Phil Marcade’s ’70s NY Punk Memoir Is the Stuff of Legend

(L-R): Steve Shevlin, Johnny Thunders, and author Phil Marcade, 1979. Marcia Resnick

Phillipe Marcade is the coolest old motherfucker you’ve never heard of.

With his “Maximum Rythym and Blues” outfit The Senders, Marcade took 1977 Downtown New York to bed with him, crossing a territorial threshold between the CBGB and Max’s Kansas City scenes to get the crusty, wide-eyed lovers dancing.

Nowadays, when punk aesthetics and ideologies are studied, archived and presented in curated museum shows, Marcade’s new memoir, Punk Avenue, is a timely gem. His words fill the page with meaning but never overstay their welcome, illuminating untold stories, different scenes, and missing links between the hippies and the punks, between black American music and the reclamation of a three-minute sonic spike to the vein. This is uncluttered, unordained prose.

Though Marcade has a lot of sex and does a lot of drugs between the lines of Punk Avenue, the hedonism and self-obsessed decadence that has muddied otherwise valuable histories of the ’70s-era Downtown scene is largely absent in his memoir.

Stories like bumping heroin for the first time with New York Dolls-era Johnny Thunders and Marcade blaming himself for recommending Nancy Spungen head to London to find a musician boyfriend are taken in healthy hindsight, never fetishized or vilified.

After Spungen leaves Marcade with her cat, he soon discovers the cat is in withdrawal, likely having become addicted from licking Spungen’s dirty cooking spoons as they sat, waiting to be washed, in her sink. In one particularly sordid tale, Blondie’s then-drummer Clem Burke finds a dead, frozen bum outside the band’s loft, Debbie Harry and the rest of the band all run downstairs to get a glimpse, quickly return with a “did you get a load of that?!”, and resume watching TV.

There’s a sentiment put forth by BBC found footage documentarian Adam Curtis in his 2016 film Hypernormalisation that in 1975, when New York City ran out of money and the city’s government was bailed out by banks, corporate interests began to run the city, while the punks just sat on the sidelines, shooting up and fucking off. While their apocalyptic wasteland was slowly stolen away from them by monied interests and capitalist excess, even the disco kids started to get hip. By ’78, Marcade notes, Macy’s was already selling pink spandex T-shirts with safety pins on them. Whether or not he and his kind should bear any responsibility for this is a moot point, in hindsight.

Romance surrounds an epic road trip early on in Punk Avenue, when Marcade’s riding through New York and sees the busted up buildings, the trash everywhere. Looking at the lights reflected in the puddles on the street, he’s enraptured. For this Frenchman, the whole city and the work he made in it were all part of life’s great, lovely surprise. This sense of wonder lends his words that considerable sense of romance, but again, not fetishization. Marcade can’t count the number of friends killed by AIDS and heroin. He wonders why people weren’t nicer to Spungen, and feels she was treated very unfairly, particularly after her death. Most of all, however, he’s proud to report that he had a lot of fun.

The Observer caught up with Marcade recently to ask what he thinks has been left out of the collective narrative ahead of tonight’s “May Day 2: Punk Rock All Stars”, the Punk Avenue launch party at Le Poisson Rouge featuring  Patti Smith Group’s Lenny Kaye, founding Dictators member Andy Shernoff, Walter Lure of Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers, Punk Magazine‘s Legs McNeil, and maybe even some special guests.

How are you feeling? I heard your trip back took a little longer than you planned.

I have no idea why, they scared the shit out of me! I was taken in a room, I was held with the terrorists! But I think it was just some verification. I have no idea why, and was temped to ask, but when they told me, “You can go,” I thought I’d just be on my way. [Laughs] It’s very strange. I lived in America for 40 years and its never happened before.

It’s clear that they never found the hash you hid in the Grand Canyon.

It’s funny you’re saying that, it was one of the things going through my head at the airport—”Is it about that, about that bust in ’72?!”

Well this book does a good job at covering a lot of ground quickly—the prose is straightforward and the anecdotes aren’t too flowery or ornate. It’s like Johnny Thunders said, “You can’t put your arm around a memory.” There’s something writers can learn by that.

I wrote it the way I would just talk, and my memory’s very visual. It’s just everything I did without thinking about it, to start. However it came out, it came out.

That first time you went to jail is kind of crucial to your biography because you turned 18 in there.

Yeah, it’s a scary thing to happen to you, when you look more like 15 to 16. I was growing up real fast that very day! [Laughs] It’s terrifying, that feeling that your freedom it gone. You feel like saying, “Listen, guys, this is kind of cool, but I think I’m gonna go home,” until you realize you can’t. Very heavy.

