It's strange what you remember.
My parents loyally subscribed to New York magazine as I was growing up. There was almost always a copy of it on the coffee table of our Upper East Side apartment. Even as a young lad, I'd regularly flip through its pages, usually without any motivation beyond boredom or curiosity. And, much like today's incarnation of the same periodical, the tone of the magazine always seemed to cater to the catty urbanite, with a slight patina of sophisto-smarm. To this day, my friend and fellow native, Rob B., maintains that New York singularly embodies everything he hates about his fellow New Yorker. I can see his point, but I still read it. Hell, I subscribe to it myself.
In any case, one issue arrived in the fall of 1979 that immediately struck a chord with me. Opinions may differ on this point, but in `79 -- as quaint as this might sound -- the very word "PUNK" was still able to fire the imagination and/or palpably repel the easily-riled. But, there it was on the cover of New York, above a Warholian portrait of a bleach-blonde, sleeveless and tattooed young lady presumably designated to telegraph everything which that divisive word might mean to the New York reader.
While I was certainly familiar with the word myself by this point (thanks to some hipper friends of mine in school and a box of records my father had sent to my sister and I while on assignment in London), it was still fairly foreign territory to me. I was into it, but I was still largely devoted to bands like Pink Floyd and KISS, both of whom were busy digging their own graves in the credibility department at the time, although my twelve-year-old ears were oblivious to that point. But within a few, fleeting pages of this issue of New York came names and images of sharp, compelling characters and bands with a (still) fresh new aesthetic. I was intrigued. In very short order, this issue of New York left the coffee table and went to live with the copies of "Howard the Duck," Heavy Metal, Circus and Creem magazines in my room.
Again, to me at the time, punk meant bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones and ... er... Adam & the Ants, but this 7-page article cited names I'd certainly never heard of like Tomata Du Plenty of the Screamers, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Stiv Bators, The Speedies and Shrapnel. Honestly speaking, I remember less about the text of the piece itself and more about the photographs (which, I'd learn much, much later, were snapped by the great Marcia Resnick -- including a great shot of Legs McNeil sporting a Blitz Benefit shirt). Who were these fierce-looking folks? And why weren't their records displayed alongside my favorites at my local Crazy Eddie or Disc-O-Mat? And where were these places Hurrah's and the Mudd Club?
Time moved on, and I got into other things. That issue of New York invariably vanished in a pile of stuff my mom got rid of while I was at school one day. I ended up diving way deeper into punk and hardcore (a sub-genre that magazine essentially pre-dated) in due course, learning all about the artists invoked in that article and finding my own favorites along the way. But I always remembered that issue. For some reason, its images seared themselves on my brain.
Decades went by. In no time at all, I'd become an insufferable music geek of the sort people regularly avoid at parties, obsessed with the archival minutia of artists and ephemera I held sacrosanct. Coupled with my indefatigable love of music came a reverence for my home town, and an ardent appreciation for its cultural significance and storied character -- two elements that seemed (and now, basically, are) entirely endangered. As such, I started seeking out and documenting aspects of the things I loved that were swiftly becoming things of the past, making me, one could argue, a hopeless nostalgist. Guilty as charged, your honor. This manifested itself first via photography and then, about a decade after that, the blog you're now reading.
Sometime in the late 90s, probably, I became preoccupied with tracking down that issue of New York. Sure, I'd gone onto read thousands of other things that far surpassed its scope, but being that it had been such a tantalizing glimpse into a world I'd later immerse myself in, I was really curious to read it again. The problem, however, was finding it.
I went first to this basement-level archive of old magazines on East 12th just off Third Avenue. At the time, I didn't remember the exact date of the issue, but I had a rough idea, and knew I'd recognize the cover (that portrait of the bleach-blonde punkette) the nanosecond I saw it. I poured through stacks and stacks of old copies of New York but kept coming up empty. I started to wonder if, in fact, I had completely imagined it. I came across an issue of the East Village Eye that I started thinking might be the actual source, but that didn't make any sense -- why would we have ever had a copy of the East Village Eye in our Upper East Side apartment? My folks weren't nearly hip enough for that. Moreover, the contents of the magazine didn't add up. Nope, I hadn't found that issue yet.
