New York Drops Dead & Rises Anew

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The front page of The New York Daily News on October 30 1975 carried a headline that made history. FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD communicated the nadir of the city’s fiscal crisis in unforgettable bold-type tabloidese. Eventually the President relented and New York City received some Federal aid (though nowhere near what was requested) to help it stave off impending bankruptcy. In Fear City, NYU professor Kim Phillips-Fein delivers a balanced and white-knuckle paced retelling of the city’s frightening race right up to the financial precipice. Default and the ensuing social chaos were avoided, but at what cost?

The city government’s financial irresponsibility, beginning with Mayor Robert Wagner in the early Sixties and increasing during the administrations of John Lindsay and Abe Beame, is fully acknowledged and documented. But Phillips-Fein points to external economic factors that also crippled New York. Middle class residents fled to suburbs via the highways built by developer Robert Moses while traditional manufacturing bases like the garment industry and the printing presses moved away from New York in search of cheap labor, first to the Southern states and eventually overseas. As the Sixties rolled into the Seventies, the city dug deeper into a money pit, refusing to raise transit fares, eliminate civil service jobs or cut social services, borrowing to pay interest on its ballooning debt. However Phillips-Fein points out fecklessness on both sides, borrower and lender. Banks were only too happy to finance New York City — until they weren’t.

The city turned to debt in an effort to sidestep an open debate over whether it could continue to make good on its efforts to carve out a distinctive set of social rights. New York expanded its borrowing at a time when public debt was growing across the country, when bankers were enthusiastically marketing and buying its bonds and notes. Although they would later excoriate the city for its irresponsibility, these financiers played a central role in encouraging its indebtedness when it suited their purposes to do so.

Born on the Lower East Side to immigrant parents from Eastern Europe, Mayor Abe Beame had previously served as the city comptroller and budget director. The former book-keeper got elected in 1973 by running on his reputation as a prudent, less than charismatic bean-counter. Yet once in office Beame was unwilling, or maybe constitutionally unable, to execute Draconian decisions like raising the subway fare from 35 cents or charging tuition at CUNY. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for free tuition” he declared during one of many tense meetings with the banking community.

In the end belated pledges of austerity, and the fancy financial footwork engineered by Felix Rohayton, saved the city from bankruptcy and what would have undoubtedly been a catastrophic aftermath. But in Phillips-Fein’s interpretation, this solution was too austere and tilted toward the upper classes. In the face of widespread protests, some social services were preserved but the belt-tightening was drastic. Cutbacks included closure and consolidation of firehouses, mass layoffs of transit police and street sweepers. The result was a dirtier and more dangerous city through the next decade. Crime and poverty increased during the Eighties while tax breaks fueled high-end development and Wall Street boomed. It’s no accident that second best-known New York tabloid headline (behind FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD) comes from the Post on April 15, 1983: HEADLESS BODY FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR…

Donald Trump and the developers who exploited the city’s desperation to build their towers had little interest in the rest of New York. The fact that millions of dollars went to subsidize their building projects instead of restoring public services or promoting recovery in the poor and working class neighborhoods never registered as a moral concern.

I borrowed this book from New York Public Library, one of the last vestiges of pre-hierarchical NYC. Fear City earns the slightly cliched recommendation that it “reads like a thriller.” I turned its pages breathlessly, though I already knew the ending.

 

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Hatereads & Hatchet Jobs

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When I first heard about Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s epic (500+ pages) biography of Jann Wenner, the title threw me for a loop. I get that the connection between the magazine and the band is obvious title fodder but why THIS of all possible Rolling Stones albums? Whether intended as metaphor for Wenner’s grasping ambition, allusion to his sexuality or both, my reaction was: eww, gross.  Since I have history with Wenner and Rolling Stone (fifteen years of freelance writing, staff editorial jobs in the 80s and 90s), friends and family members asked if planned to read Sticky Fingers or God forbid, wanted a copy for Christmas or my birthday. I politely declined for various reasons: mostly because Robert Draper’s history of the magazine, published in 1991, covers the waterfront. Rolling Stone: The Uncensored History documents the (waxing and waning) importance of the magazine, supplies needed cultural context and communicates a sense of what it was like to write or work there, while fully accounting for Jann Wenner’s inspiration and ah, inconsistency. Advance word that Hagan focuses on Wenner’s (bi)sexual adventures and drug use over the years didn’t whet my appetite.

