concrete in your stomach. And the bribes would have to increase.
We were newcomers to this mercurial beatnik scene, unfounded, unproven and unnamed. But with a lot of enthusiasm and an uncorruptible magazine… we fit in fine with the help of lots of beer.
Because the Punk Dump was a loft storefront with flimsy walls separating John and Ged’s room and my couch, anytime someone had a woman coming over he’d have to give the other guys a dollar to go out and have a beer. I remember I received quite a few dollars but never had to pay any out. Lucky me.
A few issues later, people from Time, Newsweek, the New Yorker and a shitload of other foreign and American journalists were knocking at the Punk Dump demanding access into this newly discovered “perverse, decadent world of black leather and white noise.” I’d tell them all they had to do was watch reruns of Bullwinkle, Green Acres, and watch the Fonz, but the press never likes simple answers so I’d make them take me out for beers and ramble about teenagers being the master race, McDonald’s versus Burger King and “cars, girls, surfing and beer,” and they’d all nod their heads sincerely, while writing down quick notes as if I’d said something profound.
Mostly I was drunk a lot, playing the front man for a cultural revolution that had no redeeming social value except to corrupt the vast corporate structure of the communications and entertainment industry. We made boredom a high crime punishable by a fast dose of cultural electroshock.
The first time we made a frontal attack on the heartland of the USA was to attend the First Annual International Sleaze Convention held, appropriately enough, in Wilmington, Delaware, the chemical capital of the world and a state owned by a few multinational corporations. Holmstrom and I were to be the guest stars, taking back seats to Edith Massey, better known as “Edy the Egg Lady,” star of John Waters’s film Pink Flamingos and a stock member in Waters’s bizarre comedies. Debbie and Chris, the late Anya Phillips, Contortions’ manager and film star, and Marty Thau, New York Dolls manager, bubble gum-rock promoter and general adviser to the scene, arrived the second day of the festivities, took one look around and decided they needed a drink. Since the punk scene had barely infected anyone outside of Manhattan, there wasn’t yet a local punk club, so we were forced to go to the local disco and tear up the town.
I made the mistake of being horny and picked up a nice-looking woman and demanded the others drop me off with my newfound love at my motel room immediately. After they left me off, Debbie, Chris, Anya, Marty and Holmstrom tried and convicted me of wimping out and decided to have some fun executing the sentence. They charged into my room after finagling my room key all donned up in nylon stockings to disguise themselves and heaved bags of ice water on me just as the beautiful babe in bed was telling me how much she loved me and I was slamming into home plate. Our passionate lovemaking was temporarily cooled off. Naked, I jumped up, grabbed the closest weapons available (a belt and chair) and chased the sexual terrorists down the hall where they giggled out of sight. I swore revenge, but how do you get back at Deborah Harry and Chris Stein? Write something mean?
Ha! Ha! Ha! Now’s my chance! Unfortunately, Debbie and Chris were two of the nicest people on the scene and there is no dirt on them. Though the group Blondie in their early days had one of the worst reputations musically, Debbie and Chris hung out at CBGB with the rest of us hoping for better days as we carefully stepped through the minefield of dogshit around the bar, wondering if any of us would move uptown.
Hanging out with the Ramones was a bit different. Actually, I spent most of my time with Joey Ramone drinking at Max’s Kansas City or CBGB and following Joey as we stumbled around the Lower East Side looking for one of his long lost girlfriends. Somehow he always managed to forget her address so we’d wander around until Joey came to a familiar-looking building and we’d scream out the girl’s name at the top of our lungs until the people in the tenements above emptied their trash on us. We never found the girl and ended up passing out in front of the late-night reruns. We’d wake up in the same bed fully clothed in our black leather jackets wondering who hit us over the head. Joey’d look at me first thing and disappear into the bathroom for two hours and then reappear and spend the rest of the afternoon looking for his sneakers, finding them just in time to hit the bars.
It was hard to imagine that this tall, longhaired, instinctive primate who was my friend was the forerunner of a cultural movement that would shock the world and change the course of rock ‘n’ roll history as well as the mood of international adolescence. I mean, he couldn’t even find his fucking sneakers. But I think that was the key to the Ramones’ success. The Ramones made it look so simple, they inspired the world.
