In the late 1970s, Tesco Vee was an elementary-school teacher in Michigan who led something of a secret life, first as a fan of punk rock and then as the frontman of one of the most notorious and hilarious bands of that era: the Meatmen (due this afternoon at Twist & Shout for a book signing and then tonight at the Marquis). At roughly the same time he started the band, Vee and his friend Dave Stimson started one of the most influential music zines of all time with Touch and Go.
The pages of Touch and Go were filled with the kind of opinionated rhetoric and willingness to take it all in that should inform most music journalism but often doesn't. The zine ultimately ended, but the record label it spawned became one of the most respected of independent labels of its time, releasing some of the most important albums of the '80s, '90s and '00s.
We spoke with Vee recently, before he left on tour, about the climate for a nascent punk-rock fan and musician in Michigan, the Meatmen covers album and how Touch and Go came to be reissued in one volume.
Westword: When you were starting Touch and Go and going to see punk shows way back then, as a teacher, did you have to, in any way, hide that from the people with whom you worked?
Tesco Vee: I did. I don't know if I had to, but I thought that was a good thing to do. Like I've admitted in interviews that actually ran in a local Lansing alternative paper, I did print it on the copy machine at school. So it wasn't exactly something I wanted them to know about.
I was dancing around it and trying to keep the two worlds from colliding, for sure. It's even worse now than it was even then in terms of political correctness and that kind of thing. But I'm a telephone man now, so I don't think it's as big of a deal. I'm not impacting the youth of America like I used to. Except through my music, of course.
Growing up where you were and living where you were, how did you find out about the stuff that was very different from what most people were listening to at that time?
I've always been a fan of music. I had subscriptions to various music magazines throughout the '70s. When the whole underground, whatever you want to call it, independent, punk thing happened, I was at the newsstand looking at the music magazines, and there was Melody Maker with the Bromley Contingent on the cover -- Johnny Rotten and all of that. That was like, "What the hell is going on?"
So I bought it and started reading about the U.K. happenings. I'd already been a fan of what you might call "proto-punk" like the Dictators, the Stooges and that kind of stuff. Early- to mid-'70s stuff that was a little left of center that you could call punk. So it was just a natural progression, and I started to read about it mostly through English magazines -- you know, Trouser Press -- and started to realize there was a lot going on, and eventually I had to write about it myself.
It was definitely through going to the local music stand and going to the music section, and I could shift away from Led Zeppelin or Yes to something a little bit more exciting. Not that I don't like Led Zeppelin and Yes, but something with more of an edge to it.
Obviously, no one called that music "proto-punk," because punk hadn't quite happened yet. How did you people talk about that back then?
It was just rock. I felt weird that the Dictators got signed to a major label, because it was so nutty, and Dick [Manitoba] had those bits: "I could be baskin' in the sun in Florida! This is just a hobby for me!" I just thought it was hilarious because these goofballs from New York, Long Island, or wherever the hell they were from, got a major-label contract. The music had a sense of humor, and that was big deal to me, because a lot of music was way too serious.
I don't know what we called it. We just loved it. When we saw the Dictators, it was here at an ice arena. It was the Dictators, the Stars and another band. But the Dictators stood out. A lot of bands came to Lansing back in the day, and we don't get a whole lot now. I just called it fun and different and not so serious, and I'm still a fan. That's good that you can pigeonhole and file it away -- it is what it is.
You started the Meatmen in 1979. You had some pretty funny song titles, like "One Down, Three to Go." Did you get any hate mail for that sort of thing?
Not really. Sure, some people don't take it well. Not as much as I would have hoped. When you're writing incendiary stuff like that, you're kind of secretly hoping there's a big to-do about it because there's no such thing as bad publicity. Well, there is, but that's how the saying goes. But I was definitely going for shock value.
I wanted to have a punk band. I wanted it to be funny, and I wanted to get people's attention -- thus "Crippled Children Suck." It was definitely a concerted effort to get people's attention just by saying the most outrageous things I could fathom when I was under the influence of marijuana -- which is how I wrote most of that music, if you can't tell. "That guy's high on dope!" as my dad would say.
A couple of years ago, you put out that album Cover the Earth...
It's a reference to the Sherwin-Williams logo with the earth and some paint dripping down it. It was my attempt at double entendre, to do something clever. Doing a cover album is not a new concept, but I'm a big fan of music, and I got a chance to pay homage to some of my heroes like Black Randy, Thin Lizzy and "Big Bad John," by Jimmy Dean, and the songs I enjoyed when I grew up.
You covered ABBA for this album?
