Prelude: I was recently asked to write about Back Door Man, a rock fanzine that I started in 1975, by some folks who publish a Spanish rock magazine called Ruta 66. So I wrote something, perhaps more than I should have, but less than I could have. I wasn’t given a lot of time, so what is here is mostly what I remembered. I asked DD to read and add–she helped with some names. I should have asked Tom Gardner to add, too, but I knew he would remember too much and this would end up being too long. It was edited and published in Ruta 66’s 35th anniversary issue recently. Here is what I sent them–unedited and in English. There are many people who helped us along the way and I apologize to anyone whose name I forgot. Perhaps some day a longer piece will be written and I’ll have the time to remember more of you and even ask for your thoughts on the matter. ‘Til then…
In 1974, nothing was happening. The rock bands my friends and I liked had all broken up—The MC5, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The Doors, The Seeds. There were a few current rock bands that we liked—Aersomsith, The New York Dolls, Blue Öyster Cult, Mott the Hoople—but they weren’t getting played on the radio and none of them were based in the Southern California area, where we were. Most of the rock magazines didn’t seem to cater to us ‘hard-core’ rock’n’rollers anymore, not even Creem Magazine.
We lived in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County. Beach towns, sure, but we were no surfers. We lived in the working class cities of Carson and Torrance. We attended keg ‘n’ Quaalude parties (at some of them I was the DJ) and we dug a couple local groups—The Imperial Dogs and Atomic Kid. We worked crummy jobs. We had nothing going for us but music: rock’n’roll—loud, hard and fast. Top Forty radio was obsessed with the insipid pop of the Johns: Elton John, Olivia Newton-John and John Denver; we hated the mellow, country-tinged pop records coming out of Los Angeles; the so-called ‘cool’ FM stations played the ugly noodlings of progressive rock—BORING!
On November 11 and 12, 1974, Patti Smith and her trio played at the Whisky A’ Go-Go in Hollywood. We knew who she was because she had written for Creem, co-wrote a song or two for Blue Öyster Cult, and we had her “Piss Factory” single, which we adored. I missed the first night, but my friends went. The next day they called me and insisted I go for the second night. I went.
Tuesday night is a dead night for most clubs, but it seemed especially dreary when the act on stage was so exciting and the fans in the audience were so few. Patti’s little group—Lenny Kaye on guitar and Richard ‘DMV’ Sohl on piano—rocked with soul, intelligence and inspiration rather than with a heavy, heavy beat. Mostly it was musical accompaniment to Patti’s poetry—much like the “Piss Factory”/”Hey Joe” single. Also, she sang “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” a Smokey Robinson song that was recorded by The Marvelletes. It was great.
After the show, my friends and I went back stage to meet them. It was easy because there was no security on such a slow night. We were excited about this new music coming out of New York City that they talked about.
For about a month I stewed. Why doesn’t anybody know about these bands we like? How come nobody knows about Patti Smith and The Stooges and Aerosmith and The New York Dolls? In December I decided to start my own magazine. My friends were smart—they knew a lot about music and records and they knew how to write. I told them I wanted to start a magazine. I didn’t know how to do it, so I made it up as we went. I called it Back Door Man after the Howlin’ Wolf song that was covered by The Doors—I thought it would show that we have roots that go further back than last weeks hit record. Also, The Shadows of Knight had an album called Back Door Men and we thought a reference to that was hip, too.
My friends consisted of Don Waller, DD Faye and Thom “The Punk” Gardner (we considered ourselves the Hard Core Four, as we always made the scene), also Bob Myers and Don Underwood. Underwood’s wife Liz was our first photographer—she had been president of The Seeds’ fan club. I gave them assignments, like record and concert reviews. Since we had no access to rock stars in order to get interviews, we included several ‘think’ pieces—editorials that insisted rock’n’roll return to its primal roots; basically demanding that something like the punk rock movement should happen (and it did soon after). Also, we did what I don’t think anyone else was doing at the time: we wrote about local, unsigned rock bands as a regular feature; from the South Bay first, then the whole Los Angeles area.
