Can you remember the first time you were uncool? Most people won't
remember themselves like that. Age and nostalgia dull the peaks and
canyons of the past, making them look from a distance like gentle,
When I first picked up a copy of Ben Is Dead in 1989, I knew I was violently and constitutionally uncool.
For 11 years — more than 30 issues published from 1988 through 1999 — Ben Is Dead
was the zine that offered a sure and brilliant glimpse into the
then-mystifying world of alternative culture. Founded by Deborah “Darby”
Romeo and featuring a revolving cast of writers and artists, each
seeming more crassly erudite than the last, it felt indispensable. I
picked up as many as I could, as often as I could. I still remember all
the places I found them — Aron's Records. Amok Books. Record Rover. 12″
Fun in Ventura.
They're all gone now.
Reading it didn't make
me feel that I was stupid, oddly enough. Instead, I knew that reading
it cover to cover would counter the effects of the uncool, expanding my
consciousness atom by invaluable cultural atom.
Ben Is Dead
turned me on to artists and phenomena that were at once fascinating and
terrifying. Scatological country-punk GG Allin (he threw his shit at
the audience, apparently). Performance artist and occasional L.A. Weekly
employee Ron Athey. Japanese noise music. Junk-culture doyenne Suckdog.
Ragged death-blues troubadour Carla Bozulich. The Dada-meets-Fluxus
antics of the L.A. Cacophony Society. Artists toiling at the absolute
fringes of experience.
Ben Is Dead was, for me, the only
place I could really read about what was going on in the world. The June
after the L.A. Riots, it published an issue that was stuffed to
bursting with reportage that critiqued the media as much as the violence
itself. All those newsmen with their different agendas. It praised
KABC-7's Henry Alfaro (“Except for Henry, none of these people have ever
had to live outside of Beverly Hills or the mall”) and compared Harvey
Levin, in his overly dramatic, diving-behind-cars-while-reporting for
KCBS-2, to Rick Moranis on SCTV. “All these people are just walking
around like normal and Harvey Levin is rolling around under the car.
[They] should have the Harvey Levin Scholarship, give it to, like,
Harvard University to teach the Harvard graduates how to hide behind
I committed these quotes to memory. Ben Is Dead just seemed so caustic and knowing. When TMZ
eventually came to prominence, I tuned in and saw Harvey Levin there in
the staff room — holding court, all those young kids trying their
damnedest to bring a worthy tribute to the king — and all I could see
was Levin diving behind those cars. Ben Is Dead put everything into perspective.
And then Darby disappeared.
never knew her while the zine was operating. (I wouldn't know where to
go to meet her. And even if I did — what would I say?) But she had a Ben Is Dead
hotline. An answering machine. I'd call every so often and give her
some words of support. Thank her for turning me on to The Fall.
Telephone calls to nowhere.
So Ben Is Dead
died. A decade passed until I found her again — on Facebook, of all
places. I learned she was back in L.A. to publicize her book with Kerin
Morataya, Confessions of a Harry Potter Addict. Last year, in
the back of the Rico Adair Gallery in Valley Village, at a party making
T-shirts out of discarded clothes, I finally met Darby: willowy and
tanned and goofy all at once. She didn't seem the type at all.
what happened to her? She said she'd dropped out of everything to spend
time with Carlos Castaneda, the legendary late 20th-century mystic whose
demise was as mysterious as his life. From there, she took a sojourn
across the Midwest with Cometbus publisher Aaron Cometbus, and
then moved to her current home, in Hawaii, where she recovered over a
year after having her back broken by a clueless noob surfer.
the next few weeks, I asked her about how it all started. The titular
Ben was French. She met him when she was a “wannabe punk-rock girl.
was in college at the time, so it was one of those summer-abroad things
for credit,” she recalls. “I was at the Sorbonne — and then I met a
French punk-rock boy named Ben. Met him in Paris at the fountains at the
Château d'Eau, where you get pommes frites and chestnuts and
bloody sausages. He didn't even speak English, I didn't even speak
French — so we walked around with dictionaries.”
When she returned to the States, so did he, and she married him so he could get his green card. Ben Is Dead stemmed from her job at Grey Advertising. (“You know the 'other agency' they're always talking about in Mad Men?” she says. “That's the one I worked for.”)
wanted to keep in touch with what was really interesting in underground
culture — to stop from stagnating — and also, admittedly, to get into
shows, get free records and meet people.
Her marriage was in
trouble. Drugs, she says. “Ben eventually became a little … he went
over the top,” she explains, matter-of-factly and not the slightest bit
ruefully. “The name of the magazine eventually became symbolic for the
situation: Ben is dead — to me.”
Then she met Castaneda. “I met
somebody, I won't say his name, who was kind of mentoring me and he was
really into Carlos Castaneda … and this is the first time I've talked
about this in any interview, and it's probably the last time.”
got into Tensegrity, Castaneda's devised sequence of ancient meditative
movements. What's a spiritual movement without a little exercise? From
1994 until Castaneda died, in 1998, she sold books at Tensegrity
“Part of the reason I pulled away from Ben Is Dead
was that … he was amazing. My experience with him was amazing,” she
recalls. “And that's not to say it wasn't very … cultish. It was a
cult! And we were in it! I didn't think about him as a person at all. He
knew the bullshit going on in your brain; he could tear you apart in a
second. Everything was teaching you something. You always had to be
paying 100,010 percent attention to everything — and he would ask you
about shit. You had to be paying attention. If you were just schlepping
through life, just getting by, he would just wipe the floor with you.”
Ultimately, though, it was money that killed the zine. The magazine-distribution companies, which put Ben Is Dead
in stores like Tower Records and Barnes & Noble and collected
proceeds from the sales, went into bankruptcy — but not before allegedly
ripping the zine off to the tune of $20,000.
“That's the end of
the magazine, when you're not getting $20,000!” Romeo says, still a
little exasperated. “They didn't care because we were nobody. We were
nothing. That sealed the deal.”
She decamped to Hawaii, where her
new life began in a deeply auspicious way. “I walked up to the lava, I
squatted down … and I got my period! Squirting blood everywhere out of
my anatomy! And then I realized I was missing that fire energy in my
life, so I ended up moving back to Hawaii in 2000.”
She becomes suddenly wistful — but not for Ben Is Dead. “I think Carlos would have liked surfing.” Romeo pauses. “If I could go back in time, I'd take Carlos Castaneda surfing.”
Wistful, random, knowing — it is not, altogether, a thought that would seem out of place in the late, great Ben Is Dead.
The zine argued that you should follow your own star. Because, as the
writing in the margin of one issue said, “Remember: It can always be