In an attempt to better document the American underground press, or at least the sharp, tiny sliver of it that I find most interesting, I’ve given myself the task of reaching out to all of those former and current zine publishers that I know, and asking them about their motivations and experiences. Today’s interview is with the man behind the West Virginia Surf Report, the self-proclaimed “well hung outdoorsman” Jeff Kay.
MARK: Was the West Virginia Surf Report the first thing you ever photocopied and distributed?
JEFF: Yes. When I was a kid I was obsessed with MAD magazine, and later the National Lampoon. I dreamed of making a living writing humor. I tried to emulate the Lampoon material, especially the pieces by John Hughes. He often wrote short stories narrated by a horny teenage boy. I was a horny teenage boy, and believed that got me halfway there. But, I soon learned the meaning of the phrase, “The great make it look easy.”
I also read a book by a TV comedy writer, who said he got his start by submitting jokes to stand-up comedians. I decided I’d do the same thing, and mailed off packets of jokes to people like Phyllis Diller. She talked a lot about a fictional fat lady in her act, so I sent her a load of fat jokes. One I still remember: “She’s so fat, when she changes her clothes she has to pull the blinds down in three rooms.” Shockingly enough, I never heard back from any of those people.
I dabbled in screenwriting, as well, and submitted some articles to magazines. Nothing ever came from any of it, which was discouraging. So, self-publishing was an attractive option. It would allow me to bypass the gatekeepers… Hell, I’d just do it myself. I’d show those fuckers.
MARK: Did you ever consider trying stand-up yourself? Or did you have the sense early on that you’d be more comfortable expressing yourself by way of the written page?
JEFF: Oh, god. I can’t imagine anything more terrifying. Maybe open-heart surgery? No, standup was never a consideration. I hate to be the center of attention, even in social situations. Willingly jumping up on a stage, in front of a bunch of people with expectations, is not even within the realm of possibilities. It would only lead to humiliation, tears, and me skyhooking a ruined pair of underwear into a dumpster behind the building. I’m much better suited to writing, which is usually done alone. I’m a big fan of alone.
MARK: I’m always curious to know how others managed photocopying… I was working at Kinko’s when I was first doing Crimewave, so I just made friends with the guy working the overnight shift… He smoked a pipe, wore what looked like homemade glasses, and wrote science fiction. And he didn’t give a fuck what I did, so long as I didn’t impede either his smoking or writing… How’d you manage copying back in the early days of the WVSR?
JEFF: I drove to Huntington, West Virginia, where Marshall University is located, and used the Kinko’s there. I didn’t know any cool people with homemade glasses, so I paid the full price. It was always exciting though, to finally finish another issue, and I remember those “copy days” with fondness. I used to lay out the pages on poster board, and shrink them down to 8.5 x 11. I can’t remember how I came up with that method, but it worked. I still have all the original Surf Reports on poster board somewhere.
MARK: Were you at all self-conscious? Did you worry, when you came back in to pick up the order, after having dropped it off at Kinko’s, that the people behind the counter may have read it and formed some kind of opinion about you?
JEFF: Oh yeah, definitely. College town hipster copy folk intimidated me, almost as much as record store clerks. I always hoped one of them would say something positive about the latest issue, but it never happened. I decided they were professionals, trained not to react, and their silence had nothing to do with the quality of my work.
MARK: When you first started publishing, were you aware that there was a “zine” movement afoot? Had you perhaps seen Factsheet Five?
JEFF: Kinda. I used to hang out in a record store in Charleston, West Virginia, and there was a guy who worked there named Barry. He became my unofficial musical mentor, and helped guide me from my Beatles fixation into punk and new wave, and that sort of thing. He knew (and knows) more about alternative music than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s a really cool guy, with impeccable tastes. One day I told him my girlfriend and I were going to Columbus, to buy music at the record stores near Ohio State. He asked me to pick him up a copy of a “fanzine” there, called the Offense Newsletter.
I had no idea what he was talking about, but if Barry thought it was worthy… I needed to check it out, too. I found the questionable-looking periodical (typed, photocopied, and stapled in the corner), and bought two copies — one for Barry, and one for me. It was written by a guy who was obsessed with the bands on the 4AD record label. He was a good writer, bubbling over with enthusiasm. I think his name was Tim. The whole thing was electrifying. And I didn’t even care all that much about the subject matter. It was the DIY aspect of it that excited me.
