The 1963 musical Bye Bye Birdie may have given rock 'n' roll fan culture its first mainstream exposure, and in some ways, the modern fan clubs it lampoons have been trying to live it down ever since. Birdie, for those who managed to steer clear of their high school's drama club, tells the story of Conrad Birdie, an Elvis-y Fifties rock star about to head off to the army. As a publicity stunt, he travels to an impossibly wholesome Middle American town for one last kiss with a corn-fed, apple-cheeked young woman who happens to be the president of his fan club.
And what a club it is--girls screaming and swooning while remaining camped out under the star's window singing tributes to him at all hours of night and day. It's a slight exaggeration of the truth (this is, after all, a musical), but for better or worse, it's pretty much the image conjured up when people think of band fan clubs.
Forty years later, things have changed. Sure, there are still plenty of fans, and fan clubs, devoted to the prospect of drooling and shrieking in the presence of their cultural heroes--and, really, what's a hero if not someone who inspires such behavior? But an increasingly pop-savvy culture has found perhaps its purest reflection in the person of the fan-club president: knowledgeable to the point of obsession, eager to embrace the Web's interactivity, and moving beyond plain old hero worship to a more sophisticated realm that Conrad Birdie never would have imagined. Those who now take charge of organized appreciation are less concerned with breathless letters and autographed headshots than with obscure track hunting, critical response, and even a measure of historical preservation. And just as rock has grown from the passing fancy of the Birdie era into a bona-fide cultural behemoth complete with a canon and a museum history, so has fandom become an art form in its own right, made of equal parts passion and self-expression.
As with anything that inspires such a level of devotion, of course, pop music is the source of innumerable relics, scattered to the four winds like splinters of the True Cross. Joey Ramone's sneakers and Slash's hat? You'll find them in Seattle's Experience Music Project museum. Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitars? Pick a Hard Rock Cafe and you're bound to see one. The bar from the B-52's "Love Shack?" Well, you'll have to talk to Mats Sexton about that. You see, it's in his basement.
By day, the soft-spoken, thirtysomething Sexton works as an acupuncturist, but his passion of the past two decades has been a big-haired, ironically tacky dance band. Since 1994 he has devoted several hours a day to curating B-Hive, the official fan club of the B-52's. In that time, he's seen it grow from a cadre of hardcore fans ("all nine of us," as he says) united by a newsletter into a Web-based clearinghouse of band information accessed by a readership in the millions.
Sexton's own love for the band, like that of many of his fellow fans, stems from discovering them as a child. "My brother brought their first record home from college when I was a kid, and when you're ten years old, 'Rock Lobster' is just the coolest song ever," Sexton recalls. He's sitting in his south Minneapolis home, dining-room table covered with an impressive but tiny percentage of the B-52's mementos that have taken over much of his storage space. These documents trace the better part of a decade spent in the fan-club trenches, as Sexton progressed from mere fan to fixture. He admits to having been impossibly star-struck at his first meeting with the band, and he describes his expression in an early photo as "Wow, whose life is this?" By now, though, Sexton is pretty much expected to be wherever the B-52's are, and along the way he has go-go danced onstage, given band pal Michael Stipe a shiatsu massage, and heard his dad teach Queen B (and closet country fan) Kate Pierson the words to Kenny Rogers's "Lucille."
Somewhat more seriously, Sexton's love for the band's danceable beats and onstage antics has also translated into an affinity for their often overshadowed activism: He's worked for Greenpeace and served on the board of Minneapolis AIDS charity the Aliveness Project. Five years ago, Sexton even timed his coming out to coincide with the band's 20th anniversary. "Looking back on it, it's kind of funny," he says of his decision. "But they were such a big part of my life, and it seemed like as good a date as any to actually do it."
The whole experience has turned Sexton from an obsessive fan into...well, an incredibly knowledgeable, meticulously organized, and extremely well-adjusted obsessive fan. Not that he is alone. "For a while, we were getting somewhere around a million hits on our Web site [weekly]," he says. "I was able to track where they were coming from, and we had at least one regular visitor from Ghana."
Building on the success of the B-Hive Web site (www.b52s.com) and the annual Party Out of Bounds, a fan gathering and AIDS benefit in B-52's hometown Athens, Georgia, organized by Sexton and three other fans, Sexton decided in 1996 to go for broke by putting together the first authorized history of the band. After meeting with dozens of potential designers and sifting through several decades' worth of collected materials and interviews, Sexton finished The B-52's Universe (published by Sexton under the Plan-B Books imprint). This volume must stand as the ultimate fan-club achievement: 230 full-color pages crammed with every possible thing one could ever hope to know about the B-52's. It's a remarkable labor of love and, as Sexton says, "a great excuse to travel." It also led Sexton to think of some issues you'd never expect to surface in a fan-club publication.