The staff at Maximum Rocknroll are convinced Tim Yohannan haunts their offices. The founder of the punk magazine died in 1998 at age 52 -- too soon -- and his opinionated ghost likes to make his presence known during odd moments.
“[Once] a shelf of books came toppling down when we spent too much time talking about [the band] Integrity,” Grace Ambrose, Maximum Rocknroll’s current content coordinator, wrote in an email, referring to the long-running Cleveland hardcore band who was probably a little too metal for Yohannan's taste.
There are stories of needles skipping on ‘80s pop records and of push pins suddenly disappearing from a poster on a wall; basically everyone who has lived in the magazine's office/living space north of the San Francisco Panhandle since Yohannan’s death 18 years ago has had some kind of supernatural experience. But you don’t have to live there to feel his overwhelming presence, it's in the green tape on every single one of the thousands of records on the office shelves, the custom 7" covers and other memorabilia, and in the immaculately clean office -- a middle finger to anyone who assumes punks are lazy and gross.
Yohannan founded Maximum Rocknroll (MRR) in 1982; by now it has been around longer without him than it was with him. The magazine's longevity can be partially credited to his planning: after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Yohannan elected to find not one, but two replacements for himself because he did so much for the magazine. (The staff later found they actually needed three people to fully fill his shoes.)
The staff at Maximum Rocknroll have also encountered unforeseen obstacles and, without Yohannan's guidance, managed to keep publishing the zine, never missing a month. Like all legacy print publications, MRR no longer makes the riches on ad sales that it did during the '90s (thanks internet). It’s come close to shutting its doors many times, and yet it lives today -- the September 2016 issue of the zine is its 400th issue. The issue is dedicated to the volunteers, aka "the shitworkers," who are mostly responsible for Maximum Rocknroll’s continuing existence.
"It's an arbitrary numerical milestone, but we always do something for those issues," MRR archive coordinator Shivaun Watchorn said. "We have a lot of exciting stuff going on, so we felt like we should support those who made it happen. It's a labor of love."
After Yohannan’s Death
When Yohannan died in April of 1998, not only was it a tragic end to a local legend, it was sooner than unexpected. The magazine’s staff thought he had at least three more months, and it left the magazine in a bit of a bind; Yohannan still needed to train Mark “Icki” Murrmann.
Murrmann, who is now the photo editor at Mother Jones magazine, applied for the content coordinator position when Yohannan began looking for his replacements. He got far enough along in the process that he was flown out from the Midwest to interview in person, but Yohannan ended up choosing Jen Angel and Jacqueline Pritchard to succeed him. A few months later, he called Murrmann to offer him the job -- Yohannan had a falling out with Angel and she was asked to leave the magazine. (She would go on to start Clamor magazine with Jason Kucsma.)
Murrmann drove from Florida to San Francisco and moved into the offices a week after Yohannan died. He says those first days of living at the offices were difficult; the staff was still reeling from Yohannan’s death and Murrmann, who nobody really knew, had to be an authority figure.
“It was a really tough time to come into a scene where nobody knew you and you were in charge. People were trying decide if they wanted to stick around," Murrmann said. “They were also dealing with the fact that somebody had stolen a lot of high value records immediately after Tim’s death.”
As it turned out, Murrmann didn’t really need Yohannan’s supervision as Pritchard had been trained by Yohannan. But even if she wasn’t there, Yohannan had it covered before he died, compiling instructions for putting the magazine together. The instructions were in a binder that literally said “How to Run Maximum Rocknroll” on the cover.
Murrmann would only last about eight months, and his early exit was the result of the number one rule at MRR: coordinators are not paid for their work. They live at the offices for free but they cannot receive any compensation, which ensures that those who apply for the position are passionate about the job, not the income.
“The three tenets of the magazine were that it will always be on newsprint, nobody will get paid and there will never be a color cover,” Murrmann says. “And those are things that basically handicap it.”
Murrmann had to take a second job to pay off debt, there were records he wanted to own and he somehow needed to pay for food. But his options for employment were limited thanks to another rule for coordinators -- they both had to be present when the office was open from 10am to 6pm, hours that Yohannan could keep because his job as head of shipping and receiving at UC Berkeley freed him up. Murrmann had to find work during unconventional hours.
“I worked all types of odd jobs. I worked as security at Tower Records in the Castro, I worked at a catering company on the graveyard shift washing dishes, I made buttons for Busy Beaver buttons, shit like that,” Murrmann says. “Basically I just wasn’t making enough money and I wound up going back to Indiana.”
Murrmann’s employment issues did inspire change at the magazine. The magazine has a board of directors made up of MRR veterans and Yohannan's friends, set up to ensure the magazine stays true its mission. The board hires new coordinators, approves price increases, and changed the rules before Murrmann's departure to hire a third coordinator. Now only one coordinator is required to be at the office when MRR is open.
The End of the Heyday
These changes made it easier for coordinators to support themselves, but it didn’t stop the inevitable revolving door in the position. Since Yohannan's death, the turnover has been so high in the magazine's top position that it's difficult to keep track (but the magazine reportedly has a list). A few have left after a year, some after a couple of months. Occasionally some stay in the position for years, such as Pritchard, Layla Gibbon, Golnar Nikpour and Arwen Curry, the third coordinator brought on while Murrmann was still around.
Curry struck up a friendship with Yohannan over email while she was living in Santa Cruz, singing in punk bands and writing a column for the local weekly. She moved up to San Francisco in 1998 but Yohannan died before she could meet him. Still, she went to work at MRR reviewing records, and as the difficulties of coordinating the magazine increased, it wasn't long before the board asked Curry to come on as a third coordinator.
