It's 1975 and in LA's sleepy South Bay, Back Door Man magazine is defining a proto-punk attitude… Don Waller talks to Ron Garmon
Intro by Kim Cooper, editrix:
When I was a kid in Hollywood in the '80s, the folks who worked at record stores were much cooler than they are today. The city was still cheap enough that a clerk's wages could finance a civilized life, so hep cats with insatiable appetites for new vinyl could spend years behind the counter at Rhino, Aron's, or my uncle David's Record Connection, dispensing snarky opinions on your purchases or just leaning on the counters digging the latest sounds.
I'm not sure when I became aware that Rhino perennial Phast Phreddie Patterson had once been a principle in a mag called Back Door Man--possibly from Danielle Faye, the exquisitely laid back Record Connection staffer whose sister D.D. was also a BDM alum. I didn't see a copy until the mid-'90s, and when I finally did I was intrigued by the writers' passion and their efforts to locate and interpret worthy cultural excrescences in an era where bloated excess was too infrequently punctured by real, raw art. During the magazine's short life, punk rock exploded, making it much easier for weirdoes to find good stuff. Magazines like BDM had a small but undeniable influence on the emerging underground, and it's fun to go back and watch them grasping at the straws that would eventually form a movement.
I've seen BDM's Don Waller around for years, but first got talking with him while promoting the Scramarama festival. I called to see if he might want to write about the show for the L.A. Times, and ended up spending a couple hours enjoying his tales of SoCal childhood and thirty years as a rock and roll writer. When Dave Laing (whose Dog Meat Records in Australia released a posthumous LP by Don's Imperial Dogs) suggested we interview Don for Scram, I thought immediately of putting him together with Ron Garmon of Worldly Remains mag, since Don and Ron are two of the most verbally adept, opinionated and well-dressed writers on the LA scene. Sure enough, they hit it off famously…
(note: the conversation is punctuated with much coughing and gargling; Waller’s nasal rasp is funny and confiding, as is his feline moan over terminal vowels like “y’kno-ow”)
Scram: Great, the commentators now interview each other…
Don: Oh, I’ve interviewed writers before. I understand why Studs Terkel didn’t include writers in his book, Working. We think too much about stuff. (cigarettes are lit)
Scram: As background, what L.A. radio stations were you listening to back in the early '70s?
Don: In the very, very early ‘70s, way before we started Back Door Man, KDAY was still pretty cool, because Bob Wilson was programming it. He ran it like a Top 40 version of an FM station, where you had three songs in a row, then spots and promos, then three songs in a row, and he’d play a lot of weird stuff. You’d get things like “Rattlesnake Shake” or “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac, and odd things. It was kind of the free-form era. When that went off the air, KROQ was around for a while and went away for a while. Look, the standard AM/FM stations were just, by ’74, they were just hopeless. I mean, you heard what you heard.
Scram: To quote the biographical statement you gave Brendan Mullen for the We Got the Neutron Bomb LA punk book: “FM radio sucked. Everything was either paid-by-the-note prog shite, downer-fueled heavy metal or kozmik kowboys Eagles krap. This was 1975.”
Don: That’s pretty much the way it was.
Scram: At about what time did free-form FM radio begin to die in this town?
Don: (long pause, Waller’s face contorts into baroque angles suggestive of thought) About 1972, for sure it was dead. You started with B. Mitchell Reid and Tom Donahue doing KPPC out of that church in Pasadena. That was where it started and that was just it. They did six hours, three hours of each, before it became a full-time station. I was still in high school, so this hadda be about ’68, ‘69. There was a great poster I wish I had, which said, “What kind of person listens to KPPC?” and had a picture of Jimi Hendrix. I think they did a couple like that, but that one was the best. Then there was KLOS and KMET as yer big FM powerhouses, but they gradually got corporatized, and there were strikes and stuff like that. Occasionally you could listen to weird shit on the radio. I remember the Credibility Gap on KRLA, and I can also remember Radio Free Oz, with the Firesign Theatre guys on KPPC. Johnny Otis’s show used to be on Sunday night on one of the FM stations. He used to have Shuggie [Otis] on, and they’d play with people. KUSC, before it went Classical, used to have student bloc programming, and there was this guy named "Memory" Lane Quigley who played nothing but '50s-type oldies, which was kinda cool. This was before American Graffiti came out. I remember listening to that in college. Rock 'n’ roll wasn’t that old, so, like in the mid-'60s when the Beatles came out, on Memorial Day weekend they’d have these Million Dollar Weekends where they’d play the library of gold hits. You’d hear the Five Satins doing “In the Still of the Night,” or the Flamingos' “I Only Have Eyes For You” and go, “What the fuck was that? That was a great record.” There was also the Wolfman. I just discovered him one night. Really early on, he was playing Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Mama Thornton. Later, he got into more contemporary R&B, but it was still great. And his act was just fuckin’ great. By ’74, this shit has all but vanished.
Scram: Tell us about the founding of Back Door Man. Who were the people involved?
Don: Okay, Phreddie called me up one day and said, "I wanna start a magazine and I wanna call it Back Door Man.” I was living in Carson at the time, and I said, “Yeah. Good. Let’s get D.D. Faye to write for it.” She was my girlfriend, and she could write. “Let’s get Bob Meyers”—‘cause he lived around the corner from me when I was a kid, and I still knew him and I knew he could write. We both wanted our pal Tom Gardner and the Underwoods, too. That was the original hard-core staff. We’d met the Underwoods when Phreddie and I taught an extension class at UCLA. Liz had a bunch of vintage photos and fancied herself a photographer. Don was just a funny, cool guy. In retrospect, I miss Don Underwood’s voice in the later issues. He was a big champion of Roxy Music and Eno and weird stuff like that. There was a whole horrible falling-out early on with all that.
Scram: Was it over the direction of the magazine?
Don: No, it was more of a personality conflict. There were issues of responsibility and who’s doing what, etc, etc. Certain people weren’t happy with Liz, and they were a package. Stones were thrown and stones were thrown back. But that was the original crew and that’s how it came together. Phreddie typed it over at El Camino College and that’s why those first issues were just rife with fuckin’ errors! Spelling errors, grammar, all that stuff. It was very much a learn-by-doing kind of experience for us. I mean, none of us were journalism majors; none of us had worked for newspapers. Or anything.
Scram: What kind of local rock press did L.A. have in those days?
Don: I think the L.A. Free Press had just about folded. There really wasn’t any. The Times didn’t do much with the local scene. There wasn’t much happening. Let’s review: At the time, the Whisky was closed for a coupla years. The Roxy was running this “El Grande de Coca Cola” musical thing in there. The only way you could get into the Starwood doing originals was if you had a record deal. Most of the time, it was Quiet Riot doing their Slade act or something like that. There was no club to play per se. If you were doing original material, there weren’t a lot of places to play. Local radio wasn’t giving anything out.
Scram: There wasn’t any local scene for the magazine to support.
Don: There wasn’t much of anything. You could rent a union hall, say Mr. and Mrs. Joe Blow are gonna get married and you bring in a band. (pauses to consider)… Yeah. Yeah. It was a wasteland.
Scram: What was to be the point of the magazine, then?
Don: Well, we just thought the other magazines all sucked. We got really tired of ‘em all. Our goal was to write about music we cared about in a way we wanted to write about it. Nobody was saying anything about anything we cared about, so we thought we should do this ourselves. It was just frustration, I think.
Scram: I’ve had problems with printers over content. Did BDM?
Don: Yeah! We switched printers a coupla times, partly over rates, partly over who would do it. Most people didn’t want to bother with something that small. I remember that, after the last issue, the printer didn’t want to do it, and I think it was ‘cause of that shot in the back where all the one-liners are, where the girl's clutching that latex dress. We took that out of a magazine called The Lure of Latex or something like that. We did that as a center spread. It’s nothing revealing really, just suggestive. They said, “We don’t want this. We don’t like this. We don’t want the language.” I remember going down there in a suit to talk to people, saying, “C’mon, man, this is a money deal. We’re willing to pay. You can increase the price from what the previous printer was charging.” The manager of this place said, “No, we don’t wanna do it.” What can you say? The last two issues had foldouts in ‘em, for God’s sake. What good is that? The Johnny Rotten foldout is really good, and the flip of that, where D.D. does the reportage from the Winterland show with the Sex Pistols was the best thing we ever did. It’s a really good piece. I also liked the way that, when we got it in from D.D., we said, “Why typeset it? Let’s just shoot these pages with the editorial notes in the margins and all across." I thought that was the best piece of art direction I did. I’m very happy with that.
Scram: What was the record company gravy train like in those days?
