An original contributor looks back
I come today to neither bury nor praise Maximum Rocknroll, the monthly S.F. Bay hardcore/punk newsprint mag that announced it will be abandoning its 37-year print format this spring, following its 431st issue.
For one thing, I haven’t read it in eons. But might I relate some recollections and lingering sentiment for a dogged magazine I was involved with at its onset, so long ago? Perhaps a little burying and some praising might be in order, after all.
Interestingly, my feelings on hearing of its tactile demise—MRR will continue online, but to a print mag’s readers that’s never quite the same—are as mixed as they were upon its birth. I was an opinion columnist for the rag in its first 15-20 issues from 1982-1984. (And though all fanzines are affectionately tagged “rags,” MRR truly was one, with the thinnest, cheapest, blotchiest, inky newsprint you could and would stain your fingers with, a peculiarly admirable if punishingly austere embodiment of their proudly “do-it-yourself” DIY “keep it affordable” and “we exist on rice and beans” content-over-style ethos.) But I was a highly unusual editorialist for them, a sober sore thumb in a parade of zealous advocacy, nearly their only naysayer critiquing nascent hardcore. It was a quixotic column in that sense. At times I felt like a killjoy old crank at age 20, writing dismayed requiems for a once brilliant music movement and cultural outbreak I thought had lost its way completely, for readers that thought the precise opposite.
I’d been approached by MRR’s two prime founders, Tim Yohannan and Jeff Bale, via a 1982 phone call to my New York apartment, in which they offered me the opportunity and I kept trying to decline it. Starting in 1980, I had written and published 10 issues of a stapled Xerox fanzine, The Big Takeover—nowadays we’re a semi-annual 150-page glossy, up to issue 83—and they’d enjoyed my editorials. Had they asked a year or two before, I’d have said, “Sure, be glad to!” True, they weren’t offering compensation, but back then the BTO was free and in fact lost a little dough each issue. I was doing it just for fun and to get involved. (I concurred with Flipside magazine’s motto, “Be more than a witness.”). Moreover, Tim and Jeff were fellow travelers from punk’s prime. Three years prior in 1979, I’d secured tapes of MRR’s terrific preceding radio show from friends—in those pre-internet days, you couldn’t hear radio outside your area otherwise. You could tell that consummate fans and record collectors were behind it. Additionally, I’d been an avid reader of Creep, the superb, short-lived late ’70s San Fran punk fanzine whose Mickey Creep was advising Tim and Jeff, and a fan of Dead Kennedys, whose singer Jello Biafra also helped plot MRR’s launch, and I’d happily dealt with MRR’s helpful Ruth Schwartz, moonlighting at Rough Trade Distribution.
(A quick aside regarding the source of those MRR radio tapes: Mickey was Jello’s roommate and coincidentally dating my best friend/Even Worse bandmate Dave Stein’s cool punk aunt Dierdre Kennedy, only three years Dave’s senior. So from 2500 miles away we had an inside pipeline to West Coast punk when such info was scarce. That’s how a lot of us kept abreast of regional punk scenes back then—by mail, expensive long distance calls, and micro fanzines. Those were the days.)
So why say no? I reminded Tim and Jeff how deeply punk’s sudden de-evolution into thrash hardcore and dumbed-down kid scenes had left me disillusioned. One of the first editorials I’d written for BT’s pages had been a denunciation of slam dancing, after it first appeared in New York at a Black Flag show at Peppermint Lounge, March 14, 1981. By 1982, this testosterone-fueled, bruising practice, which eliminated the old wild punk dancing and shifted attention from the musicians on stage to the melee in front of it, along with the concurrent new style of limited, sound alike, absurdly-fast, backbeat-free thrash hardcore, had driven out half the friends I’d made over four years, including most of the women. The average age of the bands and audience went from mid-twenties to late teens almost overnight, with a corresponding dip in ability, intellectual/lyrical heft, and nuanced appreciation. Thus, after early hardcore’s initial excitement reigned through 1980 and 1981—greats such as Circle Jerks, T.SO.L., Effigies, Naked Raygun, etc.—the emerging newer bands mostly bored me stiff, and the shows began to, too. I’d come into punk via Iggy Pop and David Bowie’s Berlin albums, Brian Eno, the Stooges, Velvet Underground, New York Dolls/Heartbreakers and Talking Heads, which in turn led to the harder and more brash Sex Pistols / Ramones / Clash / Buzzcocks / Avengers types they influenced. So I found this new twice-as-fast thrash colorless and dully predictable, apart from some Bad Brains-esque killers such as Minor Threat, Scream, and early Hüsker Dü.
