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Book Review – The City is Ablaze! The Story of A Post Punk Popzine 1984 – 1994

Book Review – The City is Ablaze! The Story of A Post Punk Popzine 1984 – 1994
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By Scott Creney

Ablaze! was a UK zine (neither strictly fan- nor strictly maga-) published by Karren Ablaze from 1984-1994, which really hit its stride in the late 80’s. Grouped chronologically, the book functions as a greatest hits or a selected book of poems, reproducing the greatest pages from the zine’s history in all their messy, hastily-photocopied glory. Karren writes wise and funny introductions to each issue, with over a dozen remembrances from people involved with the magazine and it’s absolutely incredible.

320 pages, 8 ½ x 11 inches, with all kinds of kinetic energy in the writing and design, it’s inflammatory in the best, most inspirational sense of the word. It’s also got some of the best interviews with the Pixies/Pavement/Dinosaur/Nirvana/Nation of Ulysses/Kim Deal/Throwing Muses/The Sundays/Sonic Youth/Mudhoney/Hole/My Bloody Valentine and many, many more that you’ll ever read. Our editor Everett even pops up during a Babes in Toyland interview (he tags along so he can learn how to conduct a proper interview — I imagine he was only half joking).

But it’s more than a retrospective of interviews and reviews. The enthusiasm carries over into the pages, turning the book into the story of a great adventure, picking up speed as we head into the 90’s, the writers attempting to create a revolution out of humble resources and arrogant words, drunk on the possibilities. DIY with an emphasis on the “D” part of the equation, or the “I”, rather than the “Y” that gets emphasized today.

I should defer to Karren Ablaze. We all should.

ABLAZE! is a huge scary creature, a living story, created in spite of the severe hazards of life…Untie your dreams and head for the ultimate…burning love, Karren A.

That’s from the intro to issue #6 in early 1990, which featured Swans, Mudhoney, Firehose, Live Skull, and some hilarious banter with Henry Rollins. It’s got a couple of pages filled with reviews, including a Butthole Surfers EP that concludes “This is for yuppies”, one of Lush’s debut single that snarks, “While Miki certainly looks striking, a photo every time they change a tour date must get wearing”, and one of Meat Puppets Monsters that I’m going to quote in its entirety.

This sounds like 3 squeaky-clean college kids impersonating the Meat Puppets impersonating Bon Jovi. Don’t be fooled by the silly lyrics and titles—this is rock music. and crap rock music at that.

I’m fighting the urge to get all gooey and nostalgic for a time I didn’t experience, to romanticize a past that I missed out on. I should know better — this book does not have a happy ending.

Ablaze only interviewed people they were interested in/enthusiastic about, and they did so with a healthy irreverence, treating the artists as equals, as co-conspirators. This is why it can’t be called a fanzine. Check out this exchange with Black Francis.

What did you do before you became “Black-Francis-of-the-Pixies”?
“I was a student…of anthropology.”
What does that involve?
“Ah, going to class if you wake up on time, going to lots of movies…I don’t know how intense it is over here, but there, if you can get together some student loans or if you have money already, you just go & have a 4 year party.”
Nice if you can afford it, but most are gonna wake up with a megahangover & without an advance from 4AD to see them through… I read something where you were saying that you thought everything in the world had already been done. Isn’t that a bit fatalistic? There’s always gonna be stuff we don’t know about.
“I mean more in terms of a physical place, I think, like goin’ to California! Aint’ nobody been there before!.. ‘cept Indians, y’know. Things don’t seem to exist until people discover them, and now California does exist and for the people in California, Europe exists. Everything exists for everybody. There’s maps everywhere in the world, there’s a telephone everywhere in the world, You can take a boat way up to the farthest river in New Guinea and you’ll find a drum of Royal Dutch Oil at the end, a filling station…Everything’s been touched, except deep beneath the sea maybe, and in space, but I’ll be dead by the time they start having shuttles to the moon, man.”

I started reading the UK music press in the early 90’s during my teenage years after I bought a Melody Maker from the Tower Records in El Cajon, California simply because it had Morrissey on the cover. I remember reading a live review of a U2 show and being shocked — SHOCKED! — that they were being laughed at and made fun of. This kind of thing didn’t happen in Rolling Stone, or even Spin (sorry I wasn’t cool enough to know about the US underground yet). I was hooked by the irreverence and the passion (and by Mr. Agreeable — portions of which I can still quote from memory). Reading The City is Ablaze!, I get the impression that people at Melody Maker and NME were reading it as well, that Ablaze! and others influenced the dialogue, influenced the listening habits, and influenced the coverage that appeared in the music weeklies. It’s the exact opposite of today, where smaller websites and papers try to mimic the coverage and style of their larger, more successful counterparts.

