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Arthur: The Little Magazine That Could | The Nation

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Arthur: The Little Magazine That Could

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In 2002 a free counterculture music magazine, Arthur, came onto the underground scene and won readers in just about every city where young people (and some older ones) still flouted local noise ordinances. Edited by LA-based music journalist Jay Babcock and published by Philadelphia-based independent media veteran Laris Kreslins, it was distributed by volunteers across the nation who delivered issues to coffee shops, record stores and bookstores. With contributors like Thurston Moore of the legendary punk/noise band Sonic Youth; T-Model Ford, the elder blues statesman and Arthur advice columnist; and writer Trinie Dalton, the magazine specialized in long stories and interviews on wide-ranging subjects, from '60s "White Panther" leader and MC5 manager John Sinclair, to ambient music pioneer Brian Eno, to novelist J.G. Ballard, to contemporary folk musician Devendra Banhart--each representing a segment of the counterculture.

About the Author

Kevin McCarthy
Kevin McCarthy, a fall 2003 Nation intern, is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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Arthur's music coverage has been among the most influential of its era, but the magazine was never just about music--it was from the beginning fiercely political. Babcock, who studied political science at UCLA, had at one time worked for Congressman Henry Waxman and drafted Waxman's anti-NAFTA position paper. As the magazine was launching, the war in Iraq was being sold, and Arthur defined itself as a virulently antiwar publication; the magazine dedicated its fifth issue to a critique of the war. (The cover of that issue depicted comedian David Cross as a soccer mom cheerleading the war surrounded by the words "Hooray for Empire" and "USA #1 with a Bullet.") The editors never stopped questioning the war and military recruitment. In 2004 Arthur teamed with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to run a PSA for antirecruitment campaigns in its pages. Then in May 2006, in an issue of Arthur, Babcock challenged Sully Erna of the rock band Godsmack for licensing his music to the military for use in recruitment ads and for using military images at concerts. The magazine's pages were a regular space for artists and writers like Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and Kyp Malone, of the indie band TV on the Radio, to speak out against the war and President Bush.

Earlier this year, Arthur announced that it would no longer continue printing. Not long after, however, Babcock reached a deal with Kreslins and is about to relaunch the magazine as its editor and publisher. The next issue will arrive in record stores sometime in August. The Nation recently spoke to Babcock by phone about publishing a counterculture magazine in the current economic and political environment.

What drove you to start Arthur?

I grew more and more frustrated with the limitation of subject matter, technique and the length of story available to me in the outlets that existed. I realized that many other writers were feeling the same way. I thought the only way to do what I wanted to do was to actually--instead of campaign for somebody to come to their senses, I would start my own magazine.

How did you get the magazine going?

I didn't come from money and I didn't have any money. Laris didn't come from money, so we pooled our credit cards and were able to start to pay the printer and so forth. The publishing situation in the United States has gotten to the point where you really do have to be wealthy in order to publish. Everyone can have access to a printing press, but hardly anyone outside the wealthy has access to the newsstands. It requires a huge amount of capital to start up a magazine and print it, and then convince the distributors that it deserves to distributed, and then be able to wait for them to pay you. The newsstand distribution system in this country is notoriously inefficient and corrupt.... That wasn't an option for us. So what we did was, we created essentially an underground, alternate form of distribution.

What is the vision behind Arthur?

The biggest underlying idea is that the culture drives everything else. Culture creates the metaphors and the landscape on which politics and economics and so forth take place. And so then you ask: What kind of culture are you making, or taking part in, or helping to exist? Our idea is to do what all the other underground magazines or publications in America have done over the last 200 years or whatever, which was to attempt to infuse into the culture at large all of the liberatory, progressive and expansive ideas of freedom and values from the traditional underground, and to celebrate them, propagandize for them and push them.

What were your models?

We want to be in the tradition of the American underground press. Especially the twentieth-century underground press. Whether it's the punk magazines, or the rave magazines, or the amazing underground press that was happening in the late '60s and early '70s, or the mimeo scene before that in the '60s and '50s, with the Beats and the whole literary poetic scene--there's a whole tradition you can go back to: anarchist magazines, Wobblie magazines and so forth. And there's always been artists and poets, and the serious ones have always been political, engaged and very far to the left.

Arthur grew more and more political. The fifth issue is dedicated almost entirely to looking at American imperialism. How did that political consciousness develop?

By the second issue the war stuff was starting to happen, and by coincidence we had a section about [civil rights and antiwar protest photographer] Charles Brittin. We found out that he had a photo of a parade of veterans against the Vietnam War that happened in LA in the late '60s. It's an incredible photo from the corner of Wilshire and Vermont that was just mind-blowing for those of us who live here in LA, to see this familiar landscape filled not with cars and billboards but with ex-soldiers protesting the war as far as the eye could see. So we elected to make that a centerfold.

For the third issue we did a back page that said "What War Looks Like," and it was a picture from [LA punk musician] Exene Cervenka's book of an Iraqi soldier, dead, from the first Gulf War, with parts of his body blown off. It's an extremely gruesome black-and-white photo that says all sorts of things about what war is, what it does to people, what people who kill have to look at. And you look at what the soldier was wearing--he's wearing dress shoes, which shows how mighty the Iraqi army was that we were so afraid of. It was nothing--they didn't even have boots.

