Howie Pyro, a founding member of New York City punk band D Generation, pioneering party DJ, and avid collector of music and movie ephemera, died Wednesday. He was 61. Pyro had undergone a liver transplant last year and was recovering in a Los Angeles hospital. Jesse Malin, Pyro’s friend and bandmate in D Generation, confirmed his death from Covid-related pneumonia following a long battle with liver disease.
Pyro was an integral yet unassuming fixture of New York’s gritty punk scene in the Seventies and Eighties, part groundbreaking artist and part observer. “I’ve never moved too far into the spotlight to be off the street, meet the new people, see all the new geniuses do their thing,” Pyro told LA Weekly in 2017. “But I get a bit involved here and there. That in itself is a gift.”
As leader of the scrappy band the Blessed — all of its members were underage — he played fearlessly in front of luminaries like Joey Ramone and Debbie Harry at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City in the Seventies, befriending many future stars along the way. Among them: the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious, who overdosed in 1979. Pyro was one of the last to see him alive.
Born Howard Kusten on June 28, 1960, in Whitestone, Queens, he adopted the moniker Howie Pyro around the age of 15; it was the same time he relocated to New York’s epicenter of the punk movement, the Lower East Side. In 1977, Pyro formed the Blessed and, two years later, the group released a lone 45: “Deep Frenzy” on the A-side with “American Bandstand” on the flip. In the Eighties, he assembled the ahead-of-its-time grunge outfit the Freaks with his future wife Andrea Matthews; Pyro’s fellow Whitestone native Jesse Malin worked as the group’s roadie.
In 1991, Malin, Pyro, guitarist Danny Sage, drummer Michael Wildwood, and guitarist Richard Bacchus came together to form D Generation, an attitude-heavy Noo Yawk group that mixed Seventies punk with Eighties aggression. The group was born in a Chelsea loft where Malin and Pyro, disgusted by the decadent Eighties metal scene, would throw their own debauched and sleazy parties known as Greendoor. Pyro DJ’ed and D Generation would play their first live show there.
“We wanted to make a band that would be the band that we always dreamed about wanting to go see; a band that really didn’t exist anymore,” Malin told Loudwire in 2016. “We came out of hardcore so we figured we could take this on and take it into our own hands and actually make something. We started to rehearse in a loft and put on shows there.”
Together with Malin and Bacchus, Pyro, transitioning from guitar to bass, wrote D Gen’s first single, “No Way Out.” Pyro would record three albums with the band, including 1996’s overlooked gem No Lunch, before the unit broke up in 1999. They’d reunite in 2016 for a reunion tour and new album, Nothing Is Anywhere.
In 2000, Pyro left New York for Los Angeles, where he began playing bass in the latest incarnation of Glenn Danzig’s namesake group Danzig, reuniting with New York guitarist and onetime D Generation bandmate Todd Youth to record Danzig’s 2002 album I Luciferi. He also stepped up his DJing and, through word of mouth, began getting hired for a slew of high-profile appearances, from Christina Aguilera’s birthday party to a residency at the Ace Hotel. Pyro hosted the Intoxica! Radio show as well, curating a playlist of obscure early rock artists, surf groups, rockabilly, and snippets of movie dialogue — a mix of songs and sounds that Pyro referred to as the “weird stuff.”
A lifelong movie buff, Pyro was a passionate collector of music and film memorabilia, particularly of the monster variety. In the video for Malin’s “Room 13,” he appeared as a gun dealer in a scene paying homage to Taxi Driver. Pyro spoke at length about the “art” of collecting to Voyage LA in 2018.
“I love finding artists, pushing them to people that would appreciate it, working on books, loaning things to museums/exhibits, I’m a big collector & pretty much live in a museum,” Pyro said. “It’s not a hobby. I don’t work at a bank and escape from my dreary existence on the weekend with my ‘toys.’… I have spent every waking hour of my life pursuing my obsessions, which is an art in itself.”
Earlier this year, Malin organized a pair of benefit concerts for Pyro with members of D Generation, Rival Sons (with whom Pyro toured as a DJ), the Lunachicks, and L7.
“Whether playing in bands, supporting other bands or DJing and turning any night of the week into a celebratory dance party,” L7’s Donita Sparks said, “Howie Pyro has been the crazy glue of the scene for decades.”