Sept 23: Join author Rob St. Mary, author Steve Miller and punk legend Tesco Vee for a discussion on Re-Entry: The Orbit Magazine Anthology at Schuler Books & Music in Eastwood Town Center, 2820 Towne Centre Blvd., Lansing. 7 p.m.
Oct. 16: Rob St. Mary signs copies of the book at Schuler Books & Music, 2660 28th St. SE, Grand Rapids. 7 p.m.
Aside from several decades of tired Murder City clichés, if Detroit has a reputation for anything, it’s for being on the cultural vanguard. From proto-punk to techno, Detroit is the place where cool things happen a decade before anybody else thinks of them.
That reputation transcends the musical realm. Long before The Onion – or even Grand Rapids’ own Recoil – took a biting and satirical look at arts and culture, there was a monthly Detroit magazine called Orbit.
The legacy of Orbit — and its two predecessors, Fun and White Noise — are at the center of a heavily illustrated, colorful new book by former WOOD Radio news director Rob St. Mary. Re-Entry: The Orbit Magazine Anthology is out this month via Wayne State University Press. The book celebrates the independent spirit at the heart of these publications, all of which were founded by Detroit artist-provocateur Jerry Vile (né Peterson).
“You have this sensibility that comes out of punk rock,” St. Mary said. “It comes out of DIY. It comes out of this attitude that we don’t wait for the gatekeepers – we go do it ourselves, because if we waited around for people to give us the OK, we never would have done anything,”
Between 1978-80, Vile published White Noise, which St. Mary described as “the Detroit equivalent of Punk out of New York or Slash out of L.A.” That magazine chronicled the emergence of punk rock, including extensive coverage of Michigan legends Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and Destroy All Monsters.
Vile said: “It was like, ‘Oh, you can just do this stuff. You can hop on this punk rock fad and start your own band, or your own magazine.’”
After White Noise came Fun, which St. Mary said was the first free humor magazine in the U.S., predating The Onion by two years. Fun published a feature on techno inventor Derrick May in 1987 — only a year after his first record came out. Proto-garage trio The Gories were covered at a time when it would have been impossible to predict their future influence.
By 1990, Fun had mutated into Orbit, continuing Vile and company’s uncanny knack for detecting the pulse of the culture and for recognizing the value in emerging artists. The White Stripes were featured in a 1998 Orbit scene report when they had only been a band for six months. Quentin Tarantino was so appreciative of the magazine’s early support of his career that he sported an Orbit t-shirt in the “don’t tell me how good my coffee is” scene in Pulp Fiction.
“I think the reason Orbit was good was because we encouraged honesty,” Vile said. “This movie really sucks, or this band blows, or this band’s great and just surrounding yourself with cool people who are mostly my friends, either before or after.”
One of the biggest beneficiaries of early Orbit attention was Kid Rock, who was first featured in 1990 as a 19-year-old rapper with Kid ’n’ Play hair. He appeared some 25 times in the publication, which closed right around the time his breakthrough LP Devil Without a Cause was released.
In fact, Orbit played such an important part in Kid Rock’s career that he contributed $20,000 to the book’s crowdfunding campaign. For his contribution, Rock received an original painting by the artist Niagara titled “Hot Box,” which features a pair of lips puffing on a cigarette. That image festoons the cover of his current album, First Kiss.
“This was a painting I had bought several years before, and it was on my bedroom wall for a couple years,” St. Mary said. “It has a real attitude to it, so I can see why Bob [Kid Rock] really liked it.”
Orbit had a huge influence on St. Mary, who was exposed to it as a teenager in the Macomb County suburbs of Detroit.
“When I was in high school, Orbit was the one thing you could get every month … that really connected you to arts and culture and humor, both nationally and locally in Detroit,” St. Mary said. “It had an attitude and an edge to it.”
In fact, the magazine inspired him to start an underground newspaper in high school called Ink Spots, which ran for five issues as “an up-yours to the administration,” St. Mary said.
After nearly a decade of provocation, Orbit ceased publication in 1999, just as the Internet was disrupting the publishing industry.
“I felt like it was a big loss to culture where I was living,” St. Mary said.
A few years after it went out of business, St. Mary said he started thinking somebody should write a book about Orbit, because it’s something he wanted to read. Eventually, St. Mary realized if he wanted to see this book, he would have to write it himself. He got in touch with Vile through a mutual friend, and he agreed, with two stipulations: First, he didn’t want to write it himself. Second: St. Mary had to tell the truth, even if it wasn’t nice.
“He is a very polarizing figure,” St. Mary said. “There are a lot of people that have had interactions with him over the years who didn’t necessarily like him, or he rubbed them the wrong way, in everything from business dealings to his personal life.
“For years I didn’t like the guy,” St. Mary added.
Vile said he appreciates the renewed interest in his work, although it comes too late for his taste.
“For me, it’s like going, ‘Wow, that wasn’t a big waste of 10 years of your life,’” Vile said. “People obviously cared — people that I didn’t know.”
For more information, visit: orbitbookdetroit.com.