(L-R) Phil and Stiv Bators of The Dead Boys. Eileen Polk

The creator of Orange Sunshine, Nicholas Sand, acid passed away last week, and left behind an incredible legacy of epiphany to those who tried his batches. You talk about Orange Sunshine, and also make it clear very early on that the hippies and the protopunks were friends. The anarchists and revolutionaries bust you out of jail, take you in, and they’re obviously products of the Aquarian Age. For a lot of us who read about the Beats as they connect to the Hippies, the connection between Hippies and Punks seems less clear.

I’m really glad you noticed that, because I didn’t really give it much thought. In retrospect, it was very interesting from ’72 to ’82—a lot of people have the notion that punk rock is anti-hippie, which is right, but they don’t realize it was the same kids! Most of the punks were hippies a few years before, the hippies who cut their hair and moved on to a new movement. For me it was especially magical because this movement was starting, but also, I’d just arrived from France. The culture shock was double for me, and New York was brand new. It didn’t really occur to me at the time that there was revolution going on at the time, that it was new to everybody.

But even the sordid shit, you remember so fondly. You tell a story about the disco fan who comes to Max’s, and your girlfriend at the time pukes all over him.

[Laughs] I think that’s my personality, I’ve been told that so many times. I see something funny even in the most terrible disaster, it cracks me up. And it helped me through my own life, that everything makes me laugh, to a certain degree. I wasn’t laughing that much in jail, but everything else I thought was funny, I tell to other people and they say, well, it was also a very dark time with drugs and decadence. I never saw it that way! I thought it was just really fun. [Laughs]

Well Johnny Thunders gave you your first bump of heroin in Boston, and you guys had such a friendly, loving relationship. He was like family to you, and the drug use was a social thing, not a “retreat to your room and shoot up alone” thing. You contrast your drug use with Nancy Spungen’s in this book, because she shot up by herself so much.

It’s still hard for me to believe how incredibly naive I was, and all these people I knew, too. I had no idea what the hell I was getting myself into, and boy, did I live to regret it. But yeah, it was part of the fun. People told me that doing heroin was for people with miserable lives, just trying to kill their pain. I never felt that way at all! I just took it because my friends were and thought, well, I’ll try it, too! But I was never depressed, and had a very happy childhood. [Laughs]

“[W]hen the clubs are invaded by the same lame kids that were calling me a faggot when I had long hair who now have the zippers and the safety pins, I thought, ‘That’s it then, it’s been ruined.’ “

You talk about that old man Coney, and it sounds like you really wanted to grow old. You saw him and thought, this dude is so old, but he still gets stoned and tells his stories.

I was so amazed by Coney, it was just a very strong thing for me to meet him. The fact that he was 97! In a way, and I wasn’t thinking this when I wrote the book, but reading it back after I kind of realized he’s a bit of a metaphor. Coney old man is now me, telling old stories, smoking a joint! [Laughs]

I don’t know how you kept your cool, because you talked about how much of a crush you had on Debbie Harry, but you helped her write the French lyric to “Denis” and were so cool about it.

You have to keep in mind that Chris, her boyfriend, was sitting right next to her when I helped them with [The French lyrics to] “Denis.” And by that time, it was completely accepted by me that they were very much in love, that they were a great couple, and so I could just forget about thinking that she might become my girlfriend. But I was very excited that she asked for my help with a French lyric, it was a joy.

You also mention that making The Senders music steer more toward black American R&B was more punk than punk itself.

Before that word first existed, and when it was first starting, I’d actually cut my hair very, very short, and wore leather pants. Look at the picture and it’s completely punk, but I didn’t think of it that way. Then by the time it really became a movement, it became a fashion, over-commercialized very quickly. I felt that true punk should say “fuck you” to everything, including the punk movement. So any punk rocker who said, “I’m a punk rocker,” that’s it. You’re not anymore. To have the attitude that you’re not a punk rocker meant you actually were, but you couldn’t admit that. To have the nerve to say “fuck punk” was punk itself. How punk can you be if you like it?

Well even earlier, you’re in Provincetown with John Waters immersing yourself in 45″ culture. Do you think the camp of the gay scene back then was an influence on your own music with The Senders? The novelty of those old singles, the humor seems to have worked its way into New York punk.

Absolutely, yes! John Waters and his people from Baltimore were really the pre-punk school, and they were really bringing the change. It’s often like this in the punk fashion—it starts with very cool gay people with a great sense of style, finding clothes in thrift shops and stitching things together because they bought them for 50 cents, then the style is copied. But it’s always starting on the streets, and the gay crowd pioneered that style. It’s not talked about too much.