Sticky Fingers received glowing reviews; Dwight Garner in The New York Times made it one of his books of the year, as did Rolling Stone alumnus Janet Maslin. Winter passed (insert gathering moss joke) and I swan-dived into Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Fast forward to late March: trawling (not trolling!) for a book at the NYPL I noticed multiple copies of Sticky Fingers on the New Non-Fiction shelf. OK, I’ll try it.

I should have obeyed my first instincts. Sticky Fingers is a hatchet job; in this era of “hate-reading” objectionable books or articles for cheap laughs and confirmation of already held opinions, Joe Hagan is a hate writer. Let me clarify: this is not a defense of Jann Wenner, as either a person or publisher. At this late date my feelings about him and Rolling Stone are neutral. I appreciate the opportunity and experience, more than I can say. But Jann is far from the best editor-in-chief I ever worked for. Nuff said.

Credited by his peers as a dogged reporter, Hagan digs and delivers a thorough portrait. Yet every step of the way, from Wenner’s privileged and unhappy childhood to his forging of Rolling Stone in the late 60s San Francisco crucible to his relentless pursuit of pleasure and social prominence in the 70s and beyond, Hagan accentuates the negative. Of course, Jann Wenner is own worst enemy much of the time, then and now. He wastes money, mistreats employees and business partners (including John Lennon), maintains an abject relationship with Mick Jagger that resembles Trump’s humiliating bond with Vladimir Putin, and of course inhales enough cocaine to numb the minds of an entire generation. Even the positive and innovative accomplishments of Rolling Stone in various periods get cast as flukes or unacknowledged failures. Since I consider Hunter Thompson to be wildly overrated I can’t argue with his sad depiction. But to cite another example: Rolling Stone‘s widely regarded coverage of Altamont, a deeply reported package on the tragic 1969 concert and its era-ending aftermath, strikes Hagan as the latest missive in an personal tiff between the Stones lead singer and Jann Wenner.

Much is made in Sticky Fingers of Wenner’s sexual identity, including by Jann himself. Living as a gay man now, after many years or marriage and three adult children, Wenner readily admits to being tortured by his attraction to men during the closeted 1960s. He’s forthright about his inner feelings but Hagan’s breathless, cynical retelling of Jann’s many bisexual exploits during the following decades keeps it superficial. The tone is more censorious than voyeuristic — almost puritanical. At times this biography felt like reading an account of the 1970s written by one of my Catholic high school teachers. See these people you look up to so much, Mr. Coleman, these rock stars and writers? All they do is take drugs and have promiscuous sex and (whisper) some of them are homosexual…

The assumption is book buyers can’t get enough of this funky stuff, but reading about drug use is deadly dull in my opinion. And writing well about sex is famously difficult. Mercifully, perhaps, Hagan deals with Rolling Stone‘s financially flush 1980s and 90s in cursory fashion, running out of steam, focusing on Jann’s social climbing, belated cleaning up of his act and coming out as gay. By the 21st century and the UVA rape story debacle, the Wenner Media empire is once again threatened with financial ruin. No wonder Jann sold it.

Bottom line is how do you write (let alone read) a book about a subject you hold in such utter contempt? Sticky Fingers is dispiriting, and not in the way Joe Hagan probably intends. I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Greil Marcus: it’s vile.

 

 

Books I Read in 2017

Never a list-maker by nature, I dreaded year-end polls as a music critic. Deciding on a top ten was torture: I’d procrastinate until deadline’s eve, submit a hasty ballot, and then remember my real favorites when it was too late. Reading books for pleasure brings no such pressure. Until recently, I didn’t keep track of the books I read. Looking back on twelve months of reading turns out to be thought-provoking fun, allowing for reflection as well as offering suggestion for future research. Thanks to the New York Public Library and The Strand bookstore for making it all possible.

