The story of Puncture magazine (1982-2000) on the re-publication of its first six issues. Dostoyevsky Wannabe spoke to Patty Stirling, J. Neo Marvin and Steve Connell about the early days of the magazine and about the changing landscape of DIY culture.
So, Puncture starts in 1982 and it’s the brainchild of Katherine Spielmann, but it seems there were a few other people involved in those early stages aside from you wasn't there Patty? Or, at the very beginning, was it initially mostly you and Katherine? I note you were friends with Katherine’s daughter, did she not want to get involved or was she busy playing rather than writing about music?
PATTY: Paula was mostly busy with her art studies and music, though she did contribute some writing and artwork to Puncture (under the pseudonym Jo Gryphon). She was living with Katherine at the start, so she also helped with production, doing paste-up and compiling and stapling the magazines. Maati and Neo were also involved from an early stage.
NEO: I had started writing for a photo-zine called EGO that lasted for a couple of years until they literally ran out of paper and ceased publishing. Around the same time, my then-partner Maati Stojanovich Lyon had met Katherine through her work promoting the anarcho-punk band Crass and their network of affiliated labels.
As soon as I saw the first issue of Puncture , I knew it was something completely different from any other punk/post-punk publication out there, and I was eager to get involved. Why? The writing. Always the writing. It had a quizzical honesty and clarity that seemed almost alien at the time. That’s what drew me in, from the first issue to the last.
The first few issues, as represented in the newly reissued book, seemed to have been produced in a very ziney paste-up fashion with articles typed out, apparently on a very early Apple computer, a machine that would be fairly advanced for the time, and printed on a “terrifically noisy daisy-wheel printer”. Was the layout then pasted up before each individual page was essentially Xeroxed? We remember doing something similar around the early-90s and having to number the backs of each image and then number the space where the image was to get pasted into and things like that. Quite a fiddly business but very hands-on. Was this your first experience of doing paste-up, Patty and did Katherine already have an idea how it all worked from working in publishing? I guess I’m thinking she might have been quite active in that area since you said she also owned this kind of typesetting machine. Did she know how to work it or had she just somehow ended up with it?
PATTY: Maybe she got the typesetting machine in anticipation that it would come in useful. I don’t think she knew how to operate it because I had to figure it out. We used it quite a bit for headlines and probably a lot more from the seventh issue, when the magazine became full-size. This was long before the advent of publishing software on the Mac. As I understand it, Katherine was determined to start a magazine, and that’s why she had acquired the computer and printer. She must have known something about production because she knew how to number the layouts in proper sequence for the number of pages we’d turn up with. and I knew a little about paste-up because of a book project I’d done in community college.
STEVE: That kitchen table in the first shot is where layout and pasteup of all the early issues of Puncture happened. Note the jug on the top of fridge with set square, rulers, scissors, etc.
Can you tell us any more about Katherine's background before Puncture? The introduction tells us that she moved from Britain to San Francisco but was she born in Britain? I’m picking up the idea that she might have been from seeing a word like ‘wellies’ in one of her Caligari editorials but maybe she just picked that up on her travels? It feels like Katherine may have had a fascinating backstory before she started Puncture. Suddenly starting a punk fanzine aged 40 still somehow seems an odd thing for a person to do (we say this as two people who started an indie press at around the same age but you get what we mean. There’s kind of an accepted idea that punk bands and fanzines were all started by 14-year-olds but was there really more of an intergenerational mixture? It feels similar to the way in which hippie and punk have been kind of neatly packaged into their own time-zones, even though those time-zones would have presumably had some cross-over.
PATTY: I was a bit baffled by her age—she was old enough to be my mother! But my mother had no idea what punk was. Katherine was a professional journalist by trade and a writer by nature—and she really wanted to start her own publication. She decided on covering punk music and culture because she realized through her daughter’s involvement that it was popular and accessible. She then looked for someone experienced in the punk scene to partner with. I wrote for Ripper , the San Jose fanzine, and went to a lot of shows, so I was ideal.
I assumed she had been interested in alternative music and culture during the 60s and 70s. I can’t imagine her as a hippie -- more of a beatnik, maybe! Later I learned that she had been politically active back then too, so the radical platform of punk suited her.
STEVE: Katherine lived in the UK for some years, but she was American, grew up on the East Coast and worked for years in New York. She went to England in the mid-70s with her kids and worked there as a freelance journalist, before moving to San Francisco in 1981. Her time in the UK ended tragically—her son was killed in a motorbike accident—and she needed to start over with her daughter somewhere new. She chose San Francisco, but she only just had enough money to get there, no money for rent. So she got a secretarial job and also a gig as a live-in housekeeper for an elderly couple, shopping for them (big bottles of generic vodka, she recalled) and cooking their meals, and saved her money until she had enough for a deposit to rent an apartment and could bring her daughter over from England, where she’d been staying with friends. The SF punk scene was in its first flowering, and as soon as Paula enrolled in art school, she got swept into music, and this in turn fired Katherine’s interest.
