Artist, Publisher & Creator of Punk Magazine, John Holmstrom: “I always felt the goal of punk is to free up your mind…”

The first punk zine to exist – Punk Magazine – launched on the 1st of January 1976 featuring a cartoon cover of Lou Reed drawn by John Holmstrom, who also interviewed Lou for the début issue. Punk mag helped popularise the term “punk” as well as the CBGBs scene. Their first issue had an interview with the Ramones before they even had a release; an outtake from the photo shoot accompanying the interview was used as the image for their first record cover. Holmstrom would later illustrate the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin albums. Punk was also pioneering in giving space to female writers, artists and photographers, at a time when publishing was very male-dominated. It would go on to inspire countless other punk zines that came later including UK zine, Sniffin’ Glue.

Holmstrom would also go on to work on zines Comical Funnies and STOP! and later edit and become the publisher of marijuana counterculture magazine, High Times, throughout the ‘90s. 2020 sees Holmstrom at the helm of yet another magazine called, Stoned Age, which “intends to bring back the fun of 20th century marijuana culture, when it was the choice of hipsters, beatniks, jazz musicians, hippies, and other misfits.”

We talk to John about all this and more: the C.I.A. sabotaging Punk, life as an artist, being arrested for smoking weed, creating a social movement, freedom of speech, interviewing Lou Reed, Ramones…

Why do you love to draw?

JOHN HOLMSTROM: Well, I don’t really love to draw [laughs].

Really?

JH: It’s work. I loved to draw as a kid, but once it’s your job it’s… sometimes it’s fun. There can be very fun moments, but most of it is pain! It can look horrible but you have to keep working on it to make it look good. The best moment in life is when you finish a piece and it looks good. I remember times, like when I finished the cover of Punk #1, or a record cover or something; there’s just no feeling like it, it’s better than sex [laughs]. The pain and suffering and trauma you go through – at least I go through because I am such a perfectionist – is gruelling. You’re just sitting there saying, ‘what can I do to make this look better? It looks terrible. Why am I even trying?’ At times I’ve abandoned drawings because it’s just not living up to my standards.

Punk Magazine Issue #1

Before I went to art school it was more fun, I’d just doddle in my notebook to distract myself from high school teachers. I got in trouble once for drawing a caricature of them, he saw it and I was forever in trouble ever after with the authorities. It was hard work going to school and trying to learn how to become a professional and try to learn to actually get paid for what I do—which is really tough. The rates artists get paid are pretty much identical or even less than what we made in the ‘70s. It was a golden age, the 20th century, for publishing. It all disappeared. People don’t pay you very much for your work on the web. I don’t know how these kids do it? I guess they know how to work social media. It’s always been tough to get paid for illustration, I always made more money from writing; that’s how I fell into writing and becoming an editor. When I couldn’t get someone to publish something that I did that I liked, I’d publish it myself, that’s where I learnt the business side of publishing. That came in handy when I was the publisher of High Times magazine in the 1990s. One of the frustrations of doing art, when I take on a commercial job, the client always makes some demands and you don’t always enjoy what they want, as opposed to when you do something for yourself; people don’t really want to pay for that ‘cause it’s not what they’re looking for.

I understand what you’re talking about, my husband is an artist and he struggles with the exact same thing, as well as chasing up payment from clients; clients can have such unrealistic demands or want you to do something you just know in your heart, as an artist, it’s just not going to look great.

JH: Yes! Exactly! They’ll want something like two inches by two inches and they want it to be a crowd scene with a million people and everything has to look prominent—it’s impossible! If you can actually do it, then it’s your fault it doesn’t look great, you can’t give them what they want. Art Directors recently of a national magazine, would be tasked with a publisher’s idea of a good cover and they thought it was a terrible idea but they would do it because it’s their job, then when it doesn’t sell they get the blame for a bad idea. There’s always the idea and the execution of the idea.

Being a publisher for yourself and for High Times magazine, which also ended up being for yourself; what are the things that you think make a good publication?