Don: Probably richer than it’s been in the last three months. There were things like, say, when Ram Jam played the Starwood on the strength of “Black Betty.” Nobody wanted to go see ‘em, so Pat Siciliano, the publicist, ordered buckets and buckets and buckets of Pioneer Chicken. There were unlimited tabs, if you can believe that. We were never as abusive as some people were. Maybe there were some nights when Phreddie or somebody might’ve abused a tab. We would ask for multiple tickets, like all six of us needed to get in. Or eight, or whatever the fuck. Nobody gave a shit. There was certainly a lot of largesse back then, but we were so naïve! If I knew then what I know now! We didn’t loot ‘em. The people and companies who took out ads really liked, or pretended to like, what we were doing for their acts. It was all good publicity and all good. We actually did refuse certain advertising for acts we didn’t like, which was really dumb as shit. When Casablanca was running that ad for Angel [Punky Meadows’ cutie-pie '70s metal act whose White Hot (1975) was a stoner favorite and critic’s despair], we told them we hate that fuckin’ band. What the fuck were we thinking?
Scram: Probably of all the “sell-out” letters you’d get.
Don: At the end, we didn’t get a lot of letters because we started making fun of everybody in the letters so viciously that they’d never write in. Which was stupid! We’d take the hate mail and trash it. And if you didn’t hate us, we’d make fun of you, too.
Scram: What was performer access like in those days?
Don: Pretty good. When Patti Smith played the Whisky that was the first time we went backstage there. She played for a bunch of people who didn’t give a fuck. She was the opening act for some fucking band I can’t remember. There weren’t a lot of people there, but we went every night. It was amazing. We went back and hung out with her and Lenny Kaye. She emboldened us and encouraged us a great deal. We were The Press. We were always on the list at the Starwood, for example, and they made their money because we drank like fools. Part of that was because Eddie Nash owned it. Y’know who I’m talking about?
Scram: Tell me.
Don: Eddie Nash was the guy who was implicated in those Wonderland Murders [A particularly sordid affair involving racketeering, drug dealing and the 1981 beating deaths of four people in a “highly secured” house in Laurel Canyon; the bloody handprint of porn star John Holmes was found at the scene, but he was acquitted and the case remains unsolved.] He owned the Starwood, the Odyssey, the Seven Seas and a few other clubs in town. It was fucking organized crime, mostly a front for drug dealing. We’re talking Tony Soprano now.
Remember, things were a lot cheaper then. Tickets were a lot cheaper. There was no restricted parking. You could park for free in West Hollywood and walk up to the Whisky. Even if you got hosed for the ticket and hosed for drinks, you still could do it. We were big Iggy Pop fans and would hang out on the fuckin’ street for two hours waiting for the Whisky’s doors to open. We ate copious amounts of marijuana brownies and lots of white crosses too. Lids were ten bucks.
Scram: How was distribution?
Don: Of the publication? Well, originally we just sold it in local record stores, then we did a lot of mail order to stores across America. The last several issues, I think we were distributed by Jem, the import retailer that also handled Bomp! and that kind of stuff. Everything with a $1 cover price was distributed by Jem. A lot of people wrote in for subs. Remember, there was no MTV, no Internet, no way to get this stuff around, so it was all word of mouth. We tried to get into all the big record stores like Tower, or certain record stores in Cleveland, Boston or wherever.
Scram: Did you initially design it as a local magazine?
Don: No. We wanted to cover the local scene, because somebody should. The local scene shifted from the kind of bands playing hall parties in the South Bay to the Runaways, the glitter scene, stuff up here in the city. I covered Kim Fowley’s “New Wave Night” or whatever the fuck it was called at the Whisky, which was just (puckers) horrible. Kim just let whoever showed up first get up on stage. Don’t tell me that the Germs were a great band. They were horrible.
Scram: There’s still a rather silly personality cult around Darby Crash.
Don: Yeah… I’ll just say that that was a load of shite. The music was shite; Darby was a load of shite. I’ve talked about this before. I can remember where I was when Darby died. I was sitting in our apartment over in West L.A. and we’d eaten all these mushrooms and we were waiting for Charlotte Caffey to get there. It was a rainy Sunday night and Charlotte comes in and says, “Darby’s dead” and we just all started laughing.
Scram: At what point did you start putting out records?
Don: We did two singles by the Pop, one single by the Zippers and the one Imperial Dogs single that came out after the band had already broken up. Back Door Man Records was a joint venture of me, Tom Gardner and Gregg Turner. We did those four singles and then dissolved it. Twelve fuckin’ years later or something like that, Dave Laing in Australia calls Ken Barnes, who’s like this real avid record collector, and says he really likes the Imperial Dogs single, and Ken tells him the guy who made it is sitting in the next office! Dave talked to me and I said I had a bunch of other shit on tape. I picked the stuff I liked and sent it down there and we put that record out.
Scram: From a pure vibe standpoint, compare the L.A. scene then to that of today.
Don: Well, it’s different. Certainly there’s a lot more media out there. There’s the Internet. Fanzines, lots of ‘em. The clubs are kind of weird, because L.A.’s in kind of a downward spiral right now. Look at all the fuckin’ tribute bands and shit. There’s not one band that’s broken out of L.A. recently. Back in the '80s, you had Van Halen, X, the Go-Gos, the Bangles, the Blasters, the Minutemen. All different kinds of music and the clubs were hoppin’. How can Silver Lake be so happening when there’s only two fuckin’ places to play? And you can’t put twenty-one decent bands on in a week? To me, the scene is very fragmented here in L.A. They don’t like this, won’t go see that. And the dance music scene has been bad, ‘cause it’s really cheap to hire a DJ. That was a problem back in the '70s too, y’know, when the whole disco thing came in. It’s gotta be healthier overall, because of the support systems. But I go out a lot and there’s nobody for whom I’d say “You just gotta see these people or set yourself on fire.” Maybe I’m just too far from the street, but I don’t see it.
Scram: I get around quite a lot and can say that there’s no there out there. Nobody’s talking about anything going on.
Don: Certainly it’s easier to make a record nowadays. We never had rehearsal spaces. If things would’ve happened a little later, because I walked away from music at a certain point, I didn’t play anymore. If I knew that a punk revolution was gonna come in two years and change the world, I would have stayed at it. By then, people were paying me more money to write about music than to play it.
Scram: That’s still the same.
Don: And I wouldn’t have to split it up four ways at the end of the night. I had a career at that point. Phreddie is a club DJ and does liner notes and obits, and he worked at Warner-Chappell music publishing in New York and ran record stores and stuff like that. D.D. is teaching ESL classes at Santa Monica College and Glendale. She’s got a Master’s in Linguistics. Tom sells food to restaurants and plays guitar with Paul Therrio from the Imperial Dogs in a band called the Wig Titans. They’re good. Gregg formed the Angry Samoans and wrote for Creem, but he teaches math these days. Oh yeah, he makes records with the Bloodrained Cows. But I’m the one person who really became a pro writer out of the whole thing.
Scram: How much did Lester Bangs wind up influencing the style and editorial direction of BDM?
Don: Oh, well, Lester was a great influence. I’d stand up on the bar and shout that. Also people like John Mendelsohn, y’know, whose work was really good. Personally, the biggest single influence on my writing was Nik Cohn. His Rock from the Beginning, I read in 1969. I got it out of the library; I was a poor kid. I never read anything I agreed with so much. I loved the way he told the stories. He’s the person that I stole the most from. Everyone else is secondary, tertiary or worse. Lester and the whole Creem thing was a big influence on us. Other people were more influenced by R. Meltzer than I was. Maybe Gregg Turner. We were also influenced by Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.
Scram: What was the origin of the inside back cover ad in issue # 3 that has Kim Fowley soliciting a girlfriend?
Don: He paid for it.
Scram: Was he serious?
Don: I can only guess at his motivation. I think it’s obvious. (laughter). I’ve always thought of Kim as an eccentric uncle. He’s very funny when he’s not talking about his own projects. When he’s talking about his own stuff, its just bullshit on bullshit. I would watch him work the phones and come up with weird slang and say things like “Gram Parsons is just a guy who knew a lot of George Jones B-sides.” He’s a pig. I really must say that. A lot of women find him disgusting.
Scram: So I keep hearing. Quite. There was some controversy about racial jokes in BDM.
