John Holmstrom is best known for illustrating the covers of TheRamonesalbumsRocket to RussiaandRoad to Ruin, as well as his characters Bosko and Joe published in Scholastic'sBananasmagazine. As the founding editor ofPunk Magazine in 1975 at the age of 22, Holmstrom's work became the visual representation of the punk era. Punkmagazine announced an exploding youth movement, a new direction in American counterculture.Itwas to magazines what the stage at CBGB was to music: the gritty, live-wired, throbbing center of the punk universe. Despite its low-rent origins, the mag was an overnight success inthe underground music scene, selling out every print run across the US and UK. Every musician who appeared on the cover ofPunkbecame an icon of the era. ButPunknot only championed music, it became a launching pad for writers, artists, cartoonists, and graphic designers. And the wacky, sardonic, slapstick vibe of the magazine resonated with an international army of music fanatics who were ready to burn their bell bottoms and stage-dive into the punk universe. After Punkceased publication in 1979, he worked for several publications, includingThe Village Voice,Video Gamesmagazine,K-Power, andHeavy Metal. In 1986, Holmstrom contributed a comic-based chronology of punk rock forSpinmagazine's special punk issue.In 1987, Holmstrom began to work forHigh Timesmagazine as Managing Editor, was soon promoted to Executive Editor, and eventually promoted to Publisher andPresident. Boy Scout talked to Holmstrom about digital currency, Disco, and "The Day After."
Boy Scout: If you arrived in New York City in 2019 filled with great ambition, how might you ascend to your artistic summit?
John Holmstrom: If I arrived in New York City in 2019… I doubt I can afford to live here. It was a very different world than the one I entered in 1972, when you get an apartment for $100 a month. It's really difficult to try to think of how I'd handle it, you know, being it's my advanced age, I get very confused when it comes to money, because I still think when I have $100 I'm rich.
Boy Scout: The late Harry Dean Stanton believed “Everything is predestined. Nothing is important. Life is an illusion. It’s all a movie. Nobody’s in charge” which is lovingly referred to as his Appreciation of Nothing. Do you have a guiding life philosophy that keeps you on the path?
John Holmstrom: I know a lot of people believe in predestination but I believe in free will. I really believe that any decisions we make in life do have an effect in which we have control over our destiny, and I kind of often think about what and how my life might have been different if I had made different decisions at one time or another… it's always interesting.
The String Theory proposes that there are an infinite number of universes and in these universes, there are other John Holmstrom’s, maybe in a different universe, everything turns out differently? Very strange world we live in. so, I have to think that all things are possible.
Boy Scout: From the outset you have lived hand to heart cataloguing both risk and rebellion. Life’s great reward seems to have came from your all-guts attitude. Can you describe what this kind of artistic endurance means to you?
John Holmstrom: I was afraid of being drafted into the Vietnam War and in a very early age I learned the government was lying to us about the war… and I became very rebellious at that time against the system that I thought was very unjust. I try to continue to fight against injustice… which is why I spent so much time at High Times Magazine trying to change the laws around marijuana. But in my other work, you know, I think I would punk rock and Punk Magazine, I always thought we were trying to just get people to rebel, to think outside normal belief system, you know, shake things up, listen to something different, don’t’ set a routine. Don't trust mainstream media. Rather than conform to mainstream media and be a success on their terms, I've tried to work in the alternatives in underground media and kind of create my own universes, my own characters, my own copyright.
Boy Scout: You were only a teenager when you co-founded the influential Punk magazine. It printed 15 issues between 1976-79 but had an outsized influence on rock journalism and iconography. Our beloved Glenn O’Brien once described it as “The most important magazine in the world for one year.” Does Punk still make you proud?
John Holmstrom: Yeah, I was very young when I started Punk Magazine I was 22-years old in 1975, I looked a lot younger, I looked like a teenager - which didn't help - although it's the world of rock'n'roll. ..Rock'n'roll is sort of like sports in that you usually have a very short career. It was pretty much over by the time I was 27 or 28.. but we only we only had a short time, Punkmagazine was only around for about three and a half years, we published 15 issues in the 70s, and seemed to have this really big effect on the culture. But, again, we were the three of us who started it, Eddie, McNeil, Ged Dunn, and myself, we were all students of the media and we were all very aware that there wasn't much happening at that time.
1975 was very boring and we knew this if we could just shake things up, you know, we could give some attention and it sure went around the world pretty quickly. Great thing about rock and roll, it was a world music back then. So, I'm really happy with the fact that I was able to impact the culture like that. I didn't get rich, and there was a lot of heartbreak, you know, once we were flushed down the tubes by the mainstream… but people come up to me they say “you saved my life,” “you got me out of the drug scene,” and “listen to a different kind of music” and "be creative" and all that good stuff … and that's always the most gratifying thing about doing work is inspiring some of the other people to follow me down the other less beaten path.