Though the Ramones were undoubtedly the first wave of attack in the punk Panzer division, the Sex Pistols were readying themselves for a breakout that would rival the Wehrmacht at the Battle of the Bulge. After Malcolm McLaren left his official title as the New York Dolls manager and general instigator, he returned to London and opened a trendy clothing store, a hangout for tomorrow’s stars, whose name changed as fast as the styles, the most memorable being SEX. It was here McLaren regrouped his forces, and reviewed his tactics, all the while promoting new punk fashions, ranting and raving about the threatening appeal of the Dolls, the ever-exciting rawness of inexperienced, arrogant, on-the-dole teenagers, and Richard Hell’s haircut, style and warp-ten alienation.
Before Malcolm could catch his breath, he met a disgusting smart-aleck the world would come to enjoy for his musical interludes of “Two Minutes Hate” under the name of Johnny Rotten. This nasty, vile jerk with a keen mind and a whiplash tongue goaded Malcolm on, never laughed at his jokes, and viciously ridiculed him for trying to find fame and fortune in America only to wind up a trendy clothing-store owner on Kings Road at a ripe old age. It’s a sure bet Malcolm had met his match—this street-smart kid would never let up on him except to guzzle another beer and light a cigarette.
As the legend goes, Malcolm spotted the genius of Rotten’s acid contempt and auditioned him for his concept of the perfect rock ‘n’ roll group (perfect, meaning most dangerous and threatening) and Rotten lip-synched Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” on the store’s jukebox and passed the audition with flying colors. Inspired by Rotten, McLaren combined his instinctual understanding of the press with his knowledge of the music biz from working with the Dolls in order to cause the Scandal of the Decade.
Malcolm was well aware the Sex Pistols would never get noticed unless they demanded it. He understood that prime-time airplay on the BBC was reserved for boring American disco groups. The only way to get heard would be to cause enough horrible press that the public’s natural curiosity would cause them to buy a single or two. He would force it down the BBC’s throats, and if they banned the Pistols, it would only prove his point. Either way he couldn’t lose. With the help of London’s dailies and a well-timed swearing match on national TV, the Sex Pistols became a household word. Malcolm’s muddled politics and Rotten’s anti-everything stance and rhetoric created an exciting phenomenon and sold the world a spitting, slobbering, vomiting, drunk bill of goods. Kids bought it and swallowed it whole at expensive retail price tags, and overnight everyone everywhere knew that punk was another crazy English rock ‘n’ roll invasion. It was no use telling anyone different. Punk was ugly kids vomiting and pissing onstage. No journalist was about to admit the New York scene had ever existed.
It was hard to imagine that this tall, longhaired, instinctive primate who was my friend was the forerunner of a cultural movement that would shock the world and change the course of rock ‘n’ roll history
The more that was written about punk rock and its subculture, the less anyone knew. So why the hell should anyone care at all? Nobody did in the real 9-to-5 world, but journalists sometimes run short of bad copy. It was happening, so why not write about it? Being mostly attitude and image, Malcolm’s politics, the Sex Pistols’ hysterics and the bad shape of England made much better copy. It had all the ingredients for a good feature: anarchy, sex, violence, discontented working-class kids, politics, and a musical blitzkrieg through the English class structure. In the good old USA, it was just some pale skinny weirdos in black leather jackets. For some reason, no one took “Teenage Lobotomy” as seriously as Rotten’s sinister laugh at the beginning of “Anarchy in the U.K.” Though it happened in both countries almost simultaneously, it would progress to something as different as day from night.
Somehow it meant more to the press that the English scene was founded by working-class kids, highly visible to even the most cloistered member of the British empire (even though the sun now set on everything but the British empire). The English kids translated their frustration into a classic weapon of defiance—hair, dress and music—and went looking for anyone who disagreed with them. They were pissed off, and so were we, but we didn’t want to take ourselves too seriously, because now the English were taking everything real seriously and threatening to ruin everything. But it was no longer our scene. The Sex Pistols became punk. No one remembered, no one cared. Kids with pink and short-cropped green hair emerged out of the woodwork. Armies of the night were out on the move, slinking in Spandex with something to prove. Words like poseur, wanker, cunt and fucking hippies, fueled by fake English accents, were dripping from the blackest pale lipsticked suburban lips.