Don: That’s more later as people looked back on it. I think that was Chris Stigliano, who has that fanzine out of Pittsburgh, Black To Comm. He did a piece on BDM a few years ago and didn’t talk to anyone involved. He just did what Chris does, which is spin his own interpretation of events, which I suppose is what any writer does. Somehow this came to my attention and I wrote him back a long letter, trying to clear up errors and misconceptions. The remark “David Bowie, I hope you O.D. on Afro Sheen” is a reaction to Young Americans. It was a joke. I mean, Bowie’s face was pasted onto Sly Stone’s body on that picture. There were a lot of bad things happening in black music then. I’ll say this. Me and Bob Meyers went to see P-Funk play the Forum on the Mothership Connection tour. Bootsy Collins was the opening act. There were 18,000 people at the Forum, and sixteen other people besides me and Bob were white. I know. I counted us. If you’re lookin’ at James Brown or P-Funk, you think, “What the fuck is Donna Summer?” A lot of that stuff was pretty bad. Why listen to the Bee Gees when you can listen to Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding or P-Funk? The jokes we made were sex jokes or homosexual jokes or racist jokes. It wasn’t like we weren’t going to make fun of David Cassidy just because his dad got burnt to a crisp. We made fun of Johnny Winter (“Albino more of his records after hearing this.”) and the Eagles (“Pissing and moaning about the good life is uncalled for.”)—all classic stuff. Just take it in context. Nowadays, in my own stuff, I don’t do that kind of stuff unless it’s put in the mouth of a very stupid character. I love The Boondocks comic strip. Aaron McGruder’s very good, but he’s in the community. He’s a black person writing about black people for black people, so he can get away with saying all kinds of stuff. If I were to go on Comedy Central with that stuff, I don’t know if I’d get away with it. I’d have to prove my bona fides first. I just don’t feel like having to explain the jokes. (sighs, very tired) I think it was somewhat of a different time.
Scram: How did you get contributors?
Don: People came to us. Lisa Fancher. Bangs and Meltzer might’ve been solicited. The only person we paid was Meltzer, who asked for thirty-five bucks. It says so in the piece. Lester did it for free, ‘cause he was prolific and he liked us. We never really reached out to anyone.
Scram: At what point did BDM begin to get noticed nationally?
Don: Pretty quickly. Around about the time we did the Runaways stuff, we started getting new orders. We were written up in Bomp! and some of the other fanzines. I’ve got some of those.
Scram: What ended the magazine?
Don: The aforementioned printer problems, also we were only getting 50% from distributors. We didn’t make as much money when we went national as we got when we self-distributed. Also, people had kind of gotten into their own thing. D.D. was busy managing the Zippers. Phreddie was busy being Phreddie. I was working at Radio & Records back then, a day job that was pretty time-consuming. A sense of frustration set in. Slash came along and was very popular. It was all new and had no history. Slash was like the biggest little small-town newspaper. It was this small community that all had their pictures and records in there and all wrote about each other and was one big clusterfuck. We were kind of scrupulous about avoiding that kind of conflict of interest. We thought we were a national magazine and not a fanzine (laughs). We thought, “We’re dreaming if we think this is gonna change the world.” Of course it did, twenty years later, but that’s another story. But it was pretty hard to compete with what was going on. Today, the standard rap goes: “First there was the Ramones, then the Sex Pistols, then Nirvana!” There was like fourteen fuckin’ years or somethin’ between the Sex Pistols and Nirvana! The Pixies, the Minutemen, Camper Van Beethoven didn’t happen? No indie rock, no punk rock, no Sonic Youth, no Black Flag? Nothin’ happened?
Scram: One can almost understand ignorance of textbook history, given the shitty state of education, but ignorance of history you’ve lived through?
Don: Not all of them have lived through it, but basically that’s the thing. There’s Punk Rock Mach I, which is what you find on the Nuggets box, which is kids in garages wanting to be the Yardbirds and the Stones. Punk Rock Mach II is pretty much what the Ramones produced. A different style of punk rock, which is still around in a weird form nowadays. Half of it is the come-join-our-gang shit, which is all just done to sell skateboard wear. Then there’s a segment of it that’s a little more committed. Punk rock is like suburban blues, it’s a little like Muddy Waters, the same themes rehashed with little differences. Suburban frustration. I don’t have a problem with it, and I can’t tell some thirteen-year-old kid who’s getting drunk for the first time or losing their virginity that this is not a valid aesthetic experience. Sit there and say music hasn’t been any good since Buddy Holly died? Fuck you! Music is better than ever now because there’s more new shit to listen to and there’s always the old shit to listen to and any old shit you haven’t heard is new to you.
RIP GREG SHAW
Greg Shaw remembers... The Sixties Zine Scene
from Scram issue #11, interview by Kim Cooper
When Bomp’s charming publicist Betsy asked if we would like to interview Greg Shaw about his record label’s illustrious twenty-five year history, we said we’d rather go back further still and discuss his role as publisher of one of the very first rock zines, The Mojo-Navigator. Although Greg insisted he didn’t remember very much about such things, he was kind enough to join editrix Kim Cooper over a lunch of Japanese diner food and to offer his (quite detailed) recollections on an important and poorly-documented period in pop history. Read on to learn about a time before Photoshop, Quark or the web, when people got their hands grubby when publishing, and rock writing could be damn near great...
Scram: When did you first started reading rock criticism?
Greg: In a magazine called Hit Parader, a teen mag that started in the ‘50s if not earlier, but changed drastically when Jim Delehant became editor, around ‘64. He was the only person writing about music in the early to mid sixties with any kind of intelligence. The other magazines were just like Teen Beat, 16, total idiocy. But Hit Parader was different; it had writers like Barry Hansen, who became Dr. Demento, people who were writing about rock and roll as if it mattered. Delehant was an inspiration to everyone I know who became a rock critic in the ‘60s. Another influence was Ralph Gleason, in the San Francisco Chronicle. He was mainly a jazz critic, but dealt intelligently with the rise of the “new rock” as time went on; he helped start Rolling Stone.
Scram: Hit Parader reprinted lyrics, right?
Greg: I believe it did, though not as much as other mags, like Song Hits. It also had articles, and in every issue there’d be something on some obscure band, like the Rising Sons, or some new band from the East Village would get a little feature. It was pretty hip for its time.
Scram: And that was based on the East Coast?
Greg: Yeah, New York. So that was the first influence on everybody who later got into it. I’d also like to make the point that to many people, the word “fanzine” describes these teen-exploitation magazines. It never did, nor was it used for the movie mags in earlier days. The term was invented by science fiction fans, who later introduced it to comics and other hobby groups. It came out of the tradition of self-publishing. Everyone who was into fandom had their own mimeograph machine, knew how to cut stencils, how to run it off, and enjoyed doing that. It was a form of craftsmanship. A lot of people made very elaborate, beautiful zines — they had nothing to say! They just filled them up with drivel and cartoons. Others tried to be slick and professional, but because it was essentially done by amateurs, the line was drawn.
Scram: Were those just exchanged?
Greg: Yeah. You could subscribe, but since everybody put out a zine you would just trade. I came out of that tradition, so did Paul Williams, Lenny Kaye (I have a zine of his, discussing music, published in 1960); the people I’m talking about were a part of what was called “fannish fandom”, as distinct from the serious book-reviewers, who were read, but not considered cool at all. Among fannish fans, nobody ever talked about science fiction.
Scram: Not at all?!
Greg: That was considered really dopey, to do that.
Scram: Oh really? So what kind of things other than music were discussed?
Greg: Personal journalism, comments on world politics, gossip, anything. It was like self-expression, trying to be entertaining and possibly humorous, cartoons, descriptions of parties, etc. It was one person’s personality and point of view, and the people who had a good personality and could express it became the stars of that world. Sometimes the same people would write for both factions, Ted White for instance, who later became the editor of Crawdaddy. I mean, I read all the books too, but it was so tedious to write about them. I didn’t wanna be a book reviewer!
Scram: So it sorta went without saying that you all liked sci-fi, but you tried to take a leap beyond that.
Greg: Yeah. It was actually about the culture of publishing these magazines, and meeting at conventions, and having parties. From the time that I was fifteen I hardly ever saw my family. On weekends there’d always be a party in Berkeley at Poul Anderson’s or Bob Silverberg’s house, and I’d go there and be surrounded by these older people, beatniks, whatever. Who was there...? Many people who later got into the rock and roll scene. Chet Helms, the guy who started the Avalon Ballroom, was the best friend of Bill Donaho, who was sort of the head of Berkeley fandom.
Scram: Is that the radio guy?
Greg: No, you’re thinking of Tom Donahue. Bill Donaho was one of the guys who brought Janis Joplin out from Texas. He also officiated at Chet’s wedding. You know, the secret connections behind everything always come down to people you never hear about, who put things together so other stuff can happen. It’s something I’ve seen over and over again, yet historians always neglect to mention it! There was a party I went to at his house around ‘63, and Dave Van Ronk was playing guitar and entertaining all of these serious science fiction writers! It could just as easily have been Bob Dylan. You’d be at a party with a hundred people in this little house in Berkeley, everybody’d be drinking, people would be making out. I was overwhelmed! This was so sophisticated to me, a fifteen-year-old kid from the suburbs; this was the world I wanted to belong to. And that was what science fiction meant to me — it was a social life. It was being surrounded by interesting people who were involved in all kinds of wild stuff that I wanted to know more about.
