The Story of the DIY Publication That Kept Bands on the Road for Decades
How 'Book Your Own Fuckin' Life' helped countless punk bands tour in the pre-internet era.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
When Maximum Rocknroll announced in mid-January that it would cease publication of its print zine following the May issue—ending at #432 to be exact—there was swift public outcry from punks around the world. As expected, plenty of reminiscing ensued online, which is exactly where all future MRR content would be housed from that point forward.
Longtime Maximum Rocknroll devotees praised the zine and its volunteer bean counters for listening to and reviewing every shitty demo cassette they got mailed—especially considering that so many of those reviews represented the first pieces of press for fledgling punk bands. Even more so, they waxed poetic about how MRR and its founder, the late Tim Yohannan, worked to connect underground and under-recognized scenes from one zip code to the next, encouraging the discovery of like-minded (and approachable) musicians, label founders, music writers, and zine nerds.
That last bit is key, of course. Maximum Rocknroll was founded by outsiders, for outsiders, and so much of its mission over the 36 years of its print existence has been to empower the latter group by exposing it to networks of subcultures that adhere to a similar code of defiance. And, in turn, to facilitate relationships between those networks.
In the early 90s, the zine went one step further by converting what it describes as its "relentless enthusiasm for DIY punk and hardcore bands and scenes from every inhabited continent of the globe" into the most crucial guide of touring resources for the touring punk band without any resources whatsoever. Over the next decade, copies of Book Your Own Fuckin' Life could be found in every rickety 80s conversion van coasting through Ohio with a U-Haul in tow and a Minor Threat sticker clinging to its back window. Just ask Beto about it.
The origins of Book Your Own Fuckin' Life can be traced back to the June 1989 issue of Maximum Rocknroll (#73) in which Kamala Parks wrote a column titled, "Book Your Own Fucking Tour." In it, Parks, who was both a regular contributor and "shitworker" for MRR in the 80s, as well as a cofounder of Berkley's 924 Gilman St., a storied all-ages punk venue, went through the tips and processes she used to book tours for Bay Area bands like Operation Ivy, Neurosis, and Crimpshine.
Broken down into seven distinct steps—such as "Step 1: Getting connections with all the happening people in the world of Punk Rock" and "Step 4: Start calling for Chrissakes!"—the column championed etiquette, preparation, and organization by way of "lots and lots" of forms (even though forms are "very unpunky"). At the end, the powers that be at Maximum Rocknroll also included an announcement in which they wondered aloud about running a section in each issue that would list "bookers and their cities and phone numbers, as well as whether it’s a club or not, all-ages or not." Bookers would be encouraged to send in postcards with their pertinent info and to do so each month so that MRR could keep track of turnover. Bands would be encouraged to send in both good and bad comments about those bookers.
The monthly "Book Your Own Fuckin' Tour" section of Maximum Rocknroll grew into a massive undertaking that required its own pressing. Book Your Own Fuckin' Life debuted with its 1992 edition and did more than just offer contact info for bookers. It provided listings of other bands, labels, venues, radio stations, distributors, record and book stores, zines, and other miscellaneous tools—per state, per province, and per country. There were now thousands of real phone numbers to call real humans, and there were real addresses to mail real music to real mailboxes. For the cover price of a buck, your band ostensibly had all it needed to book its own tour.
"I definitely had copies of Book Your Own Fuckin' Life before I had copies of Maximum Rocknroll," remembers Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! and the Devouring Mothers. "It was this holy grail of information, particularly in south Florida. I specifically remember getting the contact for the Legion of Doom in Columbus and thinking 'I have their address now and can send them a tape.' It was how I got ahold of ABC No Rio for the first time. The resource of like, 'There’s the fucking address.'"
"I remember seeing a copy at this record store in Rapid City, South Dakota. At that point, we didn't know anybody, so it was cool just to see an opportunity to book shows in other places," explains Kody Templeman, from Wyoming bands the Lillingtons and Teenage Bottlerocket. "I was stoked on it. When the next issue came out, we put our stuff in there and used that to book pretty much all of the first Lillingtons tour." (Their listing is in the '96 edition.)
"[The members of Chisel] all went to college in Indiana and started making friends in the Chicago punk scene, but as far as touring goes, Book Your Own Fuckin' Life got us out and around the Midwest," explains Ted Leo of Chisel, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, and The Both. "We knew where shows were happening, we just didn’t know who to talk to. The great thing about Book Your Own Fuckin' Life was all the people in it who didn't work at clubs and weren't inundated with demos. They were just invested in having a scene and making things happen."
