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If you happened by the fest organized by the Twin Cities Hardcore Journal on a Sunday a few months ago, you may have been surprised by what was going down. For a brief time, in a small auditorium of the Student Union Building at Hamline University, it was the mid-1980s all over again. Milling around the room was a small herd of gangly, pierced youths in combat wear and fanciful hairdos like those that would have filled CBGB in New York or the Mubuhay Gardens in San Francisco back in the days when Reagan had his finger on the button. Onstage, a band of teens, whose off-key power chords drowned out the rather tepid screaming of its lead, um, singer, wound down its set. After the PA system played the Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk to Fuck," the emcee introduced a kind of a punk Jedi of a figure--dressed in heavy khaki fatigue pants, knee-high military boots, and a wool cap--to read from his recently self-published book.
"It's strange to talk about now," said the man, 29-year-old local artist, historian, and zine publisher Erik Farseth. "But people thought there'd really be a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It seems funny now, but people took that seriously back then." Then Farseth launched into the text of his book, Wipe Away My Eyes: Underground Culture and Politics, 1979-1999, which is mostly an oral history of the underground punk and zine cultures of that period. His first passage was from an interview with radio pirate Eric Generic, who said of punk music: "It was the naughtiest thing going in the 1980s. Everything about punk was cool."
The use of this word cool to describe punk is interesting. To be cool, a cultural trend has to be somewhat on the fringes of what is permissible to society at large. When something cool becomes accepted, or even co-opted, by the mainstream, the center falls out of the genre. Once the Dead Milkmen were singing about a "punk rock girl," and once borderline mainstream magazines like Bust and Bikinistarted using the zine aesthetic (cheap clip-art collages, indecipherable typography, edgy writing), both genres were doomed for a time. It is therefore all the more remarkable that purists like Farseth, who is devoted to both of these genres, would stick with them through cool and cold--though he has no illusions about the fact that they've seen better days.
"I like the aesthetic [of zines], and I'm into the idea of people going out and self-publishing," says Farseth, who was 15 years old when he first worked on a zine--a publication called Free Association that was distributed free to area high schools. "But it's weird: In the period of the late Nineties...the market for [zines] crashed. It just went through the floor."
Farseth was only 19 when he published his first zine--the J. Cruelty Catalog. Later he published several volumes of Paper Scissors Clocks, which he has now abandoned to return to J. Cruelty. Both zines are replete with somewhat toplofty texts on eclectic subjects such as pirates, bats, and rabbits, and tributes to Neil Diamond and Frankie Yankovic, the Polka King. But it is Farseth's art--Max Ernst-like collages, occasional expressionistic woodblock prints--that makes his oeuvre as distinctive. "Ebay's been really bad for me," Farseth says of his consuming habit. "I cull the site for interesting photos, and I put them together to get something interesting and hopefully humorous. I've always been into the cut-and-paste aesthetic."
Wipe Away My Eyes is Farseth's magnum-opus attempt to come to terms with the seeming expiration of a terminally ill genre both by documenting it and by embodying it. That is, while it takes as its loose theme a recording of the history of punk music and underground zine culture (as spoken by the mouths of 70-odd local and national figures), it is not so strictly edited that there aren't plenty of digressive moments--such as a history of automatons--and plenty of grainy visuals. This is what you'd expect to see in a zine, though this one's beefier--about the size of a small phone book.
Despite recent successes for Farseth-- such as a Jerome Foundation book-arts grant to work on Wipe Away My Eyes--he is not certain how many zines he has left in him. As interest in the once-cool genre continues to grow colder, it has gotten more difficult to distribute his work. Meanwhile, costs are up. The latest edition of his J. Cruelty Catalog has been among the most expensive to produce: The 1,000-issue print run of a fairly thin edition cost $700. "To a certain extent I don't mind losing money on them, as long as they get out there," he says. "But it's getting harder to get them out there."
So what's the next cool thing for Farseth? "I definitely want to keep doing writing and publishing," he says. "I don't want to do zines forever. I'd be happy working with a real publisher."
Trend watchers take note.