Today’s Guest: Chip Rowe, editor, The Book of Zines, Chip’s Closet Cleaner, columnist, Playboy Advisor
Originally published July 14, 1997
Chip Rowe is an expert in two fields. The first is sex. Every month he spends his days researching, studying and writing about the most obscure and most obvious elements of physical intimacy for one, two or more consenting adults.
Now, if you’re an expert at sex, most people might wonder when you have time — or need — to develop any other interests. But before Rowe became the Playboy Advisor in 1994, one of his other great obsessions in life was zines.
Zines are homemade, not-ready-for-newsstand magazines created for self-expression rather than profit. Rowe himself is the publisher of Chip’s Closet Cleaner, a sort of “Your Zine of Zines,” periodically collecting the best material in other people’s zines. And now he’s gone a step further, interviewing zine publishers and compiling their best pop culture and counterculture humor, essays, interviews and cartoons in a new paperback, The Book of Zines: Readings From the Fringe (Owl Books/Henry Holt).
Even better, Rowe can connect the dots between his day job at Playboy and his zine hobby.
“Some of the funniest advice to give is when I can find an answer or insight in a small zine like Black Sheets or Bust, which had one of the best pieces I have ever read sort of about sex called ‘Don’ts For Boys.'”
“Don’t for Boys” is one of three stories from Bust magazine featured in The Book of Zines. It offers advices such as “Don’t lie. I’ll catch you.” And “Don’t call me if you haven’t gotten over your last girlfriend or mother.”
If you’ve ever read or published a zine, you’re probably wondering who would ever publish a book of articles from them. For one thing, the vast majority of zines are horrible to read and horrible to look at. But the cream of the crop are often better — and infinitely more compelling — than many corporate magazines.
“You see certain articles, certain viewpoints that just strike you as brilliant, and you look around for somebody to go, ‘Hey, look at this!’ ” Rowe says. “I had this vague idea there should be an anthology, and in late 1994, I started seeing articles about the zine revolution in Rolling Stone, Details, and notably in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal did a front page article, ‘Zines of the Times,’ and just to show how unhip they are, they were obviously trying to rhyme ‘Zines’ with ‘Signs.’ They got it wrong. But book publishers in New York were educated about zines and recognized their significance. Enough people know what zines are that somebody walking into a bookstore who sees The Book of Zines will be curious enough to pick it up.”
Not that Rowe was motivated by visions of big bucks. That would go sagainst the grain for a zine aficionado, after all.
“My feeling was just to do it because it was ready to be done,” he says, sounding more like a zine publisher than an editor at one of the world’s best-selling magazines The Book of Zines include:
- “‘Solve it Yourself’ JFK Assassination Diorama,” from a zine called Verbivore, provided readers with the tools to recreate the scene at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Was Lee Harvey Oswald, Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon or space aliens behind the plot to kill the president?
- “Rejected Apes Subplots,” a feature in Hitch, suggested new ideas for the Planet of the Apes films, including: “Dr. Zaius calls for an end to feces-throwing during council meetings.”
- “Open Up and Bleed” is a graphic guide to legendary to legendary stuntman Evel Knievel’s many broken bones. It first appeared in a zine called Heinous.
Rowe’s book is full of stories, lists and graphics such as these that appealed to his sense of humor and the offbeat. It is not, in any way, the last word on zine culture — that’s what Factsheet Five , an occasional catalogue of zines and where to find them (profiled in Mr. Media last fall), is for. The Book of Zines is one of at least three recent books describing the once underground phenomena of zines. Also available in bookstores is The Factsheet Five Zine Reader: Dispatches from the Edge of the Zine Revolution (Crown) by R. Seth Friedman and A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World: Writings from the Girl Zine Revolution by Tristan Taormino and Karen Green (St. Martin’s Press).
Since 1989, Rowe has published 13 issues of his own zine, Chip’s Closet Cleaner. The first one was just eight pages long and photocopied in glorious black-and-white at Kinko’s. The last one was 68 pages, printed in two colors, published in a quantity of 900 copies and online at Rowe’s Web site.
Rowe is also the publisher of a second zine, This Is the Spinal Tap Zine: An A to Zed Guide to One of England’s Loudest Bands. He’s the kind of guy who collected Reader’s Digests as a kid because they made his world “neat and organized.” As an adult he indexed several months of the Weekly World News — for fun.
“I did books when I was in fourth grade, circulation of one,” he recalls. “My parents still pat me on the head, even after this book came out.”
Rowe, 30, took over the coveted Playboy Advisor job in 1994 from James R. Petersen, who dispensed sage and sometimes sardonic advice to men for 22 years. Only four or five men have held the job since the column’s first appearance in September 1960.
Each month, Rowe answers up to 18 reader questions (of 500 submitted each month), mostly about sex, but sometimes touching on wine, stereo equipment or how much their old Playboy collection is worth. Almost all queries are answered in print or by mail — including one Mr. Media himself sent as a college student back in ’79.
“We have form letter responses for a lot of them,” Rowe admits, “but the ones that really take a lot of time, of course, are the ones you have to research and that you haven’t heard before.”
That’s where Rowe combines his job and his hobby.
“When you are writing about sex every month, you have to read stuff that keeps your interest up,” he says. “You can’t read sex manuals every month; they are pretty much the same. Sex is not that complicated. So I find some of the freshest writing in zines. I just mentioned Rollerderby in the Advisor. It is a really well-known zine by Lisa Carver, who interviewed a woman who had a hand fetish and was very eloquent. It was in answer to a guy who wrote in saying that his girlfriend had commented on his hands and is this weird? I said, no, not at all and I quoted from Rollerderby and not Time magazine. I feel more comfortable quoting from Rollerderby because I am sure the guy hadn’t seen that or wouldn’t see it except for me giving him the address.”
You’re probably wondering the same thing I was: Why him?
“People always ask me, ‘How do you qualify for a job like that,’ and I get to say, ‘Well, I am just good at sex. And I have always been good at sex’,” he says, perhaps half kidding.
“It is a cool thing. What qualifies me for this? Well, I am a journalist, and I am curious. I love finding stuff that I can tell people.
The most common question asked of Rowe typically ends, “Am I normal?” One guy recently wrote in that he sneezed five times after every orgasm — “Is that normal?”
“I walked over to the Northwestern University Medical Library and found a reference in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association),” he says. “A physician had prescribed a patient some nasal spray that solved the same problem. I found it just amazing that somebody had addressed this and I was able to give this guy an answer.
“It is kind of a cool feeling to know that in some sense I can help set standards of sex, that great sex involves pleasing your partner, it is unselfish, if you want to have great sex, it doesn’t begin with yourself. Great sex is really focusing on the other person.”
When people learn what Rowe does for a living, he becomes the life of any party. Well, almost.
“My wife rolls her eyes,” he says. In fact, before they were married, journalist Charlotte Snow wrote an article for NewCity in Chicago titled, “I’m Dating the Playboy Advisor!” In it, she revealed how her parents responded to her boyfriend’s occupation (well, actually) and how her friends now turn to him for advice.
At his 10th high school reunion, one former classmates got on his hands and knees, worshipping at Rowe’s feet.
“Omigod! Omigod!” he kept repeating, awed by Rowe’s position.
Curiously, the Playboy Advisor column has always been uncredited. People came to know Petersen over the years because he wrote books and toured college campuses. Rowe figures all that is still ahead of him.
“I am in no hurry,” he says. “I still have a lot to learn about sex.”