There was a zine section inside, with names and addresses of similar publications. One was Factsheet Five. I ordered a copy, and was publishing The West Virginia Surf Report within a few weeks.
MARK: Do you remember, when you first put pen to paper, what you were thinking? Had the vision for the West Virginia Surf Report already taken shape in your mind, or did it kind of evolve over time, as you began writing?
JEFF: Not really. I do remember the all-nighter I pulled to layout the first issue, though. I finished it as my parents were getting up to go to work, and drove to Huntington that same day, to make the copies. I almost called my new zine The Pros and Cons of Tuberculosis, but changed it to The West Virginia Surf Report at the last minute.
MARK: Where’d the name The West Virginia Surf Report come from?
JEFF: West Virginia is landlocked, so it’s sort of a joke… How’s that for clever?
MARK: How’d the idea for the name first come to you? Do you remember?
JEFF: I’d recently read a novel called Trout Fishing in America, which sounds like the name of a guide book, but isn’t. I tried to go for the same kind of thing. I don’t think I completely understood the novel itself, but loved the title. Now that the Surf Report is online, people think it’s about surfing the web, which is kind of embarrassing. But I’ve been using that name since the Reagan administration.
MARK: For folks reading this who might not have ever seen an issue of The WVSR, how would you describe it?
JEFF: The first few issues were literally one sheet of paper, with content on the front and back. Over the years it grew in both size and ambition. The final issue was a thick, digest-sized magazine. It took me a year to write it. The first one was produced in a week, and the last one took a year.
MARK: How many issues were there total?
MARK: And how would you describe the content?
JEFF: None of it was about my life. It was just standalone humor articles, inspired by the National Lampoon. I was trying to be Michael O’Donoghue. A few times I took an album and wrote wacked-out short stories based on the titles of the songs. It had nothing to do with the music or the band, I just used the titles of the songs as jumping-off points. I did that with a Queen album, “Dream Police” by Cheap Trick, and a record by ‘80s hair metal band Kix. I tried all sorts of things, and there were some real failures, and a few small victories.
MARK: What do you consider the biggest victory?
JEFF: I think the Kix issue is the most consistent. I also did an issue where I mocked zine culture, and the cliches that were repeated over and over again. Like beginning every issue with the phrase “Sorry this one is so late.” That one was fun, and irritated some folks.
MARK: You mention that there were some concept issues… like the ones where you wrote stories around album titles…. Wasn’t there also an entire issue written from the perspective of a guy who was running a failing small town newsletter, or something along those lines?
JEFF: Yeah, that was the final issue, the one I spent many months writing. The narrator was Earl T. Grey. I haven’t read it in a long time, but it was packed with wackiness. I have a feeling I might grimace a lot if I sat down with it today.
MARK: Toward the end, were you selling in stores, through a distributor?
JEFF: I was in Tower Records, and a few indie stores, like Quimby’s. I didn’t have formal distribution, I just contacted the places directly.
MARK: As bad as the internet was for zines, I think the loss of Tower may have been more devastating. As much as I love the small bookstores that carried Crimewave, it was cool having global reach through Tower, and access to their customers. I mean, people who go to Quimby’s already know what’s going on. They’re already, for lack of a better word, “cool.” They know there’s a wider world out there. At Tower, though… especially before the internet… you could get the small town kid who just drove into the city to buy a Beatles compilation. And I liked that. I liked knowing that I could reach people like the younger me, and show them that they could do something interesting with their lives.
JEFF: It was an exciting day when the buyer at Tower agreed to stock the Surf Report. As you say, I had visions of my little magazine falling into the hands of kids all around the world. In fact, I received a letter from a punk rock girl in Japan who bought my zine at Tower. That kind of thing blew my mind, during those pre-internet days. Who knows? Maybe the Surf Report did for somebody else, what the Offense Newsletter did for me? I’d like to think so.
MARK: What were you doing when you first started? Were you out of your parents’ house and on your own? Were you working at the time? Were you single?
