A decade ago, free stacks of the counterculture magazine began materializing at coffee shops, bookstores, nightclubs and galleries across the country. These unsuspecting little newspapers were packed with fantastic reads — articles for, by and/or about rockers, radicals, astrologists, herbalists, poets, punks, believers, debunkers, cooks, comedians, cartoonists and Dolly Parton. But in 2008, as the great recession sent so many indie publications into death spasms, the magazine went kaput.
Four years later, Arthur has risen. “It’s good to be alive again, doing something that we love,” writes editor and co-publisher Jay Babcock in the magazine’s new issue, which features a definitive interview with late outsider guitarist Jack Rose and an almost hallucinogenic appreciation of Waylon Jennings’s finest album, “Dreaming My Dreams,” by Stewart Voegtlin.
And then there’s the biggest surprise: You can actually hold this thing — a beautiful, 16-page broadsheet — in your hands.
“Print is what our writers and artists want to do,” says Babcock, 42, over the phone from his home in Joshua Tree, Calif. “And it’s what I want to publish. Print is the first thing for us — making a physical artifact and all that that means.”
To a self-described “magazine freak,” it means a lot. Babcock started Arthur in 2002, hoping to create a publication that wasn’t tethered by trends, advertising, publicity cycles and all the hullabaloo that compromise so many glossy culture publications. The magazine’s mission was to “try to find the smartest people you know who aren’t already being heard and give them a megaphone,” Babcock says. “And sometimes those were weird, fringy people.”
Issue No. 10 from May 2004 feels pretty definitive. There were profiles of freak-folkies Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, a personal advice column from blues guitarist T-Model Ford, a pie recipe from songwriter Will Oldham, an interview with Godzilla (fictitious, probably), a screed against the ecological toll of mobile-phone technology and a cartoon bashing then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
“Those early issues, they got real political, real fast,” says Babcock. “We thought, ‘We might as well do what’s responsible’ . . . So Arthur No. 5 was a full-on anti-U.S., anti-empire, antiwar issue. And no one was doing that.”
No one was doing a lot of what Arthur did. Vice magazine came to prominence around the same time with the same distribution model — free copies plunked down around town — but its infamously acidic brand of hipster nihilism consistently made Arthur look smarter, weirder and more humane.
Because it was a free, independently distributed print object, Arthur also became a signpost for places that were cool. If readers wanted a box of magazines, Babcock would drop them in the mail. Then they’d take copies to their favorite hangouts.
Babcock still is proud of that approach. “It was a completely grass-roots, proprietary distribution system that got around all the corruption, and inefficiencies, and wastefulness of mainstream distribution,” he says.
Now, the distribution system is different. Fans can order Arthur online for $5 a pop. By keeping circulation low and actually charging for it, Babcock says he’s already in the black on this new issue — good news after Arthur’s first run put him six figures deep in credit card debt.
And while he’s not sure when the next issue will be published, he knows what readers can expect. “More pages,” he says. “And more wildness.”