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.

Dirty Secrets of the Hidden Industry

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Near the end of 1981, I stumbled across a promising job opening, at yet another publication I’d never read or even heard about: Video Marketing Newsletter. Though I didn’t yet own a recorder, I knew video cassettes were the future. Right away, I was sold: the future had potential. The future sounded like a solid commercial proposition.

At a couple hundred bucks per subscription, business newsletters only required a few thousand subscribers to turn a profit. Production costs were almost non-existent on these glorified brochures; they were stapled, picture-less, ten-page pamphlets. Veteran rock critic and folk music maven Ira Mayer ran Video Marketing Newsletter. He’d just rented a five-room suite on a tidy midtown side street between Lexington and Third Avenue. Next-door was an enclosed concrete park with a fountain and a snack bar that operated in warm weather. On the other side was a synagogue, housed in a modestly handsome modern building. Across the street was an outlet of the “Erotic Baker” chain, its display window stocked with a grotesque assortment of penis and breast-shaped layer cakes. New York City was so tacky sometimes. Little did I suspect that the porn presence was prescient.

A few weeks later, I was introduced on the back page of VMN as a “veteran trade reporter.” From that point on, I knew we were all in trouble.

During the six months I worked at VMN, every so often I answered the phone and heard this: “Who the hell writes this crap?” I was never quite sure how to answer. Naturally I knew who wrote it, and so did the film studio executives and video store owners who called to complain about the subtle shadings of their quotes. Our sources were also our subjects, and our subscribers. Businessmen – successful executives – paid good money to read VMN musing on the future of consumer electronics. And consumer electronics was about to change the world. Ira and his California-based partners foresaw the all-conquering acronyms: VCR, CD, DVD, and PC.

Though I still hate to admit it, my bosses were right. On the money. Considering how much of the specific short-range stuff they consistently got wrong – such as laser discs overtaking videocassettes – only makes their omniscience on the big picture all the more incomprehensible. Video Marketing Newsletter was a high-tech oracle, a handbook for nerds before being a geek became cool or insanely profitable.

“In the future all our media, all our entertainment will be consumed and delivered on machines made in Japan” — this was our mantra in early 1982. Churning out vague yet obvious predictions turned into a lucrative business for Video Marketing Newsletter. Too bad I spent most of my time there writing freelance music articles for little or no money.

The videocassette market, in terms of movie content, resembled Times Square circa 1982: evenly divided between Hollywood blockbusters and the vast tawdry empire of pornographic films.

Times Square was hands-down my least favorite place in Manhattan. Relentless sleaze permeated the neon atmosphere. It was literally breathtaking, and depressing beyond words. The grim aura of human exploitation extended from the joyless porn movie palaces to the various personal services offered in strip clubs and on the streets. Obvious and not-so-obvious whores of various genders bantered with the tourists who stood around gaping at the marquees: Live Nude Girls 24 Hours, Peep Show/Private Booths and XXX All Male Cast Triple Features Daily.

There were still first-run movie theaters on Broadway in those days, too. The Times Square audiences were lively, let’s say: openly smoking pot, yelling at the screen. Watching a movie in these conditions may not have been dangerous, but it wasn’t remotely pleasant either. As a rule, I tried to avoid those sorts of potential-mob-scene situations.

The mass popularity of pornography (and prostitution) was simply astonishing. Not merely the prevalence, but the demand and the apparent frequency of consumption. Put it this way: I knew porn was popular but I had no idea how popular. The proximity of Times Square to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Penn Station only partially explained the lurid proliferation. How many commuters made a secretive sex stop on the way home?

Though porn movies accounted for roughly 50% of the burgeoning video cassette market, you (understandably) wouldn’t have read about that in Video Marketing Newsletter. The retail outlets and video stores that serviced the new market couldn’t afford to be so discriminating; the “adult section” was discreetly situated in the rear of the store.

A crucial issue for VMN was sales versus rentals. Most consumers preferred to borrow video cassettes for $2 or $3 and return them to the store, rather than purchase and own a movie for $20. Columbia Pictures tried to squelch the new videocassette rental market in early 1982 by announcing that it would begin restricting movies on tape to “sale-only” but the video dealers weren’t having it.

Ira Mayer and I attended a hastily convened meeting of the regional branch of the Home Video Merchants Association, a loose knit group of video-store owners, taking place in New Jersey at a chain-hotel conference room. The day before I had called the main office of Superstar Video (let’s call it), New York City’s popular new chain of video stores, located in the back room of what was basically an upscale pornography supermarket in Times Square. When he found out VMN knew about the meeting, the owner got on the phone. Of course he was pissed off by the security leak. Swearing me to secrecy until the story ran, he grudgingly said we could attend the meeting as long as we didn’t draw undue attention to ourselves. “Mr. Superstar” rallied the troops that night; he rocked the house.