JH:  Well, that depends on what your goal is. I’m actually enjoying the response to my latest publication, Stoned Age. It’s kind of like my revenge on, High Times! At High Times we were always told you have to put this much information about this and you gotta do that; even though it was a really creative place to work, there were still restrictions. So I’m putting out the kind of magazine I would have liked to put out back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s getting a fantastic response. I’m working with a great Art Director, Kevin Heine, who worked at Screw for many years, and a very understanding publisher, Harry Crossfield. It’s the art of collaboration to put out a good publication. It’s like being in a band as opposed to being a solo musician or a stand-up comic. If you put out a personal zine and do everything yourself, you have a limited audience, at least if you’re a control freak like so many of us are, you get to say what you want. If you’re going to put out a publication that is going to reach a lot of people, put it out frequently and attract advertisers and the rest of it, you gotta work with good people—that’s the first thing you need to put out a good publication.

Your team needs to understand your goal and the objective, for lack of a better term “the mission statement” that branding people and corporate types like to bring up, which I think is kind of stupid. It’s all about the idea and the execution of the idea. Whenever if comes to anything, whether you’re in a band or you’re an artist or a cook, right? The thing about magazines that we often talk about is… if you’re going to bring out canned beans, you want to pretty much bring out the same thing, you want consistency, you always want the beans to taste good… but when you bring out a magazine you have to bring out something that looks different every week or month, but then stays the same—that’s tricky. It has to be recognisable. You can’t put out the same thing and information every month but you still have to appeal to the reader.

One of the things I really love about Punk was that you did interviews but the format you presented them in was in a comic book style, I feel like it really gave interviews a new life and was different from how I’m used to reading them.

JH: That was an idea that I got from Harvey Kurtzman. He interviewed two of the greatest actors of the 20th century for Esquire magazine in the ‘60s – Marlon Brando and James Cagney – he did it in an illustrative cartoony interview style. That impressed me a great deal. I’ve always enjoyed integrating photographs into comic books. Jack Kirby did it a few times back in the old days of Marvel, he would run a photograph in the background and put a cartoon character on top of it, it really struck me. Getting the best of both worlds, integrating comics with photographs and text is fun!

I watched a documentary a little while back that featured you in it and you mentioned that you were known as a “Bigfoot” artist, that you draw characters with big feet and grotesque features; where did this style develop from?

JH: That’s the official name from the kind of cartooning style, it’s called “Grotesque” or “Bigfoot” by people in the business. That’s where you exaggerate features, you’re not trying to capture real life, you’re trying to stretch reality into a more exaggerated style. The cartoonist, the funny guys that I liked were, Don Martin and Jack Davis; they had very original crazy styles that were never to appeal to a lot of people. I like weird stuff, the weirder the better. There’s also Basil Overton, he does the most grotesque of all-time; when I was in 8th Grade he did a series of bubblegum stickers, ugly stickers as I remember, they were very popular with kids back then. You know how at a certain stage you love monsters and stuff? R. Crumb, Robert Crumb, was a big influence on me.

What’s been one of your proudest moments as an artist?

JH: That first issue of Punk. I knew the moment that I sat down with Lou [Reed] and asked him about comic books, he named the artists, he named Wally Wood and Bill Elder and EC Comics—I was so impressed… I always thought there was a thread that joined music and art and I’ve seen this happen a lot, a lot of musicians are visual artists or appreciate visual art and vice versa… I’ve always thought that comics and rock n roll music, popular music, often express the same popular idioms. Like in the ‘50s when you had rock n roll music starting off, you also had EC Comic books. Both Elvis and EC Comic books were supposedly promoting juvenile delinquency. In the ‘60s you had acid rock and the psychedelic bands you also had underground comic books, which were influenced by LSD, marijuana and open attitudes towards sex. When we brought out Punk I feel we were continuing that tradition; punk rock was happening and the magazine was creating the visual imagery. It helped propel the punk thing into a movement. I always say that Punk magazine is when the punk movement really began because when it was just music and it didn’t have that visual element it wasn’t a full blown social movement the way it became. Not many cartoonist can say that they helped create a social movement like that, so that’s a pretty proud moment!

I have a copy of that first edition of Punk #1 that my husband bought me for my birthday. I remember when I first slid it out of the plastic packaging it was in, I just stared at it, at your art on the cover, for the longest time. I couldn’t believe I was actually holding it in my hands, I even got a little teary. As I started to unfold it and take in each section it was a really special moment. Still to this day I haven’t seen anything like it, it’s really unique and special.

