There will be more tributes next week from those who knew him and worked with him—which I cannot and will not say I ever did—but as that comes together, it would be neglect on our part not to immediately note and mourn the passing of The Aquarian founder James Rensenbrink, who died at 81 on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013.
Rensenbrink began The Aquarian in 1969. We have the first issue at the office. It is a gorgeous artifact now, with its naked hippies on the cover, full of free-spirited Baby Boomer self-righteousness and impossible blocks of text. The rants, the poems, the music, the drugs, fuck this fuck that—it was all there. On the other side of 40 years later, it is an inspiring work.
Also the author of a novel and a book of poems, Rensenbrink sold The Aquarian to Chris Farinas, Diane Casazza and Mark Sceurman in 1998. He was long gone by the time I got here some six years later, but his presence has always loomed around the paper. I don’t know what he would think of what we do now. Maybe he’d call us sellouts for the artists we cover or the corporations with whom we work. I like to think he’d recognize some of the original spirit in which he founded The Aquarian in our methods and our dedication to putting out a new issue each week and in our focus on local artists, but maybe that’s me daydreaming. Maybe he’d be pissed we cut out poetry. Maybe we should put it back in.
By the accounts I’ve heard, Rensenbrink was passionate to a point of an at-times personal abrasiveness, and steadfast in his independence. An editorial prick, in other words. That sounds like an insult, and coming from a lot of people it might be one. But not from me. Not about him.
You have to be a prick to do that job, to make that kind of thing happen. People without a definite worldview, who aren’t willing to go to bat for what they believe in, don’t found counterculture newspapers. They become accountants. Nothing against that if that’s the way you want to live, but it’s not the way I want to live and from where I sit, James Rensenbrink was a kind of mythological figure of someone who actually pulled it off. An icon of “fuck you.”
Not everyone aspires to that, but I do, and James Rensenbrink is an inspiration to me for someone who saw his beliefs and made them manifest. He didn’t do it alone at all—looking at the number of people full-time in the office now, Chris, Diane, Michelle and I, it’s staggering to think of the staffs that worked out of the Montclair building—the people who’ve come and gone over the years and decades. Rensenbrink was in the center of that swirl. The eye of that storm. In some ways, he still is. There are still books of his poems in the back room. I took one home years ago and read it.
One could easily argue he outlived this format, that he outlived print media as a whole, but whatever else The Aquarian is in 2013, it’s still fucking here. If you want to talk about the heyday of the ‘70s or the East Coast Rocker days or whatever it is that you might have in your memory banks about what this company was or did, that’s fantastic, but it’s 44 years later and we’re still doing it. We can be those things, but we’re also this, right now, and whether he approved or not, I don’t think James Rensenbrink could ever argue it could or should be any other way.
If our destiny is to be a footnote in New Jersey’s pop cultural history, then so be it. We’re also the stewards of a passion and fire that continues to prove it’s alive every single Wednesday by the sheer fact of its existence. We may barely keep our head above water, we may swallow more than we swim, but we’re still here.
Jim Rensenbrink was the first of us, and for that we thank and honor him.