Las Vegas Sun

November 19, 2018

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Columnist Scott Dickensheets: Makin’ the scene with dean of ‘zines

He seems normal enough. I'm sipping soda in a quiet corner of the Borders Book Shop cafe with one Pj Perez, the dean of local 'zines -- 'zines being those homemade, photocopied publications that are to real magazines what public-access TV is to CBS News -- and he has yet to fly off the handle. He's a guy who'd been variously described to me as "very lucid" and "an imperial pain in the ass"; in print, he can be haughty, in-your-face and relatively thoughtful, often in one paragraph. I'm not sure what to expect.

Perez cranks out Five-One, a quarterly grab bag of local music coverage and opinions/rants regarding the city's alt-culture doings (he's also parlayed it into a small record company, a graphic-design shop and an online operation).

Perez himself is, as advertised, lucid, and oddly intense in the way of prematurely serious twentysomethings, but he's not proven to be a pain in any body part. Eschewing the 'zine tag, Perez considers Five-One a full-fledged magazine. Perhaps. While it certainly has more in the way of production values than most of its ilk, Five-One retains the kitchen-table feel and personal flavor that distinguish 'zines.

I'm here because I'm intrigued by the notion of rebel expression, particularly as mergers and conglomeration continually tighten the mainstream media. 'Zines were born of the do-it-yourself ethic of '70s and '80s punk rock, although I suppose you could trace their spirit back to Thomas Paine, if Thomas Paine had conducted band interviews, attended raves and complained about poetry readings.

Smart-alecky, hyper-personal and proudly outside the mainstream, 'zines tend to seethe with identity politics and strange obsessions, and they routinely publish stuff you'd never see in the regular press. The fall 1998 cover of Five-One, for instance, depicted the sign in front of Steve Wynn's latest resort. For "Bellagio," he'd substituted "Fellatio." Call it a juvenile prank or a blunt critique of overstuffed materialism, it expressed what a lot of people were thinking but no media said.

The ability to tweak Steve Wynn is just one reason to put out your own 'zine. Why else? "Partly ego, to be honest," Perez admits. But also: "Recognition. I hate to see events get ignored." You see, Las Vegas is a swell news town, but it's brought to us by mostly middle-aged, mostly middle-class, mostly white news managers who have little access to or interest in the strata of culture 'zine people live in. Cut-and-paste magazines allow Perez and those like him to wrestle their view of the city onto a public stage, albeit a tiny side stage, viewed mostly by the coffeehouse crowd. Old copies of Five-One, dating back to 1995, provide a sometimes fascinating, if often sketchy, alternative history of the city's recent culture.

Over the years, Vegas has been littered by a paper trail of 'zines. Perez hands me a bushel. They range from something like Fruit Source, one guy's photocopied, single-sheet rant about the weak planks in local alterna-culture, to the more ambitious Spinzo, which boasted a 24-person masthead, including contributors, comics editor and (putting on airs?) an "assistant to the editor." Desert Raver came out on cheap newsprint; Slave Revolt was straight from the computer printer. Suedomsa was a lifeless dada hodgepodge, KGB Press a 32-page ... well, I still don't know, but it used the words "kill" and "die" a lot.

It's easy to see the appeal of 'zines -- they're handmade, unburdened by the fussy demands and hidden agendas of corporate overseers. 'Zines wear their agendas and frank idealism on their sleeves. "I will publish anyone's opinion," Perez insists. Whether you're a skinhead with a wild hair, a radical vegetarian with a beef or simply a crazy goober with a headful of hot gibberish, Perez will grant you a forum.

Likewise, it's easy to romanticize 'zines, to tumble for their hep, outside-the-lines charm. But it's worth noting that a lot of 'zine writers can't write; that's why they're in 'zines. The average issue of Time magazine has more well-crafted sentences than six pounds of photocopied diatribe. Like the wide-open Internet, 'zines are largely undisciplined and typographically challenging -- have font, use font! -- and adhere to rules of grammar only by accident. When Fruit Source tells me, "Here is some people ...," color me gone. They are also full of sloppy arguments and embarrassing pronouncements (a Five-One scribe once compared himself, without irony, to Christ, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X). Mad screeds are the rule.

"While this results in a fair amount of BS," an article on the very mainstream Atlantic Monthly's website asserted, "readers of 'zines are exposed to an impressive range of human experience."

That may or may not be true of Five-One; judge for yourself if you can find a copy (check coffeehouses and record stores). Personally, I found about a third of it engaging, but then again I don't like to be lectured on life by writers who can't get their verb tenses straight. Nonetheless, kudos to Perez and his colleagues for their gumption in battling what he calls "Vegas Apathy Disease," the tendency of perfectly normal residents to not give a damn about local culture.

No one understands its causes, but Five-One is his way of doing something about it. "Don't just sit there like a lump," he barks. "Inactivity is the worst thing you can do." Whether or not he spells correctly, at least his heart and laser printer are in the right place.