Most people in the punk scene were young, of course, but there were always older people involved—people who’d been at odds with the art and music scenes their age cohort had developed, who until now hadn’t found a scene they felt at home in. Like Claude Bessy of Slash magazine in LA and Tim Yohannon, who founded the punk zine Maximum Rocknroll . Katherine was a little older than them, but like them she’d been radicalized in the 60s. She remained a staunch Marxist, and her involvement in first-wave feminism shaped Puncture ’s attitude from the start.
NEO: There was definitely a culture of youth in the punk scene, to the point where many people actually lied about their ages. But there was also an attitude among many people in the scene that youth was more a state of mind than a measure of chronological time. It was more important to have a fresh perspective and a lot of energy than to conform to a “youth” stereotype. Out of all subcultures, punk (at least in its earliest decades) was not so much a style set in stone (despite some people’s best efforts) as it was a long-term, vigorous, lively debate about what punk actually was and meant.
A couple of points about Katherine. 1) She was not that much older than Tim Yohannon of Maximum Rocknroll , who made no bones about being an older spokesperson with a stated interest in influencing an audience much younger than he was. Was it different because Tim was a guy? Maybe. 2) Unlike Tim and others, Katherine didn’t extend herself socially into the scene too much, preferring to play the role of a quiet observer catching the nuances of what was going on around her that other writers often missed. Most people would not have recognized her in public, and she let her writing speak for itself.
From today’s vantage point, punk can sometimes seem like just another form of heritage culture, but at the time wasn’t it more shocking and the cause of moral panic? We read that even popular American TV shows of the day like CHiPs and Quincy MD occasionally ran storylines where dangerous punks were coming to town to ‘corrupt the youth’ and upset wholesome values—which is obviously pretty funny now but also perhaps representative of how the mainstream feared this new subculture.
In the introduction, Patty, you touch on going to gigs at the Mabuhay Gardens, which was apparently originally a Filipino restaurant that went on to host many punk gigs featuring bands from San Francisco but also touring punk bands from out of the area. Can you tell us a bit more about that place?
PATTY: Mabuhay Gardens (the Fab Mab) was like the CBGB’s of San Francisco – exclusively punk and something of a mecca for them. It started operating as a nightclub during the 70s and became so popular it stopped being a restaurant. In the 80s, punk shows tended to be very underground—there were very few venues for them. The Mab paved the way for those that came later. It was in the bottom level of a 2-story building (the On Broadway theatre, also known as Rock on Broadway, was upstairs) on the part of Broadway in North Beach that hosted a notorious strip-club scene, all neon and barkers, that is gone now (“cleaned up” in the way Times Square in NYC was cleaned up). It was a feisty neighbourhood that people avoided unless they were up to no good, which punk music certainly qualified as back then.
It was a massive contrast to the woods of rural Oregon where I grew up! I would say I came of age going to the Mab. I had no fear about going there. The cover was usually $2 (later I usually got on the guest list through Puncture ). I charged in eagerly to get near the stage. The venue was a decent size, with some booths and tables. People had to check their spikes at the door. The dancefloor was always packed. Slamming and pogoing was constant. People always helped each other to their feet and I felt terrifically safe.
NEO: Like most rising countercultures before and since, punk had its day in the crosshairs of the self-appointed moral guardians of the time. And, to be fair, the early punk scene was not for the faint-hearted. For many years the Mabuhay was the centre of the San Francisco scene. New York had CBGB’s, L.A. had the Masque; we had the Mab.Shows started very late, usually around 11:00 PM.Dirk Dirksen, an older, sardonic, somewhat frumpy gay man with glasses and a moustache, played the MC-as-insult-comedian. He was a fun character. His snarky exhortations to the late-night crowd of tweaked socializing punks to get out and go home when the show was over were the stuff of legend.
In your introduction, Patty, it seems like the Good Earth café, which was apparently near the Mabuhay, was your main source of income. Were you cooking there or doing something else? Anti-social kitchen working hours could segue quite well into late-night gig hours at punk clubs, perhaps?
PATTY: Cooking in restaurants and cafes was always my only income. And yeah, working at night made it possible to go to shows after clocking-out and sleep in in the morning. It was ideal. San Francisco has always had an excellent transit system, so it was easy to get home again all night long.
We read elsewhere that it was quite a political scene, and it attracted female and queer punks, perhaps in contrast to some of the other more male-oriented nearby punk scenes? Is that how you’d characterise it? For instance, your introduction mentions that you often attended the I-Beam disco, a gay bar that would later start to feature bands that Puncture would cover. I wondered was this the beginnings of any kind of Queercore scene or did that come later?