JEFF: I was still living at home. I’d dropped out of college, and was adrift. I had a job in a shitty grocery store run by alcoholics and criminals, and felt panicked most of the time. My girlfriend was speeding toward her degree, and I was going nowhere. When I started producing my little zine, and getting cool-as-hell trades in the mail, it became one of the best parts of my life. I was totally hooked.
MARK: What year would that have been, and how old were you at the time?
JEFF: I left West Virginia in 1985, so it was prior to that. I’m not sure, exactly. Maybe ‘84? I would’ve been 21.
MARK: Assuming she found out about it, what did the girlfriend make of this new hobby of yours?
JEFF: I honestly can’t remember. I’m sure she thought it was weird, and was likely plotting her exit strategy by then.
MARK: I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the first issue of the West Virginia Surf Report. What was it like? Was there anything in it that you remember being particularly proud of?
JEFF: It was a one-sheeter, as I mentioned. In the main article I analyzed the different areas of a classroom, and the types of people who choose to sit in each. It was a good idea, but I’m not so sure about the execution. I wouldn’t mind giving it another try. I think there was something in there about people who sit in the front row of a classroom always having extremely red lips, like Russian children. It makes no sense to me.
JEFF: It was great, I have wonderful parents, our town was like Mayberry, and I think I might’ve been a member of the last generation that was allowed to run free and create our own fun. My friends and I got into a fair amount of low-grade trouble, but also played a million games of Wiffle Ball and rode our bikes until they were on the verge of collapse. My grandparents lived across the street from us, I have a great mother, and my dad is the funniest person I’ve ever known… It was pretty close to perfect.
MARK: I’ve always found it interesting about you that you had this kind of idyllic, Mayberry-like childhood. You weren’t a social misfit like a lot of us who gravitated toward zines. You were a relatively popular kid, at least as I understand it. You had an awesome perm, got laid, and got along well with your parents.
JEFF: I hope I didn’t imply I was popular and getting laid. Neither of those things were true. I was a wise-cracking smartass, with a group of like-minded friends. We weren’t total outcasts, but we certainly weren’t in the inner-circle, hobnobbing with the quarterback and that sort of thing. I’ve always felt like an outsider. I had interests that very few kids shared, knew trivia and facts about things that most people didn’t give a shit about, and listened to strange music. If you were to talk to random people from my high school, I think they’d either describe me as a) a blue-ribbon asshole, or b) funny, but weird. Or maybe c) “Who?”
MARK: I may well have imagined it, but I seem to recall a story about someone on the fire department catching you in a car with a girl, and sprinting across town laughing to tell your dad, or something like that. And, from that, as someone who never even sat in a car with a girl, I probably imagined that you were popular and getting laid all of the time. Still, though, on the spectrum of popularity, it sounds like you were doing OK…
JEFF: Heh. Yeah, cops caught me and my girlfriend in a parked car. We weren’t leading up to something, and we weren’t finished – we were DOING IT. They shined flashlights through the windows from various directions. She screamed, I screamed, and there was a lot of scrambling and holding stuff in front of the parts we wanted covered. I think she had the rear passenger-side mat off the floor, and I was trying to hide my rapidly-deflating wang with an ice scraper, or a Madness cassette, or something. Sadly, it did the trick.
Those guys all knew my dad, and ran to him and told him all about it. I’m sure they enjoyed every minute of it. My dad didn’t make a big deal out of it, but let me know he was aware of the incident. Sheesh. I’m cringing, just thinking about it.
But she and I didn’t get together until late in my senior year. Prior to that: nothing. I was certainly no ladies man. I had some friends, but wasn’t popular.
JEFF: Did I say cassette? I meant poster.
MARK: I mentioned your perm earlier hoping that you’d address it.
JEFF: It was all natural, baby! I was blessed with the Peter Brady look without any special effort on my part. Today I keep it tamed with clippers, but I could return to my roots if I chose to do so. It’s reassuring to know I could look like a fat, aging Brady kid within 45 days. My grandfather told me that from his deathbed, “You’ll always have the Brady thing to fall back on.” …I’m sorry, I’m getting a little emotional.
MARK: When did you first share The WVSR publications with your family?
JEFF: Never. It was always something I did in secret: a private world I could disappear into. I’ve never really talked about my writing endeavors with my parents, or the people I work with. I don’t think most of them would understand, so why bring it up?