And by the time we got to the fifth issue the war had started already and it was getting worse. We went all the way. We solicited special advertising saying we were doing an emergency issue of Arthur. We assembled it in just four weeks. Arthur isn't exactly the biggest megaphone--but the megaphone that we did have was very carefully directed at this cultural class where things develop and bubble up occasionally into the mainstream consciousness. We wanted to be an incubator space. No other pop culture or culture magazine was taking any stand like that. We did it and we didn't think we'd have much effect, but we did think we would be a comfort and an aid to those people in the culture who were doing good work but who needed to know that they weren't the only ones out there, which would allow them to go on with what they were doing and to feel that what they were doing was worthwhile.

You mention in the editor's notes in a later issue that you got a lot of mail about the fifth issue, some supportive and some very critical.

When you're a small magazine, you need every issue that you put out to say the same thing over and over about what you're doing, so that people who see it for the first time can get an idea about what it is you do. So it was very dangerous for us to completely depart from any music coverage, any arts coverage, and devote almost an entire issue to a radical political position stated in pretty blunt terms. We thought, Are we endangering our relationship with our advertisers? But because what we had done was something no one else was doing, it worked in our favor as a business. It won us a good amount of readers who were just shocked that there was this publication out there that was in record stores and coffeehouses for free. Where you're usually supposed to find pretty superficial status quo stuff, instead you're finding this radical, impassioned and very smart talk about what was going on that you couldn't find elsewhere. That a tiny magazine, with no budget and no capital, could put that together and nobody else could do that with their vast hundreds of millions of dollars, while the Hollywood liberals were all wringing their hands--that says something, not about how great we were but about how awful everybody else was.

Whom were you trying to reach?

We were very conscious that our audiences, our people, are artists themselves, musicians themselves, the record store clerks of America, and we wanted to remind them that they're being told to shut up and not have an opinion and not state your opinion unless you are a politician or a Middle East expert. And we wanted to remind them that actually the voice of the poet, and the artist, and the musician is often where the deeper wisdom comes from. Those voices have always been heard, have always needed to be present and have always played a role.

By the time you get to the ninth issue [of Arthur], every artist we're covering is talking out loud about what's up. In that issue we ran a whole page put together in conjunction with the AFSC about how to counter military recruitment on campuses, in high schools and colleges. We'd already moved to the next part--you can't have a war unless you have soldiers, so let's try to convince kids not to be soldiers. That's something everybody can do in their own neighborhood. Anywhere you live in America there is a high school.

You got a lot of attention for your interview with Sully Erna of Godsmack, in which you confronted him for allowing the military to use his band's music in its recruitment ads and for using military images at concerts. That seemed to me to be kind of a cultural turning point--after years of hearing people called traitors and such for speaking out against the war, here's someone challenged to explain why he supported it, and in the end he tried to distance himself from Bush and the war.

I conducted that interview over telephone just a couple days after Stephen Colbert did his speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner. I believe that was the real turning point. At the time, the mainstream media didn't pick up on it. It took a few days before they realized that it was the hottest thing on YouTube. The cultural press had figured out that it was the real story, not George Bush and his doppelgänger doing a comedy routine. Colbert had done something absolutely heroic. And Neil Young was just about to come out with his Living With War record. So there was this sort of surge that happened, and the interview with Godsmack happened right in there. I'd been waiting to talk with that guy for years. When that invitation to interview him arrived in the mail, it was like a gift.

So you had been following him?

Oh, I'd been following him for years. I keep files. I do my best to do what Ed Sanders does--to keep files, and wait and wait. It's the only way to be a journalist and advocate sometimes--keep track of stuff the best you can, and when the moment happens, seize it. To me it's fair game to ask someone why they're licensing their music to a certain cause. I would be derelict in my duty as a journalist to not talk about that in a time of war. When someone's doing live concerts that are essentially war rallies, that naturally should be a subject of conversation with that person.

In a later issue, you talked to Kyp Malone, from the band TV on the Radio, about his experiences playing shows where the promoter had allowed military recruiters in to sign up kids against the band's contract. Is this something you've seen a lot of with the artists you cover?

Kyp was the main one who would talk about that, but there have been other things that had happened. [The country-soul band] Brightblack Morning Light had some trouble in Tucson, because they have it in their rider that they don't want recruiting to go on at their concerts. It's kind of ridiculous that you'd have to say that.... But if word gets out that that's in your rider...that was a problem for them.

Have you noticed artists that you cover becoming more radical or speaking out on politics or against the war?

I think that most musicians in the underground tend to be antiwar, peace people, and some of them are more open about it than others. Some of them feel more confident about it and have figured out a way to deal with it onstage or in the press in a way that they think is going to get across something valuable. Devendra [Banhart] didn't have antiwar songs on his early records, but he did on his last album, and that's clearly because of what's been going on and because the situation keeps getting worse and worse.

Do we have someone just churning out the anthems like John Lennon was doing? He was writing song after song over a few months that would go from his guitar to being sung by people in protests. There is nobody doing that right now. I think there are people that are capable of doing it, but they're not high-enough profile yet.

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