PATTY: I think because it was San Francisco there was bound to be substantial gay participation in just about everything. Dirk Dirksen, the house emcee at the Mab, was gay. He was a blast, constantly insulting the bands and the audience, and everyone who didn’t hate him was crazy about him -- me included. Ginger Coyote, the editor of Punk Globe fanzine, hung out at the Mab, surrounded by queer and trans punks. Carl Campbell, who later printed both Puncture and Punk Globe , was good friends with her. The club was a nonthreatening assortment of sexual identities that blended beautifully onstage and off. Punks in general seemed kind of ambisexual, with women and men dressing in the same shredded threads, boots, and make-up.
The queer scene was a step ahead in dance music – another reason I preferred the I-Beam to straight dance clubs. The I-Beam began showing videos on the walls of the dancefloor – this was when MTV had just started and bands began making music videos (I vividly remember watching with distaste, however, Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’). A little later, the I-Beam started booking bands on Monday nights.
STEVE: That was a classic gay club move in the 80s. Mondays were anyway a quieter night for their usual crowd, so why not use the venue for the rapidly expanding post-punk scene on those nights? Heaven, in London, did much the same thing, hosted totally amazing Monday shows back in the early 80s. The I-Beam hired Cathy Cohn to book their Monday night shows . . .
PATTY: . . . and their selection was brilliant—I think that had more to do with Puncture covering shows there than any queer scene connection. The Queercore scene as such came later.
LA punk appeared to be more male-oriented because the police really cracked down brutally on the scene there and punks reacted by building up lines and strategies of defence and attack. This tendency came to morph into nightclub behaviour. When LA groups like Black Flag played in San Francisco it seemed like they brought their own audience along – mostly male punks with spikes that made the dancefloor a violent and dangerous place with their fast circle pits, thrashing to knock people flat and trample them. This intimidated pogoers like me; everyone that didn’t want to get hurt retreated to the sidelines to watch with resentment. That style of punk sure excluded a lot of women— and queers. These LA roughnecks had more enemies than just the police!
NEO: My understanding of queercore is that it was a specific scene that came along later, around the late 80s, spearheaded by writer Larry-Bob Roberts and bands like Pansy Division and Tribe 8. There was certainly always a queer presence in the original punk scenes in SF and LA with bands like the Offs and the Screamers. I can’t speak for other scenes and their inclusiveness or lack of same, though boneheads can be found anywhere you look, including “tolerant” San Francisco.
The Good Earth café sounds like quite a hippyish place. How did the sort of punk and hippie thing rub along together, it often seems to me that there was perhaps always more of an affinity (or at least some crossover) between the two, more so than the popular cliché might have it? This period was just after the assassination of Harvey Milk, too—do you think that any of that coloured SF punk?
PATTY: I felt extremely lucky to have landed any job at all when the only job I’d ever had was as a part-time dishwasher at the nursing home where my mother worked in Grants Pass, Oregon, when I was in high school. I was surprised to be hired as a prep cook since I had no professional experience. I got the job after answering a newspaper help wanted ad in the local newspaper. It happened to be for the Good Earth, which just happened to be a health food restaurant. I certainly didn’t seek it out for that reason – I would work anywhere! It was actually a chain, which made it possible for me to land work at its Santa Clara location later, when I lived in San Jose.
Food was a political item in San Francisco for sure, partly because of the animal rights movement. Neo and Maati were vegetarians back then because of their involvement with Crass, who were fiercely pro-animal rights. Also, local health food co-ops like Rainbow Grocery were run communally, which attracted punks with its anti-corporate mindset, just as much as hippies.
NEO: Many of the older punks were actually ex-hippies who had rejected the sentimental, starry-eyed optimism of the hippie era and found voice for their disillusionment in the grittier aesthetic of the punk scene. The idealistic, rebellious side of the hippie subculture gravitated toward the anarcho-punk scene with its emphasis on a paradoxical form of enraged pacifism and aggressive vegetarianism.
The Milk/Moscone assassinations were deeply felt all through San Francisco. The meaning of a rogue police officer killing a cool, charismatic, and progressive local gay politician was not lost on the misfits of the city, and punks joined in the infamous “White Night” riots that followed Dan White’s lenient sentencing. The Dead Kennedys, theatrical pranksters as always, started performing a cover of the Bobby Fuller Four/Clash classic I Fought The Law (“AND I WON!”) with Jello Biafra wearing a Dan White mask onstage.
Were San Francisco punk shows typically all-ages shows, and, if so, was that important to how it developed do you think?
