In our day, ‘Punk’ has become a genre, and a fairly wide-open one at that. In its original sense though, ‘Punk’ was a scene, and Phil Marcade, the author of the memoir Punk Avenue was right in the middle of it. More specifically, he was sort of a Zelig figure, often the catalyst of movements in the scene, or he at least somewhere in the picture.
As Legs McNeil, co-founder of the legendary Punk publication and co-author of the Punk tell-all Please Kill Me, says in the foreword, “If I was ever going to direct a movie of Please Kill Me… I would put Philippe Marcade in the background of every scene, giggling with some exotic French Beauty — just like in real life.” Punk Avenue is the story of a naïve young man looking for simple fun, accidentally fumbling through a music revolution, and in the meantime becoming a symbol for the rise and fall of a scene.
Marcade is smart enough to know that the typical reader of a book called Punk Avenue is not really looking for his life story, so he fills it with close analysis and commentary on the people of a scene we think we already know. Well, we know the names of the preeminent characters of this story, and we know their music, but the twist is that Marcade knew them when they were just some unknown kids causing trouble. The Ramones, Johnny Thunders and the rest of the New York Dolls, Nancy Spungen, Sable Starr, Debbie Harry, and so many more each have their places in this book.
The most illuminating information comes in the form of Marcade’s sober re-tellings of now legendary people living their daily life at the time. We get to hear about the Ramones at their first ever performance, which just so happens to have been a “Welcome to New York” party hosted for the author himself. We get to attend Thanksgiving dinner at Johnny Thunders’ mom’s house. We also get detailed descriptions of the culture of the scene from within both Max’s Kansas City and CBGB.
Nancy Spungen gets the most bittersweet stories here. They are laugh out loud hilarious but sad at their core due to Spungen’s incessant struggle with addiction. One story involves Marcade taking care of Spungen’s cat, who had become an addict from licking dirty dope spoons in Spungen’s apartment, and, as Marcade tells us, he still has the scars from the situation to this day. Fortunately, he says, he and the cat made up and became amiable.
Later, we get to see Sid Vicious and Nancy together as they bump into Marcade in front of The Chelsea hotel as Marcade was on an innocent errand to pick up a vacuum for his then girlfriend. Sid and Nancy, being hopeless addicts, thought ‘Vacuum Cleaner’ was New York slang for dope. Marcade adds, “There I was trying to explain to Sid Vicious what a vacuum cleaner was!” The book is loaded with funny little anecdotes like this, and that is where the book excels.
As a point of comparison, I read Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and I must say, as far as the history of Punk goes, Punk Avenue is barren in comparison. Please Kill Me is the story of Punk from the proto-punk of the late 60’s to “The Year Punk Broke” in the early ’90s, and it’s told by the people that lived it. McNeil and McCain collected hundreds of interviews and meticulously organized them into time and topic, creating a fast-paced, quirky, and wide view of the scene from the beginnings to the house-fire it became. If you’re looking for the story of Punk, Please Kill Me is highly recommended. If you have already read it and are looking for more, you could do much worse than Punk Avenue, which offers a more personal, myopic view of the scene.
From all the reading of the ’70s-era New York Punk scene I’ve done over the years, one theme rings louder than the rest: Heroin. Marcade doesn’t shy away from the subject. From the beginning to the middle, Marcade sees the drug as recreational, just as many of his peers did at that time. By the third quarter of the book, he comes to a realization: he’s a junkie. This broke up a romantic relationship, and it also broke up his band.
Although literally history, I see Marcade’s story as an allegory for the scene itself. It started out so naïve, a culture of ‘no’ where society wanted a ‘yes’, and when talking about drugs, the opposite. Marcade was the embodiment of this culture, from its rise to its fall. Punk Avenue chronicles all of this from one human’s perception, and it’s worth reading for that reason.