December 14, 2014

‘Zines and the JFK Assassination


In the dusty and long-forgotten pre-internet age, instead of websites people put out ‘zines. Back in the eighties and nineties they did, anyway. Little homemade magazines occasionally professionally printed but usually just Xeroxed and stapled together at the kitchen table before being distributed by hand and through local indie record stores. There were thousands of them, produced by people with every conceivable obsession. There were punk ‘zines (lots and lots of those), political ‘zines, vegetarian ‘zines, humor ‘zines, gay ‘zines, fetish ‘zines, comic ‘zines, personal ‘zines, religious ‘zines, anti-religious ‘zines (there were far more of those than the former), poetry ‘zines, and ‘zines that defied any easy description. Most never made it beyond the borders of the local community in which they were copied and stapled together. Most didn’t last longer than two or three issues, but a few rare birds rolled jauntily along for years, some even growing into actual magazines. Then when the internet came along, well that was the end of that.

            First one I ever saw was the Rev. Norb’s Sick Teen. That was back in eighty-two I think. Eight pages of over-condensed text, drawings, captioned clip art, jokes, reviews, and assorted insane (but brilliantly hilarious) nonsense you needed a magnifying glass to read thoroughly. Norb handed me a copy in Mrs. Appel’s English class, and to this day I still consider it the greatest of them all. Lazy sod that I was I never created my own ‘zine. Grinch and I toyed with the idea of putting out something we were going to call the Nihilist Workers Party Journal of Taxidermy Criticism, but it never got beyond a mock-up of the cover of the first issue.

            The ‘zine world was absolutely chaotic in the truest and most democratic sense. Even more than punk rock, given their broad scope homegrown ‘zines were the perfect embodiment of a nationwide explosion of a DIY sensibility. With so many titles swirling around, appearing and disappearing, coming out of every fifth bedroom in the country it seemed, it was impossible to get any kind of handle on the undulating scheme of just what the hell was going on out there. In an effort to give it all at least some vague semblance of cohesion, a fellow named Mike Gunderloy began producing a ‘zine called Factsheet Five, which would be a monthly roundup of what was available at that moment—little capsule descriptions and reviews of hundreds and hundreds of titles, along with contact info should you want to get ahold of something that was only available in Arcata, CA, say. In short order Factsheet Five became the monthly bible of the ‘zine world, and one that gave little ‘zines once read by six people a hint of national attention.

            I no longer recall exactly how this happened, but in the early nineties, shortly after I moved to Brooklyn, Gunderloy sold the magazine (which by then had become an actual magazine complete with articles, columns, and interviews) to Hudson Luce, a distant relative of Henry Luce. Luce was a very well-read and enthusiastic man with what sounded to be a heavy northern Louisiana accent. He had lots of ideas for Factsheet Five and among them (this is the part I still don’t understand) was the idea of making me the columns editor. There was of course no pay involved. He didn’t want me to actually write anything for the magazine—just edit the columns. But it was Factsheet Five, it was a big deal, so confused as I was and even though I’d never heard of this Hudson Luce character and wasn’t sure why he contacted me, I immediately agreed. I’d be working with a few columnists I recognized from other ‘zines, which was cool (though once I started seeing their raw copy I realized they either had extremely talented editors over at those other places or were simply turning in third-tier work). I’d also be editing someone who was writing about experimental poetry for some reason and another guy writing about folk music. I had the feeling they’d all been hand-picked by Luce, and that more than a few were friends of his.

            But then came the kicker. Luce had an unpublished manuscript by Kerry Thornley he wanted to serialize over five or six issues. It would be my job to edit it into some kind of presentable form.

            In a nutshell for those who aren’t JFK assassination obsessives, Thornley was friends with Lee Harvey Oswald when they were both in the Marines in the late fifties. He later became a minor but fascinating player in the conspiracy game when Jim Garrison accused him of being part of a New Orleans-based plot to kill the president. After his run-in with Garrison, Thornley began developing other, increasingly zany conspiratorial ideas of his own, which he wrote and revised and published throughout the seventies, eighties and early nineties until his death. The 300-page manuscript Luce sent to me to clean up was merely the latest incarnation, but still something I considered a very important piece of underground cultural history.

            Apart from stories about his time with Oswald, the book focused on his meetings with two mysterious men in the early sixties. These two, who appeared unexpectedly on a number of different occasions, engaged Thornley in a wide-ranging conversation about several arcane topics (from extraterrestrials and the ancient Egyptians to cosmology, spirituality, science, and magic), but somehow always brought the discussion back around to killing Kennedy. Only later would he recognize one of the men as one of the tramps picked up near the grassy knoll after the assassination, and later still further recognize that same man as notorious CIA operative and novelist E. Howard Hunt. The nut was that Hunt organized the assassination and fired the shot from the grassy knoll.

            I’ve never been a true believer in either the accepted history nor any of the dozens of well-documented conspiracy theories, but I have been fascinated by all of them since childhood, and Thornley’s theory seemed no crazier or more implausible then the rest, especially considering what I’d come to know about Mr. Hunt. It wasn’t the first time Hunt had been fingered as a Dealy Plaza triggerman.

            Because he was homeless and sleeping on assorted park benches around Atlanta at the time, I only had a chance to talk to Thornley once (I was instructed to call a pay phone where I was told he’d be waiting). He was a little jittery, a little paranoid. He had his reasons I suppose, and I didn’t blame him for that. Given he’d been involved with underground newspapers for so long he saw a magazine with national distribution as a real step up. He was just happy he’d be getting his story out there again. Thornley was a very nice fellow, much sharper than he might let on even though he still had more than his share of the hippie in him.

            Then what had been a kicker at first became a kick in the throat. I was having lots of fun working on the manuscript (which was surprisingly clean given it had been written by a homeless paranoid) when Luce called again. It seems he’d been possessed by the spirit of his legendary forebear and was suddenly paranoid himself about possible legal retaliation should we run Thornley’s book as written. After all, he made no bones about using real names and accusing some very well known and very powerful people of being involved in the murder of a US president. Some of these people were still alive, were still working in Washington, might take offense, and likely wouldn’t think twice about crushing us all like worms before they had their second cup of coffee in the morning. That was his thinking anyway.

            So I got my first taste of what I’d be running into myself later once I collided headlong with the libel lawyers at my publishers. I was instructed to set about changing all the names and locations in the book. I did this reluctantly, and as expected the results were disastrous. Even though the changed names were an easily crackable code (E. Howard Hunt became C. Frederick Foxx) what had started as a borderline believable conspiracy memoir suddenly became a novel, and a not very good one at that.

            I was about two-thirds of the way through mangling Thornley’s manuscript when Luce called again. It seemed the magazine publishing business was a bit more complicated than he’d bargained for, so he’d just sold Factsheet Five again, this time for a dollar, to some guy in San Francisco. In other words, I was out as much as he was. Before the transfer of power took place, however, he did manage to get one issue out, complete with cover art by Tuli Kupferberg, but without the first excerpt from Thornley’s book, and without bothering to include my name anywhere in the masthead. Yes, well. Looking back, I’m not sure if I’m sorry about any of it or not. I just wish I still had that Thornley manuscript here someplace.


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