MARK: You mentioned that your dad is the funniest person you’ve ever known. In what way is he funny? And how’s your humor different from his?
JEFF: Very dry. He’s quiet, like I am, and constantly observing. He has the ability to see the absurdity in normal, everyday things. I think that’s pretty much what I do, too. I was just with him in November, and he still cracks me up. Just walking around a mall with my dad is great fun… It’s all verbal with him, and I’ve gotten somewhat adept at writing it down. Plus, I was exposed to the Lampoon, and their antisocial ways, early on. That’s how we’re different, I guess.
MARK: Before we discuss your novel, and your more recent writing projects, I wanted to ask you about Factsheet Five. Do you remember your first review?
JEFF: I think Gunderloy himself wrote it. It was more of a description of the zine, than a proper review, as I recall. I wanted more opinion. But there was nothing negative, so I viewed it as a win.
MARK: And who were you trading with back in the day? What other zines did you like?
JEFF: Crimewave, of course. Pathetic Life, The Scaredy Cat Stalker, The Inner Swine, Crank, Beer Frame, Stupor, Farm Pulp. All sorts of great stuff would show up in my mailbox. I remember reading something you wrote, years before I met you. You were describing a stay in a horrible motel somewhere, that had me laughing my ass off. I remember thinking: This guy is really fucking good. Then, of course, the jealousy kicked in.
MARK: Speaking of other zine publishers, I remember there being an instance in which someone was really pissed at you. I think he’d given you a good review or something, only to discover, after the fact, that The WVSR was a work of satire, and that you weren’t really the character you portrayed yourself to be in that particular issue. Am I remembering that correctly? Didn’t he get really mad because you’d made him look foolish?
JEFF: I’m not sure we should even talk about this. Years have passed, but it still feels like it could flare up again. Your description of it is pretty close to the way I remember it, but I’m sure he’d have a different read on the matter. It all played out on the alt.zines newsgroup, and people took sides. I had some supporters, and so did he. The whole episode was disgraceful. Both of us got carried away.
MARK: I never got involved on the alt.zines newsgroup. What was that like?
JEFF: There were some cool people on there, like the late, great Ninjalicious. We’d all log on at night, while drinking in most cases, and argue, converse, and self-promote. It was like a very rudimentary version of Facebook for zinesters. Sometimes it was silly, and would bog down in accusations of “Sell out!!”, and that sort of thing. But it was almost always entertaining, because of the big personalities involved. It was fun.
MARK: What made Ninjalicious great? I never really got a chance to know him.
JEFF: He had a fantastic zine called Infiltration, about exploring places you’re not supposed to go, like abandoned mental institutions and that sort of thing. Plus, he was just a really funny and smart guy. He was often the voice of reason on alt.zines, even though he was younger than most of us. I never met him, but he came across as extremely intelligent, friendly, and more well-adjusted than the standard misfit who frequented that newsgroup.
JEFF: It’s just something I drew many years ago. I used to doodle a lot, and there was something pleasing about that friendly, misshapen fish with a cig. So, I began using it as the zine’s logo. I wish I could tell you it has some deep meaning, but it doesn’t.
MARK: Does the smoking fish, to your knowledge, exist anywhere in the world as a tattoo?
JEFF: A couple of my readers have threatened to turn it into a tattoo. But, as far as I know, it hasn’t happened. I remember you tried to talk me into having it done, when we were in California. But, as you know, I’m a fairly big pussy. A race car driver had it painted on the side of his vehicle a few years ago, and promptly crashed. I guess the Smoking Fish didn’t bring him much luck? It’s a good thing I didn’t get it on my chest, or whatever.
MARK: Do people still send photos of themselves holding up pictures of the smoking fish? What was the weirdest one you’ve ever received?
JEFF: Yeah, people still send them to me, but I haven’t been very good about posting them in a timely manner. I need to get it caught-up; it’s number 187 on my to-do list. There are some great ones, including one from some sort of crazy penguin colony in Antarctica, and a shot of a little kid holding the Smoking Fish in an African village. Those two blew my mind, especially. But there are plenty of great ones.
