The Atlanta publisher, record label owner and music promoter is, in fact, the 32nd biggest asshole, according to an issue of the satiric music publication Chunklet. "The 100 Biggest Assholes in Rock" places Owings well below chart-toppers the Butthole Surfers and Courtney Love, but it does proclaim him "the unholy fusion of David Spade and Chris Farley" and an "opinionated loudmouth" who "often tells unfunny jokes."
Since Owings is the editor and publisher of Chunklet, you have to wonder just how much of an asshole he really is -- and whether he deserves to rank higher, lower or not at all. "I included myself to take the wind out of people's sails, to show that I'm not above it," he says.
Owings -- who earns his living as a freelance graphic designer -- founded Chunklet in 1993 as a "zine," a self-published, street-level periodical in Athens. Through its contents, Owings celebrates and castigates the independent music scene.
"I stay true to the sincere insincerity of Chunklet," says Owings, a big guy prone to smiling sardonically behind black-framed glasses. "The underground community is so self-righteous, I'm happy to keel-haul all of them. There are no sacred cows -- I'll slaughter them and drink their blood."
Whether he's an asshole or an altruist, attention gravitates toward the 33-year-old Atlanta resident. Spin and CMJ magazines have praised his hilarious invective and insight on pop culture. Last summer, he landed on the "It List," Entertainment Weekly's annual tally of "The 100 Most Creative People in Entertainment." The magazine hails Owings as "It Agitator," and Chunklet is lauded for irking all the right people and "combining music-geek obsessiveness with incisive satire."
Fanzines and underground newsletters have existed for decades and typically are long on attitude and short on visual sophistication or literary elegance. Owings nevertheless credits them with expanding his teenage musical horizons beyond the Beatles. "As a 16-year-old growing up in Buttfuck, Colo., and Nowhere, Pa., zines were how I found out what was going on," he says.
Owings, whose family moved frequently when he was a child, grew up in a variety of places including Salisbury, Md., Puerto Rico and Houston, so music and zines gave him continuity in his youth. "I was a defiant young kid and was beaten up a lot," Owings says. "But maybe I shouldn't admit that. People will say, 'So that's why he's the way he is!'"
He studied business and statistics in college, but Owings received his primary education from the radio. "I spent too many years being weaned on massively eclectic freeform-style radio. It was not uncommon to have world beat, avant tape loops and Jamaican dub played back-to-back with free jazz, c-86 twee and Lower East Side growl in my nascent music-absorbing years."
After receiving his M.B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh, Owings had dim hopes of getting a job during the recession of the early 1990s. Reasoning that "if you're going to be unhireable, do it in Athens," he followed a girlfriend there in 1991.
With an itch to voice his strong opinions about music, Owings went to the offices of the alternative newsweekly Flagpole on his first day in town and convinced them to take him on, despite his lack of writing experience. Eventually he became a music columnist, and he even tried playing in a band -- albeit briefly. "For about three months in Athens, I was in a band called A Mercy Union as a self-taught bass player, knowing nothing but Pylon and Ramones covers," he says. "I probably only did three shows with them."
In the end, Owings' Type A personality didn't jibe with the group dynamic. "I'm not disciplined as a team player. I need to be the one in charge," he says. "I was not designed to be in a band so much as in a community, so my creative direction went a different way."
Not surprisingly, Owings found himself increasingly disgruntled with the editorial process at Flagpole. "The straw that broke the camel's back was when I wrote a 3,000-word story on the Olivia Tremor Control, and it was cut to 300 words. I thought, 'Fuck this, if I'm going to go to this effort and not get paid, I'm going to do it for my own edification."
Named for a brand of ice machine Owings noticed in a Quik-E-Mart outside Athens, Chunklet first published in 1993 as a single sheet of paper folded into quarters. "Initially it was like guerrilla journalism," says Owings, who distributed copies around Athens hangouts like the 40 Watt Club and Frijoleros restaurant. "The first eight issues were photocopied, and it was a big step when issue 9 was printed."
