Thirty years ago this fall, I started high school. Around midnight on a Saturday night, my sister and I cycled through the 6 television stations received at our parents’ house. We landed on channel 40. “Hey! This is not Pat Robertson! This is not the 700 Club! What in the world is channel 40 playing right now?” And then Nick Cave came on the screen. “Quick! Grab a VHS tape! WHAT IS GOING ON?!”
Thus started the best high school education for which I could have hoped, every Saturday night at midnight.
Below is a clip from the VHS tape that we used to tape our first night of Noise Network. The show included mind-blowers like The Residents, PiL, Siglo XX, and Trotsky Icepick!
And coming soon, my interview with Jeff Moody, host of Noise, who tells me the story of this long lost jewel of a music video show made with passion in Kenosha, WI in the 1990s.
Before the internet, the search for cultural guideposts required patience and ingenuity. Once your friends’ cultural knowledge had been exhausted, you were back to mining thank you credits in album liner notes or ads in the back of ‘zines for the next major influence in your life.
For my sister and me, growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, scoring pen pals who shared similar interests became a critical outlet to learn about music. When we traded mix tapes with our pen pals, the particular treasures of one small community would be spread to a new community. For snail mail, pen pal mix tapes were pretty darned efficient for sharing ideas and culture. And even more efficiently, we had our own tool to find pen pals—friendship books.
Friendship books were small handmade books that could fit in an envelope. Each person in receipt of an “f.b.” as they were nicknamed, advertised herself or himself as a potential pen pal. She listed her favorite bands, sometimes other hobbies and interests. A name, often a pseudonym, and address were provided. Implicit to participation was the message, “Please write me a letter.”
Check out each page of one friendship book below:
The friendship books were a form of mail art and a classified ad all at the same time. The f.b.s would be slowly passed from recipient to recipient along with letter correspondence, in a chain. It was like looking at information about your friend’s friend’s friend on facebook before facebook existed. Once all the pages in the book were filled, the person who completed the last page was duty-bound to send the friendship book back to the person who made it.
In 2017, my sister Alison got together with her old friendship book pen pal, Kelly, in Baltimore. We met up to talk about a long lost tape that Kelly had made her. Alison and I grew up in southern Pennsylvania, and Kelly grew up in New Jersey, but the tape she made for my sister shaped decades of music listening for both of us.
Kelly and Alison meet up in Baltimore, 2017
Sarah: I’m going to start by asking how you met. I know you met through pen-palling, but—
Kelly: So, was it Other Voices?
1990 cover of Other Voices zine (from pinterest)
Alison: No, I think it must have been a friendship book. You wrote to me. Your friend Marg wrote to me. I don’t know if you got my address from her or from a friendship book. But I’m pretty sure that you wrote to me because you were the first of my next set of pen pals. I had two initial pen pals. And then you were in the set of my next pen pals.
Kelly: I was trying to remember this today, right. I don’t remember. That’s how I first found out about friendship books was Other Voices. But what was that [other] magazine? A British music magazine that would have pen pal ads in the back of it.
Alison: Smash Hits.
Kelly: Was that it?
Image of the issue of Smash Hits that led Alison to Kelly
Alison: Yeah, and that’s how I got my first two pen pals. So maybe it came somewhere via that.
Kelly: Yeah, I can’t remember exactly. Because probably I thought, “Oh, Pennsylvania seems close to New Jersey. And Azzi seems like a cool name. [laughter]”
[Editor’s note: “Azzi” was the name that Alison used for friendship books because it was what I called her when I was first learning to talk, and it was a nickname that stuck through our school years.]
Sarah: What was Other Voices?
Alison: The Cure zine. A Cure pen pal zine.
Sarah: That was its sole focus, Cure pen pals?
Kelly: Well, it was a Cure fan club. And then they always had, in the back, pen pals. And then there were Cure articles in the inside of it, I guess. Were you in it?
Alison: No, I was never in it, but I’ve seen it. Two people named Charlotte Sometimes competing against someone named The Caterpillar Girl.
Kelly: I did used to write to someone named M, too, I think. [laughter] I wish I still had some of THOSE, the actual zines.
Sarah: How long had you been doing pen pal/ friendship book stuff before the two of you started writing [to one another]?
Alison: I started writing to my first two pen pals when I was 14, and I think Kelly was the next one, when I was 15.
Kelly: Sounds like about right because that would be like 9th grade? 10th grade? Yeah. Probably the same for me. I was trying to remember, too, when we started writing.
Alison: Probably like 10th grade.
Kelly: Yeah, I think so.
Photo that Kelly sent to Alison when they were pen pals
Alison: I remember that I had been doing friendship books with a pen pal. But they would just go back to her because I didn’t have anyone to send them to. So I guess eventually they got around to other people before I started doing them constantly.
friendship book examples…
Wikipedia has a page about friendship books. It even includes a glossary of common friendship book abbreviations, such as ICR for I Can Return and AA for Answers All.
Kelly: I know. I think initially I would only write to a couple people. It was probably just people nearby because I thought, “Oh, I could probably meet them!” And then it was like, “Oh wow, this person lives in California. That seems pretty cool.” But I think it was more that I must have liked something you wrote on your friendship book page and I was like, “Oh, I like that, too.”
Alison: I had this hierarchy of people that I liked who I wrote to. Because after a while I wrote to so many people that there were definitely different tiers. And I always liked writing to you because you were hilarious. You would talk about school, and it was really funny.
Kelly: I was funny talking about school? [laughter]
Alison: Well it was probably good commiseration. And I never felt like you had a separate persona, nor did I have a separate persona. But there were some people who I felt like they were living out some sort of persona, and then all the letters were super serious or within that vein. And ours were just sort of regular life and regular issues.
Kelly: Yeah, I can’t remember anybody specifically. But there were definitely people that were like—
Alison: I’d use them to pass along other friendship books. “I’ve got to get these out of the house!”
Sarah: Would one of you want to explain what a friendship book is? I tried to explain this to a friend recently, and I realized that I did a terrible job at doing it.
Alison: it sounds like something from 150 years ago. It’s not that different from an old-time autograph book. But imagine it where you would write something that you were interested in and then you would write your address. And then you would send it to somebody else. It’s hard to wrap your head around how someone would see that and know to write to someone else. That’s where I think it all falls apart in my explanation.
Kelly: I think it’s weird now to think that—my whole thing with it was, “I’m in this little teeny tiny town, and I have my three or four friends here. And we all like the same music. But to find out that there’s other people somewhere else?” Now there’s the Internet and you can go on to Facebook and you can just google something. Then it was like, “Oh my gosh, I just got something in the mail that says that there’s somebody in another town, in another state that I’ve never been to before, on this little piece of paper, and they wrote all the same bands that I’m totally in to right now. And I can’t even believe this person exists because there’s only three of us here in this town. That would be so cool to write to them!”
I was always super in to pen pals, even as a kid. So it was cool to be like, “I still like having pen pals in high school.”
Alison: [Friendship books were] kind of like an exaggerated address book of people you don’t know that you pass around.
friendship sheet (f.s.)
In addition to friendship books, this pen pal community also circulated “slam books.” Slam books followed the tradition of confession albums of the late 1800s, which asked questions for which participants would craft pithy answers. In Questionnaire, Evan Kindley chronicles notable participants in confession albums:
“Despite the mixed reputation of this ‘new inquisition’ among genetlemen, many prominent nineteenth-century intellectuals submitted to it. Among them were Karl Marx (who considered his chief characteristic ‘singleness of purpose’ and whose favorite occupation was ‘bookworming’), Friederich Engels (whose idea of misery was ‘to go to a dentist’), Oscar Wilde (who wrote that his distinguishing characteristic was ‘inordinate self-esteem’ and that his bête noire was ‘a thorough Irish Protestant’), and Arthur Conan Doyle (who refused to answer several questions and described his present state of mind as ‘jaded’).”
Kindley also discusses the history of The Proust Questionnaire, the result of confession album entries by Marcel Proust which invited attention, admiration, and which renewed interest in the questionnaire format repeatedly throughout time.
Sarah: And then there was this culture around it, too. I think it’s kind of interesting that we all ended up getting these address mailing labels from one weird little mom and pop operation called Penguin Productions. Clearly, their ad campaign was not the most budgeted.
Examples of labels manufactured by Penguin Productions that Sarah and Alison ordered for use in friendship books.
Alison: I think they started because of the Penguins- the hockey team. I think it was started for people who did sports-themed things. I don’t know who the first person who decided to put Roz Williams on one of them was. [laughter]
Alison: Can you imagine the weirdness of printing all those up and not knowing, just to look at those, what they would have been about?
Kelly: Then it would just be a lyric. The most obscure lyric printed on there.
