In February 2021, dance-music site Selector republished a list of 100 important house records taken from a 1992 issue of a short-lived Chicago zine called Crossfade. “Chicago’s House: A Checklist” originally ran in November of that year as part of a story package about house history, sandwiched between a brief but trenchant essay by copublisher and editor Terry Martin on the birth and evolution of Chicago’s underground dance culture and a six-page interview Martin had conducted with the godfather of house, Frankie Knuckles. The cover of that issue—there were only three in total—featured a live shot of pioneering house DJ Ron Hardy, who’d died eight months before.
You can’t know that from the Selector story, though: it mentions only the list, and the crinkled Crossfade page pictured in the article doesn’t have anything else on it. The list itself explains that it includes the wide range of records that influenced the house music coming out of Chicago, and it doesn’t mention anything that contemporary listeners would consider “house.” There’s no sign of the scene-defining cuts that Chicago labels Trax and DJ International had been pumping out for nearly a decade by that point, and the 12-inch widely considered the first house release, Jesse Saunders’s 1984 classic “On and On,” is nowhere to be seen.
Instead the list focuses on the sounds that foundational house DJs drew upon back when “house” still described a scene more than a genre: MFSB’s lushly orchestral soul (“Love Is the Message,” number one on the list), Logg’s refined, funky disco (“You’ve Got That Something,” number 14), ESG’s out-of-this-world postpunk (“Moody,” number 64). These are the kind of songs that boomed out of the speakers at the Warehouse—the nightclub at 206 S. Jefferson that gave house music its name—when Frankie Knuckles ruled the roost. They’re what the creators of the list, Robert Ford and Trent Adkins, danced to as they witnessed—and helped shape—the birth of house.
Ford and Adkins originally published “Chicago’s House: A Checklist” as the “House Top 100” two years previously in Thing, a zine they’d cofounded in 1989 with their friend Lawrence Warren. The best-remembered fanzines from that era document underground punk, so Thing‘s emphasis on house tracks and artists would have set it apart all on its own. The zine’s entire editorial perspective was devoted to Black queer life and culture, though, which made it truly sui generis in Chicago. Thing‘s vision was large enough to encompass club gossip, Black hair-care tips, erotica, poetry, film and literature reviews, and personal essays on homelessness, anti-gay violence, and AIDS.
Thing began as a photocopied and folded half-letter-size zine (8.5 by 5.5 inches) and in just two years grew into a staple-bound letter-size publication professionally printed on newsprint, in the process ballooning from 20 pages to 48. It published interviews with prominent Black queer figures such as future drag star RuPaul Charles, poet Essex Hemphill, and filmmaker Marlon Riggs; Hemphill and Riggs, both of whom died from complications of AIDS in the mid-90s, also contributed to Thing themselves. As publisher and coeditor, Ford ran Thing out of his apartment. The zine never did better than break even, despite a largely volunteer staff, but even on its shoestring budget it had grown popular enough by 1993 to sustain a run of 3,000 copies—and its readers were spread around the U.S. and across the Atlantic. Thing sold subscriptions as well as individual issues, and it appeared on shelves at bookstores in multiple major cities. Even before Thing reached peak circulation, it had become a lifeline for gay and trans people from all walks of life, Black and otherwise—and sometimes that was because of its music coverage.
DJ and producer Daniel Wang, who founded Balihu Records in 1993, discovered Thing because of its “House Top 100” list. During a 2006 Red Bull Music Academy lecture in Melbourne, Wang held up a photocopy of the Thing list while explaining its significance: “I was living in San Francisco; it was about 1991. My friend said, ‘You’ve gotta see this magazine. There are these two gay Black guys from Chicago who put out a big list of all the records that were “house” records for them, up until about 1987.’ Which was already amazing.”
- Daniel Wang discusses the house list published by Thing and Crossfade in a 2006 Red Bull Music Academy lecture.