Nancy Spungen was the extreme case: scene-maker, sometime stripper and a neighbor of ours on the West Side. She’d come by the Punk Dump once in a while, read the latest issue and listen to the latest underground singles and talk about stripping. It is most likely she learned about the Sex Pistols from the first American interview we published in Punk issue # 6. After we finished work, she’d let us take showers at her apartment and would talk about the best bet for music that evening. As word of the English scene grew, she disappeared from New York and emerged in the U.K. A hard-ass English punk rocker with a fake English accent, “Nauseating Nancy” as the English press nicknamed her, she became Sid Vicious’ girlfriend. Transformed by the bitterness of the English scene and riding high on her short-lived notoriety, her ultimate fate only proved just how dangerous taking yourself too seriously is.
Punk was polarized then, and while the English jumped head-first into the muck of politics, the American groups held onto their upbeat heavy-metal pretensions of the first English invasion. While those foreigners tried harder to loosen the shackles of an earlier generation of their own countrymen’s contribution to rock ‘n’ roll, the Americans embraced the simplicity of that bygone era. Nationalism, for the first time in rock ‘n’ roll, was forcing musicians to take sides. One was middle-class fun and individual idiocy, the other working-class bitterness and a national movement. England and America were more than just an ocean apart, but the confusion was good for both teams as journalists worldwide were assigned the problem of sorting it all out. Never getting it right, the myth grew. A hell of a lot of records got sold, and after all the bullshit of tearing down the corporate structure, wasn’t selling records still the bottom line? After all, no one gave them away.
It couldn’t be more the opposite, as Johnny Rotten proclaimed: “We’re not here for your enjoyment, you’re here for ours.” If anyone was giving anything away, it was the fans throwing money, cameras, full beer cans and other expensive antipersonnel weapons onto the stage during a typical concert on the American tour. Atlanta, Tulsa, San Antonio, San Francisco. It was supposed to be a tour of every place no one would ever play, in order to fuel the confusion. It worked.
As it turned out, I was on assignment in L.A. for High Times when the Sex Pistols’ tour started in Atlanta and shot its way west to San Francisco. From the Sex Pistols’ influence on the punk scene and final arrival in person to this country, I had wondered what the effect would be outside New York. I was curious to see for myself.
I always wanted to go to California. From the time I was old enough to turn on the TV myself, I knew there was something that set old California away from the rest of the world. Everyone else went to work in the morning, the kids went to school, everyone came home and had a big fight at dinner over something totally inane, watched TV and went to bed, only to repeat the process the next day. But not in California. There Gidget went surfing instead of to school, and Mr. and Mrs. Nelson, Cleaver and Cunningham were very nice and loving and nobody had a bad drinking problem and beat up his wife. The sun always shone, the girls were voluptuous and beautiful, everyone was rich, it was paradise. I knew it was so because the television told me.
The second night in L.A. I was invited to a party on the other side of my motel. I got all showered and shaved and thought tonight’s the night! Beautiful nymphs with long blond hair, pendulous breasts, thick golden tanned thighs that melt down into a perfect slenderly wrapped pair of legs. Oh baby oh baby oh baby. Much to my horror, when I arrived I found out it was a punk party specially equipped with now negative girls, all ugly, their tans stripped from them with Easy-Off oven cleaner, their beautiful long hair cut to the skin with razors and dyed purple pink green blue, and those creamy complexions accented with cigarette burns and safety pins. I felt cheated.
“You fucking Sex Pistols, why couldn’t you come next year!”
An extremely unattractive teenage girl who resembled a 40-year-old matron in a women’s prison rather than a young woman fresh on the road to self-discovery approached me. Knowing that I co-created Punk magazine, she erupted in a verbal assault at the pretense of the New York scene. I didn’t want to hear it. I was already pissed off enough that no one looked like Julie, the blond girl from the Mod Squad, but she got nastier and kept on insulting me. I told her she was ugly and to leave me alone. She spat beer in my face and the alcohol burned my eyes. As soon as I wiped it out and my vision cleared, the first image to take focus was this girl still glaring at me. I told her the beer didn’t help, she was still ugly. She belted me in the nose. I told her, yes, she was still fucking ugly.
Three seconds later, I was surrounded by hideous monsters who were probably nice kids before NBC television devoted the feature story on their prime-time show Weekend to an in-depth study of English punk. The kids were acting like they were on the dole when in reality they lived at home on a healthy allowance and gasoline credit cards for their own car.
