Is all that is solid melting into air? It certainly seems so, to those of us old enough to remember the intoxications of frittering away a Saturday morning in the ‘70s, methodically thumbing through every bin in a used record store, lost in the Talmudic study of the cover—front and back—of every album that piqued our interest, lugging an ever-growing stack of likely candidates from one aisle to the next until the Moment of Truth arrived and we were forced to make the agonizing choice between that dog-eared copy of Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate; Illusions on a Double Dimple by Emerson, Lake and Palmer wannabes Triumvirat [sic]; and Back in the USA by somebody called the MC5, whose cover photo—a bunch of greasy haired guys leering through what appeared to be a steam-bath haze—was a jarring departure from the usual fare (my graying readers will recall Peter Frampton on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive!, equal parts Pre-Raphaelite and Tiger Beat) but whose song titles (“The American Ruse,” “Call Me Animal,” “The Human Being Lawnmower”) were, it had to be admitted, intriguing.
That experience—the experience of poking around in the archaeological digs of used record stores, used bookstores, used magazine stores (such a thing did exist, improbably enough), and the used-clothing corner of the local Goodwill (before it was reborn as a vintage boutique and picked clean by hipsters)—is just this side of extinct, killed off by the Web Age, specifically Google, which at a click plucks the obscurest needle out of the vast haystack of all that was, and is. Gone with that lost world is the long slog through all those record bins and bookstore back aisles and clothing racks, and with it the hard-won exultation of happening on something rare and wonderful that all the other ragpickers missed. Gone, too, is the serendipity that results from following your own nose, as opposed to clicking on search results based on Google’s PageRank algorithm, which assumes that the most popular sites—those with the most incoming links—are most relevant to your search. But what about the unknown unknowns? The stuff you can’t search for because you don’t know it exists, and maybe doesn’t even show up in the first jillion results, if it shows up at all, because hardly anyone else knows it exists, either?
Lenny Kaye—longtime guitarist in the Patti Smith Group, rock writer, editor of the legendary anthology of garage-sale gleanings Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968—has spent much of his life excavating the cultural landfill. “When I’m on the road, there’s nothing I like better than going into some old vinyl shop in Brussels or Stuttgart and spending the day geeking out,” he says. “Have we lost something now that you can hear every record on YouTube immediately? I’d say so. I wrote a whole book on the crooners of the 1930s [You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon], not once going to the Internet, because I couldn’t find any information that I wanted on the Internet so I had to ferret it out and in the ferreting I found lots of things that helped amplify the tale.”
The Tattooed Dragon Meets The Wolfman, the exhibition of Kaye’s collection of mimeographed science-fiction fanzines (on view September 26-September 28 at the New York Art Book Fair), reminds us of the richness of material culture, as anthropologists call it. The 1500-odd issues in his archive span the ‘40s through the ‘70s, and offer a cutaway view of the densely sedimented layers of that uniquely American geek subculture, science-fiction fandom.
Kaye’s metamorphosis into what zealots called a “faan” coincided with his move, in 1960, from Flatbush, Brooklyn to New Brunswick, New Jersey. (A “faan,” he notes, in his exhibition catalog essay, was an enthusiast so deeply burrowed into the imagined community of SF devotees that he saw “science fiction, and consequently the world, through the prism of fandom, rather than vice-versa.”) Having skipped a grade in school, Kaye was younger than his ninth-grade classmates at an age when the social distance between, say, 15 and 16 is measured in light years. “I didn’t really have a lot of close friends,” he says, “so I found my subculture in science-fiction fandom.”
A devoted reader of SF, especially the two-in-one “double novels” published by Ace in its line of science-fiction paperbacks, he sent a letter to the magazine Amazing, an open call for pen pals. “Soon I was overwhelmed by the fannish [microcosm],” he writes, “navigating customs and byways, plotting the star-map of who’s who and their social constellations.” Within a year, he was publishing a fanzine of his own, Obelisk. “I learned how to manipulate a mimeograph, slowly and messily,” he recalls, “cut drawings onto a stencil, write witty letters of comment that would guarantee the next issue sent, and continue, almost as an aside, to read science fiction, though most of my time was spent at the typewriter responding to the many pages of print sent my way. My letterbox filled with far-flung friends from around the globe … The folks populating this connective tissue were sympathetic and welcoming, for the most part, prone to being opinionated, yet appreciative of the network of like-minded souls that shared their thoughts and obsessions. The annual regional and world conventions provided a destination, though most of fandom existed within home hideaways, perhaps an early harbinger of computer culture.”