Sarah: Yeah, and we all had aliases. And I’m not sure WHY, necessarily. It just made us sound cooler, I guess?
Alison: We shouldn’t use our real name because then somebody will look us up and come to our house—even though they HAD our ADDRESS.
Kelly: Yeah! Right, that part of it was a little weird!
Alison: But if you were really professional, you had a post office box.
Kelly: Yes. I think Marg and I got a post office box because we had these grand ideas to do a ‘zine and then we never did.
I don’t think I ever had any labels though. I wanted to.
Alison: I had to ask one of my other pen pals to send me the form for it. I had to wait until somebody else who had an extra form [for Penguin Productions] could make a Xerox copy of it to send to me so I could order the labels.
Sarah: Right, ‘cause you couldn’t go online.
Alison: Right, the only thing you could do was write to someone: “Please send me your goth-making kit. What examples do you have for Siouxsie & the Banshees?” [laughter]
Sarah: So do you remember what would make you write to one person versus not writing to someone? If you got a friendship book in the mail and you looked at it, what would make you say, “Oh, I’m actually going to write to that person.”
Photo that Alison sent to Kelly when they were pen pals
Alison: The bands, I think, probably.
Kelly: Yeah, the bands. I would probably look at, “How did they decorate it?” If they just wrote it with a marker, I would be like, “Eh it’s not a lot of effort put in there.”
Alison: If you got out the clear packing tape and the glitter, that was probably good.
Kelly: Some people were really—they were really elaborate.
Alison: I love the clear packing tape. Ones that are covered in the clear packing tape are my favorites.
Kelly: Yeah. I remember having so many art supplies just for f.b.s and envelopes.
Alison: Glue sticks everywhere.
Kelly: And pieces of books.
Alison: It gave us an excuse to never throw away a scrap of a magazine or lace. “I can use that! Even though there’s only two inches of it!”
Kelly: Yeah. I think some people seemed more accessible than others. Like you were saying that some people had a persona. If some people had too much of a persona, I would be like, maybe they were out of my league. Like they wouldn’t even write to me. I was kind of nervous about that.
Alison: Yeah! “They seem to have a lot of friends even on THIS level—[the level of] people who don’t have friends!” [laughter]
Kelly: “They’re probably busy.” [laughter]
Alison: In my mind, everybody else who was doing [pen palling and friendship books] only did that in their spare time because they had such fabulous lives. Where they lived, they were going to goth clubs every night and they were dressed up.
Sarah: So do you remember exchanging tapes? How many pen pals did you have? And of those, how many did you exchange tapes with?
Kelly: I don’t remember how many pen pals I had. The ones I can remember now—I wonder sometimes where these people are now.
Alison: They’re all on the internet, Kelly. [laughter]
Kelly: They’re somewhere on Facebook. Or somewhere on LinkedIn now, probably.
I feel like I wrote to a lot, but I don’t know if I wrote to ten people. Maybe definitely five. I know I would write to more people than that.
Alison: Yeah and some of them just didn’t last. It was very fluid. I had a core group of people that I kind of stayed with, but there were a lot of people who came in and out. I don’t know if they got sick of ME or I got sick of THEM or if it was that I ran out of time and then they assumed I was sick of them or vice versa.
Kelly: I don’t know who else I sent tapes to, though.
Alison: Yeah, just a few people. Just the top tier of my pen pals. [laughter]
I remember sending tapes to you and my other pen pal, Kelley. I can’t remember too many others. But we were constantly making tapes. That’s all we did.
Kelly: I know, right? Yeah, I must have sent tapes to other people, but I don’t remember anybody else’s except at least one that I had that you sent. There was probably more than one.
Alison: Yeah, probably. I only remember one specifically that you made but I feel like with enough time passed, one seems like a substantial amount.
Sarah: So what do you remember about that tape?
Alison: I remember that it started with X-Ray Spex, “O Bondage Up Yours,” which is a great song to start off with.
Though we can no longer find the tape, Alison reconstructed most of the track list from memory
Alison: I mean this was right around just pre-riot grrl. So I feel like you were on the cusp.
Kelly: Yeah. I had a vision. [laughter]
Sarah: What else was on there?
Alison: Well, there was a band that apparently was only popular with pen pals and like five people in California called London After Midnight, who I feel like owed a LOT of their success to—
Kelly: –to all of us!
Alison: –to pen pals.
Sarah: Yeah, were you already a fan of that band before you got that tape?
Alison: Somebody else had taped me a couple of their songs. I think they only had an ep with a couple songs, and everybody would just tape off those.
Sarah: I remember our dad writing an angry letter to them because they did not fulfill a mail order.
Kelly: Alison was telling me about that. And that’s so opposite of my experience with any of this because my dad hated everything about everything, and he hated that I dyed my hair black. He came into my room one day and was so angry, and he grabbed my Christian Death record and broke it into a million pieces. And that was supposed to be some sort of I-don’t-know-what. “That’s how I feel about this!”
Alison: I bet you wrote a letter about that.
Kelly: [laughter] I probably did! “Azzi! Can you believe what just happened?!”
Alison: “Wait, my green ink is running out. Hold on a second.”
Kelly: What else was on the tape? Anything else?
Alison: The Pixies. And odd things. Oh! And this was the first time I remember hearing the song by The Animals, “When I Was Young.”
Sarah: Oo! Good song!
Kelly: O my god The Animals? That was probably from the 1969 soundtrack. I was obsessed with that soundtrack! I was just talking to someone else about that the other day.
I might have to look it up on Spotify later.
Sarah: What did the tape look like?
Alison: I don’t remember it being overly decorated. I believe there was green magic marker involved. I think you had named it. Because we would name tapes
Kelly: I remember naming tapes. I don’t remember what I named that one, though
Sarah: Was it something about paisley
Kelly: That was my pseudonym.
Sarah: So you would have gotten that in 10th or 11th grade?
Alison: Yeah probably like 10th or 11th grade.
Sarah: Do you remember anything about making that tape- like definitely wanting to put certain songs on?
Kelly: All those songs that you mention—I remember LOVING those songs. Like the X-Ray Spex. I can remember who I heard that song from first. I think that’s this other weird thing—how I would even find out about these bands. Either people would send you a tape or talk about something. Or I would see a band on an f.b. and think “What’s that?” and maybe next time I went out, try to find a record by them.
Alison: Mm-hm. And The Dickie’s version of the Banana Splits song.
Kelly: O yeah, because I loved the Banana Splits.
Sarah: I think I might remember – was this the tape that had “Warm Leatherette” by The Normal?
Alison: Yes, it did!
Sarah: How would you have heard that song? That seems pretty random.
Kelly: O my god, I forgot about that song. So I will say—there might have been stuff on that tape from this—someone, a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend—somebody made some tape that was passed around between me and my friends that had everything to do with angel dust. Beastie Boys were on it. There was some song about smoking on the angel dust. There was Dust in the Wind. And I don’t even think I knew what angel dust was. But somehow we kept passing this tape around. We thought it was the greatest thing. And we would make copies of it. I would take songs from that to put on tapes. I don’t think “Warm Leatherette” was on there, though. I don’t know where I heard that song.
I’m so impressed now with my 16-year old self!
Photo that Kelly sent to Alison when they were pen pals
Sarah: Yes! A friend and I were just talking about this. How in the world did Kelly find The Normal? Who listens to The Normal ever? Or in high school?
Alison: If it’s not on the Pump Up the Volume soundtrack, I don’t know how we would have heard it!
Kelly: Right, was that on 120 Minutes one night or something?
I’ll have to find all those songs on Spotify now.
Sarah: Do you remember when your pen palling days were starting to wane?
Alison: I think when people went off to college or when high school ended.
Sarah and Alison in Kelly’s room during rare pen pal visit
Kelly in her bedroom during pen pal visit
Kelly: Probably like my senior year. I was probably writing only to you and my friend Katie. I can’t really remember anybody else that year that I’d be writing to. And then after I graduated, I think the only person I sporadically kept in touch with was you.
Alison: Yeah I found that letter that I didn’t know existed where you wrote to me and I lived out in New Mexico. And I didn’t really remember ever receiving any letters from anybody out there. I think because I started to have friends! And I started being social! And I hadn’t really had that experience in huge measure before. So it was like, “O this is what it’s like in real life.” [laughter]
But for the record, I did marry my pen pal.
Kelly: That’s pretty cool.
Alison: I think some of those goth ‘zines were part and parcel with that whole culture. I think they only existed to pass around to other people we were friends with.
Sarah: You think that the network of people reading that ‘zine was not much larger than the pen pal network?
Alison: No, maybe less!
Kelly: Cause I think [the pen pal] groups would probably cycle through, too, and then people would go off to college and be like “What else is there in life?”
My friend Jeff, he wasn’t a pen pal, he was someone I was just friends with back then. But that’s still his life. He’s still in to the scene.
