Twenty years of e-publishing

I have been e-publishing for just a few days shy of twenty years.  Not twenty months.  Twenty years.

Back in 1989, my friend Ray started a zine.  We listened to a lot of obscure metal, thrash and death metal, and you could barely find Metallica tapes in northern Indiana back then, let alone underground music.  Ray scoured the earth for this stuff, and started writing letters to weirdos in Sweden and Germany and Japan, trying to trade tapes or score free shit, and he eventually started writing reviews and printing a little homemade magazine that he gave away at record stores and sent to record labels to get free stuff.  He eventually got me to start writing for him, too.

(Various things we did not know at the time: these “major labels” like Earache and Nuclear Blast America and Roadrunner were run out of tiny closets of offices; the people in “signed” bands like Napalm Death probably made less money than I did washing dishes in college; there was a whole universe of zines outside of the arena of death metal that was about to explode; there was a whole world outside of Indiana that was infinitely more interesting, too.)

Ray handled all of the business issues with the zine, which was great because his mom ran a business that did some mail-order stuff, and things like postage rates and bulk-ordered envelopes and offset printing quirks were totally within his wheelhouse.  And so was finding all of this unknown metal music and talking to record labels and getting people to buy ads.  I never could have started a zine like this, because I wasn’t plugged into any of this, and this was long before the days of google, where you could just put “where can I find a printer that’s not totally into jesus” or “what the fuck is media mail” in a search engine and get your results.

I have no idea what it would take to publish a real magazine, but even publishing a zine was an arduous process.  Once you actually got all of the reviews and interviews done, you had to put them in a word processing program.  I knew a little about this, but Ray was the one that actually owned a computer, and he used some weird program called GeoWorks to get all the fonts done correctly.  When you had the actual pages done, you had to go to a printer and get a thousand or two of them printed at once, which cost hundreds of dollars.  (You could photocopy, but then each issue would cost two or three times as much, and look like garbage.) Then you had to sell those, and pay postage to get them all out to people.  All told, it didn’t seem like you could really do a zine for under a couple of thousand dollars, although once you made the nut on the printing, you could use the proceeds from orders to cover the postage.  But issues that went to trades or to record labels or otherwise as promotional fodder would come out of your own pocket.  You’d never print a thousand copies and sell exactly a thousand copies.

I went back to college in Bloomington in 1991, and this major revolution in publishing was about to happen, and I didn’t realize it.  First, I spent all day fucking around on usenet news, and found some heavy metal newsgroups where I actually found other people who listened to bands like Carcass and Unleashed.  Sure, this was interspersed with a whole bunch of people who wouldn’t shut the fuck up about Guns N’ Roses or that new Metallica album Smell the Glove, but making fun of them was almost as fun as finding out about that new Entombed album before it came out.  This was as cool as writing to some freak in Denmark who knew all about the cool bands, except it didn’t cost a bunch of money in postage, and it was instantaneous.

This got me thinking: what if you did a zine where the whole thing was just a text file that you posted on usenet or emailed to people?  You could put in the latest news, maybe interview some people, review stuff, have addresses or ads for bands trying to sell tapes, and tell people to email in their news or band info.  There was no way to sell issues like this, and you couldn’t include any artwork or band logos or photos.  You also needed a computer to read it, along with a way to get email, and this was before AOL was everywhere, when a new PC cost four or five grand and a 2400-baud modem would run you a hundred more bucks. But it would be free to “publish”, and people would be able to write back right away if they liked it.

Ray came down to Bloomington in February, to sleep on the floor of my tiny apartment and hang out for a long weekend.  The band Prong was in town, and while they were not super high on our list of most extreme bands ever, but we got maybe one cool show a year in town, and tried not to squander it.  It was right after Valentine’s day, and I had been whatevering with this girl for a week or two and went straight from third base to the friend zone, so I was insanely depressed and in need of loud music and fun.  Me and Ray stayed up late every night, and talked about this zine thing, and whether it would work or not.  Late one night in one of the computer clusters, we typed something up, and I posted it online.

