Reluctant Punk

Photo: Pari Dukovic

“I don’t think punk is something that ever has existed,” says Leah Hennessey, sitting in the very un-punk Biblical Garden of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine and wearing a very un-punk outfit of embroidered pants and platform clogs. It’s a curious statement coming from someone whose stepfather is David Johansen of the New York Dolls and who spent her formative years surrounded by a walking, talking history book of the punk era. “That was very normal to me—being on the road; doing my homework backstage; every night, everyone teasing their hair and painting their nails and stuff. That was a huge part of my life for a long time.”

She’s now throwing herself into the punk scene again. Last week, “7 Minutes in Heaven,” a seven-inch, seven-song, and roughly seven-minute vinyl album was released as a collaboration between Hennessey (vocals), Ryan Adams (guitar and bass), and Johnny T. Yerington (drums). Calling themselves Pornography, the band began on an impulse: Last fall, ­Hennessey met Adams at the East Village restaurant where she works a few nights a week. They exchanged e-mails. She said she would send him some of the “sad bastard” music she’s been writing if she ever got her “shit together.” He said, “Hey, come sing in our punk band.”

At around 11 p.m. the next night, she met the guys at the East Village Recording Center for what she didn’t realize was meant to be an audition. “They were already there jamming, and they said, ‘Here’s a track we just made. You’ve got to write words for it.’ ” Which she did, and what resulted was a song about the time when she ate “a dozen weed cookies and lost my mind—and a whole chunk of hair” (chorus: “Staring at the guy, staring at the dude. He’s staring at my bald spot!”). After several hours, they had recorded the entire first EP, produced by Gus Oberg, who also produced the Strokes and who “gets us to dumb down even more than we’re already dumbing down. He’s like a real warlock of dumb.” To Hennessey, it’s this simplistic attitude that makes Pornography a punk band, “because Ryan is like, Just go with your first impulses. We’re not thinking about this. It’s nonrational, it’s not stylish, it’s not thought out. We’re just going to go with what happens.”

Which puts Hennessey, 24, in the fairly awkward position of advancing a movement she says never existed. So she clarifies: “Punk is just a story that a bunch of people got together and sold to the people. There’s a conspiracy to sell this golden age of a time that never really was. Maybe other people don’t live with this myth as heavily on their heads as I do, but I’ve had to grow up with so much of this bullshit that it’s especially repulsive to me, this punk-rock legend.”

Of course, the irony of her role in Pornography is not lost on Hennessey, nor is its potential. She’s just come from her apartment, where she was filming a web series in which she and a friend play “these two very draggy, campy girls who think they’re big stars. It’s about the absurd, pinball, day-to-day reality of this life that is a lot like the way I describe my real life.” She’d just done a scene where she portrayed a metal god; some of the astringent mask she’d used to paint her face white is still smudged by her ear and in her hair. “I think there’s a part of me that just believes that fame is inevitable. I guess I feel like if I want to stay living in New York, I have to be some kind of a legend at some point. I think that’s really what it’s about.”

Reluctant Punk