Notes From Underground: SCAM!

Erick Lyle is a writer, musician, activist, and zine editor. Born in Orlando, FL, Erick grew up in South Florida, and has lived in Miami, Richmond, VA; Little Rock, AR; Eureka, CA; Chattanooga, TN; New Orleans, LA; and Berkeley, CA. His latest project, the ninth issue of his fanzine SCAM, is a compelling, hilarious and very entertaining history of the story behind the classic hardcore punk LP Damaged by the band Black Flag. Interview by Layla Gibbon

1)Do you remember what the first zine you picked up was, the one that made you want to make your own publication… What do you remember about it/that experience?

My decision to start doing a zine was not related really to seeing any specific other zine.  Doing a zine was just one of the many ways one could contribute to the oppositional subculture of punk. I wanted to do all of it – be in a band, book shows, make flyers, put out records, wheatpaste political flyers in the streets, start a Food Not Bombs, make a zine, you name it. I wanted to be a writer and it was a way to self-publish and reach an audience that anyone could do. I was very much influenced at that time by the underground press of the Vietnam era and stuff like the Yippies. Also World War III Illustrated from NYC. The first issue of SCAM was written during the run up to the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War and I saw what I was doing as part of that larger tradition of trying to write about resistance and about what our lives in the counterculture during wartime were really like.

I only bring this up to point out that there was nothing intrinsically interesting to me about the form of the zine as an object in itself. There was a community in zines and it was a way to reach out and meet other folks across the country.  I remember that this community was quite supportive of each other. When I first showed up in the Bay Area I helped collate five different new zines’ issues in a week (some of those, like Cometbus, Absolutely Zippo, are still publishing). But this community identified themselves more often as “writers” or just “punks” than as “zine makers” (and especially not the atrocious cutesy “zinester” that came WAY later…) It was only later, after the mass media latched onto what they called “The Zine Revolution” that the zine started to become fetishized as a sort-of art object. The zine came to be separated from its content or connection to this community or oppositional culture and became instead celebrated for its formal qualities: Xeroxed, ephemeral, disposable, small, cute, etc. Considering zines in this way led to things like today’s zine store, which is some ways a kind of ghetto where zines are almost celebrated for their very anachronism or lack of functionality –a sort-of analog fetishism in a digital world. For a zine now, the more ephemeral or rare it is, almost the better. But that was never how it was for me. Making SCAM was part of a larger enterprise of making punk oppositional and playing to win. I printed as many copies as possible and worked hard to get it out there in the world. I believe in zines very much as an effective way to reach audiences, but I don’t privilege them over books or blogs or writing for magazines or graffiti or whichever way seems most appropriate to get info out to the world at the moment. The embrace of ephemerality and impracticality in zines is actually discouraging to me. Culture is deadly serious and mainstream culture is lethal. Queer kids are still committing suicide. Young women are still surrounded by 50-foot tall billboards of impossibly thin women. In this context, I’m not into embracing ephemerality of punk culture for its own sake, celebrating punk publishing as a Quixotic gesture, or romanticizing defeat and disappearance.

To answer your question more directly, though, the zine, Get Loose, certainly had the most influence on me when I was 17. It was published by Chuck Loose, who was my roommate in the Ft. Lauderdale Punk House and later my bandmate in Chickenhead. Chuck was older and smarter than me and his determined, outsized, and very persuasive personality had quite an impact on our entire South Florida scene.  Though I think Chuck would admit now, he cribbed much of Get Loose straight from Cometbus. Ha ha!

2) One of the things I enjoy about zine culture is that people invest so much time and work and effort into things that are semi-ephemeral, photocopied missives that are consumed and treasured but also have with their very make up the possibility of being forgotten / not lasting because of the nature of the object… (although the current punk culture is very much about saving / valuing formerly disposable artifacts like fanzines and flyers, that hasn’t always been so) What made you want to self-publish this as a SCAM (because honestly it’s better than any book on the band, and it’s a bummer that the books get permanence despite their not-as-rad nature compared to your project…)

