Jake Austen’s favorite monkey scene takes place in the film The Son of Kong. “At the beginning they go to a bar and monkeys are playing music,” he says. “There’s one on violin playing the melody, two drummers, and a dancing monkey doing flips that’s dressed like a belly dancer. The violinist plays badly and hits the wrong notes, and the drums are not on the beat. It looks like they’re really playing. If they’re not, the special effects are better than Jurassic Park. It means that the actual musicians sat down and synchronized the playing along with the monkeys’ mistakes. But I like to believe that monkeys can really play music.”
Monkeys–along with rock music, midgets, and masks–are among Austen’s current obsessions. The theme of the latest issue of his Roctober Cartoons and Music zine is “Monkey Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Inside there’s an exhaustive ten-page history of monkey references in rock ‘n’ roll as well as monkey comics, monkey jokes, and monkey anecdotes. The mix is equal parts cartoons, rock, and monkeys.
Austen started the zine in 1992 while he was a student at Rhode Island School of Design. The first issue was 16 pages long and included a hand-colored drawing in each copy. But it wasn’t Austen’s first foray into the world of publishing–the Kenwood native had been drawing comics and making books since childhood. One of his recurring cartoon characters is Punk’nhead, a straight-edge, antiracist skinhead. In the current issue, Punk’nhead enlists a monkey to take the place of his band’s drummer.
Roctober, which comes out three times a year, often has a theme. The “Big and Small” issue was full of midgets and children, and the “Masked Music” issue featured everything from opera to Kabuki to country music to disco. Tying it all together is Austen’s sense of fun–which is also displayed on his biweekly WHPK radio show Roctober, where his interview subjects have included Sam the Sham and an expert on Plan 9 From Outer Space.
“I want to do things that the audience is happy about, that they would appreciate and like,” he says. To that end, most of the stories in the zine include extensive background information. “So even if your grandmother who didn’t know anything about rock music started reading it, she’d get it, and the actual content would be entertaining enough that she’d keep reading.”
Austen is also “affiliated with” the Goblins, a garage-punk band whose members hide their identities by wearing ski masks and hoods, focusing as much on show as they do on music. At one concert Goblin impostors came onstage and began playing the band’s songs as if they were robots. Then the real Goblins came out, kicked them offstage, and launched into their set.
“To me the best entertainers are Sammy Davis Jr. and Kiss,” says Austen, “because they are doing everything they can to make the audience happy. They are throwing everything they have into it. The ego comes after. Both are extremely arrogant, but the arrogance takes a backseat at some point to just making people happy.”
Austen’s newest endeavor is the cable-access show he produces with his wife, Jackie Stewart, and Kelly Kuvo from the Scissor Girls. Called Chic-a-Go-Go, the multiracial, mixed-age dance show straddles the line between Soul Train and the 60s Kiddie-a-Go-Go show. Musical guests lip-synch songs and have included Oscar Brown Jr., Three Blue Teardrops, and Andre Williams. Though the show has only aired a few times, Austen hopes to make it a weekly series.
“I guess I’m obsessive. At the same time I think you’d have to change the parameters of the term to make it apply to me. There are so many different things I’m interested in, and I’m clearly not spending an insane amount of time on any of them. I’m into Kiss, monkeys, and midgets. If I’m obsessive, they’re fairly minor obsessions, because I have the time to be obsessed with all of them.”
Roctober number 16 is available at Quimby’s Queer Store, Ajax Records, Shake Rattle & Read, 57th Street Books, and Blackout Records. Austen will appear Wednesday at 6 at Quimby’s, 1328 N. Damen, as part of the Kill Zinesters tour; also on hand will be the publishers of Ben Is Dead, Bunnyhop, Genetic Disorder, and Lumpen Times. The Roctober radio show airs alternating Wednesdays at 3 PM on WHPK (88.5 FM). Chic-a-Go-Go appears on Channel 19 at various times. For information on the Quimby appearance call 342-0910.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph of Jake Austen by Jim Alexander Newberry.