And I’m still in to the music. And aspects of it. But when I try to explain things to my husband he looks at me like, “Who is this?” He doesn’t get it. I’m still me.
Sarah: Do you remember getting back in touch more recently? Was that a few years ago?
Alison: Really recently. But there was another time before that. I was on Facebook for a brief period of time. I had this compulsion. I wanted to see how people turned out—see if they were okay, in a way. I wanted to find everybody I wrote to, to see if they were okay. And then for the most part, that was enough for me. But I wanted to stay in touch with Kelly, and when I got back on social media, I specifically looked for her.
Kelly: A month or so ago, two of my friends from high school were at my house. I don’t see them all the time, maybe once a year. And they still have friendship books. My friend Kristen said she has a whole bunch in a shoe box. I was like, “I want to see them!”
Sarah: Yeah, I have a small shoe box’s worth.
Mostly they were ones that Alison had made for me. Because remember how you had to make them FOR someone else and then put them out into circulation as a gift? They were ones made that never quite got circulated. But there are some that I was supposed to return to somebody that I didn’t.
Alison: Yeah, I found one recently, and it said it was made in either November 1988 or 89. And the thing is that by the time I got it and filled in the last page, it was probably 2-3 years later I bet. Things moved so slowly.
Sarah: Do you find that you have nostalgia for this period of time?
Alison: I think we’ve fallen back into writing each other naturally. Like, oh yeah, that’s what we used to do!
Kelly: Yeah, I think I have nostalgia for writing letters. I always have this thing about keeping in touch with people. I love either staying in touch with people or catching back up with somebody from a long time ago. I think everybody probably does stuff like that. I don’t know that I have nostalgia for that period of my life.
Alison: No because when I think of that, it was really not a good time.
Kelly: I was always grounded all the time.
Alison: I was always in my room! I was always in my room listening to music and being upset.
Kelly: I have journals that I kept all through high school, too, and they’re awful. When I read them, I just cringe. My God, were these the kind of letters I was writing?
Sarah: Awful in what way?
Kelly: It just sounds like a little kid. And there’s the awful, “I’m so in to so-and-so.” It just brings me back. And reading it brings me too close to the feeling of being 16, stuck in my room, grounded again. That’s kind of why it’s awful, too.
Alison: I’m kind of nostalgic in the way other people are nostalgic for real high school. I kind of felt like that was my real high school, my real education, and where I really found myself. And so I’m much more nostalgic for the people that I wrote to. It was like my alternate reality high school. And in our alternate reality high school, everything was perfect. And we all liked the same things. And no one made fun of us.
And you would have had the best record collection ever, because I’d never seen it, so of course it would have been awesome. You would have spent three hours every morning back-combing your hair and crimping it because you would have looked perfect and cool and not the way I would have been able to pull off, going to my stupid school. There’s a lot you can fill in when you don’t know someone very well.
Sarah: Isn’t that true, though, of Internet-based relationships of today?
Alison: Yeah, it was a good precursor. I feel like we had good planning for the Internet that other people didn’t. Like saying that you’re friends with someone and having never met them. Or having a friendship with someone that you’ve never met or may never meet. And being very close to someone.
Sarah: So you have spent time together since getting back in touch?
Alison: This is the second time.
Sarah: This is the second time?!
Kelly: If we had gotten back in touch sooner, we could have gone to the Cure show last summer.
Alison: Yeah, we were there at the same time and we didn’t know it. We’re doing our oldies review. We saw The Cure but didn’t know we were both there. Then we saw The Damned together. And tonight, we’re going to go see Poptone.
We could potentially be real-life friends now, which is probably what I would have loved when I was 15. Someday we’re all gonna be real-life friends.
Sarah: What about sharing music at this point?
Kelly: Making tapes for each other?
Alison: I feel like I’d put the same songs on now that I did then. And I’m not that creative anymore.
Kelly: I’ve been saying, “I’m going to look that up on Spotify” because in the last six months I discovered Spotify. I don’t know if that makes me a loser because it took me so long to discover it. I lost a bunch of cds. So when I think, “Oh, right! Warm Leatherette! I’ve got to look that up because I haven’t heard that song since I was 17!” I’ll go back and listen to that song. And that’s what all these playlists on Spotify end up being—all these songs from when I was 16.
Alison: Yeah, within the past couple of years, I’ve really regressed. Because I think when I was in my twenties and thirties, I was much more thinking that I’m not going to listen to what I listened to in high school. “I’m more worldly than that.” But it turns out, I’m not. [laughter]
Kelly: I just can’t keep up with current music. I listen to a lot of Father John Misty but other than that, current music escapes me. So if I made you a mixtape now, it would probably be Father John Misty and Billie Holiday and stuff like that that I listen to all the time. Hawaiian music. It would still be eclectic.
Alison is a letter writer, antique photography collector and purveyor, and researcher of sideshow photography in America’s first capital, York, PA.
Kelly lives in Catonsville, MD with her son, husband, dog and two cats. If someone were to send her a friendship book today, she’d decorate her page with watercolor paints and use a fountain pen to list her interests: cooking, collecting old cookbooks, throwing theme parties, reading, Neko Case, John Waters, My Favorite Murder.
This is a paean to perhaps one of my favorite songs of all time, put on a mix tape for me in 1996. I was thinking about how I take more solace from this song than from almost anything else. So why not anthropomorphize it?
I’m listening to you listening to me. It sounds so sweet. You are reminding me of that time I was feeling a variant of the same thing I feel now- restless, reaching, ready for something new. I heard what your vocal cords emanated. I heard the pathos in your tune. We bonded.
We are together in this existential morass of life. It’s cool.
Your sentiment was carefully chosen by someone who cared for me. A friend who knew I would enjoy your quirky plaintiveness. He knew me well. When it played in the car, we would sing along together with abandon. “Talking to you! Is like I’m talking to an animal in a zoo!” we laughed.
I hear you sing it and the good memories well up. Ah, there’s that joy again. Old friends are irreplaceable.
You remind me of other times, too. Of walking around my college campus long ago, of wearily studying my fellow train passengers on an early morning commute, of a lift in my step while returning home from a run. Sometimes I need to hear about you reading someone’s life story in her “wild, stray eyes” to feel connected to who I was, who I am, and who I will be.
Life is absurd and sad and kind, you tell me. Come here. I want to give you a hug.
One afternoon in October, I left Dischord House in Arlington, VA feeling inspired. The premise for meeting up with Ian MacKaye was that Michael Honch, former member of Hunger Artist among other bands, had a tape that Ian had made for him before they had ever met. This fact alone astounded me. In 1987, Michael wrote Ian a letter to ask for a recording of the Washington, DC band Dove. In response, Ian made Michael a tape with Dove, Deadline, Scream, Fugazi, and Press Mob and sent it back to him in Rochester, NY.
The letter and tape exchange had happened long before any of us knew one another, when Ian was seven years in to co-running a landmark independent record label and just beginning to play shows with Fugazi, when Michael was struggling with his first year of college, and when I was struggling with my first year of middle school. Nevertheless, when Ian and Michael and I met up to talk about the tape, we whiled away the time like old friends. The same culture of camaraderie and music sharing that encouraged the 1987 exchange inspirited the afternoon. Our conversation meandered through punk and Dischord anecdotes to the meaningfulness of true connection with others. It was the kind of conversation that leaves you changed, renewed, affirmed. It is an honor to share it.
The conversation begins after Ian blows our minds by throwing the letter that Michael had written him onto the table in front of us.
Page 1 of Michael’s letter to Ian
Michael: This is incredible. I was telling Sarah, the first time I’d ever heard of the Internet, a guy I knew in Rochester who was a little older, he worked for Xerox, said, “I met someone on the network, and he has the Embrace demo.” And I was like, “Okay forget about the ‘network.’ What?” And he was someone who was communicating with this early tech communication.
Michael and Ian
Ian: You actually say in there- you say my lyric writing’s gotten better [laughter], which I appreciated. But you also say that you’re looking forward to hearing this new project of mine, which was Fugazi. You’re very well-versed in DC punk.
Trouser Press magazine cover with Bad Brains From trouserpress.com/magazine
Sarah: Yeah, so how would you have known about that stuff happening?
Michael: Growing up in Rochester in the pre-Internet days, it was hard to get information. I’d hear about things. I think one of my introductions to punk rock – I liked David Bowie. I liked Iggy Pop. I liked the Ramones, things like that. But I wanted to know what was going on right now. This all seemed like way in the past. I remember going to a bookstore and reading in Trouser Press magazine about the Bad Brains. And I was like, “Oh! This sounds like what I’m looking for.” I couldn’t find this anywhere. But I bought the magazine. My dad was taking a business trip to Boston, and I said, “If you see the Bad Brains tape in Boston, will you buy it for me?” And he found it.
