The Zine Editor Who Helped Me Through the Hardest Times of My Life
Can you remember the first time you were uncool? Most people won't remember themselves like that. Age and nostalgia dull the peaks and canyons of the past, making them look from a distance like gentle, bountiful plains.
When I first picked up a copy of Ben Is Dead in 1989, I knew I was violently and constitutionally uncool.
For 11 years -- more than 30 issues published from 1988 through 1999 -- Ben Is Dead was the zine that offered a sure and brilliant glimpse into the then-mystifying world of alternative culture. Founded by Deborah "Darby" Romeo and featuring a revolving cast of writers and artists, each seeming more crassly erudite than the last, it felt indispensable. I picked up as many as I could, as often as I could. I still remember all the places I found them -- Aron's Records. Amok Books. Record Rover. 12" Fun in Ventura.
They're all gone now.
Reading it didn't make me feel that I was stupid, oddly enough. Instead, I knew that reading it cover to cover would counter the effects of the uncool, expanding my consciousness atom by invaluable cultural atom.
Ben Is Dead turned me on to artists and phenomena that were at once fascinating and terrifying. Scatological country-punk GG Allin (he threw his shit at the audience, apparently). Performance artist and occasional L.A. Weekly employee Ron Athey. Japanese noise music. Junk-culture doyenne Suckdog. Ragged death-blues troubadour Carla Bozulich. The Dada-meets-Fluxus antics of the L.A. Cacophony Society. Artists toiling at the absolute fringes of experience.
Ben Is Dead was, for me, the only place I could really read about what was going on in the world. The June after the L.A. Riots, it published an issue that was stuffed to bursting with reportage that critiqued the media as much as the violence itself. All those newsmen with their different agendas. It praised KABC-7's Henry Alfaro ("Except for Henry, none of these people have ever had to live outside of Beverly Hills or the mall") and compared Harvey Levin, in his overly dramatic, diving-behind-cars-while-reporting for KCBS-2, to Rick Moranis on SCTV. "All these people are just walking around like normal and Harvey Levin is rolling around under the car. [They] should have the Harvey Levin Scholarship, give it to, like, Harvard University to teach the Harvard graduates how to hide behind police cars."
I committed these quotes to memory. Ben Is Dead just seemed so caustic and knowing. When TMZ eventually came to prominence, I tuned in and saw Harvey Levin there in the staff room -- holding court, all those young kids trying their damnedest to bring a worthy tribute to the king -- and all I could see was Levin diving behind those cars. Ben Is Dead put everything into perspective.
And then Darby disappeared.
I never knew her while the zine was operating. (I wouldn't know where to go to meet her. And even if I did -- what would I say?) But she had a Ben Is Dead hotline. An answering machine. I'd call every so often and give her some words of support. Thank her for turning me on to The Fall.
Telephone calls to nowhere.
So Ben Is Dead died. A decade passed until I found her again -- on Facebook, of all places. I learned she was back in L.A. to publicize her book with Kerin Morataya, Confessions of a Harry Potter Addict. Last year, in the back of the Rico Adair Gallery in Valley Village, at a party making T-shirts out of discarded clothes, I finally met Darby: willowy and tanned and goofy all at once. She didn't seem the type at all.
So what happened to her? She said she'd dropped out of everything to spend time with Carlos Castaneda, the legendary late 20th-century mystic whose demise was as mysterious as his life. From there, she took a sojourn across the Midwest with Cometbus publisher Aaron Cometbus, and then moved to her current home, in Hawaii, where she recovered over a year after having her back broken by a clueless noob surfer.
Over the next few weeks, I asked her about how it all started. The titular Ben was French. She met him when she was a "wannabe punk-rock girl.
"I was in college at the time, so it was one of those summer-abroad things for credit," she recalls. "I was at the Sorbonne -- and then I met a French punk-rock boy named Ben. Met him in Paris at the fountains at the Château d'Eau, where you get pommes frites and chestnuts and bloody sausages. He didn't even speak English, I didn't even speak French -- so we walked around with dictionaries."
When she returned to the States, so did he, and she married him so he could get his green card. Ben Is Dead stemmed from her job at Grey Advertising. ("You know the 'other agency' they're always talking about in Mad Men?" she says. "That's the one I worked for.")
She wanted to keep in touch with what was really interesting in underground culture -- to stop from stagnating -- and also, admittedly, to get into shows, get free records and meet people.
Her marriage was in trouble. Drugs, she says. "Ben eventually became a little ... he went over the top," she explains, matter-of-factly and not the slightest bit ruefully. "The name of the magazine eventually became symbolic for the situation: Ben is dead -- to me."
Then she met Castaneda. "I met somebody, I won't say his name, who was kind of mentoring me and he was really into Carlos Castaneda ... and this is the first time I've talked about this in any interview, and it's probably the last time."
She got into Tensegrity, Castaneda's devised sequence of ancient meditative movements. What's a spiritual movement without a little exercise? From 1994 until Castaneda died, in 1998, she sold books at Tensegrity workshops.
"Part of the reason I pulled away from Ben Is Dead was that ... he was amazing. My experience with him was amazing," she recalls. "And that's not to say it wasn't very ... cultish. It was a cult! And we were in it! I didn't think about him as a person at all. He knew the bullshit going on in your brain; he could tear you apart in a second. Everything was teaching you something. You always had to be paying 100,010 percent attention to everything -- and he would ask you about shit. You had to be paying attention. If you were just schlepping through life, just getting by, he would just wipe the floor with you."
Ultimately, though, it was money that killed the zine. The magazine-distribution companies, which put Ben Is Dead in stores like Tower Records and Barnes & Noble and collected proceeds from the sales, went into bankruptcy -- but not before allegedly ripping the zine off to the tune of $20,000.
"That's the end of the magazine, when you're not getting $20,000!" Romeo says, still a little exasperated. "They didn't care because we were nobody. We were nothing. That sealed the deal."
She decamped to Hawaii, where her new life began in a deeply auspicious way. "I walked up to the lava, I squatted down ... and I got my period! Squirting blood everywhere out of my anatomy! And then I realized I was missing that fire energy in my life, so I ended up moving back to Hawaii in 2000."
She becomes suddenly wistful -- but not for Ben Is Dead. "I think Carlos would have liked surfing." Romeo pauses. "If I could go back in time, I'd take Carlos Castaneda surfing."
Wistful, random, knowing -- it is not, altogether, a thought that would seem out of place in the late, great Ben Is Dead. The zine argued that you should follow your own star. Because, as the writing in the margin of one issue said, "Remember: It can always be worse."Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.