29 November 2005

Lookout


No, this isn't about Lookout Records, so if you're looking for gossip on that subject, look elsewhere.

Several years before there was a Lookout Records, there was a Lookout magazine, which helped give birth to the band called the Lookouts, and in turn, eventually to the record label. But today I just wanted to write something about the magazine.

To apply the word "magazine" to four one-sided xeroxed pages might be stretching a point, but by the time Lookout stopped publishing (or at least went on a very long hiatus), it had grown to 64 newsprint pages and a circulation of nearly 10,000. The last full-length issue of Lookout was the slightly late 10th anniversary edition, published in early 1995. I never specifically decided to stop publishing it, but the intervals between issues had been getting longer and longer for a while, and this particular interval went on indefinitely.

Although I said this post wasn't about Lookout Records, the record label did play a part in both the rise and demise of Lookout magazine. For the first few years, Lookout came out more or less monthly, always in a xeroxed and stapled format, and distributed in the most basic way: I'd leave copies at bookshops, natural food stores, and similar hangouts, first in Mendocino and Humboldt Counties, and then later in Berkeley and San Francisco. It was free if you could find it, and a buck through the mail. If you're curious about how that worked (there was no paid advertising), it meant that for quite a while I ate the cost myself. It wasn't nearly as expensive as it could have been, because after I'd outgrown the primitive copying facilities Mendocino County possessed at the time (my first issue, all 50 copies of it, was run off at the feed store in Willits, with me personally feeding every page into the machine and stacking the finished pages on bags of manure in preparation for collating), I shifted operations to a large copy shop just off Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue. One day as I was sitting on the floor there, with thousands of pages stacked up all around, the manager came up to me. Oh oh, I thought, he's sick of me hanging around here all night and taking up half the floor space, but instead he said, "I been reading that thing of yours. You writin' some funny-ass shit there." With that he offered to copy and collate the Lookout at a tiny fraction of the normal cost. He gave us a similar deal on all the early 7" record covers we made once David Hayes and I co-founded Lookout Records in 1987.

In 1988, Lookout Records was offered a distribution deal by Mordam Records. This meant I was suddenly able to get the magazine into shops all over the country and a few spots in Europe. It also meant switching to a newsprint format and massively increasing the print run, but within a year or two Lookout magazine was paying its own way and even making a small profit. The downside was that Lookout Records' massive success completely dwarfed the magazine and left me with less and less time to work on it. It's no coincidence that it sort of petered out in 1995, the same year that the record label entered the multi-million dollar stratosphere thanks to sales of Green Day's back catalog. Lookout Records morphed from a happy-go-lucky crew of three clowns operating out of my bedroom on Berkeley Way into a full-fledged company with 14 employees and offices in downtown Berkeley, over which I was supposed to be maintaining some kind of charge.

Exhausted by it all, I left the record business in 1997, which meant that even if I'd found the energy or drive to restart Lookout magazine, I no longer had a distribution deal for it. Besides, everything was changing, and printed zines were either going bigtime or falling by the wayside. A few years into the new century, in the age of blogs and Myspace, it feels unimaginably archaic to think about launching or re-launching a print zine. Yes, I know there are people still doing it, and on my recent trip to the USA, I encountered several good ones, both new and old. But they just don't seem to have the impact or immediacy that they did in the 80s or 90s.

The first issue of Lookout, the four-page one, came out in October 1984. I printed 50 copies, and at least half of those were destroyed by irate readers. At the time I was living high atop Spy Rock Road in rural Mendocino County, an area populated almost entirely by marijuana growers, loggers, and a few random lunatics. The loggers were up in arms because of my environmental stance, the marijuana growers because they thought I was calling too much attention to our particular mountain. Hating me was one of the first things they'd ever had in common.

The loggers grumbled and wrote condemnatory letters about me to the local paper, the Laytonville Ledger, but the marijuana growers took more direct action. In the spring of 1985 a band of mean-looking hippies came marching up my driveway and told me that if I didn't stop publishing the Lookout, my house was likely to catch fire the next time I went to town.

I was at one of life's low ebbs at the time. My girlfriend of four years had just left me, I was so broke that I could barely afford to go town (perhaps the reason my house hadn't burned down yet), and putting together this little magazine was one of the few meaningful things I'd found to do with myself. I asked the hippies what exactly they objected to about the Lookout, and it basically came down to marijuana. My first issue had included a harvest report, citing crop sizes and the prices that local farmers were getting. As far as I could see, that was important news, since our mountain economy was almost entirely dependent on marijuana. Also, there wasn't a whole lot of other news; my other front page story had been about a bear breaking into somebody's house and helping itself to a feast of milk and cookies.

The other big objection was to the magazine's name: at that time it was called the Iron Peak Lookout, and featured a logo of the fire lookout tower atop the mountain that dominated our surroundings. "Thanks to you, the cops are going to know where to look for dope," my hippie neighbors complained. "But the San Francisco Chronicle had a huge story about dope growing on our mountain," I argued, "and the cops raid us every year. It's not exactly a secret that people grow marijuana here."

