Tuesday, October 16, 2018
To our generation of blogs and socials, of instant tweets and Instagram, of dying newspapers and streaming shows, how to explain the fanzine? The fanzine was a photocopied scrapbook of your life. It’s difficult to imagine today just how epic the fanzine of yesterday was.
The fanzine came after the underground press of the 60s and before the internet explosions of the 90s and the aughts. Of course the fanzines were not Rolling Stone, but you can get an idea what our world was like by watching Almost Famous or dreaming what life was like for Lester Bangs.
Whether it was rock and roll or activism, we were subjective fans and biased peacenik lefties and completely immersed in the adventures of punk-rock propaganda and participant journalism. These paper testimonials may not have been as grandiose as the new journalism of Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer, but we were just as gritty. Of course the fanzine is still around, as an outlet for partial luddites and bedroom poets, as a kind of retro culture object in the land of cool, right there with vinyl and cassettes and manual typewriters.
Everything I needed to know for this life of wild unemployed pencil and photocopier passion, I learned in high school journalism class. On the school newspaper and on the school radio station, we were amateurs, but with an audience. People actually followed and consumed our words about sports and bands and activism. We learned how to get interviews, to conduct interviews, to make cold calls for advertising cash and printing quotes, to hawk media product on the street to fellow fans and annoyed passersby, to place a publication for consignment at the corner store, to do photography, to do page design, to place ourselves in the middle of culture, to ask for the get and get that we asked for.
The first fanzine showed our fluency in the college rock or alternative milieu of the 80s greats. Some people who missed the 80s underground might never grasp how potent and meaningful it all was to us as teens and twenty-somethings. We had interviews, reviews, features, and essays. We learned how to get photo passes and backstage passes and free tickets to almost every show.
We met other DIY-journalists and poets who gave us poems and illustrators who wanted to do cartoons. I can’t think of an artist we wanted to meet and did not meet. No, we were never backstage for Springsteen or Prince, but U2,. R.E.M., Husker Du, The Minutemen, The Waterboys, The Alarm, Lone Justice, 10,000 Maniacs, Violent Femmes, you name it, we met them, we got more than their autograph, we broke the Almost Famous code and tried to make friends with the rock stars. I was just finishing high school, and the times felt limitless.
I don’t think there were any rational reasons for my revolutionary hope. It had more to do with me being 18 and then 19 and 20, than it did with anything going in the world. We were committed to ending war in Central America, to freeing South Africa, to disarming all the nuclear powers, you get the idea, and no matter the facts of Reagan-era America, some of us believed all that change was possible and soon.
During my last year as a teen and the first year of my 20s, you could say we had countless reality checks. Learning more about racism and war and environmental degradation, we were radicalized. We started to see flaws in the liberal religion and Democratic-party politics we’d been raised around. The days were such that I was increasingly radicalized, especially when I started to hang out with Catholic Workers and anarchists and the kinds of middle-aged hippies who never outgrew the passionate idealism of the late 1960s and became the kinds of subversive mentors the mainstream is always warning us about us about.
The second fanzine reflected the shift inside us. We stopped attending church and starting living our own. We began to experiment more with mind-altering substances. The move from suburbia to the inner city was a short commute on a divided highway, but the divisions of race and class and worldview that I crossed over in 1988, these were leaps into an unknown from which, in some ways, I never returned. I would return to my faith and more conservative ideas about family and love, and I would one day achieve a successful academic and ecclesial career, but there were some illusions that got shattered as a young adult, and I am grateful for the harsh education of the street and its denizens of ideological honesty.
That crazy fanzine of late 1988 is embarrassing to look at for the most part. The more professional and music-oriented zine of 1986, I would stand by its entire contents today. That this zine ended up in the hands of Michael Stipe, who gave it to Natalie Merchant, so she could read my story about her, because I was too self-conscious about my devout fandom (not shy) to share it, for this fact and for the friend who passed it to R.E.M., for all this I remain grateful and surprised it even happened!
But no matter how the hyper urgency of late 1988 has faded in me, the issues we faced with caffeinated and intoxicated bravado defined our place in self-exile as subculture communalists. Freedom of expression meant this exercise in creative extremism felt like freedom itself. Did we sometimes shock for the sake of shock or make audacious claims that our older selves would never own? Well sure. The next fanzine that appeared the following fall was going to reflect my more radical turn.
It was 1988, an election year. Earlier that spring, I voted for the first time ever in a presidential primary, and the candidate I chose, Jesse Jackson, won my home state of Michigan. But by the summer, a more moderate candidate was challenging George Bush, and my radical friends had convinced me that no matter who I voted for, the government would win. My radical friends had convinced me that if voting worked, it would be illegal.
By this time, nobody had to convince me to attend a continental gathering of anti-authoritarians. By this time, I was the one who suggested to my first motor city roommate that we take his car (I didn’t have one) to Georgia to join a protest outside the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. People who believe in human liberation are still having the debate about supporting “lesser evil” candidates, but older more moderate me usually votes, as an act of both hope and self-defense. But voting is not and has never been all we should do for peace and justice -- and I digress from my tale, since it is another election year as I write these words.