Scram: And plus you could make your statement, and they didn’t necessarily know you were a kid. They could read you and relate to you intellectually, and you could meet them and immediately be part of their scene.
Greg: Well, in my case at least, the naiveté must have been obvious. But no one judged you for that, if your taste was good. Sometimes I would be asked to write for their magazines, though I really didn’t have anything to say. I wasn’t a very good writer, but I was enthusiastic, and I was always encouraged for that. My zines were terrible; they would not bear reading now at all! But somehow I was recognized as somebody who had the right spirit, because I was welcomed into that inner circle of the coolest people. And that to me was what science fiction fandom was all about, and I think if you asked Paul Williams he’d say the same thing, although his interest in books was a lot more serious than mine. He’s edited and republished all the works of Phil Dick and Theodore Sturgeon, and I would never be able to take on a project like that. I may be as bookish as him, but he has a more traditional interest in the book publishing business, and the academic side of it. That never appealed to me at all. For me the idea of self-publishing was the first evidence that I knew about of the do-it-yourself aesthetic, going back to the late ‘twenties, when the first science fiction fans appeared. I don’t know of any other subculture that had a DIY fandom. Comic books, the film critique zines — all of that kind of grew out of science fiction fans. If you go back to the roots of it, there was always one person who started in science fiction and went off and said “Well, I know how to publish fanzines! Let’s do one for exploitation movies!” or whatever their interest was. So now people talk about fandom as if it were a universal thing, the word is even in dictionaries, but it started off with these guys who read pulp magazines and were writing for the letter column of Amazing Stories, and ended up writing to each other, and starting these little magazines.
Scram: Going back, who had the first actual science fiction fanzine?
Greg: I used to know all this stuff, but am no longer sure. I think it was Forrest J. Ackerman, or somebody like him. There were two or three guys who started back in the late twenties, and everything grew out of that. He’s still around, Forry.
Scram: Yeah, you can go to his house and see his stuff.
Greg: He’s a very nice man. He must be ancient.
Scram: He’s ancient and very flirtatious; it’s pretty kooky.
Greg: I always wondered if he was gay or what?
Scram: Oh no, he loves the ladies.
Greg: Well, he was very flirtatious with me too, when I was sixteen! (Laughter) But he’s a nice person.
Scram: He is. In fact, you can call (323) MOON-FAN, if you’re in Los Angeles, and go and visit him. Once a month he has an open house.
Greg: Well he, at the first science fiction convention I went to, which must have been about ‘62, ‘63, he was very gracious to me, took me out to breakfast, and a couple of other neophytes that didn’t know anybody. He was very kind.
Scram: You know the story about his grandfather and the Bradbury Building?
Greg: No, but that’s interesting you say that, because the first time I came to LA, a bunch of science fiction fans showed me around the city, and the first place they took me to was the Bradbury Building. They said “You’ve gotta see this place! It’s got nothing to do with Ray Bradbury, but it’s a great old building.”
Scram: Well, it’s to do with Forry and his family.
Greg: They didn’t tell me that.
Scram: His grandfather George H. Wyman — this is a very famous story in California architecture — he was a draftsman in an architect’s office, and in the late 1880s he was doing some fantasy drawings based on this book by Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, which projected what the world would be like in the 20th—
Greg: Yeah, I know the book.
Scram: Mr. Bradbury came in, and he was trying to find the architect to build his dream building. And he latched onto this kid and said “I want you to do it!” He said, “I’m not even an architect, I’m just a draftsman. I’m just doing these things for my own amusement.” So he went home to ask his family what they thought, and they were all spiritualists, so they got out the planchette, and the planchette wrote this backwards text which told him to go ahead and do it! It said “Take Bradbury building, you will be—” and then “successful” was written upside-down and backwards. And Forry actually has a photocopy of this he can show you. So he did it, he built the building, and it was the only one he ever did.
Greg: Great story! So it was this culture, this group of people, who had evolved this whole process of doing it yourself, personal journalism — which goes back to Montaigne and shit like that in the 17th, 18th century — but in modern terms, with the hectograph, and there was another one, with the carbon paper — what was it called? Ditto, I think. And also the mimeograph, these little machines you could use at home.
Scram: That’s the purple thing that you used to have in classrooms, right?
Greg: No, that’s ditto. It used carbon paper. Mimeo had a drum full of ink that you turned with a handle, and the ink came out through the typewriter cuts in a wax stencil. Alongside the history of sci-fi fandom, there’s also this association of independent publishers. They’re more into letter-press, doing really high quality, one at a time, perfect reproductions of nonsense, y’know. Just whatever comes to hand, they publish it. It’s the publishing that’s interesting to them. It’s parallel to that, except it’s more connected to pop culture, and I think out of that grew a lot of things, including the rock and roll fanzine movement, as far as I can understand. I mean, maybe I’m attaching too much importance to my own background, but I look at the people who started it — there were only like three or four people who started it, and all of us came out of that scene. Except for a few who came from jazz and folk, where there was a small tradition of fan publishing, at least as far back as the early sixties that I’m aware of.
Scram: And you all had your own equipment already.
Greg: Yeah. I’d done a couple hundred zines already before I thought of writing about music.
Scram: Were there any women involved, or was it pretty much a male scene?
Greg: Yeah... sort of. They were more active on the social side of the scene, but some were among the most respected publishers. Not so much in the rock and roll, but there were a few — now I’ve got to remember the names. They were cartoonists, mostly. Jay Kinney, who was the original art director for Bomp (and later editor of Gnosis, the big slick occult zine), was also a science fiction fan, and he published his own magazines, which were totally great. He was friends with Bill Griffith and a bunch of other people. And there was this one girl, I can’t remember her name, she became very well known as a cartoonist. And there was another who became very wealthy. She has the exclusive franchise to all the Betty Boop cartoons and merchandising. They’re all in San Francisco.
Scram: Is one of them Trina Robbins?
Greg: Trina, yes! That’s the main one I was trying to think of. She was very active in science fiction in the fifties and early sixties. But as a writer, I can’t think of who came out of it. Of course Marion Zimmer Bradley came out of science fiction and went into something else, sort of founded the women’s branch of the archaic revival movement, or whatever you call that stuff! I was actually there at the party in her backyard where the SCA was launched. Who knew where all that would go!
Scram: I guess most of the rock writers who were women were on the East coast.
Greg: I’m trying to think of who. I mean, later, in the seventies, I can think of a few, but I can’t think of anybody in the real early days.
Scram: Lillian Roxon?
Greg: Lillian Roxon, yes! When did she come along?
Scram: She’s from Australia, ‘67-’68 I think.
Greg: I don’t think she started writing that early.
Scram: Well, that huge encyclopedia of hers is from 1969; she couldn’t have written that all right then.
Greg: No, I suppose not, but that was the first thing I saw of hers. I don’t know if she wrote for magazines before that. She was terrific. She was one of the most fun people I ever met, really nice person. It’s a shame she died. I met her through Danny Fields, in 1971.
Scram: You started the Mojo-Navigator in August of 1966—
Scram: I did get to read them last night online, and you were not the editor, actually, David Harris was.
Scram: And who was David?
Greg: He was a guy I went to high school with, and when we got out of school we got an apartment together in the Haight, along with a couple of other friends, Geoff Evans, who was the art director, and somebody else. I had my mimeograph machine set up in the apartment. Dave was one of these real serious, critical kinda guys. He knew about blues, which I’d never heard of, and all these weird new bands from England.
Scram: I could tell that from his articles.
Greg: A Greil Marcus type! And he said — we both just kinda realized, we could do a zine! I knew how to publish it. “Hey, we got a barn, we could put on a show!” (laughter) There was a void. There was a scene happening all around us, we knew all the people, why not start a zine?
Scram: So when did you think that, in July?
Greg: Yeah, I’m not really sure. Did we start as late as August?
Scram: August 8th, ‘66, first issue.
Greg: I thought we started sooner, but I don’t know. I know we moved up there at the beginning of summer, as soon as we got out of high school.
Scram: It was almost like instant journalism. You got the idea, you went out and put it together.
Greg: Yeah, and wrote it up. He wrote most of it, I wrote some.
Scram: You were the technical consultant mostly?
Greg: I was the publisher, I think we called it “managing editor.” I cut the stencils, and any color in there I did—
Scram: Oh, was there color?
Greg: Whenever possible. I loved doing color. With a mimeograph, you can run the same page through three or four or seven or eight times, and get multiple colors and different moiré effects. I used to enjoy that side of it.
