Punk Planet Forever
uster finally steps up to the plate." "So you finally got a real job." Such were the kinds of congratulatory responses I received when I sent out emails to friends and colleagues that I would be leaving Punk Planet. As glad as I was for the supportive good wishes, I was a little surprised by the fact that so few people understood that leaving the venerable Chicago indie 'zine was not as exhilarating an experience as it might seem. I was in fact quite sad. While I had accepted a hard-won position as the managing editor at a prestigious left-wing Jewish periodical, I was leaving home, so to speak, saying goodbye to an incredibly formative chapter in my life as a writer and an editor. And, I was giving up a certain degree of cultural capital too - one which I prized dearly.
For seven years I'd had the privilege of helping create and determine the content of one of the most culturally and politically significant magazines in America. The recipient of numerous awards and extremely generous press, between 1998 and 2002, Punk Planet was considered the go-to publication for anyone taking the temperature of the country's underground. Articles we'd commission would get reprint requests. Staff writers and columnists would get offered gigs working for other publications. In turn, well-regarded contributors to alternative weeklies and mass-market periodicals would come to us pitching articles. Some writers came to us seeking the literary freedoms we offered; others simply valued the credibility of publishing with us. Though our circulation remained under 15,000, we felt larger than Los Angeles.
What has made Punk Planet successful has been it's heterodox understanding of its subject matter. To editor and publisher Dan Sinker, punk isn’t just the definition of a musical genre. It’s a counterculture, in which music, the visual arts, literature, sex and left-wing politics are all manifestations of a shared utopian impulse: maximizing human freedom and creating positive forms of community. From Kid606 to Thomas Frank, Punk Planet's mandate has been to cover this culture in its entirety, treating each of its aspects in the same way that one would cover a band. Thus, artist Art Chantry, novelist Dennis Cooper, Verso Books editor Colin Robinson and journalist Doug Henwood have been accorded the same editorial significance as a band like Fugazi or a producer such as Steve Albini. As Sinker once explained it, the point is to demonstrate what all of these individuals work had in common.
When it began, timing was on Punk Planet's side. Starting out in 1994, Sinker had a historical perspective on punk that no publisher in his community was willing to take responsibility for. Coming into print at the tail end of the Seattle explosion, at a time when second generation punk market icons Rancid and Green Day we're keeping the alternative music business growing market share, it was the perfect moment to reintroduce the ideological progressivism of early eighties hardcore and peace punk with a new audience for whom punk's contrarianism was just a marketing strategy. Reaching out to a generation of kids raised on a combination of Nirvana records, straight edge and a lingering DIY ethic, Punk Planet plunged itself headlong into covering the emerging left-wing politics of the day - activism focused on the continuing war with Iraq, opposition to the war in Kosovo, the early anti-globalization movement, political hackers (“Hacktivists”) and more. For anyone looking for signs of a vibrant and engaged youth culture, it was all there.
While Punk Planet could never assume the paternalistic role of a Malcolm McLaren and declare that it had invented this culture, for Americans decrying the increasingly conservative political environment that brought Bush to power in 2000, it was like a beacon of hope in a moment of increasing despair. Working long distance from San Francisco as the publication's associate editor, I can't help but look back on this period in the magazine's development with nostalgia. Serving as the magazine's first book reviews editor, bringing in feature articles and interviews, writing a column, and assembling the publication's first and only compilation, Housequake - an online only MP3 anthology of political hip-hop recordings for the July/August 2000 issue - it felt like I was working in the eye of a brewing storm. The more I produced, the more it felt like I was warding off something unspeakably threatening. Even though my only connection to the office was through my modem, the community that assembled around our work gave me the sense that I was part of a much larger movement every bit as important as a political party or revolutionary organization.
If there was a defining moment I could pinpoint that summarized what I loved about my years at Punk Planet, it was an assignment Sinker foisted upon me in April 1999. Trying to find a way to cover NATO's two and a half month air campaign over Yugoslavia, he sent me countless pages of postings to an anarchist listserv by two anarcho-punk college kids trapped in Belgrade. As the intensity of the bombing campaign increased, Boris and Stasa poured their hearts out about how the violence made them feel. Denouncing both NATO for its violence and former FRY leader Slobodan Milosevic for his repulsive nationalism, these two students expressed a kind of political alienation from the war that as punks, we could identify with. My job was to edit their posts down to a readable narrative, and write an editor's introduction to the war in Yugoslavia, explaining why reproducing Boris and Stasa's testimonies was so politically important. As journalists, it was our hope that by publishing this piece - the July/August cover story - we would help recover some of the humanity buried in the rubble of the conflict. Not just that of Serbians who opposed Milosevic, but also our own.
