Back in October 1988, when the world was less likely to implode, L.A. zine Ben Is Dead launched its inaugural issue. Initially printed on newspaper stock and handed out for free at local coffee houses, galleries and punk stores on Melrose, the zine slowly became a bible for alternative culture in Los Angeles.
Started by Darby Romeo and Kerin Morataya, Ben Is Dead covered issues such as the L.A. riots, sex and death while taking aim at popular culture with shameless gusto. The zine was known for delving deeply, and sometimes disturbingly, into certain topics, with entire dedicated issues themed around a central idea, from money to celebrity to nostalgia. The latter was so popular it spawned multiple issues, with covers referencing ’70s kids mag/school book club favorite Dynamite and comics (the Incredible Hulk in rainbow leg warmers), not to mention stories that resonated nationally, such as Romeo's obsessive coverage of Beverly Hills, 90120 and takedown of its most polarizing character, Brenda Walsh (played by Shannen Doherty), which also produced a book.
Many great writers and artists contributed over the years, including revered performance artist Vaginal Davis, artist Casey Niccoli, Lisa Crystal Carver and the L.A. Weekly's own Falling James, penning personal experiences and wild tales as well as printed interviews with the likes of Mr. T, Anton LaVey and Duran Duran.
During its run from 1988 to 1999, Ben Is Dead left its mark on Los Angeles culture as distinct as the Jughead’s Revenge stickers that used to adorn every stop sign on Melrose. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Ben Is Dead, and to celebrate the occasion, a weekend of activities is set for Nov. 9-11.
The weekend kicks off Friday with Darby Romeo’s birthday bacchanal at Cafe NELA. Five bucks at the door gets you Kid Galahad and the Eternals paying tribute to The Saints, local mischief makers Pu$$y-Cow, SHAVE, and a special appearance from Surrogate Brains.
On Saturday, Nov. 10, the UCLA Punk Collective and Library of Special Collections Presents “Zine Explosion … Archived!” with a chat session featuring Romeo and zinesters including ’90s Renaissance man and scribe Kevin Chanel, Bunnyhop's Noel Tolentino, Genetic Disorder's Larry Harmon and Barracuda's Jeff Fox, to name a few. The group will share their tales of a bygone era from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Schoenberg Music Building. A small nosh and beverages will be served.
And finally, on Sunday, Nov. 11, at Catch One (moved from the Echo), the big bash: a full-on celebration of zines and punk rock music at the Ben Is Dead 30-Year Anniversary Party & Zine Fest. Bands will include Skatenigs, Savage Republic, Midget Handjob, Popdefect, Waco, Hepa-Titus, JFA, 11:11, Poppy Jean Crawford, Pu$$y-Cow, Superbean, Glen Meadmore and The Kuntry Band, John Trubee, Leyna M. Papach and special guests Jawbreaker, with the hoopla starting at 3 p.m.
Darby, who has since set up digs in Hawaii, took a moment from her busy surfing schedule to chat about the early days of Ben Is Dead, its demise and the importance of zines to alt culture.
L.A. WEEKLY: What was the mission of Ben Is Dead when it was first published? Did you have dreams of becoming a big, flashy mag, spreading anarchy, or a little of both?
DARBY ROMEO: I don’t think there was even a thought about the expectations, really. I didn’t really think beyond the moment, which doesn’t sound like good planning. At the time and for the first four years, every cent I made, I put into that. Also rent and food, but that was it. Everything went to the magazine.
The reason I started the magazine was because my dad had gifted me a Mac SE 1/40. If you ever used Macs in the ’80s, picture doing layout when there was no graphic processor and 40 megabytes is your whole hard drive, so you have to use floppies and Pagemaker 1.0. It took forever to do layout. Basically you move something on the screen, then you go make a sandwich. And when you come back after making the sandwich, it would finally be done processing. So you would make a few corrections and move something, and you would use the time it took to process that to eat the sandwich. It was pretty silly and tedious but we did our best. The rest would be all pasted up. It was kind of not easy. You had rolls of film you had to get developed at the lab in Hollywood, hoping one picture would come out good on the roll.
I had no illusions. I was a graphic major, so I liked the design aspect. And I was a fan of music, and was all pumped about that, and I liked writing. And it all came together when my dad gave me that computer. And I was just like, “Let’s make a magazine.”
Many zines crashed and burned before they had the time to pay their Kinko's bill. Why do you think Ben Is Dead took off the way it did? What made it the go-to bible of the alt scene for so long?
When we started, I think there was a lot more of the ’70s zine holdovers. The new era of zines hadn’t quite started yet and we were part of that next generation. I never called it a zine. I always called it a magazine. I think part of it was that I had a really good job, so I could pay to keep it going. Some people didn’t have that.
I finagled an art director job at Grey Advertising after being a really bad secretary. They were going to fire me but then they realized I could do art. So I starting making $25 an hour in the ’80s.
I also worked really fast. I was getting all the work done for a week project in two days. I took the money I made, bought my desktop publishing setup to advance from the Mac. Since I worked from home, they couldn’t see that it only took me two days. So instead of hiding it at the office, I was actually at home working on Ben Is Dead.
