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Punk Avenue: An interview
with Philippe Marcade

 

by Thomas Dimopoulos 

 

Philippe Marcade spent a good deal of his European youth on the run.

He’d been chased along the Boulevard Montparnasse by a barber from whom he’d snatched a mannequin’s wig, pursued through the Paris meatpacking district by beef-flinging butchers repelled by his long hair and hunted by holy men after venturing into the Forbidden Area of the Notre Dame. And he was just getting started.

America offered a new landscape to explore - much of it on a cross-country zag in a beat-up hippie van purchased from a Hare Krishna for a hundred bucks, and sustained by all-you-can-eat restaurants, drive-in cinemas, and gas siphoned from other cars through plastic tubes. Unfortunately, Marcade’s modern-day Kerouacking ended up landing him in a Federal Penitentiary in Arizona on his 18th birthday. And there was also an ill-advised journey up the mountains of Franconia in New Hampshire, fueled by pot and the immortality of youth, which resulted in a 100-foot spiral down a cliff, a cracked jaw, and a tearing of skin ripped to the bone.   

“Jee-zus, you have as many lives as a cat,” I offer, after reading of his young escapades published in his memoir, Punk Avenue.   

“Nine lives,” Marcade says with a laugh, his words laced with the French undertones of his upbringing. “You say I have nine lives, but you know our drummer Marc (Bourset) used to tell me that when I fell off that mountain I actually had died, and was now living in the afterlife, hahaha.” Bourset, the long-time drummer of Marcade’s band, The Senders, passed away a few years ago. The band’s guitarist, “Wild Bill” Thompson, died in December.       

“I still have a hard time absorbing it,” says Marcade, who today makes his home in Italy. “At first it’s a shock but then comes the day when you realize we aren’t going to talk anymore. It’s very strange.” 

He says shaking loose memories of his young pre-New York days gave him the greatest kicks while putting together the book, but with the reader in mind, he treaded among those years lightly. “I thought I should not let that part go on for too long because I’m not a celebrity and nobody would want to read this,” he explains. “The reader would think, ‘We don’t give a fuck about your story!’ So I thought I should get to the New York part pretty quick.”

Marcade arrived in New York City in 1975, moved into the Chelsea Hotel and a year later with bassist Steve Shevlin formed The Senders. Shucking his drum kit in favor of a role as lead singer, Marcade cut a striking figure at center stage, draped in a black leather jacket and fronting the shake, rattle and roll of the band’s sonic abundance of punk blues, which would continue on and off, into the new millennium. Some nights were pure magic. 

“Nothing beats the feeling of a good audience that’s right in front of you,” Marcade writes. “We weren’t just there to play music; everyone in the audience had to go home soaked, messed up, worn out.” 

Living in New York City, Marcade serendipitously found himself in a cultural scene unfurling before his own eyes. “When I first came to New York I used to go to the club Mother’s. This was before CBGB’s or Max’s. I remember seeing all these bands and feeling that it was so exciting. But, I also felt that I had missed the Great 1960s, and all that was left were some little local bands and a very small local scene,” he says. “It never occurred to me that this was history in the making and that some of these bands would become huge.”   

He witnessed The Ramones playing their third-ever gig — “the most anti-hippie band I had ever seen, the future of American rock ‘n’ roll!” — and caught early performances by Blondie, who would later enlist Marcade’s French skills to script some of the foreign-language verses the band would use in their rendition of the song “Denis, Denis.” And there was a blossoming friendship with Johnny Thunders, whom he’d first met a year earlier in Boston where the legendary guitarist was performing with the New York Dolls. It remains one of the best shows he’s ever seen.

“It was amazing” he recalls, now, nearly 45 years later, with an emotional passion not even the 3,000-mile phone distance between us can dampen. “It was the look, it was their energy. You know when you get that feeling, especially when you’re very young: Ahh, this is something new and hip. When I first saw those guys, I thought: they’re like the Rolling Stones, but ten times more…actual. They’re the NOW version of the Rolling Stones,” says Marcade, who as boy fell under the spell of the Stones, sketching imaginary guitars and record covers in his school notebooks. “And that teased-up hair! Especially Johnny (Thunders). It was crazy. At the same time, they were bringing back a retro-style with these fast rock songs, while other bands were playing like three-hour drum solos. So, yes, the first time I saw the New York Dolls, it totally shook my world.”

After the gig, Marcade scored a ride with the band back to their hotel and was privy to a post-gig critique among the band’s rhythm section. “That was a very good version of ‘Jet Boy’ you were playing,” drummer Jerry Nolan told Arthur Kane, the bassist.  “Too bad the rest of us were playing ‘Personality Crisis.’”  

Marcade visited Thunders and then-girlfriend Sable Starr at their New York apartment — “guitars and rock-star clothes everywhere, empty champagne bottles in piles of silk scarves and satin shirts, a pink fur coat thrown over a Fender amp” — and re-connected with Thunders regularly over the years, socializing, sharing the stage, and playing drums in an early incarnation of the short-lived band Gang War, which featured Thunders alongside former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer.

