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‘I’m not who you think I am’ Rock drummer Joe Stefko writes new chapter in his life designing limited edition books


There’s an old story about poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

Shortly after his wife gave birth to a stillborn child in 1862, she took her own life with poison. The grief-stricken poet, having lost his love and muse, buried his book of poems in the ground with her. A few years passed, and Rosetti decided that he’d made a mistake. He wanted his life’s work back. So the grave was exhumed and the book retrieved— and with it, so the story goes, locks of the long-dead woman’s hair and gouges from where it had been torn from the grasp of her still-growing fingernails.

So when Joe Stefko, owner of Charnel House limited edition press, was making a book for science fiction and fantasy author Tim Powers that included Rossetti’s story, he wanted to make it look like something that came out of the grave.

The cover has four fingernail scars, made from impressions of Stefko’s own nails, which he grew long for the task. The book’s Moroccan-leather spine is stamped in 22-karat gold and the paper board covers, as well as the rest of the book, are handmade.

The lettered edition costs $2,000.

Not many people would pay that much for a book, but Stefko doesn’t make books for everyone. When he started Charnel House 25 years ago, it was not to make money; it was a reaction to a desire. Stefko collected fine books, and he was unimpressed with the modern limited editions he was finding.

“They weren’t even as good as the books in the store,” he said. “They were just selling signatures.”

So Stefko set out to make his own book, a denim-bound edition of Tim Powers’s “The Stress of Her Regard.” Having no background in bookmaking, Stefko ended up with a bathtub full of bleach and garbage bags full of soaking strips of denim. He and a friend brought them to a laundromat, trying to get the acid-washed look, and he threw his back out carrying them there.

“Then they threw me out of the laundromat,” he said.

He made 500 of those books, plus 26 lettered editions, and they were sold out before he was done making them.

“I did it well, even though I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” said Stefko. “That started everything. I thought I was going to do one book. And now it’s 25 years and I’m on my 35th book.”

A book by its cover

Stefko lives and works in Catskill, in a 1790s renovated Dutch barn “where the books are born.”

His business often brings him to the post office to send out books. One day, while standing in line holding a stack of boxes, the woman in front of him turned around and asked, “Don’t I know you? Aren’t you a drummer or a bass player?”

Stefko, with his long, dyed-blonde hair and tight leopard-print pants, looks like he walked straight out of a rock band — because he did. He’s the drummer for the Turtles, and he played with Meatloaf during the “Bat Out of Hell” years.

“No,” he told her. “You don’t know me.”

“You’re just saying that so you don’t have to talk,” she said.

“Lady,” he said. “I just want to mail these boxes. That’s all I want to do today.”

That kind of exchange is typical, Stefko said, whether it’s in the post office, coffee shop or Price Chopper. His usual response to the usual question — “What band are you in?” — is, “I’m a book publisher.”

Even his wife, he said, doesn’t understand why he does this to people. Why dress like a rock star, which you are, then deny being a rock star when people ask?

“If I just say yes, then the stupid questions start,” he said. “One after the other. Or, if I say I’m with the Turtles, if they’re young, they won’t know who the Turtles are ... Then the next question is, can you sing me the songs? No, I can’t sing you the songs. I’m not a singer.”

It’s not that Stefko is hiding in Catskill, avoiding people and the press, and he’s not rude. He just doesn’t like when people get weird. He’s a book publisher. He plays music, too. He’s been pretty successful in both. But he doesn’t think you need his autograph.

“People always think I’m somebody I’m not,” he said. “They don’t know who Joe Stefko is. They used to think I was Todd Rundgren when my hair was brown. Then they thought I was Iggy Pop. And there are all these people who are asking for autographs and I say, really, you don’t want my autograph. I’m not who you think I am.”

And his clothes are just his clothes, he said. He walked into a store and bought leopard-print pants. Anyone can do that. A book publisher can do that. So he wears his leopard print pants to the post office or a meeting of the Catskill Village Planning Board, on which he sits, because those are his clothes.

He still plays shows with the Turtles, maybe 30 to 40 a year, but they don’t keep him away for more than a weekend, and sometimes he even brings his Dalmation, Bob.