Wang tracked down as many of the list’s records as he could find, though his roommate slowed him down by accidentally disposing of his back issues of Thing. Wang sent Ford and Adkins a $17 check for replacements, along with a two-page handwritten note filled with glowing praise of their work. He also told them he’d be moving to Chicago six weeks later: “I am sure you can imagine my excitement,” he wrote. “Meanwhile, I need your list of house’s greatest 100 hits so that I can clear out SF’s used record shops before I leave.”
I found Wang’s letter in one of the 21 boxes in the Chicago History Museum’s Thing magazine archives. All the material in the collection—letters, postcards, subscription cards from readers, photo negatives, meeting notes, faxed drafts from contributors, unpublished essays, newspaper clippings, press releases, VHS tapes, cassette recordings—previously belonged to Ford. A few months after he died in October 1994, Adkins (and Ford’s partner, Michael Thompson) donated the collection to the museum. Adkins passed away from complications of AIDS in 2007, and the materials remained unprocessed until 2018, when project archivist Rebekah McFarland noticed a job listing.
“Thing was a thing that I dropped everything for,” McFarland says. “When I saw the proposal mentioning what this project was, I immediately dove down the rabbit hole of research to find out as much as I could before applying to it. As a Black queer person, I was like, ‘Oh, this is definitely the sort of thing that I want to uplift, help preserve, and make accessible to other people.” Thanks to a grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation in New York, the Chicago History Museum could finally hire someone to do that work.
From fall 2018 till June 2019, McFarland studied Thing and its short-lived predecessor, a Black literary-arts publication called Think Ink that was also founded by Ford, Adkins, and Warren. Art historian and critic Solveig Nelson also answered McFarland’s questions and helped give her more context for the archive; in February 2018 Nelson had published an essay in Artforum on the legacy of Thing, which by then had been all but forgotten. (In December, Thing will be featured in the Art Institute exhibit “Subscribe: Artists and Alternative Magazines, 1970-1995,” which Nelson put together with AIC photography curator Michal Raz-Russo.)
McFarland encountered a welcome difficulty while attempting to categorize the Thing material by subject matter. “A problem—but in a good way, I thought—was just, like, how intersectional it is,” she says. “It’s like, here is this Black queer zine during the HIV/AIDS crisis that talks about fashion and house music. You can’t extract any of that—you can’t take the Blackness out of the queerness out of the house music out of the health crisis. It’s all in there.”
I wanted to explore the Thing archive in order to understand the zine’s relationship to music, especially house music, and McFarland’s catalog let me easily see much more. Learning about the people involved in Thing—Ford in particular—allowed me to understand the key role they played in the evolution of house. Like Thing, it emerged from a Black gay community, and Ford knew that as intimately as anyone could. In his introduction to an interview with Frankie Knuckles in Think Ink‘s second and final issue in 1988, Ford wrote, “To talk with Frankie on the history of the sound was a welcome chance to record our own history.”
Born November 17, 1961, Ford displayed precocious artistic talent. As an adolescent, he put on puppet shows for CPS students, and he studied acting, dance, and singing at Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts in Calumet Heights. He also joined the Jack and Jill Players, a children’s theater troupe, which cast him in A Raisin in the Sun as Walter and Ruth Younger’s son, Travis.
Music took hold of Ford’s life after he graduated from Corliss High School in Pullman. He attended a few different colleges, and during his three semesters at Antioch in Ohio he met a friend named Charles. According to an unfinished essay Ford had intended for John Preston’s 1992 anthology A Member of the Family: Gay Men Write About Their Families, it was Charles who told Ford about the Warehouse—he invited Ford while they were both back in Chicago on break, and Ford’s parents dropped him off at the club.
As Ford later detailed in his Think Ink music column, Boplicity, he came out around the same time he discovered the Warehouse. “The Warehouse was a way to conquer repression and escape oppression,” he wrote. “It was a haven, owned and operated by black, gay men for black, gay men. Though all were welcome, it was clear on whose turf you were.”