Ian: He must have gone to Newbury Comics.
Michael: Yeah. So he bought the Bad Brains ROIR tape, brought it back, and me and my friends all gathered around that tape. That’s where it all started for all of us. So when you’re trying to learn and figure out your own deal based on recordings, you’re still behind what’s going on right now.
Ian: What does that mean?
Michael: Just playing music- to write your own songs. Because there really was no blueprint for playing hardcore punk rock.
Ian: Right. And that’s exactly the point of it. To me, punk was, the idea was, that the audience was there for the new idea. And that was the difference. Actually, the problem today is that, the way things are structured now, the people who have access to stages either have to be known or they have to have some referential thing- they have to be known from somewhere or have done something OR they play a certain kind of genre, because obviously, audiences are clientele and for clubs to bring you in, you have to have an audience. New ideas don’t have audiences because they haven’t been thought of yet.
But what I love about punk and why I think punk is still alive is that there is an audience—it’s small—that’s just like, “Okay, what do you got? We’re here for the new idea.” So in a way, the blueprint was that there was no blueprint. And unfortunately, the longer you’ve been involved, you can see, somebody comes up with an idea and then people just start doing that thing. And it becomes calcified in a way, or it becomes an orthodoxy. But then you just have to keep moving, keep going, keep the new idea, keep it coming.
It’s interesting. I was just talking about that ROIR tape today with these guys at my kid’s school. And I was talking about how for me, the ROIR tape was weird. I grew up with [Bad Brains] here, and Black Dots, that era, that stuff was like the greatest recording ever. And I remember just thinking, that ROIR thing is just so weirdly fast. They were playing super fast and it sounds so shitty, but I said to the guys today–I said to those dads– this tape was a fucking game-changer. This is the tape that changed people’s minds. People’s minds were exploded. The Black Dots tape was like the Dove tape. The only people who had the Black Dots tape were like me, Henry [Rollins], and eighteen other people around town. It didn’t get out. Not ‘til later.
Like the Dove thing. That is so obscure. The fact that you have the Dove tape, is so bizarre to me. Like the Black Dots. Way more people had Black Dots than Dove. I think the ROIR thing, that’s where most people first encountered the Bad Brains. And it’s kind of an incredible recording. But from my brain, from my perspective, it was sort of like, “What have they done to their incredible sound?” It’s alright. I can listen to it now and really respect it. And I’m happy to hear you talk about it because I was just telling those guys that this tape was like a bomb that exploded all over the place. It was pretty incredible.
Sarah: So it was just that the ROIR tape had gotten distributed further than anything else had?
Ian: The only thing they had put out prior to the ROIR tape was the Pay to Cum single. They put out 1,000, and that was on their own label, Bad Brains [Records]. Henry and I lent them some of the money to do it. That was before Dischord. So you’re talking about hard-earned pet shop money. You know, [meekly], “Here’s 50 bucks.” [laughter] But then they went to New York and they did this ROIR cassette.
[ROIR was] a cassette-only label. And that tape just got out. They managed to get it into important record stores. There were these distributors up in New York. You just had different access. And it was also just unimpeachable. It was just a mind-blower of a tape.
I used to be so angry. People would talk about Husker Du, and they’d say, “Fastest band in America!” We’re like, ‘Really? Because we’re from DC and we have the Bad Brains.” And then I thought, “I want to hear these guys.” And I heard Land Speed Record. And I thought, “Yeah, okay. They’ve got a fast tempo but they’re sloppy.” The Bad Brains were precise. So I just remember thinking, “A fie on Husker Du!” [laughter]
Michael: So there was no place in Rochester at the time to find this music. Very few people were into it. I was flipping around on the radio dial—someone had mentioned that some of the college radio stations play some cool stuff. And the Rochester Institute of Technology, WITR—it was like a life-changing moment—they had this show, it was called “The Friday Night Filet,” where a deejay, at 11:30, would play everything by one artist. And there was a commercial for the Minutemen. And I was like, “What the fuck is this?” So I taped that.
Ian: Was it Double Nickels or something?
Michael: It was before Double Nickels.
Ian: I think Project Mersh was out by then.
Michael: The radio show played everything leading up to Double Nickels on the Dime, which was due out soon. I rode my bicycle up to the record store and bugged them every Tuesday for a few months until the singles came out.
Photo of Record Archive from recordarchive.com
Ian: What was the name of the shop up there?
Michael: The one I went to was Record Archive on Mount Hope Avenue. That’s where I bought Double Nickels when it came out. That radio station started a punk show. And one of the deejays was from DC. His name was Jon Hull. There’s a picture of him in Banned in DC in a crowd shot. It’s a Jim Saah photo of Void playing. He’s one of the people in the audience. He brought his record collection with him. One of the other deejays was from the New England scene- a lot of Connecticut and Boston hardcore in there. So, I started hearing stuff that you couldn’t find in stores. So I started taping the radio and sometimes sitting down and playing guitar along with these recordings. I took some guitar lessons.
Jon Hull circled in photo of Void by Jim Saah from Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground (79-85) by Connolly, Clague, and Cheslow
Ian: You’d been playing for seven years when you wrote that letter.
Ian: You said that in the letter. He says there, “I’ve been playing for seven years.” You got that in there. “I’ve been playing for seven years.” [laughter]
Michael: This is so sweet that you—I can remember writing this letter.
Ian: Before you guys go, I’ll show you the archive room.
Sarah: Yeah, how would you have dug that up, out of all the letters that you receive?
Ian: You will find out. I’ve been doing my work here! I’ve been working hard. You know how I found it? I typed in “Michael” into a database—
Michael and Sarah: WHOAH!
Ian: –that led me right to the folder and box which it’s in. We’ve been working for the last eight years in archives, and I have 35 years of correspondence. And I figured when I saw that he had the tape, I was like, “I bet you…” The letters that got tossed are usually like, “Send me a catalog.” So anyone that actually engaged—was engaging—I’d probably hang on to that thing.
Then for years and years and years, I kept boxes of mail. And they’re literally in the eaves. The eaves of this house, I lined them with pressboard cedar just to keep the bugs out. And there were the boxes. And then about eight or nine years ago I started working with different people on archiving projects. We first worked on the audio stuff, then we organized the posters, and we started working on the correspondence about three years ago.
[Ian fields a telephone call.]…Ian: So how are we doing on this thing?
Sarah: We got Michael to the ROIR tape. Now we need to get Michael to the letter and the tape.
Michael: Right! I can remember vividly writing this letter. But what I can’t remember is what on earth would give me the gumption to write to you. Because even now I feel very mindful of other people’s time. Like, “I don’t want to bug them.” I know people are busy.
Ian: I think the discourse was open. I think people wrote to each other all the time. I actually don’t think probably at that time—I wouldn’t say you weren’t mindful. But it wouldn’t have been mindless to write somebody. I think that people think that now. I find it shocking that with all the development in communication, that people find it so difficult to write. Or talk. Or respond. I find it amazing. Everyone seems to be so busy, but what they’re really busy at is looking at things. I don’t know what else to say about it. It just seems strange.
Look at that. You sat down and wrote a three-page letter. Part of it—you’re pleading your case. You want this tape bad. And this is what you have to go through to get it. What I find startling about that—I don’t know if you looked at the whole letter—but at the end of the letter you say, “Yeah, we made a tape. I’d love to send you one but I’m poor. If you want to buy one, it’s $3.” [laughter] Meanwhile, you’re asking me to fucking make YOU a tape! [laughter] You said, “I’m poor, but if you want to buy one, it’s three dollars.” I mean, why didn’t you just send me a tape? And then trade it? It’s a little startling!
Ian: But I think probably—who knows what you were thinking. One thing about punk in general and me specifically is that—and it’s still the case—I’m accessible. And people felt comfortable getting in touch with me. I’m still in the phone book, but people always say, “Man, I’ve been through so much to try to figure out how to find you.” It’s so weird.
So I think that I’ve always been accessible.
Sarah: Yeah, has this changed over time?
Sarah: Because it’s one thing when Michael’s writing you this letter, and it’s the late 80s–
Ian: it’s just the work. It’s just my work. It’s what I do. People contact me one way or the other and I respond, one way or the other. I think there’s a couple things at play here.
There’s a different sense of what the value of recordings are now. I’d be much more loathe to send a tape now because someone would just post it. And that’s a big problem. I’ve actually made little demoes. Amy and Joe and I have been working on something, and a friend of mine said, “Oh, I’d love to get a copy.” And I said, “Yeah I’m not going to give you a copy.” “Don’t you trust me?” “I trust you. I don’t trust the person that you give a copy to.” And once it goes, it goes. You can’t take it back. It’s like the genie is out of the bottle. When you showed me I sent this, I was like, “O my god, that could be out there.”