Dava Sobel – The Glass Universe
Zadie Smith – Changing My Mind – Occasional Essays
Zadie Smith – Swing Time
Zadie Smith – The Autograph Man
Ulysses S. Grant – Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant Volumes 1 & 2
Tana French – The Likeness
Dawn Powell – A Time To Be Born
Dawn Powell – Angels on Toast
Dawn Powell – Turn, Magic Wheel
Dawn Powell – The Diaries 1931-65
Jan Willem vänder Wetterling – Hard Rain
Andrew Lownie – Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and the Cambridge Spy Ring
Nathan Hill – The Nix
David Hepworth – Never A Dull Moment: 1971 The Year That Rock Exploded
Elena Ferrante – My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante – The Story of A New Name
Elena Ferrante – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Behind
Elena Ferrante – The Story of the Lost Child
Norman Podhoretz – Making It
Michael Ruhlman – Grocery
Mary Gaitskill – The Mare
Mary Gaitskill – Somebody With A Little Hammer: Essays
Peter Mayle – A Year In Provence
Jeff Guinn – The Road To Jonestown: Jim Jones And Peoples Temple
Shiva Naipaul – Journey to Nowhere
Shiva Naipaul – Beyond The Dragon’s Mouth
Philip Roth – The Ghost Writer
Philip Roth – Zuckerman Unbound
Michael Connelly – Chasing The Dime
Michael Connelly – The Late Show
Michael Connelly – Two Kinds of Truth
Jo Nesbo – Nemesis
Jo Nesbo – The Devil’s Star
Jo Nesbo – The Thirst
Stefan Ahnhem – Victim Without A Face
John Williams – Stoner
J. Robert Lennon – Broken River
Don Winslow – The Force
Zeynep Tufecki – Twitter and Teargas
Richard Boch – The Mudd Club
Karin Fossum – The Drowned Boy
Karin Fossum – Hell Fire
Emma Clines – The Girls
John le Carre – The Night Manager
Hakan Ostlundh – The Intruder
Malin Persson Giolito – Quick Sand
Adam Gopnik – At The Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals In New York
Pauline Kael – I Lost It At The Movies
Arne Dahl – Misterioso
JD Vance –   Hillbilly Elegy 

Jussi Adler-Olsen – The Scarred Woman
Jennifer Egan – A Visit From The Goon Squad
Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad
Adam Sisman – John le Carre: The Biography
Johan Theorin – The Darkest Room

 

The Village Voice RIP

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Though I was primarily motivated to attempt journalism after catching local appearances by Patti Smith, Talking Heads and The Ramones, my first assignment for The Michigan Daily turned out to be a concert review of a local bar band called The Look. And by this time, January 1979, I was looking beyond the Motor City for literary and musical inspiration.

Indeed it was the deluge of fresh, outrageous music coming out of New York in those days — punk rock, new wave — that jump-started my growing fascination with the city itself. In late 1977 I subscribed to The Village Voice in order to keep up with the scene. Just reading the outlandish names of all those bands playing CBGB and Max’s was so exotic, so exciting in those heady days of discovery: Theoretical Girls on the same bill with Sick Dick & the Volkswagens! Pretty soon I was devouring the entire newspaper every week: the sharp-shooting columnists and critics, the zealous investigative reporting and most important, the weirdly mesmerizing features, where more often than not the writer became part of the story. New York mayor Ed Koch once said, disapprovingly, that “the writers run The Voice.” That’s how the paper read as well, to me anyway. The Village Voice was all about the writers’ voices: highly subjective, slightly anarchic, often political, always pointed and impassioned. Simultaneously I decided that a) I had something unique to say and b) this disarmingly personal approach to journalism was a way to say it so that other people might conceivably pay attention.

Looking back at my article about The Look almost forty years later, I see how totally in thrall I was to The Village Voice. Rather than write a mere concert review I constructed a reported essay, including: a general overview of the Top 40 cover band circuit that also specified how The Look both conformed and defied conventions with their eclectic repertoire of borrowed and original material; quotes from audience members; a brief interview with the band’s lead singer Dave Edwards; and my own (positive) critical evaluation. We were a good match: both subject and writer harbored ambitions beyond their present station. When The Look released a major label album three years later, I wasn’t as enthused about their music but felt proud of them anyway. We’d both moved on from our small-town success to a more formidable challenge: becoming bit players in a larger production.