“Go back to New York” is all I remember hearing as I left the disintegrating party and went back to my motel room alone. I locked the door and watched TV and wondered why Hollywood was called Sin City. The bars close at quarter to two, the drinking age is 21, and no one likes to have fun. I sat sulking and slowly it dawned on me.
Who could blame these kids? L.A. sucks and they know it. It must get pretty depressing knowing your town’s biggest cash crop is Charlie’s Angels or Rona Barrett. In a city that constantly reminds you that if you’re nobody, you really ain’t anybody at all, it must get tedious dodging limos, Rolls-Royces, and Mercedes as you make your way to the unemployment office. It made sense that they found their salvation in punk, the best defense being a good offense. If you had to walk around all day looking at a bunch of bimbos with Farrah Fawcett haircuts giggling about the antics of their blow-dried polyester disco boyfriends, you’d want to vomit too. But there was no use trying to communicate. The Sex Pistols were due in San Francisco at any moment, and punk rock in America was about to climax.
The idea that you could do something on your own and without a lot of money in corporation-land was truly revolutionary, and hopefully rock ‘n’ roll would be never again worshipped as a religion but taken as a tribal rite in the next step to sane living.
Frustrated and depressed that the buxom blond California girls of my dreams had been transformed into ugly punkette mutants, I left L.A. and joined John Holmstrom and Punk magazine photo editor Roberta Bayley. At the hotel, John explained things weren’t going so well with the Pistols. It seemed Sid kept trying to kill himself every free moment he had; Johnny was playing superstar and pulling Greta Garbo routines; Malcolm McLaren was disgusted by Warner Brothers’ fighting him tooth and nail on every creative idea he had for promoting anarchy in the States. In addition to the Warner Brothers executives calling the shots from some penthouse on Sunset Strip, a goon squad of Warner’s thugs who reminded me of the Idi Amin baby-sitting service had surrounded Johnny and Sid, forcing them to travel for the entire tour in a Greyhound prison while Paul Cook and Steve Jones and McLaren flew. Malcolm seldom knew where the other half was. Divide and conquer. But the Pistols still had an even more formidable enemy. San Francisco, the capital of hippie music. They should have gone straight to L.A. and played one set at the Whiskey Au Go Go, causing a real riot on Sunset Strip by the disgruntled fans who couldn’t get in because of the small seating capacity. It might have been the birth of anarchy in the USA.
Instead the ghosts of flower power rose from their graves and cursed the entire Sex Squadron with a thundercloud of paranoia from all the bad acid trips ever to hit Haight Ashbury.
The Winterland gig itself was one of the most boring rock ‘n’ roll shows ever. Quite a hard task to do considering it was the Sex Pistols. Immediately after the set, Holmstrom handed me a backstage pass. At the party backstage, the opening act was having a food fight with the poseurs and celebrity curiosity seekers. It was very boring, so I went to the dressing room, sat down, opened a Heineken and watched the Pistols. Sid had brought four girls from out of the audience back to the dressing room. “Who’s going to fuck me tonight?” he asked. “How about a kiss first?” a cute 16-year-old groupie asked.
Rotten sat alone on an old overstuffed couch and grumbled to himself while Sidney entertained the four ladies. One of the girls got up the nerve to approach Johnny and asked, “How do you do?” This set Johnny off into a tirade about how “how do you do?” was an invalid greeting. The girl blushed and backed off. Rotten looked scared, naive and pissed off. I think he sometimes envied Sid for being an idiot. Dumb but happy. But Johnny was cursed with the fame, the intelligence, and a low self-image that made him terribly shy and that he made up for by being terribly obnoxious. Annie Leibovitz from Rolling Stone entered the room with all her flash equipment, umbrellas and tons of cameras to take a cover photo for Rolling Stone. She wanted to get a picture of Johnny and Sid together but neither of them would join the other. Finally, Annie cajoled Johnny to pose for her in the bathroom, where she’d set up her gear. “Is my hair all right?” Johnny snarled loudly at her. No one looked like they were having fun. Even Sid, surrounded by four groupies, looked bored and unable to figure out what to do with the girls now that he had them. I left the dressing room more depressed than ever and went back to my hotel room alone, thinking the Sex Pistols’ original philosophy of having a bit of fun while trying to get a rise out of people had deteriorated somewhere between one interstate highway and another. The next day the Pistols would unofficially disband.
