Review: Used Records & Tapes Zine Offers Plenty of Memories and Music

According to both mainstream and social media, Generation X spends half its time being ignored and the other half feeling uncomfortably “seen.” In the most current example of “seen-ness,” Gen X’ers are in an alleged dither over the newest American Girl dolls. Twins Nicki and Isabel Hoffman are the company’s latest historical figures, crossing the many eons between now and the far-flung year of…1999. Seattle-based, naturally, the twins represent both kinds of 90s pre-womanhood: Isabel a Clueless era Alicia Silverstone expy, favoring bright, brand-conscious preppy ensembles, and free-spirit Nicki, exploring her individuality through her thrifted schoolgirl skirt, barbed wire tattoo, unwashed hair, and a Mudhoney t-shirt reeking of weed. 

Ha ha! No. Rather, hair-streaked Nicki wears a t-shirt, slip dress, and backwards cap, whilst flying her grunge colors with a flannel shirt tied ‘round her waist. Nicki also practices a popular 90s pastime, making zines, described in the product copy as “homemade magazines.” Nicki and Izzy are technically Zoomers, but that last bit sent some Gen X’ers over the top in a flurry of grief and glee. As cartoonist and journalist Sarah Mirk tweeted, “A friend just informed me that the newest American Girl doll makes zines. I have become a historical artifact.“ followed by a weeping emoji. Cue Nirvana’s “Something in the Way."

Truthfully, marketers never really got a grip on Generation X as a demographic. Defining 65 million American humans as apathetic, sarcastic, cynical, disaffected, and anti-authoritarian...yet somehow amenable to buying stuff it didn't need seemed hopelessly optimistic. Yet, the label persists as a convenient shorthand for unimaginative pundits, advertisers, and those looking for easy answers through generational labeling. Currently, many reductive folks online report that all those apathetic, sarcastic, cynical, disaffected, and anti-authoritarian Gen X slackers have mutated into racist Karens and Trump voters—perhaps after passing through a radioactive cloud. Or perhaps, you know, it’s all horseshit devised by corporate scum to take the trappings of rebellion and sell them back to us (see 90 percent of The Baffler’s content).*

Gen X, or at least its urban hipster contingent, did share a common trait. They recycled. More accurately, they revisited and revived much of the pop cultural debris of the 20th century. Clothing was thrifted. TV and cinematic schlock was reviewed and reinterpreted through an ironical lens. Music was rescued from the 99¢ bins at record stores and mutated. And zines, a continuation of the amateur press alliances and mimeographed fanzines of the past, addressed all the above and more.

Logo by Kathy Moseley

While occasionally steeped in irony, zines could also be powered by nostalgia and a heartfelt desire to explore and understand the media that permeated Gen X’s childhood. Zines were an internet precursor; endless pages of personal obsessions, unfettered by editorial establishment oversight and gatekeeping (for better or worse). Intellectual and cultural independence, all yours for a buck, a few stamps, or a trade.

Despite their current reliquary status, zines survive, many created and sustained by Gen X’ers and other hipster elders who have kept the xeroxed faith. Used Records and Tapes, for one, is the work of Chris Auman and associates. Portage Parker Auman has been a zine workhorse for decades, producing the satirical Reglar Wiglar since 1993, as well as other pubs through his Roostercow Press imprint. Truth in advertising: Used Records and Tapes is a collection of brief essays and reviews regarding pre-owned tapes and LPs found by the contributors. Besides Auman, Used Records and Tapes has a respectable anthology of writers, most going back to those turn of the century zine days. Mike Dixon provides reviews and, along with Auman, most of the zine’s loose and cartoony illustrations of album covers, band logos, and performers, making it extra ziney. Quimby’s manager Liz Mason; Marc Basch, writer of The Hero and the record store-set Nick Offerman film Hearts Beat Loud; and others from Chicago and elsewhere also put in appearances. As a zine, Used Records and Tapes is nicely done with full-color card stock covers and a crisply simple layout. Clearly, this wasn’t published on an employer’s time and photocopiers.

The contents are a nostalgic romp for the writers and the reader. More trivia dealing, wistful rumination, and amused musings than hard-edged musical criticism and historicity à la Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus (though their influence is felt). Used Records and Tapes isn’t a record-collecting bully zine, talking about bands you probably never heard of because, scoff, they’re pretty obscure. While there are curiosities (Benny Bongos' exploration of an LP narrating daredevil Evel Knievel’s career, say) more than likely you know the selections here, from top 40s radio back in the day. Most acted as soundtracks to the writers’ youths. Liz Mason shares her obsession with Corey “Sunglasses at Night” Hart, and delivers an appreciation of the Canadian pop star’s second album Boy in the Box, dripping with teen infatuation and sincerity. Mark Basch discusses the perfection of the Repo Man soundtrack, and the memories and emotions it stirs up, particularly through the outstanding surfpunk-Morricone track “Reel Ten.” Through it all, Auman presents sometimes scathing, sometimes respectful, but usually entertaining reviews of albums. The best ones involve back stories from his youth. Tracking down a band he heard on a mix tape one Friday night whilst drinking wine coolers and cruising back roads with a couple of girls, for instance. Auman spent years singing the chorus to anyone who’d listen, asking if they recognized it before the internet arrived and solved the mystery. It’s an interesting account of a way of life—not knowing something and hoping to run into someone in real life who does—that, like zines, is fading. 

One thing Used Records and Tapes made me realize was how long it’d been since I read anything that wasn’t followed by a comments section. Just imagine. An article expressing the individual writer’s thoughts and feelings, not followed by a hundred reactionary opinions from every schmuck with a laptop or smart phone. Maybe zines are historical artifacts, but it’s feasible they could have a bright recycled future as an alternative to endless online yammering. If you need a break from virtual screaming, Used Records and Tapes is a pleasant way to avoid online bickering and find some new/old music besides.

Used Records and Tapes is available at Quimby's and other bookstores and through the Roostercow Press website.

* To learn more about Generation X, check out the documentaries Clerks, Singles, and Reality Bites at your local library.

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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.