Mondo 1995 (Part II)

Mondo 2000 nailed the emerging cybersexcomputerdrug zeitgeist with its first issue in 1989, making media mavens out of its founders, Queen Mu and R.U....

The Mondo folks had no reason to flinch: A week later they were featured on the cover of Time magazine's “Cyberpunk” story in what could have passed for a paid advertisement. The cover was designed by Bart Nagel, and the layout, which mimicked the Mondo book's design, was illustrated by Mondo artists and photographers. Paragraph after paragraph was devoted to descriptions of Mondo articles and topics. Wired rated only a passing mention.

Accompanying the article was a photo of Nagel, R.U. Sirius, and Queen Mu standing in a field, the royal trio of cyberpunk prankster publishers. But unknown to Time readers was that Sirius and Mu were barely on speaking terms. He had already left the magazine. Most staffers say it was over the U2-Negativland story.

As the magazine's popularity rose, its staff was solicited by celebrities hoping to get into the pages. Neil Young, Italian astrophysicist Fiorelli Torenzi, Dan Aykroyd, Michael Penn, Billy Idol's “people,” even Buffy Sainte-Marie approached the magazine asking for press. So when U2 guitarist The Edge asked to be interviewed, R.U. Sirius summoned his friends from Negativland, a Bay Area band that had been sued for copyright infringement by U2's management for sampling the Irish band's music on its release U2.

When The Edge phoned on schedule for the interview, members of Negativland were there to conduct it — unbeknownst to The Edge. Negativland skillfully drew the guitarist into a philosophical discussion in which he described the artistic liberties U2 had taken in appropriating video images and music onstage during its “Zooropa” tour.

The shocker came when R.U. Sirius told The Edge that he was, in fact, talking to the band his management company nearly sued out of existence. Brilliantly revealing U2 as hypocrites, the article caused a huge rift at Mondo when Queen Mu balked at running it. She was tired of Negativland, and since she was paying the bills, she could make the calls.

“This was the centerpiece of the issue,” remembers Hultkrans. “It was a huge fight.”

“I just blew up,” says Sirius. “It was probably a confluence of a lot of other shit leading up to that.” He quit, walked out of the meeting and out of the house, and later faxed in a formal resignation.

Hultkrans rewrote an introduction to the story and Queen Mu graciously ran it in 1993's issue No. 8 as scheduled, but Mondo 2000 had faced its future.

“If [R.U.] is not here,” thought Nagel, “it's not going to be fun anymore.”
Sirius left the magazine and started looking for work at mainstream magazines like Details and Spin. His approach was not the most tactful employment solicitation.

“Let's face it, I had an attitude: 'Hey, I'm gone from Mondo 2000! I can fucking come in and remake your goddamn magazine until it means something!' That didn't go over too well,” he says.

He eventually slinked back to the Mondo House, and traded his ownership shares for a steady salary and financial security. Nobody said anything.

“It was like Long Day's Journey Into Night,” says Hultkrans, “where everybody sort of dances around the problem.”

Queen Mu's idiosyncrasies also ran through other departments, recalls Stickrod, who, in addition to advising the magazine for a time, also shared responsibility for advertising sales.

“Alison personally alienated more advertisers than you can imagine. She developed this theory that the reason she couldn't get big-name advertisers is that the agencies didn't respect her because her rates weren't high enough. So one day she arbitrarily tripled the rates.”

“She was always frustrated because she couldn't understand why we weren't selling more [advertisements],” says Miles Hurwitz, an independent media rep who hustled ads for several issues. “And one of the reasons is because the rates were ridiculously high.”

“This is a place I'd done a lot of footwork, and had opened the door up to them,” says Stickrod of Apple Computer's ad agency. “There are people I can't talk to now because Alison came in and raised so much hell.”

Queen Mu may not have been the greatest leader of a sales force, but the magazine did attract ads from the likes of Xaos Tools, Geffen, New Line Cinema, Logitech, and other big-ticket concerns.

But the magazine's erratic publishing schedule also made it difficult to develop a solid advertising base. “Had they just come out quarterly as they had promised,” says Hurwitz, “that would have been helpful.”

Mondo's pro-drug association continued to haunt advertisers, a bargaining chip often used by Wired ad reps, so Queen Mu began orchestrating the tone to appear more mainstream.

“I think that was a big mistake,” says Stickrod. “That was the place that made them interesting and hip. She was losing touch with her constituency — the thing that made them outrageous and interesting.”

Nagel also winced at the changes. “The rest of us thought, 'We've already gotten mainstream coverage here — why don't we just continue doing what we're doing?' It's not like we were going to lose any ads.”

Wired scrupulously avoided mentioning Mondo, but its contents page revealed that it had looked long and hard at Mondo's back issues.