Boy Scout: Your first issue, which was printed on four sheets of folded tabloid newsprint and featured interview with Lou Reed and The Ramones also included an editorial entitled “Death to Disco! Shit! Long Live the Rock!” companioned with a photo comic of co-founder, Legs McNeil, failing to pick up girls outside CBGB. Punk had a visually striking feel with bold graphics, bawdy cartoons and photo comic narratives that both captured and covered the rise of punk in New York City. Mixing comics with editorial, did you always intend it to be the Mad Magazine of Rock and Roll?
John Holmstrom: Well I put together the first issue of Punk Magazine, I had an idea of what I wanted to put in it, the first idea I wanted to call it Electronic Comics. We wanted to mix up media, mix-up comics and rock’n’roll… and I always wanted to do something about disco, because disco was becoming popular and it seems like rock‘n’roll was being pushed out of the way by this new disco dance music.
I wrote that editorial … it was kind of a joke because I wasn't feeling very well I actually got really sick from the flu as I was writing it … and I was surprised how many people responded to it. You know, a record producer said I should make a t-shirt out of it and sell a million of them. I guess he could have but I didn't want to attack disco that way. I didn't hate disco but I thought it was kind of funny that it was taking over the airwaves… but the whole thing changed when I ran into Lou Reed who was happened to be in the audience watching The Ramones, and Danny Fields The Ramones manager, suggested that I might want to talk to him, and he ended up allowing me to hang with him for hours.. and he gave me so much great material that the interview I did with him came out as a classic. He was just in some kind of mood. And I had read the… I was very aware of the Cream Magazine, Lester Bangs interviews with Lou… and even though this was only the first real interview I ever did with anybody -- of the questions we asked The Ramones an hour before -- I was able to stay in the ring with him. I was a big fan of Lou’s music, both his solo stuff and especially The Velvet Undergroundwhich I listen to all the time… and he was the most controversial, probably, in the world at that time… and that interview helps put us on the map. And I knew it was going to be great because the first question I asked him about was if “you read comics” and he said; “yeah, I like Mad Magazine, Wally Wood, and Will Elder…” I mean he named the artist you know you said he likes easy comics.
Boy Scout: Punk, which crystalized in New York, was angry, hilarious, incisive and immediate. Much like your zine. Was illustration at that time an actor of pure rebellion?
John Holmstrom: So, E.C Comics, the horror comics, and Mad were all published by the same company. And, in fact, it started out in the building where we later had our Punk Magazine office at 225 Lafayette street… and Harvey Kurtzman the editor of Mad, the first founding editor was my teacher and he got me a lot of work when I went off on my own. So, there was a definite influence by E.C Comics in Punkmagazine. I saw Mad as the inspiration for all the underground 1950s comic books, and I wanted to carry on the tradition of the underground, and to continue that fight… but by the mid-70s, the underground was finished. I actually approached one of the publishers and he said “look we're done with it, start your own thing.”
So when I was going to the School of Visual Arts in 1972 - 74, there was a lot of graffiti on the walls, in the hallways. It was astonishing, it was like the underground art gallery. And, of course, this is where Keith Haring went … and I think that the people doing the graffiti at the School of Visual Arts inspired the East Village art scene which made Keith Haring, and Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf so well known. I mean Haring and Sharp actually attended SVA a few years later… and one of the graffiti artists from then was one of our contributors, Robert Romanelli.
There was a lot of energy in New York City at that time. One thing people … I don't know if they appreciate this and I tried to do a talk about this, it does Howl gallery… why punk had to start in New York. And pretty much it had to start in New York because of the hippie thing, the hippie thing. The hippie’s hated New York. NYC was the epitome of everything wrong in the world. They wanted to go back to nature. They all wanted to live in a commune. So, immediately, if you lived in New York, you were rejecting all of that. You were embracing a different lifestyle altogether. The people who hated New York would make remarks to me like “Oh, it's so dirty” and you know they'd sort of make racist comments because this is a melting pot… and blacks, Hispanics, whites, Asians, we all lived together on the same island … and I always thought that was part of punk was just to accept other people and not try to control everybody else, or force your beliefs on anybody. It's all live and let live.
I think a lot of this was going on in the illustration scene. It still was the underground comic scene that was inspiring us. You know, humorous are always the assholes who point out the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes. We are supposed to be the truth-tellers. Lenny Bruce was a huge inspiration to me… and he was pretty much put out of business by the mainstream. I feel that most of the arts were subversive, especially back then, now I think they're all just chasing money, but back then, I think we were trying to poke holes and into the into the mainstream narrative.
