DS Exclusive: Phil Marcade (The Senders) on The Ramones, Nancy Spungen and the cast of characters on “Punk Avenue”

 

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!

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Thank you very much for this – I consider it an honor to be able to talk to you. And congratulations on the book. I’ve read it cover-to-cover twice now and I’m now on my third time through because…

Phil Marcade (author, Punk Avenue): You’re joking!

No, I’m not joking at all. I got it in the mail shortly after the holidays and read through it pretty quickly, and then I wanted to read it again to get a little deeper knowing that we might be talking one day. I find it to be raw and uncomfortable sometimes, but you’ve got such a positive and humorous way of writing and talking about things that I find it to be a very fun and compelling read.

Well thank you very much. I’m very touched by that. Thank you!

You’ve obviously had these stories kicking around for a long time…what was the impetus for compiling everything and writing the book in 2017?

Well, what happened is that the idea was kind of turning around in my head for a few years that I wanted to do it. I started by taking a little notebook in my pocket everywhere I went, and I made little notes whenever a funny anecdote would come to mind so I could remember it. I wanted to see if I would have enough to fill up a book, so I just made a whole list of anecdotes, and then I just let time pass by. I wasn’t sure when to start (writing the book). And then, actually, I got motivated by my nephew. His name is Pierre, and he lives in France, and he was asking me questions over email about Max’s and CBGB’s and was very interested by that whole scene. So I started to write a few chapters and sent them to him. He loved them! So having an audience really helped me with getting the work done. I would write about thirty pages and send it to him, and the whole book went like this. It kept me going for about four months.

I was wondering how you were able to — I don’t even want to say recall all of those stories, but there is so much detail and there are so many people involved. The copy that I received has the glossary of who’s who, but I almost wish it had a proper index so I could go back and figure out where everybody overlapped. But I’m glad that you brought up that you started with the notebook, because I was curious how you could possibly recall all of those stories and the people that you came across. It was not just impressive but really staggering.

Thank you! It’s funny, 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. The part that I find the most difficult is to put it in the exact time. It was a good job for me to verify all that on the internet afterward. For example, I say at one point that we stopped at the inauguration of Richard Nixon, so I’m checking the dates and yup! I was right. Sometimes I questioned my memory, but it seems that everything that I remembered was right. Little by little I made corrections, or I remembered something slightly wrong. It was really fun to do.

Did you reach out to any of the other people that were involved to verify some of your dates or some of your memories, or see if you got things correct?

Yes, as a matter of fact, there’s a funny incident that happened. One of the main characters is Bruce, my friend that I met in Amsterdam. I wrote the whole thing without talking to him, and since he’s in the book so much and we talk about some stuff that’s…illegal…I wanted his permission. So I called him up on the phone and I told him I wrote this book and he said “that’s fabulous! Read me a little of it!” I didn’t know where to begin, so I just started with the very first page. I read to him that it was my eighteenth birthday and I was transferred from the jail to this other penitentiary in Tempe, Arizona. And he cut me off and said “is this going to be published?” So I thought “uh oh…” I said “yes, why?” And he said “are you out of your mind?” I said “oh, you don’t want me to talk about that we were busted?” And he said “oh no, that’s fine, but the jail was in the town of Florence!” (*both laugh*) I was very relieved that he was fine with the book, and very happy that he had corrected a terrible mistake I made in the third line of the book! (*both laugh*) I talked also to my ex-wife about it and I talked to a few other people who were in the book about it and they were all very happy. I was glad they could confirm some of my stories, so that was cool.

The ‘70s in Manhattan, specifically the Lower East Side, was obviously the epicenter of such a large social and cultural movement, and we really haven’t had a movement like that since then except for maybe Seattle. I’m always curious to hear people that were there, and when they exactly realized that they were in the middle of something that was really interesting and compelling and not like something going on anywhere else. Is that a thing that you were conscious of at the time, or was it not until months or years later…

Not at all! Not at all, and I’ll tell you why. I was not conscious of it because I had just arrived in the States, especially in New York. I thought it was so magical and exciting, but I 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! But since I was brand new to the scene, I was brand new and I didn’t really realize it. But indeed, it was quite incredible, and thinking back on it, what made it so special is that it was such a small scene. Everybody knew each other’s name. There might have been two hundred people, at most, at Max’s and CB’s. It was a small scene of locals. So no, I didn’t realize there was anything revolutionary going on while it was going on…I thought it was just (revolutionary) for me!