My Favorite Boss (Maybe)

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“We’re not exactly trying to win the Pulitzer Prize here, are we mate?”

Felix Dennis glared from behind yellow-tinted lens ensconced in oversized 70s-style eyeglass frames. The British publishing maverick was my new boss at Star Hits. Not yet the imposing pasha-like presence he became after his subsequent decade of American success (and excess), Felix in late 1983 was merely stocky, medium-shaggy with a sloppily trimmed beard. He was a dedicated smoker and quite demonstrative with his hands. He also displayed an aversion to flicking the ash off the end of his cigarettes, which he consumed in strenuous deep-lung pulls. During our first interview, Felix gestured at the ceiling, underlined his words with a karate chop, pointed his lit Silk Cut at me like a baton; my rapt gaze fixated on the burning cigarette. As the funnel of ash grew ever longer and more precarious all I could do was stare, waiting for it to fall on his desk.

It never did. He jabbed at the commodious ashtray just in the nick of time, miraculously, like a final-seconds score in a closely contested sporting event. Variations on this visual drama occurred every time I met with Felix over the two-year course of my employment.

As far as I was concerned, he was a good boss.

Hiring me at Star Hits had to be a gamble from his perspective, considering my relative youth and inexperience. Of course Felix could be merciless toward his employees, especially when confronted with a headline or page design he deemed insufficiently arresting. And his attitude toward competitors was callous, often downright cut-throat. Above all else he was the sworn enemy of complacency and conventional wisdom. Being told “no” or informed that he was headed in the wrong direction because something “had always been done this way” only intensified his resolve. He obstinately pursued his own vision. His experience in the underground press (at London’s notorious Oz) left Felix with a Do It Yourself pragmatism. He didn’t retain much – any – hippie idealism (hedonism was his one true faith) but his independent spirit and irreverence were pure 1960s. Felix Dennis was the first (and not the last) hippie-turned-capitalist I encountered.

During the early days at Star Hits, one of my brief album reviews (possibly Icicle Works), struck Felix as “too intellectual.” Pretension was a definite non-starter in his book, but far from a firing offense. I soon realized that the dressing-down was a formality: the patented Dennis method of welcoming a new hire. I was surprised and impressed that the he closely read the entire debut issue but I shouldn’t have been. Felix wasn’t merely a hands-on manager; more like hands-all-over. Literally, he approved every last caption.

“But the thing you just wrote about Lionel Richie and his soppy videos made me laugh. Keep that up, Mark, and don’t be shy about expressing your views. Remember: controversy sells magazines.”

Felix thumped his desk for emphasis, finally tapping the long ash from his cigarette. He then ignited a new Silk Cut from the hot end of his last.

I was dismissed.

*

Back in England, Felix Dennis made his name with stable of magazines targeting consumers of motorcycles, home electronics and the like: the admirably self-explanatory title Which Stereo? neatly lays out the FelDen aesthetic. He also published paperbound “quickie” books and one-off magazines. His entrée into the music business was a series of text-free poster magazines devoted to ‘70s teen idols such as David Cassidy and Bay City Rollers; musical stars who enjoyed far greater success in the U.K. than in the States. Felix enjoyed telling the story of an American publishing scion who dared to challenge him on his own turf. The moral of the story: Felix Dennis was the undisputed king of the one-shot poster book and woe to potential usurpers.

“Only problem was he didn’t have a fucking clue about what would sell in this market. He brought out poster books of classic rock stars like Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker and Leon Russell. As if young girls want to hang a poster of some hairy old freak on their wall! I mean he’s a brilliant musician, but bloody Leon Russell!”

Cue laughter dissolving into a coughing bout.

Felix, a proud flyer of the freak flag, remained loyal to classic rock, the more hirsute the better, but he wasn’t about to impose his retrograde tastes on Star Hits readers — or editors. If a new generation demanded “Doo-ran Doo-ran”, he was determined to satisfy their cravings.

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*

I was the last person in the office, besides the boss. It was about eight or nine on a Monday or Tuesday, the quiet part of the production cycle. As I got ready to leave Felix asked me to take out the garbage. When he actually apologized, “I know it’s not in your job description” , I thought “are you kidding?” I felt so lucky to be there, I would’ve watered the plants too.

