Hey, thanks for checking in & reading what is my first “Article” here on this page - From time to time I’ll wax poetic & pontificate about issues I am grossly under qualified to hold forth opinions on, but as they are pertinent to the interests of many here, I will do so in hopes that some sort of gleaning might occur, even if only a deepening awareness of my own limitations. And with that warning in place, let’s tuck right in.
A little background information is in order - I am halfway past the century mark, and as such have whet much of my appetite & honed most of my chops in the environment of the first category here, that is to say the old underground. Which means that I am a de-facto idiot in regards to many of the nuances & mechanics of the new subcultures I speak of - However, I think a lot of the larger issues are consistent throughout & that the base sort of function of both are apparent to me, as a participant in (What was then cutting edge) the milieu of my formative years.
What prompted this in many ways was the recent passing of two cultural icons - Perhaps one a bit more unfamiliar than the other, but surely both figures of import in their time, place and scheme. I’ll be providing a bit of my own relationship to them / their work to give some context. I’m speaking here of Art Bell & Adam Parfrey.
Art Bell, for those unfamiliar, for many years was the overnight radio host of the syndicated radio show COAST TO COAST - A mysterious figure, I was exposed to him in his natural environment, which is to say on a lonely stretch of highway in the dead of night. He was a purposefully oblique figure, (coyly broadcasting from “The High Desert”) and it came across in the programming. The show was more or less a showcase of what might be broadly termed paranormal or Fortean in nature - Unusual, Bizarre & Supernatural combined with what we today would consider to be Conspiracy Theory (I first heard of “Con Trails” on his show, and was introduced to a number of themes & ideas that went on to gain much wider cultural currency - But more on that later) -I think most of the listeners to his show would agree that the unifying thread in his guest & callers would be that they were ‘A Bit Kooky’ - And let me tell you, regardless of if I was on board for a particular episode or laughing along with the skeptics, it was generally entertaining radio. I think a lot of that had to do with Mr. Bell’s credulity & calm patience with these far out notions. So, hats off to you Art Bell & Rest In Peace (In the High Desert or wherever you are).
Also of note is the recent departure of Adam Parfrey, the publisher of the FERAL HOUSE Imprint, most notoriously popular for the Apocalypse Culture handbooks - But they did a lot of of other material - Much of it quite controversial & all of it solidly “Fringe” in nature. My experience with him is more personal, having met him a few years ago during a press junket for a book on THE SOURCE family, a co-op / cult fronted by the charismatic Father Yod in the early 70s - I’d kept up with much of the material that Feral House put out, and my meeting with Mr. Parfrey was pretty unremarkable (My adventure that night was sourced from another direction, but that’s a whole different story) - He was genial & pleasant during our brief exchange & it was nice to express my admiration for his work directly to him -
And like many of my circumstance, the APOCALYPSE CULTURE handbook was a big impact to me when I was first exposed to it - For the uninitiated, it’s quite a tome - Necrophilia, Nazis, Conspiracy theory & extreme art are all given equal air time. It was a revelation at that stage in my life, and I think it would still be considered quite ground-breaking or at least shocking to many people today. So - Thank You Adam Parfrey, for the great books & thoughtful presentation. Rest in Peace.
When considering these two in recent passing, it brings to mind their legacy (As these things tend to do) and in both their cases it’s a very interesting one because in my view, the ground kind of moved under them. I’ll attempt to explain what I mean by this.
Again, a bit of personal context - I grew up outside of Chicago, Illinois in a comfortable suburban setting. Not exactly a hotbed of counter culture of any stripe, as I think was the case with much of the mid-west at that point. Indeed, I was often finding myself in Chicago to glean experience & ephemera from the various sub cultures that were in full swing there - I would devour whatever comics (In this period, there were still “Head Shops” which had an odd hodgepodge of alternative literature of various styles & eras) magazines, music (Very fortunate in that I got some great exposure to the Windy City’s classic record stores, Thank You WAX TRAX, RECKLESS & Co.) & to a lesser extent live scenes - Limelight, Cabaret Metro, etc … There was of course the aforementioned radio as well, in addition to weird AM Novelties (Including bizarre “Christian” radio from the Deep South that was as much Voodoo as well) there were great collage radio stations (Thinking of WNUR here but many others). So, in many ways it was a well rounded exposure to the counter culture of the day. And in many ways it was particularly well rounded, and here’s why.