Every time Chunklet has moved up a rung on the evolutionary ladder -- glossy covers, staples, etc. -- it's been out of an interest to push the design and content further. "It's been such a comfortable progression," says Owings. "None of it has ever felt forced, and I came in with no other ambition than just to amuse myself."
Amusements have included releasing two issues with compilation CDs, and a matchbox-sized issue that, at first glance, is identical to one of those "repent ye sinner" religious tracts.
Owings isn't the only person amused by Chunklet. The publication has cultivated a loyal readership, thanks in part to Owings' contacts within the music industry, which helped broaden Chunklet's sphere of influence. "I would give copies of the issues to friends in bands going on tour, and because of my record label, I had friends at distributors who I'd offer them to," he says. "Early on, they'd say, 'OK, let me have 20.' Now they'll ask for a couple hundred."
Chunklet is available in a variety of independent record stores, including Wuxtry and Criminal Records, as well as in all Tower Records, which ships the publication to Europe and the Pacific Rim.
"Chunklet epitomizes everything that we stand for as an independent record store," says Liam McKaharay, manager of Atlanta's Criminal Records, which has sold an estimated 600-700 copies of the publication, making it one of the store's top three best-selling independent magazines. "People find its honesty refreshing, and it's accessible to everyone, so kids who are just starting school and learning new types of music can turn to it. Every good music scene needs a commentary, so Chunklet is a necessity."
Chunklet's interests know no geographical borders. Its features range from stories on German "krautrock" and Vegas gambling to reports on live gigs from all over the United States. Yet the publication's "mission control" is exceedingly modest. In fact, it's located in Owings bedroom.
"Chunklet comes together in a space not 6 feet wide," says Owings. "As long as I have an Internet connection, a digital camera, a scanner and a kick-ass computer, I could do Chunklet from the moon."
Six months after Owings made Entertainment Weekly's "It List," Chunklet published Issue 16, its current and most successful issue, dubbed "The Shit List." (Of course, Owings maintains that any similarity between his list and that of EW is a coincidence.) A 180-page volume formatted like a trade paperback, it features contributions from 36 writers and illustrators. The issue's content ranges from a list of five heckles ("Play one the drummer knows!" "Keep sucking!") to 15 pages of the shittiest live rock performances ever witnessed, ordered alphabetically from 16 Rods to W.A.S.P.
Chunklet 16 is as far removed from the first issue's single sheet of a paper as a Neanderthal is from a Renaissance Man. "Its first run of 5,000 copies sold out in three weeks," says Owings. "And I've got 500 on back order already."
Owings is currently ensconced in his workstation, which occupies a corner of the bedroom of his Grant Park apartment (he's lived in Atlanta since 1996). The '60s garage band We the People grooves on the stereo, and Owings occasionally picks up a pair of red chopsticks and drums on his black jeans as he speaks. CD covers he's designed are displayed on shelves, and he's eager to show off his new finds and dear loves, hopping up to show the lavish box sets for Captain Beefheart and early bluesman Charley Patton he helped design.
Owings occasionally reveals details of his personal life in the pages of Chunklet, as in the current issue's "cyclorama" photographic spread of his disheveled office/bedroom. And in the self-interview "H2O versus H2O" in Chunklet 15, he explained that a two-year delay between issues partly was due to a bout with depression. "I told people how I'd fallen in love with someone and had them destroy me mentally. It was like a comedy of errors of things going wrong in my life, and I lost 45 fucking pounds. I think that was the most difficult thing I've ever written, but to this day people still come up to me and remember it."
On Owing's desk is a statuette of Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman, a prized possession despite Chunklet's less-than-friendly run-in with the publication. Chunklet's 14th issue featured numerous homages to and parodies of Mad, including Neuman's visage on the cover, incurring a cease-and-desist letter from Mad's attorneys.
"Yes, we almost got in a heap of trouble with a magazine whose entire mission is parody. It's remarkable to see how little satiric rubbing they're able to take in return," Chunklet announced in the subsequent issue.