Ten minutes later I stashed a couple of full Hefty bags in the stairwell. Upon reentry to the Pilot Communications capsule, I ran into Felix at the front door. The fur collar on his tan wool overcoat blended with his beard and hair, surrounding his gnarly visage with a kind of lion’s mane.

“Get your coat and I’ll buy you a drink. You’ve earned it.”

“That’d be great. Thanks. I’ll be right back.”

We walked to The Russian Bear, a restaurant on Third Avenue. Red velvet cushions and gold drapes. White tablecloths. Waiters who resembled KGB agents. The bartender signaled “hello” as soon as we arrived. At the bar he reached over to shake hands.

“Velcome, Mr. FelDen…”

I settled into the padded stool. Felix sat down next to me, facing the man across the bar. “The usual.” Felix tilted his head in my direction. “He’ll have a Heinekin.”

The bartender returned with my beer and vodka for Felix, who rapidly downed the shot and signaled for a refill in one practiced motion. Sipping his second, he slipped into nostalgia-mode. As always, I thrilled at his hippie-era stories: among other incidents, Felix and the Oz editors stood trial for obscenity in 1971. ( A few years later at another magazine, I dug up pictures of the day they arrived in court dressed in drag.) Felix mentioned that he mingled back in the day with Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger, whom he considered a “genius” and a “shit” respectively. Just as his talk turned to the modern-day publishing business, and my ears really perked up, a waiter brought over a covered plate on a tray. He lifted the silver lid and presented a bowl of caviar, garnished with chopped egg and onion on the side.

“Don’t be offended if I don’t offer you any.”

“None taken. I don’t like caviar anyway.” Of course I’d never tried it. “Cheers.”

He shoveled egg and onion pieces onto the smokey-grey pearls. Clutching a spoon in thick hands, he began scooping as if the Beluga were cereal, crunching squishy fish eggs like Cheerios. “Vodka!”

I hung around for two more beers, bowing out with many thanks when Felix mentioned that one of his girlfriends was “on her way over.”

*

La Fenice was another Felix haunt. Just a few steps east of Pilot Communications on East 58th Street, this tony Northern Italian restaurant served as the Dennis daily canteen and did double-duty with The Russian Bear as his after-work watering hole. So it was a natural to hold the initial Star Hits Christmas party there. The private party room at La Fenice made for a palatial venue, as far as we worker bees were concerned. I was ecstatic to be included among the inner circle of editorial staff, key freelancers and Felix’s American business partners. Peter Godfrey (who was in fact English) and Bob Bartner were successful Connecticut-based publishers, specialists in unapologetic porn magazines; when I examined a specimen or two, the total lack of advertising or any kind of pseudo-“lifestyle” features accompanying the many glossy photos of naked women made clear their no-frills agenda.

Learning that my dream job was aligned, however marginally, with raw n’ racy porn mags was disquieting — at first. Compartmentalizing came easily to me, perhaps too easily. Anyway Peter and Bob cut smooth figures as businessmen in our New Pop world, though Bob was capable of the occasional display of cartoonish open-collar-hairy-chest-medallion machismo. At one point during the Christmas party, I fondly recall him yelling across the long table at the departing waiter. “Put some ice in that white wine!”

We’d seen the first issue by that point, with Duran Duran on the cover, and our spirits couldn’t have been any higher before the party even started. Of course that didn’t slow anyone down. Cocktails preceded dinner, wine accompanied the food, and some sort of cognac or brandy was placed on the table along with dessert. All I can clearly remember about the party is utterly mortifying myself by flirting with the pretty English-accented photographer seated next to me — until she mentioned her girlfriend. She didn’t seem to take offense and I prayed she — and everyone— regarded the incident as amusing: another example of my “mad” bull-in-the-china-shop American charm.

A grueling finale followed at home, as I ricocheted between bed, bathroom and beyond. I rolled into the office when summoned the next afternoon, nursing a psychedelic headache and half-expecting to be fired for some forgotten transgression from the night before. Instead we all sheepishly compared hangovers and commiserated over the pizzas Sue Freeman had ordered.