The Warehouse had a similarly transformative effect on Thompson, Ford’s future partner, a white man who’d moved to Chicago in the late 60s to follow the city’s Black blues musicians. “It’s hard to describe, but it was, for me, a completely exotic and incredibly beautiful experience, and at the same time, very foreign,” he says. “I grew up in southern Kansas—one of the most racist places in the world, by the way. It was a whole new thing for me.”
Thompson had learned of the Warehouse through Chicago’s nascent punk scene, which had taken root in a few north-side gay bars, most notably Lincoln Park punk disco La Mere Vipere. “I was very connected to punk-rock music,” he says. “That was what I called my third childhood. I knew all these DJs—in fact, I DJed a little bit myself during that period.”
The city’s small, loosely defined punk scene of the day also attracted Steve Lafreniere, a Denver native who’d helped Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher open the original Wax Trax! record store there. “I would come visit, and my friends would take me to La Mere,” Lafreniere says. He moved to Chicago before Nash and Flesher relocated Wax Trax! from Denver to Lincoln Park in 1978, but Lafreniere and Thompson would later meet at the shop (and subsequently become roommates for a decade). The fact that they and people like them were interested in La Mere Vipere as well as the Warehouse benefited Chicago’s queer counterculture as a whole by creating an area of overlap between two distinctive subscenes.
“We would go to punk shows, and we’d immediately run over to the Warehouse and dance the night away after we’d been pogoing at whatever bar we’d been at before,” Lafreniere says. “It was all kind of the same thing to all of us.”
Ford’s time at the Warehouse inspired him to buy a pair of turntables and a mixer and try his hand at DJing. He practiced mixing in his spare time and funded this new pursuit by working as a sales clerk at the Rose Records location on State Street in the Gold Coast. He started the job in 1982, and among the customers who came in was a gay white DJ named Terry Martin, who struck up a friendship with Ford. “Robert was like an encyclopedia,” Martin says. “He had such wide-ranging tastes, so he was up on everything.”
Ford’s knowledge of dance music in particular proved invaluable. “I remember him recounting the story about Madonna’s first 12-inch,” Martin says. (“Everybody” came out in October 1982.) “The buyer in the store—I forget how many copies they initially bought, but it was a ridiculously low number of copies of that first record. Robert was like, ‘I think you’re gonna need to buy a few more.'”
Ford became Rose’s dance-music buyer in 1983. On one of his CVs, he claims to have increased the store’s sales of 12-inches from 3 percent of its total to 12 percent. He got promoted to assistant manager in 1984, at which point Andre Halmon, a gay West Englewood native and veteran of the Warehouse scene, took over dance.
“Robert came from the same cloth as me,” Halmon says. “I remember working well with him at the record shop. And when he did Thing magazine, I was really happy to contribute.”
Rose Records shaped Ford’s life beyond the job too—as Thompson remembers it, the person who introduced them was Ford’s coworker and friend Wendy Quinn. But in the mid- to late 1980s, Ford mostly connected with people through the city’s queer nightlife. During that period, underappreciated house trailblazer Michael Ezebukwu was spinning at Club LaRay, a gay nightclub at 3150 N. Halsted that also attracted straight dancers. Just northwest, at 3400 N. Clark, a gay Latinx bar called Club Normandy had become a hot spot. At those two clubs, says Lafreniere, “The DJs that we loved would play.” That’s also the neighborhood where he recalls meeting Thing cofounder Trent Adkins.
“Trent was such a social butterfly in so many scenes, and found so many things interesting,” Lafreniere says. “He could go to the white-hot center of something and pluck out what it was that we should all be paying attention to. He was one of those kinds of guys—beloved, funny as hell, really cute. He was this amazing character in that whole scene.” Lafreniere and Adkins eventually dated for about a year.
Adkins’s outgoing nature brought him in contact with Simone Bouyer, a queer Black production artist who worked at ad agency Ogilvy & Mather and used her free time for her art. “I discovered that I had nowhere to show my work,” she says. “I’d go to the arts district and all the top galleries, and they weren’t interested. They were like, ‘Well, who do you know? What have you done?’ It’s like, ‘Well, I’m here. I have work. I have slides. Take a look.’ They’re like, ‘No, come back when you’ve done something.’ So I thought, ‘Well, I’m not the only one facing this. Let’s see if I can just start my own space.'”
