once upon a time, zines were our weird little windows to the outside world
Hi! I'm Michael Donaldson, and I write about music on 8sided.blog, license and publish music through 8DSync, and make music as Q-Burns Abstract Message. I think about music all of the time. My guess is you do, too.
This is the eighth episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care, a newsletter loosely about music-making and music-listening and how technology changes the culture around those things.
Each episode of this newsletter has a theme song. Probably as a distraction from the screaming world, this week I’m knee-deep in nostalgia. Remembering what I was doing in 1988 inspired me to rescue a song recorded that same year. Here’s a tune created in a bedroom with my trusty Juno-106, a Yamaha drum machine, an ART Proverb, and a Tascam 4-track. I’m not exactly sure what I titled the tune so today I’m calling it “Tioga Flight (1988).” Listen in, be kind (I was a teenager!), and enjoy this episode’s ramble …
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In the late '80s, I was heavily into zine culture. Isolated in Central Louisiana, I was an outcast kid into weird stuff, craving connections to an outside world of strangers. I can't remember how I initially discovered zines and the related mail art community. I'm sure my love of DIY punk rock played a part.
Eventually, I obtained an issue of Factsheet Five. The mag inspired me to open a secret post office box, so all this unusual mail wouldn't arrive at my parents' house. After sending off several envelopes containing a few quarters, or postage compensation, or an enthusiastic letter, I was part of the zine scene. I was connecting and corresponding with like-minded weirdos across the world. Kind of like I still do today — just without sending out stamps.
Let's get a couple of definitions out of the way. 'Zine' is short for 'fanzine' — a short-run, self-published, often obsessive, and sometimes free magazine made by (and for) a 'fan' of something. The first documented fanzine was created in the '30s, probably by mimeograph. That original zine, like most zines in the mid-century, was focused on science fiction. Punk rock created another significant zine movement, and, in the '90s, the format reached an apex with riot grrl zines.
But zines could be about anything. There were zines for collectors of you-name-it, anarchist zines, intimately personal scream-for-help zines, zines by moms about mom-life, conspiracy and UFO zines, comix zines, and on-and-on-and-on. One of the most unique and heartfelt zines I read at the time was Duplex Planet. Published by an employee of a nursing home, the zine featured interviews and updates with the residents as they arrived and (often sadly) departed. I'm pleasantly surprised to see that it's still around. Duplex Planet showed the possibility of zines and self-publishing as a vehicle for a personal voice.
If you think this sounds a lot like blogging and email newsletters, then I'd say you're not off course. I recently subscribed to Rusty Blazenhoff's Electric Dreams email newsletter, and right there in the header, it's called "An Inbox Zine." Wherever you go, there you are.
I'm thinking about zines because of Factsheet Five. Factsheet Five was like a search engine for zines but it was also a zine. Hundreds of single paragraph reviews of zines filled its pages. And the reader was also given the zines' addresses and how to get them (such as ".50 or two stamps"). There were also music etc. reviews and editorials from various zine luminaries. But you got this for the zine listings. It was a joy to go through all these zine descriptions and highlight the ones that created the most curiosity. From my perch in Tioga, Louisiana, these were pre-internet windows to the wider, weirder world.
One could receive Factsheet Five a few different ways — by sending three dollar bills and a couple of quarters to the editor, or by mailing something to review (music, your zine), or by contributing something (writing, artwork). I did all three of those throughout college to get my issues.
And here's why Factsheet Five and zines are on my mind. Early this week, I was on Archive.org and thought, "I wonder if any old issues of Factsheet Five are archived here?" I did a quick search and discovered just under a dozen issues. I picked one from 1988 — as that's the time I was most active in my zine-collecting — and flipped through the virtual pages. Amazing! I recalled when, to me, all of this was new and dangerous. I glimpsed some familiar names, including a few 'pen-pals' who I met through zine-trading. And then, to my surprise, I ran across a name I certainly recognized:
In 1988 I decided to publish my own zine. It was called Plague On Wheels. The name comes from the title of a fictitious book written by Kilgore Trout in Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. It's about aliens that look like automobiles. And 'Michael Behaviour' was my punk rock name. A lot of us young miscreant-wanna-bes had punk rock names in the '80s.