I think at this point in time, a band like Dove, they recorded—I would say it wasn’t a great session. It was interesting. And the results—I would say it’s the best they did. I think the later stuff they even lost the plot more. But it wasn’t really something we could release. And people don’t understand, at Dischord, we were broke. Broke broke! People say, “Why didn’t you put this out?” Because we didn’t have money! We were hand to mouth. We put out a record. Then we had to wait to sell them to make enough money to put out the next record. I couldn’t put it out. But I liked it. I thought it was kind of a cool recording.
Click to view a facebook post from “Brian D. Horrorwitz:” September 17, 1983 footage of Dove playing a house party
So when someone actually expresses an interest in something that’s that obscure, I’m like, “Thank you for asking. Here’s a copy.” I made a lot of tapes for people. Mostly because, speaking from my own work—people say, “How do you feel about file sharing?” Every song I ever wrote, I wrote to be heard. So, if no one wants to pay for it, that’s fine. But to know that somebody wants to hear it, that’s the point. It’s not the dollar. It was always to be heard.
And I figured, “Well, the letter’s sincere.” I could tell he’s not some scummy bootleg guy. He’s genuinely knowledgeable. He’s clearly a student of music and specifically a DC fan. You reference Marginal Man and Double O and all this shit, so I knew that you knew. So I’m happy to share.
It’s a good tape, too. What did I give you? I gave you Dove, Deadline.
Tape insert, photo courtesy of Michael Honch
Michael: That was there for my health and improvement.
Fugazi show flyer from October 16, 1987 show at d.c. space. Click to download show from the Fugazi Live Series on Dischord.com
Ian: This is the second tape, right? It’s the 8 or 9 song tape. And then I put Fugazi on there! So you’re talking about that [in the letter], “-your new project.” And I’m like, “Well there it is!”
So you heard this. This would have been our fourth show, probably.
Press Mob were good. I like that song Sundays. That’s on the DC Rox comp.
Yeah, I love this song P.T.S.R. That’s a good song. That was written by Toni Young. Of Red C.
Michael: The bass player. Yeah.
Ian: Peer Pressure also did a version of that song. It’s a good jam. Toni was a good person. She shuffled off in ’86. So it goes.
So I just wanted to share music. I was happy to do it. People sent me stuff, too. So I’d occasionally get tapes from people.
I remember going across the country. I saw the Butthole Surfers for the first time in 1981. I saw them in L.A. Maybe ‘82. It was before they had a regular drummer. They were just a four-piece. They were so fucking weird. We saw them in L.A. and then we went to Austin. And we’re hanging out with the Big Boys. I said, “What do you know about the Buttholes?” And they were like, “We got these tapes.” I was just making tapes!
Actually, I’ve been typing up my ’84 journals, and I write that Henry was visiting, but spent all of his time sitting upstairs making tapes. ‘Cause that’s all we did. You’d go to someone’s house, you’d make tapes because you were getting back on the road. You’d need to have tapes. So he was just copying tapes. And that’s what we did. Everyone had stacks of tape decks and were making tapes. That was the discourse.
Michael: Now that brings back really good memories, too, of all the tapes from my bands—I’d go over to my parents’ house and use their dubbing deck. And we’d get orders from Maximum Rock N Roll and be making copies of them one at a time. But also- that radio station- WITR where I first heard punk rock- my first band, we recorded ourselves with a boom box and then showed up at the radio station with it. They were like, “Wait, there’s a punk band in this town?” And they played it over the air! That was when [I thought,] “I think I found where I can grow here.”
Michael Honch, 1987, Rochester, NY
My first show was opening for Beefeater. That was the first time I really had to fight hard with my folks because I was a sophomore in high school at a bar.
Sarah: You had to fight [your parents] just to get there to play the show?
Michael: Yes. I was a little terrified. That was an intimidating band to play with. But Fred Smith [guitarist of Beefeater] came up to me before the show. I’m talking to him. And I said that this is my first show. And he said, “Show ‘em what you got!” And then my vivid memory of that is that I had this ridiculous solid state Marshall amp. It was like a mini stack. And he was crouched behind it, with his fist in the air, screaming “Yeah!”
Ian: That was your first gig!? Your first gig playing with them, or your first gig, period? You didn’t play a party before that?
Flyer for the first show Michael played, in Nuns on Death Row
Michael: The only show that I’d ever played before that was a battle of the bands at the local Jewish community center.
I had missed them the first time they played in Rochester because I was grounded. And they played with Dag Nasty at RIT with Shawn [Brown] still in the band.
Beefeater – “Need a Job” with Fred Smith solo
Sarah: …To circle back, when was the last time someone has asked you to make a tape for them?
Ian: A tape? Today I was talking to a guy—this will give you an idea of who I am. I was just over at this My Organic Market over here. And there’s a kid who works there who I see around, and he’s a nice guy. And he was wearing a Cramps shirt. I said, “Hey, that’s the first band I ever saw!” That’s the poster for the first show I ever saw right there [gestures to wall] that Cramps show.
Cramps poster at Dischord house
Ian: February 3rd, 1979. So then I said to him, “That’s the first band I ever saw. 1979.” And he’s like, “No way!” He’s probably 19 or something. And I said, “I think I have some live stuff. I’ll make you some copies of it.” So I saw him today, and I was like, “What do you want by the way? I don’t know what medium you want.” I was thinking I’d make him a cd or something. He said, “Anything’s fine.” I could easily make a cd for him. Or I could make a thumb drive. I can’t make vinyl. And I’m not really inclined to make a cassette. It’s a pain in the ass.
BUT, to answer your question, there’s a Japanese guy who works at the market at 17th and U. And he is a very enthusiastic guy, and he loves ska. He loves ska so much. He’s a trombone player. I’ve seen him in his band. So we were talking about it, and I was like, “You only listen to ska?” And he’s like, “Oh yeah, only ska.” And he goes, “Maybe a little reggae.” I said, “What about rock steady?” And he says, “Oh yeah.” I said, “Do you want some cds?” He said, “No, cassettes only!” So I have these cds, which I think I made from cassette years ago. This guy from New York just sent me these compilations. So I made cds. Or maybe he made me cds of his cassettes. I can’t remember now. He sent me so many things over the years. So I took the cds and I made this kid three cassettes of rock steady. That was maybe three weeks ago.
Ian: You see these boxes behind [Michael]? Those are filled with cds. I have literally thousands and thousands of pieces of plastic that have music on them. And they’re inert unless they do something. So when someone says to me, “I like this.” I’m like, oh shit, let me break this out of its fucking tomb. Give it some reason–
Michael sitting in front of boxes of cds
Even the letter! Honestly, I’ve spent so much money and so much time on this fucking project upstairs. And to actually have a reason—like, “Oh, there you go!” Just for the moment where you guys were like, “Noooo!” That’s the pay off, right?
That’s the fucking point! Why else did I keep it? What reason on Earth would I keep it if it weren’t to show you that letter? What’s the point? What’s the point of it?
That’s why I do everything I do. It’s just potential. You just do the work. Then someday it shows up. The reason you did it will show up. I don’t know. That’s how I operate. That’s how I’ve always operated. I just do my work, do what’s in front of me.
Like this morning, I was like, “Oh yeah, I’ll look for that letter.”
So yes, I think the idea of spreading the word. I’m not a formatist. Cassettes. There’s an aspect of cassettes which I think is really valuable. First of all, they’re hardy. Let me show you something.
I was typing up my 1984 journal. And in that journal I came across a thing where I spent an evening at the Connollys’ house. I had just typed about it. And I was going through trying to look at some tapes today for this thing. And I came across this tape. And it says [reads the cassette label], “Ian, Anna, and I arguing March 7, 1984” Oh shit. That is incredible. That she had this tape. And I have the tape.
The deal with tape is, the tape itself is very, very hardy. What is not hardy is the mechanism.
[Ian demonstrates to Michael and me his tape transplant method.]
So you can see in here there’s a felt. And the felts on these things, typically, they’ll dry out or they’ll fall off. And the point of the felt is to apply pressure on the back of the tape. Because when you push play, it pushes the head into the tape, and you want to have a nice firm contact. When you have this felt drop off, there’s no firm contact, so you get the [imitates muffled voices]. So, what you do then is—this one unfortunately is not a screw tape, so I actually was just in the process- whilst waiting for you to show up- I was in the process of using a screwdriver. I started just splitting the tape open. Which I will do. I will split this tape open.
Then, these are C-Zeros, there’s no tape on them. These are screws. So, you take the top off. Take this little zero tape. There’s nothing on there. See? And you just drop these hubs in. Boom.
C-Zero photo from www.duplication.ca
They fit perfectly. Because when they made cassettes, there was an argument about what the format would be. You know how there’s beta and VHS and HD and Blu-Ray, all that kind of crap? Well cassettes had the same kind of thing, but the manufacturing people decided to agree on a standardized format.
