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Fanzine Mania

Peter Margasak/The intellectual behind Butt Rag

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The latest editions of two Chicago fanzine perennials are either on the stands or about to be. First up is Pat Daly's Empire Monthly, or Empire (pause) "Monthly", as it is often called, this in reference to the 'zine's now-just-about-annual periodicity. The laconic and amused Daly, who owns Empire Records on Cicero and moonlights as a suit, pins the modestly but cleanly designed rag on the twin pillars of devotion to the most substantive bands on the local scene and unflagging interest in semiforgotten candidates for the pantheon (Devo, Alice Cooper, Love). Daly started the mag for fun back in '87, and it did indeed originally come out close to monthly, for the first quarter of a year or so. Now infrequently published, it remains must reading. In the new issue, which features a fine picture of the Smashing Pumpkins on the cover and a revealing interview inside, Daly gives good-natured updates on the major-label hopes of hometown heroes ("All these bands are, how did Steve Albini put it, 'suckling at the corporate teat,' Gee, I guess I hate them"), local producers ("Steve's got a little milk mustache going himself"), and even stuff that has nothing to do with Chicago at all ("An unprecedented pillaging of the funk vaults by the Polygram Corporation promises to kick off the Outdoor Electro-Boogie season in a wash of nostalgia, hilarity, and the word 'ow'"), and does it all, as can be seen, with aplomb.

Daly's a modest (that word again) adherent of certain rock 'n' roll verities; while extremely sympathetic to local music, which demands a high level of tolerance for all sorts of noisy aggregations, he insists on music-not-lyrics analysis and, accordingly, campaigns for tunes-not-shtick sonic content. Here's the start of a review of "Buncha Singles": "Too many 45s? Probably. But what I find even more irksome is the utter disregard for the traditions of the format. In my mind, a single is 2 compact and immediate songs, 45 RPM, A-side and B-side somehow distinguishable (like, the letter A on one side, and the letter B on the other)....If I put on one more aggro throwaway that sounds like the Chipmunks because I forgot to adjust my turntable speed, there's likely to be a Who-like accident involving a window, a flying stereo component, and a sidewalk." But Daly is also scholarly as he wants to be, making well-informed cases for the new Donovan and Bob Marley boxed sets and a Wedding Present compilation. Find it, if you can, at hepper local establishments: it's the nice fanzine.

More traditionally undergroundy is issue number eight of Butt Rag ("I was a sophomore in college and thought it was a pretty funny title at the time"), the astonishingly thick product of one Peter Margasak, Jazz Record Mart staffer, sometime show booker, and now Tribune contributor. Befitting the 'zine's title and format (newsprint) Margasak is an outspoken but unpretentious twentysomething intellectual-in-spite-of-himself who's capable of turning out prodigious amounts of closely analyzed copy on just about anything relating to nonmainstream music. Butt Rag's last issue topped 100 pages, with not much in the way of advertising: I would guess that the records section ("Shitty Plastic"), alone--more than 60 pages of small, double-columned type--totaled about 120,000 words, or about three years of the lexical nourishment provided you by, say, a weekly music column in an alternative newspaper. Margasak cares about weird jazz and punk rock in equal measure, distrusting lyrics even more than Daly; this can be misleading (I'm not familiar with 90 percent of what he writes about, but sometimes when I am I think this bias trips him up), and sometimes his interest in minutiae might stretch the interest of even close relatives of the members of the groups in question. But for someone so prolific Margasak is surprisingly lucid ("More wacked-out semi-melodic Descendents punk for young social retards," an old review of a Chemical People album begins), and even when he's not the result is interesting rather than boring. Here's a sample from an upcoming article about New Zealand popsters the 3Ds: "Pop song forms are violently imploded, wreckage wildly strewn about in the quick aftermath (e.g. the brilliant 'Pop,' where bombastic opening statements drive into a rapid, strangely ska-like lope, and then the thing totally splits apart, Jauniaux's fine childish chirping cagily snooping through the dust, the rest of the band slowly building a propulsive drone)." He can also be blunt ("I'm not sure how many records Houston's Pain Teens have made now [I think it's something like 5 or 6], but Stimulation Festival is the second I've heard and I believe my patience could be wearing thin"), and rather charmingly forthcoming about the vicissitudes of fanzine life: "To begin with David Mitchell is a rather soft-spoken person, not necessarily an evil trait per se, but a very frustrating elocutionary flaw, especially when my piece-of-shit Tandy brand phone jack-to-mic-input contraption can reduce the most ringing and articulate voice to a droning mumble." Barring emergencies financial (even on newsprint, Butt Rag costs a bundle to produce) or otherwise (he lost the photos to number seven on the way to the printer), the new issue is due out next month.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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