But they weren't in the mood for reason, especially not their leader, Tree Danny, a feisty little bearded man who'd gotten his nickname from cutting down trees on other people's property, and who hated me most of all for having made fun of the Grateful Dead. Teepee Doug, so named because, well, he lived in one, finally brokered a compromise: if I changed the name of the magazine to something not specific to the area, and if I didn't write about marijuana growing, I'd be allowed to live and my house probably wouldn't burn down.

So that's how the Iron Peak Lookout became the Lookout, and how its focus gradually changed from Spy Rock and Iron Peak minutiae to punk rock and regional and national politics. I still managed to get a lot of people mad at me; it's just that most of them no longer lived on the same mountain as me. In 1987, I had about half the town of Laytonville (population, 1,000) ready to kill me and the other half cheering me on as a dispute over a proposed asphalt plant escalated into a full-fledged culture war. Local characters supplied me with endless material, especially the likes of logging supplies baron Bill Bailey, whose campaign to remove Dr. Seuss's The Lorax from Laytonville schools for its alleged anti-logging bias ended up making national news. Although the Lookout by now had become the most widely read publication in northern Mendocino County, more and more of my readers were now from urban areas. To them, Laytonville and environs sounded like a cross between Hooterville, Hazzard County and Dogpatch: a broad, albeit hilarious caricature of rural life. "You mean all those people were real?" one of my big city readers asked me years later, "I thought for sure you had to be making that stuff up."

In 1990 I moved down to Berkeley to go back to college, and Lookout Records and Lookout magazine came with me. I still spent enough time up on Spy Rock to have plenty of gossip from the Emerald Triangle (the name given by law enforcement to Northern California's marijuana-producing region), but the focus continued to shift toward the Bay Area and the Gilman Street scene. I found that punks could get just as ornery as hippies if I failed to show sufficient respect for their favorite bands or pet political causes, but in their favor, at least they never threatened to burn my house down. By the time I'd graduated from Berkeley in 1992, running Lookout Records had become a full-time job, leaving me less and less time for the magazine. Despite this, I still insisted on personally writing almost every word myself, apart from the sometimes vitriolic, sometimes uproarious exchanges in the Letters to the Lookout pages. Using tiny 9-point type to take maximum advantage of the space available, I clocked up a book-length 50,000 words in a couple issues.

I guess burnout was inevitable, that and my increasing sense of isolation from the grass-roots punk scene as I became ever more entangled in the big business end of it. As much as I sometimes miss running a record label and running around the country to discover new bands, I think I miss writing and putting together the Lookout far more. Occasionally - very occasionally - someone encourages me to start the magazine up again, but usually it's an unreconstructed romantic like Aaron Cometbus, who's kept his own magazine going for close to 25 years now. Is Lookout ever likely to return? Probably not.

But I do have to say that writing for this blog - started, like Lookout, when I was at a low ebb in my personal and creative life - feels an awful lot like the days of xeroxing and stapling my first few issues, and I'm enjoying it in a way that I haven't experienced in years. Better yet, no one has threatened to burn down my computer.

At least not yet.

6 comments:

deadlyhifi said...

Hey larry,

I just wanted to say that I am enjoying your blog very much. I got into Lookout records when Green Day made it big and I always had this romantic notion of what it was like to be part of your punk rock scene. Thanks for introducing me to the Mr T Experience...

Wesley said...

Thanks for the history. I remember the Lorax guy in the news -- good grief.

Still have a few of the more jumbo-sized issues in my Bin of Punk Rock Paraphernalia. That and Cometbus were two of the very few beacons indicating that intelligent life existed in Northern California, circa 1990.

I'm not sure if I'm old enough to be wistful, but that's what it feels like...

Tommy said...

I found your blog through Dr. Franks (MTX). I've been a supporter of Lookout Records since about 94 or 95. I loved the history that revolved around Gilman.. and wished my local scene was like that. I read your blog at work, gives me something to do. Keep it up man.

Anonymous said...

better stop writin' that shit, livermore, or your computer is likely to catch fire next time you leave your house....

Anonymous said...

i had a similar encounter with a paranoid grower in portland, but the threats were completely vague, but still totally scary. you wouldn't think that hippies and mobsters would have THAT much in common.

TheBexican said...

Hey Larry It's Bex also known as Jennifer you remember me from spy rock!! Yeah baby!! Tre's cuz.. wild fourth of july hippy parties on your land..crazy dancing and teenage punk music...patouli oil and birkenstock sandals.. whats up? I'm living in willits now trying to buy a house but to no avail!!! I should call willits illwits.Are you in England now..cool.. give me a blurb at thebexican@yahoo.com love to here from you and touch bases.. glad yo see you are still writing.. take care Bex