In Praise of Chunklet
Henry H. Owings has grown tired of this bullshit notion that he hates everything. It's an understandable rumor, though. Consider Chunklet, the Atlanta resident's outrageously caustic, invariably hilarious indie-rock 'zine, a 15-year-old concern that remains as vituperative and immature as ever, thank God. The latest issue, which surfaced recently a mere three years after the last one, is spread over 134 professionally bound pages, laid out in a vast, immaculate orgy of often absurdly tiny fonts, and apparently hellbent on personally insulting every band, genre, and publication in rock history. "Put your shirt back on, you aging cancer troll" (directed at Michael Stipe) goes a typical jibe; "What's the difference between Paste Magazine and a bucket of shit?" goes a typical comedic conceit. (Thirty-four answers are provided, including "Obviously, the bucket of shit has performed some type of service to someone.") Scattered indiscriminately throughout are straight jokes ("Q: What do you say to the girl at the Mission of Burma show? A: 'Do you have that shirt in XXL?' "), sophomoric sidebars (myriad amusing euphemisms for fart like "Chanel Number 2"), and multi-page high-concept features, like an uncouth music-magazine rundown that includes the phrases "limp-dick British ass-wiper," "emo jizz journal," and "old fuck noodle rag."
Indeed. Chunklet is most famous for its "Biggest Assholes in Rock" issue (the Butthole Surfers won); other concepts include the Shit List (self-explanatory), the Overrated List (also self-explanatory, and spread over two issues), and the ingenious Pay Not to Play system, in which Owings and his myriad cohorts devised a sliding scale to determine how much they'd pay specific bands to break up and never play music again. (Henry says artists from Queens of the Stone Age to Bratmobile called him at home to negotiate this price directly.) But there's your first clue as to how this enterprise differs from the faceless invective-spewers lately clogging message boards and the like: Henry isn't hiding behind any screen name.
"I think we live in a time right now, especially with the Internet, and especially with comment sections on blogs, where everybody can take their potshots—everybody can post anonymously and get their dig in," Henry says. "Fuck that. Everybody knows where I live. Everybody knows that I sign the checks. It has my name on it. You think I'm some kind of chickenshit? Let's talk about the last 10 records each of us bought. Let's talk about how many shows a year we go to. Let's talk about real nitty-gritty stuff, instead of this teeth-clenching hipster fashionista reactionary following of music. Let's talk nitty-gritty. You want to talk history? You want to talk criticism? I'm a fan of all of it. And as a fan, I sometimes take it to extremes."
That's your second clue. To create the illusion that you hate everything, you have to know everything, and if you're bothered enough to know everything, then you actually must love everything. His raging boner for Mission of Burma, just as a totally random example, is well documented. Henry likens a Chunklet insult to a "Weird Al" Yankovic homage: Grit your teeth and take it as a compliment. And he's far from a passive observer, with several decades in the trenches as a promoter, producer, and graphic designer (including Grammy-nominated box-set work) for musicians and comedians alike. (He was far ahead of the curve on the David Cross/Patton Oswalt/Zach Galifianakis alt-comedy surge.) So vast is his experience and wisdom, in fact, that he's now deigned to give young bands advice.
Behold The Rock Bible, the second "legit" Chunklet publishing venture (in the end, Henry put out an Overrated book, too). What began as an e-mail-blast brainstorming session among his vast network of friends and collaborators soon mutated into a smartly packaged tome that does exude a biblical air, designed specifically for the glove compartments of tour vans nationwide. Divided into "gospels" for drummers, guitarists/bassists, singers, crew members, and so forth, the book is essentially a series of zippy one-liners designed, like the 'zine itself, to be dipped into at a furtive and leisurely pace. If toilets did not already exist, it would be necessary now to invent them, to ensure a proper venue for this exercise. But here, too, the tone ranges from outright contempt ("If your amp has more than six knobs, you are one of them") to prescient zen koans ("No one wins a battle of the bands") to very earnest warnings ("A head-on collision with a deer will ruin a tour"). Is the overall effect dismissive or protective? Why not both? And who better to both deride and nurture passionate young music obsessives than . . . slightly older music obsessives?
"All of my friends are musicians and tour managers and light techs and promoters and record-label owners," Henry says. "On top of that, they're also music fans. They're people who aren't afraid—this sounds really fucking cheesy—they're not afraid to get their hands dirty. They're not afraid to load amps or have bands stay at their house or stuff records for a record-release party or work door at a club. Off the top of my head, I can think of nine drummers on the Chunklet staff who have toured the world. You have people who've put out records. I put out records. I've been putting on shows for 20 years.
"I could not think of a group of misfits and douchebags and sociopaths and philanthropists that could do a better job than we could of coming up with something like that."
So this fabulous enterprise is now a decade and a half old, a career longer than those of many bands skewered and celebrated in its pages. Has Chunklet softened, or gotten yet more curmudgeonly? A friend recently presented Henry with a rare copy of his very first issue, which suggests that above all he's simply improved. "I wince at it," Henry admits. "I'm like, duuuude. But it's no different than a demo. Ahh, you gotta start somewhere. To think where I came from and where I am now, it's completely rad, but do I think we're meaner? Sincerely, that was never my goal, to be mean. My goal was to do something that I and my friends and my peers would find both rewarding and entertaining. If I'm mean, I'm as mean to myself as I am to anybody, if not more so. If you really wanna play the 'Oh, Henry's mean' card, I'm like, 'Fuck you!' Did you see the five pages of singles I bought, that I listed numerically? I'm a fucking freak!"
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.