Punks weren’t the first subculture to cram a bunch of bodies into a house to share chores, living expenses and cut costs while working on projects they loved and do things they needed to do to survive. While various quasi-communal living arrangements have been enjoyed down the centuries in various forms, we only have to travel back in time to the late 1930’s and early 40’s to see the dream of a shared house established among the first nerds of science fiction fandom. Yes, I’m talking about Slan Shacks.
But what the heck is a Slan Shack anyway? The name Slan came from the novel of the same name by A.E. van Vogt, first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940 and later published as a hardcover by Arkham House in 1946.[i] In the story Slans are super intelligent evolved humans in possession of psychic abilities, a high degree of stamina, strength, speed and “nerves of steel”. Named after their alleged creator, Samuel Lann, when a Slan gets ill or injured they go into an automatic healing trance until their powers are recovered.
SF heads came up with the slogan “Fans are Slans” after Vogt’s book came out as a way of expressing their perceived superiority, greater intelligence and imaginative ability over non-science fiction readers, so called “mundanes”. Though some considered this to be elitist, others just thought it was a natural reaction against the derogatory way science fiction and its fans were often treated by those who thought the pulps were trash literature. Later, when groups of fans and aspiring SF writers started living together as a way to share expenses, the homes were named Slan Shacks.
According to the science fiction Fancyclopedia its “a tongue-in-cheek reference to Deglerism, which came to mean any household with two or more unrelated fans (or, provided three or more fans were involved, could include married couples).” The Fancyclopedia goes on to say, “Although many early New York fans, attempting to economize while seeking a pro career, shared apartments in the Big Apple, the first Slan Shack so dubbed came into being in late 1943 in Battle Creek, Michigan; it lasted only two years, breaking up in September 1945 when its occupants moved to California, but gave its name to the practice. The best known fans of the ‘original’ Slan Shack included E. E. Evans, Walt Liebscher, Jack Wiedenbeck and Al & Abby Lu Ashley.”[ii]
The Slan Shack or the idea of it if not the name, had actually been around a bit earlier than this, since 1938. One such group was the Galactic Roomers, a pun from the name of SF club the Galactic Roamers based in Michigan and centered around the work of writer E. E. “Doc” Smith. The idea was basically the same as a punk house, a place where science fiction fans could share the costs and loads of living, bum around and off each other, store their collections of books and pulp magazines, and decorate the place as they pleased. Other shacks group up out of fandom as well and these included, the Flat in London, England, then the Futurian House and in 1943 the Slan Shack itself. The name stuck for these dens of high geekdom.
The punk movement evolved out of and in retaliation to the hippie subculture, and the punk house is similar to the crash pads of the 1960’s. Andy Warhol’s Factory was a foundational precursor and model for the punk house as it developed in New York City. Across the pond in Essex the Dial House formed in the late 60’s later to become the birthplace and home of the band Crass. I consider Dial House even more than the Factory to be one of the foundational templates of the punk house. It still exists today. The Positive Force house in Arlington, Virginia served as a locus for the Washington D.C. hardcore and straight edge scene of the mid-80’s. The alternative art and collaborative space ABC No Rio grew out of the squatter scene taking place in New York’s Lower East. Taking a detailed look at each of these places will give insights into what has been done, and what is possible. Let’s start with Dial House.
[i] Slan by A.E. van Vogt, 1946: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slan
[ii] See Fancyclopedia 3: http://fancyclopedia.org/slan-shack
Though the punk house is especially suited for urban areas, especially when groups of individuals take over an abandoned building or spaces to homestead, the principal may also be applied to a home on a piece of property in the country. The rambling farm cottage that became Dial House was originally built in the 16th century. Set on the idyllic land of Epping Forest in south-west Essex, England, one could easily imagine it as a haven for hippies and others in the back to earth crowd. But punks? Dial house was launched in 1967 and had been heavily influenced by the hippie subculture. In the book Teenage: the Creation of Youth Culture, Jon Savage described punk as bricolage, combing and mixing and blending together elements from all the previous youth culture in the industrialized West going back to WWII, and as he says, it was all “stuck together with safety pins.”[i] Various philosophies and artistic styles that could more broadly be described as bohemian were all collaged together by the nascent punk rockers. Anything that wasn’t nailed to the floor was taken and glued to something that had been dumpster dived from somewhere else.