Boy Scout: Anthony Bourdain’s wrenching “Parts Unknown” finale takes place in New York’s lower East Side where a good deal of your history resides. In that episode, Lydia Lunch says: “People were beautiful, doing things because they had to do it—not because of any other grand idea. Happiness was not the goal; satisfaction was the goal, as it still is. . . . We had to do something because we were burning; our blood was on fire.” Lunch made very clear that in the present day, she wastes no time pining for that bygone time—but Bourdain seemed a little more wistful. As a cultural significant, are you ever wistful for an older, grittier New York?
John Holmstrom: I spent around twenty years in New York when it was grittier .. and sleazier… and filled with drugs, and hookers, and the rest of it… I think that was enough.
I'm comfortable with the fact that for the last twenty years it's been cleaned up and made nicer, especially as I'm getting old. I mean, it was a lot of fun to be in New York back then. But it was also kind of terrifying. My apartment, I still live in, I've been here over 40 years, was broken into twice in the Seventies. I was cleaned out. Before that I had to move around a lot because I couldn't afford the apartments. I lost a lot of really cool stuff I wish I still had. I was held up by a drug dealer holding a gun to my head once…. I don't miss those days, I'm sorry. I can't be romantic about it. And I keep hearing people say “Oh gee, I wish I was around back then. I would have loved to live in New York,” … No you wouldn't! You had to be really tough to put up with the crap. You had to be fearless. You pretty much had to have nothing to lose.
You know, I can understand why people get nostalgic… my father served in World War II and him, and as other friends who served in the war, all seem to think those were the greatest times. But the war is horrible. And nobody wants to fight and live through a war, right? But it's something weird about people. We get bored when things are too easy. We kind of like when things are challenging. Yeah… I get more confused about the world by the day.
Boy Scout: In a time of faltering news platforms, transient facts and generations who opt for digital currency over great literature, how will the stories of those that came before us survive?
John Holmstrom: I sold my archives to Yale University’s Baeinecke Library in the hopes that it would be the best bet to have them preserved for future generations. I never cared while I was making Punk Magazine, what people would say 20 years from then… but now that it's 40-45 years later, I'm okay with preserving it. But on the other hand, there's an awful lot of culture gets lost over the years. A lot of things fall through the cracks especially in the collective memory. For instance, everybody remembers Elvis Presley but people aren't remembering Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper, and Chuck Berry and other people, so it's all about Elvis. And I just read about Marilyn Monroe, there there's some TV show coming out about her soon and she's bigger than ever. But Gina Lollobrigida, and Jayne Mansfield, and the other sex symbols aren't remembered as much. And that's part of our popular culture…
Boy Scout: With the eradication of many of New York City’s cultural landmarks through hyper-gentrification, an act that seems to be eroding the soul of many cultural capitals, will our artistic heritages henceforth be confined to yellowing newsprint and the libraries of the past?
John Holmstrom: I heard someone say you're probably going to remember the Beatles in a hundred years, and Jimi Hendrix, and a few others. Probably not Jefferson Airplane. You like to think that everything is going to be preserved under glass, but there's so much going on that people have on a day-to-day basis, especially validate, I think they'd paid less attention to the past, which is said. I always had a sense of history growing up. I don't think kids today care so much about what happened in the past. They don't care who killed Kennedy.
Boy Scout: The last couple of years has seen a country divided. Has the current political climate inhibited or infused your work?
John Holmstrom: I always tell people I can't be a Democrat or a Republican because the Democrat President was in power when they put Punk Magazine out of business. And I think the deep state was infiltrating the punk scene the way they did the hippie and hippie team a few years before, especially because we were working with their biggest enemy, Tom Forcade, who founded High Times. And then when I worked at High Times, Republican President George H.W. Bush, one of the worst criminals in history, tried to throw us in jail because we were publishing the magazine. Just the crime of opposing the drug war was enough that the Attorney General wanted to see us all in jail.
So, my work has always been affected by politics. We worked really hard at High Times, not just to legalize recreational marijuana, but also to legalize industrial hemp. You know the marijuana plant, the non-psychoactive strains are very useful for food, fiber, and fuel. Donald Trump just signed a bill that legalizes hemp. Nobody knows about this! It's the biggest news of my lifetime, to date! You know, I worked so hard on this … and it's not even in the news. Instead, they're all focusing on this idiotic government shutdown that nobody's going to remember in five years. In another 5 years the world is going to change because we're going to have legal hemp. I really wish people would get their head out of the news cycle, the current news cycle, and pay more attention to things that are going to last. I've always tried to create work that would be ‘evergreen.’ That that people could appreciate in the future. That's why I never wanted to do political humor, or comment on the event of the day. People just aren't going to understand this in the future. Nobody cares about Nixon, now. .. But people were obsessed with Richard Nixon at the time.
Boy Scout: Has your bravery grown through the ages?