PATTY: I’m afraid I didn’t pay much attention to that. I was drinking age and went to clubs mostly, sometimes to shows in rented halls, theatres, even basements. I wasn’t always carded, anyway – it wasn’t strictly enforced back then as it is now.
San Francisco had a significant teenage runaway population and facilities for them. That was an obvious punk audience looking for all-ages venues. I believe the Farm had some punk shows. It was a complex of buildings and land under a freeway overpass in the outer Mission, but most of their activities sounded rather hippy-ish to me. I never had any desire to go to them. Although Mark Pauline and Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) had a warehouse there called Boys Town. I went to a birthday party for William Burroughs there which was fantastic! SRL’s menacing machines, adorned with dead animals, all came to life and performed -- that was much more my style!
NEO: Sadly, there weren’t nearly enough all-age shows, though alternative fly-by-night venues and warehouse shows were less likely to card people under 21. The lack of all-ages shows helped inspire Maximum Rocknroll staffers and others to start up Gilman Street in the late 80s.
We've been reading an account of life in San Francisco written by a young skater kid in 1989 (in Sarah Lowndes book on DIY culture). He said his life was partially based around a place called Adobe Books and says that “in San Francisco there was a template for how to get away with not doing what society tells you do to” and it was “easy to find other people who wanted to disappear from something”. Obviously, this was some years after the time period you’re recalling in your introduction, but was this similar to your experience of the place in your early years after leaving school? I assume any such scene is long-gone now that Silicon Valley has produced so many young millionaires in that area.
PATTY: Like many young people I was trying to disappear from my family. But I was specifically drawn to the punk scene in San Francisco because it had an obvious and approachable physical existence there, unlike what I knew in San Jose and Oregon. Somehow, as if to break the link with my parents, I had transformed into a punk and was seeking out my own kind, a place in the world where I would belong, like I tried to do on the homestead when I was a kid.
I had become infatuated with punk from listening to Patti Smith and visiting London and going to Dead Kennedys shows. Latching on to it, I was able to cut ties with my old world – not exist in my family anymore, but reappear with a new identity and purpose in life, even if my purpose was merely to attend more punk shows and write about them in punk magazines. It seemed vastly important to do so (much like feeding and riding the horses on my parents’ homestead had been earlier). I reckon every writer feels that way, including Katherine. San Francisco offered that opportunity. It didn’t censor or suppress punk to the same extent as the rest of the country. In fact, whenever I had to travel outside San Francisco I would feel unnerved and out of place. I couldn’t wait to get into the city where it was sane and safe. I realize that a lot of people feel the opposite!
NEO: Let’s just say it was easier when rents were low and people could turn abandoned warehouses into art spaces. Now money rules the Bay Area though some of us still hold on. Adobe Books is still with us, bless them.
STEVE: And perhaps not so coincidentally, Paula worked at Adobe Books for some time after it opened in 1989, back when it was still at 16th and Valencia. It’s always been a really important place for people to hang out, part bookshop, part art gallery, part drop-in center.
On a related subject, we were reading the other day about how the origins of the Silicon Valley technology community perhaps partially lay in the mixture of libertarianism and countercultural hippy idealism already inherent in SF culture, do you think there is anything in that theory and did you see any kind of similar mix in the early 80s punk scene?
PATTY: Punks were supposed to hate hippies. I sure did. It was a rebellion against that culture, especially the music.
NEO: In the broader sense of a large group of very different people all arguing ferociously about what it all really means, perhaps . . .
Did you ever come across any affinity between early tech people in San Francisco and punk and DIY? Would you say the same type of DIY motivations ever applied to pre-venture capital tech start-ups or do you have no sense of any of that? Maybe you have no interest or experience with this question so please forgive us if so. It’s just something we’re interested in.
PATTY: All I can say about Silicon Valley and the tech people is that they were like the kiss of death. During the eighties, when punk was really taking hold, the tech scene seemed to hardly exist in San Francisco. They started moving into San Francisco during the nineties, property prices skyrocketed, and renters like me were forced out of the city. That’s why Katherine and Steve moved to Portland – they had just enough to buy a house there back then.
STEVE: Portland was still cheap back then!
PATTY: And that’s what I ended up doing, too, along with my brother and two other friends (also Puncture writers: John Chandler and Scott Nasburg) who already lived in Portland.
It’s very hard for me to see any affinity between the techies and punks so I can’t really answer the question. It was money and power that drove the start-ups. We saw them as overpowering invaders who banished us from our own home. Homelessness grew much worse. Punk venues closed, or they changed to suit the new monied clientele. I felt like everything sacred was being bought out or destroyed to make room for rich people.