That was February 18, 1992.  Here is the original post.  It is somewhat horrible, far more than cringe-worthy, filled with typos and stupidity and corny fake satanism.  But it’s been there for almost twenty years.

This was insanely confusing to people at record labels.  My main goal was to get them to send me free stuff, and it was like explaining the Kindle to a geriatric.  Nobody had email then, and I tried printing out some copies and mailing them in, but that confused them even more, and defeated the purpose.  I thought about eventually doing both the electronic version and a print version, something whipped up in WordPerfect with some nice fonts and a few pictures and whatnot, and by the 4th issue did that, but I also wanted something out of a god damned Bruce Sterling cyberpunk story, a computerized mind-meld of text and music and artwork and interactivity.

There was a lot of disparate pieces of technology that weren’t linked together that offered pieces of what I envisioned. There was this thing just starting to show up called Gopher, a hypertext system that let schools and libraries publish linked documents on the internet.  It didn’t really have graphics, and only big institutions had servers running, without an easy or obvious way to publish your own info, unless you ran a university science lab somewhere, or worked at NASA.  We swapped a lot of text on the web in usenet and email, but just very unstructured stuff, with no real centralized organization.  Those of us in the know used FTP servers to look at pictures, mostly porno stills that would take hours to download and then offered blocky pixelated images.  And you could digitize music to .au files, which were gigantic, but could sound great.

Later that year, some people at CERN came out with a great improvement on gopher, that let you post pictures and sounds and let almost anyone make their own pages.  I quickly created a thing called a hyplan that played a sound clip from a Cannibal Corpse song, but didn’t envision that this would take off to the point where anyone in the world would use it to read zines online.  But of course, that’s basically what happened.

My little zine only lasted five issues.  Ray’s zine, Metal Curse, is still around today.  I didn’t make any money, although I got some free tapes and met some cool people and interviewed a couple of  decent bands.  More importantly, this put this idea in my head to write creatively, which eventually led to stories, and then to books.  And it instilled some DIY ethic in me, which made me start another zine, and then decide to publish my own book in 2000.

I have not made millions self-publishing.  (Someone with a name similar to mine has.  That’s not me.)  I think that aforementioned dishwashing gig brought in more money than all of my books combined.  The internet thing did land me a career doing technical writing, though.  I think if I added up all of my paychecks from when I started doing that in 1995 to today, it’s in the seven figures, and it gave me free health insurance and paid vacations, but also involved a lot of dumb meetings and things that make TPS reports look like a god damned Tolstoy masterpiece. But self-publishing gave me the ability to do what I wanedt, to not have to worry about changing me by changing my writing because Rumored to Exist doesn’t contain enough vampires or teenaged wizards to sell enough copies to keep a roof over my head.  It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been fun.

So here I am, 20 years down, 40,000 words into the next big book, and wondering what the next 20 will bring.


Cardiac arrest is self-expression

Peter Steele, the bassist and singer of Type O Negative died on Wednesday, something that came completely out of left field for me.  He was only 48, and apparently died of heart failure after a short illness.  It took a few google searches for this to really sink in, since he (or maybe his record label) hoaxed his death in 2005 for an album release, and he’s got a pretty morbid sense of humor.  But I guess he had health and substance abuse problems, and it’s been confirmed by many sources, so I guess it’s true.

