Q & A: V. Vale

Few figures are as important to the early San Francisco Bay Area punk scene as V. Vale. As publisher of the late seventies zine Search & Destroy, Vale helped bring local, national, and international attention to a punk scene every bit as vibrant, weird, and progressive as the more highly publicized ones to the south and to the east. The publication was famously launched with a modest monetary contribution from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Lights Books where Vale worked at the time, and poet Allen Ginsberg. For Vale, punk became a gateway for a host of cultural obsessions, including industrial music, the writings of J.G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs, feminism, pranksterism, and the more bizarre ends of filmmaking and music, which he has slavishly spent the better part of the past three decades chronicling with the RE/Search series of publications that he founded.

On Sunday, November 18, Vale offers a zinemaking workshop in the BAM/PFA galleries in conjunction with the BAM/PFA presentation of Barry McGee. Thanks to the good folks at Issues and Needles & Pens for their support of this event, and for providing readers and zinemakers with two of the few local hubs for DIY publications.


How and why did you start Search and Destroy?

It’s that age-old recipe of “Find a need and fill it.” I waited years for punk to start happening in the Bay Area, and when it did, I realized there was no “insider” coverage of what would be the next major International Cultural Revolution. In fact, most people dismissed punk rock as nothing; it took two years for the San Francisco punk scene to develop a hard-core group of about two- to three-hundred creative people. Right from the get-go I wanted to do anthropologist-style documentation (I was a big fan of Claude Levi-Strauss and Marcel Mauss) and after much internal debate settled on the 11 x 17” in. tabloid format adopted by Andy Warhol, another major influence. Search & Destroy is an imitation of the first issues of Andy Warhol’s Interview, but much better edited! (Cheeky of me to say this…)

What were some of the unusual challenges of printing and putting together a zine at the time?

1) No art school training 2) No layout knowledge, except that I “guessed” that “what you see is what you get.” Fortunately, a North Beach neighbor ran a kind of dadaist art gallery two blocks away on Grant Avenue at Green Street. His day job was laying out the S.F. Advertiser, and he told me how the paper did it (get large sheets of paper with thin blue lines on it, get a drafting table with a T-square, some rubber cement, and start going at it. Start typing up columns of text, and get photos turned into halftones at a local business, arrange them and glue ‘em down). Sadly, I didn’t know that rubber cement is not ARCHIVAL, so the original flats today are ruined by dark glue coming up through the photos and texts. Someone told me recently that “they” make archival rubber cement now!

How did you go about distribution, both with Search & Destroy and later with RE/Search?

Distribution is the Number One problem with all publishing, especially now—or is it? (Now, you can put everything on iTunes and get paid for it per download—what do you need a distributor for? Actually, it’s not that easy—you’ll find out when you try to do this for real.) Back in 1977, there were small punk-rock record store start-ups all over the world, so you simply mailed copies of Search & Destroy to each store and hoped they would send you payment. Most of the time, nobody ever paid us.

I finally woke up to the fact that since I worked at City Lights Bookstore/Publishing, if I could get a little more money in one place, I could put out BOOKS instead of tabloids, and then City Lights (at that point, also a book distributor) would HAVE to distribute me, cuz I’m a City Lights employee! So, I started doing that and never looked back.

The traditional story of punk leads you to believe that the Sex Pistols and Ramones arrived from outer space one day, and the world was forever altered. Did the experience of the emergence of punk feel like a day-and-night occurrence or a more the logical next phase of a more natural evolution of culture?

Anyone who reads the plethora of books about the beginnings of punk knows that punk was many, many years in the making. The hippies were the cause of the punks, in a dialectical way—as a reaction AGAINST. Think of every single thing labeled “hippie” and just think of its diametric opposite. You’ve got it! Every aspect of what might be termed a “culture” was upended by punk rock innovators…

Although a small underworld of print zinemaking exists today, blogs, tumblr, websites, and social networking sites have essentially replaced these. What are some the advantages and disadvantages to this cultural transformation?

In one word: DISTRACTION. Plus: TOO MANY FISH IN THE SEA. TOO MUCH INFORMATION (TMI). Lack of Trustworthy “Curation.” The loudest masters of self-promotion get the most distribution—but often they have nothing (or little) to say—they spent so much time learning how to promote themselves that they failed to master any knowledge in-depth, so essentially they have NO CONTENT. And, of course, no ethics or morals… they just are shills for the status quo. You can waste far too much time on the Internet, on social networks… and at the end of your life, find you have produced NOTHING of your own, that has unique and lasting content and inspiration value.

What sort of advice, if any, do you have for anyone out there that might be inclined to start their own zine, publishing business, or website?

1) Heed your obsessions 2) Don’t listen to any “advice” 3) Be determined to give the highest possibly quality of “content” you can create 4) Cherish the spirit of Black Humor and Anti-Authoritarianism 5) Don’t compromise just to get money from someone 6) Be very careful who you “partner” with—you can’t be too careful…

What can patrons expect as part of this workshop?

Hands-on participation in unlocking inner creativity, critical thinking, and innate humor and manifesting it onto paper—ideally, a four-page zine can be done in two hours or less.

The workshop is programmed in conjunction with the Barry McGee exhibition. What’s the connection?

Barry McGee, judging by by the massive body of all the varied artworks he has created, is an inspiration to anyone who realizes that one of the purposes of life is to create in as many different media as possible, and to work all the time and not slack off. Punk rock originally had this same spirit of DIY, Black Humor, and Anti-Authority… a spirit which hopefully will Never Die. Street art is an extension of punk rock, as are zines. It’s all one big continuum!

What sort of projects or obsessions are you immersed in currently, and what future publications from RE/Search can readers look forward to?

We just produced an easy-to-read guide to the future of Artificial Intelligence by a genius Russian scientist; it’s titled “Dating AI.” We’ve been reading all the books by certain economists such as Nassim Taleb, Loretta Napoleoni, and Tyler Cowen, and are looking for more, radical economists. We love that little book by Stephane Hessel, Time for Outrage. We value all the inspirations given us by the Occupy protestors and the Anonymous (et al) hacktivists, including Julian Assange (who we feel was framed in a classic CIA-dirty-tricks stratagem). Skeptical Empiricism is our outlook on life. Our next three RE/Search Pocketbooks (4 x 6 in.) are interviews with Henry Rollins, Lydia Lunch, and George Kuchar; they’re going to press in a couple weeks.

2008-vjgb-72-7in.jpg J.G Ballard and V. Vale, London 2008