Unfortunately, this experience could not last forever. Wrapping up my doctoral work in 2002, like many former students, I found myself lacking the kind of quality time I required to devote myself to a project like Punk Planet. My first book, Jerusalem Calling, had just been published by Akashic. My new band, the Elders of Zion, had just released their first CD. I'd assumed a full-time job as the label coordinator at San Francisco's electronic/experimental imprint Asphodel, and by the late Spring, I was already working on a second full-length for the same publisher, The Anti-Capitalism Reader. I could not have been pulled in more directions. By February of 2004, having finished my third book collection, Collective Action, I was in another world altogether. I'd only taken a label job as a way of making ends meet after finishing graduate school. I’d always intended on doing something a little more intellectually engaging. If I was going to translate all of my publishing work into a job as fulfilling as what I'd been doing for seven years at Punk Planet, I was going to have to put myself on the market and find a serious editorial gig.
After six months of intense searching, I was given a job working as the managing editor of the largest circulation liberal Jewish publication outside of Israel, Tikkun. As someone who had written a great deal about the Middle East over the years - in both articles and columns for Punk Planet, and as a contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian - it was as though I had been given the best and most ideal gig of all. Not only was Tikkun the perfect publication to transition to, but most importantly, it allowed me the opportunity to continue to develop my skills as an editor in a way that I was not able to working long-distance for Punk Planet, having been given the responsibility of helping manage both the editorial and business aspects of a publication. Granted Tikkun is a far different publication than Punk Planet. Its audience is a generation removed, frequently academic, and in many instances, more religious. However, like Punk Planet, it is very much driven by a similarly holistic set of political ideals whose existence it tries to map out in many different areas of life.
Sixteen months after leaving Punk Planet, what I find myself missing the most about it is its remarkably oppositional energy, and its perennial thirst - like any music-based publication - for the new. As much as an older publisher might ascribe such a disposition to the fact that Punk Planet remains a publication supported by youth culture, and as such, works hard to retain that audience, such conclusions miss the point. Unlike any other music-based publication - think The Wire, for example with it's New Yorker style coverage of rock music as high art - Punk Planet found a way to appropriate the wildly eclectic spirit of resistance one finds in every youth culture, and channel it into the most thoughtful kind of writing and editorial presentation one could ask for. Though the mass-movement nature of the late nineties anti-globalization scene is no longer on the street serving as a political corollary to Punk Planet's publications, every single aspect of what has made the magazine great these past ten years is still there, almost as though they remain in wait for the next big wave of political activism to make explicit again.
Fortunately, Punk Planet isn't sitting around waiting for the next wave of radicals to make things happen. Its year and a half old book imprint, Punk Planet Books, is one of the brightest young stars in the independent publishing firmament, have issued a number of incredibly well-received titles including Joe Meno's celebrated novel Hairstyles of the Damned, Mark Andersen's political autobiography All The Power, and Bee Lavender's Lessons in Taxidermy. Meanwhile, despite the well-publicized recent problems with its distributor Big Top (including rumors of its impending demise), Punk Planet continues to fight the good fight to stay on America's newsstands. Sporting an eye-opening cover story written by new managing editor Anne Elizabeth Moore on the use of punk in corporate marketing, the November/December issue proves why Punk Planet remains the only magazine systematically defending youth culture from the claws of the market. After nearly twelve years of continuous publication, to still be so thoroughly - and thoughtfully - on the barricades, in every possible sense, sets a remarkable example for the rest of the left-wing press to follow.
As someone who put more than their fair share of years behind the mast at Punk Planet, it is this kind of energy and commitment that defined to me what it meant to be punk. Even better, I know I'm not the only former Punk Planet staffer who took this lesson so thoroughly to heart.
Joel Schalit is managing editor of Tikkun Magazine. He is currently hard at work on his third book for Akashic, Israel vs. Utopia, and his second Elders of Zion CD, Preoccupied Territories. He lives in San Francisco.
By: Joel Schalit
Published on: 2005-12-06