In 1987, Bouyer opened Holsum Roc Gallery and Cafe at 2360 N. Clybourn with accountant and small business advisor Stephanie Coleman. “I can’t say we made a lot of money,” Bouyer says. “But we had a lot of fun. I met a lot of people and I even sold some artwork.” She kept her day job while running the gallery, which was open from 7 PM till midnight during the week. “We’d rent the space out too, for people to host parties,” Bouyer recalls. “That was mostly a dance-party, DJ kind of function. There was a lot of crossover there between Robert’s crowd and our crowd.”
On November 17, 1987, Holsum Roc hosted Ground Zero, a kickoff celebration for Think Ink that doubled as Ford’s 26th birthday party. In spring 1988, Adkins published a recap in the second issue of Think Ink, as part of his Tee Parties column. Guests included house songwriter and producer Riley Evans, Ten City vocalist Byron Stingily, and Frankie Knuckles. “This was a cocktail party, mind you. No dancing,” Adkins wrote. “There were thousands of Think Inks on hand.”
Just days after Ford’s death in 1994, queer Chicago nightlife and events weekly Babble ran a lengthy interview with Ford by Lafreniere. Ford hadn’t looked at his work with rose-tinted glasses, and he saw Think Ink in particular as having made missteps. “It was a free black arts magazine, and I think one of its biggest problems was that it wasn’t a gay magazine,” he said. “We were more a kind of mainstream black arts magazine. It was kind of unfocused.”
Ford and Adkins had made a couple attempts to launch a publication before Think Ink. In a review of Crossfade (part of a zine roundup in the seventh issue of Thing), Adkins referred to a failed plan to launch a dance magazine called BPM. Ford recalled in his unpublished Member of the Family essay that he and Adkins had wanted to publish a magazine called Tee in the early 80s, and got as far as throwing a fundraising party at Space Place, a punk venue at 955 W. Fulton. “Being all too green in the business of event promotion, we had only one paying door customer, and eventually scrapped the first issue,” he wrote.
To help get Think Ink off the ground, Ford, Adkins, and Warren recruited Bouyer to help design it. “I had a lot of the technical skills and access to equipment, so I could help him create this professional-looking thing,” Bouyer says. “It had to be really high quality for him to send it to the printer and have them reproduce it.” Both issues of Think Ink are printed on broadsheet-size newsprint, which gives them plenty of room to emphasize images—the first, number zero, includes a two-page spread of an etching by Connecticut mixed-media artist Margaret Roleke.
Think Ink‘s debut issue, from November 1987, features a profile of the Kronos Quartet by contributing editor Gerry Fisher; a brief exploration of the emerging acid-house sound that Andre Halmon wrote for a house-music column called Real Estate; and an interview with artist, poet, and DuSable Museum cofounder Dr. Margaret Burroughs conducted by Ford, Adkins, and Warren.
If you miss Ford’s brief reference to his sexuality in the half-page Boplicity column, though, it’s hard to see Think Ink‘s queer roots. “At that time I had the idea that that was the more subversive way to do it,” Ford told Lafreniere in the Babble interview. “Have them pick up Think Ink for a Margaret Burroughs interview and get this glossary of black gay slang in the back.” (“The Tee glossary” appeared only in Think Ink‘s second issue.)
Think Ink had few advertisers, and many of those were from Ford’s immediate network. Rose Records and Holsum Roc bought prominent ads in the second issue; Ford’s father, Frank R. Ford Jr., placed a small notice for his accounting work in number zero. Ford covered much of the cost of Think Ink out of his own pocket and stored stacks of untouched copies in his apartment—its print run of 10,000 was, to put it gently, hugely ambitious for a new free publication. After the second issue hit the streets in spring 1988, he decided to call it a day.