One of the things that really comes across in the book is how small but I guess how diverse the scene was. I wasn’t born until the very end of the 1970s so I obviously wasn’t around, but I think we have this romanticized view of that scene and how it revolved around bands that sound like Ramones or like The Dead Boys, but it was really more diverse than just those “punk” punk bands.

Yes absolutely! I totally agree with you!

That is something that really comes across that I think gets overlooked otherwise. The Senders, for example, are not a traditional “punk rock band” by any stretch of the imagination, but you were right there in the middle of the whole scene.

It’s true. I think that at the time when I first heard the term “punk” was through Punk Magazine, so to me, it kinda meant underground, New York, maybe if there was a style it was short hair and not very professional, not very polished, not very skilled musicians. That’s all it meant. Nobody was in the same style as another band. Nobody really knew who was “punk.” I think that all became clearer after the punk wave in England. Then, it was like “yeah, that’s punk.” But the Ramones had Beatles haircuts. Nobody thought of them as being “punk”…or at least I didn’t.  And then you had stuff like Talking Heads, or Blondie…that wasn’t “punk” at all. So it was very mixed indeed. A lot of different styles at the same time. But now, when I hear the term punk, I think 70s or early 80s New York or London, but it took a lot of years to define that image. It didn’t feel like that back then to me at all. It’s funny, because when punk became more popular, in the ‘80s, I hated the term. It had become so overly commercial. Everybody had safety pins on! (*laughs*) As time has passed, I love the term again, but for a while it was just kinda lame! (*both laugh*)

Were there other bands at CB’s or at Max’s that, for whatever reason, never took off the way that Ramones or Talking Heads or Blondie did that you were always sort of curious about why they never got bigger than they were? I think that The Senders would certainly qualify as one of those bands, but are there others that while you were watching them, you were confused about why they never got big?

Oh yes, so many. There were so many bands that I admired so much that never got anywhere. The first thing that came to mind was Buzz And The Flyers. They were tremendous! They were an incredibly good rockabilly band and I thought they would be huge. Also, a lot of bands like The Victims. In the late 70s, there were so many that were great but that never got mentioned or that have been forgotten but were truly great.

Have you been back to the Lower East Side much in recent years? I know that obviously CB’s shut down and Max’s shut down, but what are your thoughts on the gentrification of that area? Even Alphabet City is not what Alphabet City used to be!

Yeah, to say the least! (*laughs*) It’s amazing. I never go to that neighborhood much anymore. Before I left, a friend from Europe came to visit me, and I took them to Avenue B and I couldn’t believe it! It was all yuppie restaurants and stuff. The last time I had been down there, it was very dangerous! There was nothing to do there but cop heroin. It was not a place to put a restaurant! (*laughs*) It’s amazing how much it’s changed, and I find it a bit sad. It seems to me that so many cool people got pushed out of the Lower East Side and moved to Brooklyn or Queens. Like myself, I lived in Queens for fifteen years because my rent became too much. I was living between Avenue A and Avenue B for twenty years or so, and I had to move out. All my friends too. It improved, maybe, the quality of life, but it lost a lot of the artistic life. All of the musicians and artists moved out, which is a shame, because there was such a cool community there before. Everybody was within three or four blocks of each other and that really made a cool scene, but I guess they all went to Brooklyn now! (*both laugh*) You’ve got to be very rich now to live in Manhattan. It’s crazy.

Right. And I’m calling from just outside Boston, and we’ve gone through the same thing. The Rat, which you reference early on in the book, got turned into a luxury hotel years ago…

…No…

Yeah. And whatever was left of that part of the Boston scene has long since gone away.

Oh man. I didn’t know that The Rat was gone.

Yeah, that building got sold to Boston University and they basically leveled the whole block and turned it into a luxury hotel.

I haven’t thought about that place in a while. I’m really sad to hear that. And you know, it’s the exact same thing on the Lower East Side. NYU bought most of the buildings and turned them into expensive rent for students that have rich parents! (*both laugh*) That’s nice for them, but not for us!

Yeah, and I honestly have mixed feelings about it. Like you said, the art and the community and the grit are gone, and yet, the city (Boston) itself is much safer. You can walk around at all hours of the day and night and not take your life into your hands in some of those old neighborhoods, so it’s a double-edged sword.