“Everyone here thinks I’m like a rich rock star,” he said. “You’ve got to understand, that [Meatloaf] was 35 years ago. It was a good couple of years. But if I say Meatloaf, it changes everything. People are really weird. That’s why I don’t really say anything to anyone. They don’t understand that ... they’re just jobs.”

When he and his wife moved to Catskill, seeking a bigger, quieter place for Stefko’s bookmaking, she insisted that he display his collection of gold and platinum albums in their new home. Stefko didn’t want to.

“It changes people’s perception,” he said. “And we have a lot of art and I wanted that stuff up.”

In the end, they reached a compromise and hung the records in the only room Stefko would allow: the bathroom.

So when a police officer came to the door asking about an incident at a nearby residence one day and asked to use Stefko’s bathroom, he came out a bit dazzled.

“He went in and came out and he was like, ‘Wow,’” said Stefko. “Everything was changed. It changes everything.”

Where the books are born

In 25 years, Stefko’s made considerable improvements to his book-making process. He generally works with authors of his choosing, with whom he’s developed a relationship. He’s been working with Tim Powers since the beginning and has done nearly all of Dean Koontz’s books.

His most famous work is probably the limited edition of “The Regulators” that he did for Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman), which won “Most Collectable Book of the Year” in 1996. The book is handsewn in light brown Moroccan leather with Winchester 30 caliber bullets protruding from the cover — a detail taken from the story, in which characters are killed with that bullet. The stamped title and author’s name are designed to look like a cattle brand, the papers used are Mohawk Vellum and Lustro Dull — one for text, one for illustrations — the end leaves are handmade colored paper and the whole thing is housed in a faux ammunition box with gold stamping.

But this book presented a peculiar problem. It was Bachman’s last book, supposedly published after his death. It opens with a fake letter from an editor explaining how Bachman’s wife found this manuscript in the attic. But a major part of the value of a limited edition book is the author’s signature. How could a dead author sign a book?

Well, Stefko thought, if Bachman’s wife could find a manuscript, couldn’t she maybe find some old canceled checks with signatures? King liked the idea too much to refuse. Now, each edition of “The Regulators” contains a different check pasted into it signed by Bachman and made out to characters from King’s novels — for instance, to Carrie for a prom dress.

Stefko puts that level of quality, detail, character and artistry into every book he makes, which is why each takes about six months to make — some take years — and cost so much money.

“I pick all the materials,” he said. “I import silk from Japan. And I’ve got these girls that make the paper. The leather I use is from Africa. I just wanted to make the greatest books. So I found out what were the finest materials, where I could get them. And I’m always looking at that stuff.”

The books range from about $300 to $2,500. He used to make runs of 500 copies, but now he does about 250 or 300. This exclusivity — both in price and volume — once led Bruce Springsteen to turn away from Charnel House as a publisher for one of his books, claiming it was too elitist.

“Well, that’s kind of the point of this,” said Stefko. “Not everyone can have it, not everyone can afford it, not everyone wants this kind of thing. It’s art. I look at it as art.”

His books often have an old-world feel, a result of his fascination with writers like Byron and Shelley and the way books were made at that time.

When Stefko starts a book, he reads the manuscript and pulls out elements from the story that he can incorporate into the design. In his private library, he has a copy of each: a hot pink leather book with fangs, a book with poker chips embedded in the cover, a book with end leaves of real cut money sheets, a book with a carpenter’s level, a book with rose petals in the cover paper, a book with a diner-style mirror finish that comes with a set of gloves for smudge-free handling.

“Always there’s that artist’s eye to take some element of the book itself to kind of illustrate or shape the resulting book,” said author Tim Powers. “It’s just always gorgeous works of art.” Powers said he was skeptical when Stefko first approached him about making a book — the denim-bound “The Stress of Her Regard” — in Rhode Island in 1986.

“I thought, ‘But you’re a rock-and-roll drummer!’” he said. “But he was a nice guy, very serious about it and I thought, let’s give him a shot. And to my real surprise, Stefko by far had the best eye for how a fine press book should look. Things like the font” — Stefko can spend hours choosing from thousands of them — “the block of type on the page, the title page, the binding, all this stuff calls for a kind of instinct as a reader. I can see the difference. You can look at two books and say that this publisher just knows what a fine book looks like in all the details. Presented with the book, you go, ‘Oh yes, that’s it. That’s how they’re supposed to look.’”

