Randy Cohen’s career has taken some novel turns. From 1984 to 1990, he was a writer for “Late Night With David Letterman. ” Then he wrote “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times for a dozen years, from 1999 to 2011. Today, he’s the host of “Person Place Thing” on public radio.
But Mr. Cohen, 66 years old, also used to be a punk rock star. Or is. Or may well become one in the near future.
Perhaps a little explication is in order. During the early ’70s, Mr. Cohen belonged to a band called Jack Ruby. The members skirted success when Epic Records considered signing them, however briefly.
“ ‘You can only have the studio from midnight to 5 a.m.,’ ” he remembered being told. “But we could do anything we wanted.”
Perhaps the invitation should have been less open-ended, though Mr. Cohen rejected that notion.
“We were pretty happy with the results,” he said. “They thought it was just awful. That was the end of everything. They weren’t going to sign us.”
A less principled person—me, for instance—might have spent the following several decades haunted by what might have been if, say, instead of recording the band’s “Bad Teeth,” which has been described “as violent as a root canal without the anesthetic,” it had performed a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game.”
Not Mr. Cohen.
“We did the best we could,” he said. “To get Epic to put us in the studio—we’d already gone further than 95% of bands.”
“I think they were really wrong,” Mr. Cohen added, when I pressed him. “We were never going to have hit records. But the people who liked it would really like it.”
Fast forward, give or take 40 years, to something called the Internet. It’s a place where you can exact the best deals on diapers and laundry detergent but also indulge your taste in music, no matter how esoteric or overlooked.
Even so, I’m still not sure how Jack Ruby was rediscovered; I’m not sure Mr. Cohen is either. It’s actually just slightly beyond the realm of human comprehension, sort of like the big bang: How could the universe go from nothing to everything in a million-billionth of a second?
“Maybe 2010,” Mr. Cohen said, “some of the tracks showed up online. You can have an instant following on the Internet”—“two guys in Denmark” and maybe one each in Croatia and Belarus.
Jack Ruby also had a fan in Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
“He thinks Jack Ruby was a very influential band,’” Mr. Cohen said as he sipped a beer in his West End Avenue apartment.
Producer Chris Campion got in touch with Mr. Cohen and asked if the original tapes from that Epic session still existed.
“I vaguely remembered they were in my mother’s home in her basement in Kutztown, Pennsylvania,” he said.
The dust and cobwebs removed, and the tapes salvaged and restored—“This was like archaeology more than music,” Mr. Cohen explained—all the effort turned out a handsome two-disc set titled “Hit and Run” that includes a small poster and a booklet that serves as both an oral history of the band and of New York City’s ’70s punk rock scene.
“It starts getting these incredibly great reviews,” in far-flung hipster music magazines, Mr. Cohen said. “I can’t walk down the street in Barcelona, if I ever went to Barcelona. So passionate is the following for Jack Ruby.”
In July, Rolling Stone magazine included Jack Ruby on its list of best reissues of 2014.
“Issue is closer,” to the truth Mr. Cohen pointed out, since the band hadn’t produced an album or CD.
Inevitably, Mr. Cohen began to wonder what might have been had the band been discovered when it existed. Of the four original members, two are still alive—Mr. Cohen and vocalist Robin Hall.
“If we’d gotten these reviews in 1974, I’d be dead now from heroin addiction and sexual excess,” he said.
The rediscovery isn’t limited to punk rock fans and critics. HBO is considering a drama series about the music scene in ’70s New York, produced by Terence Winter of “Boardwalk Empire” fame and directed by Martin Scorsese.
“They want to license a bunch of these songs,” Mr. Cohen said.
Mick Jagger is an executive producer—“Perhaps you’ve heard of him”—and the lead singer of the fictional band that might play Jack Ruby’s music is James Jagger, Mick’s son.
“All this is increasingly moving away from reality,” said Mr. Cohen, who claimed that no matter the demand from fans or even in his moments of “deranged vanity” will he ever grow out his hair again and hit the road with his synthesizer.
“A friend started referring to it as my ‘posthumous success,’ ” he said.