JH: Thank you. I don’t think in that first issue there is any typeset whatsoever, every single advertisement, every whatever is hand-lettered. As you can imagine, I’m not too fond of the digital age. People are always telling me that I should turn my hand lettering into a font, but what’s fun about hand lettering is that each letter can look different; if it was a font every letter would look the same and it wouldn’t be hand lettering. I like analogue technology and I think digital strips away creativity and a lot of imagination.

With Punk magazine, from what I understand is that, you were trying to get people to rebel. When you did High Times magazine also, that had a rebellious spirit also; have you always had that in you?

JH: Oh yeah! I got into a lot of trouble when I was a teenager. I was growing up during the Vietnam War, when I was around fifteen/sixteen, it dawned on me that when I turned eighteen I would be drafted and sent over to the jungles to kill people. That’s a real wake up call, to be that young and face that kind of reality. Some of the other kids that had come back from there would say, “Whatever you do, don’t get drafted and go to Vietnam! It is the most horrible experience that you could ever imagine.” It was hell. I saw it with my father too, he was a veteran of World War II. He was captured in his first mission and spent the entirety of America’s entry into World War II behind barbed wire. He was an illustrator and he did a book when he came back from the war and published his sketches. He even worked on The Great Escape, he was a Forger; if you’ve ever seen the movie The Great Escape, they have a character that represents the Forgers. I grew up around art, it didn’t seem like a big deal for someone to sit there at a drawing board and make a living doing it. Sorry I got a little off track; what was the question?

Have you always had a rebellious spirit? It seems to be a commonality running through all you do. Also, you seem to be in places at exciting times with a current of change, you seem to act as a conduit that helps bring things to a greater audience.

JH: At school I was an A student before high school. I always did really well in academics, but by the time I got to high school, they were teaching a bunch of bullshit that was irrelevant to my life. I saw these smart kids, these academics just swallowing it all and to me it was like—wake up! A lot of people were provocative back then, I always related to provocative art, stuff that would be shocking and make you think, that gives you a different perspective on things; that is the most important things people can do. I’m not a bomb thrower, I’m not a revolutionary, I think politics is a bad thing for artists to get too involved in, especially now with all the crap you see in The ‘States about Trump. Who cares who the President is?! Politicians are all horrible people, it not like Trump has a trademark on being a horrible person. All politicians suck! We had a funny comic in Punk that Bruce Carlton did where we turned sacred cows into hamburger, I always liked that. Whenever people have this belief system that, this politician is such a good person they’re going to save us or whatever, or they idolise a musician, I’m against it! I’m a “Groucho Marxist-John Lennonist”. I was always influenced by a lot of things Groucho said, he had a great philosophy – “I wouldn’t join any club that would accept someone like me as a member” whatever it is “I’m against it”. It was great stuff. I was very influenced by The Marx Brothers in high school. Comedy is something that should be provocative. It’s having a hard time right now, there’s just a political correct philosophy and people who are expressing unpopular ideas are being attacked and even censored and banned. It’s horrific to me! I believe in the Enlightenment, one of my heroes was Voltaire. One of the famous stories about Voltaire is that he had two houses, on either side of the border of two countries and whenever he got one government pissed off at him and they wanted to throw him in jail, he’d just go to the other house across the border. Then when that government came at him he’d go back to the other house, he just kept avoiding the authorities. He had so many wonderful writings and philosophy.

People should be able to say what they want. They also have be aware that what they say could have repercussions but, they should still be able to have a voice. It’s ok for people to have different opinions.

JH: It gets beyond that because the philosophy of free speech in my mind is that free speech is not there to defend popular rights, it’s there to defend unpopular speech, even hate speech. I got into a big argument with a friend of mine, Rufus Dayglo, we were together at a comic book festival, he wants to ban hate speech. I just couldn’t understand this. Hate speech is horrible, it would be good if people would not use hate speech but, on the other hand, if you squelch it then how are people going to understand what hate speech is and why it’s horrible and how stupid the people are who use it. It’s like, you gotta trust people to be adults about things and make up their own minds. A lot of the attitudes that people had a hundred years ago were really horrible, the racism and the intolerance they had… that gets back to it; what is tolerance? What do you tolerate? What is intolerable? Hitler was intolerable, that’s why the world went to war to get rid of that guy. But if you don’t publish, Mein Kampf, you might not understand how evil works and how people get fooled into accepting horrible ideas.