Because the biggest difference between non-mainstream music writing then vs. today — and you see this in all non-mainstream stuff, not just music writing — is today’s writing is marked by a careerism, an eye-on-the-prize-ness, that causes people to self-censor themselves. If people in late 80’s/early 90’s worried about being assimilated, folks today seem to crave it. And that’s not very inspiring at all. I can accept the current generation’s ambition, but it tends to make their writing boring as shit. 99% of today’s music writing communicates, before anything else, the writer’s fear. Of offending someone. Of looking stupid. Of fucking up their future.

Occasionally the writers of Ablaze! do all of the above. People are offended. One reader writes in: “Really. Why don’t you find appropriate positions in life? Toilet attendants… NME journalists… Better still. Why not go fucking hang yourselves?” (and people say the internet has made us less civil). Ablaze! writers do, on occasion, look a little stupid. And none of the people involved with the magazine go on to what people in London or Hollywood would call a happy ending.

Check out this intro to an interview with the Sundays:

This article is difficult to write without sounding like a shite-for-brains NME journalist. Unless you’re really dead bored we’d like to advise you not to read it. Go & listen to their single instead.

After Big Black breaks up, Steve Albini starts a band called Rapeman with a couple of guys from Scratch Acid. Some folks are not amused. Next time anyone wants to argue about Odd Future, or Ice Age, or casual misogyny in hip-hop, I’m going to go back and read this before I write anything.

For Albini, Sims and Washam the name Rapeman may signify this frightening character they’ve been fascinated by. Maybe they also wanna take a stab at feminism, a conviction that tends to be ill-represented by those who feel threatened by it. Rarely are bands required to qualify their names—after all, rock music is trivial & unimportant, I’m sure it’s never influenced you or me, and you never see band names taken further out of context, scrawled on walls, do you?

Rapeman served to highlight our uncoolness & hypocrisy in wanting to live in an environment free of constant mental & physical threat. It may seem naïve to attack cultural symptoms and not their causes, which we have less access to, and I guess while sexism is so all-pervasive it’s a futile, unrewarding struggle. Anyhow, Albini & co get my grudging respect for being further examples of the male species’ unrelenting arrogance and stupidity.

But The City is Ablaze! is more than just a time capsule. The book has a plot, a narrative burbling just beneath the surface. As the zine heads into the early 90’s, into the explosion of alternative music, the issues start coming faster and faster. There’s too much happening, too much to cover, and yet Ablaze! has no trouble keeping up. Here’s their Nirvana elegy. Written in the spring of 1992.

Nirvana have performed a cool trick: playing fine tunes with heavying guitars without the sexism and homophobia that we had previously believed to be an integral part of the genre—the new metal man washes this many more dishes.

As a latecomer and early leaver, I managed to become a fan of Nirvana, and then a cynic, in the space of a month. But who cares? All the marketing scum and dependent journalists want to know is, who’s The Next (Real) Nirvana? We don’t mind, if they pick off our favourite rockin’ brothers (and sisters? unlikely) for the corporate destruction as long as you kids are happy. That’s all that matters…

This is a magazine that had high-capacity bullshit detectors and wore their hearts on their sleeves. Not hipsters, just hip. Everything explodes a year later in Spring ’93 with issue #10 as Riot Grrrl appears on the scene, a sound and an ethos so in keeping with the values of Ablaze! that it seems almost like the magazine called it into being. Again, I defer to Karren’s introduction:

Ablaze! 10 was about the moment of discovering the fullness of the word that would set us up for endless adventure, a word all too infrequently spoken:

POSSIBILITY = why the fuck not?
POSSIBILITY = DO IT ANYWAY
POSSIBILITY = now is when we are alive
POSSIBILITY = GO GO GO GO!

And go they did. There’s an interview in #10 with Nation of Ulysses that leaps off the page. There’s all kinds of Riot Grrrl stuff with maps and addresses, contact information, a manifesto, and all kinds of ideas that are as good today as they were back then.