Something that often gets left out of the discussion is the fact that you could already find pink spandex T-shirts with zippers on them in Macy’s by the late ’70s.

I wanted to point that out because I thought people might not realize so much. And really, when the clubs are invaded by the same lame kids that were calling me a faggot when I had long hair who now have the zippers and the safety pins, I thought, “That’s it then, it’s been ruined.” That’s the same with every rock and roll movement. [Laughs]

(L-R) Steve, Phil, and Bill, The Senders, in 1979. Three Rooms Press

Well the legitimate aesthetic remnants of your time are all archived now as fine art, because not everyone saved handbills from shows. You have that great bit about how punk posters were just rip offs of old rockabilly posters toward the end because it was cheap, and no one was thinking about preservation. Now there’s a big coffee table book on The Sex Pistols, and part of the bathroom at CB’s was recreated at The Met a few years ago.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, the way you see it? All this stuff was natural, but a lot of people don’t realize how much the punk movement was also very much part of the vibe of the ’50s. Bring back the three-minute-song formula, bring back the savage rockabilly attitude. There was a lot we took from that, and it’s not mentioned too often. And yeah, the graphics were because nobody had any equipment to do them right. As soon as it became a style, like everything else, it lost a bit of its originality.

It’s funny, too, because a lot of the great ’60s bands were co-opting black American music in a different way, stretching it out and making it into these epic long journeys. I think you mention “Goin’ Home” off Aftermath UK. From that viewpoint, the American punks kind of took it back.

Yes, it’s very true. In the mid-’70s, FM radio watered down rock and roll with all these bands like YES or Emerson, Lake & Palmer with half-an-hour drum solos. When I first saw The Ramones I realized they brought back the excitement, and that’s what I meant by having a connection with rock from the ’50s. Suddenly it was very simple again, like it once was. And so there’s something a bit retro about the beginning of punk rock, you know?

A little later on in the book you talk about the territorial tensions that arose between the Max’s Kansas City scene and the CBGB scene, both very informed by geography. It makes sense that some of the bands who played at Max’s were a tad bit more avant-garde or arty considering it was a slightly more uptown crowd, especially during the day. 

Totally! And even the inside of Max’s told that story! Upstairs was a bit more chic, with the tablecloths that used to be Andy Warhol’s scene. And CB’s was dirty on The Bowery. Two places 10 minutes away from each other, but completely different worlds.

You call Nancy Spungen a “Punk Cinderella” and say that most people didn’t recognize how earnestly she wanted to fit in, that she got shit on because she wasn’t as good looking, between how much she used, between her cursing. And that story about taking her cat while it withdraws from heroin is fucking insane.

Yeah, it always bothered me a little bit how people were always so mean to her. In the books later on, she’s portrayed as a horrible person, so I wanted to make a point that she was a sad soul. She was a lonely girl, depressed, but a nice person. She could also be very funny. And I don’t understand why people put her down so much. Some people put her down for being ugly, but so what? Isn’t that the idea of punk rock? Have you ever seen Animal House? Every reject, every loser is most welcome! Not being pretty enough to be in punk rock doesn’t make sense to me.

You say that you’d like to take the occasion of the book as an opportunity to formally apologize to The Sex Pistols for recommending that Nancy go to London.

[Laughs] I couldn’t help this, because of course everybody relates her going to London to the beginning of disaster.

How do you keep your pulse on the transforming music economy in New York right now?

Well The Senders stopped playing live 16 years ago, in 2001, quite a while ago. Rock and roll is a youth movement. If someone asks me who’s good now, I’m proud to say I don’t know, and that’s a good thing, because I’m 62! If I like something, it’s not great. There’s that old cliche, if your parents like it, it’s not rock and roll! [Laughs] But I hear things, I see there are some cool bands playing in caves somewhere, and that’s what’s great. I’m glad to be out of step, and I leave that to the younger crowd with much respect.

How does it feel now, having written all these stories out?

My friends call me motormouth because I love to talk, I love to tell stories. Somebody asked me if it was painful to write this book and I said, “Yes, it was painful. I had to sit on my ass in a chair for five months, and put a pillow down after a while!”

Do you think James Chance would have any good advice for today’s young artists about making sure they get paid for a show?

[Laughs] Yes. Throw a trash can through the window. But I don’t know if he could, because we didn’t get paid that night. We got stiffed, we got zero! But I was amused by his fit of anger.