Yeah, because I've been a big ABBA fan since the early '70s, whenever I first heard "Waterloo" blasting through my AM radio and I was like, "Wow, this is some good stuff!" I was way ahead of the curve on the ABBA worship. There's no denying they set the world of pop music on its ear.
Did doing Touch and Go help you get in contact with some of the other people involved in the punk or underground scene at the time, like the Necros and so forth?
Oh, yeah. The zine was kind of how you connected the dots. It was how people in other parts of the country found out about you. It was just so Pony Express back then. It was driving to record stores and ordering records through the mail. It was slow going in the old analog days, before the Internet came along.
I think the guy that understands how it all went down the best was Ian MacKaye. They did an interview with him in that Touch & Go book that came out. He has a really good grasp on how people connected. It was just through old-fashioned letter-writing and putting out records and fanzines.
You just felt like you were part of something really big and really exciting, and you felt like you had to write about it. I've always enjoyed writing, and I was a fan of music, so it was natural that I started my own zine and met a lot of people that I know to this day.
What do you remember about meeting John Brannon for the first time?
I don't know if I remember meeting John Brannon. It might have been when we first did the Process of Elimination EP. We recorded that on a Saturday in East Lansing. I don't have a photographic memory for dates and times, but he was definitely, and continues to be, the Mayor of Detroit Hardcore. He's kind of a lasting testament to what that whole thing stood for.
The Michigan scene was kind of more spread out than the D.C. scene, which was more centrally located, even though it drew from the suburbs. Touch and Go was in Lansing; we had the Fix here, the Necros in Maumee, Negative Approach and other bands in Detroit. So calling it the "Detroit hardcore scene" is a bit of a misnomer, but we had to call it something, so that's what we called it.
That compilation book, Touch and Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine '79-'83, that came out last year -- was that something you instigated, or did someone approach you to do that?
Steve Miller, who was the singer of the Fix, was also a journalist, and we were talking more than five years ago about how we needed to put this out as a book. We took some pages, the ones we thought were a good treatment, and sent them off to various publishers. We got some interest, but I think once their legal department got ahold of it and saw the scandalous and scurrilous images -- like Farah Fawcett with cum bursting out of her ears -- got cold feet.
Eventually Bazillion Points, kind of a boutique publisher from New York that had done a lot of heavy-metal books like Sound of the Beast -- they did the Hellhammer book -- they were the perfect fit. They didn't limit our page count. It's 500-some pages. They've been very supportive, and we've already sold out the first two pressings. We've sold 8,000 of them since the book came out at the end of last June.
In the publishing world these days, that's a pretty good feat. To put it in perspective, the Rollins book Get in the Van has sold 17,000 copies in seventeen years, and that's sort of a seminal sort of volume, and if you're a punk, you've read that kind of a book. So I'm pleased, and I don't care if it sounds like I'm bragging, because I'm a proud papa.
I think the book has transcended people hating me or my band. There's no denying that book is a good testament to the chronology of how it went down, at least for the four years that the magazine was coming out. It was our take. People were shocked because there was Echo & the Bunnymen, and even U2 get a positive review. We weren't just hardcore homies. We didn't just like the musclehead stuff. We liked the lo-fi or softcore or whatever-you-want-to-call-it option as well. We talked about ska.... Everything that was happening, we either liked it or hated it.
Some of the stuff I look back on and I'm a little red-faced about it -- some of the synth rock, like Ultravox. But, hey, I was 24 years old and I liked Ultravox, and oh, well. There was a little backlash to the '70s. We had top and bottom forty lists. You'd see marijuana in the bottom forty, and a couple of issues later see it in the top forty. It was fun because it was very subjective and very arbitrary.
It was our magazine, and we were going to do whatever we wanted. Fuck the world -- that's kind of how we approached it. Looking back, I'm glad we were like that, because it gives the magazine kind of a flair. I always remember the first moment I heard Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown" EP. Dave Stimson said, "You've gotta get over to my house!" He was still living in his boyhood bedroom and had sent out two dollars to SST and the opening strings of that record.... Moments like that are forever etched in my cranium.
Someone said to me that, "back then, you'd read about a band like the Birthday Party, and it was this mysterious band from Australia, and the records sound great, but I can't find them." It would take you three or four months to find that album, and during that time, you were sort of obsessing on this band, and then you finally found the record and it's everything you thought it would be.
Today, with the Internet, there's no gestation period, no mystery. Everything is co-opted and torn asunder by the Internet in no time flat. That's the beauty of the old days, I guess. There's advantages in terms of self-promotion with the Internet, but there's also a big downside to it, I think.
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