Something like 87 years ago, my friend Ray Miller had a zine. A zine is like a tumblr account, except it’s on dead trees, and instead of pictures you take of yourself with a cell phone camera, it has words on it. His zine was called Metal Curse, and it was essentially a way to get to meet bands and get free crap from record labels before it got into stores. And in Indiana, it was a way to get things that never showed up in stores, because the absolute best music store within 50 miles of my house was a 45-minute drive away, and was only marginally better than buying CDs at Wal-Mart. Also, at this point in time, most of my peers were extolling the virtues of an artist that largely advised us to stop and observe an occasion known as “hammertime,” and the only way you could talk to anyone interested in any music not designed in a government laboratory for sale at malls was to write a letter to some dude in Sweden or Japan, and the only way to get in touch with these people was to read a poorly-photocopied publication ordered through the mail.
In my second year of college, I went to IUSB, a commuter college that was mostly parking lot, and I hung out with Ray a lot, mostly driving around, skipping classes, and listening to thrash metal bands like Helloween and Napalm Death. He did three issues of his zine and was starting to pick up steam with it, getting more self-produced demo tapes in the mail to review. Back then, zines had reviews of albums or demo tapes, interviews with bands, and news updates about bands, usually a giant bulleted list of who was releasing what or where they were touring or who broke up or whatever. But there wasn’t much else as far as content. You couldn’t really have cool pictures, because they didn’t photocopy well, and every picture turned out looking like a black and white thermal map of Uganda taken from a plane window. Outside of NASA, digital photography didn’t exist, and even if you had a decent camera, good luck getting it into a show. Most of the zines out there were also not well-crafted literary journals honed by intellectuals either, and sometimes the writing was funny, but 90% of the interviews out there asked the same exact ten questions. Zines weren’t known for their in-depth editorial content.
I wasn’t a writer back then. I helped teach a writing class in the English department, oddly enough. But that mostly involved telling people they had to press Shift-F7 to print, and walking distressed students through the procedure involved when underlining words in Norton Textra, this horrible WordPerfect clone we used. I studied computer science, and spent all of my free time trying to learn C and write games and whatever you did to waste time before the web was invented. (Tetris, I think. And downloading crap from anonymous FTP sites.) I took one writing class, and the teaching assistant either liked my stories a lot or wanted to sleep with me; looking back at what I wrote then, it must not have been the stories, but you should have seen the glasses I used to wear back then. But I didn’t consider myself a writer, and certainly didn’t do it in my spare time for fun.
At some point, I suggested to Ray that I should write an advice column for his zine. I don’t know if I asked him to do it, or if I just wrote it first, but I had this idea of a fake Dear Abby sort of thing. I think I subconsciously ripped off this idea from a free newspaper I used to read in Bloomington. Or maybe it was because one of my parents gave me a copy of Dear Abby’s Guide to Sex for Teenagers, and I thought this was the funniest damn thing I’d ever read, and wanted to write something just as humorous. One night I fired up that cyan-on-blue screen of WordPerfect 5.1, and cracked out a handful of fictional questions mailed in from readers. I don’t know what inspired me to come up with the name, especially because now it takes me years to name anything, but I called the column “Dear Death.” It probably had to do with listening to that Metallica song “The Four Horsemen” 58,000 times a week.
I gave Ray a laserprinted copy of the column, and he put it in issue #4. At the time, he used this GEOS program instead of Windows, and did the whole zine in its word processor, then printed it out on his dot matrix printer, so that one page looked an order of magnitude better, and he rushed out and bought his first laser printer. If you were born before 1990 and have no idea what a dot matrix printer is, I wouldn’t even recommend going to a museum and looking at one, they are such huge pieces of shit. I spent most of my tenure as an IUSB computer consultant un-fucking these Epsons where the tractor feed wheels would get jammed, and the ribbons would gum up or get unspooled, and some deranged bored housewife type would keep jamming it worse and worse until it involved stripping the whole thing into tiny pieces and realigning every little piece.
Anyway, #4 turned out great. I didn’t do a column for #5, but then wrote one for the next seven issues. Luckily, those seven issues took like a decade to put out, so I had plenty of time to come up with new ideas. I did five issues of my own zine during the timeframe of Metal Curse #6 and #7 (although mine was way shorter and had less stuff in it) and some time after #7, I started calling myself a writer and chipping away at my first book. But these columns pretty much mark the start of my writing career.
Metal Curse had 13 issues as a print zine. Ray recently resurrected it as an online site, and has started with a lot of new reviews, plus he’s slowly bringing online the back archive of old stuff. And part of that is the Dear Death columns, which means you can go read all of them online. The writing is much different than what I do now, and I don’t really listen to that much death metal anymore, so it’s both embarrassing and interesting to look back at this stuff. Anyway, you can check out my columns at http://metalcurse.com/index.php/dear_death.