The cover story in its premiere issue was written by Bruce Sterling, a frequent Mondo contributor. Also on the masthead were R.U. Sirius as contributing writer and Randy Stickrod, who was thanked under “tea and sympathy.” The second Wired detailed the Crypto Rebels, “cypherpunks” battling for the right to encrypt, a subject first covered by Mondo. Posing on the cover, among others, was St. Jude herself, who had coined the word “cypherpunks.” Wired's third cover featured Brian Eno, previously written up in Mondo; the fourth cover story was written by Mondo alumnus (and Mondo House guest) William Gibson.

Paying writers 20 times as much as Mondo, and paying on time, the more commercial Wired quickly skimmed the best of the rest of the Mondo talent pool: St. Jude, Branwyn, Rucker, Barlow, Ito, and Jaron Lanier. [page]

To this day, Wired still smells strongly of Mondo. The October issue contains articles by former Mondoids Andrew Hultkrans, Chris Hudak, Allan Lundell, Mark Fraunfelder, and Gareth Branwyn; Wired's on-line subsidiary, HotWired, includes on its staff former Mondo contributors Gary Wolf, Richard Kadrey, and John Alderman; the magazine's new Scenarios special edition contains essays by Barlow and Sterling.

“Mondo did the market research for a cyberculture magazine,” says Branwyn, author of an upcoming book called Jamming the Media. “Wired manifested on a much larger playing field, with sane people running it, with intelligent management. Mondo could have been much, much more than it was, and could really have been a contender for Wired.”

Initial reaction to Wired's debut at the Mondo House was skeptical. They now had a competitor — their first competitor — but nobody seemed impressed by the first issues. It was corporate and straightforward, even journalistic. Timothy Leary called it the CIA's answer to Mondo 2000. The staff compared it to the Monkees.

“I thought it was a rip-off,” remembers Hultkrans. He then pauses. “It was really like seeing yourself cloned in a way. It seemed like they were on a campaign to eat up our entire back catalog — people we've interviewed, issues we've covered.”

Even the distinctive spine design of Wired was blatantly copied from the clever John Borruso-designed spines of Mondo, according to an insider who attended the Wired design meeting.

“I don't think they make any bones about [the similarities],” allows R.U. Sirius. “Kevin Kelly pointed out in a discussion on the WELL, 'Well, you're always advocating appropriation, so fuck you.' I gotta hand it to him.”

“Wired was uptown and Mondo was downtown,” says Stickrod. “Mondo was really for the hairy and unwashed, and Wired was able to comfortably cross that threshold.”

Queen Mu and her chief assistant, Wes Thomas, acted indifferent to the arrival of Wired, yet each issue was immediately scoured for ad leads. Once Sirius severed full-time ties to the magazine, Thomas assumed more editorial control. Originally the Mondo publicist based in New York, Thomas wrote technology articles for many issues, and had a brilliant intelligence for conspiracy theory.

“He went to work creating this little wedge in between there, and wound up with this really weird period that I like to refer to as Hogan's Heroes,” says Sirius. “He was acting like Colonel Klink. On some cosmic level, his job was to come in and tear the place apart.”

“He was the potentiator of Alison's worst qualities,” claims Hultkrans. “I personally hold him partially responsible for what happened at the magazine.”

“Wes would come to the door around 11 a.m. in a Buddhist monk robe, and get upset that his morning Chronicle was sitting under a car in the driveway,” says then-staffer John Alderman. “Make one of the staff go get it for him. 'I'm the editor of the most important magazine in the world, and I need my newspaper every day!' ”

The fun and games had ended.
“They had this beautiful house up in the Berkeley hills, trying to be the center of culture, but really it's this siege mentality,” Alderman says. “The mail all has to be pored through like it's messages from the CIA/Wired/Mormon/Illuminati axis. That was a fully described theory one day.”

In the early days, paranoia and conspiracy theories were just jokes from which outrageous scenarios and rants could be spun, but by 1994 the mood was strangely sober. The guys working on the phone box down the street — what were they really up to? And who was that guy visible from the kitchen window, pretending to draw sketches of the building? And who were those kids who came to the door of the house, one of them claiming his dad worked for the CIA?

But maybe the paranoia was justified.
“Some of the shit they wrote about,” says former illustrator Eric White, “I wouldn't be surprised if I'm on some list somewhere, just for being associated with it.”

When a package arrived one day, the usually levelheaded Bart Nagel remembers gingerly opening it with an X-Acto knife taped to a broom handle. Gracie and Zarkov remember coming to visit once and finding everyone hiding under a bed, convinced the feds were circling with a helicopter.

And one of the staffers started to develop a serious cross-dressing persona — at the office.

“He was like, 'Oh, I'm sorry. We haven't met. My name is Amara,' ” remembers Alderman. “He looked more like a British pop star. He had on all these flowing things, and a red wig. It was sort of par for the course. In fact, it was much more pleasant to work with Amara, because [he] was this cranky old man, and Amara's at least kind of perky.”