Can you get hold of a pen, some paper, some kind of duplicating machine (photocopier, printing press)? Then you can make your own newspaper. You don’t need all this desktop publishing and typewriters, but if you have access to it, you could use it. “Typography is for fascists” – a joke made by the music press at our expense, we’ll turn around, we’ll write it in their blood sometime soon.

But the revolution gets complicated quickly. From the same intro:

The Bikini Kill hated this issue. It came out just before their UK tour with Huggy Bear, and when they read it they spat on it and cast it upon the ground. I hadn’t loved their records up to this point and only got to see them live after we went to press. They were amazing, and I was hoping to interview them for the following issue, but by then it was too late. We had aroused their displeasure by failing to praise them sufficiently, whilst devoting the entire issue to their arch-rivals, The Nation of Ulysses. At a show in the Covent Garden Rough Trade Shop, Kathleen Hanna took me aside and, in her self-assumed role as custodian of all grrrls, she sought to set me straight. She told me how I’d let down the side in my adoration of the NOU. She said it made me look like I “wanted to suck their dicks”. And she ended her sermon with a solemn warning that I should never tell anyone what she had said.

Now that’s Girl Power, am I right? Ah fuck it. If she’d lived in the 1950’s, Kathleen Hanna would have most likely self-medicated her brain into oblivion, or crafted some astounding poetry before shoving her head in the oven and ending it all. Fighting the wrong enemies? Being exclusionary? I suppose that’s progress. The fact is, we all live in a better music world today because of Kathleen Hanna, to say nothing of Karren Ablaze, to say nothing of the thousands and thousands of young women all over the world whose names we don’t even know. When you’re bucking against the weight of history, against a bullshit patriarchal sexist universe, you can get a little crazy. And besides, it’s people’s need for revolutions (and revolutionaries) to be perfect that keeps things from ever changing.

But then things get even uglier. There’s the story where Karren gets “kicked across Sonic Youth’s dressing room” by Jo from Huggy Bear. Thurston Moore sends an angry letter to the magazine after Karren writes about how she doesn’t love SY the way she used to (the band had been featured in issues 1, 5, and 6) and thinks they’re old news. He also sends the letter to Kurt & Courtney, Bratmobile, Pavement, Huggy Bear, Unwound, and others. Karren publishes it in full and responds to it in a thrown together issue she calls Ablaze! 10.5 but at the time was simply called No!, a “fastzine supreme” (there’s also a cool interview w/Polvo in it).

ablaze

Thurston later sends an apology, but it’s too late. In debt, and diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, Karren takes a job as a press officer for a London indie. When she heads back to Leeds, everyone thinks she’s a sellout.

I took it personally, agonized over it, got paranoid, and got angry. But really I was only being judged by my own, past values. I’d gone to work in London, for an independent label, and had put out a well-produced fanzine. This was selling out; I was the establishment. And that’s just how it goes….Were it not for the uptightness and intensity of youth, the story of Ablaze! would never have begun. But now I was 25 years old, an ideological write-off, and ill.

She sits down to write a book, but her confidence is shot. Ablaze! 11 had planned to cover Bikini Kill, Luscious Jackson, Basehead, Pavement, Trumans Water, Cornershop, Belly, Breeders, Bratmobile, Sidi Bou Said, Palace Brothers, and more. It’s a goddamned shame that it never happened.

It’s a compendium of great writing. It’s got profoundly revealing interviews with some of your favorite bands. It’s funny and angry; it’s excited and sad. There’s even some great memoir-style writing. It’s a cacophony of voices. It’s the most moving music-related thing I’ve read since Kristin Hersh’s memoir a couple of years ago. In its dreaming, its manifestos, its desire to change the world, it reminds me of those old Situationist journals more than anything else. You can even argue that Riot Grrrl was their May ’68, a brief fleeting moment when the revolution they’d hoped for seemed inevitable.

It costs the same as 3 issues of Mojo, or 6 weeks’ worth of NMEs, and it’s a dozen times more likely to change your life. In fact, you should buy two of them, because the first one’s going to get read over and over again until it falls apart. And then what the hell are you going to do?

So go to this website http://www.thecityisablaze.com/ and buy it. And for US readers, it’ll be coming out on Record Store Day, April 20. Ask your local record store. Do the right thing. It’s pointless looking back unless it can help you move things forward. Purchased in large numbers, this book has the power to change the world.

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