Scram: Did that influence The Oracle, do you think, seeing what you guys were doing?
Greg: Could be. I had a meeting with those guys when they were thinking of starting, ‘cause we had already been publishing for a couple of months or longer, and we were the only underground paper in the Haight — if you can call it underground. It was just a fanzine, but it was sold in a handful of stores around the Haight.
Scram: What stores was it in?
Greg: (laughing) The only one I can remember is Cosmo’s Grocery Store! But it was in the Psychedelic Shop too, I’m sure. There weren’t too many places to put it. There were a couple of clothing stores. The print-run was 100, and then it became 200, then it became 300. It was very small. We would sell it at gigs. We were always on the guest list, so we’d go to the Fillmore or the Avalon and have a few copies and sell it or give it away. It was just really a pretext to be involved in the scene, to do something. It wasn’t about making money, although we could certainly use the money!
Scram: The first issue was free, and it was a nickel for the next one, and #3 was a dime.
Greg: But that was a lot of money in those days. I was living on a hundred bucks a month! (laughs) But we didn’t make a living from it or anything.
Scram: So that was real money; you actually wanted to get that for each issue?
Scram: When you would leave them in a shop would they buy them from you outright, or would they give you half?
Greg: (still chuckling) Half.
Scram: Half? It’s the same way now. Did you have any trouble getting paid?
Greg: I don’t recall. It didn’t matter. We got into all these shows for free that woulda cost five bucks. We got to meet everybody. We were like celebrities! It was as good as being in a band. The bands all looked at us as equals — “we’re the bands and you’re the press.” We’re the press now! We don’t have to be Ralph Gleason writing for The Chronicle. We’ve got this little hundred dollar mimeo machine and we’re the press. It’s great! We knew all the bands in town, so we started interviewing them one at a time. And after we’d interviewed all the local bands, or at least the ones that we didn’t hate, we got to meet the bands that came from England and other places — the Blues Magoos, all these kinda bands — and we’d just hang out or interview them. It was great, just being part of the scene. I remember one big show at the Cow Palace where Suzy and I got to be backstage; about twenty bands were playing, including the Who, which I remember because Entwhistle was rude to her. Girls were screaming behind ropes. I signed a few autograph books, “Peter Noone” or something.
Scram: Did you start getting free records pretty quickly?
Greg: Yes. I know by early ‘67 I was on the mailing list from all of them, either from the record companies, or more likely it was local distributors in San Francisco who would represent like twenty labels. And you’d go down to their office and they would just pile you up. And then you’d get stuff in the mail too. I even got stuff in the mail from independent bands in other cities, like I got something from Little Phil and the Nightshadows in Atlanta! And the Deviants sent their self-produced album from England.
Scram: Does that mean that your magazine was getting to those places?
Greg: I’m sure it was. After a few issues we had national distribution because there were people, pockets, here and there. Like Barry Kramer in Detroit was distributing zines. He later started Creem, but before that he was a magazine distributor, so he handled a few, and there was a guy in New York who took a few, so they got around. And then at some point some people I was acquainted with (Chester Anderson and his “Communication Company”) got this idea to start an Underground Press Syndicate. Dave and those guys weren’t involved — Dave moved out of the apartment to Marin, and after that I was running the magazine. They were writing, sending their copy, but I was pretty much left with the chore or the job of running it, paying for it, distributing it, all that stuff. So I got involved with planning and organizing the UPS. They put out a list of all of the affiliated magazines, thirty or forty, and these were all like the big underground papers, The Berkeley Barb and the equivalent in every city around the world. Once you were on that mailing list every member had to mail their zines to every other one on the list, so I was getting all these zines, and then from being on the list I was getting records and other stuff too.
Scram: So it was a single copy, or you were sent them to distribute?
Greg: No, you’d just get a single copy, they put you on their mailing list. So it was like a network. There was visibility for us in it, ‘cause there weren’t that many magazines.
Scram: Although pretty soon there were.
Greg: But I think we were the only one that was actually a music zine. The others were all [somewhat derisively] hippie magazines, tabloids mostly.
Scram: And more expensive.
Greg: I dunno, a quarter?
Scram: That’s a lot of money back then.
Greg: The thing with the hippie magazines, they made money by selling to tourists. Thousands of people would come to the Haight-Ashbury on guided bus tours to see the hippies, like you go to one of those zoos where they drive through — look! there’s the rhinoceros! (laughing) And you’d see the hippies on the street, and they’d be selling these— or they’d be driving through in their cars, and you’d just stand on the street and sell your Berkeley Barb to the straights, and a lot of people made a living doing that. Or The Oracle. Even though it was only a quarter, they’d sell lots of them, and you could buy all the dope you needed. It was a whole economic factor in the hippie community. I used to stand out on Haight Street and sell Mojos too, if I felt like being a part of the circus.
Scram: If you just wanted to hang out?
Greg: No, if I felt like getting a few bucks together to buy a burger! Or meeting some people. That’s how I met Suzy. But yeah, it was like hanging out too. It’s always better to hang out when you’ve got a purpose in being there. I wasn’t gonna panhandle! I really objected to these people who came to the Haight and just hung out and made it trashy, ‘cause when I started to go there everybody was doing something. They were running a shop or in a band — they were contributing to the community. And I felt that I was a part of the community and wanted to make my presence known. But there came a point when that was not what was happening.
Scram: It was just a real slacker culture.
Greg: In ‘66 it was a small, creative scene; by the middle of ‘67, the Summer of Love, that whole culture had vanished. All those people had moved to Marin (or Oregon, or Taos, or... ) and there was nobody left except the hippie capitalists, and the tourists, and the runaways. It was a very different scene. I soon realized that and I kinda drifted away and eventually moved to Marin myself.
Scram: When did you move?
Greg: Oooh, must have been late ‘67? Yeah.
Scram: Did you keep copies of everything, or did you think of it as sort of an ephemeral thing?
Greg: I kept everything, and I don’t know if I still have it, ‘cause when they moved from Bomp they threw away a lot of things they considered trash. I had a whole big box of all the hippie magazines that had been sent to me — hundreds of ‘em! At one time I thought of trying to sell them, and I had an offer from somebody, so I collected and cataloged what I had, and then I never saw that box again.
Scram: I would think that a library would want those.
Greg: It may still be there somewhere, but I’m suspicious because I haven’t seen it in years. I used to go in there and look for it, but it vanished somehow.
Scram: Gee, I hope you find it.
Greg: A lot of things have vanished. It’s sad. But I’m sure most of it is still there somewhere.
Scram: Well, if you want an archivist...
Greg: I don’t really wanna archive this, I want to sell it! I wanna see it end up in the hands of someone who’ll put it to good use, either a university or —
Scram: Yeah, but that’s the first step, you have to prepare an accounting of what you have. A lot of people are doing that now, the whole performance art generation is starting to sell their archives at this point. Allan Kaprow just sold his to the Getty, some of the Fluxus artists. So that’s the people who were active in the early sixties.
Greg: Well, I was telling Rodney the other day — we were being interviewed for this rock and roll museum that’s starting in Seattle — and I was saying to him, “Y’know, Rodney, you still have all your stuff, right?” [in the Rodney voice] “Oh, yeah, archives, all this stuff.” I said, “You could sell that.” “Really???” “Yeah, yeah! If you ever need money you could get thousands of dollars — I bet these guys would be interested!” And I asked them, and they said, “Yeah, we’re interested in buying archives!”
Scram: They’re rich-rich-rich. That’s the other half of Microsoft.
Greg: Oh really?! Is that Paul Allen? Yeah, well I’ve always been looking for the right place. At one point Cal Arts offered me some kind of honorary degree in exchange for my papers—
Scram: No, no.
Greg: —but I didn’t think that was the right way to go.
Scram: No, there’s two rock and roll museums now, and you need to hold out for the right offer. What you have, nobody else has it.
Greg: That’s what I figure, eventually. I want the cash, but I don’t want the stuff broken up. That’s why I don’t want it auctioned off on eBay, because all the cherries will go off to different people and the other stuff will be left behind. If I have a complete set of some magazine or some record label — it’s hard to assemble a complete set of anything these days. I would like that to remain intact, where it can be in one place where people can consult it. I mean, people have come to my office for twenty years to consult, and do histories and encyclopedias. Almost every documentary book out there has at some point used me as a research source, for photos or — people from all over the world have come to look at this stuff. They can’t any more, ‘cause it’s all boxed away, but they always did. So I know it is valuable.
Scram: It is, and it’s worth hanging onto it and doing it the right way. That’s why it’s valuable, because everyone else got rid of it.
