When Did I Realize I Was A Geek?
I never realized exactly when I was a geek, but that’s like a tree trying to figure out what a city is. Old, bearded, freaky, geezer geek. Ample, scruffy, multi-media maven, publicizing new underground music and culturally provocative books and weird cool movies from my deep nerd-pit of pop culture obsession. When I interview bands for fanzines, I do it here: a one-bedroom piled-high apartment where it seems like Octavia Butler could hang out with Nardwuar and Elvira. Musicians always give better responses when they know how deep my crates go. If you can’t bond with someone over the ideas, characters, sounds, and images that give electric meaning to our lives, you’re not trying or they’re not really in the game.
This trajectory was no accident, no detour off the road well traveled. From the beginning, in the late 60s, I was a Silver Age Marvel Comics fanatic with my brother (we had our own “comics company” together when I was five), a weekly Sci-Fi Theater fiend on Saturday afternoons with my dad, a Ray Bradbury and James Tiptree, Jr. fiction devotee with my mom, a music freak with my whole family. We were working class poor, in a trailer court till the 80s, but any extra income from paper routes and dead end jobs went to The Avengers and anyone in ‘em; albums like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Night At The Opera which inspired ecstatic, exploratory, passionate music fandom; and I saw Rocky Horror Picture Show before there was audience participation.
In the late 70s, I was hooked on Dr. Demento when one Sunday the radio station pretended to “go punk;” instead, for one April Fools Day afternoon, they played music like The Rezillos’ “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight.” I was immediately addicted and began hitting the import section of my local record shop for anything by Blondie, The Damned, Pearl Harbour, the Pistols, Costello, Pretenders, anything that would piss off my older brothers. (“That sounds just like noise!” — them on The Clash’s London Calling, ha.) In a year my own punk fanzine would be reviewed in Trouser Press, which was the printed deep late night MTV of its time. I got sent quarters for it all from over the country via underground music fans, and we all wrote to each other, and about each other, and called each other on weekends. Then we spent the next decade visiting each other; these same people would go on to make indie rock, start clubs, work on computers, write novels, experiment with hip-hop, pretty much forming the Internet, and all those other cool things you now enjoy every day. Even before us there was something called the Secret Masters of Fandom; we were the babies in their wake.
Later in the early 80s, when I felt that comics started to really suck (before Love & Rockets and Watchmen), I was still reading The Comics Journal regularly. I was in mini-comics with the Hernandez Brothers. William Gibson used to send me letters to my fanzine, before he ever had anything published. I interviewed Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, for that fanzine in ’80. I had my own first science fiction story published in Space & Time in 1981; and later I ended up doing fan comics about The Clash with David Lasky for Fantagraphics in the late 00s. I reviewed GG Allin’s first LP, and he autographed it saying I was his favorite music writer. I did that when I moved out to New Jersey to marry a young woman who played Columbia in Rocky. I was the record reviewer and she was a freelancer for the same fanzine published by a woman who makes a living publishing comics now. I was an original member of the Church of the SubGenius, an even greater network of geeks that would completely change underground and then mainstream culture.
Here’s the secret to all of this: None of it would have happened without feminism. When fierce editor and journalist Ellen Willis was at the Village Voice in the mid-60s, she helped invent rock criticism. Deeply feminist, humanistic, and a visionary when it came to liberation, body joy, and visceral authenticity, she and other women critics like Lillian Roxon and Lisa Robinson kept rock fandom going till punk took over. Who made punk happen? For example, Patti Smith was a poet and a performer, but also a reviewer for CREEM magazine, and the publicist for the first Television single. She simply did not see the difference between being a fan and being a creator; you walked it, talked, loved it, lived it. On all levels. Bring that arcane book of Rimbaud’s poetry in here with the cheesy-delicious 50s dystopian novels; go crazy discussing the big thematic rock of The Who and the dark, weird secrets of Nico from the Velvet Underground; print your own damned magazine if the old farts at Rolling Stone didn’t catch how amazing Suzi Quatro and Betty Davis were (for the record, they didn’t). I found my favorite band of all time when my editor went to the UK and sent me back a single by an anarchist-feminist post-punk group called the Poison Girls. The woman who started that band, Vi Subversa, was large, pissed off, and already a mom of two kids already in punk bands themselves before she ever started recording. When I interviewed one of the kids in her scene, Steve Ignorant of CRASS on stage at The Comet a couple of years ago, he said his fondest memories were of singing punk songs with her whilst they both did dishes for their shared commune.
My first writing mentor was a lesbian feminist who railed against sexism in the boys’ club of science fiction fanzines; she took me to my first punk rock show in Ballard in the late 70s. My second writing mentor was a chubby blonde Italian man who taught at Rutgers and introduced me to Joanna Russ, Philip K. Dick, Harvey Pekar, Tom Robinson Band, The Slits, and John Waters; my third writing mentor helped invent cyberpunk. All three were unapologetically, unabashedly feminist. I ended up drawing “spillos” (spot illustrations) for a red-headed punk rock woman just a couple of years older than me who was close friends with Alex Chilton and Tav Falco in Memphis. She is now one of the leading vampire novelists (of many years). She kicked my ass many times when I got out of line. All of the above are my Facebook friends, except for the Italian who died in a house fire because his movie collection prevented him from escaping through his front door.
I met Heidi when I needed someone to draw spot illustrations for my own grunge-era fanzine. I got her card and it had artwork on it that reminded me of The Cure and Siouxsie. I called her and we talked for three hours that same day. She met me the next day in front of McDonald’s on Third, near the building where I lived and often worked as a front desk man (pretty much a bouncer–it was the night shift). I realized I recognized her from shows we’d been at together; she had a shaved head, a brown beret, baggy military clothes, and a big art portfolio with her. I was smitten but made no advances; I published her artwork and drank gallons of tea with her for the next two years. We would read comics and science fiction novels together on the floor of my downtown apartment in the afternoons after her art classes at Seattle Central Community College; she would end up working at Zanadu Comics for three years, dancing at the Mercury (a long-running goth club) regularly, then becoming a full-on steampunk illustrator with annual art shows at Gargoyle’s on The Ave near where we live. We still tend to see every Marvel movie together, but she’s far more into straight up science fiction now.
I got into the music business because a very strong, smart, beautiful goth woman who ran the PR department at a label liked my writing and asked if I would help them publish an in-house (and like-minded) magazine. I worked there for four years, even after the magazine folded, and we both left the label around the same time. I then published a rock magazine for six issues and became friends with Mairead Case, who often kicked my ass when I got out of line. I went to Light In The Attic Records and became their first in-house publicist in 2006, doing PR for Betty Davis and Karen Dalton, among others. When BUST magazine asked if I knew someone who could write about Karen Dalton, I asked Mairead, and they published her outstanding article on her. When LITA stopped signing new bands, I became an indie, still handing some reissues for them occasionally, but also publicizing H Is For Hellgate, Eighteen Individual Eyes, Atomic Bride, and the Vera Project’s Jaimee Garbacik’s revelatory book Gender and Sexuality For Beginners, among others.
Heidi and I have been married for twenty years. She once said, early on in our marriage, “I married you before you could die on me!” It’s good to be a big freak.
Chris Estey is a journalist and a publicist who has lived in Seattle since 1985. He has been published in The Believer and the Da Capo Best Music Writing series, interviewed Nick Cave for the liner notes for the critically acclaimed Karen Dalton reissue In My Own Time, and has done PR work for Light In The Attic Records and Random House. His nerd-pit apartment full of books and records and his wife’s toys really looks like a treehouse through the windows from the inside.