There's Always the Unknown
For twenty years, V. Vale has been a consistent chronicler of the alternative culture scene as publisher of RE/Search editions. Working at City Lights Bookstore in the early seventies, his training came at the hands of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Bruce Conner and others who had been involved in the San Francisco Beat scene of the fifties. Punk's DIY attitude inspired Vale to begin publication of his zine Search and Destroy, which followed the progression of the scene first-hand through the words of its protagonists. By adapting the production and editorial stance of Andy Warhol's Interview, Vale became an interviewer par excellence by the time he moved beyond the punk scene to began RE/Search publishing in 1982.Vale began by exposing the work of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin to a new generation of appreciative readers. This was followed by works on Industrial Culture, Incredibly Strange Music and Incredibly Strange Films. RE-Search is best known for its 1992 book on the contemporary tattooing and body piercing phenomena, Modern Primitives. Vale's most recent work has reflected a return to the beginnings of his publishing career. Two volumes reprint the entire run of Search and Destroy, and a second volume in his series of interviews with zine publishers, Zines 2, is due out this summer. ........................ (The following interview took place at the RE/Search offices on May 16, 1997 in the North Beach district of San Francisco, just a block away from City Lights Bookstore.) (V. Vale). I like the Duchamp concept that "the history of your ideas is more important then the history of the events in your life."(John Held, Jr.) Yes, and we'll get to the ideas. But first I'm curious about some biographical information.(V) Basically, you could say that I'm a Bay Area native, and my very first job -and only real job- was at City Lights Bookstore. (J) When did you first start at City Lights?(V) I think it was the early seventies. And I didn't really have a life until punk rock came along.(J) But what was your interest leading to City Lights? Were you writing during that time.(V) No. I had written enough to know I wasn't a writer. And in any case, with very few exceptions, the only people who contribute something that's lasting are writers who have lived a little. I realize there are exceptions. Like Lautr�amont, who wrote Maldoror and then died at the age of twenty-six. (JH) But one doesn't just wander into City Lights and ask Ferlinghetti for a job, or do they?(V) You do if you have a little bit of luck. I really believe in the role of luck in shaping your destiny.(J) And about how old were you when you began there?(V) I think I was already twenty-one. Of course, when I was really young, the first poem that was some sort of breakthrough for me was reading Howl -- the whole Howl book, not just the Howl poem. I influenced another friend of mine, and we would read it aloud to each other pretending we were Beatniks. (V) So eventually you were working at City Lights, and got to meet people like Allen Ginsberg....(V) Oh yeah, you got to meet everybody. Everyone you wanted to meet working at City Lights.(J) And then you decided you wanted to start a punk zine. You mentioned it to Ginsberg, and he offered some financial support for it.(V) He instantly wrote me a check for $100, which was a lot of money in Christmas '76. Then I took the check and immediately showed it to Ferlinghetti, and he instantly wrote me a check for another $100, which was quite a vote of confidence for someone who had never written anything for publication, or done anything. A doctor friend of mine gave me an additional $200, and that was what the printing bill was - $400 for a thousand issues of a sixteen page 11" x 17" tabloid. It took me several months to figure out what it was I wanted to do. It was sort of a combination of borrowing the technical format of Andy Warhol's Interview, which back then was purely interviews, except they would print the entire transcript, which I didn't think was a good idea. Just black and white, no color. Back then it was interviews with cutting edge less famous people, no actors or models like it is now. And that's actually where I read one of the first Ramones interviews, in a 1975 Andy Warhol's Interview. (J) Was there a punk scene going on in San Francisco at the time?(V) None whatsoever. The first sort of punk event I went to was the Ramones playing at the Savoy Tivoli on Grant Avenue in August 1976. It was small, but it was just such an amazing breakthrough. Basically, the Ramones handed back to people their right to be a musician and write songs, write folk poetry, and all that. It was like a gift. Because the general thinking then was that you had to have a wall of Marshall amps which cost $10,000, and you had to be this virtuoso, otherwise forget about making your own music. Groups like the Ramones just came in and blew that notion away. Basically, they empowered a whole new generation to start doing radical culture-creating. Pretty much in reaction to the completely moribund consumerist culture that the sixties had turned into. (J) So, this lead you in turn to the thought that you could publish.(V) Well, I was really kind of angry at the seventies, and what a horrible period it had been - the era of disco. It was a lifestyle that had nothing to do with your life. I wanted to do something. It was a crusade. It was so great to have this society of outsiders, and have this great music coming out, which definitely wasn't getting reviewed in Rolling Stone. It was a speaking out to our needs, our poverty and our sense of what was wrong with society.(J) And you decided to name your publication Search and Destroy. (V) It had a double meaning. Of course, Iggy Pop was already an icon for us. There are a bunch of bootleg recordings out that are pretty amazing of his early years. And he had, of course, done a song called Search and Destroy.But, it was also the time of the Vietnam War, and they would send these soldiers out on search and destroy missions -very compact units going in and wreaking whatever destruction they did. (J) Kind of like the avant-garde: the forward soldiers.