Some of those people were also volunteering to collect and slog through the mailbags of listings that came in after the zine put out its annual call. While Book Your Own Fuckin' Life was shepherded by Maximum Rocknroll, a collaborator was enlisted every year to help co-present the next issue in return for a little bit of money, some shared distribution, and exposure alongside the MRR anti-brand. The only tricky thing was that "co-present" primarily boiled down to being responsible for piecing the whole thing together in the most digestible and comprehensible way possible—typos be damned.
Minneapolis-based anarcho-punk collective Profane Existence, which exists to this day, took on the unenviable task that first year. They also began the tradition of including a foreword detailing how laborious and painstaking the process of wading through thousands of sometimes-legible postcards truly was. Indeed, looking back at those 65 pages of listings from the '92 edition and finding entries from the likes of Screeching Weasel, Born Against, and Rancid (the last of which includes a home phone number for "Lint," a.k.a. Tim Armstrong), the effort remains very appreciated.
As one of several laborers who toiled through the '94 edition of Book Your Own Fuckin' Life, Melanie Walski was a privileged recipient of her very own foreword. The fun screed begins, simply, "I didn’t know exactly what the hell I was going to live through when I agreed to work on this thing. It really sucked." She wrote it as a part of Rocco Publishing, a tiny Chicago-based operation that mostly released small runs of zines and 45s and partnered with MRR to work on the third issue of BYOFL. [Full disclosure: the former head of Vice Media’s documentary films unit Jason Mojica was a co-founder of Rocco and the point person while working on the issue.]
"We were all like 20 years old. I was at SIU-Carbondale then and remember being home and picking up just dozens and dozens of postcards that people would send in," says Walski, now a professor of literacy at Northern Illinois University. "We'd enter them into this big old desktop computer that Jason had. No one really had computers. Pretty much anyone who sent in something, as long as they met the criteria—the ethos of the whole thing—they got in."
There are a few legitimate listings from eventual rockstar bands like A.F.I. and Jimmy Eat World. The latter includes the home address of a young Jim Adkins in Mesa, Arizona, accompanied by the excellent description: "Strongly influenced by MTX, Radon, and Horace Pinker, but don't let those fool you." Another particularly bizarre gem from that '94 issue is for Cook County Hospital in Chicago that reads, "If you’re broke, they have to fix you. If you have a Dr. at home to vouch for you, they will give you free meds." The address and phone number were also included.
"There was so much inaccurate or incomplete information," Walski recalls. "Just trying to locate stuff without the internet, a place where you can just type in 'St. Louis zip code'... I don't remember exactly how we did it but I do remember having physical books of zip codes. It was a big job."
The Book Your Own Fuckin' Life Walski worked on with Rocco had doubled in size from the '92 edition that Profane Existence compiled. Containing a total of 137 pages of listings—and several more pages of ads—the '94 guide even today feels like it was a hefty resource for not only the touring bands, but the kids ready and willing to book basements and VFW halls in their own backwoods and unfrequented towns. A quick scan of the "Promoters & Venues" reveals listings for a brick-and-mortar Pizza Express in San Carlos, Arizona ("The only place where cops yell 'Turn It Up!'"), as well as a spot in Shreveport, Louisiana, called "Jeff's Place" that you have to imagine is no more than the place where Jeff lives.
"I remember being surprised at just how many individual kids were putting on shows in houses and basements. That really impressed me," Walski says. "Kids, not adults. Teenagers were taking these chances, saying, 'You can come and stay at my house.' Trusting each other because everyone shared a certain code."
Thanks to Book Your Own Fuckin' Life, that code spread fast—nearly too fast. As more and more bands ventured outside their localized scenes, spider-webbing subcultures together across North America and other parts of the globe, the resulting tours often presented some entertaining hurdles. Or they flat-out resembled varying degrees of hell. It depended on your threshold for pain.
Booking a three-week tour a couple months in advance seems like the perfectly responsible (maybe too responsible!) approach for any punk band, but when you set out to drive across several time zones, all the while relying on ambitious teenagers to secure proper venues with working electricity, things can get hairy.
For Laura Jane Grace, the first month-long Against Me! tour—which she booked entirely through Book Your Own Fuckin' Life and zine and band pen pals—was actually an entertaining sort of ride: "There was an unreliability that brought a sense of adventure to it. Imagine leaving a cell phone inside some punkhouse and whoever happens to pick it up is who you're booking the show through. They might not even live there by the time the tour rolled around. There was a good chance you'd show up and nobody had any idea a show was happening."