While this may not have been the case in larger cities on the coasts or in more developed “Scenes” (Although I suspect at that time it was true in many cases) the way that these things were existing, there was a lot of exposure to subjects that might have been ‘off topic’ for you - That is to say, you might have been strictly speaking a Goth, but you had to wade through the Punk & Hippie & Industrial stuff to find material that was relevant to your interests. Because at that time there were fewer or perhaps just more concentrated outlets for these things it required a deeper investment in terms of just getting to the material that was of interest to you. It was a given that many shows would end up being mixed bills with various styles of “Underground” music because the neighborhoods - culturally or counter culturally speaking - were just a lot more integrated or dependent on each other. I’m sure there’s a lot of scholarly thought about this & much more learned opinions on why this was the case, but for our purposes here I’m stating that as my given in the context of moving closer to the present time.
So in considering both Art Bell’s & Adam Parfrey’s legacies, we have to keep in mind that this was sort of the situation on the ground - Everything was tangled together and for good or for bad it required a lot more mechanical effort to find artifacts and / or the scene that was of interest to you. Raves were word of mouth or underground - Many of the advertisements for subversive reading materials were actually found in other subversive reading materials, which you kind of had to figure out how to acquire in the first place. Granted, once you were there it was much easier to locate that which was of specific interest to you & to narrow the field so to speak & focus on the areas you wanted.
But times changed, and so did technology. In our modern deeply connected word, the idea of “Underground” anything is to me a bit of an anachronism. Very few things exist without some sort of record, and usually there are several avenues available to discover these things. Now, I fully cop to being a product of my chronology and not having much of a clue about modern subcultures, but having said that I do know that I would be able to easily become something of an expert, or at the very least acquire a lot of information regarding them, in very short order.
As a result of this, there has been a natural progression to sort of a more insular subcultural landscape based on several factors - One is the ease & availability of information regarding that specific area, and the other is with the volume of information & sheer weight of it, a sort of closing off to much of what would be considered irrelevant to those particular interests. And while that seems like a very natural & even perhaps desirable progression, I’ve noticed some disturbing changes based on the way some of these things have manifested.
In the past, having been forced to co-exist with so many diverse and let’s face it often ideologically conflicted viewpoints, it was a requirement that one keep an open mind, in addition to that mindset being very much perpetuated by the outside world as well - The general label of FREAK sort of bought these different groups together, which would include everything from Nerd, LBGT, Punks, Hippies, Conspiracy Theorists & other associated oddballs - But as the world changed this unifying glue also became less present. It was no longer needed or perhaps even desirable to associate with members of these other groups or cliques, as the advent & ease of communication made it a given that one could find your specific flavor of scene while totally bypassing some of these associations with other outsiders. Which saved time & furthered the sense of community in these areas, as they were free now to focus on the specific concerns of their own genres, truly becoming cultures & communities of their own.
But for every pro, there is a con - I think we have seen some of the evidence of this in many areas of current events. For example, To put it briefly -
I REMEMBER WHEN FAKE NEWS WAS THE WEEKLY WORLD NEWS
(If you don’t understand this reference, a quick google search will clear it up for you ) - In the combining of the subcultures back in the day, there was a lighter feeling, since the scene wasn’t exclusive to your own interests it seemed easier to take things with a grain of salt, and it created not a sense of skepticism per se but perhaps more accurately of proportion. But like I say here with the Fake News quote, many conspiracy theories have now crossed into the realm of daylight, and are given exposure & air time (and for that matter, credulity) in a way that would have stunned Art Bell in his prime. There are many reasons for this, and in some ways as I outline above it’s a good thing. But in becoming culture, it has also developed a lot of the stratification that comes from changing from a less formal & more open setting, into a lifestyle and economic niche in many cases. There are rules & mores available to what might have been a deeply hidden underground scene - Even during my wildest fancies reading the Apocalypse Culture handbook I’d never have imagined that I’d see Cosplay or Furry conventions in my life. And there is much to be celebrated with that, and regardless of how one feels about it, you certainly cannot stop progress.
But at the risk of releasing my inner curmudgeon, I think we may have lost something important in this transition. In turning from a scene to a culture, it seems to me as if there has been a narrowing of focus which allows a quicker & deeper access into areas that are of interest to people specifically, but I think in creating this ease of access, combined with the sort of post modern “All Things being Equal in Value” it has created a dangerous system of gated communities which form the larger landscape of “Counter Cultural” these days - We see it in the news constantly now with conspiracy theories & their bastard children - Nazis, Neckbeards, Pizzagate, Incels, etc… These were all things that were sort of part of the landscape that I was aware of back in the day, but the pressure to co-exist within a larger underground - While it’s natural to look at one’s youth through rose colored glasses as a golden age, there were elements of all these things at the time I was young as well. I guess to put it as simply as I can, it was a matter of them being diluted by their proximity to everyone else in those subcultures - For example, I vividly recall the presence of member of C.A.S.H, a notorious (At that time called “Neo”)-Nazi gang. They would show up at punk shows & there would be a lot of tension but things would get sorted out, because frankly it was the only game in town. If the show or event got shut down, that was the end of it - At least for that moment. There was not so much on offer that you could easily find something else to replace it or if there was, it still required the mechanical process of sorting out what & where that was.