John Holmstrom 1977

I read that you’re working on your autobiography?

JH: I’m working on my book proposal, my agent is interested.  Stoned Age has really started taking off though and I haven’t had time to work on it recently. It’s something that I would like to do, I’ve had an interesting life. I think people don’t really know the extent of some of the stuff that I’ve been through, like people hear I grew up in Connecticut and they assume that I grew up having a sheltered life and probably didn’t go through much, but the opposite was true. My parents had almost no discipline, I could do whatever I wanted to. I was hitchhiking all over the country when I was sixteen years old. I saw quite a bit, I went to rock festivals. Here in New York it was a rough time, it was not a safe place to live, some crazy things happened. I was homeless for a while…

That was just before you started Punk, right?

JH: Yes. It was pretty crazy, I went from sleeping on a friend’s floor to being on top of the New York City rock scene in a matter of months. Then I ended up almost homeless again a few years later [laughs].

I read that there were issues of Punk that were ready for printing but they didn’t make it; weren’t they lost at the printers?

JH: Yes, there were lost issues, it was so heartbreaking. Our ninth issue was going to put us over the top! I actually think that the C.I.A. infiltrated Punk magazine and put us out of business. I don’t talk to Legs McNeil anymore, I’m just over dealing with difficult people at this advanced age… one of the last times I saw him, he told me that he was roommates with this guy that was working with us and that he came across this briefcase and there was all of this classified government information in there, I think he was working with the C.I.A. I didn’t say it at the time but I thought about it and I was like, why didn’t you tell me back then? I did a stupid thing, we decided to fire the publisher, he just burnt through this huge investment that we got, he just threw it all away ‘cause he was pissed off at me and wanted to get back at me. He figured he’d put us out of business. Then this other guy who worked with him was running things… it’s right after I went to Australia, I fired the publisher, I had to leave for Australia, my mother took me and my sister down there. The trip was so important to her, her own mother had died the day before we were going to leave, and she skipped the funeral to go to Australia. It was the biggest thing in her whole life. When I came back, I’m returning to the office and I see a dead rat in front of the office on the sidewalk, I go inside and Legs just said he killed the rat that was going out of the back… we always had mice and roaches but all of a sudden we had rats, it became unlivable there. I was told that Punk went out of business, all this terrible stuff had happened while I was gone. I think it was sabotaged. We did manage to bring out another issue. It’s such an incredible story I hope I get to tell it all—this is what it’s like to work in the underground.

The F.B.I. and our intelligence agencies were so determined to supress rock n roll then, in the underground, and in the ‘60s, that they would hire prostitutes to have sex with the underground newspaper editors and give them a venereal disease… a lot of crazy stuff happened! There’s a program called, Cointelpro, look it up… one of the people who helped us out the most was Tom Forcade – he was the publisher and founder of High Times and was also at the top of the list of underground newspaper people that the government wanted to stop; he actually ran the underground press syndicate, which consisted of over 200 newspapers and magazines covering everything from Native American rights, gay rights, you name it. Punk was among his favourites, I think that’s why we got in trouble with the powers that be, it’s why I think there’s credibility to the theory… I mean we probably would have went out of business on our own, ‘cause we were stupid inexperienced kids but… you know, they couldn’t risk us being successful.

Out of everything you have been through and all the successes that you’ve had; how do you define success for yourself now?

JH: That’s a good question. I feel like I’ve been successful because my work has been… lately it’s just exploding! My work is on permanent display at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, my archives went to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University in Connecticut near where I grew up… but, I don’t really have a lot of money, I really struggle financially, that’s how it is when you’re an artist. Nobody wants to buy your stuff until you’re dead! Then the prices go through the roof, we’re always more valuable dead than when we’re alive. I can’t, for myself, consider financial success as any kind of marker. I’d like to be financially successful and I try but, life is what it is. You have to accept what you can’t change and change what you cannot accept, and all those clichés.

I find it really inspiring that no matter what you’ve been faced with, you keep going. Following all the things you do, I’ve noticed that you always seem so positive. Even in an interview I’ve watched where someone poses a question to you where it’s obvious they’re looking for a negative answer or just want gossip, you turn it around into something positive.