Even before the Sixties, the San Francisco Bay Area was home to City Lights, which was one of the earliest shops to sell paperback (then sometimes known as ‘pocket book’) books, alongside independent magazines that often had strong political motivations. We read that City Lights was partially inspired by Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and it seems Rough Trade in London was in turn inspired by City Lights. What affect did Rough Trade’s San Francisco store have on the local punk scene and on Puncture?
NEO: Vale had worked at City Lights and his connections there helped him put out Search And Destroy zine and later RE/Search. Certainly Rough Trade was part of the San Francisco community, and many people there strove to make it “the City Lights of music,” which didn’t last, for various reasons. It was a hugely important place for local artists to sell their records, advertise their shows, and more. Among Puncture staffers, Maati worked in the retail store and Steve worked in the distribution and label warehouse space in the back.
PATTY: And Rough Trade was massively important to Puncture . That’s where Katherine and I learned about a lot of the bands we covered. They imported a lot of records and sold those and local records in the store, and distributed those records to other stores from the warehouse in the back. The record labels they promoted kept opening new doors in our minds. I shopped there often and Katherine asked for review copies. It’s where she met Steve, who worked there. It was run like a collective, which wasn’t unusual for alternative businesses in San Francisco.
The Rough Trade record label also put out recordings by some local bands, including Toiling Midgets. And they distributed Crass Records, which was pretty much the basis of the peace punk movement. Corpus Christi Records was a San Francisco-based offshoot of Crass that released works by local bands Crucifix and Trial.
When did your involvement with Puncture begin Steve? Were you already at Rough Trade or did you end up there later and can you tell us a bit about your move from the north of England to San Francisco?
STEVE: I was born in York and grew up there, but before I moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1984 I’d been living in London since I left university, working first in Our Price record shops, and then for Rough Trade (the label and distribution company, which by that time was a separate entity from the record shop). They needed someone to go and work at the US subsidiary in San Francisco, and I jumped at the chance—I’d been there on vacation a few months earlier and totally fallen in love with the city.
I already knew about Puncture because my co-workers in SF had been sending me magazines and records from there for some time. And I was intrigued to meet the person who could reference Rilke and Marx in writing about punk. As it happened, Katherine came by Rough Trade not long after I got there, looking for Test Department records, and we started talking. It was immediately obvious that we were totally on the same wavelength (crucially, we agreed that the best ‘rock novel’ was Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street ), so it was only a matter of time until we got together.
It seems Katherine liked the idea of pen-names to make the scene around Puncture seem bigger at first so she evidently had an idea about strategy early on and was ambitious for the magazine to an extent? To judge by the tone of the first six issues, it didn’t seem likely it would ever follow the very short-lived path of some punk zines. I noted that the mag ran a reader survey early on, which seems quite, I don’t know, business-like. Do you think Katherine was motivated by a sense of taking her previous experience—as an editor at Penthouse in New York, as a freelance journalist in the UK, and also as someone who wrote for City Arts magazine in San Francisco—and wanting to do it for herself and not work for anyone else, to make something that was very much her own?
PATTY: I think that’s exactly what Katherine was trying to do. It was a big ambition. I’m sure she wanted to recreate the process she was familiar with, but she couldn’t do it alone. I was productive and creative but I didn’t have technical know-how or wholesale experience. That’s where Steve came in. They were no doubt a match made in heaven. His experience at Rough Trade was just what she needed to finance and fine-tune a marketable product.
And yes, the survey was business-like, as were the titles she labelled us with in the masthead. While her editing style ensured it was accessible reading for a wider audience. Personally, though, I found the multiple pen names misleading, I didn’t like them at all.
STEVE: Katherine definitely wanted Puncture to be her major work, not a hobby. And for the next 15 years, until illness slowed her down in the late 90s, that’s what it was. For a lot of that time we had day jobs, too—we never really made a living from Puncture — but editorially she ran it as if it were Rolling Stone . Except that we always got to feature the music we and our writers/friends cared about.
Neo touches on something similar in his foreword when he says that Puncture was “shocking in a quiet way” in comparison to some other louder, combative punk zines. He also talks about how Puncture was quite consciously edited to a particular vision that Katherine had for each issue and that, at first, he’d seen this as kind of against the ‘do whatever’ punk spirit, until he thought again about how punk was also about ‘never taking any conventional wisdom for granted’, including any conventional wisdom that attached itself to what was to become the punk cliché. Was this in evidence from day one and how do you think it helped the quality of the writing in the magazine overall?
NEO: Yes, the sort of feverish, Lester Bangs-style writing that was common in music journalism then was totally discouraged. Katherine and Patty’s very different authorial voices (and those of other contributors that followed) were totally unique to their own personalities and gave the reader a fresh window into what they wrote about. There was nothing else like it, and I jumped at the chance to get involved. It wasn’t always easy—Katherine was a formidable and complicated woman—but it was always rewarding and gratifying to hold the latest issue in your hands.
