By: Charles Bowen
Historically, the stories of “pop culture” icons are not preserved, at least in detail, in the “Big Books.” You don’t expect to find the tales of Iceberg Slim and Neal Cassady in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Part of such an icon’s lot is being off the beaten track, sometimes waaaay off the track. What we’re talking about here are the authors, artists, scientists, film makers, and other culturally influential individuals who have made their mark primarily in the underground. And while we usually think of “pop culture” as being as contemporary as, say, today’s schedule on your Palm Pilot, actually many authentic pop culture icons — from Pancho Villa to B. Traven — have been rattling around in our collective consciousness for decades.
So, if you can’t turn to the Big Books for details about the lives of pop culture figures, where can your turn? You start by turning on your computer, naturally. A Web site called The Biography Project is an independent reference resource that began, according to its creators, as a “direct response to the unfortunate lack of accurate and comprehensive information on the Net regarding ‘popsubculture.'”
While hardly an exhaustive, encyclopedic reservoir of data, it easily could fill in some gaps in your data retrieval, depending on the story you’re researching. And the site itself is something of a pop phenomenon. Now in its fifth incarnation, the service was created by Patrick Deese and a friend (whom he calls “Bonesy Jones”) originally as part of the now-defunct fringeware.com, where it was incorporated in the site’s SubCulture Project.
“When that site closed,” Deese says in an online statement, “we rescued the biographies that were online, not only because they represented literally hundreds of hours of research, HTML coding, etc., but because people found them useful, interesting and, in some cases, the only online source of information on the subject.”
To view the material, visit the site at http://www.popsubculture.com, where a couple of dozen linked names are listed alphabetically down the right side of the introductory screen. And you know you’re not in Kansas anymore when such a list starts with writer/lawyer/activist Oscar Zeta Acosta. Read the site’s article to learn about this shadowy figure — author of Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and The Revolt of the Cockroach People — who wanders in and out of Hunter S. Thompson’s works, often as “The Samoan.” Other bright lights on this interesting list are Albert Hofmann, the father of LSD; Bettie Page, queen of the pin-up girls’ and Philip K. Dick, whose 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep became the basis for the film Blade Runner.
The site is not as polished as many you’ll visit on the Web, but for a totally volunteer effort in Deese’s ever-shrinking spare time, it is a worthwhile addition for your ever-expanding collection of Web tools.
Meanwhile, here are some other online sources for biographies that you can use in your writing and editing:
1. Biographical Dictionary (http://www.s9.com/biography) enables you to delve into more than 28,000 entries, searching not only by name, but also by keyword (such as positions held, professions, and literary and artistic works) and by important dates, including the subject’s birth or death. The site also supports sophisticated advanced options for narrowing and broadening a search with Boolean expressions and with wildcards.
2. Of course, the mother lode of biographies is at Biography.com, operated by TV’s Biography Channel. It’s a slick, commercial site with more than 25,000 biographies, along with “top 10 lists,” gifts, magazines, videos, and more. Think of it as amazon.com for people, dead and living…
3. Finally, don’t forget the fine resources of (Bartleby.com, which has brought together a number of excellent reference works. Of particular interest here would be the Columbia Encyclopedia, which has more than 17,000 biographical entries classified under 140 categories, from science and national histories to literature.