Shortly before the final Think Ink, Lafreniere took a trip west to help mount an installation and performance—he says it involved a couple dozen slide projectors—at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. In the LACE bookstore he discovered Fertile La Toyah Jackson, a zine by Black “terrorist drag” artist Vaginal Davis. Lafreniere bought three issues and shared them with friends back in Chicago. “No one could believe how hilarious they were, how political they were, and how fucking brilliant they were,” he says. “More people started getting into the idea of doing queer zines.”
Ford was pretty burned out after his Think Ink experience, but he got the itch to dive back into publishing after reading a couple queer zines out of New York City: My Comrade, created by drag queen Linda Simpson, and Pansy Beat, an exploration of downtown gay nightlife by Michael Economy. “I liked both of them a lot, the kind of in-your-faceness and the real campy sense of humor,” Ford told Lafreniere in Babble. “I liked them, too, for just being totally and completely and unapologetically what they were.”
Ford had a Macintosh computer, a copy of Adobe PageMaker, and an idea: He wanted to publish for an audience whose needs weren’t being met by white queer zines or by relatively straitlaced Black queer magazines such as BLK. He saw an underpopulated niche where an irreverent, underground zine aimed at Black queer people could thrive. Out of that came Thing, which debuted in November 1989.
Ford’s friends began getting into zine making around the same time. Bouyer launched Planet Roc to promote events at Holsum Roc, and it slowly grew from an events calendar into a hub for poetry and short fiction. Lafreniere published The Gentlewomen of California and became an active participant in an international network of queer zinesters who communicated largely by mail. He expanded his circle by finding unfamiliar publications in the ads of zines he already had, and in addition to anonymously creating Gentlewomen he shared work by a wide range of queer artists and writers in a photocopied packet that he sent to a growing mailing list. One envelope at a time, he helped build a new queer community distinct from and opposed to mainstream gay culture.
“Mainstream gay culture was racist, sexist, boring—and these zines were people expressing the same thing all over the world,” Lafreniere says. “That’s why we started calling ourselves ‘queer’—we wanted to set ourselves completely apart from mainstream gay culture. ‘Gay’ was kind of a negative word, as far as we were concerned, even though we were gay.”
The debut issue of Thing got right down to staking out its territory. Warren wrote a personal tribute to gay disco icon Sylvester, who’d died the previous year from complications of AIDS; Adkins provided Black hair-care tips next to a Ford essay about queer phone-sex lines; erotica and poetry shared a two-page spread; and the cheeky Bunny & Pussy gossip column appeared the page before the lists that would also become a regular feature of Thing (the categories constantly changed, but in that issue they included “most embarrassing comeback efforts” and “some girls that gay men are stereotyped to love and emulate”). Adkins, Ford, and Lafreniere were all friends with David Sedaris, and Thing‘s debut issue printed an essay of his copied from one of the packets Lafreniere had sent to his queer zinester mailing list. Thing also unabashedly spotlit its creators’ inner circle, though without excluding everyone else: Adkins’s scene news column, whose name he’d changed from Tee Parties to Tee: Word, opened with a story about Terry Martin partnering with Ford on a jazz-themed party at infamous Lakeview nightclub Medusa’s (for which Ford finagled a one-day beer-and-wine license for the ordinarily alcohol-free juice bar).
It didn’t take long for Thing to find readers—including a few who were inspired to do more. Malone Sizelove, an advertising art director who’d befriended Ford and Adkins on the nightlife scene, asked Ford if he could come work for Thing. Ford told Sizelove that he’d like to bring him aboard, but he’d feel bad about ditching his current art director. “I found out later he was the art director,” Sizelove says.
Sizelove asked Ford for his blessing to make a queer zine with a slightly different bent—it would be entirely about nightlife, built on photos and bar gossip. Ford was encouraging. “Robert was one of the most generous, kind people I’ve ever known in my entire life,” Sizelove says. In 1991, as Sizelove worked to launch his queer monthly, Gag (which would become the weekly Babble a year later), he reached out to Ford with questions about computer technology and printing.
