By CL Bledsoe
I grew up in a tiny town, which meant that if we wanted any kind of culture or variety, we had to drive at least an hour in any direction. When I was a teenager and my friends and I started to get cars, we would drive to the mall, about an hour north.
Malls were and still are much maligned, but in the cultural wasteland of rural America in the 80s and 90s, they offered the only real access to the outside world for many of us. There were bookstores (now defunct), record stores, arcades. In the same town as the mall, there were a couple other record stores we could go to. It was heaven.
This was before the internet, and the only music we heard on the radio was either classic rock, country, or various types of pop. You could ask to listen to tapes or CDs at the stores, but only one or two before they got annoyed. So we would read the magazines to try to find bands we might like.
In those days, instead of blogs, people made Xeroxed and stapled magazines called zines. Many — maybe most — of these were fanzines, which means they were about bands. Some were underground comic books (I always connected the movement with underground comics).
All these folks all over the country typing or writing or drawing stuff, Xeroxing it, stapling it or tying it together, and trying to figure out how to get it to people. If you played shows somewhere, you could sell them there. If there was an independent book or record store nearby, you could sell them there. But that was still pretty limited.
Let’s talk about Factsheet Five. We found a copy of this crazy magazine at a record shop in the mall. It was cheap — low-quality paper, basic ink, black and white. It was essentially a compendium of zines. It ran reviews — a small write up of what the zine was about — with contact info.
We bought one, took it home, and immediately started our own zine.
We named it Bert the Bemuzzled Shopping Cart, after a shopping cart we’d liberated from a grocery store which became our mascot. We broke it up into sections like “Poetry that Didn’t Get Me Laid,” “Horrorscopes,” interviews with bands, etc.
You may be wondering how we found bands to interview. We called them on the phone. Literally. We would figure out where band members lived, call information in that town, ask for the number/s of people with the names of the band members, and call whatever numbers until we found the right one.
Or, if we went to a show, we’d stick around and interview them after, or go early and interview them before the show. You could go around back of the venue and catch them during the load-in.
I should clarify that the bands we were into weren’t famous, for the most part. We weren’t stalking The Rolling Stones; we were stalking The Swirlies. Honestly, they tended to be pleasantly surprised that someone would call.
I should also clarify that we knew nothing about interviewing people and had no intentions to learn. We would ask random, often nonsensical questions, like, “What’s your opinion on people named Bevan?” Or “What are your feelings toward slightly soured chocolate milk?”
We talked a lot longer with many of these musicians than one would expect. We quickly realized they were just people. One we called was just out of rehab, antsy and grateful for the distraction. One was out of work, struggling with the reality of maybe having to pawn his instruments. They might talk about their money problems or some new project.
We would type up our half-assed interviews, write a story about a brick making love to a streetsign, and Xerox the whole thing to sell at school. There were as many as half-a-dozen people involved at one time.
We got a listing in Factsheet Five and a fairly positive write up. People started sending us their zines to trade. Suddenly, we were sharing our dumb stuff with people from all over, who were also sharing their dumb stuff. We weren’t alone.
We made it three issues before the school board passed a state school board law to have us banned. (Technically, they banned selling magazines on school grounds, but it was because of us and another zine out of a nearby town.) We were threatened with expulsion, kicked out of the copy place we’d used. This was in addition to all the existential threats about our souls and what not. I remember our senior English teacher saying it was, “Pure hate.”
Part of their bile probably came from things like the page of mostly surreal clip and send hate mail (things like, “Your mom has a nice haircut”).
Let me head off that indignation by reminding you that this was about a 20 copy print run that was distributed among our peers with a handful mailed to wherever, and most of the copies left unsold. I’m not saying it was great what we did, but it was funny.
One of our “editors” told the story that, when the principal announced that the zine was banned, her teacher had a copy on her desk, which she subtly slid into a drawer.
Our saving grace is that the authorities didn’t actually know who we were (with a couple exceptions of teachers we actually trusted). The first thing we’d done was come up with aliases and fake bios. Many of the bios weren’t for real people. This wasn’t because we were thinking ahead; we just thought it was funny.
One guy used his real name, unfortunately, on an essay about why he’d run away from home. He was the only one that was caught.
While all this was happening, I graduated, and everyone blamed the whole thing on me, which was fair. The other “editors” got off.
That fact that we could get so much attention for something we made was kind of a watershed moment for me. Later, when I went to college, I started sending writing to literary journals and websites. I don’t think I ever would’ve had the courage if it weren’t for our crappy little zine.