Mythologies for the Marginalized

I gave birth to an ugly baby. His name is Razorcake. He comes around every two months. As one of his two biological parents, I still beam every time I see the ugly little bastard.


Illustration from Razorcake #60 by Brad Beshaw

Sure, we got parenting advice along the way. “Give him some color,” people told us, but we raised him to have muddy, black-and-white pictures on inky newsprint. They cried, “Put in a letters section.” But, no. If our readers want to have their say in print, they either have to take the time to write a feature for the magazine and submit it, or they have to start their own zine. Distributors kept telling us, “Put photos of sexy young punk girls in the magazine, especially on the cover.” We didn’t. If any scantily clad bodies showed up on the cover, they were sweaty, fat men who repelled more readers than they attracted. Razorcake giggled with us when those distributors went out of business, and he was still around, ugly and inky and obstinate as ever.

The biggest advice I heard was that I’d outgrow Razorcake, that I couldn’t put out a punk rock zine forever. And I’ve grown, sure. I’ve gotten older and grayer. I’ve held a day job for almost a decade, now. I got married. I no longer spend my days among the swarms of termites in a rundown two-bedroom apartment in Highland Park, turning up the music to drown out the sounds of ghetto birds and gunshots, putting together the latest issue of Razorcake. We moved Razorcake Headquarters to a basement a few blocks away. It’s much nicer. No one’s car gets tagged when they come to visit, anymore. A middle school works as a shield between the HQ and the gang activity that used to surround us. And, as for me, almost all of what I used to do has been taken over by volunteers. Let’s face it: they do a better job than I ever did.

Still, rather than me outgrowing Razorcake, it seems to have grown up with me. I’d say that about punk rock, too. When I was a kid and still listening to the Sex Pistols without irony, I believed Johnny Rotten when he sang about us having no future. I internalized it. I never could’ve imagined how far punk rock would go and how far I’d go with it. I didn’t realize how empowering the do-it-yourself ethos could be. But when I got frustrated with the mainstream media, I knew I could start a zine that countered it. When book publishers seemed to be rejecting my favorite writers from the punk rock underground, I started a new publishing company designed to give these writers a voice. When the scene around me got stale, I set up shows and readings and sometimes even tours. I stayed involved. Rather than outgrowing punk rock, I learned to develop a way of looking at the world that comes from spending much of ones adolescence and all of ones adult life immersed in punk rock.

I think we all have a lens through which we see the world. We construct an ideology, of sorts, and it brings into focus the events and cultural stories that surround us. Because my day job sees me teaching English at a state university, because I have a doctorate in literature and criticism, I’ve been trained to call this lens or ideology “theory.” I recognize that, over the past twenty years or so, I’ve developed my own punk rock theory. And, like a true parent, I’ve thrust this theory on my ugly little child, Razorcake.

My biggest contribution to raising Razorcake these days is my regular column. It’s titled “A Monkey to Ride the Dog.” Regardless of what’s been going on in my life, regardless of how busy or broke I’ve been, beyond anything else I’ve sought to accomplish or do with my life, I’ve sat down for several hours every two months and written a column for Razorcake. I give those several hours priority despite everything. Sometimes, this seems ridiculous to me. These columns are just eighteen hundred words for a punk rock rag. Most likely, my audience is taking a dump while he or she reads my column. And mostly the columns are simple stories from my life. Often, they don’t address punk rock directly. Sometimes, they don’t seem to have a point at all.

Collectively, though, these columns provide a way of looking at the world beyond the typical mainstream stories that clutter our lives. They are, in a sense, a punk rock theory.

One of those great books that English professors like me like to read and reread is a collection of essays called Mythologies by a guy named Roland Barthes. Mythologies gathers up columns that Barthes wrote for a literary journal in the 1950s. Barthes applies linguistics to popular culture. When I read it, I’m struck by how each essay, when taken on its own, seems to be dated and maybe even a little irrelevant. I like that he’s talking about, say, professional wrestling and linguistics, but the professional wrestling he discusses has nothing to do with the pro wrestling I’m familiar with today. Instead, what makes the book so powerful is that, after reading all these essays about a pop culture that doesn’t really exist anymore, I’ve learned how to look at popular culture today through Barthes’ eyes.

In a sense, this is what I hope to do with A Monkey to Ride the Dog as a collection. It’s a kind of Mythologies for people who still like their music fast and loud. I don’t think these essays are dated. They will be in fifty years, sure. For right now, they’re okay. They discuss a world we can recognize for at least the rest of this generation. And when these essays are taken together, hopefully they’ll help you, as a reader, to see the world through one punk rocker’s eyes. Hopefully, they construct a punk rock theory that may be useful as you get old and gray like me, as you move into the world of middle age but still search for a way to reject the incessant and vacuous culture that consumer capitalism thrusts down our throats constantly.