I didn’t know how to make a magazine. So I went to a local off-set printer and got some advice. They told me how to lay out the magazine so it can be printed properly. It turned out to be a little more expensive than I thought, but I had some money in a savings account and we used that for the first few issues. We made 300 copies of the first issue and sold them at local record stores. We were even able to get the magazine sold at the Rhino Records Store in Westwood and the Tower Records Store in Hollywood.
Tower Records was key. It was located in the heart of the L.A. music industry which resulted in several very influential people seeing BDM and wanting to help. Those people included Greg Shaw, who wrote for Phonograph Record Magazine and his own fanzine, Who Put the Bomp!; Ben Edmonds, a transplant from Detroit who wrote about us in Record World, a music industry trade magazine; and Kim Fowley—who thought we were cool enough to have his band The Runaways make their debut in my living room!
Another key contact due to the Tower Records availability was the manager of The New Order—a super group (to us!) consisting of Ron Asheton (Stooges) and Dennis Thompson (MC5). We liked the group so much we put them on our second cover and hung out with them at their Hollywood apartment.
By the third issue, we kind of knew what we were doing. Soon we added Gregg Turner to the staff. He was a record collector friend of mine who I met in a record store when I heard him ask for 13th Floor Elevators records. Later, he started Back Door Man Records—The Imperial Dogs, The Pop and The Zippers—and was in The Angry Samoans.
Because BDM started before the punk movement began, we were often thought of as a mainstream magazine—well, we did have Aerosmith, Kiss and The Blue Öyster Cult on the cover—but really we considered ourselves a ‘hard core rock’n’roll’ magazine, of which we felt punk rock was as much of a part as the heavy metal bands we liked. Also, by having Kiss on the cover, perhaps we could expose people to bands like The Ramones and The Clash.
DD Faye and I used the pay electric typewriters at El Camino Community College nearby to type the magazine up. I think they charged 25 cents per hour. The headlines were made with press-type. They were produced slowly, by hand. Once the magazines were printed, we saved money by stapling them together ourselves.
About a year or so after BDM was founded, some women contacted us who worked at a printer. They were Patti Smith fans and wanted to help. Carol Williams, Beth Talbert and Lorraine Suzuki were able to typeset the magazine, perform the layouts and print it all up for free. Suddenly, BDM looked professional!!
Such photographers as David Arnoff, Donna Santisi and Jenny Lens—all later became known for pictures of punk musicians—got their start at BDM.
In the spring of 1977, at the urging of BDM reader Miriam Linna (now, Norton Records, Kicks, Kicks Books, etc) I took a trip to New York City to check out the scene. While there, I met Lester Bangs who agreed to write a piece for us.
Back in L.A., things were happening with such great groups as The Weirdos, The Zeros, The Last and X playing in the local clubs, and BDM covered that, too. However, we continued to support a few mainstream artists when they made records we liked—BDM was always a rock ‘n’ roll magazine, not a punk rock magazine, although we leaned that way.
There was no set schedule when BDM was published, so it was hard to be current, but we tried. We just issued a magazine whenever we could. We were not very good business people. Although we were able to obtain ads from some record stores and a few record companies, none of us wanted to spend the time to hustle the advertising that supports most magazines. We all just wanted to write and go to concerts. When, after 15 issues, the women who printed the magazine for us were discovered by their boss, we had to pay to have it printed and we couldn’t afford it. If we wanted to continue, the only option would be to go back to typing it up ourselves. Nobody wanted to do that, so we stopped printing.
Every once in a while, I run into someone who tells me that Back Door Man was an influence on him or her. I am happy that we have a legacy of sorts. Sometimes I see them sell on eBay for a lot of money. Before he died in 2016, Don Waller wanted to reissue the magazines, maybe in a bound volume. Tom still wants it to happen, so perhaps it will. It is also very satisfying to know that there are hard core rock’n’rollers living in Spain who are interested in something that we did 45 years ago.
—-Phast Phreddie, Back Door Man publisher