We didn’t sell Ben Is Dead until the “Sex” issue, except for out of town. It was free to anyplace we could drive to or get people to deliver it. So there was no, “Then slowly the ads came.” We were also able to carry on because we got a lot of help. So many people were into it. We got better and better, and got bigger and bigger. Everyone was having fun. People from the community, like writers and photographers and artists and musicians, they would all be at the offices working on it. Dropping off stuff, picking up stuff, just working on it. It was all really exciting.
What also helped was the era of indie music and alternative music getting big. It was really Sub Pop and Kurt Cobain that helped zines at the time. I always credit Kurt and Sub Pop for the zine explosion. The label wanted to help the zines that promoted the bands that were on the label. Nirvana was breaking big, so now we were getting major labels that wanted to advertise. I charged them four times as much. They would buy a full-color back page and I would charge enough to print the whole magazine! Sub Pop supported us. They didn’t know it, or necessarily want to, but they kept Ben Is Dead going.
In the end, why did Ben go away?
The internet was burgeoning at the time. And once the blogs started, a lot of people shifted to that. You didn’t have to pay to print stuff. People weren’t buying as many magazines as they used to. It was a whole transition. Then you had Huffington Post destroy all freelance writing for all of eternity. When the distributors stopped paying and folding, that was the collapse of the zine era. The fall of the distributors was the finale.
You know how all these bands signed all these contacts by the end of the ’90s, but if they didn’t sell a billion records they were considered a failure because they weren’t Nirvana, so they got dropped? Everyone was getting dropped. The distributors that picked us up just stopped paying us, because who were we? They only paid us when they felt like it. Some of them folded, and others just wouldn’t pay. So we were their first choice when deciding who not to pay.
Paul [Simms] from NewsRadio was a fan of Ben Is Dead and he helped keep us going for another round because one distributor owed us $10,000. Then another distributor owed us $10,000 and didn’t pay us. Then we were like, “OK, the time is coming.” We were about there anyway. So we just ended it. The zine writers continued writing but that was the end of an era. The Zine Scene era.
During its 10-year-plus run, Ben Is Dead was known for its quirky interviews with celebs on the fringe and unique storytelling. Do you feel you ever missed out on a great interview or a fantastic story?
It’s embarrassing now but at the time, and I don’t know why, I was a huge fan of Val Kilmer. I didn’t want to interview him, just stalk him.
We did interview Siouxsie Sioux, but it was one of those situations where we just ended up there. It was Shanda Leer that got us backstage. He was hanging out with her that day, so we snuck in and hid in the bathroom. But I didn’t have my tape recorder! And we were asking her the dumbest questions. My sister is a huge fan and the most ridiculous shit was coming out of her mouth because she was so nervous! One of her questions was, “What about Robert Smith?” And Siouxsie was just like, “What the fuck?” I don’t know how she put up with us. She could have destroyed us but she just laughed. She was really nice about it.
On Nov. 10, the UCLA Punk Collective and Library of Special Collections present “Zine Explosion … Archived!,” which will feature you and a handful of other zinesters as speakers for the event. How did UCLA get involved with Ben Is Dead?
I have my zine collection there. I didn’t know at the time, because it happened after I left Ben Is Dead and moved to Hawaii. I was living in a treehouse and surfing. I found out 10 years later that there was a Darby Romeo Collection of zines. So I have my collection there, and as the anniversary approached, I thought, “We need to do something.” No one invites us to anything! “What? You are having a girl zine fest where you are honoring the history of zines or whatever? The ’90s this or girl mag that? And we are not invited?” Ben Is Dead has been invited to a total of zero things since it ended. So, you know what? We’ll do our own event, thank you very much. So I contacted them and they were super stoked. I’ll be talking and we are bringing a bunch of zine people to tell their war stories.
Why do you think it's important to keep an archive for zines?
Most don’t have their zines online, and really, I’m not a proponent of putting other people’s zines online unless they are contacted and asked. For us, we wanted to do it our way. The thing with online is that it’s hard to find shit. Things get lost very easily due to Google and their algorithms. To house everything in a library, you know you will have the real thing. You can trust a library and the librarians who work there because they have a thing for doing things right. I respect that. If it wasn’t for the archive, everything would end up in a box and left to rot.
These zines capture a moment in time. Over the years, we talked to all these people in crazy interviews. We want to save them so they are not lost. And the truest format is the archive. With Google, you'll only get the information on a single page. Here, people have access to everything in its raw form. Also, I want more people to hang out at the library.
Darby’s Bday Bash with special guests Surrogate Brains, at Cafe Nela, 1906 Cypress Ave., Fri., Nov. 9, 8:30 p.m.; $5 at the door.
Zine Explosion … Archived! with storytelling from zinesters, exhibits, free food and refreshments, at UCLA, 1102 Schoenberg Hall, Sat., Nov. 10, 4 p.m.
Ben Is Dead 30th Anniversary Reunion Bash and Old-School Zine Fest, at Catch One, 4067 Pico Blvd., Sun., Nov. 11, 3 p.m.-midnight.