Although the Sex Pistols’ breakup in San Francisco wouldn’t become official for a few weeks, the record companies who’d flirted with this new music and punk folly were not taking any chances. Since the Sex Pistols had become synonymous with punk, something drastic would have to happen if they expected to make any money selling their stable of new-wave groups.
Eureka, that’s it! “New-wave music.”
Already as I arrived back in New York, the music industry magazines like Billboard and Record World proclaimed: “Don’t call it punk, call it new wave” in full-page advertisements. “Smart bastards,” I thought. “Divide and conquer again.” Separate the Pistols and their ilk from safer, more accessible punk-rock groups. Was there a difference between punk and new wave? What was it? Confusion flourished again. It was a brilliant tactical move by the music industry.
Punk, of course, would be associated with vulgarity, vomit and violence. New wave would be any of the new music that was commercial and accessible. Since the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Blondie or Talking Heads never called themselves punks, the term new wave seemed okay as the last one, flashy and nebulous. But for American radio listeners and record buyers, it was an easier egg to swallow. New wave sounded hip and intellectual, like existential French movies, so college kids could “relate to it” and, better yet, buy it. This time the music business used the confusion to their advantage. It was a cultural coup. Groups like Queen, J. Geils Band and Bruce Springsteen cut their hair or shaved their beards and got back to basics. Cher wore leopard-skin leotards as she roller-skated around the recording studio in frustration, wondering why she hadn’t recorded “Heart of Glass.” Linda Ronstadt recorded a few Elvis Costello tunes, pleasing his pocketbook but not his ears. The lead singer in most heavy-metal bands claimed to be the first punk.
Back at Punk magazine, things weren’t going so well. Because of the record industry’s brilliant and profitable switch from punk to new wave, not too many record companies were interested in advertising in a magazine called Punk and you don’t get circulation without distribution and you don’t get distribution without advertising and you don’t get advertising without money and you don’t get money without selling advertising and you don’t get advertising without a large circulation. It was a complex Catch-22, but even if we had become as popular as TV Guide or Family Circle, it might have been the end of civilization as we know it. Sweet old ladies in black leather motorcycle jackets causing riots at the Social Security offices. TV newsmen in spiked dog collars and green hair telling you, “Fuck off, go make your own news.” Every businessman in America quitting his job to join a band. Actually, it doesn’t sound that bad if people didn’t forget the joke.
Sid Vicious was anything but vicious when he replaced Glen Matlock in the Sex Pistols. Johnny Rotten gave him his nickname because he was such a wimp, just another snot-nosed kid looking for his slice of the pie, but caught up in the furor of having to be the coolest soldier in the battle against boredom. Challenging the music-industrial complex while being manipulated by it, all the while having to live up to an image, had taken its toll on Sid. He forgot the joke and lived up to the romantic tragedy rock ‘n’ roll evokes. Nancy Spungen was murdered. Sidney overdosed. A new legend was born, and now the scene had its patron saints. Move over Jimi and Janis and tell Tchaikovsky the news.
Though it might never become apparent to most people, through all the hype, bad press, sensationalism, bad taste and loud music, a lot of good came out of the punk scene. Do-it-yourself records and magazines produced by kids with little or no money sprang up in almost every urban American center as nightclubs that once exclusively employed cover bands (bands that played everyone else’s music, mostly too farty) were connived into letting new bands who wrote their own music play onstage instead of their garbage. The idea that you could do something on your own and without a lot of money in corporation-land was truly revolutionary, and hopefully rock ‘n’ roll would be never again worshipped as a religion but taken as a tribal rite in the next step to sane living.
I remember in the early days when punk was just beginning to break, Patti Smith had fallen offstage somewhere and broken her neck, and I somehow wound up babysitting for her while her boyfriend was on tour. I had a fun time smoking her killer pot and playing her album Horses and imitating her while she laughed and cracked jokes in her neck brace. It was fun hanging out, drinking beers and listening to friends gossip, but then Patti got better.
“I’m becoming a cunt again, aren’t I, Legs?” “Yeah,” I mumbled and collected the last cans of beer out of the fridge and left.
Times change, things aren’t as fun anymore, you win a few battles, but not the war, try to grab some bucks and lick your wounds, wondering when some younger smartass will come along, slam an enema up the cultural asshole and sit back and giggle while the world takes a big healthy shit, all the time holding his nose ’cause it stinks so much.