Thanks for saying that. It was more complicated than that for me with this issue as I actually considered doing a book. The Damaged piece originated as a short piece for the L.A. Weekly. I had much more that I wanted to say about the band and particularly about that era in LA and in punk’s early history but my scope went far beyond a 1500 word piece in a free newspaper. I knew I could always make a longer version of the story into an issue of SCAM, but it also happened that early last year, I learned that the 33 1/3 book series was accepting proposals for new books about classic records. So I went ahead and sent in a proposal to do a book on Damaged. I could see pros and cons to both book and zine and I figured it was a win-win situation for me. If I got chosen to do the book, I would not have to raise the money to print it myself or worry about doing distro. I would also have a reason to work even harder on the story – to talk more with the band, to go back to LA and look around more, to do more interesting research. They would do a similar print run to what SCAM would do, around 4 to 5,000 copies. I would likely make a similar amount of money off of each project and each would have their own specific kinds of extra work. But the book would also have to be much longer; they want 50,000 words, which is a lot (the zine is around 9,000). Of course, I couldn’t be sure that the right audience would find the book, either, so there’s that. And it wouldn’t come out until 2014 or 2015. So a zine had the advantage for me just being done with the whole subject a lot sooner and able to move on to the next thing. In the end, I made it to the final round but did not get chosen to do the book. So I immediately went to work on the zine. I now think this was a better outcome because I think now it was likely a more effective way to reach the active punk DIY audience who I hoped would be inspired by Black Flag’s efforts to invent culture from scratch rather than do a book which might inadvertently contribute to the deadening nostalgiac punk-in-the-museum effect that the story positions itself against.

3) The level of research and work put into this issue is phenomenal; how long did it take you to put together and what is the goofiest thing that happened during the process?

Thanks. I really loved doing the research and really fell in love with imagining that dreamy long lost LA summer of 1981! The research took several stages, which started with emailing folks like Joe Carducci and reading everything out there on old LA punk and later included going to LA and driving around for several days, interviewing some folks and looking at old punk sites. You know… hopping the fence at Runyon Canyon Park at night, doing interviews in noir-ish Hollywood bungalows and Highland Park redoubts. That sort of thing. The Under The Big Black Sun show opened at LA MOCA while I was down there, so I got an invite to the press tour of the museum through LA Weekly, and checked that out. I wasn’t sure exactly what the connection with Black Flag and that show would be but I sensed I should go and see it, and it ended up being the ending of the zine. I read all the stuff on The Germs and the Human Potential Movement later for the zine. The goofiest thing I can print was probably just the eerie and geeky thrill of emailing my childhood heroes, Henry and Chuck, while driving around LA in a rental car, and getting up to the minute driving directions to old punk houses and practice spaces from them. Everything about it, from the smart phone to me in the rental car as a reporter, to the band even talking to me at all would have been completely unimaginable when I was a kid listening to the band 25 years ago!

4) What other zines are you excited about?!
 FAG SCHOOL! I’m really into the infrequently appearing, Toofworm. I just got good new issues of Late Era Clash and Mylxine. Baitlines is my ongoing favorite. It’s a sort-of Diggers-inspired Queer Utopian Free classified ads listing. Mother’s News, from Providence, is more of a newspaper than a zine, but is also near the top of my list. Broke Ass from Montreal is a pretty great update on the classic punk house zine and is totally hilarious every time. The latest issue of Cometbus was the best issue I’ve seen in 20 years, too, so, who knows, maybe its all coming back?

5) What’s next? Or what else is going on… (feel free to talk about other writing/projects/adventures here…)

In 2012, I co-curated with Chris Johanson the exhibition, Streetopia, at San Francisco’s Luggage Store Gallery, in which we brought together some 120 artists, writers, performers, activists, thinkers with the downtown SF neighborhood to consider Utopian aspiration for the City. The show was epic. We made huge installations in two venues, had various off site installations, did performances and art in the streets and at vacant storefronts on Market Street. There were five weeks of free talks, readings, and performances at the Market Street site and the Tenderloin site hosted The Free Café, a community kitchen where folks could come to cook and eat together for free everyday during the show’s five week run.  The mayor was declaring that the neighborhood would become a “dot com corridor” or an “arts district” and gentrification was taking a huge toll on the Tenderloin as tech companies like Twitter and organizations like Burning Man moved into the area. So we were trying to propose a different future. We wanted to make art with and for current communities in the neighborhood rather than to make art that would lead to further displacement.

I am currently working with the NYC-based book arts organization, Booklyn, Chris, and Josh Macphee to make a book about the Streetopia show that we can hopefully give away free or sell cheaply at further events later this year.

This epic art show was also based in part on a new book I am working on for Soft Skull Press, a sort-of urban ecology of lost San Francisco art and Utopian and political movements.

I’ve been inspired by the success of SCAM #9 to work quickly on a new zine, too, and I have a lot of ideas. We’ll just have to see if I have enough TIME!

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