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I'm Your Biggest Fan

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.

"Doing this really made me think about what history is, having to filter everything through their four opinions and my own opinions," he says. "[Athens musician] Vic Varney told me at one point, 'No matter what you write, it's going to be fiction to someone.' A lot of it depends on how people want to be remembered.

"What I write is a very different history than what someone from Rolling Stone would have written, or someone from Athens, or some journalist that doesn't have that personal connection. A lot of editors wouldn't have included the fan artwork or the stuff about fan clubs, but I have to deal with my own realities."

The book finally came out in conjunction with the band's 25th anniversary, and at its mention Sexton hauls out a photo of perhaps his proudest moment, the kind that fan-club presidents--whether awestruck droolers or sophisticated superfans--dream of. Surrounded by the band at their anniversary gala, holding a copy of the book he spent half a decade compiling, Sexton appears impossibly happy.

Not that everything is rosy. Though Pierson has been an ardent supporter of the book and has accompanied him to signings across the country, Sexton finds himself frustrated by the lack of continued support from the rest of the band. And though his fandom runs deep, he's considering turning over the fan-club reins now that his magnum opus is complete. If this is the end of the road for this particular B-52's superfan, though, it's obviously a high note to exit on.

"It's been a huge thing in my life, but...there's this great Zen book by a guy named Suzuki. In it he talks about burning yourself completely in whatever you're doing, and that's kind of where I'm at," Sexton says. "I've done everything I can do, and I've got this picture that everything has kind of led to. It's sort of like, 'I did it.'"

 

One of Bye Bye Birdie's running jokes features a succession of Conrad Birdie Fan Club members finally coming face to face with their idol only to be rendered speechless and faint. Such a scene rings painfully true for anyone who's ever waited in line dry-mouthed and slack-jawed for an autograph and a moment of stilted conversation. The mark of the truly devoted fan is a willingness to proselytize, to talk to anyone, anywhere about her band of choice. Combine that trait with a penchant for knowing more about a band than its members often do and the prospect of coming up empty in a face-to-face meeting--or worse, looking like a "typical" fan--is pretty much nightmare number one.

For Kris Heding it was just such a fear that led to what has to be one of the more improbable rock fan clubs in existence. The 22-year-old Edina resident first came across Travis's debut album, Good Feeling, while working as a CD Warehouse clerk. She faced the fan's dilemma when preparing to meet singer Fran Healy and bassist Doug Payne during the band's opening-for-Oasis tour in 2000: She knew their music as well as anyone who'd be in the handshake line, but she feared coming off as just another star-struck face in the crowd. "I knew I didn't want to be one of those fans who's just like, 'Dude, you rock!' and they say, 'Yeah, we do,'" Heding recalls. "So I made these little half-assed cartoon drawings just to have something to talk about."

It worked. Healy and Payne were delighted to be presented with their 2-D selves during the pair's appearance at Let It Be Records, and the seeds of superfandom were planted. Heding found herself as charmed by the band in person as she was impressed by their musical depth in concert, and made the decision, not life-changing at the time, to devote a section of her Web site (www.couplandesque.net) to Travis. She also decided to dedicate it specifically to the droll Payne, sort of a comic Novoselic to Healy's Cobain, thanks to a shared interest in the bass and in Canadian author Douglas Coupland. (Payne's tongue-in-cheek nickname among his bandmates is "Sex on Legs," but Heding's site remains more or less free of the cheesecake photos that one would find on, say, Anna Kournikova "fan club" sites.)  

Shortly after Travis's 2000 tour, their second U.S. release, The Man Who, began to expand their fan base on this side of the Atlantic. And Heding found her site being used as an information source for new fans. Already smitten herself, she began scouring the Web and contacting other fans for as much Travis-related material as she could find. Her fandom snowballed into the 2001 founding of the Groovy Dougie Fan Club (now on its own site at www.groovydougie.com).

Before long, Heding found herself inundated by supportive e-mails, and amazed not only that the bass player for a fairly cultish band would generate such interest, but that it was coming from the exact sort of people one would never expect to join a fan club. Not that the lack of appeal to obsessive Bye Bye Birdie-style fans was accidental.

"I want [the site] to be somewhere people can go find information and have a laugh, and not look like it was done by a bunch of screaming 13-year-old girls," Heding says. "Some people view bands as these god-like, larger-than-life people, and they're really not. They're normal people; they just get on television and in magazines a lot more than the average person."

The Groovy Dougie Fan Club bears out her point: It is low-key and sophisticated, and its evident passion is directed not toward hero-worship, but toward celebrating Travis's music and Payne's genuineness. To that end, it is painstakingly researched and plenty interactive (Heding delivers a package of fan art, mail, and ephemera to the band whenever they're in town). And, as you'd expect from a club devoted to a band notorious for a morose cover version of "Hit Me One More Time," it takes pleasure in firing potshots at the detritus of pop culture. Weirdly, Miss Spears has actually generated no small amount of buzz for Travis and the fan club. The band's Britney covers remain live staples and MP3 favorites, so when a bored Heding was expanding her selection of Dougie Payne cartoon images, it was only natural to do an animated, MIDI-accompanied Britney Dougie, sporting pigtails and a schoolgirl skirt and hip-shaking to a lo-fi electronic beat. This creation quickly made the rounds of fans and their e-mail forward lists, garnering the club all sorts of attention.

"People were writing me from all over the place, either saying, 'Oh, that's brilliant' or 'You're insane and he's going to hate you for doing this,'" Heding says. When she somewhat apprehensively presented Britney Dougie to its subject, though, Payne and his bandmates merely shared a good laugh, and the fan club lives on with their blessing.

Not, apparently, with the blessing of Spin--the magazine had planned to cover the Groovy Dougie Fan Club, but Heding reports that they rejected the idea because she didn't have enough tales of wild backstage antics with Travis.

"I could have told them not to expect that," she says. "The wildest things that happen are the band telling their fans, 'Here, grab a beer--let's chat, play foosball or something."

For Heding, it's clear that the fan-club experience isn't about living the rock-star life vicariously. Instead, she sees it as an opportunity, not only to pay tribute to a band whose most notable trait is its affability, but also to create something that approaches art in its own right.

"Instead of working with a pencil or paintbrush, you've got to organize a bunch of codes to make something interesting," she says about her Web work. "Art is everywhere, and I think you've just got to keep your eyes open to become aware of it."

Given the amount of energy Heding devotes to appreciating Travis, it seems just that she's achieved some level of celebrity herself. "I get people coming up to me at concerts saying, 'You're the girl who runs the Dougie site!'" Heding explains. "I often get asked about what Travis are like. [They] are just everyday guys. So it's definitely interesting when people view me as sort of a 'celebrity' because I've met them several times and run a Web site. Anyone could have done the same thing I have. Except I don't think anyone else would have dared to create Britney Dougie."


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