(V) Kind of (sarcastically). Although we were hardly militaristic. Even though, the first time I saw the Ramones I was a little shocked. Dee Dee Ramone was wearing a very short midriff-baring t-shirt. It was a Vietnam Vet t-shirt reading "Death from Above." I mean, you didn't see hippies wearing t-shirts like that.(J) And what was the evolution of Search and Destroy?(V) Well, It took me awhile to get the first issue out, because I did pretty much all of it by myself. After the first issue came out, a whole bunch of people were attracted and wanted to get involved, including some really talented photographers. It was centered on the social scene at the Mabuhay, which was the only club in town that would allow punk rock to happen. (J) When did the change take place between the Search and Destroy and Re-Search?(V) Well, actually, Search and Destroy was retired, because it was intended to document the punk rock scene for the first wave of people who were into it. We were kind of driven out of the Mabuhay, because at a certain point in time it got so crowded we couldn't get into the Mabuhay anymore. So, we retired Search and Destroy because its editorial purpose wasn't viable anymore. But then it had been so much fun, I thought I've got to keep publishing. But it wasn't so conspicuously punk-identified. It would be better to have a more anonymous name like RE-Search - a pun on Search and Destroy, and then the slash, which we felt had an unsettling implication to it. The RE/Search logo was actually based on the old Life magazine logo.It was sort of a different idea to then create books, because I finally figured out, since I worked at City Lights, if I could just get a little more money together and put out something that looked like a book, City Lights would distribute it. And more importantly, they would actually collect money, which was something I wasn't able to do. The key thing was I wanted to present really cutting edge uncompromising content, but looking very professionally laid out, which is kind of a paradox. Most underground publications, they looked that way. It seemed to me that it couldn't be that hard to learn typesetting and design. You teach yourself, find a design you like and imitate it.We started a typesetting business so we could do the books. We wanted to own the means of production, because there's that old saying that "the freedom of the press belongs to the person that owns one." Back then, typesetting was so expensive very few people could afford it. So the way to solve that problem was to start a typesetting business, and then you could own the equipment to produce it. This was before desktop publishing. We had to buy this unit that was six-feet long, an early primitive computer really, and it cost $60,000 or some huge amount of money. But we paid it off in a couple of years. And a stat camera. You needed a stat camera then. It was before scanners. And that was all we needed to produce a very professional looking book.(J) And when you say we, you were working with...(V) I had a business partner at the time. Unfortunately, I made a big mistake. A: never have a partner, and B: if you have a partner, make sure that if there's a breakup your contract specifies you get to keep the name. Big mistake. This is something I would like to pass on to anybody. (Since the breakup, Vale has been publishing under the name V/Search.)(J) What was the first book published under the RE/Search imprint?(V) Well, the first official book published was RE/Search 4/5 on William Burroughs, Throbbing Gristle and Brion Gysin. The second was actually just a book by Brion Gysin called Here to Go. It's out of print now. It sold extremely slowly.(J) You continued to work with Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle.(V) Yeah, with the Industrial Culture Handbook. Basically the musicians in that project had been in the punk scene. What set them apart was, rather then using the guitar, bass, drums, rock format, they wanted to do things that used found sound, tape recorders, early primitive synthesizers, home-made metal percussion. In addition to wanting to do something more challenging musically, a lot of them seemed to have a certain interest in "the dark side" of human history and culture. They were researching that, and then recycling their discoveries into their lyrics. It seemed like a pretty distinctive movement, in that everyone knew each other and had simpatico goals in mind. So it seemed legitimate to do a book on it. Actually, by the time the book came out in 1983, we felt that the movement was over. But at least there was some documentation of the theory and the states of mind.(J) And then your relationship with Genesis led to Modern Primitives?(V) Not exactly. What happened was that way back in 1982 our friend Charles Gatewood, a really good photographer, who I met in 1977 and gave me photos for Search and Destroy, introduced me to Fakir Musafar. I taped the first sessions, interviews of what would later become known as Modern Primitives, later in that year. It seemed like the correct title applying to these people who were reviving ancient decoration practices involving tattooing, body piercing, as well as other kinds of endurance rituals. I think pretty much with some kind of goal of transcendence of mortal limits. I mean, there's a more spiritual purpose, at least sometimes behind these practices. I do feel that our society doesn't have very meaningful or clear rites of passage anymore. I've seen there's a need for that. These days people are stuck in perpetual adolescence (laughs). They're just trying to stay there all their lives. It's kind of sad I think.(J) The first time I came across Re/Search was in connection with the Modern Primitives book. I know that it had a lot to do with opening up this whole scene.