MARK: I remember one day, about 15 years ago, when both you and I were living in Los Angeles, we decided to drive down to a zine conference together. There was this moment when something interesting happened… I can’t remember what… it might have been after we met that old guy who showed us the little sci-fi zine that Roger Ebert used to publish as a kid… and I pulled a scrap of paper out of my pocket to jot something down. You blurted out something like, “You write stuff down too?”, like it was the most amazing thing you’d ever seen. It was just a weird little moment, but it made an impression on me. Before that, I’d never thought that it was all that odd that I obsessively scribbled notes to myself.
JEFF: I never knew anyone else who did that. I knew clever and creative people, but none seemed interested in capturing and curating their ideas. I started writing stuff down, privately. I didn’t want people to know about it, because it felt like I was putting on airs. When I saw you doing it too, it was exciting. Now I wasn’t the only one.
MARK: The last time I interviewed you, your first novel Crossroads Road was just coming out, and you weren’t quite sure what the response would be. Well, what did people think? What did you learn from the experience? And, most importantly, did your in-laws ever find out that they’d inspired a few of the more colorful characters?
JEFF: Readers of my site liked it, of course, and even folks who don’t know me reacted positively, for the most part. It’s basically a farce, built for entertainment purposes. There are no life lessons to be learned, that’s for sure. A fat woman falls off a toilet in the first chapter, and that seems to be the dividing line. People who don’t really know what they’ve gotten themselves into decide, right there, if they’d like to continue with me or jump ship. They should thank me for putting that scene so close to the front of the book.
MARK: No sense letting all of that material you wrote for Phyllis Diller go to waste…
JEFF: That’s right. It’s not all fat jokes, though. There are all sorts of shenanigans, and a subplot that features Steve Miller. Yes, it’s a high-brow work, reminiscent of Dostoyevsky.
MARK: What about your in-laws… Do they know to what extent they’ve inspired your creativity.
JEFF: They’ve certainly provided me with a lot of great material. They’re out of their fucking minds, you see, and that’s a valuable gift. But, I don’t think they even know I write. They mostly care about themselves.
MARK: Do readers of your website really buy you beers? How often does that happen? And would you mind if I stole the idea for my site?
JEFF: Yes, my readers are the best. They send me beer money regularly. I also receive physical gifts from time to time. Just a few days ago I met a reader from Ohio at a Wendy’s off Interstate 80, and he handed me a 12 pack sampler from Great Lakes Brewing. He had his whole family with him, and they were eyeing me with suspicion. And who could blame them? Great beers, by the way. My wife and I made those things disappear in a few days. You should definitely solicit donations of alcohol at mm.com. Buy Mark a Beer!
MARK: Speaking of the online version of the Surf Report, what’s your biggest hit been in terms of breaking through to the masses? Was it your counting of “Fucks” in the series Deadwood? Or maybe that time you reprinted that Major League Baseball player’s paycheck?
JEFF: The Fucks in Deadwood thing was linked on Drudge for three or four days, and nearly exploded the Surf Report servers. There was also a Los Angeles Times article about it, in which they talked to the show’s creator, David Milch. He was not amused. I heard Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh talked about it, too. I think some people believed I was making some sort of commentary on the downward spiral of society, or whatever. Needless to say, I was just screwing around, and having fun. What do I know about the downward spiral? I can barely manage my own life.
MARK: So, what are you up to now? Any chance we might see another issue of The WVSR? Or how about a compilation of back issues?
JEFF: I’m writing a non-fiction, memoir-type book. I’m hoping to sell it to an actual publishing company, with the help of my agent, Jenny. The proposal is done, and hopefully I’ll have some good news about it soon. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll self-publish again. It’s easier than ever to bypass those gatekeepers.
MARK: What is it about your life that you think would resonate with people? What, in other words, makes you think it’s memoir-worthy? I should add that I don’t mean that as a challenge. You’re a great writer, and, having heard some of your stories about growing up in West Virginia, I can totally imagine it. I’m just curious as to how you’re pitching it to publishers.
JEFF: Well, I called it a “memoir-type” book. It’s not a straight-up memoir. Jenny — and now you — reminded me that nobody would care about the life story of Jeff Kay. So, I’m writing about the horrible minimum-wage jobs that everyone has when they’re young: the ridiculous people you meet, the crazy situations you encounter. I think it’s relatable, or at least I hope it is.