So this is Cynthia [Connolly]’s mom’s tape when she was in law school in the mid-70s. This is a 40-year old tape. This will fit perfectly into this [C-Zero cassette]. Uniform.
Sarah: That is pretty amazing.
Ian: Upstairs I can actually give you an example of the difference it will make. But you can see, that felt is fine. The spring is still there. So when I do that, it will make the clarity of this mind-blowing.
So cassettes. There’s a practical component to them. They’re very hardy. They’re also democratic. Everybody can do it. A band like [Michael’s late-80s band] Hunger Artist could record a practice and take it over there. But you couldn’t make a record. Making a record, that was some next-level shit. Also, making a record requires you to make a financial commitment and also a commitment into creating multiple pieces of plastic. You don’t make five records. You’re going to make 500 or 5,000. And if you make 1,000, that’s a lot of records. There’s a lot of people in this world who have under their beds boxes of records they couldn’t sell. Because you had to make 1,000 or 500 at the minimum. That’s the way those pressing plants used to be. It’s not worth the origination because there’s a whole series of steps leading up to the creation of the pressing itself. You have to master it. You have to make plates. You have to make stampers. There’s all this stuff that went into that. So, it wouldn’t make any sense to only do a small run. You have to kind of speculate, like “Well, we could do 1,000, and then it would cost x amount per record.”
Cassettes are one to one. That’s the populist way. Here’s a tape. And you could just make the tape. So it was the people’s format.
And it’s finite, which is nice. The problem with digital is that it’s not finite. It never ends. Online or digitally, you could have something that’s 100 hours long. But cassettes are like C-30, C-60, C-90. C-120, but you’re starting to stretch it out. They are finite.
And they have sides, which is also important. The distinction between vinyl and cds was that with vinyl you had two 15 to 20 minute sides, which meant that– you might listen to side 2, you might listen to side 1. So when you sequence an album, you would always think about what leads off side 2. Because that’s also significant. It’s the first song. So you would think about the sequencing.
CDs have one side, and they’re 70 minutes long. And people don’t listen to music for 70 minutes. They listen to music for about 15-20 minutes, and then it becomes background. So sequencing for a CD was just front-loaded. And then they put a bunch of drivel at the end, basically. Vinyl and cassettes had sides, so you knew, “O yeah, turn it over.” That’s that side. It was an interesting format. And it was easy to do.
It’s generational, which is a problem. Like when you make copies of something- a copy of a copy of a copy. It just starts to sound shitty. That’s why digital kicked ass on that front. I mean for bootlegs, God, the digital format was amazing. I mean, I have hundreds of Beatles and Hendrix bootlegs that have come through the internet or digital, and they’re incredible quality. Cassette bootlegs just sound shitty because they’re copies of copies of copies. Vinyl bootlegs sound shitty because the people who would press them had to be a back-alley operation. You weren’t going to get good pressings.
Sarah: Yes, I have some of that. Before I understood any of that, I bought some Clash bootlegs from Phantasmagoria [Records].
Ian: Yeah, and then the thing about those is that those were pressed from probably cassette recordings that had been copied and copied and copied. So there’s an issue there.
Ian with Dove masters
For instance, what [Michael] has there, the tape I sent him, is a copy of a copy of the master. So, when we did that session, we mixed it, and then Don [Zientara] had a tape deck in the room, and he’d say, “How many tapes do you want?” And here’s the thing about how many tapes you want. Let’s say the tape is 30 minutes long. This is probably 30 minutes long or something like that. If you have a 30-minute tape, and Don says, “How many tapes do you want?” well, people who are in the band all want first-generation tapes. So there’s four people in the band. Well that’s four times 30. So that’s two hours. And you’re paying Don per hour. So you’re paying for the tape, and you’re paying for the time. So you’re never going to make a tape and then say, “I’ll just give you a copy of our tape.” People don’t want that. Everybody wanted a first-generation copy.
So the Dove tape I have upstairs would have come right from the deck, from Don’s, and then I would have made a copy from that. The other thing about cassettes is that every time you play a tape, you lose a little something. So that’s the other issue. They’re hardy. But most of us had shitty decks. And the bias would be bad.
Ian’s Dove tape
Here’s the thing about this tape [of Cynthia, Anna, and I arguing.] This is a shitty recording on a shitty tape deck. You can tell how shitty it is because there’s no screws in it already, so you know it’s just going to be a shitty tape. It’s old. But the thing about it that makes it really priceless is that it’s the only one that exists in the world. It’s the only existing recording of us having an argument on March 7, 1984.
So taking that over the alternative, which is nothing the fuck at all, it’s pretty valuable. So, that’s documentation. That’s the idea.
So that [Dove] tape, it probably didn’t sound that bad.
Michael: It sounded great to my ears.
Ian: But tapes do, they start to get wonky. Good luck writing all this up. I don’t know what you’re gonna write about but—
Sarah: [laughter] What was Dischord like around the time that this tape was made?
Ian: Let’s see. Fugazi would be practicing here at that point. And Happy-Go-Licky was still practicing here. I think 3 were around. Everybody practiced downstairs. So we had this full-on constant—the whole house would be like bbbbwwwwwwrrr. The bands were practicing in the basement while people worked on the label upstairs.
[Ian shows photo.]
Shipping office at Dischord house, circa 1990
Sarah: Well it looks very organized.
Ian: Pretty organized. Always been pretty organized. But Dischord was thriving. I’ve been typing up this ‘84 journal, and the amount of people socializing and the amount of people coming and going. Everyday, people are showing up. My brother, Chris Bald—and then The Meat Puppets and Black Flag and everyone just constantly coming through. Many of them practiced in the basement. It’s one of my great regrets that I didn’t keep a guest book. I actually don’t even remember all the people that have stayed here. And I remember thinking about three years in- I should have kept a guest book. And then at that point- ah well. I’m not going to start now. But I probably should have.
But the amount of circulation was fascinating. People were just coming and going, coming and going.
These days, it is so rare. People will come here on a formal thing now. Like, this is a formal arrangement. We took weeks of cc:ing each other to fucking have a sit-down. But the sort of spontaneous, the sort of “I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by,” that almost never happens anymore.
Sarah: Really? I would think it would happen more because with the Internet there would be more people aware—
Ian: More people show up to take their picture on the porch. That’s different. That’s not the same thing. That’s just people wanting to take a picture because it’s like sightseeing. I’m talking about tribes forming and people making the connection and appearing.
I have upstairs a lot of the tapes from the answering machines.
Sarah: Whoah, you saved the tapes from the answering machines?
Ian: Right, ‘cause I would use cassettes, and I would just let it run. And then occasionally, I would pop it out and put a fresh one in and throw it in a box. Just to have. So I had, like, 20 of them. And I was listening to one of the first ones we had. Some of the tapes actually have messages from people where it’s like, ‘I would keep that!” But in most cases, it’s just random stuff. I’ll play you some.
But one of the tapes I have—at that time, on that machine, the phone would ring and the answering machine would go off. Remember how people would say, “Hey it’s me. I’m here. Pick up! Pick up!” The fancy machines would cut off at that point. But the old machines just kept running. So you had to remember to turn off the machine. So, I have a tape where Amy Pickering is calling looking for me. And at this time, we had five phone lines in this one house. So Amy calls the house line. And she’s like, “Hey! Ian are you there? Ian are you there? Are you there? Are you there?” And then Mark Sullivan picks up, because he’s living upstairs at the time, and he’s like, “Hey it’s Mark. Is Ian there?” “No, he went out.” “Shit.” “How you doing, girl?” [sigh] “Really? What’s going on?” “Kind of a shitty day.” “What’s been going on?” And then they start talking. I was thinking about it. That’s a spontaneous conversation. And that has been terminated. If I call you, I’m never gonna get [your husband] Chris. He’s not answering that fucking [cell] phone.
Ian: If I call you [on the cell phone], I’m not gonna talk to your kids. That is a really interesting social change.
Ian: Because when you think about calling group houses, or even calling your friend and talking to their parents. There’s real transference there. And also, there’s an intimacy that develops. It’s how you become friends with people. You call a group house and then someone else answers the phone and you’re in a conversation. You’re like, “Hey let’s have a cup of tea sometime!” It’s very interesting. I’m not a Luddite. I’m not against progress or whatever you want to call it. It’s just something to think about, the effect it has on the interactions. It’s like- so much online community, in isolation. It’s fucked up.
Sarah: Yeah, I think a lot of the people you think you’re in a community with online, you wouldn’t really want to hang out with.
Ian: Right. That’s the stuff I’ve been thinking about. Among the millions of other things I’ve been thinking about, that’s something I’ve been thinking about.
