Punk Avenue

Punk Avenue: Inside the New York City Underground 1972-1982
By Philippe Marcade
[Three Rooms Press]

I’ll preface this review with an undeniable, capital T Truth: Authors Legs McNeil and Jillian McCain’s 1996 opus, Please Kill Me, is the ne plus ultra of “punk books.” Basically, McNeil and McCain did for the history of NYC punk what Jean Stein and George Plimpton had done for Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick in 1982’s Edie (another must-read). Please Kill Me was an epic, exhaustively researched and artfully sequenced barrage of direct quotes (and nothing but) from everybody who was anybody (excepting the book’s baffling omission of The Cramps) during Manhattan protopunk’s halcyon daze. Simply put, Please Kill Me is the quintessential rock ’n’ roll oral history, perfection, a homerun on the first pitch of the season.

Frenchman/hipster-cum-NYC scenester Philippe Marcade was indeed there, on the lowermost wrung of the hundreds of interviewees in Please Kill Me. I mean, I’ve read the book at least five times in the last 20 year – but I never remembered his name. I’ve been a devotee of NYC protopunk for 40 years and I’ve never had reason to remember his band (punk/blues band The Senders, who seem to have released one all-but-forgotten record [the Seven Song Super Single, which was mostly cover songs] at some point around the end of the ‘70s) – until I read Marcade’s newly released Punk Avenue: Inside the New York City Underground 1972-1982, that is. But when I look back at Please Kill Me, there he is, textualized in black ink for all the world to see. Yep.

So apparently Marcade is a “legend.” Apparently Marcade actually did know everybody who was anyone in the Max’s-to-CBGB era. And Marcade’s Punk Avenue is prefaced and forewarded (respectively) by not one, but two actual NYC protopunk legends: Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Legs McNeil himself. Harry and McNeil actually seem to remember a thing or two about Marcade, even. So (of course) it follows that Marcade’s book is a suitable addendum to Please Kill Me, right?

Well, sure. But then again, not really.

Punk Avenue is to the trove of books about NYC punk what The Senders were to the hordes of NYC punk bands in the Max’s/CBGB era. Of the bands, we had the Ramones, Patti Smith, and Blondie (and I guess the Talking Heads too, if that’s “punk”) on the top of the heap; then The Heartbreakers, the Dead Boys and The Cramps leading the second wave/second tier; Mink Deville around the midpoint of kinda/sorta semi-obscurity I guess; and then we had Genya Ravan, The Shirts and the Tuff Darts (Remember them? I kind of doubt it.) nearing the bottom. Oh yeah, The Senders were below that – somewhere down there beneath the Corpsegrinders and the Sic Fucks and the Helen Wheels Band, down there in that weird neighborhood where Punk Avenue crossed over to wrong side of the tracks, if you will.

Punk Avenue is a somewhat entertaining memoir of a bygone era written by an eccentric-enough, cool-enough and interesting-enough guy (I mean, he really was there and everything.) who is not an especially good writer. And Marcade has certainly spent way too much time reminiscing about the glory days. As such, the “legendary” tales of the book veer into the realm of the mythological. This guy has some good stories, really. But he’s expounded, exaggerated and inflated them miles beyond the point of credibility so many times over that he has probably convinced himself they’re true.

OK, so now I’ll offer a paradigmatic example of one of the tall tales that Marcade passes off as Truth. There’s a certain matter of Nancy Spungeon’s cat that Marcade adopted when Spungeon departed for her ill-fated date with destiny/Sid in London.

Marcade writes: “Unfortunately, the cat [like Spungeon] was a junkie too! He was completely hooked on heroin – I’m not joking. Nancy told me she had left dirty spoons in the sink too often, and the poor creature must have been attracted by the smell, or the taste [of heroin], or something. It would go lick the spoons as soon as she [Spungeon] was done with them. If heroin can hook a person so easily, it must have not taken much for a cat, and before long he was desperately looking for dirty spoons everywhere.”

Oh, Philippe. Please.

OK, I’ll fess up here. I myself have had dalliances with Mr. Brownstone and I know how things work. They don’t call junkies “dope fiends” for nothing. They are fiends for dope. This is to say that no dope fiend leaves heroin residue in a spoon after they’ve cooked up. Said spoons are coveted and later scoured for a “rinse,” a residue shot, that is – or at least licked clean by the dope fiends themselves. (And from what I hear, Spungeon wasn’t averse to licking things, either.) As such, there is no dope residue left in spoons for cats to lick. And as such, there are no heroin-addicted cats, even in Nancy Spungeon’s house.

Punk Avenue is chock full of such embellishments. I mean, well, sure: Marcade certainly had a grande olde time in the bad old days. But much of Marcade’s misguided, overblown “history” is bluster and hyperbole. Sure, Marcade’s a cuddly kook who tells good stories. But Marcade’s cuddly kookiness is just not enough to charm and/or cajole the reader into believing too much of his account.

As per his recounting, Marcade arrived in the U.S. as a hippie vagabond from his native France in 1972. From the moment he deplaned, America was the Land of Opportunity, a nonstop barrage of cheap highs and easy lays. “The pill already existed but AIDS didn’t yet,” writes Marcade. “American girls were [sexually] liberating themselves, and I was happy to help.” Oh, Philippe. Again, well, please.

After a wacky period of bumming around the U.S., Marcade ended up in NYC in the mid ’70s, where he rubbed elbows (and perhaps exchanged bodily fluids) with a cadre of well-known, sorta-known and unknown punker types. And of course, anybody who claims to have been buddies with Johnny Thunders probably had similar, ahem, “hobbies.” And what begins as a hobby inevitably turns into a fulltime job.

And what is (not so) oddly elided from all of this account are the matters of employment and finance. I mean, living in Manhattan wasn’t exactly cheap – even before gentrification. And heroin sure as hell wasn’t free, no matter who you knew, what band you were in or how “elegantly wasted” you seemed to be. (Even Johnny Thunders’ simulacrum of Keith Richards didn’t always yield free dope.) My hunch is that Marcade shared the real dirty little secret of longtime bohemian/junkie types the world over: money from home. Of course, money from home doesn’t sound very punk.

Punk Avenue follows the usual trajectory of rock ’n’ roll and addiction memoirs (which are usually more or less the same): Pride cometh before a fall and all that. So Marcade played in an obscure band and had a couple of decades of couch-surfing, bed-hopping, skin-popping fun, only to wind up strung out and penniless. Thankfully, Marcade doesn’t get too heavy-handed with the post-addiction, paybacks-are-hell to, aargh, “redemption” thing. My vibe is that he had a great time fighting the proverbial good fight in endless wars of sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll – and only quit because he had to. Well enough. At least Marcade hasn’t followed the easy (and probably much more profitable) route to become a preacher, a 12-step goose-stepper or a new age life coach.

Marcade had great hair back in the day, and he’s still a charming scoundrel, a roue par excellence. And yeah, there are a couple or three cheap laughs to be had along Punk Avenue. So, even though the book is amateurishly written (and chock full of exclamation points!!!) and frequently veers far, far from the believability zone, it’s still a fun, funny, and fucking fast read, a Saturday afternoon well spent. I can’t say I regret going there – just as I don’t regret buying those bondage pants at Manic Panic back in ‘81. But please kill me if you see me strolling back toward Punk Avenue again anytime soon.