MARK: Have you found yourself using the phrase, “It’s like Crum, but a generation later, and a little more filthy”? That’s kind of what I’m imaging. Am I completely off-base?
JEFF: I love Crum, but it’s a novel. Autobiographical, for sure, but written like a novel. The book I’m working on is more like Bill Bryson. You know, if Bill Bryson weren’t quite so talented and sophisticated.
MARK: Did blogs kill zines, or do zines still have a place?
JEFF: It’s easier to reach a lot of people via the internet than through the postal service. So that pretty much dooms zines as we knew them, I think. It’s sad in one way, but I don’t think the method of delivery really matters all that much. As long as people – young people especially – are still being creative and sharing their works with one another, it’s a good thing. I loved doing my zine, and the website has been even better. So, I’m not in mourning. It’s the work that ultimately matters.
MARK: What advice would you give to one of your kids if he came up to you and told you that he wanted to start publishing a zine?
JEFF: Ha! That would require turning off Workaholics and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I don’t see that happening. But if it did, I’d be supportive and try to get them to choose a specific niche, instead of being all over the place, like me. Maybe one of them will start a Workaholics zine?
MARK: What’s the best thing to come from The WVSR?
JEFF: Definitely the community the site has spawned. It’s a group of funny, talented folks, with only the lightest dusting of assholes. A few years ago a man and woman met in the comments section of the Surf Report, and were married. (Image right.) Several other readers attended the ceremony, and how cool is that? They’re a very supportive group, funny as hell, and feel almost like family. Many of the readers have been with me for a decade or more, and I love a full 87% of them. Also posting semi-daily updates for years and years has turned me into a better writer. I’ve put in my 10,000 hours with the Surf Report, and it’s paid dividends. I’m certainly no Hemingway, but I’m much better than I was ten years ago.
MARK: It pissed me off to see your website get ripped off a few years back. I can’t remember who it was, but someone took your piece where you compared fast food advertising photos to the actual fast food you receive at the counter, and it became a huge viral thing for them… Do you find yourself getting ripped off very often? How do you find out about it when it happens, and what do you do about it?
JEFF: That Ads vs. Reality page is ripped-off all the time. Either the concept, or the photos themselves. In the early days I tried to fight it, but it became exhausting. Some guy in Europe even got a book deal with it. Grrr… I probably should’ve been more aggressive. I’ve had other things stolen, as well. Sometimes I link to the offending sites at the Surf Report, and the readers take it from there. They harass and berate the bastards into submission.
MARK: You write a lot about fast food these days. What’s your current favorite?
JEFF: My favorite fast food? I like Five Guys, and burrito places like Moe’s, and that sort of thing. But Wendy’s will always do in a pinch. I like Wendy’s. I was there today, and had the number one with cheese, no pickles, and a Coke. Fast food pickles are nasty-ass.
MARK: Assuming someone reads this and wants to get their hands on an issue or two of the old print version of the WVSR, is there some amount of money that could be sent your way that would motivate you to go into the basement and start digging through boxes?
JEFF: I have tons of the final issue, but the others are gone. I might have one or two copies of each. It’s not a great loss to humanity, really.
MARK: Any regrets? Anything, in retrospect, that you would have done differently?
JEFF: I listen to the Marc Maron podcast all the time, and he interviews a lot of successful creative folks. They often talk about getting the acting or writing bug during high school or college, and just packing up their cars and moving to NYC or Los Angeles. You know, just laying it all on the line, and going for it? I wish I’d had the courage to do something like that. I mean, I was working at a grocery store in Heat Rash, West Virginia, it’s not like I would’ve been risking much. That’s one of my biggest regrets. There are others.
MARK: So, if you could go back in time and give young Jeff Kay one piece of advice, would it be to drop out of high school and hitchhike to LA? Or are there more important messages that you’d like to convey?
JEFF: No, I’d tell him to graduate high school, then hitchhike to LA or New York. Or go to college near a big city, where things are actually happening. When you’re young, with few responsibilities, there’s no reason to be timid. I was timid, and it pisses me off. I knew what I wanted to do, and didn’t have the onions to really go for it. I’d tell the young, svelte Jeff Kay that his dreams are attainable, but it’s going to require some short-term discomfort. Now get out of that canned food aisle, for the love of God, and quit being such a scared little pussling!