Even though I had a job to pay my bills and a bicycle to get me to work, that long warm summer of 88 was a blurry amble from party to protest and back to party again. Outside the 30 hours I was on the clock were long stretches of spontaneous freedom, documented fervently and without filter with the possibility of being distilled into the hyper poetry or chaotic prose that would crowd the pages of a future fanzine.
Concerts were not the primary preoccupation like they were in high school and for that first music fanzine, but I still tried to get to shows whenever I could. I was more likely to be seen at a standing-only show in a small club or bar than at the bigger theaters, but I also made it that year to my second and last Grateful Dead show, at the same Joe Louis hockey arena where I had seen U2 two years prior. The punk rock I loved during those years wasn’t the so much the thrashy mosh-pit hardcore nor the grunge that was around the corner, but SST bands like Minutemen and Husker Du and the hazy heads known as Meat Puppets.
But in the summer of 88, and the fanzine would reflect this, I was obsessed with local rock, and two bands, the alternative rock Orange Roughies and the world beat Layabouts, got front page billing in the second issue of our encyclopedic fanzine, with its name imagined by a toddler that I had done some babysitting for in late 1987, just after dropping out of college, when I was still trying to make it in church.
When we were finishing the last high school music zine, we were fresh graduates of an award-winning journalism program. Our photos were press-quality halftones for proper printing, our margins uncluttered, and our columns uniformed and at recognizable angles. Even though with the new zine, we were moving away from a focus on pop culture and leaning more toward radical politics and edgy art, the record review and concert review would remain staple dishes on the fanzine menu. A fanzine without rock was like a menu without protein.
By the time of our second underground zine, we had all adopted ridiculous pseudonyms of an underwater variety. The cut-and-paste collage style was nothing like the computer-generated psychedelic art that would arrive a decade-later. This was a primitive scissors-and-gluestick operation. The electric typewriter I had bought in late 1986 to take to college was by the summer of 1988 a type-setter for zines. If another contributor wanted to write their submission in sloppy hand lettering, that was fine too. If you had a computer and gave me your work printed from that medium, my scissors and my gluestick did not discriminate. We tried our best with graphics, but we didn’t really care that much about higher visual beauty. I was more a compiler than an editor with a scrappy hippy punk-rock aesthetic and overflowing cup of coffee, wired on the inclusive spirit of a Whitman or Ginsberg.
Looking back, some of the content was angry and naive, some of it self-righteous, some of it obscene. I am embarrassed by some of it today and shocked that just three summers before, I was a darling leader at a born-again summer camp, in charge of devotions and Bible studies and team cheers. But that summer between junior and senior year, I will never forget a fellow camper lecturing me that capitalism was the only Biblical economy.
Already biased by then toward the liberation theology of the Sandinistas and the Catholic Workers, I was mortified. When I loved the folk music revival of campfire singalongs, I resented then that my progressive Dad warned me the camp was too fundamentalist. Years later, I know what he meant. By my 21st birthday that fall, I had become the young adult some parents worried about and the kid that other adults were warning their teenagers about.
The world should have been worried, because I could have been found at a concert or on a streetcorner selling this ridiculous book-length fanzine filled with radical anarchist propaganda, free love, and confessional prose about the benefits of drugs and booze. To my self-indulgent idealism and hedonism I dreamed that not even Kerouac or Kesey could have hoped that they would have had a better influence on the 1980s than I was proving they did.
Let there be no mistake, I was not an accidental victim of the counterculture around me. I was a willing convert, and the aspects of my rebellion that were just plain sloppy and stupid were also conscious decisions. On purpose, I did not pay the tickets that meant I did not have a valid driver’s license. On purpose, I started smoking cigarettes. On purpose, I dropped out of college. On purpose, I stopped attending church. On purpose, I traversed the continent to each and every protest or direct action that I could attend. Only the protests today make sense, but not for my twenty-year-old indignant rage, but because a worldview run on war and greed still tramples human need, and human resistance to evil remains a worthy and necessary if desperate pursuit.
As I have said in recent years, I turned from the triune God to worship the trinity of sex, drugs, and rock n roll. But in giving up drugs and changing my views about sex from the ridiculous free love selfishness, I have returned again and again to the better parts of hippy idealism, from health food to the demand for breathable air and clean rivers to the promise of peace and ecology and simple living, I return to these and many other organic ideals, even as I get older with every birthday.
And rock and roll. Chasing popular music remains a holy and hopeful hobby that sustains me with joy. Rock and roll remains the choir of change, the soundtrack of revolution. And for the rock and roll ruckus and rebellion of the 1980s, the fanzine was sacred scripture. Paging through that manic madness again and again, it is an archive, part of my biography and testimony. Some shameful and worthy of purge. Some a reflection of every youthful urge. Some foolish courage that I curiously still have some left to share, in writing this story and speaking truth to power, even when my voice shakes and my fingers on the typing keys tremble.