John Holmstrom: My bravery has not grown throughout the ages. Like almost everyone, I would I had no fear as a young person. God, I think back to some of the things I did as a teenager, or even as a young adult, and I'm lucky I'm still alive. I become more cautious. You know, believe it or not it's more dangerous to walk around the streets of New York now that was back in the 70s because of the bicycle. I don't know how many people visit New York, but you have to be really careful crossing the street. There's so many bicycles. it's like Amsterdam when I visited 20 years ago. They just come out of nowhere. And there have been people killed by bicycles in my neighborhood.
Boy Scout:In a media mad world, can sincerity still be a virtue?
John Holmstrom: So, one thing about my work I've always tried to do is to be honest. I really think that the most important thing any artist, or writer, or creator can do is just to try to be true to real life, to capture your reality, and to be honest, It's one of the reasons why I’ve usually done comic strips that are based on life incidents. Like the comic strip interview is perfect… that’s like reality TV. People call it that. That was a reality comic strip. It was something. I was capturing a real-life event. And a lot of comic strips are devoted to fantasies. They're like Star Wars. “Oh, were going to be up in space and fly around to the moon..,” I just can't relate to that stuff. I do prefer documentary films to superhero movies. I'm always trying to figure out what is really going on in the world, and that's to me that the higher calling.
Boy Scout: Abraham Lincoln said: “To summon up our better angels.” What are the words you live by?
John Holmstrom: My hero has always been Voltaire and he's best known for saying “I may disagree completely with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I think that also implies that you need to listen to people you don't agree with. You have to take in all the points of view of a subject. So, you're better informed when you when you make a decision about doing things. It's sort of like if you're going to buy a TV. You want to read the negative reviews of it because of all the reviews about something you're positive but you could end up with a piece of junk that doesn't work when you get at home… and it’s just like that with political events….
Boy Scout: What is your greatest fear?
John Holmstrom: My greatest fear: Living past the time when the atomic bombs drop. I moved to New York so they drop on my head. If you ever saw that movie “The Day After” I think it was called… about what it's like to survive a nuclear war? Yeah, not for me. You know Mad Max? You know, when the world turns to chaos…? I'd rather just jump off a bridge and end it all.
Boy Scout: How would you like to be remembered?
John Holmstrom: When I think about my work, if it will be remembered, and hopefully it will be, I’d like to think the people will think I let an interesting life. I'm actually preparing autobiography about my weird career. and I work with R.L Stine, the Goosebumps author, for many years when he was editor of a kid's humor magazine. I ran into him in San Diego at the Comic Con, and we talked for a while, then I heard him walk off and tell his friends and “You wouldn't believe the weird career that guy has had,” he started naming some of those strange things I do. I mean, the cartoonist to becomes editor and then publisher of High Times Magazine? Not completely unheard of that a cartoonist works as the publisher but… we're a small club. Putting out Stop and Comical Funnies in the 80s when people like Peter Bagge, and Bruce Carlton, Ken Weiner… and I think I've done interesting work. So, I hope people will look at it in that context, aside from … it just seems like everybody knows my work for The Ramones.. but I hope some people with a little closer and see some of the other things I've done. You know, they're just about to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, in New York and they legalized in Massachusetts… and since I worked most of my adult life trying to get it legal, it'd be nice if I could somehow benefit from it. I'm also seeing a lot of marijuana magazines are missing out on the fun…. most of them are business magazines … but people just want to make money from marijuana. Which is bizarre to me since it's not at all the reason people were smoking it in the 60s and 70s.
Boy Scout: You are working on The Stoned Age which is a new zine that will bring back "the fun of 20th century marijuana culture, when it was the choice of hipsters, beatniks, jazz musicians, hippies and other misfits.” It’s also the 40th Anniversary of The Ramones’ Road to Ruin who’s album cover you illustrated. What other projects are you working on now and what does 2019 hold for you?
John Holmstrom: It was always, throughout the 20th century, a totem of rebellion. You know, it was very popular in the Jazz age, when jazz was a very cool underground culture… even though some of the music went very mainstream, there was always that hipster underground. And then, of course, the beatniks and hippies picked up on it. So I think reflecting a lot of that culture, I hope with Stone Age we can just remind people that smoking marijuana is not just about sitting on your couch or watching TV. My Hep Cat cartoon character with David Spade, we did this for High Times in the late 80s… like I said earlier I'm working on an idea for a book and the first book would be about all the work I did leading up to the first issue of Punk. New York City was going bankrupt. Nobody cared. Ford to City: “Drop Dead”…. New York with like an island on its own. It was like living in a different country from America. It was great. People are so fascinated with what New York City was like in the 70s, I think it would be part of that, and part of my life story. Reproduce some of the work I did back then, and hopefully have a few photos, that I haven't seen many graphic novels use photographs… and I would like to mix media.
To learn more about John Holmstrom, visit him here