JH: Thank you! I get accused of being negative all the time [laughs]. People have said I brood, I’m Scandinavian, we tend to be a little on looking at the dark side of things. I try to stay positive. If I succumb to hopelessness and despair, I’ll end up homeless again. I work to live. I need to keep making money, I need to keep doing things. It’s always nice to be recognised, one thing about being an artist, you don’t hear the applause… when you’re a musician or a comedian or actor you go on stage and people applaud and you get all this recognition for what you do… when you’re an artist you’re sitting all by yourself, Harvey Kurtzman called it “the loneliest job in the world” ‘cause you’re all by yourself doing a drawing for hours and hours, days and days, sometimes even weeks; I barely talk to anybody. You have to believe in yourself, believe in what you’re doing and really I think the ultimate goal is to do something that everybody likes. A lot of people don’t like comics or cartoons, it’s a difficult thing, and people that usually like them are cartoonist themselves. There’s not a vast audience of people that spend money on comic books and cartoons, comic books are going out of business left and right. I heard that Marvel is no longer going to print comic books!

What?!

JH: Yeah, apparently they did market research and most of the people that see the movies aren’t even aware that these characters first appeared in comic books. Even the best titles only sell about 30,000 copies. Our local comic book shop, St Marks Comics, just closed; a lot of unhappy people about that. They’re going to sublicense their titles and have other publishers take the risks. It’s so difficult now to print anything, energy cost and shipping costs so much. 10 years ago I could ship things overseas, I have an eBay page and I can’t sell anything to Europe or Australia or even Canada because it costs a minimum of $35 for one magazine. Selling a something for $5 and then charging that much for shipping, it’s an impossible economy.

I totally can relate to that, having done zines for 25 years and shipping all over the world, the shipping is crazy. I have a book coming out next year and I’m really terrified of how much postage will be to post it to people.

JH: Well, hopefully that’s where things like print-on-demand will help. There’s a book store here in New York called, Shakespeare & Company, if they don’t have the book in stock, they’re going to have the technology to print it in the store and sell it for around what the book price is.

Wow!

JH: Technology is pretty amazing. Bringing out Stoned Age, we couldn’t have afforded to stay in business if this was twenty year ago, back in the day when you had to take pages and shoo them on film and put the film on plates and use the plates to run off the paper. I remember hearing in the ‘90s they were already developing disk to paper, which blew my mind… that’s what a PDF is and how they all are producing these publications. Instead of the old technology, paying for the plates and film and set up, with the PDF you’re just running off a photocopy, you’re just paying for paper and ink. Very cheap to print newsprint, but what’s costing us an arm and leg is shipping it. The West Coast is where our biggest demand is, but we’re afraid of what the shipping bill will be. I recently sent some to my friend Lindsay [Hutton] who does Next Big Thing in Scotland, he’s a great guy; one of the early 1970’s fanzines inspired by Punk. It was pretty interesting that within months of our first issue there were similar fanzines coming out all over the world.

I remember seeing the cover of the first issue of Punk in a book in my local library, as a teenager I’d never seen anything like it. The work you’ve done is influential, you started punk zines, something which I have spent my life doing. People found out about punk because of you guys.

JH: Thank you. One of my favourite stories is that, when I visited Sydney in May or June ’77, I’m with my mom and sister walking down the street and I saw Rock Australia magazine on a newsstands… I picked up a copy and I opened it up and there was this huge image of Punk #1 inside! I was like, “Mom! Look at this!” They were like, huh?! I can’t remember who the editor was, but he was really nice to me and looked after me wonderfully. He took me to the local club and introduced me to The Saints and Radio Birdman. The Saints were doing their big farewell gig a couple of years later and I couldn’t attend because we were on a tour, I missed that. I went to White Light Records, are they still a thing?

No.

JH: Aww that’s sad. They were a great, great record store. The owner gave me a copy of The Sonics LP. Everybody treated me so wonderfully. One of The Saints was so down on New York, he preferred the London scene [laughs], he gave me a hard time, bunch of punks!

I’ll send you a mixtape of Australian bands that are around now. Australia really has one of the best music scenes in the world, so many incredible bands that the rest of the world doesn’t even know about yet.