So this ease of information & creation of on-line forums certainly haven’t created the ugly parts of the underground landscape, but I would categorize them as having given them a lack of sunlight under which to fester. 4chan & Message boards as well as other aspects of social media have allowed for the like minded to reach out to the like minded with relatively little input or exposure to things outside of those groups. And while there are a lot of other things that factor into this, I think this has played a big part in the underground reaching the levels it has - While on one hand the most viable aspects of underground culture that have always sort of fascinated the mainstream have benefited from these tools & become more widespread & popular than ever, there has been a sort of opposite side of the coin effect in that the darker or more insular portions of the same have also found the nourishment they require to reach a robust community & culture of their own, free of the morals & input from meddlesome outsiders.
While I am a big believer in freedom of speech, and think that open & uncensored internet is a very valuable thing, It seems pretty obvious to me that they have played a large role in the cultural aspect of this - What has been able to has been absorbed by the mainstream & what hasn’t been absorbed by the mainstream have all found an effective communication / organizational tool to create a lively culture. And in that there is some peril.
None of us prosper in an echo chamber. While I am glad in a way that so many underground things are available to us, their availability & indeed often their success seem somehow suspect or even tainted. There’s a lot of misunderstanding & misappropriation that goes on when things get lowest common denominator sound bite by pop culture, and I think if you find these things by a quick web search you will be missing out on much of the context that was formerly provided by the mechanical aspect of having to sort these out & discovered them through basically trial & error - I suppose a critic might accuse me of sour grapes here, and to an extent you’d have a point, but there is the reality of the underground culture of this as well.
We’ve all heard horror stories of the lone psychopath finding an outlet for spewing bile online, creating evidence & even a fan base for their twisted world views. The image of a serial killer cutting a video promo or creating some kind of post has become a regular occurrence. There are multiple occasions of online suicides & indeed, whole sections of the internet where similar dark themes can be encouraged & even embraced.
Which is troubling. I guess the thing that I want to focus on here is that in losing the mechanical process of being neck & jowl with your fellow “freaks” and being able to just sort of bypass the pleasantries of forced co-existence, we’ve created a much more idealistic arena but in many ways more limited - If you don’t like something you come across - Hey, you don’t have to give it any air time whatsoever. You can just block it & move on if you haven’t already screened it out.
And to me, that is a dangerous & disturbing thing. While it’s foolish to pine for the “Good Old Days” and you sound like a damned fool if you get too misty eyed over what amounts to archaic technology or methods (Might as well cry about wanting to have leeching & frontal lobotomies come back) there is something to be said for an investment in the process of arriving at knowledge, of having had to go through a process to become part of a community as opposed to just raced right there - In my view it helps to construct & refine your beliefs & as wiser folks than me have said, you don’t learn anything by talking to people who agree with you.
But much of the landscape has become this - People on whatever side of the communities they are on, gathered tightly together in their circles & enclaves, sharing information that is tailored specifically to their interests, and viewing every other aspect of life from whatever lens they chose. Yes, it is effortless to be sure but in having lost the effort I think we have gained a lot more baggage - A baggage based on lack of critical insight, and of sort of learning curve applied knowledge.
And I think I have made my main point here, so I’ll bring things to a close - It’s less a matter of the underground of days gone by being super objective or inclusive (Because that certainly was not the case) but rather of in there being wider swaths of it you had to wander through, there was somehow things you gained beyond admission to your niche or grotto, something that was based on a deeper understanding of those around you and perhaps even your own relations to your beliefs. And while I celebrate the many advantages that these new ways create, I am also wary of the downside, which we see a lot of evidence around us. Otaku style isolation.
But - On the other hand, Maybe I’m just too old to “Get It” and have missed the real story - In many ways I hope that this is in fact the case, because I think the alternative presents some disturbing scenarios both in regard to subcultural isolation & also in terms of mainstream reaction in the sense of crack downs & censure & censorship, as well as other even harsher measures, that will be increasingly used to deal with such issues.
I certainly have no solutions to offer, and am really just kind of making an observation here - I think if we participate in these arenas it does good to be aware of some of the forces at play, and to keep in mind how things impact each other.
And with that, I bring this rant to a close. I welcome any thoughts or feedback you might have - Thank you for your kind attention, and All Hail to the misty nostalgia of subcultures from the days of yore ~
Neal D. Retke