I turned then, to Google, who, of course, maintain a remarkably resourceful virtual archive of magazine in their books section. Again -- ZIP! I really began to question whether I'd, in fact, dreamed the whole thing up. Still, I vividly remember sitting in my room, reading the damn thing while listening to Pink Floyd's The Wall as if it had just happened yesterday.
It became a bit of Holy Grail item after a while, along with an article in the New York Times about downtown rock clubs in the early 90s (although I did manage to find at least the text of that one).
Then ... I lucked out. On a random eBay search just last week, I typed in "New York Magazine" and "Punk Rock" and BOOM up it came. Eleven dollars later (heck, I'd have happily paid more, by this point), it was finally mine once more.
It came in the mail a few days after that, and felt strangely thick and beefy for a copy of New York magazine ... or at least compared to today's issues. The cover headline fit the bill, alright: "The Last Word on Punk... We Hope". We hope? Really?? I didn't remember that part.
Penned by erstwhile SoHo Weekly News editor Cynthia Heimel -- an author who'd later write such popular books as "Sex Tips for Girls," "Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth, I'm Kissing You Goodbye" and "If You Can't Live without Me," Why Aren't You Dead Yet?" -- this 33-year-old article begs as many questions as it supposedly answered. Dubbed "No Such Thing As Punk," Heimel's frankly frenetic piece reads like a sloppy journal entry (or scattershod blog post not unlike this one). Conceivably composed with the New York reader/layperson in mind, Heimel's depiction of the then-mutating New York scene seems slightly schizophrenic. At certain points, she plays up the dumber, nihilistic aspects of the punk stereotype, damning proponents for their weird tonsorial aesthetics and loutish antics, while at other points, she's clearly reveling in being part of it all. Alternately placating New York's comparatively stuffy readership by assuring them that it's all a big, shallow pose, but also taking pains to point out how she was there at the beginning and now it's already over (you missed it, nyah nyah!), Heimel only occasionally discusses the music, and even then only sparingly.
As a document of a specific moment in time, it's pretty thin. But then again, I suppose I can't speak about it. On those mornings when Heimel was dusting herself off after a night of stylish abandon at the Mudd Club, I was invariably putting my tie on to attend homeroom in my seventh grade classroom on the cushy Upper East Side.
So, am I disappointed after all this time? Nah. I'm psyched I was able to put my hand to it. And I completely forgive Cynthia Heimel's article (big of me, eh?). How was she to know, after all, that "PUNK" would continue to splinter and subdivide into myriad other vibrant movements and sub-genres and further inspire popular culture? I'd be curious to hear what she'd say about this article now, actually, if she even remembers writing it.
New York tried its hand at capturing New York Punk at least once more after this, catching the thriving hardcore scene at CBGB in May of 1986 with bands like Murphy's Law and the Cro-Mags. I vaguely remember that article being a bit more objective about proceedings.
Ironically, most of the artists Heimel invoked in her article failed to worm their respective ways into the public consciousness. Sure, everyone knows Joey Ramone and Stiv Bators (may they both rest in peace), but Tomato Du Plenty of the Screamers (who never released a record, sadly) remained largely an unknown outside of devout punk cirlces until succumbing to cancer in 2000. Shrapnel -- featuring Dave Wyndorf and managed by the great, afore-cited Legs McNeil -- cut a couple of singles and a solitary album that failed to go anywhere before splitting. Wyndorf found greater fame, of course, when he founded proto-stoner-metal outfit, Monster Magnet. The Speedies, who Heimel claimed caused "mini-riots among their teen fans" -- never really made it beyond cult status. One of the former Speedies actually lives a block away from me here on University Place. Check out one of their vids at the bottom of this post.
But hey -- don't listen to me. Read Cynthia Heimel's article for New York yourself: Download PDF.