"I believe our first out-of-state punkhouse show was at the Pink House in North Carolina. It was set up by Aaron Cometbus and booked through Book Your Own Fuckin' Life. We showed up and it was seven or eight other bands. You played for five or six songs. And I was happy to play those five or six songs."
Kody Templeman laughs about the first Lillingtons tour, recalling his adventure a little differently: "I'm sure there were plenty of people who were just like, 'Fuck yeah, man, I'm going to put a listing in Book Your Own Fuckin' Life so I can book some bands.' A lot of places were Odd Fellows Halls, and a lot of times shows got shut down by the cops. We'd roll up somewhere and it was like, 'Yeah, we got shut down last week.' You had to call in advance to get directions. It was kind of a crapshoot whether someone would even pick up. You spent a lot of time at the gas station on the payphone with your calling card."
With every new 90s edition of Book Your Own Fuckin' Life, the listings continued to balloon as the underground became exponentially more self-aware. The '96 edition featured 138 pages, while the '99 edition topped out at 153 pages. A lot of those extra listings seemed to have come from bands, distributors, or zines located in originally underrepresented states like Wyoming (see Templeman above) or Rhode Island, as well as countries like Yugoslavia and Argentina (there are a load of Argentina listings). Scenes were no doubt being bolstered or even established as copies of BYOFL landed in the hands of enterprising punks.
As each edition grew in size, the high art of compiling it became increasingly difficult. Rich Black, who formerly put out a long-tenured punk zine in Long Island called Under the Volcano, admits he almost apprehensively accepted the gig of co-presenting the 1997 edition of Book Your Own Fuckin' Life (#6 to those keeping track).
"Maybe it was an appeal in Maximum Rocknroll that said, 'Hey, we're still waiting for someone to collaborate.' It was really out of desperation to bring something into the world that I thought should exist," explains Black. "There was somewhere around 4,500 listings, with the majority of them coming through snail mail. It was a shitshow, but a good shitshow."
Aside from keeping the ship afloat, Black, who after working a union gig for nearly 30 years now puts in hours at a friend's area wine shop, says he was constantly putting out small fires. For instance, he used WordPerfect as opposed to a Mac-compatible word processor preferred by Maximum Rocknroll—so sorting the listings became a nightmare ("I thought I'd just be able to press a button and it would be sorted"). At one point an entire mailbag of postcards disappeared, forcing him to request an extension from Tim Yohannan ("He definitely wanted to call me a fucking asshole"). Submissions came in well after the deadline, followed closely by people complaining about not getting into the issue ("You’re not prepared for that. Like, 'Hey, the deadline was four months ago'"). And then, of course, was the never-ending delight of dealing with hateful listings, both from straight-up Nazis and from bands, bookers, and labels who love holding grudges.
As the 90s plowed forward—a decade blissfully unaware of the looming ubiquity of the internet—annual copies of Book Your Own Fuckin' Life began to seem all but guaranteed, thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of short-term "shitworkers" like Black and Walski. Their gumption, however, was not replicated by anyone on the '98 edition, which was simply never published.
The guide triumphantly returned in 1999, even more flush with listings. Compiled by a collection of Book Your Own Fuckin' Life advocates that deemed itself the Amoeba Collective, it now not only sported a web address—where listings could be added or edited at will—it also resembled a punk directory more than ever before. The immense '99 edition reads like a phone book, one in which every high school punk band felt it a rite of passage to submit its name, address, and phone number so that it could confirm its own existence. Some of the bands that had been using the guide for years began to notice that its stronger connections were being run ragged.
"We shortly realized after that first tour of using Book Your Own Fuckin' Life is that it was sort of a tapped-out resource," Laura Jane Grace says. "Every single contact in there had been hit up by so many people. Some of them were well worn and burnt out."
For the late-90s musicians that had already been touring for years, the most important relationships began to materialize as the ones they had forged over those first few tours. Though admittedly imperfect, Book Your Own Fuckin' Life had provided an initial network for punks and hardcore kids who shared similar ideologies—which is exactly what it set out to do. Bands had been empowered to venture outside of their local scenes and connect with bands and bookers from other scenes. And now many of them could take it from there.