Stefko’s books have weight — both physical (especially the 2- by 4-foot, 40-pound book he made for the film “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium”) and aesthetic.

“You look at them and think, ‘There’s an important book!’” said Powers.

In his living room, Stefko has a table piled with dozens of copies of his latest project, Koontz’s “Odd Apocalypse.” He sits with a reading lamp and cup of coffee and opens each book, flips through the pages, looks for mistakes. One copy with a slightly damaged gold infinity sign on the cover gets set aside.

“That won’t go out,” he says.

Sometimes pages get stuck together with drops of glue and those often get set aside, too.

“For this kind of money,” he said, “I don’t want people to have to pull pages apart.”

After checking a book, Stefko pens in a number, packs it up and moves on to the next. Despite perceptions, he doesn’t actually make the books by hand himself.

“Everybody thinks I’m in a barn, like making these books, and I’m not,” he said. At least one person, spotting the light in his cupola, thought he was actually Koontz, writing secretly in a cupola in a barn in Catskill.

Stefko’s work consists mostly of design. He has a handbinder in Minneapolis, a printer in Michigan, a typesetter in Michigan. He designs the books, selects the materials and explains what he wants from various people. His work consists of a lot of inches, he said, and parts of inches. The margin here should be this wide, the text should be inset by this much, the page numbers placed here and so on.

Then a UPS truck arrives, fills his barn with boxes and he starts the tedious process of checking.

“I’m numbering them, I’m boxing until my back hurts,” he said. “Then I look at the dog and say, ‘Let’s get the f—- out of here.’ It’s a good life.”

From a different place

When Catskill Village President Vincent Seeley asked Stefko to take a vacant position on the Planning Board about two years ago, Stefko was hesitant. He knew nothing about planning. But Seeley was insistent. He wanted new blood, he said.

So, after some consideration, Stefko agreed.

“I thought, here’s a chance to give back,” he said. “Here’s a chance maybe to give back to a community. So I said, ‘Vinny, I’ll do it,’ not knowing what the hell it was that I was doing. Again. See, I never know what I’m doing.”

He’s been asked in the past to give seminars on drumming, and refused. He was asked to speak at Catskill High School about making books, and he refused. It’s not that he doesn’t want to do those things; it’s that he can’t explain himself.

“I don’t know how I do what I do,” he said. “I can’t explain what it is I do.”

He doesn’t know anything formal about making books, like what a pica is (a unit of measurement used by typographers), but he makes books; he doesn’t know how to read or write music, but he plays drums. And he makes a living doing both. “I don’t want to go up in front of a bunch of kids in a school and say I don’t know what it is that I do,” he said. “I dropped out of high school. I went on the road. I never came off the road. People can’t do that these days. I don’t want to go in there and say, I don’t know how to read or write music ... and have them think, ‘Well, I don’t need school, he didn’t.’ It’s not an example to follow. It seemed to work for me ... but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Stefko’s name made headlines when he walked off stage midconcert in London in 1977 while playing with John Cale. Cale decapitated a chicken on stage, an act which Stefko, a vegetarian, had promised would send him walking.

He kept his word — threw down his drum sticks, walked away and eventually found his way to Meatloaf.

“That made every newspaper,” he said. “I came home and everybody knew who I was. ... Had that not happened, I never would have gotten into Meatloaf. If you’re true to yourself, sometimes it pays off.”

Then when he started making books — perhaps a subconscious decision to give himself a life outside of and after the music, he said — he called around and asked for advice, trying to learn as he went, “going by feel.”

“I found people who would work with me on my own terms,” he said. “And I really just bulled my way through it.”

One day, while having dinner with Koontz, Stefko brought up the idea of taking a course to actually learn about bookmaking.

“He said, ‘Do me a favor: Please don’t, because it will change you,’” said Stefko. “‘You come from a place that’s so different, and that’s why what you do is so different, and I’d hate to have that change.’”

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