Willamette Week - April 22, 1998
The Granddaddy of 'Zines- PICA organizes a week to honor Duplex Planet and its creator.

David Greenberger once felt that there was something exotic and mysterious about old people, in part because he lacked any real contact with them. After graduating from the Massachusetts College of Art, he found himself with the job of activities director at a nursing home called the Duplex, where he planned to teach painting to the inmates. But Greenberger became convinced early in his career at the Duplex that the standard recreational format offered little stimulus to his elderly charges, so he started a newsletter called Duplex Planet, filled with quotations from residents.

Greenberger says he was always interested in the way pieces of conversation and dialogue can take on literary power once committed to paper. Instead of looking at the elderly as so many stores of oral history, forcing them to "mourn the loss of who they used to be," Greenberger asked the Duplex residents such beguiling questions as, "Who invented sitting down?" and "Which do you prefer, coffee or meat?" The replies were often more surreal and provocative than the questions, and with the wealth of material he was collecting in the newsletter, it was only a matter of time before his in-house chat sheet became a work of art.

It was from among his artist friends that Greenberger discovered there was an active interest in his project. This inspired him to turn Duplex Planet into a 'zine. It has survived for 18 years and has produced close to 150 issues.

The effect of Duplex Planet has been astounding. The 'zine has spawned a comic series published by Fantagraphics, a video and an anthology published by Faber and Faber. The eccentric poetry of one of Greenberger's regulars, Ernest Noyes Brookings, has found its way into the lyrics of XTC, Young Fresh Fellows and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. Michael Stipe hired another Duplex resident, Ed Rogers, to produce the lettering for R.E.M.'s Out of Time. The creativity Greenberger has unleashed in these elderly people, as well as in himself, shows no sign of abating, as events this week prove.

PICA has organized a week of events dedicated to Duplex Planet. Greenberger will sign books at Reading Frenzy on Thursday, April 23, and will host a 'zine workshop at Umbra Penumbra on Saturday morning. The primary focus of the week will be on a collaborative multimedia work developed by Greenberger and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, entitled 1001 Real Apes. It combines Duplex Planet monologues with the innovative free-form soundscapes of the Birdsongs of the Mesozoic quartet, which The New York Times describes as sounding "like a party in a Cubist roadhouse." With a kit combining synth, sax, drums, washboard and theremin, the Birdsongs sound is as singular as the Duplex voices it underscores.

A case in point is the original take on evolution from Duplexian Abe Surgecoff, which gave the piece its name: "When the world started getting into lions and tigers, they didn't like people around and they used to chew them up for their fat content. The jungle apes killed some of their own crowd when they didn't have no food.... It was God's wish that they'd turn over to be new beings.... Giant of the Apes, he ran away so he could ask God for power to change over to human beings. And God told him that if they didn't behave themselves, these small apes, that they wouldn't have any change-over. They made a movie of this. It's called 1001 Real Apes."

The humor of Duplex Planet is easily seen; Greenberger's intention, however, is not for us to laugh at the elderly but to look at them as vital individuals. "You get to know a person through his or her sense of humor, pathos, outrage and surprise," he says. Greenberger has constructed a full emotional range for a large segment of people in our society who are often dismissed, ignored or, worse, pitied. He refuses to view the aged as the end of life. The result has been to deepen our understanding and appreciation of what it means to be old. "I think people should be taught about aging when they're in grade school," Greenberger has said. "There should be a sign above the door saying, 'When you get older, everything will be different.'" The difference found in Duplex, the burning and raving, proves that we do not have to go gently into that good night.