In fact, as if to underscore my problem, the first version of MRR in print had been a booklet accompanying a double LP compilation Not So Quiet on the Western Front that I’d panned in BT for a preponderance of such cookie cutter replication—again, apart from older, fantastic exceptions like M.I.A., No Alternative, Social Unrest, Dead Kennedys, and the one-of-a-kind Flipper. The older bands had retained remnants of the grooves, hooks and smarts that had made 1975-1981 punk feel like the real modern heirs of the “rock ’n’ roll” in MRR’s name.
Surprisingly, Tim and Jeff were not put off by my frank disparagements. “Why would you want me?” I kept asking. They insisted they’d welcome such unvarnished disapproval as thoughtful argument. I finally relented. “What the heck,” I decided. “There might be some value in speaking to the converted, as a dissatisfied, defecting voice on the way out the door.” So I signed on, composing “Rabid’s Ramblings” each month on my battered Selectric daisywheel typewriter, in between smashing out my NYU college papers on Moliere and Ionesco, then I mailed the finished columns to Berkeley. (37 years on, it’s sure easier to submit this piece to Rock and Roll Globe by email!) Today, I think of those ancient MRR editorials as my version of the old 1970 Melanie hit, “Look What They Done to My Song, Ma.”
Mind you, looking back, my time there had its upsides. The other editorialists were like Tim and Jeff: smart and quirky. And aspects of their outlook I appreciated, especially their “get involved yourself” slant so similar to my own, plus a left-leaning political awareness I shared. And when I stayed with Tim and Jeff in their East Bay home in 1983 and appeared on their radio show, they were even more friendly, brilliant, hospitable, and funny in person. And boy, their record shelves were out of this world, housing some of the rarest, hottest old punk vinyl I’d ever seen. So it genuinely pained me that the prime, animating onus of their publication left me so cold. By perfect conflicted example, the other special guest on that show was a trio of middle schoolers down from British Columbia called the Neos, who were so young their moms had to travel with them and came to the studio, too. (I made a joke on air, asking them about any anti-parent songs they’d written.) They were cool, nice kids, and good for them! But their new EP was like so many of the other new bands MRR espoused: all raw, fast chaos at the speed of sound, like a 33 RPM 7” played at 78, and thus pretty unlistenable beyond the initial shock of their raw, youthful ferocity. (All that sound and fury signifying…. so little.)
That was the vexing dichotomy of the mag for me in a nutshell, more or less to this day: On the one hand, it was great that young people were doing it for themselves, making a ferocious racket and delivering such frantic, unfiltered energy. I could understand why so many liked it across the world, as MRR began selling tens of thousands of copies globally. But to me, these thrash bands felt like an opposite universe version of elevator musak—mere visceral hyper speed and monotone shouting, like an attack of immature, sophist, gang-minded wind up toys. A rebellious, canny, clever and hilarious black humor adult had been thrown out with the bathwater, leaving an angry baby screeching in its place.
This was of course a lonely minority view. The new kids loved their hardcore. It was their new punk scene, and they were living their own version of the rebel dream. After around 15-20 months/MRR issues, I’d said all that could be said along the above lines, so I bowed out of “Rabid’s Ramblings.” But two columns stand out in my memory, perhaps summing up my futility. In one, I lambasted some bad apple New York hardcore skinheads—most of those kids were alright—that despicably had gone on a gay-bashing spree, the antitheses of older punk’s outsider-driven stimulus and pioneering LBGT / women / minorities/ other outcasts-welcoming “we don’t give a toss” attitude. By way of contrast, I’d noted that a friendly local skinhead had apparently been tragically killed, allegedly by heavy metal/jock types—I think thrown onto train tracks. My column asked why it was (of course) evil for others to attack their friend for his hardcore identity, yet beating gay men over theirs was OK. Word soon came that I was scheduled to be beaten up next, by irate folks who felt I had dishonored their late comrade, comparing him to homosexuals or something—proving my point about hardcore’s darker side and debasement. I remember even looking out my fourth floor East Village window one night to see a gaggle of them waiting on the sidewalk to administer an old fashioned beat down. I stayed in with my girlfriend until they left. That date would have to be indoors. (Then again, it’s no joke. 11 years later in 1994, the aforementioned Jello was the victim of a brutal attack by a half dozen thugs at an MRR-sponsored, all ages club in West Berkeley on Gilman Street, that left him hospitalized with a broken leg, ligament damage, and head wounds. What signal were the assailants sending? No one knows, though Jello blamed MRR, calling the magazine “indirectly responsible” because a recent issue had referred to him as a “rich rock star.” Get the picture?) So for a month or so, I had to go to my DJ jobs or other concerts with my imposing, large friends the Nihilistics as a volunteer security detail—thanks Chris, Ron, and Mike, I’ve never forgotten—who scowled at anyone that glared in my direction, until it all blew over. Thanks to them, my teeth remained in my mouth.