"Years later, when Chisel did our first US tour, I'm pretty sure I was still in touch with people I met through that first Midwest tour. Your network just gradually expands as you meet more people," Ted Leo says. "We got shows outside of using Book Your Own Fuckin' Life by not being afraid to talk to people in bands, give them your number, or slide them a demo. We slipped a demo to Seam from Chicago once, and they called us and were just like, 'We're doing a week around the middle south if you’re interested.'"
Templeman figured that contacting bands in cities The Lillingtons wanted to play was the most effective route to getting a show: "I got to be buddies with Bill [Morrisette] from Scooby Don't who's in Dillinger Four now. I would just call him for shows in Minneapolis. Brian Peterson was a booker for the Fireside in Chicago. We ended up getting to know him pretty well. If Book Your Own Fuckin' Life hadn't been around, who knows how far we would've taken the band."
As Book Your Own Fuckin' Life entered the new millennium and the Internet’s endless booking alternatives came into clearer view, those in charge decided to cut the band listings out of print all together. The edition in 2002, which was again compiled by the Amoeba Collective, features a foreword directing all punks to the BYOFL website. With the band listings migrating online-only, the issue itself slimmed down to 101 pages (with way fewer ads). While Book Your Own Fuckin' Life still contained helpful lists of distributors, promoters, and labels, the fact that you could no longer flip to the South Dakota page to see what punk bands with very bad punk-band names are actually from South Dakota felt antithetical to its mission.
Eventually, the advent of MySpace in 2003, as well as the inevitable deluge of online music message boards spelled the end for the print copies of Book Your Own Fuckin' Life. The guide went totally online before inevitably dying its slow death. The site continued to be updated till 2011, which is exactly where it stayed updated until the www.byofl.org address went kaput altogether. And just like that, BYOFL had become a punk relic of a pre-internet age. But that didn't mean it had lost all of its value.
Hether Fortune—a solo artist who previously played in Wax Idols and White Lung—admits that though Book Your Own Fuckin' Life wasn't so much a part of her generation, she still found inspiration in its mission: "I grew up in rural Michigan—so for context the record store I went to in East Lansing called Flat, Black & Circular was like a 45-minute drive. I used to go there all the time as a teenager. One day there was an issue of Book Your Own Fuckin' Life from the 90s. It was massive. I started looking through it and remember being overwhelmed by how many options there were out there. Even if it was outdated, I was like, 'Oh wow, people really do this stuff. By themselves.'"
"I lived in the middle of nowhere. Actually nowhere. There was nothing to do other than hitch rides to shows two hours away in Detroit or sit on the internet," Fortune explains. "The idea had not yet occurred to me that I could create my own thing until I started seeing those zines and found out it was online. Then I was like, "Oh, that’s what you do. You create your own thing wherever you are, whatever you're doing, and that’s how you build a community.'"
So she booked a show 15 minutes from her house. It was 80s-themed and featured around eight bands. "I had drum-and-bass DJs, metalcore bands, emo bands. It was very ambitious." According to Fortune, it was also a wild success. Kids from her high school came because they were excited to have something to do nearby, and in the same way Laura Jane Grace was perfectly happy to travel to North Carolina to play five songs at the Pink House as one of seven bands on a bill, the bands Fortune booked through MySpace were no doubt equally stoked.
In 2019, the heyday of BYOFL feels far gone. Still, the systematic, almost patient approach with which it was compiled and utilized—whether that involved sifting through mailbags of unreadable postcard after unreadable postcard, or crushing your parents' long-distance bill by calling venue after venue in state after state—was nothing if not do-it-yourself. And that still matters to many.
"I definitely look back with rose-colored glasses at the charm of the pre-internet world and a lot of things that were so fun about discovery and personal connection that seemed to take that little bit of extra effort to make," says Ted Leo. "That world is probably not going to come around again. At the same time we still try to bring a lot of young bands out on tour. I talk to them and know what they’re like as people—and they don’t seem to lack something."
Similarly, Laura Jane Grace supported and embodied the spirit of the squats and punkhouses in her early Against Me! years, once noting in a song that the band’s "arenas are just basements and bookstores across an underground America."
"You'd just end up playing the most random places. Some kid’s house in Des Moines, Iowa. A room above a garage where teenage kids are literally throwing themselves through drywall. Everyone's out of their minds on something." she says. "And you’re like, 'How did we get here? Where are we going tomorrow?' You'd play your show, get to stay there, hang out, and drink malt liquor—then onto the next one. It was the best."