Alderman and fellow staffer Kenneth Newby were in similar positions — young latecomers surrounded by incomprehensible tension, working on a magazine that was appearing less and less frequently on the newsstand. The two wondered if this was what publishing was really like.

“We'd go out to lunch every day and just laugh and laugh and laugh,” says Alderman. “Everything seemed so important, dead serious while you were there, and then you'd get out for a minute, take a breath. You're like, 'I just spent my whole day arguing about Masons and the CIA stealing the data base, when it's right there under yesterday's Chronicle.' It was like a Fassbinder film.”

Many Mondo principals interviewed for this story doubted that Alison “Queen Mu” Kennedy would talk on the record about the magazine. After years of skilled media manipulation herself, they said, she was now distrustful of the press, and refused all requests.

But talk she does. To me for about five hours and to the editor of SF Weekly for maybe 30 minutes. She is puzzled about why this piece is being written, but once it becomes evident the story will be told anyway, she loosens up, relaxes, and expresses herself. Still, she insists on not being quoted. [page]

No complete history of Mondo can be written until she talks because, as she has repeated to anyone who will listen, “I am Mondo 2000!”

Rudy Rucker agrees.
“It wouldn't be Mondo without Alison,” says Rucker. Since its inception six years ago, Queen Mu has published 14 issues and co-authored a book, all without drawing any salary, instead pouring a personal small fortune into the coffers to produce the best magazine possible. The inheritance is now spent, by some accounts tallying close to a half-million dollars, but at the time of this writing, a fresh infusion of cash into Mondo is said to be on the horizon.

Given the sheer number of off-record anecdotes about her, the level of unresolved frustration among many former staffers and contributors, it is surprising to find her extremely charming, in a timeless, Old World sense. Verbal exchange for her is an art form — you imagine receiving an engraved invitation for lunch, delivered by a butler on a silver tray. It's a truly odd juxtaposition, the publisher of a high-tech computer lifestyle magazine preferring to discuss arcane academic disciplines instead of electronic gadgetry. For years she even refused to use a computer. But then, Mondo has always been about juxtaposition, as perpetually confounding as a conversation with its matriarch.

Topics bounce around with lightning speed in conversation with Queen Mu, a stream of thoughts often mutating, unresolved, from one to another, as we circle around a set of questions faxed at her request. Our discourse is luxurious, seductive, and frustrating simultaneously, as a sudden Latin or French expression is casually dropped, requiring me to ask for explanation. It is a position of authority she has been in many times before.

One can empathize with Queen Mu's reluctance to talk on the record. Everybody on a publication wants to reap the rewards, but nobody wants to pay the bills. The person who does handle the checkbook has the least fun and becomes the most vilified.

In that context, the animosity toward Queen Mu among former employees seems confusing and unjustified. In her mind she professes great love and admiration for the talents of those who have passed through Mondo House portals. She is also frighteningly quick to judge, however, and starts zeroing in on certain Mondoids' personality flaws, giving each a verbal slap with antique velvet-gloved condescension, until I point out that the situation isn't that black and white. Many of the people I interviewed also have nice things to say about her, and admit they owe her for the opportunity. This produces a tranquilizing effect, and we arrange to have tea later in the week.

The day after our conversation, a flurry of panicked phone calls bounces among Queen Mu, myself, and SF Weekly. The story — the cover art by Bart Nagel! — infuriates her.

Staff members — past and present — say that no Mondo article was ever sent to press without her pencil going over it. It is becoming obvious to Mu that this Mondo story is one of the few the Domineditrix will not be able to edit. Referring to powers that will not be pleased by this article, she cancels our date for tea.

More than seven months after the appearance of Mondo No. 13, Mondo No. 14 is now on the newsstands. Its look is still sleek, still printed on heavy coated stock, and even more saturated with photography, courtesy of new Art Directors Thomas Pitts and Heidi Foley (Foley paid her dues for years as an assistant in the Mondo art department). Getting this edition out was obviously a chore — one ad announces a new CD available in January 1995, another promotes a Macintosh music festival that ended in July, indicating the issue's tardiness.

Some of the names on the masthead of No. 14 have since left. There are some interesting articles on Bruce Sterling, cryogenics, Bob Guccione Jr., and the future of audio, and a fun essay on video games, but it is a different magazine now. And yet, thumbing through its glossy pages, Mondo is still, as O.J. might say, absolutely, completely, 100 percent Queen Mu.

“It's a really remarkable institution,” says Timothy Leary. “There was a style, in the best aristocratic sense, and an attitude of [being] very bouncy, self-confident. A beautiful merger of the psychedelic, the cybernetic, the cultural, the literary, and artistic. It shouldn't last a long time.

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