If we were running down a list of the most famous, and infamous, figures from the epicenter of the fledgling punk rock scene in New York City’s Lower East Side in the mid-1970’s, we’d have to scroll pretty deep into the annals to find the name Phillipe Marcade. Marcade fronted the high-energy blues punk band The Senders that were staples at such legendary venues as CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City for the bulk of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and yet neither the man nor the band really got the credit that they deserved outside a twelve-block radius.
Yet Marcade was every bit as entrenched in the 1970s Lower East Side as any of the Ramones or Debbie Harry or Johnny Thunders or Legs McNeil or any of the others whose names come more easily to mind. In fact, to hear one-and-only McNeil tell it in the Foreward to Marcade’s brand-new book, Punk Avenue: Inside The New York City Underground 1972 – 1982, Marcade, “while not a household name, was friends with everyone at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, and a bona fide member, in good-standing of the New York Punk Rock Scene.”
We caught up with Marcade over the phone from his home in Italy to discuss Punk Avenue and the early NYC punk scene in more detail. Still the purveyor of a heavy Parisian accent, Marcade is equal parts humble and engaging. That he ended up with this particular story to tell is the result of a series of profoundly fascinating circumstances. A native of France, Marcade took a trip to Amsterdam as a teenager that led to a chance encounter with a American traveler named Bruce, which, in turn, eventually resulted in Marcade spending several decades in the Lower East Side, but not before stopovers in Boston, a longer stay in Amsterdam, a hog farm in New Mexico, and…his eighteenth birthday “party” in a Federal Penitentiary in Florence, Arizona. It seems that even in the 1970s, the feds frowned on shipping large quantities of straight hash across state lines…
Marcade might have ended up in the gritty, tough-as-nails Lower East Side in the early 1970s by happy accident, and yet that’s not an entirely bad way to describe the foundation of the scene itself. Given the transient, underground nature of the close-knit, artistic community that found itself magnetically pulled to that neighborhood at that time, it’s not a stretch to say that punk music as we came to know and love it would not — could not — have started anywhere else and come out the same. The thing about living and thriving in the geographical center of a once-in-a-generation social and cultural and artistic movement is that you don’t realize you’re there until you’re gone and the moment has passed. That’s especially true when you’re viewing said geographic center from the wide eyes of an outsider. “I thought it was so magical and exciting,” says Marcade, quickly adding on that he “thought that was probably because I was new in New York, and to everybody else I thought it had always been like that. Only years later did I realize that no, that was a true revolution going on at the time!“
While perhaps unaware of the importance of the movement that he was a direct witness to at the time, Marcade did, at least, recognize sheer talent when he saw it. “I think that the first very important band of the movement, without being in the movement really, was Dr. Feelgood in England. They really changed things around.” Once the music moved toward this side of the pond, the cream quickly rose to the top. Says Marcade: “The Ramones and the Heartbreakers and The Cramps were just amazing groups. I’m so glad I got to see them.” And see them, he did. Especially The Ramones, whom he estimates he saw roughly “a hundred times.” When asked of his insider’s perspective on whether or not Ramones were, indeed, worthy of what’s become iconic, almost mythological status, Marcade answers an emphatic yes. “They were just amazing! They were so good. I never went to a Ramones show and left thinking “eh, that wasn’t that great.” They never ceased to amaze me!”
On the other hand, perhaps not as worthy of her iconic, mythologized status was Nancy Spungen. Marcade knew knew Spungen prior to, and in fact had a hand in encouraging, her fateful 1976 move to London. “I always thought Nancy was kind of a sad soul, a lonely girl,” says Marcade with a hint of sadness present in his voice for the first time in our conversation. “Everybody was so fucking mean to her,” a fact that led to her leaving her heroin-addicted cat (“Oh, that fucking cat!”) with Marcade and heading to London, where she’d eventually, infamously, cross stars with the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious. “I think a lot of people misjudged her because of the way she carried herself, and because of the whole heroin thing. But knowing her before, she was a sweet girl. She was as much a victim as Sid. She was not that “evil woman” that turned poor Sid Vicious on to drugs… I don’t subscribe to that theory!”
There are no shortage of memorable characters and stories and moments peppered throughout Punk Avenue. Truth be told, the four-page glossary of supporting characters is almost overwhelming (and would probably better serve the reader if it appeared as a reference index to refer back to). That Marcade can recall such a large volume of names and faces and coincidences is no small feat in and of itself. “It’s funny,” says Marcade, “because I seem to have a very, very good visual memory, and when I think back to an anecdote like that, I can really remember it well.” As the project neared completion, he fact-checked and cross-referenced some of the stories and their corresponding dates with some of his surviving companions, though most stories required only little tweaks.
Yet the real noteworthy feat is not simply remembering stories, but weaving them together in a way that is fun and funny and sad and personal and gripping, whether you’re a fan of early the early NYC punk scene or not. Marcade not only does exactly that in expert fashion with Punk Avenue, but he does it in a language that’s not his first. It is perhaps that wide-eyed outsider’s perspective that keeps everything fresh and exciting and new and real to the reader, especially when the stories involve such Herculean figures. Aside, maybe, from Please Kill Me, it’s hands-down the best read about the Who, What, When, Where, Why and, especially, the How of the origins of the punk rock scene as we know it. Punk Avenue is out now, and you can pick it up at Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Target but hopefully at an independent bookseller near you!
Head below to read the text of our full half-hour conversation with Marcade. Aside from what’s touched on above, we cover a lot of ground, including the changes (read as: gentrification) in the Lower East Side in the forty years since the dawn of punk civilization, which bands from the scene got unfortunately overlooked, and which more recent bands have carried the torch most surprisingly. The results may surprise you!