GOLDIES 2008 Lifetime Achievement winner: The monkish punk elder of counterculture in the Bay
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. "I learned long ago that reading is not a passive process," says Vale. "I like to mark up my books. My books are heavily interacted with. I look at books not as books, but as conversations."
The RE/Search volumes Vale is most proud of, on Burroughs and Ballard, resuscitated the former author's career and threw a proper coming-out party in America for the latter. Vale went so far as to help organize Burroughs' tour with Laurie Anderson. Meanwhile, RE/Search's sibling compendiums, Incredibly Strange Movies (1986) and Incredibly Strange Music (1993, Vol. 2 1995), were pivotal in placing filmmakers like Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis and music-makers such as Yma Sumac and Ken Nordine in a new canon for culturally conversant hipsters, leading to crucial reissues and reappraisals of their work.
And then there's RE/Search's biggest hit. "The most influential of all the books is Modern Primitives , which sparked the whole mainstream mass interest in piercing and tattoos and body modification," says Jello Biafra, who first met Vale in 1978 when Biafra was simply an admirer of Search and Destroy and the vocalist for a then-new band called the Dead Kennedys. "There was very little of that going on compared to what happened after that book came out. Of course, now even secretaries and bank clerks and Bush administration bureaucrats have tattoos, and who knows how many pierced penises are on the Republican National Committee!"
With a new publication, prOnnovation? Pornography and Technological Innovation, just out, and books on Timothy Leary, Burning Man's Piss Clear newspaper, and steampunk on the horizon, Vale doesn't have time to be bitter that so many have grabbed ideas from his tomes and run with them. "I would say I've had a disproportionate amount of influence," he says. "People tell me, 'Your Pranks  book inspired Jackass, Punk'd, and god knows how many other TV shows.' You just keep thinking of your next project and never look back."