It was during the turn of the century when Curry says the magazine would see the end of its most profitable era. Before then, as much as the magazine railed against the punk bands like Green Day and Jawbreaker that went mainstream during the '90s, punk’s popularity was a tide that lifted all boats, acting as a gateway to the bands on smaller independent labels. MRR profited from that popularity as much as a not-for-profit magazine could. At the end of each year during those salad days, Yohannan would bust open the overflowing coffers and start giving away the would-be-profits to MRR-related projects -- the all-ages music venue 924 Gilman, the record store Epicenter Zone, Blacklist Mailorder -- and to the shitworkers, in the form of Christmas bonuses. "The first year I was there, it was a couple hundred dollars per person," Curry says.
“That changed pretty quickly when punk stopped being mainstream again and slipped back into its regular underground home,” Curry says. “During my tenure we went from having this surplus to really struggling. Sometimes we felt there was an existential threat to the magazine.”
As the magazine entered the '00s, ad sales sank and subscriptions began a steady decline that would go on for years.
Not only did the money stop coming in like it used to, the magazine stopped its longtime distribution deal with Mordam Records, which began almost in tandem with MRR. By then, Mordam was working with labels that were too corporate for the Maximum staff, so they opted to distribute MRR themselves and hire someone to help sell the magazine.
"That was a challenge. Financially it still is, although it's the best option we found," Curry says.
The magazine stayed afloat, but not without a few close calls.
"It was terrifying for me because you really feel, as the coordinator, that despite all the people who are helping, it's on your shoulders ultimately," Curry says. "I was feeling the burden of the possibility that an incredible institution would go under when I'm at the helm."
Back in the Black
Curry left the coordinator position in 2004 and would later head to UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, earning her master's degree two years after Murrmann completed his own at the same school. (She became a filmmaker, working at KQED before starting her own production company, which is currently producing a feature-length documentary about sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin.)
"I think I'm exaggerating, but I remember a time five years ago where we went through five coordinators in just as many months," say Brace Belden, a MRR columnist since 2008.
But now, by all accounts, the state of the magazine is good. Under the leadership of coordinator Grace Ambrose, the magazine has paid off its debts and has even built up a bit of a surplus.
"I will say right now that MRR is definitely in its best incarnation since the '80s," Belden says. "Grace does a fucking great job. No knocking any of the other coordinators that have been there since I have been there, but the only person who makes it seem like she's running a magazine is Grace."
Ambrose, who came to the magazine from Philadelphia in 2014, credits her co-workers -- "Nothing that happens at MRR can be credited to any one person," she says -- and some lucky breaks for MRR's current financial standing. With the help of distribution coordinator Eli Wald, she identified and eliminated a lot of "inherited inefficiencies" in all aspects of the magazine's production and developed a new system for distributing the magazine. She also oversaw the expansion of merchandise options and the release of a Los Crudos double-LP discography (compiled over many years by former MRR coordinators Mariam Bastani, Martin Sorrondeguy (Los Crudos's singer), and Lydia Athanasopolou) on the magazine's label. When the album sold out, the band members donated all the profits to MRR, enough to pay off a massive debt that had been weighing on the publication for a decade.
"Cut costs and make more money, that's the secret to running a business right? We're figuring it out," Ambrose says. "Running a print magazine about punk in San Francisco still seems totally improbable, but we're making it work."
With the magazine on stable footing, Ambrose and staff are working towards the magazine's next big project: a digital registration of over 50,000 records at Maximum Rocknroll. The online archive will include a picture, release information and the magazine's review of each record or cassette in its massive collection. Ambrose even brought out her friend Shivaun Watchorn, a professional archivist, to help with the massive project.
"The magazine always had an international readership and it has always been designed to serve the international punk community. We have so many people that read the magazine that are never going to be able to come visit us here in San Francisco," Ambrose says. "The idea was to do a project that would help us maintain our physical collections that we have here in the building and preserve them for as long as possible. It's the biggest and most extensive collection of its kind in the world, and we're making it discoverable and accessible for people all over."
Back in April of 2016, Watchorn started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $15,000 for the project. Within 24 hours it raised half of its goal, and by the second day it was fully funded. By the end of the two-month campaign, the magazine raised over $26,000 for the project.
Living on as an Example
If Yohannan came back from the dead today, he would see much missing from the Maximum Rocknroll he left behind. Bruce Roehrs, MRR's longest running columnist, died in 2010. Once-popular columns from Mykel Board and George Tabb have been dropped. Screeching Weasel frontman Ben Weasel, whose column was a favorite in the '90s, probably wouldn't be allowed anywhere near the magazine's offices because of past incidents. But the zine is still seen as the "cop of punk" for continuing to comment on issues that pop up in the punk scene, like the recent Gilman Boycott. It's also still read all over the world; to get a record review in MRR is a huge accomplishment for the unheard-of bands that submit their songs.
Martin Sprouse, who worked at MRR for decades and was considered Yohannan's best friend, says that what mattered most to Yohannan was living by example. Yohannan was known for expressing strong opinions about bands who "sold out," but these opinions were shared by many in the scene, just like his stances against skinhead violence. Yohannan was so vocal because someone had to say something and the magazine was the perfect pulpit.
"When bands started signing up to majors, we were talking about why that was a bad idea -- why would you get in bed with the majors? But bands are always going to do what they want to do and we're just presenting the alternatives to it, like staying with independent labels," Sprouse says. "It wasn't telling people not to do it, it was about living as an example. That's the key to Maximum and that's the key to Gilman. It wasn't about an idea that lasted six months -- Maximum has lasted 400 issues. That's incredible, and that's through living by example."
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.