Exactly! It’s good and bad. It’s too bad it wasn’t safe like that when we were living there. But now, all my friends moved to Brooklyn — to Williamsburg — and that’s alright. It’s less dangerous than it was in 1980. But it’s a shame. It’s beautiful! It’s very nice, but it’s impossible to afford! Not when you’re a chick playing in a band or a painter or something!

One of the characters that I find most compelling in the book — well, she’s not a character, she’s a real person — was Nancy Spungen. She and her relationship with Sid have obviously been mythologized over the last forty years, but you knew her at a very different time. I was really fascinated by the way that she wove in and out of the early third of the book. You knew her differently than the public does now, and you even took over her heroin-addicted cat! That’s fascinating!

(*laughs*) That fucking cat! (*both laugh*) It’s funny, because I always thought Nancy was kind of a sad soul, a lonely girl. She wasn’t that pretty. Everybody was so fucking mean to her. And then, I read an interview with Johnny Rotten saying “ah, she worked as a prostitute and she was ugly.” And I thought, ‘what’s the matter with him? He’s supposed to be the king of punk rockers and he’s putting her down for not being pretty?’ I mean, come on! (*laughs*) What, you have to be a top model to be a punk rocker? But yes, 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. She was not that “evil woman” that turned poor Sid Vicious on to drugs… I don’t subscribe to that theory! (*laughs*) She was really, very nice.

And I think the thing that we lose sight of is that she was twenty years old when she died. So it’s not like she had this whole long history and legend…she was still in many ways a child.

Exactly. It all just went so quick.

The whole mythological thing that a lot of them — the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, bands like that — developed over the years, does some of that seem a little bizarre to you? Or were bands like that mythologized for good reason? Were they really just THAT compelling?

The Sex Pistols I couldn’t tell you so much because I never saw them. I did meet Sid, but the most I actually saw of the Sex Pistols was on TV. The Ramones however I saw a hundred times. With the years that have passed, I think that their notoriety is totally deserved. They were just amazing! They were so good! The only thing I thing that I think people kind of reproached the Ramones about in America after a while was that it was a bit too much repetition. It was always a bit the same. But what a trip! I never went to a Ramones show and left thinking “eh, that wasn’t that great.” They never ceased to amaze me. And so indeed, they deserve that notoriety. Joey Ramone deserves a street named after him, totally! And I saw things change. 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. Then the Ramones and the Heartbreakers and The Cramps were just amazing groups. I’m so glad I got to see them.

Are there bands or scenes that you’ve come across over the last, let’s say twenty years, that remind you of the old days? A new scene that you’ve noticed burgeoning somewhere else or bands that carried on the legacy of the Lower East Side in the 70s, or is that gone?

Well that depends. In a way, I feel that I’m a bit out of touch, but hey…I’m 62! I think it’s god that I’m out of touch! (*both laugh*) I’m sure that there are some kids, some teenagers now some place doing something that’s completely unknown that will be known and great. But in more recent years, bands that I’ve seen more recently, I really love Daddy Long Legs. They’re a great band. I also really liked about ten years ago — shit, I forgot their name — that band from Sweden. Shit…they really, really followed the spirit…they had that hit “Don’t Say I Told You So” or something like that?

Oh…damnit…is it The Hives?

Yes! Of course! The Hives! I thought they were fabulous, and I thought they were very much in the spirit of the old scene. They totally got it.

Wow…that was a great song and a great album and I think I forgot about them for about half a decade until right now.

Thanks for remembering! That would have driven me crazy all night!

They had a sort of mod, British look to them, so I think I forgot they were Swedish, but you’re exactly right. I don’t want to take up too much of your evening — my afternoon — but thank you so much for talking. I could probably pick your brain for hours. Have you gotten a lot of positive feedback about the book yet? I know it’s not out yet, and there are the obvious quotes on the back of the book, but have you heard other cool feedback from people about it yet?

Yes, so far it’s been all good. Which is good, because it’s pretty terrifying. You don’t know if you’re going to put something out and have people hate it and think it’s crap. It’s very encouraging, what I’ve heard from friends to far. But again, they’re friends, so you never know if they’re just saying it to be nice. But people that I don’t know have given it positive reviews as well, so I’m very enthusiastic about that. I hope it stays like that for a while! Probably not, but… (*laughs*)


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