The Self-Made Man: Tim Yohannan
Last week’s Self Made Men article touched upon punk rock entrepreneurship, which would probably require its own weekly column to fully understand, by talking about Epitaph Records founder Brett Gurewitz. Brett’s an unorthodox guy for sure, but he’s cut from the same cloth as all the tech billionaires and CEOs we’ve talked about here – he’s a hard-working guy who seized opportunities to make money and wasn’t afraid to take risks when necessary.
What happens, though, when someone who is just as dedicated to punk rock and just as able to get things done is also vehemently opposed to capitalist business impulses? The answer to that question is this week’s subject, MaximumRockNRoll founder Tim Yohannan.
Tim was loading crates at UC Berkeley for a living when he began MaximumRockNRoll (often shortened to just MRR) as an printed insert for a punk rock compilation LP called Not So Quiet on the Western Front. The compilation (and by proxy Tim’s liner notes) was made as a document of the Northern California and Nevada punk scenes. Tim’s insert on a life of its own and became a fanzine that followed local punk bands and subcultural trends.
Coverage soon expanded to bands and scene reports (articles covering specific regions or cities that listed bands, venues, record stores, and other punk-friendly infrastructure) from all over the country, and then internationally as news about the Dutch and Brazilian scenes was sent in. The scope of their coverage separated MRR from other ‘zines like it – sure, all the pictures looked like crap and the cheap ink rubbed off on your fingers if you read too much in one sitting, but no one else was talking about bands from outside the US, or reviewing their records.
Tim’s hardline leftism was a driving force behind MRR as well. Not only did he insist that the ‘zine remain independent and not-for-profit, but he had nothing to do with anyone involved with a major label. Any profit the magazine turned was invested into community projects like Blacklist Mailorder, the Epicenter record store, and 924 Gilman Street, a punk club where bands like Green Day and the Offspring played some of their earliest shows. Through MRR, Tim also gave money to other projects and clubs around the world, effectively providing start-up funds to kids who probably wouldn’t have gotten seed money any other way.
As helpful as Tim’s politics were to some, others found them dogmatic, rigid, and antithetical to punk’s “no leaders” mantra. Tim was puritanical in that old-school Marxist way, which led to the impression that he didn’t have much of a sense of humor, and he never compromised his radical views for anything. The NOFX song “I’m Telling Tim” was a criticism of how Tim wielded his influence in the national punk scene against people who did things he disagreed with, and Fifteen’s song “MRR” accused his ‘zine of turning punk rock into the Things Tim Likes club. Former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra held MRR partly responsible for inspiring a bunch of skinheads to beat the crap out of him outside of 924 Gilman while calling him a “sellout rock star.”
Still, it’s hard to deny Tim’s work ethic and achievements. MRR is still around today and still occupies an important place in the punk rock scene, offering comprehensive reviews of records, films, and other ‘zines, as well as regular contributors’ columns and fan-submitted global news coverage. And when you consider how flaky his target demographics were, it’s easier to understand where Tim was coming from: when people who hadn’t worked nearly as hard or put in nearly as much time to build community were calling him a tyrant, Tim was schlepping crates around and putting out the ‘zine at night, or tending to one of his projects that kept the local scene alive.
If any of this has you curious, check out MRR’s website and give their podcast a listen. Tim would slap me for calling it his legacy (he died in 1998 and made it very clear that he didn’t want a memorial service or tributes), but that’s what it is, and it’s a damn good one.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.