Re-entering Orbit

By Rich Tupica
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Punk rock roundtable highlights edgy Detroit magazine

Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, before the Internet was ubiquitous, seeking out hip bands, DJs and indie films wasn’t as easy as a quick Google search or peruse through YouTube or Spotify. Get this: You actually had to pick up a newspaper or magazine.

"The Orbit Magazine Anthology: Re- Entry,” a new book by author Rob St. Mary, harkens back to those glory days of print. The book documents a trio of edgy, defunct Detroit-based publications: White Noise (1978-1980), Fun (1986- 1990) and Orbit (1990-1999). All three trendsetting mags were spearheaded by Detroit punk/art legend Jerry “Vile” Peterson, who penned the foreword in the over-sized, 256-page paperback.

“We now live in a time when things are so fast with social media, texting and the internet,” St. Mary said. “To me, the book kind of represents the history of the last time when print was king.

“I see Orbit as sort of proto-Vice, in a way,” St. Mary continued, referring to the New York-based arts and culture magazine with a significant web presence. “That’s that same kind of tone for handling real things — interviews, entertainment and so on. But where it differs is the willingness to do straight humor and satire pieces. That was something Orbit did that came from early 1970s National Lampoon. It’s a heavy part of its DNA.”

St. Mary, 37, joins Steve Miller, author of “Detroit Rock City,” and Tesco Vee, co-author of “Touch & Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine,” for a book signing and “punk rock roundtable” discussion Wednesday at Schuler Book’s Eastwood Towne Center location.

As for Peterson, the Detroit-area native has kept busy since exiting the world of publishing — and has kept up his “Vile” image. The 59-year-old artist has made national headlines for his lascivious art, including a street-art installation where he placed a mammoth can of Crisco next to Detroit’s iconic “Monument to Joe Louis” — more commonly referred to as “The Fist” — during the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy issues. It was a not-so-subtle metaphor for how he felt the city was being treated by the process. At the front of the book, Peterson simplifies his artistic vision: “I really, really enjoy making people upset. I think that’s my art.”

“He’s really a singular artist, someone who is not afraid to offend people,” St. Mary said of Peterson. “That comes from a place of finding humor in the uncomfortable.”

The anthology’s preface describes Peterson’s bent for the atypical.

“While other papers copied the tried and true alt weekly format of lefty politics and arts and culture, Peterson found that pop culture, satire and sharp design were what grabbed readers,” writes St. Mary.

Unlike its competitor, the weekly Metro Times, the riskier, satire-driven Orbit published twice a month from 1990-1993. In late summer of 1993, due to advertising revenue issues, it became a monthly.

“Orbit’s attitude was a mix of influences, from things like CREEM magazine, underground comics and punk DIY aesthetic,” St. Mary said.

St. Mary, a Hamtramck resident, is also host and producer of “Detours,” an arts and culture podcast for the Detroit Free Press. He recalled the first time he picked up a copy of Orbit at Macomb Mall’s Harmony House record store in 1993 or 1994.

“I was 15 or 16 and going to high school at Clintondale,” St. Mary recalled. “(Orbit) was this gateway of cool stuff, humor, arts and culture that you really couldn’t get from the rival alt paper in Detroit or the major dailies. This was also before the Internet, so the only way to know what bands were playing in town or the really cool things that were happening was reading the alt-papers — and for me, that meant Orbit.”

Orbit folded in 1999, the book says Peterson was a “victim of bad business and (the) digital revolution.” Some of the magazine’s greatest hits are included in this anthology, including pre-breakout interviews with the Insane Clown Posse, Kid Rock and Quentin Tarantino.

“The reason you see early writing on these bands is because those who wrote for Orbit were often in the arts/culture scene as creatives — in bands, writers, painters,” St. Mary said. “They had their ears closer to the ground than the major dailies or other publications in Detroit.”

In 1992, Orbit raved about “Reservoir Dogs” and was the first magazine to put Quentin Tarantino on a cover.

Two years later, Tarantino paid homage to Orbit in “Pulp Fiction,” donning an T-shirt featuring Orbit’s mascot, Orby, in the film.

“When ‘Pulp Fiction’ was about to shoot, the Orbit office received a call asking for more of the shirts and a signed release for its use in the film,” St. Mary said. “As a little nod of respect back to Orbit, Tarantino wears the shirt during his scenes at Jimmy’s house.”

In the end, said St. Mary, he’s just happy his passion project came to fruition.

“It’s been a great honor to do this book because, at the bottom of it, I was a fan,” he said. “When Orbit was around, I didn’t know how singular it was. I didn’t realize that we had something special that not every city in America had. Also, as I talked to people, I realized that Jerry Vile is one of the most important people in Detroit arts history in the past 35-plus years.”

Punk rock roundtable and book signing

With Rob St. Mary, Steve Miller and Tesco Vee 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23 Schuler Books (Eastwood) 2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing (517) 316-7495, schulerbooks.com