Author and historian Owen Keehnen sees Thing as one of the publications that gave him space to establish himself as a writer—he was an occasional contributor, and the zine provided him with a place to express his queerness in his writing. “It was a zine that really was about claiming who you are and being your outrageous self, if that was what you were feeling,” he says. “It hit at the right time, where suddenly it didn’t seem as important to be like the gay mainstream.”
On May 25, 1991, Randolph Street Gallery (then at 756 N. Milwaukee) hosted SPEW: The Homographic Convergence, a queer zine convention organized by Lafreniere and Larry Steger. For about six months, Lafreniere had been sending letters and making phone calls to recruit zinesters and writers from around the U.S. and Canada with whom he’d been in touch. The convention’s 60 or so participants included G.B. Jones and Bruce LaBruce, the Toronto punks who’d sparked the queercore movement in the mid-80s with their zine J.D.s. LaBruce screened his first feature film, No Skin Off My Ass, and at the afterparty—which also featured Vaginal Davis and DJ sets by Ford and Adkins—Jones performed with her band Fifth Column.
Mark Freitas, a queer-zine advocate and punk who’d traveled from Michigan for SPEW, met Ford for the first time that weekend. He already had a soft spot for Thing. “It covered something that nobody else was covering and a culture I really cared about,” Freitas says. “It was covering the house scene, which was one of the main reasons why I moved to Chicago.” He moved here in early 1992 and cofounded queer punk concert series Homocore later that year.
Freitas rented a Ukrainian Village apartment a stone’s throw from Ford and Adkins. (Warren didn’t live with the other two Thing cofounders, and seemed to contribute only if and when he wanted—nobody I talked to for this story knew how to reach him.) Their place at 2151 W. Division served as Thing‘s headquarters and an after-hours hangout. “His place was like Warhol’s factory,” says Scott Free, an iconoclastic musician who contributed photos and occasional record reviews to Thing. “He had his magazine stuff spread all over, and then he would have the house music going, and people would just come in and hang out. I think I met Essex Hemphill there. . . . I think we kind of knew that there was this scene happening, this queer art thing.”
Free had found his way into the scene through house producer and songwriter Riley Evans, whom he’d met via an ex. Evans brought Free to Seagrape Studios and introduced him to the folks at Gherkin Records, who’d put out several of Evans’s tracks; Gherkin recorded its artists almost exclusively at Seagrape, and Seagrape advertised in Thing. In an interview in the zine’s second issue, Evans credits Gherkin cofounder Brett Wilcots with giving him the chance to build a career. Evans isn’t terribly well-documented today, despite having cowritten Lil Louis’s single “Nyce & Slo” (released by Epic in 1990), but Thing gave him four pages for that interview.
House was all over that issue: Adkins profiled Paris Grey, the Glencoe vocalist whose voice elevates the 1988 Inner City smash “Big Fun,” while Mark Farina, Derrick Carter, and Chris Nazuka appeared in a front-of-book piece about their acid-house trio, Symbols & Instruments. The center spread was a smart-assed mock board game called House Hayride that asks players to roll dice to move through a minefield of jokes (“Get your song on a beer commercial—Ahead 4”; “Go to Smart Bar, and have your worst fears realized listening to New Order and the Cure all night—Back 1”). And of course the “House Top 100” was in there too.
Music would maintain its prominence in the pages of Thing as it grew in size and stature. The zine ran big interviews with salacious Chicago vocalist Candy J, aka Sweet Pussy Pauline (issue nine), with music promoter and journalist Bill Coleman (issue five), and with RuPaul, who was pushing 1993’s Supermodel of the World (issue six). Unlike Think Ink, Thing wasn’t free—its cover price peaked at three dollars—but more than any other source of revenue, music advertising supported it. Tommy Boy Records (which released the RuPaul album) was especially important—it bought a back-page ad for half of the zine’s run. (Label president Monica Lynch, a Chicago native, had befriended Lafreniere and Michael Thompson at La Mere Vipere in the late 1970s.) Tommy Boy also advertised in Gag. “That was real validation, when you’re getting a major label in the club scenes that wants to advertise in your magazine,” Sizelove says.