Greg: Well, I really think what makes my collection interesting is that I was such an avid collector, that I would make a point of having the complete set of everything. Even if there was one thing missing, and even if it was crap, I’d want to have it just so it would be complete. It’s just part of my nature: if I’m gonna collect something I do it totally. That’s why I stopped collecting, because it’s impossible to do adequately any more. Who can say, “I have every new wave record that came out before 1980?”
Scram: And do you?
Greg: Not anymore, because I sold some of them, but at one point I did! (laughing) How can you resist, when somebody says, “I’ll give you $500 for this Bad Religion single,” y’know?
Scram: What’s the complete collection of which you were most proud?
Greg: Oh, I don’t know. I have a lot of stuff. I have virtually every record released in the sixties.
Scram: What’s your favorite label?
Greg: Philles. I have all of those and all the spin-offs. That was my big inspiration in starting the label; I wanted to be like Phil Spector. I had the same numbering system, the same label colors (laughter) — the same everything! It was just my ideal of how it should be. Every record you put out is great, you’re the coolest guy around, (laughs) all the babes want ya!
Scram: You got guns, everyone’s scared of you!
Greg: (Cracks up) Yeah. I didn’t want that part. I didn’t realize at the time he was like that. In the early seventies nobody really knew how bad he was.
Scram: Hey, I noticed Gene Sculatti shows up in issue #10 of The Mojo-Navigator. Where did Gene come from?
Greg: He was one of the first people I knew in San Francisco. I don’t know why he didn’t write sooner. I think I had to talk him into it. He didn’t think he was a writer or something like that. But I knew him as a friend, he would go to all the gigs, so he became one of our staff writers.
Scram: Yeah, after he first appeared — he reviewed Simon and Garfunkel, and after that he shows up a lot.
Greg: I know it was the first place he wrote for, and then after I moved to L.A. I think he did. Other friends from up north, like Ken Barnes, eventually came down here and all got into the record industry. Gene’s a very valuable resource, because he knows so much. I think he contributes information to a lot of people, like Alec Palao in his history of local bands. Gene is always a consultant on those things. He has a very good memory for stuff that happened in the early days of the Bay Area. His books, the Catalogs of Cool, are very good, very insightful. And he also had an appreciation of lowbrow pop culture, I think he was one of the first — well, after Tom Wolfe, of course — but among the people I knew, he was one of the first to really get into all of that. He loved the car culture of Northern California; to me that stuff was just so lame! I was pretentious. (laughs) He loved it! He was the first person I knew who liked the Beach Boys. To me, the Beach Boys were people the surfer scum listened to, the kind of people who’d beat you up at lunch time at school! I didn’t want anything to do with those people.
Scram: That’s really funny; now it’s all the nerds who listen to the Beach Boys.
Greg: I don’t know who listens to the Beach Boys; does anybody?
Scram: Oh yeah. It’s big-time geek rock. Okay, so after yours there were lots of rock and roll fanzines in the early ‘70s—
Greg: No! Well first, in the ‘60s there were a few, I forgot to mention Vibrations, a very good zine from Boston. In the early ‘70s there were a few more. Primarily Alan Betrock’s zines; his first one was called Jamz, and he did a few issues of that, and then it became Rock Marketplace. And that was the best of them all. Better than Bomp at the time in the research department. I don’t remember what else there was. Heavy Metal Digest—
Scram: When was that?!
Greg: ‘73. That was what’s his name, that geek that wrote the Doors book. Danny Sugarman, that was his zine.
Scram: Oh, god.
Greg: And that was when he was hangin’ out with Iggy, so there was a lot of Iggy coverage in there. Denim Delinquent, around the same time. A few more I’m ashamed to admit I’ve forgotten.
Scram: You wouldn’t count Creem as a zine?
Greg: No, that’s a professional magazine. I’m talking about home-made things. (Although the attitude and the concentration on personal style were certainly there!) Fusion, for instance, was not too far behind Creem in the quality of its writing, but it was commercial too. And Crawdaddy, as it staggered through the years, was always worth reading.
Scram: You started doing Bomp in...?
Scram: That early? How much time was there between Mojo and Bomp?
Greg: The last issue of Mojo was in late ‘67 — and I pretty much gave it up because it was too expensive to publish a magazine when you didn’t have any money behind you. What killed it was going national. We got a national distributor and we were running off thousands of copies and sending ‘em out, and not getting paid. It just couldn’t support itself anymore. If it had just stayed local and mimeographed, it probably would have survived — although there was no scene in San Francisco by 1970, so it wouldn’t have survived forever.
Scram: The last ones were printed?
Greg: Yeah, the last two issues were offset printed. We lost money on those, and I had to come up with like $500 or whatever it is for the printing bill, and that was just too much money. And then Rolling Stone started, and they offered me a job, but I just didn’t like their approach. It seemed very L.A., very commercial, industry-oriented, slick — everything I didn’t want. I wanted this fannish thing, even if it was a professional magazine, I wanted it to look fannish, like Bomp eventually became, with national circulation of around 30,000.
Scram: I always thought Bomp looked good. It was simple, though, it wasn’t flashy.
Greg: It was informal, which is what bugged me about magazines like Rolling Stone. Creem was informal. Creem had a fannish personality to it, even though it was a professional magazine. Rolling Stone never did. So when that came in it just sort of took away the market for rock magazines. So I just kinda said screw this, and I dropped out of it. I got a job and worked for a couple years at the post office, but I was just never happy, ‘cause I missed getting in on the guest list (laughing), and getting all the records in the mail, being a part of it — I really missed it.
Scram: All those perks disappear pretty quickly.
Greg: Yeah, yeah. I still kept in touch with a few people, but it wasn’t the same. I felt cut off. So eventually I got around to starting something else. I still had the old mailing lists, and I just ran off 100 copies—
Scram: The first Bomp was mimeo?
Greg: Yeah, the first ten, twelve issues. Even the massive Lester Bangs issue, which was like 150 pages, all mimeographed.
Scram: Was it stapled in the corner?
Greg: Three staples on the side.
Scram: I wanted to ask you about Lester. What was it like to edit him — did you edit him?
Greg: Oh yeah, he was illiterate! His spelling was terrible. I didn’t edit his grammar, because that was his style, it was very unorthodox, but his spelling had to be fixed. And he was always wired when he wrote, and drunk, so he’d cross things out, and write stuff in, chaotic. A lot of the best writers aren’t really very good typists, and they can’t spell, so you have to edit to a degree. But I never edited his content. I would sometimes make a suggestion, like if his facts were wrong, but it didn’t really matter with him. Like the Count 5 thing (Scram starts giggling), I thought that was great, he got all these people looking for these five unreleased Count 5 albums!
Scram: People actually looked for them?!
Greg: They still show up on want lists, yeah! I love that, it’s brilliant.
Scram: And like Gene, that’s looking at something that’s so lowbrow, at a time when most people wouldn’t even think about it. What was your editorial approach? Did you like to pretty much let the writer shine?
Greg: Well, my most active days as an editor were at Phonograph Record, because there were so many writers and it was a monthly magazine. The budget was pretty decent and I could employ anyone I wanted to. I had all the best writers, and it was really fun, so I began to take myself seriously as an editor. But then I found that there was so much inconsistency among the writers, that if the magazine was to have a consistent tone or style of any kind, that I had to edit, to impose my own style when necessary. Which didn’t mean taking away the author’s style, more like making him sound less mediocre, but it meant creating a kind of focus. With the exception of people like Lester — you really had to get people to stay within bounds and keep on the topic. You’d give them 1,000 words and it had to be 1,000 words — they couldn’t go on for twenty pages. And besides the well-known writers that I was able to get, there were a lot of aspiring writers — Cameron Crowe was one of the people I was the first publisher of—
Scram: He was a kid!
Greg: He came to me with his little high school manuscript in hand, and I published him. He needed a lot of editing, but I saw some talent in him. There were a lot of young writers on the streets of Hollywood, they’d bring something in, and I’d say “Sure, why not? We can run your review of, uhmmm... Silverhead! Why not?” (laughter)
Scram: That’s the right audience for Silverhead, anyway.
Greg: Yeah, but I would always have to rewrite their stuff, ‘cause it was badly written, illiterate, wrong in some sense, so I would fix it.
Scram: I’ve never gotten to that point. I always felt that if you’re not a good enough writer to actually be published, I’m not gonna rewrite your piece for you.
Greg: But you would never make it in the publishing business—
Scram: Well, if I were doing that, I would—
Greg: That’s an editor’s job!
Scram: I know, I know.
