Rest in Peace

Beloved counterculture rag Arthur stagnates somewhere between dead and indefinite hiatus

In the end, there just wasn't enough peace and love to go around. After five years of publishing consistently interesting music, arts, politics, and drug journalism in the mold of the underground rags of the '60s and '70s, Arthur Magazine died on Feb. 23, according to founding Editor Jay Babcock. He pinned the cause of death not so much on a lack of cash (although he did mention living off friends' clothing donations and credit card debt) as on his inability to continue seeing eye-to-eye with his partner, founding Publisher Laris Kreslins.

Negotiations for Los Angeles-based Babcock to buy out Philadelphia-based Kreslins started last year and reached an impasse in late February, both men said. The breakdown locked the magazine's credit line, which was tied to Kreslin's publishing company, Lime Publishing, and abruptly halted production on the magazine's next issue, scheduled to lead with a cover article on Yoko Ono and Fluxus by longtime contributors Thurston Moore and Byron Coley.

"The magazine can't be restarted," Babcock said in a recent phone call. "It's a done deal. The situation can't be unfucked."

Kreslins, who controls the Web site and the trademark for the free bimonthly magazine, took issue with Babcock's assessment and posted his own — available on Arthur's Web site — that the publication was simply on "indefinite hiatus."

He said that five years of working without investors had become too much of a burden, and he had been looking to get out of his half of the business for the past eight months.

"I was focusing my energies on other things, and I was ready to move on," he explained via cell.

Babcock, 36, and Kreslins, 32, co-founded the magazine on credit cards in 2002 while living on separate coasts. They didn't even meet until after publishing their first issue.

Both men hailed from the dank basements of underground music fandom. Kreslins, a Maryland native, published the popular music journals Sound Collector and Sound Collector Audio Review. Babcock contributed to Mojo magazine and the LA Weekly and once helped his girlfriend run a pirate radio station in Silverlake.

In the beginning, both lived cheap — Kreslins even moved into his parents' basement for a while — and enticed mostly unpaid contributors by offering a unique venue for ideas. This promise attracted regular contributors like Douglas Rushkoff, Alan Moore, Erik Davis, Kristine McKenna, Trinie Dalton, and T-Model Ford.

Moore and Coley wrote their hyperactive roundup of underground music releases from the first issue. "They've never been paid a dime," Babcock said.

Although Los Angeles and New York were the magazine's major markets, volunteers distributed many of 50,000 copies to countercultural outposts across America. Kreslins said that this distribution network, which echoed the touring networks for punk and alternative bands in the 1980s, is one of the things he's most proud of. "The network kept growing," he said. "That's why I was so excited about the possibility of a new publisher taking it to the next level."

Arthur was patchouli-scented but whip-smart, unapologetically political, sometimes silly, often anarchist, and always willing to listen to voices way outside the mainstream. Above all, it was prophetic, usually about two years ahead of the curve in its obsessions.

Case in point: Arthur ran the first feature on songwriting virtuoso Joanna Newsom in 2004. Rumors are she'll appear in Vanity Fair before the year is out. So perhaps it's appropriate that the 12,000-word cover story on her for the winter 2006 issue will be the magazine's swan song.

"The tragic element is that we were doing better, year by year," Babcock said. "This was going to be our first all-color issue. We were staring to get inquiries from all the important liquor companies with their huge ad budgets, and yet we maintained complete editorial autonomy."

"We were almost at this point where you were going to have a full-color nationally published culture magazine, with the editor-owner being a firm anarchist in the tradition of Noam Chomsky. That was the ideology of the magazine. That would have been a unique thing in American publishing at any time, but in 2007 ... " His voice trails off, in a combination of wonder and frustration.

But in 2007, he seems to imply, when announcements of the death of print alternate hourly with news of yet another media merger, it would have been like something out of the magazine's regular column on magic.

 
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