Sarah: Are you going to do anything about these ideas?
Ian: I just did!
Sarah: [laughter] Well I guess I do wonder- is there something to do about this? I mean, you conduct your own life in a certain way. I guess that’s step one.
Ian: First of all, I don’t have any social media at all. I get it. I just can’t get involved. It’s too much. The media component of social media is toxic. I feel for people who are being traumatized by the perpetual weirdness coming out of the White House and Capitol. Take it out of your pocket! You don’t need the needle over and over and over. Goddamn. I don’t see the benefit.
A friend was saying, “The problem with the newspaper is that you can’t update it.” The paper-paper doesn’t update. And I was like, “Yeah, that’s not a problem. That’s okay.” He is traumatized by the Twitter. I’m just like- stop. What’s the point of it?
Shitty things have always been happening always in the world at all times. While we’re talking right now, something horrible has happened to somebody somewhere. And it’s not within our control. It’s not at our beckoning. We didn’t do it.
Why did we have to learn about a car crash a mile away from here and not about one that happened in Omaha? Why is a car crash where one person was killed on Key Bridge more important than a car crash where eight people are killed in Des Moines? What’s the difference? The curation of news and the way information is given to us is really to make us feel terrible, by and large.
When this motherfucker got into office and all this shit was going on, I said to people, alright, they got the House. They got the Senate. They got the White House. Don’t give them your joy. Don’t fucking give up on joy. If you don’t have joy, then fuck it, what’s the point? They can’t take your joy. So I feel strongly that people should stop engaging in feeling terrified. Fuck fear! Don’t be scared. These are jerks. They’ve always been jerks. Always. These are more demonstrative jerks. But, it’s gonna pass. It always passes.
A friend once said to me, “Bigotry always falls on the wrong side of history.” You just gotta wait it out. And it didn’t start with them! They’re the end of this particular strain. The same friend also once told me—you ever hear about this thing called extinction bursts?
Ian: It’s a great term. An extinction burst is the burst of energy right at the end of something’s existence. When animals die and then all of a sudden, rrrrrrvvvvrr, they do that thing. Or another great example is when there’s a bully, and you tell your kid, “Just walk away! Don’t give them that power!” But when you walk away, the bully attacks. The bully does that because he or she knows that their power is at the end. It’s an extinction burst.
This is an extinction burst. This is what we’re seeing. It’s the end of the Vietnam-era, White men problem. And it’s a bummer. And I’m sorry we have to deal with it. But that’s the way it goes. It’s not my doing!
Ian and teapot
I’m also the guy that on September 11th, I was sitting here and Amy Pickering was at the office across the street, and she called me and said, “Do you see what’s going on?” I said, “No.” “Turn on the tv.” Then I saw, yeah, someone crashed a plane. How terrible! And then I saw the other plane come in, and “Oh, this is not an accident. Oh shit! Alright.” I turned the tv off. What can I do? I’m just fucking sitting here, right? And then, a call: “They just crashed the Pentagon!” “Really?” I walked up to the top of the street to look and see the black smoke. I’m like, “Wow! Okay.”
Then I come back and people are calling, like, “What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?” And I just said, “I’m not gonna do anything.” “I’m gonna do my work.” And people are like, “Should we go? Should we drive somewhere?” “Where? Where would we drive?” People are like, “There’s still eight planes out there!” Okay. We had zero control over this situation! I had nothing to do with whatever led to it. I had nothing to do with the actual event of it. So I thought, “Well fuck it.” I had a bed in the back room that summer, and I was lying downstairs, and I saw the trees, and I saw the birds in the trees, and I thought, “They don’t give a fuck. The birds in the trees don’t give a fuck about this. And I’m on their side. I’m not going to get caught up in the brutality of human folly.”
I don’t know why humans do this shit. They’ve been doing it forever. Just some of them. Not most of them. But enough to terrify the rest of us, I guess. I’m with the trees and the birds. That’s life. That’s the real deal.
So then everything was fucked up. They had closed the bridges. We couldn’t go out. We were stranded here. And I was sitting here by myself, and I was like, “Fuck. I know. I’ll answer the mail.” So I get a big box of mail, and I sat here, and I was just writing, and I was like, “Oh! I should date it September 10th, because I don’t want people to think I’m insane, right?” And also because I saw it as a vote for the future. Because that’s the thing about letters. Like when you wrote that letter, it was one day, but when you sent it to me, it would be a different day. So you believed in the future.
Ian: And that’s how I thought. I thought, “I’m writing letters because I believe in the future.” Right? Because I knew when I wrote that letter, they’re gonna get the letter in two days.
And about four or five months ago, I got an email from a guy, and he said, “You know, I was just going through my mail. I have a box of old keepsakes. And I found a card from you. And it’s dated September 11th, 2001.”
Sarah: [laughter] Oh no.
Ian: And he’s like, “Were you really answering mail on September 11th?” I’m like, “Shit!”
I wrote back and said, “I can’t believe you got that!” But that’s the thing- I didn’t watch television [that day]. What’s the point? It’s incomprehensible, right? The brutality. It would never make sense why people would do that. I don’t want to see people jumping out of buildings! I don’t want to look at that kind of shit. The only thing you can achieve, really, by looking at it is becoming numb to it. And I’m not interested in that. So I was like, “I’m not gonna watch it.” So I may have been one of the five people in America who didn’t watch it all day. And therefore, I was like, “Okay. Here we are.”
I’m for joy! That’s my gig. I want to be well. I want love. That’s it.
When Ian stepped out of the room, Michael had this to offer about the effect that receiving this tape from Ian had on him.
Michael: I look at that letter there and what he said about [what I wrote], “I’m really poor. It’s three dollars.” I’m mortified seeing that but at the same time I think—one of the things that impressed me about this so much was the generosity of it, without expecting anything in return, except to listen. But it’s something that I carry with me. It’s one of those ripple effects. I think about ways in which this changed how I think about sharing work with other people—that it’s possible to communicate with people in ways in which there wasn’t an economy to it. There wasn’t a quid pro quo. It was really, really encouraging.
Michael was born and raised in Rochester, NY. He played guitar in Nuns on Death Row (1985-1986), one of Rochester’s first hardcore punk bands. He also played guitar in Hunger Artist (1987-1989) and Powerline (1990-1991) with Zach Barocas, who would go on to drum with Jawbox.
Michael quit playing music in the early ‘90s, moved to the DC area in 1994, and earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Maryland at College Park, where he also taught as an adjunct. He ended up working in the used book business for the next 20 plus years.
Michael bought his first bass guitar in 2008 and joined ex-Circus Lupus guitarist Chris Hamley and ex-Crownhate Ruin drummer Vin Novara in 2011 to form Alarms & Controls. The three made the “Reanimus Cataract” single (Mud Memory 007/Dischord 174.5) and the “Clovis Points” LP (Lovitt 75.5/Dischord 181.5). Michael was also a member of the two-bass duo Argos; they collaborated with BELLS≥ on a track from their “Solutions, Silence, or Affirmations” LP, which reunited him with Zach. Michael currently plays bass in Numbers Station, a 2-bass instrumental trio. https://numbersstationdc.bandcamp.com/releases
Michael went back to grad school and earned a Library Science degree from UMD in 2015. He is now a librarian at the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
His favorite Dischord release is still Faith/Void.
Ian MacKaye was born and raised in Washington, DC. He is the cofounder of Dischord Records and has been the member of myriad bands including Minor Threat and Fugazi. His most recent band played its first show November 11, 2018; it is a collaboration with Amy Farina and Joe Lally. In the photograph below, Ian is holding a copy of the first mix tape he ever made.
Part II picks up where Part I left off–in the midst of an online chat (in several installments over 2 months) between Wrence and John focusing on a mix that Wrence sent to John in Berlin in January of 1993. John had not listened to the mix for many years. Wrence had not heard it since he made it 24 years ago.
Wrence: I had been recording Wilson’s shows on ‘ZBC for years before I met him. I didn’t even know he was the same person as my fave DJ until around the third time he and I met.
John: Do you remember sitting around the apartment and pulling drawers from that desk where I kept my 45’s? Each of us would take a different drawer (A-F, G-M, etc.) And one of us would get Wilson’s box of 45’s. And we’d take turns playing 7-inches. That would have been in 88/89 I guess.
Wrence: Yeah, I remember you and I both were so energized by playing records, basically. We’d only just met back then and that was about our only shared activity at first. Others surely will know the activity, it was basically alternating turns at the turntable and saying, Oh yeah! Great one! Now I suppose it’s what we do with Facebook, Soundcloud, Mixcloud, and whatever apps.
John: I liked your Mekons records. Of course we shared a love of the Beatles. You turned me on to Eric Dolphy, who I previous only knew as a Mingus side man. I did not “get” all your 70’s Stones records at first, but came to appreciate them.