Greg: I recently read something. Joan Didion, an excellent writer, she dedicated a book to her editor, who had recently died. She said without his encouragement and his guidance, and rejecting my manuscripts when they needed more work or when my thoughts were off-kilter, showing me the right way, I would never have become the writer I am. And that’s part of an editor’s job, helping a writer develop, to help him be a better writer. You can’t really escape that it you want to be an editor, and that was my philosophy. I didn’t know how other editors did stuff, but that’s the only way I could do it.
Scram: I think it’s different when you’re paying people. I feel like it’s almost obscene for me to tell someone it’s not good enough.
Greg: Well, that’s true, because we were paying people.
Scram: I’d rather just tell ‘em to take it someplace else.
Greg: But I would rewrite stuff for Bomp, too.
Scram: Yeah? Bomp always read beautifully, very clean, crisp.
Greg: Well, that was my policy. There had to be a certain — these words are so vague, but a certain consistency of readability, a certain knowledgability. You can’t have someone writing about something historical if their facts are wrong, or if they’ve drawn the wrong conclusions. If I thought you were really off base you had to do something about it. And a lot of time as an editor you have to delete things because there’s only two column inches on the page and they’ve got four column inches of type! (laughs) Prosaic things like that come up.
Scram: Were you limited with Bomp of how many pages you could afford to do?
Greg: Yes and no, it kind of depended on the level of advertising. There are certain thresholds. The normal threshold, 48 pages, and the next step up is—
Scram: 64, it’s still the same.
Greg: So what do you do, you get one extra ad to pay for those extra pages. So you keep a backlog of material. But I did, I took a very active role in writing, or rewriting, everything I published.
Scram: Who were your favorite writers?
Greg: Well, of course Lester. Dave Marsh. Mike Saunders I liked quite a bit. Charlie Gillett. Nick Kent. John Mendelssohn. I’m trying to think who else; I’ve forgotten so many of those people. I never liked Meltzer, I’ll say that.
Scram: Why not?
Greg: Probably because I didn’t care for him as a person. I thought he was completely full of shit and putting everybody on, and he published a lot of utter nonsense and called it art. Like his grocery list — I don’t think that deserves to be published! But he was one of those people, “If I take a shit, my shit is art.” I just am not in sympathy with that.
Scram: Maybe if you’re Piero Manzoni.
Greg: Well, he was no Jack Kerouac, or whatever he wanted to be. But he had his moments! But he was also really obnoxious, and we just never took to each other. He has his cult of followers, like Byron Coley adores him. I think Byron’s a better writer.
Scram: He’s a more interesting writer. I’ve skimmed through Meltzer — you skim, there’s no content for pages and pages. Every once in a while he makes an interesting point.
Greg: Did you read his book, The Aesthetics of Rock?
Scram: That’s what I’m thinking of, yeah.
Greg: He just did that for the advance money, y’know? You can just tell, the cheap cynicism running through it. But then there are flashes of brilliance, you can’t deny it.
Scram: Jeez, anyone who’s twenty years old better have flashes of brilliance, otherwise just forget it — get a real job.
Greg: I liked some of the writers in Crawdaddy; I thought that magazine had such a high tone that I could never aspire to it, ‘cause those guys had all been to Harvard or Bryn Mawr.
Scram: You didn’t go to college?
Greg: No. Sandy Pearlman was pretty good, and Paul Williams, within limits. Jon Landau in the beginning was good. Jon Landau was my editor at Rolling Stone, and he was a very tough editor. He made me rewrite things two or three times before he’d accept them, even a record review.
Scram: You did end up writing for RS?
Greg: Yeah, in the early seventies. For years I wrote reviews. They paid very well, a hundred bucks for a record review.
Scram: Did you ever print anything that you later regretted having printed?
Greg: Yeah! (Laughs) In Mojo-Navigator, I wrote an editorial against Paul Revere and the Raiders!
Scram: Yeah, I read that last night — I was gonna ask you about that!
Greg: I just thought that was so against what the Fillmore stood for, copping out for the teeny-boppers.
Scram: And now—
Greg: I know. It’s hard to live down stuff like that.
Scram: Well, luckily hardly anyone’s seen it. Would you like to make a formal apology now?
Greg: Yes, I love Paul Revere and the Raiders.
Scram: How old were you when you wrote that?
Greg: Seventeen. The thing is, it was very political. What bands you liked defined who you were. If you liked Paul Revere and the Raiders you were like a geek from the suburbs with a muscle car or something. If you liked Grateful Dead you were hip, you were a street person, you had savvy, you were like on the cutting edge of culture. You weren’t some geek tryin’ to pick up girls in a teen club! And if you were into Country Joe & the Fish, that said something completely different!
Scram: You had a long Grateful Dead interview, and you interviewed the Mystery Trend.
Greg: We were the first people to interview all those bands.
Scram: But you also interviewed the Doors, which I thought was strange. Did you think they were kinda hokey?
Greg: No, I loved them. But it was a funny interview... we didn’t publish that, did we?
Scram: Yeah, you did!
Greg: All I remember about that was goin’ to see them at the Matrix, and there were about ten people there. Nobody knew who they were. It was before their first record came out. And we hung out with them for like an hour after the gig, and we talked about drugs! Jim had just gotten back from Mexico, and was talking about these crazy mushrooms he’d ate down there and comparing notes (laughing) on exotic drugs that we’d tried. That was the only thing I remembered about the interview. I think we were one of the first to interview them, but I dunno if that holds up as journalism.
Scram: It’s an interesting slice of life, especially when you get people just before they’re about to become massive celebrities and not be normal people anymore.
Greg: A good example of that is the Big Brother and the Holding Company interview, ‘cause when they added Janis to the band they were really insecure. They thought that their fans would desert them. “Oh, a chick singer, how commercial, how lame.” So they came to our apartment, hat in hand, “Please, let us do an interview so we can tell the community that we haven’t sold out.” (laughs) It was so funny, they’re so nice, really sweet, down-to-earth people. They were my best friends in the scene. That was the interview that came right at the turning point for them. Almost immediately after that they got signed and made their record, but before that they had just been a local band that was known for really bizarre music. Blowing up their amps and doing these crazy guitar pyrotechnics and instrumentals. They didn’t have a singer, really — just Peter Albin, who wasn’t a real singer. They were like the Who without a singer, and suddenly they become this bluesy chick band!
Scram: That’s sorta unfortunate for them, ‘cause no one even thinks of them as musicians, just as her backing band.
Greg: Yeah. Jim Gurley was the best guitarist I’d ever seen. He could play faster than anybody I ever saw, and had amazing taste.
Scram: Who else out of that scene do you think was neglected?
Greg: I don’t think the Charlatans ever got enough recognition. They got critical acclaim, but nobody ever heard them, and the records that survive don’t capture them at all.
Scram: Do you still read zines?
Greg: I read Newsweek.
Scram: That’s not a zine.
Greg: I read Discover.
Scram: People send you a lot of stuff, right?
Greg: It goes to the office, gets processed there. They xerox the reviews and give ‘em to me; I don’t see the zines. I don’t even know if we keep them. I had every zine published since the beginning of time, and they were all at the old Bomp. I hope the ones they threw away were the tabloid local rock magazines that really were crap, like The Cleveland Scene, every issue from the seventies, we didn’t need that. Although the ones that David Thomas wrote for would be worth keeping. A lot of that stuff is gone, but I hope the real zines are there. I kept ‘em all. But everything from the last ten years or so most likely got dumped.
Scram: If people wanna send you zines, should they send them to you somewhere other than at Bomp?
Greg: No, I don’t really wanna see ‘em. I don’t know who any of the bands are anymore, so why would I wanna read about them? I dunno, it just doesn’t interest me. I mean, I do like good writing, and I like people who have something interesting to say, but I just didn’t see much of that going on in the music press, so I don’t read it. I’m probably missing things.
Scram: Well, you say you’re burned out on the whole zine thing, but I’m going to ask you this anyway. Speaking to a seventeen-year-old kid like yourself in ‘66, who wants to start a zine, what advice would you give him now?
Greg: The whole thing that defines a zine is the personality of the editor. If you don’t have an original point of view or something to say, you shouldn’t be publishing. That’s what first turned me off about the music press, because it had started out with people who had a very distinct point of view and something intelligent to say — even if they said it at inordinate length, if they said it well enough it was still worth reading. And then it just became a lot of people who wanted to be on the mailing lists who would just wrote these pat reviews. Nowadays it’s even worse — they’re writing it on the internet! They’re not even publishing! They want free records for putting it on their webpage. (laughter) And I just think it’s, like, enough already. I don’t see — yourself excluded, and maybe a couple others, Judith Beeman, a couple of others that do good zines — I just see such a low standard. The zines I do see — okay, some of them, like Vendetta, are pretty good—
Scram: Roctober, very good, Great God Pan.
