Though I spent the vaunted indie-rock ’80s haunting C.B.G.B. on New York’s Lower East Side and Maxwell’s across the Hudson River in Hoboken, N.J., I felt a strong connection to what was happening in Chicago during that fertile period that provided the crucial link between the initial explosion of punk in the ’70s and its flourishing in the mainstream during the alternative ’90s. I was eagerly waiting at the front of the stage when all of Chicago’s best indie bands made their first treks east. Why?
Y’see, kids, back before Al Gore invented the Interweb, leading to the deluge of of blogs, Tweets, and Facebook posts, one could still tune in to underground music (and many other esoteric interests) given the desire and a bit of initiative thanks to fanzines—self-published, D.I.Y. magazines that covered a culture almost no one else cared about. Chicago was home to three of the best in the country: Matter Magazine, edited by Medill journalism student Liz Phillip and featuring her classmate Steve Albini as star columnist; Empire Monthly, which grew out of Chicagoan Pat Daly’s divey labor-of-love Empire Records Store on the far Northwest Side, and Non-Stop Banter, edited by Bruce and Debbie Novak from their home base at the other end of the map in the southwest suburbs.
Now, two of these three classic ’zines are back—not publishing again, alas, but with online archives of their work readily accessible via the Net. The complete (as far as I can tell) run of Empire Monthly was posted on Facebook by Daly around the holidays, while the Novaks not long before that unveiled a spiffy new site that is hosting all of the back issues of Non-Stop Banter.
Warning: Both are intense but very rewarding time-sucks—and I mean that as the highest compliment.
Both zines lovingly and thoroughly covered the then-groundbreaking sounds of local bands such as Big Black, Naked Raygun, the Effigies, Eleventh Dream Day, Material Issue, the Slugs, Green and, well, pretty much everyone else in town in who drew a crowd of a dozen or more, as well as chronicling their fellow travelers (and soon to be major influences in the alternative world) far outside the Windy City: Sonic Youth, the Feelies, Salem 66, the Del Fuegos, Dinosaur Jr., R.E.M. (when R.E.M. still was R.E.M.) and many, many others, some forgotten, and some now lionized.
Neither publication would win points for stellar design: We’re talking articles pounded out on an IBM Selectric and shrunk down to 8-point type with a copy machine, accompanied by photos pasted in with rubber cement and a headline rubbed on with Letraset. But the passion of writers such as Daly, the Novaks, Rick Reger, and Tina Woelke and photographers including Phil Rockrohr and the great Marty Perez is palpable on every page, and their talents are considerable.
These fans’ work not only stands up three decades later; it now is an invaluable window into the history of an incredibly rich period that might otherwise have been forgotten absent their love and devotion, to say nothing of the carpal-tunnel pain of hand-stapling mountains of Xeroxed pages to hand out at Metro or Lounge Ax.
Zine culture isn’t dead, of course—in fact, like cassettes and vinyl, it is resurgent and arguably thriving in a new golden age. If you doubt it, you haven’t perused the stacks lately at Chicago’s venerable home to the scene, Quimby’s on North Avenue at the outskirts of Wicker Park. But the Net has forever changed the way we learn and read about new music (and everything else), and the zines of this era, like the hand-scribed Bibles of monks in the Middle Ages or the first edition of collected Shakespeare, are now relics very much worth celebrating.
Is it too much to hope that someone will scan their old copies of Matter and give them immortality on the Web, too? Until that happens, we have these sites, which could have no better soundtrack than the shoulda-been-a-hit 1987 tune from Great Plains, “Letter to a Fanzine.”