Perhaps. In his exhibition catalog essay, the SF novelist Jack Womack reads fanzines as the “Ur-blogs” of the science-fiction community. In turn, that subculture, with its distributed social network, knitted together by fancons, homebrewed ‘zines, and voluminous correspondence (“30, 40 letters a week,” Kaye remembers), does look a lot like a prehistoric Internet, in history’s rear-view mirror. But ‘zines were profoundly unlike a social-media platform such as Facebook in that they weren’t corporate-owned spaces, simulating the informal meeting spots where community happens (the Great Good Places, sociologists call them) while stealthily harvesting our personal data and selling it to advertisers and marketers. As idiosyncratic as the publisher-enthusiasts who created them, SF fanzines were, by contrast, exuberantly idiosyncratic and determinedly uncommercial: no one made a penny, no one’s wanderings across the consumer landscape were tracked, no one’s ads plucked at your peripheral vision or followed you wherever you went. “The thing that I enjoy thinking about is that all this labor was done for the love of it,” says Kaye. “That’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. You could get on a fanzine’s mailing list by mailing them 25 cents or something but what they really wanted was your engagement.”
In the fragile, yellowing pages of Kaye’s fanzine and scores like it, we find the secret history of a world largely invisible to mainstream culture, a world animated by shared passions but also riven by turf wars and ideological bloodletting (between the allegedly Communist Futurians and SF’s right-wing flank)—a social world, in other words, as real as the “real” one. There was scurrilous gossip about homosexuality and pedophilia, and an ongoing furor over SF hack L. Ron Hubbard’s million-dollar idea of turning his comic-book cosmology into the pulp religion of Scientology. “One fan hoaxed his own death in order to see what his friends and fellow fans would say about him; others skipped town with the treasuries of local clubs, or with the spouses of close friends,” Womack writes, in his exhibition catalog essay. “One attempted for years to convince other fans that fans were in fact a separate, and far superior, species of human being. (Though somehow often as racist, and always as sexist, as the mundane species.) Fans lived in a timeline where the Cuban Missile Crisis passed nearly unnoticed, and where the Kennedy assassination was regretted most for causing the death of Aldous Huxley on the same day to have passed unnoticed.”
As important as the fanzines’ polemics, reports on conventions, stories, and fractious, gossipy letters columns were their illustrations and cover art, some of them eye-pokingly crude, some slickly professional drawings of Buck Rogers-type spacefarers zapping mad scientists with their rayguns or Tesla reading by the light of a mammoth Tesla coil wreathed in tendrils of electricity, rendered in hair-fine lines or obsessive, pointillist dots.
In the late ‘60s, Kaye’s immersion in SF fandom gave way to his growing infatuation with the emerging subculture of rock ‘n’ roll, sparked, as it was for millions of Americans, by seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964. He got an electric guitar. By 1967, he’d transformed the fanzine print shop in his garage into a rehearsal space for his band. Not that the cultural DNA of SF fandom vanished entirely: it was there, in the extraterrestrial imagery that crept into psychedelic rock; in the hippie ritual of timing your acid rush to coincide with the mind-smearing “Stargate Corridor” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey; and in SF novels that spoke to the ‘60s counterculture, journeys into inner space like Brian Aldiss’s Barefoot in the Head. “A lot of the science-fiction fans became hippies,” says Kaye. “You could see these new trends oozing into science fiction; the sense of the counterculture started to break it out of its insular thing. All of a sudden Philip K. Dick does The Man in the High Castle, Robert Heinlein does Stranger in a Strange Land, there’s J.G. Ballard over in England. The sense of open possibility and moving into the culture at large became real.”
The spirit of science-fiction fandom lived on, too, in Kaye’s guitar playing with Patti Smith, in songs like “Distant Fingers” and “Birdland” (both from Horses) which married Smith’s mash-up of Wilhelm Reich and Cold War visions of flying saucers and alien abductions to his set-the-controls-for-the-heart-of-the-sun improvisations—fueled, he believes, by his “experiences with science fiction, that sense of crossing light years in a single bound and winding up on an alien planet where anything could happen and all the rules are turned upside down.” And it survived in the cult-like following the band inspired among fellow space oddities marooned in the ringworlds of American suburbia. “We felt like alien beings in human form,” he says. “We often referred to our fans as space monkeys; they could’ve been extraterrestrial.”
It was hard to be a space monkey in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Kaye recalls, when the “culture was so monochrome. [SF fandom] was a good subculture for someone who didn’t belong in mainstream social worlds. Science fiction was really expansive: it gave you a sense of the possibilities of the universe, and the strange creatures that awaited you there. And the commonality of something shared is a beautiful thing, especially for people who are not as [conventionally] social as could be. At a certain time in my life I needed the togetherness and the identification of a group of like-minded people who shared my interests and who inspired me to move beyond those interests and do something creative with them. That, to me, was the great beauty of science-fiction fandom: that I didn’t feel alone in my Otherness.”