PATTY: Katherine’s had strict standards with regard to editing. She had professional experience from working as an editor at Penthouse and she used that to shape Puncture ’s writing. I think she was determined to produce a marketable product in anticipation that her livelihood would depend on it. If the ‘do whatever’ punk spirit meant unrestrained freedom, Puncture writers might have wanted it but certainly didn’t get it!
I learned only recently from her daughter that Katherine had been involved in radical socialist politics in the 60s and 70s. I just re-read the book review of Marx’s Kapital for Beginners she wrote for Puncture #3—perhaps this was the vision that she had for Puncture !
Did Puncture have any interaction with V. Vale’s Search and Destroy zine during those early years? There was an interview with him in which he talked about San Francisco having always been a great place for “dreamers and visionaries” and “people who want to reinvent themselves” and it made me think of Katherine arriving there aged 40 and starting a punk fanzine.
PATTY: That’s a good comparison. To me San Francisco was a magic place where anything could happen – and usually did! I felt at home there like nowhere else – except the homestead, which had been like my personal wonderland. I was a kid but I was in charge of caring for most of the animals and I had horses to ride in our endless woodland backyard. The power and freedom I had! When my parents split up and I had to leave it all behind to live in the suburbs I almost died from unhappiness (major depression and anorexia nervosa). It was only when I experienced punk and came to San Francisco that I qualified for a place on this planet again. Maybe the physically sensations of pogoing and slamming on the dancefloor were similar to galloping a horse at a dead run!
But I had no plan the way Katherine did. It was like I was suddenly surrounded by friends and toys to play with. I was probably a good choice for her to start with because I had skills and wanted to learn. I respected that she knew what she was doing and did what I was told. She trusted me to come up with content we needed for her goal. It was a perfect pastime for me because it forced me to do what I loved – listen to music and go to shows and photograph and write about them. I was reinvented alright! And Katherine achieved her goal of becoming the owner of a publication.
NEO: By the time Puncture began, Search and Destroy was long gone, and its successor RE/Search had shifted from putting out a newspaper to being a full-on book publisher, releasing various tomes covering the kind of subjects that Vale was always known for—these books were eagerly and often amusingly reviewed in our pages. What Vale and Katherine had most in common was that they were each one of a kind and followed their own instincts and intellects. I don’t recall them interacting directly at any point.
STEVE: So much of what was important to those “dreamers and visionaries” in different periods of San Francisco’s postwar culture was clustered around the intersection of Broadway and Columbus Ave, at the top of Chinatown. For the Beats, crucially, those North Beach coffee houses like Café Trieste and Tosca’s as well as City Lights bookstore, diagonally across that intersection from the Condor and the other strip clubs Patty mentioned. For the punks there was the Mab and the On Broadway, just a few steps east. Vale has lived across the street on Romolo Place forever, still runs RE/Search out of his apartment there, I think. We were only a short walk away, the other side of the Broadway tunnel, and went over there all the time to read in cafés and shop in the Chinese markets.
In the same interview, Vale talks about his obsession being “How can we strategize DIY undergrounds forever?” and this made me wonder about how you all feel about how the DIY thing is enduring to an extent, if you think it still is? I mean we at Dostoyevsky Wannabe are doing it through our book and publication side, somewhat ironically, and some think problematically, off the back of Amazon’s huge distribution infrastructure. By utilising print on demand, we can put books into the world at a very low cost to us as publishers (it’s not zero-cost of course as there’s typesetting and design and dealing with authors, etc). In fact, the print on demand method allows us to do it at a considerably lower cost than going and finding a photocopier, and certainly less expensively than trying to print it out at home. In some ways this allows us, as working-class people with no start-up income, to venture into publishing and to publish writers who may not be getting published by more conservatively minded middle-class publishers. Do you see a future for the DIY ethic?
NEO: The tools of production are more widely available than ever before in music-making, publishing, art, etc. thanks to the Internet, and there are fewer gatekeepers than there once were. Now the challenge is to find an audience since “content” is cheap and plentiful everywhere.
STEVE: What Neo says is absolutely right. With print-on-demand/print-to-order, anyone with a few design skills can publish a book with virtually no up-front costs. The challenge is two-fold: to produce books that are worth reading, and then to reach the people who want to read those books—to let them know the books even exist.
For us, there’s also the ethics of doing what we do by utilising Amazon. Despite our diminutive size, it’s a difficult one, as we do get the odd ethical consumer who wants to buy one of our books but wants nothing to do with Amazon, and we can’t effectively serve them. What’s worse is that we do partially agree with their boycott of Amazon, inasmuch as it would appear the working conditions at the distribution centres do sometimes come under scrutiny. That said, as one of our friends put it—‘Would anyone criticize Richard Kern for using Kodak film in his camera?’. It’s maybe true that DIY culture has often had to make some compromise somewhere in some way and this is maybe something that you’ve been aware of Steve. Presumably such complexities regularly came up in the kinds of Rough Trade meetings that have now become famous as depicting the difficulty of producing collective culture as set against business.
