The letters came from across the country and around world.
From Bakersfield, Calif.; Tipp City, Ohio; Freehold, N.J.; Lima, Peru; Newcastle, England. They came to a 17-year-old kid living in Arlington who in 1983 decided to start a punk rock fanzine.
“Here’s a stamp,” someone wrote on a letter mailed from New York City. “Please send me a DC Riot.”
It’s signed, “Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth.” He’s 99th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists.
In the end, Malcolm “Mike” Ross didn’t call his ’zine DC Riot, but Brand New Age. With the help of two fellow students at Arlington’s H-B Woodlawn, the teenager produced a pair of issues in 1984. Those two issues — and the ephemera and correspondence associated with them — are a heady time capsule of the early days of D.C. punk. Mike’s mother, Judy Tinelli, recently donated it all to the D.C. Punk Archive at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
“They’d Xerox it at my brother’s office,” Judy said by phone from Easton, Md., where she just moved from Falls Church, Va. “He didn’t know how many copies they were making. He thought it was just two or three.”
Who knows how many they actually ran off, but Mike sent them all over the world.
The first issue was 16 pages. It had a photograph of an electric chair on the cover and included an interview with the band Minor Threat.
“How long do you plan to stay together?” Mike asked the members.
Lyle Preslar: There’s not a plan on that.
Ian MacKaye: Eventually someone’s going to want to go.
Jeff Nelson: Our fights will become physical someday.
Brian Baker: The band will break up when Ian is no longer big enough to beat us up.
Issue No. 2 was 36 pages, and included interviews with Husker Du and Government Issue.
After graduating from Woodlawn, Mike moved to New York to study film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He died in 1987 in a fall from the Williamsburg Bridge, which he’d been climbing on with friends.
“Being stupid,” Judy sighed. He was 21.
It’s hard now for Judy to imagine Mike approaching 50. “He’s been gone as long as he was alive,” she said.
But the young Mike comes through in the pile of paper neatly stacked in front of me on the library’s third floor. There are multiple copies of the endearingly crude ’zine, handbills for shows, black-and-white negatives and contact sheets, a plastic bag full of the sort of buttons we’d pin to our lapels before heading to the 9:30 club: the Clash, Wire, the Damned . . .
Most captivating is the correspondence from would-be subscribers, voices crying out for community in those pre-Internet days. The ’zine jungle drum network worked this way: You’d promise to send a copy of your ’zine to the editors of another ’zine if they would print your address. If you didn’t do your own publication, you’d send a couple of postage stamps.
The letters bespeak a longing to know what’s happening in other places — and to share what’s happening in your place.
“If you could keep me abreast of gigs down there I’d really appreciate it,” wrote the creator of a ’zine from Trenton, N.J., called No Place to Hide. The editor of an English ’zine called A Feeble Effort wrote, “If you wanna hear any U.K. sounds just send a blank tape over and I’ll be glad to fill it up for you. Cheers mate.”
What was Mike like? I ask Judy. He was handsome, she said. He had red hair. He was very smart, though he didn’t always show it in traditional ways.
“Ninety-ninth percentile in SATs and 2.2 in grades,” Judy laughed.
She was the dutiful mother, dropping Mike off at nightclubs and picking him up, even if she didn’t know Black Flag from Black Sabbath.
“My kind of music was Frank Sinatra,” she said. “What did I know?”
Mike lived for the music, said his co-editor Stafford Mather, 48, calling from San Diego. “He turned me on to a lot of punk rock in high school. I went from AC/DC and Van Halen right into D.C. hard-core. He and I and my friend Bob used to go to shows every weekend.”
That’s Bob Davis, another Woodlawn student who worked on the ’zine. Stafford is a chef now. He hasn’t seen Bob in 30 years. “Last I heard, he was driving a cab in D.C.,” he said.
The Punk Class of 1984 is middle-aged now. The suburban kids who once leapt into the mosh pit are dads and moms. They’d be happy to tell you what it was like back then. Or you can go to the library and go back in time, back to what promised to be a Brand New Age, an age that Mike Ross lives in forever.
Why should the National Zoo name the new giant panda cub after Elvis Presley? Well, Alexandria’s Michele Webb wrote: “Have you ever watched a panda walk away from you? That cute little twitch is awfully reminiscent of an Elvis hip wiggle!”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.