“The friendship between me and Johnny became really great and I would wonder: Why does he call me? Why does he like me so much? Everybody else was telling me to watch out, that if he calls you he wants something from you. But he was never like that with me,” Marcade says. “My thought is — and if Johnny was alive he might laugh at this — among his friends I was a bit straighter. Freaky enough to be part of the circus, but straight enough and with a good head on my shoulders that he could count on me. So, I think that’s what he liked about me: that I was a kid who came from France from a nice family who he could count on. Never mind what everybody says about him, that he was a junkie and all that - the feeling I got from Johnny Thunders was that he was a very homey kind of guy. Very sweet, with a big heart. He was really a good guy.”

It was at Mother’s, during a show by Thunders and Nolan’s post-Dolls band, The Heartbreakers, that Marcade first met Nancy Spungen, at that time a “dancer” at Times Square who dreamed of dating a cool musician. After they became friends and as Spungen showed the harrowing signs of an obvious heroin addiction, Marcade urged her to get out of New York in the hope of her kicking her dope habit. After going overseas, Spungen hooked up with the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious, and the opening scene of what became the notorious legend of Sid & Nancy was born.

“I apologize to the Sex Pistols for having convinced Nancy Spungen to go to England,” Marcade writes. “Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea after all.”

In early 1977, the downtown scene was anchored by CBGB’s on the Bowery, and Max’s Kansas City, located one mile uptown. But, by decade’s end the devil was on the doorstep demanding his due. Heroin made its presence known in a big way, and the commercialization of the downtown scene homogenized its original creativity. “Pink spandex T-shirts covered with zippers at Macy’s, it was becoming a cliché,” Marcade recalls. “As soon as punk became acceptable, it wasn’t punk anymore. How could you be rebellious and different if you were wearing the same uniform as everyone else?” Early in the next decade, AIDS would soon follow. “Suddenly, people were dropping like flies, and panic set in. AIDS immediately dug a hole in the history of New York’s culture…all those paintings that were never painted, all those books and songs that were never written…”

The ‘80s also brought the first, lengthy break-up of the band. “All that was left of The Senders was one deaf guy, one in a nuthouse, and two at the dope house. There wasn’t much else left to do other than call it a day.”

In the ‘90s, Marcade moved to the Astoria section of Queens, the birthing ground of Melanie, Tony Bennett, and Steinway & Sons pianos. “I lived there for 15 years in a one-bedroom. When I moved in it was $600. In 2012, it was over $2,000, and so after almost 40 years in New York, I left. My life in Italy is very quiet now. I paint quite a bit.”

Punk Avenue graphically documents the broken New York City of the 1970s with its shattered glass and turned-over trash cans, its rows of abandoned skeletal cars and the Lower East Side progressively descending further into the circle of hell, with each passing block. The comparisons with the present day are startling, with the notorious former copping grounds of Norfolk Street now highlighted by nail spas and restaurants with exotic European names. The shooting galleries of yesterday have become the art galleries of today, Marcade says. “I came back to visit last May and took a stroll one afternoon on the Lower East Side. I was stunned.”

The idea of a book came to him in 2005 when he began to scribble retrieved memories of scenarios — which he calls anecdotes — into an ever-present notebook and reading them to an attentive 20-something nephew, who prodded him on. The subsequent typing of a manuscript was a process.

“I type very slowly, with just two fingers, so it took a very long time,” he laughs. “But, what got me to do this work was breaking my front tooth. The dentist told me I needed a bridge and they had to remove three teeth. So here I found myself with three teeth missing, right in the front. I was too ashamed to see my friends like this, so I stayed home. It was wintertime. It was snowing. It was awful. I had no girlfriend, no job, and was completely isolated. I started to go stir-crazy. So I got on my computer and started to type. After 10 pages, I just couldn’t stop.”

The book was first published in France in 2007 and in Italy a few years later. When Marcade met the translator of the Italian book, a woman named Eva, he says: “I fell in love.” It took several more years of perseverance to get the book into the American market. “I got the door slammed in my face by everybody, so I completely gave up and went full-tilt back into my painting,” Marcade says. Two years ago, Three Rooms Press stepped up.  “They loved it, and that’s how it happened in the States.”

Marcade’s storytelling reveals the character of its author: here is a very likeable guy, filled with a yearning for discovery, a sense of joy and the natural ability of greeting life’s unexpected moments with great humor and often laugh-out-loud exchanges.

 

It is in a way, also a survivor’s tale of the era, spraying light, and lightness, unto an otherwise often-dark path. Appropriately, the book concludes with the word: “Hahaha!"

“You seem to be able to find the humor in things, no matter how serious, and present it in a funny way,” I say.

“Yes indeed,” he says. “It was very funny, and I had a wonderful time!”

      

Punk Avenue: Inside the New York City Underground 1972-82, by Phil Marcade, published
by Three Rooms Press, 2017.

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