Terry Martin had written about music in almost every issue of Thing, but he wanted to cover much more than the zine could fit. The second wave of Chicago house was beginning its rise, propelled by the likes of Derrick Carter, Mark Farina, and DJ Sneak; in 1992, Cajmere released the immortal “Percolator” on his own Cajual Records. That summer, Martin created Crossfade, enlisting Ford as copublisher and sharing the Thing offices in Ford and Adkins’s apartment. “Crossfade really was a canvas and a platform to spotlight music, artists, and record labels who weren’t getting much of any exposure from mainstream media outlets,” Martin says. “Oftentimes, artists that we covered were marginalized—Black or gay or otherwise marginalized.”
Crossfade wasn’t an exclusively queer music zine, but it did explore the overlap between music and gay culture. Its first issue, published in September 1992, includes a few pieces on Lifebeat, an AIDS-awareness organization founded by producer and artist manager Bob Caviano. Crossfade expanded quickly, and by its third issue in November (which had a full-color back-page ad for RuPaul) it had grown from 20 pages to 32. That jam-packed issue featured the aforementioned story package about house history, the second installment of Derrick Carter’s up-to-the-minute column on new tracks (titled Subterranea), a hip-hop column by someone writing as “G-Most,” album reviews, and record lists from DJs prominent in the scene.
It would also be the final issue of Crossfade. “We had planned on it being a monthly, and continue it in perpetuity,” Martin says. “But we stopped after the third issue because Robert became ill, and I didn’t want to carry on with a different designer or copublisher—it was just too much at the time.”
The crisis that put an end to Crossfade was, tragically, far from new. After the fourth issue of Thing came out in spring 1991, Adkins had sent a letter to the staff. Though he enumerated a few reservations about their recent work—the issue had some typos, and the copy was occasionally too dry—his main purpose was to express concern about how they were holding together in the face of grief, fear, and pain.
“Again it’s recalled that nearly everyone directly involved with THING is suffering from some normal and/or abnormal load of stress,” he wrote. “Many of us who aren’t ourselves HIV+ or facing an ARC or full blown AIDS diagnosis are desperately searching for ways and means to give love and caring to family and friends who are infected or ill. Where, inside of the black gay AIDS era community, can we afford to not be kind and understanding towards each other?”
For more than two more years—and six more issues—Thing continued to publish fearless pieces that laid bare the joys and anxieties affecting the Black queer community. It ran scathing critiques of local clubs that lambasted their lame posturing or racist policies. Ford wrote about the lingering trauma that dogged him after he was assaulted by passersby, and his story (in issue seven) included a scan of the worthless paperwork he’d filed with the police department. Filmmaker Marlon Riggs wrote the most moving piece in that issue, “Letter to the Dead,” which was not only a probing dissection of his own fear and denial as the virus tore people from his life but also a detailed account of his own discovery that he was HIV-positive.
AIDS hung over everything Thing published, even when it wasn’t the explicit focus of a story. In his interview for the second issue, Riley Evans talked about throwing an AIDS benefit show featuring Ten City, Candy J, and Gherkin group North/Clybourn. He also mentioned the effect AIDS had already had on the dance community. “In a negative way, it’s taken away some of the better dance musicians,” he said.
That issue came out in April 1990. In May 1991, Evans died of complications from AIDS at age 31. “It’s a shame that he wasn’t around long enough to do what he wanted to,” Frankie Knuckles told Tribune writer Mark Caro at the time.
“I don’t think we could deal with the illness stuff very well,” Scott Free says. “I don’t think we processed it or anything. I think especially because we were so young—and that was the hard part, was to have people dying in their late 20s.”
In August 1993, shortly after publishing issue ten, Ford announced that he was ending Thing. As he wrote in a posthumously published private letter to a reader in January 1994, his declining health meant he could no longer shoulder the financial stress and labor of publishing a quarterly zine: “These days I’m living solely on Social Security Disability Insurance (unable to work because my AIDS-related medical regimen is so demanding); this sum barely covers rent, utilities, and out-of-pocket medical expenses.”