JH: I’m glad to hear that! I try to bring this up when people asked about punk starting in New York or London, well The Saints had single of the year in 1976, “(I’m) Stranded” was a huge punk single. How do you explain that? Punk was a worldwide thing, everyone was influenced by the same bands – Alice Cooper, The Stooges, MC5 etc. etc. It didn’t’ start anywhere, it started everywhere. Australia… even when I was working at High Times, we’d hear about Nimbin, a famous hippie commune place and hearing about how wonderful it was down there… it’s an interesting part of the world. Australia is a very interesting island continent.

People have always told me with my writing, making zines and stuff that if I really wanted to make it I’d have to go to New York, Los Angeles or London, but I always thought that well, if everyone goes to those places, who’ll be left here to make stuff?

JH: I would enjoy if I could have to stay in Sydney. There was an interesting fashion thing going on, women wearing this really interesting style of makeup… I remember seeing all of these buildings going up in Sydney and it really looked like a place that was going to take off and really become cosmopolitan; it was really like New York in a lot of ways… big city, interesting neighbourhoods, an underground scene—you don’t see that everywhere.

Doing the magazine Stoned Age and being the editor/publisher of High Times; do you smoke marijuana yourself?

JH: Right now I’m not a big user. The thing about my marijuana use is that I smoked a lot of pot as a teenager, I really got into it. I started when I was fifteen, in a few months when I turned sixteen and got my Driver’s License I was arrested with some other kids. Being sixteen, one other was my age and the other’s younger, so their names weren’t even in the newspaper—it was the most traumatic event of my life.

Wow!

JH: Yeah. It ruined my life. I smoke pot now and then through the rest of my life. At some point I’m like, I don’t’ want to smoke it until it’s legal and safe. It’s still not legal here, I want to go into a store and buy it. I don’t’ always enjoy it, it’s not something that I like to do socially, it makes me feel self-conscious and it screws with your sense of time. I enjoy it mostly when I’m cleaning my apartment; I get stoned and always end up cleaning my apartment. It has its use. I’m an insomniac and I’ve heard that there is certain strains of marijuana that can help with that. They keep saying that they’re going to make it legal in New Jersey but there’s an incredible push back against it, all the media is focusing on is the negatives and how dangerous it is. I’m a good example of how dangerous it is to make it illegal, when I was arrested I was almost put in prison, some of my friends from high school were sent to prison and they were raped. Now it’s like, what’s worse? Smoking pot and getting paranoid or getting thrown in jail and getting gang raped and getting AIDS and dying. It’s insane. The prohibitionists, the people that want to keep it illegal are out of their minds! Not to mention, the intrusions into privacy rights that the drug wars have created.

When I started working at High Times, we got a report that the Attorney General, Ed Messe, was planning to put us all in prison for the crime of publishing the magazine. The government tried several times to put High Times out of business. Now years later, politicians are praising marijuana because it’s going to save their economy!

Now that’s two publications you’ve created that the government has wanted to stop!

JH: Yeah, well I tell people, I hate the Two Part System because the democrats put me out of business and The Republicans –Jimmy Carter was president when Punk was put out of business – tried to put me in jail and put me out of business. I hate politicians! I hate all of them!

I saw an original artwork of Punk #1 come up for sale and I think it went for $19,000?

JH: The original artwork, yes. For what I understand, I gave it to Harvey Kurtzman when the issue first came out, I felt I owed him everything… he kept it, this guy Denis Kitchen that was running his estate decided to sell some of Harvey’s art collection, Harvey’s widow, Adele, needed some money and they’d determined that it was the most valuable piece in Harvey’s collection, which is amazing really! He would have had so much great art work for so many different people, I was surprised, I figured R. Crumb would be worth more. They put it up for auction and it sold for $16,000. I read in the New York Times that Rubén Blades, the Latino musician, had acquired it. I looked into it more, apparently he worked with Lou Reed and he bought it because he was a fan of Lou’s. They even did a recording with Dion from Dion & The Belmonts and I think David Johansen was involved. Rubén sounds like a cool guy! I emailed him through his website and I offered to authenticate the art. I have seen bootlegs of my artwork. Someone brought up a “Road To Ruin” artwork and we couldn’t work out where it came from, it looked a lot like mine but it had a different title on it. I think someone traced it and used it as a bootleg.