The review refers to Plague On Wheels as a 'pfanzine,' which is zine slang for a music-oriented zine. The 'p' stands for 'punk,' but a pfanzine can be about any genre of music. My zine had a lot of music in it, including interviews with a few random bands that answered my letters. I doubt I even heard these bands beforehand — I wrote them to get free music in exchange for some 'press.' Luckily, none of their music was awful.
Plague On Wheels was handwritten, not typed. I didn't have access to a photocopier (or the money to photocopy), so I had a pen-pal friend in Miami do it for me. I met this friend via Factsheet Five. He was a school teacher and could get free photocopies, but the quality was poor, and all the blacks faded in various tones of gray. Combined with the sometimes difficult to decipher handwriting, my distant friend and I agreed the flaws added a distinctive character.
My friend Flipper — also from Tioga — wrote the 'How To Start a Radio Station' piece. Now he has a book out through HarperCollins and regularly writes for established music magazines. I sent him this Factsheet Five review, and he told me that I was the first 'publication' to publish his writing.
Plague on Wheels. What a trip.
I feel like there's something I can say here about zines and blogs and newsletters. I should pull out my recurring theme of 'the way we use new technologies can't escape tradition.' It does feel like I've been doing this a while. Running across a blog with an exciting point of view is similar to finding a cool zine on Factsheet Five. It just seems, with zines, the freak flag flies a little higher.
Zines are still around. And blogs and newsletters are resurgent. As long as singular voices are looking to connect — to find the others — we'll have zines and blogs and all these things. And maybe our current state of isolation, this self-quarantining, has me thinking about how vital these voices are when we can't seek each other out in person. Many of us need the weird little windows to the outside world, especially when those worlds seem cut off from us.
Author Austin Kleon is also having a lot of fun with zines. He’s creating one-off mini-magazines, intended initially as surprises to include in his son’s daily lunch bag. Now, these daily zines are whimsical documents of self-quarantine, and he’s inspiring others with the Twitter hashtag phrase #stayhomemakezines. Here’s Austin’s video on how to quickly make a zine from one sheet of paper.
Is Nick Cave’s dictionary a zine? That’s arguable, but it’s still a fascinating example of a personal one-off ‘self-published’ artifact. Cave read through a real dictionary as he was preparing for his 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel. He jotted down any words that “gave off a sort of vibration.” He says, ”The words I liked were obscene or just plain groovy. I had several of these dictionaries.” I wish I had several of them, too! Also, while on the subject of Nick Cave, he gave an excellent answer to the pertinent question, “What do we do now?”
Last week I wrote about Pauline Oliveros and deep listening. I applied the concept to album listening but referred to its original intention of “meditating on the organic sounds of nature.” Right now, in quarantine and sealed in our homes, some of us are finding it difficult to get lost in the middle of a natural environment.
I want to recommend a couple of unique podcasts that might help. Both shows feature their respective hosts going on calming walks. We’re invited to sonically join them as they wander through forests, beaches, and rural paths.
The first is Jon Mooallem’s the WALKING podcast. Jon takes walks “through the tranquil woodlands around my house in the Pacific Northwest.” He goes on: “No talking; just walking. Ambient. Pleasant. Homemade. Unusual.”
Similarly, there’s Craig Mod’s SW945: A Walk in Japan. “Fifteen minutes of binaural audio recorded wherever I may be at 09:45am.” Craig recorded the last episode of Season 3 at the Shichirigahama Shoreline — especially soothing. (Craig Mod also writes two of my favorite email newsletters, Roden and Ridgeline. If you would like another newsletter in your inbox you can’t go wrong with these.)
At first, it seems strange listening to a podcast of someone walking. I thought so, too. But these are lovely mood-enhancers, both as deep listening exercises with headphones or even to help keep the monkey-mind at bay while working. Give them a try, and please report back.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care. We’ve got a good thing going, you and I. As always, let me know if you have any comments or questions or need someone to write to in this challenging time. I’d love to hear from you. You can learn more about me, what I do, and contact me with your comments here.
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Thank you so much for reading. Stay put and keep safe. Let your friends and loved ones know how you’re doing. Soon we’re all going to come out of this and there will be lots of cake. I promise. See you next week! 🚀