And two, my final column was a slam-job on MRR itself. True story. Over the two years I had written for them, they’d become the prime voice of international hardcore, with scene reports coming in from seemingly everywhere, and in my view their ghettoizing instincts were just encouraging more of this narrow-minded nonsense. Their dominating popularity had become an integral part of perpetuating the purist problem. So for a couple thousand words, I ripped into their magazine’s attitude in their own pages as my parting shot, and said sayonara. To Tim and Jeff’s credit, they actually printed this J’acusse rebuke—albeit they each tallied detailed replies taking full exception, and fair enough. (I recall Tim’s even quoted from a 1978 Magazine b-side “My Mind Ain’t So Open”—“that anything could crawl in”—making me wish his mag covered more bands like the still-going Magazine!) And thus we parted ways. I think in my final phone chat with Tim, devoid of acrimony, I paraphrased from Socrates’ death speech—the part that goes “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows.” I was still only 22 and a little full of myself, but there you have it.
Again to their credit, Tim and Jeff kept sending me their MRR issues, anyway. They really hadn’t taken it personally, which is unusual I think, and that spoke well of them. I respected them as people, and bits of what they were trying to do. But I still found little to read in their pages aside from, again, older bands such as Bad Religion. So imagine my surprise, when nine years later, Jeff likewise “baled” on MRR, titling his “you can’t fire me I quit” final column “Jack Rabid Was Right.” I was pretty stunned, and it’s still a pleasant memory. It was perhaps the only seed I planted there that found any lasting sprout, but it was a highly visible one at least. I felt a little vindicated.
(In fact, Jeff still thinks that way. Asked for his own recollections in MRR’s 2012 30th Anniversary issue, he wrote, “On the matter of music, I embraced super-fast thrash punk for a time, probably because it seemed so extreme and over-the-top, and because it was exhilarating in the same way that the roar of a jet engine is exhilarating. But just like jet noise soon becomes annoying and obnoxious, so too did hardcore-style punk, and I strongly doubt whether I would even like most of the thrash records today that appeared in my Top Ten lists in the earliest issues. On the contrary, I’d probably be embarrassed to be reminded of what I had recommended back then. Hardcore simply did not stand the test of time, so much so that I now pretty much detest that subgenre of music—especially its most macho and boneheaded manifestations.”)
Now for some sunnier, “that glass was not actually empty” perspective. However unconnected I’ve felt to their issues, I retained some affection for MRR and was genuinely sad to hear of Tim’s death from lymphatic cancer in 1998, aged only 52. That the publication he started persisted another 21 years proves there was something in his ideals that had genuine import, and hats off to his volunteer successors. Ergo, MRR may not have been my cup of tea musically, but I believe all underground music fans ultimately benefited from them. They established and perpetuated a co-op magazine by and for fans of that music that meant a lot to those fans, connecting them and making them feel part of something bigger of value. Meanwhile, they stayed true to their cheap cover price, ad rates and paper stock so that all could participate. And most of all, their promotion of a non-corporate, DIY alternative was hugely influential over time, helping along the independent, non-major label spirit that’s given us so much of the college radio / alternative / indie rock outbreak of the last 35 years we now take for granted. That overriding DIY principal is perhaps the most valuable lesson that larger alternative culture took from punk and then hardcore. (The pleasant aftertastes manifest in so many small ways, like bands setting up merch tables at gigs where you can go chat and buy something they made to support them. You didn’t see that at all in 1979.) Looked at in a more favorable light, MRR personified what D. Boon of the Minutemen said in 1985, when asked if the Minutemen might sign to a major label. “We’d rather make our own New Alliance or SST a ‘major’ label instead.”
Lastly, from one who knows how challenging it’s been the last decade or so, kudos to MRR for keeping the print magazine going after so many other music mags sadly departed, done in by declining economics. In one sphere, there has been a nice resurgence in vinyl pressings, as music lovers revisit the joys of tangible music ownership over streaming files. There has been no parallel resurrection for print magazines, newspapers, or even books, as bookstores and newsstands have disappeared across the land. Print magazines are going the way of the Black Rhino or Sumatran Tiger, and MRR’s demise is yet another troubling totem of something we’re losing to our detriment, even if unlimited, free internet content has its value. (It’s a very different immersion.)
But MRR did their part for nearly four decades to serve the people who love hardcore and present day punk more than I. By encouraging small label fans and musicians to make, press and distribute their own uncompromising music and forge communal scenes—decades before Bandcamp made that so easy—they’ve earned a small bow and measure of our gratitude.