The Keeper of the Cassettes | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

The Keeper of the Cassettes 

What to do with those old practice tapes? Chunklet's Henry Owings is digitizing and posting rarities from the 80s and 90s.

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Henry Owings

Henry Owings

Sean Cokes

In late September an unsolicited package arrived at the Atlanta home of writer, graphic designer, and indie-scene gadfly Henry Owings, whose endeavors range from the long-running zine Chunklet to Grammy-winning design work for Revenant Records' 2001 Charley Patton box set. The package was from Chris Thomson, most recently singer for Chicago's Red Eyed Legends but best known for fronting a series of D.C. posthardcore bands, among them Circus Lupus, the Monorchid, and Skull Kontrol. It contained more than two dozen cassettes and a handwritten note: "Seeing as your becoming the institutional memory for punk rock I thought you might make a fine home for these aniquated cassettes."

Those cassettes are a treasure trove of live recordings, demos, and unreleased material, some of it by Thomson's old groups and some of it by other well-known D.C. bands, including Rites of Spring, the Nation of Ulysses, and short-lived but legendary Nation of Ulysses offshoot Cupid Car Club. There are also three tapes of material from a supergroup called Getaway Car, which Owings had never heard of; its lineup consisted of Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, Mike Fellows of Rites of Spring, and Kim Thompson of Cupid Car Club and the Delta 72.

"It's so weird," Owings says, "because on one level it's like, 'Oh my God, this is really amazing stuff,' but I think in the grander scheme of things I know like ten people in the country probably care. . . . Ten people are really excited about this and millions aren't." But this haul is to those people (who probably number more in the thousands) what the Dead Sea Scrolls were to biblical scholars. And rather than trying to determine whether any of the tapes might yield something commercially releasable, Owings simply started digitizing them and posting them at chunklet.com as free downloads. Since September 22 he's shared a live set from Minor Threat and demos from Circus Lupus, the Monorchid, and Cupid Car Club.

You don't have to talk to Owings for long to understand why Thomson decided to entrust the tapes to him. At 41 he still has a bottomless, almost maniacal enthusiasm for music. "He's a total fucking geek when it comes to music," says former Don Caballero bass player Pat Morris, who now plays in Chicago's Poison Arrows. Morris gave Owings a stack of old cassettes when he came to Chicago to see the Jesus Lizard in November. "He's one of those guys who knows everybody, goes everywhere, flies to shows constantly, and just thoroughly, thoroughly enjoys it."

"I don't know how he does it," Thomson says. "He's probably been this way for 20 years. I don't know how you can be so excited for this stuff."

"I would honestly tell you that I am no different now than when I was 17," Owings says. "It's funny—I've been following the Jesus Lizard a lot these past few months, and it's somewhat heartfelt and touching to be at these shows because they remember me clearly when I was 19 and 20, begging to get into their shows. I'm talking about 1990 when they were playing for like 30 people in Philadelphia or something. I would be like, 'Please, I just took the train all the way from York, Pennsylvania—you've got to let me in!'"

Since 1993 a primary outlet for Owings's devotion has been Chunklet, whose mission he described in a 2003 Reader story as "causing the furrowed-browed careerist trust-fund fuckos to cry like the bitch babies they are." A handsome magazine, it also has a well-earned reputation as one of the meanest in music. One notorious issue counted down the 100 biggest assholes in rock; another listed more than 600 bands the magazine would pay to break up. A typical feature might address the annoying concertgoing habits of different breeds of hipster, the insufferability of sound guys, or the individual failings of pretty much every band that has ever existed, including the ones Owings counts among his friends.

"I don't know if 'snarky' or 'irreverent' or 'crass' or 'tasteless' or 'base' or 'just being assholes' is how you'd describe Chunklet," he says. "But if those are the terms, and I can be lumped in with the magazines that I grew up with like Conflict and Your Flesh and Forced Exposure and Touch and Go magazine that were equally snarky and rude and crass, fine. That's great, because those are the same magazines that championed every band that I listen to today."

Owings and Corey Rusk, who for nearly 30 years ran the legendary Chicago label that grew out of Touch and Go, have been on each other's radar since the early 90s, but Owings dates their friendship to '98, when he drove a van from Atlanta to Chicago on two hours' notice so Italian Touch and Go artists Uzeda could use it on tour. For the past couple months Owings has been helping Rusk declutter by selling punk and alt-rock rarities from his personal collection on eBay. Owings is an old hand at managing online auctions and has been working through more than 1,500 items—test pressings, rare singles, posters, pretty much all of them from before 1993—in batches of 30 or 40. A couple Big Black test pressings have gone for more than $100, and a seven-inch comp of Italian hardcore from 1983 got bid up to $573.

The Thomson collection, though, is more exciting for Owings, not just because some of the music has never been released but because he's at his liberty to spread it far and wide on the Web—an approach better suited to his missionary zeal. But with great power comes great responsibility. "In one sense I am flattered and honored that he asked for me to be sort of the, what shall I call it? The caretaker," Owings says. "But on the other hand I am starting to think, because I've been transferring all this stuff, I'm thinking, 'Holy shit!' Because it's coming time where a lot of this stuff is going to turn to shit, it's going to turn to just powder." A tape's magnetic-oxide coating crumbles and falls off over time, taking the music with it.

That's led him to try to expand the job Thomson dropped in his lap. "I sort of put a very anal but very sort of imperative call out to people, saying, 'You know, if you have tapes . . .'" he says.

Luckily Owings knows lots of people who've got the kind of tapes he's interested in. For years he's had more material from Man or Astro-Man? than he's known what to do with, as well as tapes from Volcano Suns and Mission of Burma drummer Peter Prescott. Lately he's been archiving 80s and 90s material from Pittsburgh, which is one of the reasons he took Morris's tapes last month—Pitt heroes Don Cab are one of Owings's favorite bands as well as the subject of a gripping but amazingly unflattering tour diary by tour manager Fred Weaver in Chunklet number 16. Morris's tapes include plenty of unreleased Don Caballero material, including the band's very first rehearsal, plus seven or eight cassettes and a couple videos from the Northern Bushmen, his sludge-punky late-80s high school band with future Milemarker and Tight Phantomz drummer Noah Leger. Owings is hoping to release a multimedia collection of Northern Bushmen material in three different formats and editions.

The bulk of the stuff Owings has will just be digitized and posted, though, because it's unlikely in most cases that he'll want to deal with the red tape involved with a legitimate commercial release. He's not motivated by money, he says, and all the material he's posting now came into his hands with the artists' blessing. "I'm averse to the term 'bootlegger,'" he says, "because that makes it seem like you're profiting off of this. I'm just an archivist and I've got so many things that I've accrued over the years. And the Chunklet site is just bursting at the seams with this stuff . . . I just said, 'I don't want to see this be ignored or marginalized.'"

"If people want to call me a fanboy—whatever," he continues. "I don't care. I'm doing now what I was doing when I was 17 or 18, writing away to Naked Raygun or the Minutemen or whomever. I'm just a fan, that's all I am, that's all I've ever been, and it's just humbling. And it's also astounding to look at my body of work 20 years later. . . . All of this spawned from a genuine appreciation and love of quote-unquote punk rock. It's pretty rad as far as I'm concerned."

Find this column and more music coverage at chicagoreader.com/music.

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