Wrence: You still have my meager vinyl collection, right?
John: You know, I also recently pulled out a WZBC aircheck from 2006. I was back in Boston and back on the air for a few years around then. Wilson was visiting Boston. He sat in with me for a great show! When Wilson came back to the states, he took your records and his. He talks on the 2006 aircheck about going to sell some of the records, but then changing his mind. He says you told him to sell them. But he couldn’t do it. I think he put the lp’s in storage for you somewhere. I think he still has the 45s.
Wrence: What was in that collection? Do you remember?
John’s desk, which still contains cassette tapes
John: Off the top of my head… La Peste, Candy Flip, Virgin Prunes, Paula and Paula … I’m running to that same desk, which I still have, with my 45’s and old tapes….
… From a mix called, “John, Wilson and Wrence’s Jukebox, Vol. I”:
The Neats, ? and the Mysterians, Todd Rundgren, The Nazz, Mission of Burma, Colin Newman, Jane and Barton, Durutti Column, Bongwater, Eyeless in Gaza…
Vol. II track list seems to have gone missing. But Vol. II was apparently taped over my little brother’s cassette of Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins!
Should we turn to track list of PRESIDENT CLINTON tape?
Wrence: The track I treasure most from the PRESIDENT CLINTON mix is Tina Harvey’s cover of “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows?” This is kind of a tangent but I posted that cover to the FB group called “scattered smothered & covered: songs by others” and it didn’t get the applause I expected. But, that group really is the most fun group for music on all of Facebook. Recommended. The contributors there are all top notch lovers of great, rare music.
Sorry for the detour. We can get to the track list now. 🙂
John: Tina Harvey is a track I was never able to place when I got the tape back in ’93. I was guessing she was someone like Marianne Faithful or something. How did you and/or Wilson discover her?
Wrence: Wilson loved that track. We never knew where she came from. It may have been her only release. Wait, let me check Discogs…
Very minor, but so great. It was a real find. Wilson had the lp.
John: Cool! And what about the classical piece that begins the tape? I never knew what that was, but it’s something I’ve since heard in the soundtrack of big Hollywood movies.
Wrence: Yes, it’s in many film soundtracks. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It’s the kind of thing you listen to when thinking of 9-11 or Hiroshima or The Holocaust. Very somber. I mean the bombing of Hiroshima. The city itself is actually a pleasant, vibrant metropolis now.
John: So then you follow Samuel Barber’s Adegio with all of side 2 of Peter Jeffries & Jono Lonie’s At Swim 2 Birds lp…. and near the end of that you start switching to the NPR broadcast and back… Do you remember actually making this tape?
Wrence: At first I didn’t remember at all. But… As I kept listening it did happen that 1993 came back to mind. I would say I don’t recall the actual session of making the thing, but I recall the time when all of these would have been my listening, my personal playlist in the apartment. At Swim 2 Birds especially is something that I hadn’t heard since that time, 24 years ago. And it sounds great even now, doesn’t it?
John: Amazing! And I must say it was wonderful to hear it in 1993. That was one of my own records, which you and Wilson were keeping for me. It was a favorite of mine that I had not heard in about 2 years!
Wrence: Ahhhh! that explains why I hadn’t heard it since.
I think WZBC listeners would feel right at home with this tape. Very “NCP” (No Commercial Potential), yeah?
John: Well, the mix runs the gamut. Wire, Undertones, Television Personalities, Mekons… all very consistent with the kinds of rock that ZBC would play during the day. At Swim 2 Birds more nighttime “NCP.” But million-selling artists like John Lennon and Neil Young would not get featured very often on any show on WZBC. The Eric Dolphy thing would have been fine on NCP, but as a practical matter, WZBC did not feature much jazz on NCP.
Wrence: Yes. Very eclectic.
John: Back then, I had not listened to much Hi Records stuff besides Al Greene. The Ann Peebles on side 1 was a door opener for me. Great track!
Ann Peebles photo from I Can’t Stand the Rain
Wrence: “I Can’t Stand The Rain” has one of my favorite grooves ever. God that is a good recording!
John: I visited Memphis. Got a tour of the Hi Studios by Willie Mitchel’s grandson, who runs it now.
Happened impromptu. He just happened to arrive while my girlfriend and I were gawking outside. He had some time and invited us in for a quick tour. We got to take our pictures singing into Al Green’s mic and stuff.
Royal Studios photo, from www.royalstudios.com/history
John: Stuff like that happened to us every day in Memphis. Show up after the BBQ joint is closed. They invite us in and feed us anyway….
Wrence: Ann really is like a female Al Green, eh.
John: I’ve bought stuff by Ann Peebles since. I don’t think anyone is a female Al Green. We went to his church too. He gives 2 services every Sunday. One for the real congregation. One for tourists. Pretty bad ass.
John: I’m wondering how spontaneous the NPR mix-ins were.
Wrence: I think it was very spontaneous. For kids reading now, these were the days before social networking apps and “gays in the military” felt very big and controversial at the time. Now it’s kind of a big yawn. I probably just switched the hifi from turntable to radio spontaneously, as you say. The tape itself, by the way, is in places not so fun to listen to. All the scratchiness over the Adagio for Strings at the intro. The radio crap interrupting the musical flow…
John: Yes, the radio switches are a bit jolting. The final song from the Jeffereis/Lonie lp gets butchered!
But the Wrence spontaneity shines through. I had to laugh. It was like I was right there in the living room watching you do it! And imagining Wilson yelling from the next room, “Wrence – what the hell are you doing out there?”
Wrence: Were you living in Kreuzberg 36 at the time?
John: I was living with a pastor at the time – near Alexanderplatz – in the downtown heart of East Berlin. I can remember listening in my room in the pastor’s flat in Mitte. He was divorced. He had a place big enough for a whole family, but he lived there alone. He let me live there for free for a year or so. He was one of my English students.
Crappy iphone photo of East Berlin in 2017, from Sarah’s tourist photographs
Wrence: Did the pastor hear the tape, too?
John: Oh yes. He loved listening to the NPR passage and talking with me about it. He was very interested in learning what NPR was relative to commercial media like CBS, NBC, etc. And discussing the content of the piece. And getting to the point where he could understand the reports. It was perfect. They speak very clearly, but not in a childish way. And the content was also interesting. … and he could rewind it and listen again to the parts that were hard to understand at first. He was less interested in the music!
Wrence: Thinking about how funny memory works. I can remember some moments from 1963 better than 1993.
John: Yes, that’s why rediscovering artifacts like this can be so powerful. Music seems to be especially powerful when it comes to memory. I was at a wedding recently. The groom’s uncle was pretty far into Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t leave his wife’s side. He would peer long and hard at every face, knowing it was someone he probably knew, but could not place. But he could sing along to Irish drinking songs! They played a bunch of those and everyone gathered around him and sang along with him. It was quite moving.
Wrence: Many of us must have brains that function along that continuum someplace. My memory seems both great here and lost there.
The connection between everything from the opening Adagio through to Eric Dolphy on side 1 of the mix sort of indicates to me that all that Widows Walk and Kraft-o-Matic listening probably added some new sophistication to the musical culture I’d taken as my own by then. I was rock and soul as a kid, then punk and dub in early 20s, then this period.
John: Some of the other tapes you sent me had typed track lists. You gave each side of the tape a title. Raucous, Out There, Blue, Soulful…
Wrence: That sounds like me.
Do we need to get the other tracks covered here? Or let the readers just go and listen if they like?
John: I don’t think we need to do song-by-song. But if there are any stories that come to mind for a particular track or sequence… Actually, do you have any photos of us from back then? I have almost no photos of myself from the 80’s and 90’s.
Wrence: I’m going to be sorting through photos (stored up in the attic) today in preparation for the family gathering in Boston next week. Maybe I’ll find something.
Editorial note from John: Wrence did not find any photos of us. But here are a couple photos of us taken in Boston about 1 week after this conversation:
John: I’m now listening to the “Jukebox” tape that was missing a track list. I’m just going to blurt out the songs as they come on – non-sequiter style. But we can keep talking about whatever else.
Wrence: OK, go.
John: No Surfing in Dorchester Bay right now.
Wrence: Richie Parsons, Future Dads
I actually have to go soon and get packing for the trip and setting up my new iPhone before I leave for the states.
John: The reunions next weekend during your visit are going to be something! There are so many people in Boston who I met long after meeting you, but who knew you years before you and I met each other.
Wrence: Right, it is funny how two people in a vaguely common set of circles of friends know some of the same people from different periods. I know what you mean.
John: I’m going to lie down to sleep listening to this mix of our old records!
Chat Conversation End
Go to Part I of this story for more about John and Wrence and WZBC, Boston College radio in the last 1980s.