When you think of the late ‘70s dawn of punk rock, John Belushi isn’t the first name that comes to mind. But according to Marcia Resnick, an ever-present NYC scenester and photographer of that era, and Victor Bockris, an acclaimed chronicler of the same seedy times, John Belushi was the unlikely linchpin of that ever-influential countercultural explosion.
This heretofore half-told tale arose as I talked with the two recently, on the release of Resnick’s remarkable new photo book, Punks, Poets & Provocateurs: New York City Bad Boys, 1977-1982 (Insight Editions), to which Bockris added seasoned commentary and interviews.
This isn’t just another fun collection of live shots of bands at CBGBs and Max’s. Resnick went to those shows, sure, but then convinced some of the musicians and infamous audience members to come around to her studio to pose for intimate portraits. The book greets you with a cover shot of a characteristically suspicious Belushi.
“I’d met John numerous times before,” says Resnick. “But it was early September, 1981, I spotted him in an after-hours club. John was on a 24-hour binge with no sleep. I asked him when he would do a photo session with me, and he said, ‘Now!’ It was 5 a.m. I didn’t believe him. But upon returning home, John and his entourage were waiting in a limousine in front of my building. Once inside, he paced around like a caged animal, fidgeting incessantly, which was uncanny for someone who was such a fluid performer.”
But it wasn’t just his pharmaceutical preferences and fidgety angst that fit right in with the punk movement. Belushi fully dug the music. He hung at the clubs; he knew the bands and worked to expand their profile. There’d be the odd photo in People of Belushi drooling arm-in-arm with some punk at CBGBs, or scandal-sheet notices of him stumbling out of some other East Side dive. Sure, his public persona was quickly cemented as the hefty, repressed-rage goof-off. But as ubiquitously frat canon-enshrined as Animal House has become, that scene of a toga-wrapped Belushi quietly glaring at the folk singer on the stairs until he pops his lid and smashes the acoustic guitar, remains one of the top five punk rock moments in movie history.
After all these years, it’s easy to forget that Belushi’s biggest mainstream success, The Blues Brothers—currently a dictionary-definition dad rock comedy—was cooked up as an on-point parody of a beloved if dying musical form, fueled by an impulse to revive the then-flailing spirit of midcentury rock ’n’ roll that was the basis of much of the earliest punk wave.
Belushi made those revival lines blur further as a frequent presence on the NYC punk scene, drawn to the most extreme and proudly parodic acts. It was Belushi who worked to get left coast beer-bruised punks Fear on the show in 1981. With a busload of DC teens (including Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye) invited by Belushi and stirring up a pit down front, Fear proceeded to flail furiously through “Beef Baloney.”
“Yeah, he was a big Fear fan,” explains Resnick. “The last time I saw him, a few days before he died, he was at my friend Christopher’s loft, and he called me and played Fear on the phone. I didn’t know who it was. Finally he got back on the phone and said, “Come here now!” I got there just before he went into a limo to go to the airport. I gave him the contact sheets on the way down the stairs. He gave them back and said, ‘These are terrible.’” Bockris continues: “He knew what he was doing. It was a collaboration—the last photo session he ever did too. He died about six months later.”
While Resnick spoke endearingly of Belushi, Bockris expounded more fervently on the perhaps forgotten fact that Belushi was one of the very few characters to arise from the early ‘70s art underbelly to achieve a mainstream profile, bringing the anarchic spirit of the then underground scene to TVs and celebrity mags everywhere.
“John Belushi had a considerable impact on punk,” says Bockris. “He was the front man taking on the mainstream from a very high place, not just in nightclubs. SNL’s ‘Not Ready for Prime Time Players’ were the closest thing to punk on TV. They shared the basic tenets of punk: Never go to sleep, never give up, and break all the rules. And of the SNL players, Belushi was the most punk in his attitudes and scenes.”
It’s hard to overstate, and increasingly hard to convey in these convenient YouTube times, what an exciting situation it was to sit in a suburban living room at 12:30 on a Saturday night in the late ‘70s—Vietnam scars still bleeding, punk’s urgent underground theme of resistance already being dismissed by mainstream radio and press as too violent (also, unsellable), the right wing pendulum swing on the rise—and watch one of Belushi’s slow-burn characters eventually blow up and scream at throw shit around before shutting down, his face bent with dissatisfaction at the square world.
“He also advertised the fact he loved punk rock in interviews and actions,” Bockris says. “John had a vault in his Morton Street house in which he played punk rock music at earsplitting volume. There is no question that John Belushi wanted to be a punk rocker. He just had another gig he was strapped into with a straitjacket, because he supported several families. That’s what fucked him up. His great success trapped him with the crazy need to make a minimum of $1,000,000 a year every year without fail. That should not have happened.
“He was so full of life,“ Bockris continues, "and he messed around with a lot of drugs, but he was never a junkie. It was a weekend thing to him. That one time was a mistake. So it was shocking. Money destroys more artists than it makes. Belushi was tortured by the fact that he could not hold onto any integrity, and he got overwhelmed by one bad movie after another…
"John Belushi was the essence of punk. A fire-breathing punk. What a terrible, horrible waste.”
Photos provided by Insight Editions from Punks, Poets & Provocateurs: New York City Bad Boys 1977-1982 by Marcia Resnick and Victor Bockris.
All photographs © 2015 Marcia Resnick. All Rights Reserved.