Ford continued to write for Bouyer’s Planet Roc and Sizelove’s Babble, the latter of which ran a half dozen installments of his trenchant column about living with AIDS called Life During Wartime. “Life During Wartime, you really got to hear Robert’s personal voice—the Robert that we all, who knew him personally, knew,” Freitas says. “I got to see parts of Robert I didn’t know about through those columns.”
In Life During Wartime, Ford recounted a trip he’d taken with Thompson to New York City—an upbeat story interrupted only once by a flare-up of symptoms. He eviscerated the media hype surrounding the 1993 film Philadelphia, complaining bitterly that Hollywood was selling a milquetoast AIDS story while the LGBTQ+ community was still struggling to get anyone to care about the pandemic—he especially hated a Tribune story that speculated about the harm Tom Hanks might do to his likability by playing a gay man. Even as his health declined, he often wrote about it with humor: “I feel like a human being most days, and have so few T-cells that I’m tempted to give them names.” After Riggs died in April 1993, Ford used the column to grieve: “With Marlon’s passing, I lost part of my voice, a part of my vision. And I was once again enraged at this disease, for taking my contemporaries, and circling around my door as well.”
Ford died in his home on October 2, 1994, a month and a half shy of his 33rd birthday. Among those at his side were his parents, his sister, Wendy Quinn, Terry Martin, Trent Adkins, and Michael Thompson. “When people say, ‘I’m really sorry that your boyfriend died,’ it was Robert who had the tragedy—and he knew it deeply,” Thompson says. “That he would not be able to continue that work that he loved—that was the hardest part.”
- A track from the 1995 12-inch that Daniel Wang dedicated to the memory of Robert Ford
In 1995, Daniel Wang released his second 12-inch, Aphroasiatechnubian. The yellow hub label on the B side is crammed with text. Just below the vinyl’s center hole, it says, “This record is dedicated to Robert Ford of Chicago, 1961-1994: dear friend, fierce disco diva, and editor of THING Magazine.”
Twenty-one boxes might not sound like a lot, but I would’ve needed several months to absorb every document, recording, and piece of ephemera in the Chicago History Museum’s Thing archive. I mostly studied the material I could handle on paper, including subscription cards from readers around the country, planning documents for Thing and Think Ink, and letters to and from the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame (which inducted Ford in 1993).
I did take a little time to listen to a CD copy of an interview that Ford, Adkins, and Warren had conducted with Frankie Knuckles for the second issue of Think Ink. I found it hard to follow the conversation—not because it was especially esoteric, but because their voices overlapped so often that I felt like I was eavesdropping on four tight friends during a late-night hang. But hearing them together underlined a point Knuckles made about the birth of house music: the dancers at the Warehouse, among them Ford, Adkins, and Warren, were as necessary to its genesis as the DJs spinning records.
“It once was a feeling and a spirit that not me alone invented or conjured up or whatever,” Knuckles told his friends. “It was something that people on the dance floor created themselves. People from that particular period and that particular era, in that particular club, on that particular dance floor, under that particular sound system. It’s something that they adapted and they made all their own.” v
Corrections: The original version of this piece misidentified the Thing cofounder on the cover of issue three and suggested that David Sedaris did not know his work was being printed in issue one.
Update on June 14, 2021: Ken Hare, who was close with all three Thing founders, has reached out to share information on Lawrence Warren, who died in December 2016 due to complications of diabetes. “Larry’s passing came as a shock as he had made significant progress with his diet and exercise routines, but it was too little and too late,” Hare says. “When Larry passed away, it was like losing a brother. We talked on the phone just about every day and were so in sync with one another that we could finish each other’s thoughts, before they were spoken.”
Hare also points out that it was more than Adkins’s outgoing nature that brought him into contact with Simone Bouyer. “I was the one who introduced Trenton to Simone Bouyer,” he says. “Simone Bouyer was one of my clients. I was a hairdresser at the time and worked briefly at one of the first punk hair salons in the city, named Milios.”