There are other complexities too. For instance, it’s almost like people still think of Amazon as some kind of online bookstore when really it should have something akin to its own footprint given just how gigantic it has become. Those same people who won’t buy books from there perhaps don’t realise that when they’re looking at the Met Office weather app in the UK, when they’re reading the Guardian newspaper online, they’re using Amazon Web Services as it's that service that serves those web pages due to the fact Amazon’s monopoly makes them the most cost-effective in that area too. The same goes for people using Vodafone, or National Rail Enquiries in the UK, people streaming Netflix or Spotify, people using Wix or Soundcloud or AirBnB or making a payment on their Capital One credit and debit card—they’re just part of a whole massive list of Amazon-serviced companies that people use every day in the 21st century so it’s actually quite hard to avoid Amazon even when people think they’re successfully avoiding Amazon. These questions seem to be something that you are still engaged in to some extent, Steve? We were put in touch with you through writer Emma Bolland partially because you were interested in hearing about our model of publishing. What kind of walls had you hit for you to start to look for new means or have you always just done looked for these by habit?
STEVE: I’m a one-person publisher with very limited financial resources. I can find, edit, and design the books I want to publish without any difficulty, but having the money to publish them is another story. The big stumbling block in the past was that you had to work with a conventional (offset) printer who would only print a minimum number of copies of a book—usually not less than a thousand. And you’d end up paying for those long before you sold enough of them to make your money back and start earning a little income for the author and yourself—sometimes you wouldn’t even sell enough of them to recover all that money, at least not for a long time. It was the cheapest per-copy way to print books, but it tied up money and you risked not getting it back. The advent of digital printing meant you could print fewer copies at a time, maybe a couple of hundred to start, then another hundred, then twenty or fifty at a time thereafter. With this method (more accurately called short-run printing rather than print on demand), the books cost more per copy to produce, but you weren’t going to lose money, assuming you got the pricing right. Some investment was still required, though.
What Amazon came up with in the last few years is an even more low-cost option. You can design the book and upload it, and Amazon only print each copy as they sell it, deduct the print cost, take a distribution/shipping fee, and pay you the balance. You still have to find the potential readers, and maybe spend some money to do that, but it’s a very low-cost model. If you publish a 260-page book, they’ll charge you $3.85 for printing and take a 40% fee for distribution, so if you price the book at $12.95 you’ll get a net payment per copy of $3.92. Without having had to lay out any money in advance.
The big snag, of course, is that the book is effectively only available through Amazon. Sure, they’ll print copies in bulk and sell them to you at that $3.85 cost price (plus shipping), so you can sell them through mailorder, or to other bookstores, but Amazon gets the lion’s share. But let’s face it, they do anyway—I published a book not long ago via my (first-rate) US distributor, and the initial number of copies they shipped out on day 1 to fill retailers’ pre-orders was 1,151. Of those, 903 went to Amazon.
I was interested in your method of publishing through Amazon because I wanted to put out some books I couldn’t afford to publish through Verse Chorus Press (via one of the first 2 printing methods) and risk the limited funds I have at any given time. The first of them being this book you’re interviewing us about now.
I’m aware of the evil things Amazon does—the ruthless pressure they exert on suppliers, their monopolistic tendencies in the wider economy, and above all the exploitation of workers in their distribution centres. I also remember that when Katherine and I started Verse Chorus Press with 2 books back in 1998, bookstores and distributors weren’t exactly falling over themselves to sell the books, even after we got some fantastic reviews. But Amazon stocked them right from the start and ended up accounting for well over half of their total sales. Even now, your average indie bookshop has very few if any of our books in stock—how could they, when there are so many books out there, especially books from large corporate publishers that are their bread and butter—whereas all our books are available all the time from Amazon.
Obviously dealing with Amazon is extremely fraught, ethically and politically, but, as you guys have pointed out, e.g. in that 3.A.M. interview, that’s not something limited to Amazon. There are huge ethical compromises involved in our daily use of Apple and Google products, or Facebook and Twitter, too. Maybe it feels different because there is an alternative to buying books from Amazon, and we should all buy books (and other products) elsewhere as much as we can—but I can’t be a publisher and avoid Amazon, so I’m trying to make use of them to do something good in some small way.
Did Puncture remain based in San Francisco or did it move about a bit? I mean obviously the magazine eventually hit newsstands across America later didn’t it (and beyond?)