Dial House was an alembic for this yeasty form of cultural fermentation and a variety of influences were baked into its foundation when they first started launching artistic spores out into the world in 1967. The building itself was the former home of Primrose McConnell, a tenant farmer and the author of The Agricultural Notebook (1883), a standard reference work for the European farming industry. By the late 60s the property had sat derelict, its gardens overgrown with brambles, and was ripe to be taken over by some starving artists who needed a place to set up shop.
It began with resident Penny “Lapsang” Rimbaud. Penny is a writer, artist, philosopher, musician and jazz aficionado who at the time was working as a lecturer in an art school. Two other teachers joined him on the property and they started working on making improvements, making the cottage livable and the land workable. They were able to sublet the property from an adjacent farm with minimal rent due to the amount of sweat equity they were putting in to make a perfect domicile for the wayward.
By 1970 Dial House had become something of a bohemian salon. Creative thinkers of various stripes were attracted by the atmosphere Rimbaud and his cohorts had started to create. Seeing the possibilities afforded by low rent and collaboration Penny decided to quit his job in order to expand on the further potentials for developing a self-sufficient lifestyle free from the time constraints the cramping day job. He also wanted the place to be a free space open to anyone and everyone. Rimbaud said that Dial House would operate with an “open door, open heart” policy. To that end all the locks were removed from all of the doors. Anyone who wants to drop in and stay may do so, and is welcomed, though they are encouraged to help out with the chores.
Penny writes of his motivations, “I was fortunate enough to have found a large country house at very low rent, and felt I wanted to share my luck. I had wanted to create a place where people could get together to work and live in a creative atmosphere rather than the stifling, inward looking family environments in which most of us had been brought up. Within weeks of opening the doors, people started turning up out of nowhere. Pretty soon we were a functioning community.
… I had opened up the house to all-comers at a time when many others were doing the same. The so-called ‘Commune Movement’ was the natural result of people like myself wishing to create lives of cooperation, understanding and sharing. Individual housing is one of the most obvious causes for the desperate shortage of homes. Communal living is a practical solution to the problem. If we could learn to share our homes, maybe we could learn to share our world. That is the first step towards a state of sanity.”[ii]
The visual artist, print maker and skilled gardener Gee Vaucher soon joined the household to become its most long-term resident besides Rimbaud himself. The ground floor of Dial House transformed into a shared studio space while the upper rooms were reserved for accommodations. Later a couple of trailers were added to the grounds to accommodate the constant influx of visitors. At this point the house became an ever-shifting interzone populated by artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers who spent their time working on projects and helping to run the house and garden. The garden itself was run on organic principles, guided by Vaucher’s green thumb and intuition about plants. Under her guidance they were also able to set up a cottage industry producing small batch herbal remedies. The place was beginning to develop its own home economy.
With all of the life force bubbling up in the garden, and the creative passions of the visitors and long term residents stewing in the studio, it wasn’t long before new collaborative projects were created. Vaucher and Rimbaud had already been working together as members of the Stanford Rivers Quartet, where they explored the relationship between sound and imagery. The group found its inspiration from the Bauhaus art school, jazz and classical composers such as Lucio Berio and Edgar Varese.[iii]
In 1971 the Stanford Rivers Quartet expanded into an ensemble that sometimes consisted of up to a dozen players and changed their name to Exit. Even more artists and filmmakers got involved to put together “happenings" as was the spirit of the day, and these spawned into circus like proportions. The operational strategy of Exit was guerilla. Unannounced they would turn up at venues to play their music. How this fared for the audience, I’m not sure, but it was a strategy for getting their material out into the world without relying on traditional booking methods.
Around this time Dial House members became involved with various festivals including ICES 72. Exit played at the fest and several related events were held at the House itself. Vaucher, Rimbaud and the other residents proved critical to its success and organization, producing and printing flyers in their print room, and helping the founder Harvey Matusow with the programming. One of the connections they made via ICES was with filmmaker Anthony McCall with whom they would continue to work. The print shop at Dial House became an integral part of their home economy and out of it was born Exitstencil Press.
A collective home with a print shop is potentially a viable way to earn an income, or at least print the kind of things you would like to view and read yourself and to circulate within the subculture. Other homespun efforts may be more or less viable as part of the home economy. Enterprising punks and science fiction freaks will find a way to get it done.
[i] Teenage: the Creation of Youth Culture by Jon Savage, Viking, New York, 2007
[ii] The Last of the Hippies: an Hysterical Romance by Penny Rimbaud, PM Press, 2015.
[iii] The Story of Crass by George Berger, PM Press, 2009.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.