Type O Negative (and his earlier band, Carnivore) are pretty intertwined with my life in college and in the 90s.  When I worked at WQAX, my biggest “get” interview-wise was a phone interview with him on the air.  I have a tape of this somewhere, and I ran it in my zine. (You can read it here.)  He was pretty hilarious and odd on the phone; I was incredibly intimidated going into the interview, and then didn’t think it was going to happen, because they were late calling, and the manager I was dealing with seemed a bit flaky.  But as I sat in that shithole apartment of a studio, I got the phone call from New York, and we went on the air and got started.  He was not serious about any of the questions, and gave hilarious answers to everything, even when I started throwing out bizarre questions.  It was such a refreshing change from pretty much every other death metal or thrash metal band I interviewed, who pretty much ran through the same ten questions with an incredible seriousness, telling me their influences (always the same list of bands), the reasons their music was heavier than anyone else’s, why they hated Metallica, and how much the PMRC sucked.  But Pete was truly entertaining, and realized this wasn’t about looking cool and brutal; it was entertainment.

I remember first hearing Type O Negative in the fall of 1991.  Ray came down to Bloomington to visit for a weekend, and I was dating Jo at the time, and the two of them were fighting the entire time, both trying to out-whatever the other and assert control over the situation.  I hung out on a Saturday afternoon with him, while she was off doing something.  We went to the Fine Arts computer lab, where they had the super-high-tech Mac IIfx computers with giant dual-screen monitors, color laserprinters, and color flatbed scanners, the first time I’d ever seen any of those things in real life.  The computers had this brand new program called Photoshop, which you could use to edit images.  It came with a sample image of nine babies lying in cribs, a sort of top-down artsy shot of a hospital nursery.  We used the clunky 1.0 features of the Adobe program to demonize the kids; one had a severed head; one had a Manson-style swastika on the forehead; another puked blood.  We made color printouts, then went out to a dreary-sky campus and drove to Pizza Express on 10th street to get a pizza for lunch.  We ate in Ray’s car, and he produced this tape with a grainy green cover that vaguely looked like a poor night-vision snapshot of sexual penetration, entitled Slow, Deep, and Hard.  “This is the fucking heaviest thing you’ve ever heard,” he said.  “It makes Black Sabbath sound like, fuckin’, Charlie Brown.”

And he was right.  I fell in love with the album and bought my own copy of the tape that day.  A big part of that love was that I was going through a really rough patch of life then, a caustic relationship with someone who constantly played mind games with me and caused me to go into deep cycles of depression.  And here was this music that was both extremely depressing – talking about infidelity, suicide, depression, you name it – but also had a lot of black humor to it, a very clever and dark twist on the darkest part of life.  I spent so much time poring over that album, just absolutely bathing in its negative emotion, using it as a soundtrack for this ugly tail-end of a relationship.

I spent all of the summer of 92 listening to Type O Negative, as documented in Summer Rain. I got a Type O Negative pin in the mail from the band, after I did the interview, and I wore it on the lapel of my leather jacket for years, serving as a sort of litmus test for people who actually knew the band.  Bloody Kisses came out in 93, and I was thanked in the album (albeit misspelled) and also memorized this one, listening to it constantly on those long walks across campus with nothing but my Aiwa walkman to keep me sane.  After my bad breakup in the fall of 93, that album kept at my brain constantly, and it was somewhat ironic that the band actually gained incredible success, with Bloody Kisses eventually going gold and then platinum.

Their 1996 release October Rust also burrowed a permanent position into my brain when it came out. I know it’s stupid that in 1996, I was still morose over a breakup that happened three years before, but I was in such an extreme state of angst about having nothing going on dating-wise and being alone in a new city.  The album became this touchstone to that era three years before, and in a way, reopened many of the wounds, splashing them with rubbing alcohol and stinging them back to life.  I absolutely loved this album, every part of it, even though the band had almost completely moved away from their original metal origins.

I never got into the band’s later work, but those first three albums are still in constant rotation in the iTunes library, and probably at least once a day, one of them comes up during my drive to work or while I’m at the computer.  So it was shocking and sad to hear the news about his death.  It’s also weird to go back over his lyrics post-mortem, because they all talk about death and dying and killing and suicide in such a heavy and tongue-in-cheek way.

I don’t really know how to end this post without sounding stupid or sappy, and I keep wandering to my iTunes library to look things up, so I better wrap this up here.