I flew back to see my family in Ohio the next day, already anticipating a new year like no other when I returned. 1984 would live up to its reputation.

Pop Stars Are Not Your Friends

The first full-length article I contributed to Star Hits was a feature on the group Madness. The piece turned out fine, editorially rendered in the trademarked Smash Hits fashion, but getting there turned out to be no fun at all. This excruciating interview taught me a lesson about journalism if not life itself.

Now We Are Six: England’s magnificent seven, Madness, cope with the loss of founding member Mike Barson. Whither now the nutty boys wonders Mark Coleman.

The musical circus called Madness has always lived up to its name. From the snazzy reggae-flavored ska of “One Step Beyond” (which kicked off their career in England) to humorous pop portraits like “Our House” (which broke them in the States), Madness sound like they’re having a blast and playing music at the same time. These seven young Brits just have a way of drawing in listeners and making them feel like part of the celebration, too.

Better make that six young Brits. Just when Madness’ much-awaited Keep Moving LP hit the streets, keyboardist Mike Barson announced that he was leaving the group he founded. That’s a tough break for any band, but for a group whose friendship was a big part of the sound, it could have been fatal. How will singers Carl Smyth and “Suggs” McPherson, bassist Mark Bedford, guitarist C.J. Foreman, sazist Lee Thompson and drummer Woody Woodgate carry on?

Sire Records resided on 54th Street just off 5th Avenue, spread across several floors of a slim high-rise. It was a far cry indeed from the humble Lower East Side flats where I’d interrogated Sonic Youth and Bush Tetras. Exuding a professional friendliness, which I found neither seductive nor off-putting, the publicist guided me into a plushly carpeted conference room.

Vocalist Carl Smyth and “Suggs” hunched over an upright piano in the corner of the room: toying with the ivories rather than tickling them, I’d say. They immediately admitted to abruptly cancelling the American tour that brought them here — because they couldn’t find a suitable pianist to substitute for the departed Mike Barson. They were quotably honest about their uncertain future, and with my polite probing out of the way, obviously relieved to recount past glories for the duration of the interview.

We chatted for nearly an hour and I quietly decided it had proceeded rather well. “Hey I’m really hitting it off with these guys!” When the publicist re-entered the room, I turned to greet her and the two Madness members drifted back to the piano for more tuneless tinkling. I switched off my tape recorder and prepared to to leave. Before I could say goodbye and thanks, “Suggs” asked the publicist where to find some authentic New York pizza and I piped up: “John’s on Bleecker St is fantastic!”

My suggestion wasn’t acknowledged. Nor was my presence in the room. As though I no longer existed! I tiptoed out, humiliated beyond words. Perhaps I overreacted, but the experience burned a tattoo on my brain: POP STARS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS.

New Pop: Prelude

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After knocking around lower Manhattan for a couple years, I began hearing the following declaration. “Oh I never go above 14th Street.” Sometimes the demarcation line was 23rd, or maybe even Houston Street for the truly committed (or terminally cool). This statement was asserted as a point of bohemian pride more than an ironclad geographical rule, or so I assumed. Surely I wasn’t the only downtown resident who ventured uptown for a mercenary 9-5 job (albeit briefly in my case) or the occasional doctor’s appointment. But a certain provincial spirit prevailed and I subscribed too.

Midtown’s sunless corporate canyons resembled, well, not exactly no man’s land, maybe occupied territory? The predictable grid of numbered streets reflected the rigid mindset of the workaday squares occupying all those high-rise office buildings. Of course, for young people of the 1980s who wisely were more concerned with making money and establishing a traditional career, soon to be known as yuppies, Midtown Manhattan was the shining citadel, their means to an end if not the eventual main event.

So it was appropriate that my first break in glossy magazine publishing, my move into the mainstream, landed me in a sleek midtown office tower.

It all happened fast. Overall, the pace of my life accelerated from that magic moment in late 1983 onward. Once again, it began with a phone call.

One desultory evening in October, David Fricke contacted me about applying for a job at a music magazine start-up he was involved with. I knew his byline from Rolling Stone and Musician, but we had never met.