Owings gets most of his story ideas when he's out in public -- especially at rock shows, but he hates being described as a "scenester" and emphasizes that he doesn't "work the scene." But he does have strong feelings about Atlanta's community of musicians. "There are pockets of musicians here that are just over-the-top fantastic, from the Rock*A*Teens, the Woggles and Mastodon to plenty of others that don't even have so much as a record out, such as Moreland Audio and Electrosleep International." Unfortunately, Owings says, "There's this really tired, entirely uncreative, bullshit artist old-school guard in town who do little more than amuse me."
In addition to publishing Chunklet, Owings produces records for his Little Army label, whose releases include the I Am Spoonbender EP. He also recorded bands such as Oblivians, the Olivia Tremor Control and Elf Power for his defunct Drug Racer imprint. All of which has yet to make Owings a profit. "I have no ambition to be a record mogul, I just love to put out records," he says. "If Chunklet is my official hobby, the label is my redheaded stepchild hobby."
Owings also has been a DJ at clubs and a promoter of shows. He used to book acts for the Echo Lounge, and he's even toured with Servotron and other bands he's recorded. Any of the profits Owings makes from his musical ventures goes into his No. 1 baby, Chunklet.
Athens' Frijoleros restaurant (which Owings describes as a "second home") bought the publication's first advertisement in issue 7, paying $10 for a full-page ad, and the magazine has had advertisers ever since. But Owings says Chunklet has consistently lost money up until the current issue. "And to even say that this most recent issue is actually in the black, you have to consider all the money out of pocket that I've given to it," he says.
Henry H. Owings seems content with the niche he's carved for himself. But that doesn't mean he's any less inclined to tick people off. These days, Chunklet targets gripe when they're called jerks -- and even when they're not. When the band Don Caballero visited Owings' apartment and saw the "Asshole" list he was working on prior to publication, they insisted on being included. "I said, 'OK, I'll put you on, but I'll be taking the gloves off.'" (Coming in at No. 53, they were identified as "incessantly annoying, self-important tools who moved to Chicago to be hated in another city.") "They felt betrayed, but it smoothed itself out. With rare exception, we haven't been intentionally malicious. We're like the Friar's Club roasts; we only make fun of those we love."
Perhaps, beneath his caustic, bird-flipping veneer, Owings has a sentimental side. "There's not a person who knows me who would say that I don't love music," Owings says. "It's my call to arms. I'm supportive of music unconditionally."
And it's not just the ultra-obscure underground bands that ring Owings' bell. At the mere mention of Cheap Trick, he places his hand over his heart and makes a thumpa-thumpa gesture.
The white board on which Owings maps out Chunklet's next issue is currently blank but for one Post-It note covered in scrawled notes affixed near the bottom. Issue 17 will probably focus on stand-up comedy, and Owings has toyed with such ideas as having nude photos of rock musicians, including a centerfold. "I always say that the next issue will be available as soon as I can get it together. Ideally, it'll start being finished in the summer, but more likely it'll be in the fall."
Adhering to a strict schedule would alter Chunklet's DNA. "Putting out Chunklet is still fun, and having a deadline would eliminate that fun to a great extent," says Owings, who is reluctant to abandon the "zine" designation, as if it would be a signal to be more responsible.
But Owings does acknowledge that the classic zines he grew up with are on a downswing. "Zines are currently on the ropes, but they'll come back," he says. "I think that the Internet has replaced zines for some impressionable kids."
Still, Owings can't deny that the Internet has been a boon for Chunklet (www.chun klet.com). "The website has been up for just four weeks, and it's gotten a half-million hits. We've sold over 200 copies on the site via a secure server. I've owned the domain name for seven years, and am kicking myself that I didn't put something up sooner."
But Owings has no doubt that the printed page will prevail over the monitor screen. "There's something cold, something stale, about things online. It would negate the importance of what is written if you could only read it on a computer. The beauty of a zine is that you can take it with you anywhere -- you can put it in your pocket, take it on tour, read it in the bathroom."
In fact, the bathroom in his apartment features a kind of a "wall of honor," displaying posters from past Chunklet anniversary parties, the zine's debut issue, and the Entertainment Weekly clip (framed by his mother, whom Owings calls his biggest supporter).
"I've always thought of Chunklet as being something to read in the bathroom," says Owings. "So that's the right place for our first issue."
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