Author’s note: This is the introduction to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  I wrote this originally sometime in 2012.  For more information about the collection, read this post.

A Monkey to Ride the Dog


Illustration from Razorcake #45 by Brad Beshaw

I recently submitted my eightieth column for Razorcake.  It seems incredible to me.  Eighty columns.  One every two months for thirteen years, four months.  For a punk rock zine.  Weird.

On the other hand, I feel differently about my Razorcake columns than anything else I write.  They are the only things I reread once they’re in print.  Or, I guess I should be more specific.

When I write novels or short story collections, I’ll read specific chapters or sections from the book after it’s published.  I’ll read these sections for a reason, though: to prepare for a performance or to fact check something.  I’ve never read one of my books all the way through once it was in print.

When my short stories run in literary journals, I frequently read everything in the journal except for the story I wrote.  When I write reviews or essays for various publications, I never look back over them in print, mostly because I revise short stories, reviews, and essays so incessantly that one more reading of the piece seems excessive.

But the Razorcake columns: I reread those just for fun.  Every two months, there comes a time when I’ve read the rest of the issue and I’m not ready to wait for the next one, so I sit down and reread my column.  I love those moments.

A couple of years ago, I decided to put together a collection of my favorite columns and submit it for publication as a book.  I went back through the first twelve years of columns, picked my top twenty-six, and wrote an introduction so that they’d make sense as a whole.  I intended to send it out for publication.  In fact, I did send it to an editor I know who works at a publishing house I respect.  He told me that he loved the columns individually, but when you put twenty-six of them in a book, it doesn’t work.

I felt pretty much the same way.  I was ambivalent about even sending out the collection.  When an editor I respected echoed my feelings, I decided to shelve the collection.

The columns were meant to be read one at a time.

With the eightieth column, though, I decided to unearth the collection and post it here.  Not all at once.  That doesn’t work.  Twenty-six consecutive columns is overwhelming.

Instead, I’ll post one column every other Tuesday.  This will start next Tuesday.  When they’re all live, I intend to return to this post and create a series of links so that you can find the whole collection in one place.

A note on the columns:

The columns in this collection are arranged in a more or less chronological manner according to when the events in the column occurred (not when the column was written). Outside of changing a few things we missed in the first round of proofreading, the columns are the same as the ones that ran in Razorcake. I edited nothing from the perspective of an older and wiser writer. I chose not to include several early columns because the best of them ran in my collection Glue and Ink Rebellion. I’m slightly ashamed of the poor quality of the rest of them. For that reason, most of the columns in this collection ran in Razorcake between 2005-2012.

If I thought that the real people involved would be embarrassed or put out by what I wrote, I changed their names. If I thought they’d be stoked or apathetic about their inclusion, I kept their real names. All of the stories are true inasmuch as any story can be true. Like anyone, I created somewhat arbitrary starting and ending points and left out details I thought would be irrelevant. Beyond that, these are the events as I remember them.

Pam Houston’s Ukulele

thin air 20For a few years, I’ve been writing stories about some of my favorite writers and their metaphysical ukuleles.  They’re all fiction, but based on true stories.  My most recently published one pays homage to Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted and Cowboys Are My Weakness.  It has been published in the literary journal Thin Air.  They made me the “featured writer” for the issue and posted the complete story to their web site.  You can read it here.

Also, I’d like to point out that the journal itself is very cool.  The other featured author is poet Jim Simmerman.  Jim was a hell of a poet and a guy I always liked to spend time with.  I’m honored to share this tiny little spotlight with him.  I encourage you to support Thin Air, if you can.

This is the fifth ukulele story I’ve had published in the past year and a half.  As far as I know, it’s the only one you can read online.  The other four are:

Jack Kerouac’s ukulele in The Rattling Wall.
Raymond Chandler’s ukulele in VLAK.
Flannery O’Connor’s ukulele in 14 Hills.
Herman Melville’s ukulele in Fjords Review.

Fjords lists the Melville story as an “essay.”  I assure you it’s not.  It is based on a ton of research I did on Melville, but I also made a lot of it up.  I haven’t pointed out the mistake to the folks at Fjords because I feel like I suckered someone over there, and I like that feeling.

In case you’re wondering, there are seven more ukulele stories written that I haven’t submitted for publication.  I plan to finish revising those, then send the whole thing out as a collection sometime this summer.  In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my little tribute to Pam Houston.