Greg: Yeah, these are what a zine should be. They have some strong sense of identity and personality and a point of view. You know where the perspective is coming from, so it allows you to draw your own perspective on it. If some nonentity says (dolt voice) “this new record is great,” I’m not gonna go out and buy it! ‘Cause who’s he? But if somebody that I know where they stand, even if I disagree with them all the time, takes a position on something, then I can define how I would probably feel about it, and I can seek it out or not. That’s what I’ve always looked for in a critic, even in somebody as pathetic as Christgau, at least it would be an indicator of what my own position would be.
Scram: Did you like anything Christgau ever liked?
Greg: No! Oh, I may have liked some stuff he liked. I don’t like him or what he stands for, or his whole stance as a writer.
Scram: I don’t like the idea of “grading” records, it’s insulting
Greg: Yeah! What does it mean? Everyone wants a simple consumer guide, but there’s so many criteria you can grade a work of art on Of course the problem is a lot of it isn’t art any more, the whole point of making a record is maybe to cash in on the popularity of somebody else, and so it is pretty easily dismissable. And that’s another thing, music has gotten kinda depressing. I’m probably not hearing everything that’s good.
Scram: There’s way too much coming out, it’s hard to filter it.
Greg: And I feel the same way about zines. There’s musicians who should get a day job but they get away with it, and there’s people publishing zines who do not deserve to get free records and do not deserve to get in free at the local club.
Scram: There’s fewer and fewer paper zines than there ever were, though.
Greg: When I did it, the stuff I was writing wasn’t any good, but at least I was the first! (laughs)
Scram: Well, you were also documenting very immediate news. You were coming out weekly and—
Greg: That’s what I liked about it. It was a local news magazine that had gossip and all that kinda stuff. It had some value in documenting a period of time. But as writing, I don’t think it stands up at all, and it is embarrassing. As compared to say Crawdaddy, which was contemporaneous and had some very literate stuff in it.
Scram: But pretentious.
Greg: At times.
Scram: Not as much fun.
Greg: But at times it was just very good. The stuff on the Beach Boys, that needed to be documented too, and in the long run it’s a lot more important that that was documented than that the Mystery Trend. But I did what I could with what I found. Another reason to have a zine is if there’s some local scene that is not being documented by anybody. Like if you were in Seattle in 1990, the way Option was, or Op or whatever it was then. You document a scene and then you become Sub Pop! (chuckles) But just to start a magazine and write about all the free records that people give you, and say nothing but “this is pretty good... I dunno, I got stoned and I listened to it...” Who needs to read that stuff?! I’m just very cynical about it. I’d much rather be reading something I know is gonna be good. It seems strange, but I always am kinda in awe of people who can maintain the whole range of interests they had when they were twenty, throughout their lives. I don’t know how people like that do it. Tim Warren, never changes. I’m changing all the time. And I have to admire that kind of consistency. I was into garage music for a long time, but I’m sick of it now. I don’t know how people stay the same forever.
Scram: You’re not gonna start another magazine, are you?
Greg: How can you start a magazine when you have nothing to say, when you’re completely ignorant of what’s going on, and even if you knew about it you have no opinion? I don’t even trust opinions. I think every opinion is ill-considered, ‘cause you can always think of something that contradicts it. I know too much to be that opinionated. You have to be young, you have to be twenty, to have the courage of your bullshit convictions. (laughter) But all of those people who are the enfants terribles of literature are all gonna grow up and look back with disgust on what they’ve written. And it’s okay. I was very much the angry young man in my time, and now I just don’t give a damn.
Scram: When did you stop Bomp?
Greg: The magazine, ‘79. It wasn’t because I had stopped caring, but we were trying to do so much with the magazine that it could have been a full-time job, except that it was a full-time money loser. So I had to choose between doing that and making money, which meant doing a record label. And the label I thought offered more opportunities for creativity anyway. Magazines are kinda limited in what they can accomplish.
Scram: A magazine documents, but a label actually contributes.
Greg: I thought the two side by side were being kinda synergistic, but when either one of them becomes large enough it’s impossible. Unless I’d have hired five people — and still it’d suck, because without my personal attention it wouldn’t have been the same. So it had to go by the wayside. It was so much work. We were publishing lists of every new record that was released between issues, and all these historical encyclopedias. And the weight of that, keeping up the research and logging in every record, on top of all the other work I was doing, and traveling, recording bands, it was impossible. But I hadn’t lost my enthusiasm. If the internet had existed at the time, it would have morphed into an internet magazine. I would have enjoyed doing that.
Scram: You could have done it without any overhead.
Greg: Just the typesetting, the pasting down, using the stat camera — all the technology of putting it together was very time consuming. Taking it to the printer, coming up with $10,000 for the printing bill. But I work on my website a lot. I’ve always wanted to make it more like a magazine, but I don’t know exactly how to do that. I think that there are some essential differences, even though a website can be like a fanzine, it can’t really be the same.
Scram: There’s a physical immediacy of something that you can hold in your hands.
Greg: Yeah, well you can see, there’s a look and feel that you don’t get on the internet, because everybody’s website looks pretty much like everybody else’s, unless you try really hard. I try really hard to make mine look like paper, but there’s only so much you can do! (laughter)
All thirteen issues of The Mojo-Navigator are readable online at
Sidebar: MEMORIES OF MOJO
by Gene Sculatti
San Francisco, 1966. This was a long time ago. The Grateful Dead swung hard, fast and scary, and Peter Albin’s demented LSD-preacher stalked stages as Big Brother’s frontperson. More to the point, perhaps, the world was not yet drenched in pop-music coverage: no Rolling Stone, no major-paper “critics,” no coy procession of artists faking candor before MTV’s cameras. If you wanted to know anything about music beyond Mark Lindsay’s favorite color or the type of girl preferred by the Royal Guardsmen’s drummer — which is all that Top 40 radio and American Bandstand assumed anyone would want to know — you were out of luck. Over at the monthly Hit Parader, editor Jim Delehant snuck paeans to the Spoonful and Pet Sounds in between the hit- song lyric reprints, but that was it.
I must have seen my first Mojo-Navigator at the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street that summer. Here was this little, eight- or twelve-page mimeo, crammed with news — not just about local bands (“The Mystery Trend are with Tom Donahue and recording for Warner Bros.!”), but about roiling scenes elsewhere (New York’s Village, L.A.’s Strip) that, who knows, might rival our own Richter shake. Mojo’s writers covered Wolfman Jack (then a living, breathing, mysterious night-presence), gave faith-of-our-fathers testimonies to Spector, Chuck Berry and Fifties R&B, and offered opinions freely (“Why haven’t local promoters brought back [Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s] Rising Sons?,” griped editor David Harris. “Instead, we get repeat performances every three weeks by Love, an excellent but imitative and limited group”). Plus, Mojo wanted writers: “Articles, reviews and other manuscripts are invited. Free copies are available for contribution.”
I didn’t get into the magazine until Issue 10 (November ‘66). By then, I’d visited the Mojo offices on McAllister St. off the Pandhandle (they had a box full of promo singles in the hall, and you could take whatever you wanted) and met Greg and Dave. They were young guys like me but hipper, wired into this emerging world and, it seemed, aware that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of others like us out there, eager to exchange information and enthusiasms about rock & roll. I’d often run into Greg at the Avalon Ballroom; I recall shooting him an amazed look when Janis Joplin tore into the Chantels’ “Maybe” her first night with Big Brother, and more than once he and I grilled Chet Helms about why wouldn’t he bring the fabulous Seeds up to play. (I’d also started writing for Paul Williams’ Crawdaddy, the East Coast’s Mojo, by then, which rejected my over-the-top review of the Seeds’ Web Of Sound LP: what was with these guys?)
I’ll be forever grateful that the Mojo-Navigator published me, but the truth is my first work for them revealed me as sort of a one-note Johnny. Where their Sounds Of Silence LP rocked heavier, I opined, Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme was “content with lighter stuff.” The W.C. Fields Memorial Electric String Band’s “Hippy Elevator Operator” single was “the hardest recorded effort out of L.A. yet: a heavy fuzz bass bumps along throughout,” and Bobby Darin’s “If I Were A Carpenter” album I found “somewhat dull. The predominant sound is soft: no electric guitars.” Could there be any doubt this 19-year-old would grow up to give the Ramones debut a raised-fist rave?
Mostly, I recall the period and place as music-rich and ripe with surprises (“Howlin’ Wolf is coming to the Avalon in 2 weeks,” reported Mojo. “The newest group on the English scene is The Fix — the sound and image is roughly like The Who”). And that was the publication’s purpose: to be the principal news channel for that community in its crucial, most exciting days. In doing its job, Mojo preserved history and made some of its own; who’d have thought that its influence and inspiration would itself be the subject of an article almost forty years later?
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