Do you have a favourite issue of Punk mag?

JH: Mutant Monster Beach Party! That was #15. That was my masterpiece I think. It was so much fun. It pretty much put us out of business, it sold terribly. Now it seems people have come to appreciate it. The entire issue for the most part was a photo comic starring Joey Ramone and Debbie Harry. We had guest stars Any Warhol, Edith Massey and Peter Wolf – who was very famous as the singer of the J. Geils Band, he’s married to Faye Dunaway, one of the most famous movie actresses at the time – he called us up because he wanted to appear in a photo comic, we had the perfect role for him. Andy was very cooperative, very approachable, his factory was just on Union Square, downtown in the neighbourhood. It was so much fun. We scribbled cartoons and graffiti-ed all over them and drew a monster in. That was the best!

At the time did it feel like a real pinch yourself moment?

JH: All the time. I was hyperaware at the time that we were doing something important. I saw some article recently that said something like, “no one would have ever believed in the ‘70s that some day the Ramones’ music would be played in a football stadium.” That was the first thing that I thought when I saw them. I was like ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ would be perfect to play in a stadium [laughs]. I’m not shocked at all that their music is played at sports events, I was amazed that it didn’t take off right away and they’d be like The Beatles! They were so great. Their music was amazing. This is why I think that something was afoot! It took twenty years for people to catch on… its very strange.

We have a huge Ramones vinyl collection, they’re one of our favourite bands. There was a band we saw just the other night at our local called, The Arturo’s…

JH: [Laughs] I think I’ve heard of them.

It’s amazing that these things that you caught onto early, and helped give visibility – the Ramones were in your first issue – is still having an impact and people in my city all the way over here are influenced it.

JH: I saw someone at The Continental years ago, I forget what the show was but, there was a guy there that had the Road To Ruin art tattooed on his back. Seeing tattoos of my artwork is always the most amazing thing. Someone had a large pinhead with the “Rocket To Russia” on his arm. I’ve see so many tattoos, it’s really great. I remember years ago they had a festival in Australia where bands were playing Ramones…

The Ramone-a-thon!

JH: Does it still go on?

No. It ran from 2000 to 2007 in my hometown Brisbane and raised money for charity.

JH: I thought it was one of the best things ever.

With the Road To Ruin artwork, I understand that you redid/reworked an idea of art that someone else had done, but then you finally got to design something yourself from scratch with the Murphy’s Law record, right?

JH: Yeah. I thought that doing Road To Ruin would lead to doing more record covers but for some reason it didn’t sell that well and I think I took some of the blame for that, even though I was just following orders. I was working at High Times and Jimmy [Gestapo] the singer and some other band members came around and they wanted to me to do a drawing. I did a bunch of sketches, I still have one of the rejects around here somewhere. It was terrible because I did a record cover and they shrunk it down to a CD size, it lost all its impact; I think it would have looked great 12×12! It kind of disappeared, I did have a crowd scene around it. It didn’t look terrible but, it looked better as a poster. They were great to work with, really great guys, put on a great show. The hardcore scene…I wasn’t immersed in it, I was too busy working and trying to make a living. It’s an interesting phenomenon here in New York City. Was there an Australian hardcore scene?

Yes, very much so. There’s still one. A lot smaller of course and a lot of bands were influenced by New York hardcore bands, West Coast hardcore punk bands or Japanese hardcore. I grew up listening to NYHC and L.A. ‘80s hardcore punk, Washington D.C stuff too.

JH: I never liked the L.A. stuff too much, like a lot of New York bands I’m not so crazy about. It sounds better now than it did then, it’s crazy… I like the Ramones but I didn’t like hardcore… like what happens with the Ramones, it takes twenty years to get accustomed to it and then you like it [laughs].

Do you still listen to music a lot?

JH: Oh yeah! I don’t listen to a lot of new music. Right now I’m listening to a lot of Velvet Underground, it’s one of my favourite bands of all-time. I got into them very heavily when I was going to school here in New York. That’s like, when I got to Lou [Reed] it was like, wow! The man! I’m such a big fan of all of his stuff. Jimi Hendrix, I like. What else? All kinds of weird stuff. I like the Phil Spector stuff from the ‘60s. I’ll play it on YouTube and then I’ll get all these random songs pop up, I end up listening to all kinds of stuff, the way you would if you listened to the radio.

