Writers' Bloc

Those were great and scurrilous times. Picture it: A roomful of upright, high-level journalists, circa 1985. Some are suffering oxygen deprivation to the brain from wearing ties (a malady common to newspapermen). Each is an individual, but all are locked in the ivory-tower, black-and-white mentality typical of newsroom employees at a major metropolitan daily. We're talking editors and reporters here. Proper professionals, indeed.

One of the dozen-odd people in the conference room is not dressed for the role, nor for the occasion - the weekly staff meeting of the Miami News features department. His hair is long and bleached the color of lemonade. His denim pants are so tight he can't smile without hurting himself, not that he has much to smile about. A cigarette dangles Bogart-style from his lips. Without removing the menthol from his mouth, he speaks. "What the fuck is this fucking fuckshit? You fucks don't know shit about fuck...." The room fills with a mix of nervous laughter and head-shaking weariness.

Jon Marlowe could get away with dressing like a metalhead, with spewing F-word eloquence, with living like a refugee rebel even though he was drawing a corporate paycheck. (One of the great and few pleasures I experienced while working at One Herald Plaza during the Eighties was stepping into an elevator full of Knight-Ridder/Miami Herald bluesuits standing next to Marlowe in his blouse/leather pants ensemble, and watching the expressions of the executives shift from freak-show grin to concerned grimace.) Marlowe was permitted his eccentricities for one simple reason: He was the best rock critic in the market - maybe the only legitimate rock critic to ever work these parts.

Good newspaper writing involves conscious manipulation of the audience. You figure out what you got storywise, then consider how to poke and prod the reader with structure and phrasing. That's the craft. The more reckless tossing together of heartfelt words into a newsprint salad - raw, soulful, and uncalculated - that's something altogether different. That's truth. Marlowe gave his readers truth, along with a worldwide, comprehensive, and insightful knowledge of popular culture, and music's place within that culture. When he vanished, former colleagues were deluged with queries as to his whereabouts. "Marlowe sightings," some legit and some not, abounded. To this day many still wonder what became of Miami's premier critical voice. But those seekers aren't looking hard enough.

On the cover of the December 1991 issue of Yesterday and Today Records News and Reviews appears this tease: "London Calling - And Jon Marlowe's on the receiving end! Welcome home, J.M.!" On page ten begins a package of Marlowe reviews of ten U.S.-neglected bands. Typically, Marlowe nails these albums' merits like a three-armed carpenter with a supercharged turbo-hammer. Typically, he rallies behind the underdogs, maybe spitting in the wind, maybe serving as prophet and visionary: On the Odds' Neopolitan: "`Wendy Under the Stars' has already made the Odds infamous. All the other sparkling pop gems found here should have made them famous."

On the Dogs D'Amour: "They could have/should have been the Black Crowes. Hell, they could have/should have been at least the London Quireboys."

And on hanging out in the downstairs pub of London's Columbia Hotel: "Phillip [Boa] has also come down with a sudden case of the `Steve Earle pondering blues': `How come nobody in America knows who the hell I am?' he asks his empty pint of Guinness. It doesn't have a clue. ...In the U.S.A. Phillip Boa is a non-entity. A less-than-zero. A third down and 110 to go."

When Jon Marlowe can be found in a local newsletter, you know something big's going down. And while as yet there's no American Association of Music Newsletter Publishers, we here at Trend Alert Central know a cultural phenomenon when it arrives in the mailbox. Among the local rock bands distributing newsletters are the Goods, Kniption Fit, Medicine Man, Lyrics for Lunch, the Spooky Kids, and Raped Ape. How do we know? Because that very list appears in an issue of a newsletter published by the band One.

One - one of the area's top hard-rock outfits - began issuing their ten-page newsletter three years ago, and, as vocalist Rian Gittman says, they've come to regret it. "It was intended to promote our gigs," the singer explains. "But we find more and more people know us from the newsletter, not the music. There are so many fanzines and shit out there, and they say, `I'll distribute yours and you distribute mine.' They forget that the only reason we do it is to get people to come see us play."

Funny, but One's newsletter is plenty more than an agate-type listing of upcoming shows: the "Poser Page," with photos of famous metal bands marred by the publishers' scrawls, and columns that range from cryptic to indecipherable to profoundly insightful and vitally important to the local rock scene. In the Christmas issue, the band listed "gay lovers we'd like to see," such as WSHE-FM DJ and local-scene hero Glenn Richards matched with Greg Baker. (My wife'd kill me!) In that same issue appeared "On the Trail of the Goodinos," which addressed the subject of Goods drummer Kasmir Kujawa - "His name is Kujawa. He is a murderous animal from the jungles...the only white son of South African cannibals" - and went on to mention the drummer's well-known fetish for skewered, barbecued human ears.