Anacrusis – Screams and Whispers (1993)

Not many people remember this St. Louis-based metal unit, except for the music critics who claim they were one of the era’s best bands, but were simply lost in the shuffle of the whole Death Metal craze of the time. And guess what – I’m a bit of an amateur music critic, and when Marco at Metal Blade sent me these demos at the beginning of ’93, I loved the prog-gy rock band. Here’s the review I wrote in Xenocide back in the day:

ANACRUSIS – Screams and Whispers (Metal Blade) This is the fourth release from St. Louis’ claim to progressive metal. These guys aren’t a Death or Thrash band, they have some of the accent and meter of a doom band but they have the balls and sharpness of a hard rock band. Its like Cathedral meets Fates Warning or something. Kenn Nardi’s lyrics are strange, they are sung in places and the phrasing is abnormal, but it gives the album a good feel. The drumwork by Paul Miles and John Emery’s bass lay down a really offbeat and unique foundation for the lucid guitarwork by Nardi and Kevin Heidbreder. The guitars blend pretty decently into the mix except for a well planned jump out of the pit for a sharp, distortion-clear solo of precision, or a harmonic, dual guitar chorus. Don’t forget the clear standalone guitar passages here and there. This concept probably won’t sit well with most fanatic headbangers, and even some more broad-tasted individuals may have to give it a second or third spin before it catches. But to me, it was worth it.

For whatever reason, I never had a copy of this album on CD. I looked around, and found I had two prerelease copies, I think mixed differently (with the standard black-on-white photocopied Metal Blade labels) and also a reviewer/cutout of the actual release. But as far as listening to tapes these days, they might as well be wax cylinders to me, so I haven’t heard these guys in like ten years. Luckily, I thought to punch it in google one day and found the band’s web site, containing MP3s of everything, which I promptly copied to my iPod for another listen.

I’ve never checked out any of the band’s other stuff; their first two on Restless plus Manic Impressions on Metal Blade all sounded a bit uneven in comparison, with the band getting their act together as far as music and production. Screams and Whispers shows the band fully together, playing well and sounding excellent. They detune their guitars like a Death Metal band would, but instead of going for that Carcass-y grindcore sound, it instead makes things more doomy. Add to that the band’s first experiments with synth, in the form of artificial orchestral hits woven into the music, and you have a much thicker soundscape than the average thrash/death release of the time.

Back in 1993, when I was in college and doing the zine, I did not have a car, and used to walk miles and miles everywhere. And this album was one of the ones that I’d put in for a really long trek, when I needed something to push me forward, but not something that was completely manic and then over in 15 minutes, like most demos of the era. There are some highlights here that I really like, that pull me back to when this album was in the walkman constantly. One I really remember is the opener, “Sound the Alarm,” which starts with a very atmospheric, clean guitar sound with a bit of delay, and then slams into a faster beat. “Release” has a more straightforward march to it, but with Ken Nardi’s strange lyrics on top it, adding a weird sense of unease that makes the song more interesting. “A Screaming Breath” and “Driven” both showcase the band’s ability to go in different directions in the same song with complex odd-meter arrangements, which are the band’s trademark. What’s even more amazing is that they switched drummers just before recording, and were able to hash out such complicated meter with a new guy right as they went into the studio.

Like I said before, this album really isn’t for everyone. Even people well-versed into odd-meter, fast-solo prog-rock probably aren’t going to appreciate this, because it’s a lot more about the strange mood captured in the sound. This isn’t a Moving Pictures rocker that has solid AOR songs from start to finish, and even though I love the album for what it is, it’s not like I pop it in the car player when I’m out driving and having a good time. But it’s very well done, and the only chief complaint from me is that the metal world couldn’t really get this, and the band disbanded a short time later. That makes this the only little time capsule of the band’s brief career, and maybe that’s what makes it even that much more special.

Rating: 8.5