Smash Hits was at that time the best-selling music publication in the UK though it was almost impossible to obtain in the States. Hence the need for an American edition, though due to legal conflict it would be saddled with the ungainly title Star Hits. In those days I monitored the UK scene by reading the weekly New Musical Express; until Fricke phoned I’d never heard of Smash Hits. There was a resistance, verging on hostility, among many American journalists toward English groups. When I wrote about New Order and Joy Division in The Village Voice at the beginning of 1983, most writers in my circle were incredulous. “How can you stand that shit?”

But it turned out I was familiar with the musicians covered in Smash Hits. And thanks to MTV’s explosive growth over the preceding two years, so were millions of young Americans. While the so-called New Romantic movement came and went on our soil, its hyper-stylized standard-bearers like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran had apparently soldiered on back at home. And their videos — especially Duran’s lavishly produced and ludicrously “plotted” travelogue clips — had become staples of the new music video channel in the States. Which meant teenage mall denizens across the country were hearing more new music than the self-styled tastemakers in the big city (like yours truly) might have ever imagined.

Signs of an impeding breakthrough surfaced throughout 1982 and ’83. Synth-friendly English groups like Human League and Soft Cell, who were also not averse to the increasingly tech-driven rhythms of contemporary black music, began to be heard on the playlists of downtown dance clubs and urban radio stations alike. When Culture Club reached Number 2 on the Billboard pop charts with the gently soulful Motown appropriation “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” in late 1982, there was no turning back.

As pleasant as Boy George’s sweet Smokey-derived voice sounded, and still sounds, actual music accounts for only half of Culture Club’s appeal if even that. Androgynous performers were absolutely nothing new in pop music yet the former George O’Dowd brought something unique to his gender-bending persona. Boy George decked himself out in outrageous makeup and natty dreadlocks while simultaneously projecting a cuddly, non-threatening, nearly asexual vibe — a drag queen you could bring home to meet Mom. Or hang his poster image on your bedroom wall without her freaking out.

Revealingly, Culture Club’s videos were nowhere near as sophisticated or well-made as Duran Duran’s, as British journalist Dave Rimmer indicates in his indispensable study Like Punk Never Happened. Nevertheless Boy George’s perversely wholesome charm and penchant for camp proved to be irresistible to American audiences. For awhile. In the wake of Michael Jackson’s soaraway success, pop visuals suddenly mattered more than ever before, perhaps even more than the music itself.

Even Rolling Stone, then as now the house organ of traditional rock culture, deigned to address the coming sea change with a Culture Club cover story; Boy George (alone) fronted the November 10, 1983 issue, in all his finery.

“Something was definitely happening, “ wrote Kurt Loder. “We turned on the radio, and white-boy black rhythms boomed from the speakers. We went for our MTV, and there were dozens of dandies parading across the screen. We danced at the clubs and noticed it was getting hard to tell the boys from the girls, the girls from the boys, and no one seemed to mind. A trend, perhaps. A new British Invasion. Indeed, the American charts now list more records by U.K. acts than at the height of Beatlemania, nearly twenty years ago.”

With an interview scheduled less than a week after David Fricke’s phone call, I had to scramble on the requested writing samples. I chose two reviews of British groups, the aforementioned New Order epic and a shorter look at Eurythmics’s debut album Sweet Dreams. In addition I’d been asked to compose brief takes on two current singles: David Bowie’s “Modern Love” and Eurythmics’ “Here Comes The Rain Again”. Luckily, I liked both quite a bit despite (or because of) their presumed commerciality. The magazine was going to be called Star Hits for a reason, right?

On the designated day, I hopped the E train to 53rd Street and then walked up Lexington Avenue to East 58th Street. Though the office of Pilot Communications was only a half-dozen or so blocks away from where I’d worked at Video Marketing Newsletter for six months in 1982, the parent company of Star Hits proved to be situated in another world entirely.

Bloomingdales, the fabulously upscale department store, defined this bustling neighborhood. Alexander’s, a slightly downscale department store roughly comparable to Macy’s, sat directly across the street from my destination. I regarded this area as “the retail district” and never came up. May’s on 14th Street, if worse for wear, was closer and more affordable.