"How often do you get to say what you want to say and nobody can rebut you?" Gittman asks. About once per month, which is how often One's mix of invective and hilarity arrives in the post. It costs the band roughly $300 per issue to reach approximately 800 readers. A little less than half that amount pays for the photocopying, the rest goes to stamps. Like most writers, Gittman is happy to speculate, and this is his opinion about the new plethora of written communiques: "There's so much lack of communication between us and the government that people are starving to find out what's going on. Like the Enquirer and the Star - it doesn't matter what you say, if it's funny or painful, people want it."

If the Goods' Kasmir Kujawa were inclined to rebut One's goof on him, he has the perfect forum. The Goods News, published in the mystical land of Sidville, includes guitarist Tony Oms's advice column, "Food for Thought" courtesy of Wheaty the Clown (which must be a nom de plume), and pieces by Leo the Cool Dog, social editor Billy Winkle, and the always-pertinent, environment-related essays of Breezy the Brilliant Tree. The group's Jim Camacho characterizes theirs as a "quarterly publication when we have the funding."

Broward's Kniption Fit take themselves and their newsletter, The Chocolate Milk Tribune, more seriously - sort of. From the "Ask Animal!" advice column in Vol. 4, Issue 5: "Dear Animal, Why roaches?" queries Sho'nuff of Miramar. Animal's response: "Dear Sho'nuff, Because crumbs."

Chocolate Milk is probably the most professional-looking local-band newsletter, but don't hold that against Kniption Fit. It includes high-quality half tones, lyrics from Fit songs, ad spoofs, a whole lot of pootin' references, cartoons, and, in one ish, an informative article headlined "The Psycho-Spirituality of Barnyard Animals As They Relate to the South Florida Music Scene." The bottom line on Kniption Fit's journalism: Cows rule! And the band, er, milks that theme for all it's worth.

On the national front, you'd think big-time publicists would catch on quick to the newsletter rage. P.R. flaks, after all, possess the abundant ego and excess verbiage necessary. However, few take advantage of the printed forum format. Chris Siciliano isn't exactly a flak, but he does send out a monthly newsletter called Chris' Cornucopia, which, amazingly, falls under the ultimate aegis of corporate behemoth Sony. Siciliano began his career at Sony (nee Columbia/CBS) three years ago as a college representative in New Orleans, moved to Atlanta as a regional rep, and is currently progressive music manager there. He works mostly with retail accounts, and says the newsletter "keeps accounts and stores aware of newer bands. It covers all the info, release dates, gossip, my perspective. The idea is that they'd be willing to take a chance [on stocking a release] if they've read about it, or know it's been on MTV, or find out about some of the band's exploits. It's always an incentive to check these bands out." He says the missive gets a solid response.

Bruce Polin is president of a six-month-old, Brooklyn-based operation called Descarga, which provides a mail-order catalogue "featuring the world's finest Latin music." In June he will begin bolstering the catalogue with a newsletter. "We've been getting such beautiful response" to the newsletter idea, he says. "It's about time. Things are just starting to happen for this music. The people I'm reaching with the mail-order catalogue seem to be starved for written information about the music and how it relates to their culture. They're yearning for more and more literature. I think there's a real vacuum. There are a couple of little magazines, but they're always behind the times by a few months. In America, Latin music has never really gotten the same media support as other genres. There is no machine working to support folkloric music. Yeah, you have your crossover stuff, your Gloria Estefans, but they're a part of the Anglo machine. For Spanish-speaking true listeners to salsa, they've never been hooked into the machine. Such loyal listeners feel neglected."

Polin's goal is self-containment with as broad a base as possible: subscribers will not only receive the Descarga newsletter, they will write it. "We'd like to have contributions from the people who read the catalogue and subscribe to the newsletter," Polin explains. "Stories about the musicians, the industry, or the genre of African-Cuban music in general. It'll be for and by the subscribers. What happens on the financial end remains to be seen. It's a new entity. But it is a way to reach consumers."

Whether national or local, the purveyors of newsletter wisdom and hoots could probably trace their inspiration to the "do-it-yourself" attitude that invaded the rock ethos a decade ago, when bands such as R.E.M. espoused a theory that essentially said, "If you want to be in a band, start a band. If you're not a musician but have something to say, start a fanzine."

Add that to the nature of life in the Age of Communication, and a boom in self-publishing is easily explained. Most of the modern glut of communication is of the electronic sort, which means it's ephemeral. A newsletter provides a solution to neglect and oversight, adds diversity of opinion, or, in some cases, a few good laughs from the stack of mail. It also provides something substantive that MTV, radio, and the nightly news can't offer. You can hold a newsletter in your hands, feel it, touch it, hold on to it. There's a sense of permanency, a weight of importance. It's not surprising or ironic that musicians - artists - gravitate toward the printed word.

Sanbo Witzbitter, editor of The Goods News, hit on something essential in a front-page column from June 1991: "The choice is up to you, do what you do. I've come to the realization that coming to realizations is a habit of mine. Love and forgive each other, and feel free to write.


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