Call him the monkish punk elder of counterculture in the Bay and fringes wherever they may fray. Behind a monochromatic, black-clad, black-banged façade and unassuming demeanor, V. Vale is a man of so many interests and accomplishments that it's hard to know where to start. How about with Vale as Punk Showman?
"In 1984 I'm sure I put on one of the greatest shows ever to celebrate our J.G. Ballard book," the 50-plus publisher says. He's tucked beside a thermos of tea in his book- and collection-crammed office-apartment in a North Beach edifice that, legend has it, Janis Joplin, Odetta, and Paul Robeson once dwelled in. Survival Research Labs and an S-M group were on the Fort Mason bill, and in honor of the occasion Vale visited the junkyard and had them deliver two cars that he selected. "I'm sure people had died in them there was so much blood in the interior and they were all crushed down. There's no way you could survive that!"
Naturally, Vale and SRL rigged up the two bloody junkers to simulate a sex act doggy-style while yet another car with square wheels and a huge battering ram attacked the humping death-mobiles. The, ahem, climax: a performance by Public Image Ltd.
If that's not punk in the classic, highly original, high-low San Francisco style, full of hard-scrabble high spectacle and an edge you can lacerate yourself on who knows what the fuck is?
It's just one of many tales about shooting pistols with "Uncle Bill" Burroughs or watching exotica innovator Martin Denny field a $25,000 royalty check that emerge during an interview with this lifelong interviewer. His own narrative is just as riveting: he grew up, as part of a minuscule Japanese American minority, in a small town in Riverside County, raised on welfare by a mother who suffered from mental illness. The young Vale read voraciously, from the kitchen table to the bed, which led to his acceptance at Harvard, though an antipathy toward ivy made him choose to attend UC Berkeley instead. In the '70s, he worked at City Lights, and in 1977, while ripping off the covers of unbought magazines and returning them, he formed the idea to start his own zine about the punk scene combusting right around the corner at Mabuhay Gardens. Search and Destroy was born, with $100 seed money from Allen Ginsberg and matching funds from his boss Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Now lauded as an invaluable document of early punk and a graphic design rule-breaker ("We'd do a layout meeting: 'Here's the text. Here are the pictures. Your job is to make this interview as rad as you can'"), Search and Destroy also became a way for Vale to make critical connections between the work and thoughts generated by punk groups and those formulated by artists in other media, as interviews with Vale's mentors Ballard and Burroughs made their way into the zine.
When the Mabuhay scene turned toward servicing a younger, violent hardcore audience, the zine-maker's interests shifted as well. Tapped to start a stateside headquarters for Rough Trade in 1980, he convinced founder Geoff Travis to fund a new tabloid, RE/Search, during an all-nighter. Three issues later, Vale moved on to launch a typesetting business, RE/Search Typography, which he ran in North Beach until he sold it in 1991 when he saw that the home computer had finally arrived.
In the meantime, the RE/Search series had become the equivalent of an ever-unfolding countercultural bible: essential reading not only for punks all the books, Vale swears, are informed by that revolution but artists, musicians, cultural fire-starters, and trouble-makers of every nonconformist stripe. In turn, Vale built a bridge with his paperbacks between the cultural movers around him and the world of books that has succored him.