STEVE: Katherine and I moved from San Francisco to Portland in 1992, and Puncture moved with us. SF was already getting crazily expensive as the dotcom boom gathered force, and we’d both had enough of working day jobs. Portland was still cheap and not that hip back then, and we had just enough for the down payment on an $85K house (even a one-room apartment cost $200K in SF by then) and have a $250 monthly mortgage payment, so we could get by with pretty low income. Katherine was already in poor health with the early stages of heart disease; she could work on Puncture but that was all. I did freelance work and the rest of the Puncture stuff. And we developed a great circle of friends, mostly musicians, who contributed writing to the magazine.
We read elsewhere online that an article written by Katherine in 1989, titled ‘Women, Sex and Rock ’n’ Roll’ became an early manifesto of the nascent Riot Grrrl movement. Was Puncture involved in the early stirrings of that movement would you say?
NEO: Puncture certainly covered Riot Grrrl and had writers who were part of that scene; we’d always taken great interest in the Olympia, Washington indie-pop (or “love rock” as some like to call it) scene that preceded it, spearheaded by K Records and Beat Happening (Calvin Johnson wrote for Puncture occasionally, including one of the first reviews of Mecca Normal ever). That helped set the pace for what became Riot Grrrl. And of course, with Katherine and Patty at the helm, Puncture was a feminist zine right from the get-go.
STEVE: Puncture published that ‘Women, Sex and Rock ’n’ Roll’ article, but it was our friend (and former Rough Trade co-worker) Terri Sutton who wrote it. It was the second of two really important pieces she wrote on the subject; the first was “Women in Rock: An Open Letter” in Puncture 15 (Spring 1988). They both had a big impact. Around that time Patty wrote a great survey of Pacific Northwest rock, too (in Puncture 16).
Having never been there, I’m never sure just how near or how far San Francisco is from the whole Pacific Northwest area. Were you aware of radio shows like Lois Maffeo's “Your Dream Girl” in Olympia at the time and aware of the kinds of art-activism that people like Stella Marrs were engaged in?
NEO: We were too far from the Pacific Northwest for a radio signal to reach us in those pre-Internet days! Lois was one of Puncture ’s main writers for a while, but I never had the pleasure of hearing her radio show.
PATTY: It’s nearly 800 miles north, and it seemed very far away back then––like going to another country.
STEVE: But, as Neo said, we were in touch with people there. I first met Calvin when he came to San Francisco to get Rough Trade to distribute K cassettes and records. And, in what turned out to be a turning point for many people in both places, he brought a West Coast tour through San Francisco in 1987 that included Mecca Normal and the Go-Team (Calvin and Tobi Vail)—they did an in-store performance at Rough Trade and visited us at the Puncture office (our apartment on Filbert Street). That spread awareness in SF of what was happening up there, and I know it had a big influence on Tobi, who would later be the drummer in Bikini Kill and was generally a major contributor to Riot Grrl. She was still a teenager at the time, and later wrote that after that trip (I hope I’m remembering this right) she went back to Olympia, broke up with her boyfriend, and started a zine, namely Jigsaw.
We’ll maybe ask you more about this in a follow-up interview when Now Is The Time To Invent: Reports from the Indie-Rock Revolution comes out next year but it seems that Puncture coincided with the whole journey from underground to the eventual overground for the indie-rock scene. I was thinking when I was looking at all of the covers on your website that it seems like Puncture was always there, like Sonic Youth always seemed to be there throughout. Do you have a sense that Puncture is an artefact that has been overlooked in any way, despite its success? We, for one, can’t wait for you to get the next book out as we’ve been trawling eBay for old issues and we can’t find too many.
NEO: Puncture is utterly overlooked as a part of that history. I hope these new books change that.
STEVE: Katherine may have wanted Puncture to be successful, but she wanted success on her own exacting terms. She wouldn’t consider features about artists she considered overrated. Someone pitched a story on Elliott Smith once, for example—a Portland local, then at the peak of his fame—but she just wasn’t interested. She wanted us to find the new thing, or a very different take on a classic figure. To finish I’ll quote what one of our later writers, Jay Ruttenberg, wrote recently about the reissue book, because it might help explain this a little: “Puncture chronicled the indie-rock of its day with a snob’s flair, forever tasteful and intelligent. It was the first publication to print features about Sleater-Kinney, Guided By Voices, and Broadcast; it excerpted [David Foster Wallace’s] Infinite Jest and interviewed Yoko Ono; it was a passionate champion of the Mekons, the Go-Betweens, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Throwing Muses.”
Everyone should buy Puncture: The First Six Issues from Tract Home Publications because it's a rare chance to witness an influential publication in its infancy. Read the first six issues and next year you can follow the Puncture journey into the 90s with Now Is The Time To Invent: Reports from the Indie-Rock Revolution