(V) It definitely sparked this whole tattoo and body piercing underground, because when we did the interviews there were very few people around who were eloquent about what they were doing. Our approach was historical and anthropological. It wasn't a sensationalist approach. We didn't shy away from printing really graphic photos and printing explicit descriptions of the rituals and decoration practices that these people had revived, rediscovered, and practiced among themselves. We tried to emphasize the necessity for every person to find their own path to follow - to create their own original designs if they were going to get a tattoo, not just imitate someone else's. To make it a major personal rediscovery quest (laughs), rather then some fashion.(J) This is your twentieth year of publishing, and I'm wondering as you look back over it, if there are other books that you are particularly proud of?(V) No, because I really don't like to look back. The goal of the publications from the beginning was to more or less try to do something in every area of human creativity. All these areas such as film and music have their hierarchies and codifications, and there's a whole official viewing of everything, whether it's Rolling Stone putting out an issue claiming, as they did recently, to identify the hundred most essential rock recordings. I mean, come on, that's impossible. It's all according to them. That's what we said in Incredibly Strange Films. There's a whole other ignored mass culture, which isn't recognized. And so, we're trying to garner respect for it, as well as present the information in a way that could inspire preservation. Films that aren't recognized and talked about often get destroyed.(J) One thing that runs through your publishing activity are interviews.(V) That's because you have to work with your own limitations, and rather then being a writer, that just seemed to be the most I could do. And of course, with follow-up interviews to make them as densely informative and yet kind of humorous and witty at the same time. So people would read them. For example, I found really early on that when you read some theorist, it's often very difficult. But if you happen upon some interview with them, they become so clear and comprehensible. It's amazing that the same person is capable of both. (J) You mentioned Duchamp, and I'm wondering how deep your interest in the Fine Arts is?(V) I've always been interested in what I call "primary sources." Some people are just more original than others. You just have to deal with that as a reality. And so, I try to find the most original voices I can, and those are more or less the people I pursue. Anything by Duchamp I will read, any book about him or by him (laughs). I mean I just think he's that important.(J) Who else falls into that category?(V) I actually omitted a major part of my background. I spent years trying to satisfy my curiosity about the Surrealist movement. I went to France about eight or ten times in pursuit of books on Surrealism. And that's definitely been the most major influence on my life.(J) What about Surrealism appealed to you?(V) Their idea is that everybody is born an artist. And that's not just some airy statement. It's because everybody is born with an imagination, or what they called the machinery for an imagination, and the machinery that produces dreams. Imagination and dreams are all you need to produce art. All children are creative. You can just see that. And somehow along the way, they get socialized. They get frustrated, and frustrated people make good consumers. We're in a consumer society, in which the highest good is to buy something.And so, that was one aspect. Surrealism was always saying that you should be alert for the marvelous to happen. I mean, something that is magical. If you don't have your eyes open it will go right by you. And your eyes are on the alert for objective chance, which some people call luck. Further, that you should live your life according to your desires. Of course, you first have to figure out what those are, and what just wasn't brainwashed into you by advertising. (J) What I find intriguing about your work is that it expresses your own innate curiosity.(V) Oh, yeah. I couldn't imagine anything worse than having to work for some newspaper or corporate publisher, and being given an assignment to interview someone I could care less about. That would be hell. I only interview people I want to interview, and then I'm freed from dealing with this myth of objectivity, which is completely false. Like having to do "an objective balanced portrayal of someone." Well, I don't believe in that. I only believe in interviewing people I really like, and whose work I really like.(J) Some of your most recent books deal with the zine phenomena and other people who are self-publishing. (V) Basically, when you produce only books of interviews, it gives you an excuse to meet people whose works you admire, and I think some of the most interesting people on the planet are producing zines right now. Of course, there's a huge history of self publishing. Ben Franklin did it, and the early Dadaists and Surrealists too. When I did the books on people who do zines, I just choose people whose zines I liked and wanted to find out more about their lives and what inspired them. I'm trying to present archetypes, diversity, and trying to give a voice to people who don't often don't have a voice. In Zines 2, I really wanted to get some very young teenagers in, because they're the least privileged social group. So, the person on the cover was fifteen years old (laughs). But of course, pretty intelligent. I mean, we do try to find exceptional people to interview. (J) So, what's ahead?(V) I don't know. The other night, I was saying that there must be a thousand more people I want to interview. All you have to do is come out with catchy titles so you can put their energy in a book (laughs). So, it's just more of the same. But it's always different, because you're always dealing with different people. There's always the unknown, and that's what keeps life exciting.