I was an impressionable kid. For instance, I was very moved by the “let’s put on a show!” ethos of “The Little Rascals” (aka “Our Gang”) shorts – which were broadcast every afternoon on Chicago UHF TV. Thanks to Spanky, Alfalfa, and company, I was forever trying to put on a show in my own backyard, always unsuccessfully, due to the fact that there were not enough fellow rascals in my neighborhood to stage a full-blown vaudeville extravaganza, or even to serve as a suitable audience, notwithstanding the tireless efforts of my long-suffering (and sole) sidekick, Jeffie.

I can’t remember if it was “Our Gang” or some other bane of Newton Minow that provoked me to try to start up my own neighborhood “newspaper.” Like my attempts at theater, my paper never got off the ground, even though I had found a really kick-ass place in the woods for a secret hideout, er, editorial headquarters.

Failures are learning experiences, and should be appreciated, as such.

I stayed interested in the newspaper business. After a semester of gonzo sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll-soaked fun as the news editor of my community college weekly (the day we learned we were being evicted from our little hash-smoke-redolent trailer on the edge of campus, and were to be moved into a glass-walled fishbowl in the midst of the lair of our nemesis, the faculty director of the student government – dude was Dean Wormer with a cheesy mustache and smarmy grin – the editorial board got together, got wasted, and trashed the bejesus out of our beloved offices and spray painted obscene cartoons all over the hammer-and-boot-pocked wood-esque-paneled walls – good times) I transferred to one of my home state’s top-four “directional” universities and immediately joined the staff of the student newspaper.

I think I lasted two days. Maybe three. Details are unusually fuzzy in my memory, but something about my first assignment pissed me off, and I said some things to a couple of editors that made me unwelcome in their very stuffy and Omega-Theta-Pi-House-like home. Which was actually a house. A house full of very dull people.

I was a journalism major, so I had to go to school with these people every day. These student newspaper jerks. Ptui. Before too long, it bugged me that I felt all resentful and hateful toward them, but they didn’t even know I was alive.

Also, I was getting pretty bored. So, long story short, I started an underground newspaper and floundered around confusedly for a while as a somewhat controversial figure on campus.

Around that time, I was also engaged with a couple of my friends in a series of pranks that involved posting Xeroxed leaflets around campus. That’s about the simplest way to put it. Some of them were overtly political, some were aggressive rounds in various petty personal conflicts, some were inside jokes that made no sense at all. I got as much attention, in the aggregate, from those 8.5-x-11-inch flyers as the tabloid-sized newspaper I was publishing on a sporadic basis in print runs of up to 5,000 copies.

Speaking of the tabloid. The paper was a ton of work. But worse than that, it cost money. We got some of the money by selling ads, but our main source of revenue was

WE PUT ON A SHOW!

But I’ve gotten plenty of mileage out of that subplot elsewhere. And it got tiring, and I had to give it up. After five blockbuster issues, enough was about enough for the big underground campus newspaper.

Meanwhile, I was still littering bulletin boards and lampposts all over Compass Point State U. with obnoxious posters, just for fun. On one fateful run to the Kinko’s Copies store on campus, one afternoon, I got some surprising advice from the guy working behind the counter.

I handed him the original I wanted copied, which as I recall was dominated by a portrait of Charles Manson, and he offered to show me how to use the Xerox machine to print  “secret” messages onto it, in black-on-black, which you could only read it you held it up to the light at an angle.

Lots of people met John R that way, at a Kinko’s. John R was kind of a drifting hobo warrior on a meandering xerographic railway.

During the whole newspaper run, people had been telling me I should go smaller, make fewer, do a photocopied newsletter. I wouldn’t listen. Photocopied publications just weren’t real to me. It had to be mechanically reproduced. It had to be industrial.

John R cut through that. John R could take a photocopy machine – which I previously had perceived to be a mundane, soulless piece of machinery, certainly with no part to play in the creative process – and play it like a musical instrument, in visual terms. John R knew how to fiddle with a photocopy machine in about a million ways to make it do weird and beautiful things in toner on a sheet of paper.

And nobody could make him knock it off. No one could say no, or quit and leave him hanging, or get in the way, or turn people against him. It didn’t cost him any money at all.

To be continued.

Stronger Than Dirt Pete Moss is one of the many aliases used by a Tom Long of Chicago, Illinois (not to be confused with other Tom Longs of Chicago or elsewhere). Tom was active in xerox zine culture from the late ’80s through the early ’00s under the Colicky Baby Records and Tapes imprint, and several examples of Tom’s mail art periodicals are filed deeply and safely away at the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections Department in Iowa City and the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York City. Every so often he posts things at http://colicky.blogspot.com.

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