One interesting thing is punk rock from behind the “Iron Curtain”. They really censored punk rock. Some guy wrote a book claiming that punk rock brought down the Berlin Wall!

Punk really has had an effect on so many things, it’s incredible. You were there when it was forming. It just blows my mind.

JH: It blows my mind too! I was lucky, but then I’m so unlucky in everything else, like making money. There’s punk rock millionaires, people that have made a lot of money from punk… I’m like, oh, I missed that bus, along with a lot of other people in punk. Money isn’t everything though.

No, it’s not. I’ve been doing what I do for 25 years, interviewing, making zines, bringing visibility to bands and art that I love, sharing that with people, I work part-time in a library to pay bills. I get to do what I love just because I love it, there’s no compromise.

JH: Oh yeah, I look back at my life – I’m old and probably not going to be around much longer – but I think about my life and think, wow! I got to go on the Sex Pistols U.S. tour! I got to talk to Lou Reed and hang out with him so many times, he loved our first issue. I became friends with the Ramones and would go to their shows all the time… so many interesting experiences—you can’t trade that for anything! You have people now, like rich people, that buy “coolness” and spend all this money on old rock n roll clothing… you can’t buy cool! Sorry.

Totally! Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?

JH: Let me think… we’ve gone through a lot. You’ve done a really great interview, it’s been so nice talking with you. I’m always honoured that anyone would care enough about my work to talk to me about it. It’s always an extreme honour and privilege. I hope you encourage people to check out my work because I’ve done some interesting things.

Absolutely! I really wanted to talk to you and share what you do with others, I think you are extremely underrated! Talking to you has been a dream come true, you were the pioneer of what I do. Your resilience and your positivity is inspiring.

JH: If you read what I have to say I think people could see things as negative, especially people who want to suppress hate speech, freedom of expression, marijuana – how could you encourage people to take marijuana you must be out of your mind, you belong in jail… that kind of attitude. I guess those people would see me as negative. I’m a baaaaad influence! [laughs].

I’m really looking forward to “The Art of the Interview” event I’m doing this Thursday. Steve Blush is interviewing me, like you, he’s interviewed a lot of people. He interviewed Robert Plant for High Times. We dug up an old photograph of Robert Plant where he had apparently been arrested for marijuana. There were all these hippies around with signs that said ‘Free Robert Plant’ and ‘Legalise Pot!’, Steve showed the photo to Robert Plant and he got pissed off and walked out of the interview.

Wow!

JH: Interviewing people is interesting, right?

Totally!

JH: ‘Cause once in a while you get the unexpected ‘cause it’s real life and we’re really talking to each other.

Yes!

JH: We’re not inventing it.

It’s one of my favourite things in the whole world. When I was fifteen and in high school, my mother would drop me off at the front school gate, I’d walk out the back gate and go to the train station, catch one to the city and find bands I loved that was touring and interviewed them.

JH: Where would the interview appear?

In my punk zine.

JH: That’s really cool!

All the bands I loved wouldn’t be covered in the magazines I’d buy at the newsagent and I loved them so much and wanted to let everyone know, that’s why I started my own publication.

JH: Have you ever reprinted them or made a book out of them?

No. But I am making a book that will be out this year. I’ve been working on it for 15 years. It’s on punk and spirituality. Not religion, but spirituality and creativity and navigating life on your own terms, doing things yourself, D.I.Y. I’ve spoken to over 100 people in the punk community about living a creative life. I hope it inspires people to create in their own life.

JH: When I worked at High Times, the editor got into “Cannabis Spirituality”. He even did a book called that, interviewing people about marijuana… because a lot of people feel spiritual on marijuana. Spirituality is kind of a difficult word, people get weird when it comes to their belief or disbelief in God. I was Atheist for a long time, I believe in everything now. The world is a lot stranger than people can comprehend. I think what you’re doing is a great idea, I’d really love to read your book. It would be great to see what other people have to say about it. I always felt the goal of punk is to free up your mind and that brings along the soul and the spirit and everything else along with it. I hear from people sometimes and they say, “Punk saved my life! Thank you so much!” There are some heavy things around punk. I applaud you. I applaud you.

Check out: johnholmstrom.com & Stoned Age.