Though it wasn’t yet noon the sidewalks were already packed with suburbanite ladies toting hefty shopping bags amid a better-groomed breed of beggars and street hustlers than you’d see in Times Square. On the corner of 58th and Lexington, before I turned right, an incongruous figure stood behind a table. Her stentorian voice drowned out the traffic noise.

“SIGN THE PETITION! FIGHT BAAAAACK WOMEN!

Passing close by her pulpit I saw why people steered clear. Hanging from the table was a gruesome poster, reproduced from Hustler magazine: a naked female body being fed into a meat grinder, under a doctored caption reading “STOP PORN.”

The feminist protester was a gaunt thirty-something redhead with freckles and a confrontational stare. Between her ascetic crew cut, faded army-surplus pants and combat boots, she resembled a lesbian graduate student who’d scolded me for playing The Rolling Stones’ “Stupid Girl” at the record the store in Ann Arbor. Dubbing her “the anti-porn lady”, in the interest of diplomacy I opted not to sign the petition. I never suspected that witnessing her lonely crusade would become part of my daily routine.

After entering the wrong side of the building I was grudgingly redirected by security and gradually made my way to an office suite on the 20-something floor. Riding the elevator, I observed a gamine adolescent who vaguely resembled Brooke Shields listening with bowed head while a middle-aged woman (obviously Mom) hissed inaudible instructions. When they disembarked on a floor in the teens, I glimpsed a sign reading “Elite Models Youth Division.” This too would soon become familiar.

Star Hits headquarters consisted of four or five rooms opening into a reception area barely big enough to contain the receptionist’s desk and visitor’s couch. At this juncture, Pilot Communications was a startup business, not successful enough (yet) to require (or support) a full-time receptionist. Susan Freeman, who occupied that desk on my first visit, also served the company as production editor, office manager and right-hand woman to the CEO. And since Felix Dennis split his time between New York and London, Susan was often left in charge.

With her prematurely grey Jewish-Afro hairstyle and piercing vocal timbre, Susan Freeman was a presence. She greeted me effusively.

“Oh you must be MARK COLEMAN.”

Ushered by Susan into the compact editorial sanctum, I quickly took in the sweeping city view through the picture windows and met the co-editors. They couldn’t have been more different, in terms of physical appearance. David Fricke was imposingly tall, well over six feet and slender, sporting shoulder-length hair and blue jeans, quiet of demeanor yet displaying quick, lively eyes behind light-sensitive wire-rimmed glasses. Neil Tennant, on extended loan from Smash Hits’ London office, registered as more outgoing in our initial encounter: effortlessly articulate, succinctly describing the magazine’s mission while flashing the occasional sparkling glance of amusement or sardonic raised eyebrow. Neil was medium height and build, with slightly curly and neatly shorn brown hair. Though at that point I rarely noticed clothes on women or men, I remember he wore a striking collared shirt and shiny black leather shoes with his Levis. Impressed by both men, I decided minutes into the interview that I would do anything to get hired.

Somehow I fronted my way through the interview with revealing my ignorance of the magazine itself. Or maybe they knew? Still they praised my test assignment and gave me a few copies of Smash Hits to take home. When they said, “we’ll be in touch”, I tried hard to hide my enthusiasm.

Reading the magazine for the first time back downtown in my 9th Avenue cavern, I totally lost my shit. Smash Hits really was a teen mag, with screaming girls and everything. However, when I read Neil Tennant ’s cover story on Kajagoogoo (one-hit wonders of “Too Shy” infamy) in the May 26 1983 issue, and read it again, and again, I finally saw the light. Another road to Damascus moment. The story was, in the breathless parlance of the time, brilliant: witty, sharp and observant.

     I was a mildly fierce critic of the group myself until it began to dawn on me that, if they were criticized so widely and so frequently, they must be doing something right.

Instead of gushing or condescending or pandering, Neil and Smash Hits gave their young readers a sense of what the pop-star subjects were like as people – plus a peek behind the Wizard of Oz music-biz curtain.

At first, I was hired as a freelance writer/editor, though “freelance” translated into Neil or David calling almost daily. “Are you busy?” “Uh, NO.” I was between jobs and scraping by on writing assignments. “Why don’t you come up and give us a hand.” New Pop and Star Hits were a godsend. Next stop: 1984 and something resembling World Domination.