Punk Godfather: Jack Rabid
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it takes inspired obsession to spend 30+ years keeping up with the creation and chronicling of punk as an ever-mutating musical art form.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Barely taking time to say “hello” after our first handshake, the rail-thin Jack Rabid vibed a certain Lower East Side cool, equal parts Ratso Rizzo and Sid Vicious. He bustled his bag of records under his arm and made for his apartment with us in tow. It was 1981 and the Lower East Side of Manhattan was in full bloom: junkies, hustlers, hookers, stick-up kids, and guys from Jersey hitting Houston Street and getting beaten for their cash in doomed drug buys. On the regular.
Rabid had recently transplanted himself from Summit, New Jersey, to the land of exceedingly cheap rents in five-floor walk-up, cold-water flats, and at the time absolutely nothing indicated that this guy in a black thrift-store suit jacket, pegged black slacks, and wielding a whole lot of edge would go on to be one of the most long-lasting zine publishers and alternative music tastemakers in the country.
Wow, I found that really empowering — everyone was welcome, as long as you loved this stuff.
– Jack Rabid
You see when we first met, Rabid had just begun what started as a fanzine, The Big Takeover, named after a Bad Brains song of the same name. It was hand-scribbled, laid out using tape and scissors, and had a damned near obsessive take on punk rock and hardcore music. This underground magazine had a mission that extended beyond simple publishing: Pre-Internet, it was able to connect active and hungry seekers with artists, musical and otherwise, who were eager for ears and eyes.
And it’s still doing precisely that more than 30 years later. Even if he may have never reached more than 11,000 people with any issue to date, those 11,000 readers were hot. Super-enthusiastic and just driven. Sort of like Jack himself. Who, just like on that late spring day, never seemed to stop moving.
As early as high school, Rabid teamed up with his friend Dave Stein, who had the idea to publish a magazine journaling not just musical doings on the Lower East Side but music that moved them no matter where it came from. And though Stein left after only one issue of The Big Takeover, Rabid was, well, rabid about it all.
As a kid, Rabid and his klatch were collecting records like crazy. “A good half-dozen of us got into punk rock there in 1977-78, when we were in 9th and 10th grades,” says Rabid. “Back when there were very, very few punk rockers in the suburbs. Whenever we spotted one, in fact, visible from the crazy clothes … we’d get excited and run over and accost them.” It wasn’t long before they were pushing out beyond the confines of suburbia and into Lower Manhattan’s now-historic music venues, CBGBs down in the Bowery and Max’s Kansas City right above 14th street.
”We’d get the Village Voice club listings each week,” Rabid recalls. “And all but read them with a microscope.”
The magic sauce in making the scene as magnetic as it was?
“I am still, and always will be, proud of punk as being a haven for who you were, not the other B.S. that seemed to rule life for normal people, even in the commercial rock scene. To me, it was the first rock scene I’d ever heard of filled with musicians who were women, open gays, Asians, blacks, transgenders — you name it, and in the crowd too. Wow, I found that really empowering — everyone was welcome, as long as you loved this stuff.”
This all has got to be worth a little bit more than just a few faded tattoos.
– Harley Flanagan
Today, Rabid has about 30 volunteers working with him on a folio that started out at 20 to 30 pages, got as high as 300 pages about 10 years ago, and is currently stretching the tape at 168 pages per issue. He’s expanded into digital as well, along with a record label. The magazines ship every spring and fall, just as they have since 1983 when they made the issues bigger, but pulled back from a quarterly publishing schedule. In this day and age of declining ad budgets and dwindling editorial pages, any magazine that’s running 168 pages? Well worthy of serious consideration. And not at all a bad deal at $20 for four weighty issues.
“We haven’t been real pretentious and über-self-impressed about it,” says Rabid. ”But I say we truly love music … and the ‘music with heart’ we trumpet is as valid and crucial an art form as the other forms of art that people admire, when it is done extremely well.”
The only other chronicle of and from the Lower East Side — arguably the birthplace of punk — was John Holstrom and Legs McNeil’s Punk Magazine. “Invest in Punk Magazine? Who did? I’m still waiting for someone to invest in Punk Magazine,” says McNeil, whose own shift from magazines to books underscores the thanklessness of magazine publishing as a means of economic solvency. Punk or not though, this is still the publishing business. Which is why The Big Takeover is still taking over: It’s not going broke.
Harley Flanagan, one of the godfathers of Lower East Side punk and founder of the band the CroMags, is a not-so-unlikely supporter of both the magazine and mission. “This all has got to be worth a little bit more than just a few faded tattoos,” says Flanagan, whose exploits alone could fill a few magazines. “And whatever it is, yo, documenting the music in ways that are not musical is more than valuable — and Rolling Stone is not about that anymore. And even if they were, they’d not be paying attention like [Jack] does.”
“I don’t mean it’s all altruism,” Rabid says of the drive, joy and publishing desire to keep on keeping on. Especially now that he shares his life with a wife and two kids, splitting time between New York and Helena, Montana. “I have to run a small business and I’ve been able to eke out the most modest of living from it. But hopefully people support us with relish in the way that people value a really good book shop that truly loves books, or record shop that shares their passions with the customers.”
So with a new issue featuring The Dum Dum Girls on the cover about to hit, Rabid has much more than a good sense of his place in space. ”I’m really grateful — and want to reach our readers who share an aesthetic of deeply creative, human, interesting, exciting, funny or even sometimes courageous music.”
“I tell you what, no lie, I know of a half dozen marriages that have resulted from people meeting over our magazine. That really amuses me. I like to think the true love of music and of artful communication is a great thing to base a life on, as it’s expansionary, not nerdville. It’s the means to start talking.”