We built this business for the studios. They wouldn’t have Home Video divisions if we didn’t risk our necks in 1978, 79. The movie companies didn’t know they were sitting on a goldmine. Retailers created the home video market. It didn’t exist back then. Now we’ve got fucking, excuse me, Fotomats renting videos. [applause] I don’t have to tell all of you. We watched it grow, the home video market. We grew it. And now the movie studios are trying to snatch it back from us. No thanks. We’re not laying down. No way. My stores aren’t carrying sale-only videos.

We were mildly exuberant on the way back to New York. A little drama made for lively journalism, even in The Hidden Industry. The story would write itself, for once.

***

A shot at establishing (or redeeming) myself as a business reporter arrived with the coming of warmer weather. The Summer Consumer Electronics Show, or CES to those in the know, was scheduled for the first week in June. Naturally my boss planned to attend, this season with me in tow. I spent the week before CES on the phone. Ira hoped to interview every – any – executive who could be corralled for five minutes on the convention floor. “Why in the world does he want to speak with me?” was a frequent response. Eventually, nearly everybody gave in. VMN was impossible to avoid before the bloody show even began.

Our hotel, more of a motel, was a Holiday Inn equivalent next to O’Hara airport. The McCormick Center was accessible via buses from the motel. My flight was delayed five hours so I the missed Thursday’s evening festivities, including Sony’s legendary all-you-can-eat sushi buffet and a luau hosted by Panasonic, among other draws. I slept fitfully in the unseasonably sub-polar air-conditioning. The first bus departed at 7:30 and I was on it, clutching my styrofoam coffee cup.

A battery of satellite dishes guarding the entry plaza imparted a militaristic Star Wars vibe to the airy lakeside complex.  Welcome the wonderful world of gadgets. Batteries not included. It was a midnight-sun environment, relentlessly bright. Natural light would’ve been inappropriate, somehow. The harsh lighting gave me a near-blinding headache after a couple hours exposure.

Predictably I was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of variation that I had trouble putting each product in context. What makes this one different? I’d think, and then silently answer: who cares? Who would want to watch the Sony Watchman, a portable TV with a tiny 4-inch screen? Presumably not the same sort of person who would fork over $10,000 for a Sony Trinitron 30-inch screen sunk in a wood cabinet, complete with monogrammed gold plate. I didn’t have anything invested in “consumer electronics” because I wasn’t an electronics consumer beyond my Walkman, cheap stereo and TV. I felt like an enemy spy behind the lines at CES – or a double agent.

I studied name tags and loitered close to the booths, zeroing in on the nerdy-looking guys who seemed to be in charge while avoiding the moderately pretty and provocatively dressed Midwestern blondes who were stationed by the display tables.

Identifying yourself as a journalist at a trade show meant removing yourself from the ranks of potential paying customers. You served no purpose, as far as the exhibitors were concerned, you were useless. These guys bought ads to sell their products, paid to publicize their companies; they didn’t need an inept trade magazine reporter to spread the word.

I had a hard time getting past “what’s new?” in other words. My problems started with “I’m with Video Marketing Newsletter.” The invariable response was “what? Never seen it.” I didn’t have a snappy answer at hand. There was no snappy answer.

The most popular exhibits at CES – by a wide and obvious margin – were situated in a roped-off section devoted to the so-called adult video industry. This was the most heavily trafficked area in the entire McCormick Center. When various porn actresses were appearing, the line of guys waiting for (presumably) autographs stretched past the life-sized cardboard statue of Jane Fonda in her workout leotards at Karl Home Video.

Naturally I ran into my boss and his business partner near the entrance to Sodom and Gomorrah.

“What are you doing here?” The tone was accusatory, as though they weren’t “here,” too.

“I came over to check out the crowd. I should’ve known what was going on.”

“What else have you been up to, Mark?”

I flashed my reporters’ notebook, blue ink visible on its fluttering pages. My shoulder-pouch was stuffed with brochures.

“Wait there’s something else you could do before lunch. There’s a secret meeting of retailers back at one of the hotels. The guy from Superstar Video is rallying the troops. I want you to just show up.”

“He’ll kill me. Then kick me out.”

“No, it’ll be fine. Tell him we’re sending you in my place.”

The Red Roof Inn conference center resembled a mid-sized college classroom. One notable difference: Mr. Superstar, looking fierce in a button-down shirt and warm-up suit, glowered next to the podium and empty blackboard. Everybody seated at the long tables in front of him – maybe fifty or sixty people – turned to look when I slipped in. I shut the doors behind me, turned around and smiled like a fool. “How’s it going?”

“You!…you sold us down the river with that fucking article!”

You said we could write about the dealers’ meeting. The entire piece was your quotes. Hey, we got in hot water with our subscribers for taking your side.”

“No that article was fine. The one after that pissed me off. These Hollywood pricks say we’re greedy? Don’t get me started.”

“No, no, let’s talk, let’s talk, you should do a follow-up interview.”

“Kid why don’t you come down to my store back in New York and I’ll rent you a copy of All The President’s Men.”

“How about Deep Throat?” I hoped he got the joke.

“Get the fuck out of here. Now.”

No More Nukes 1982

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Two industrial AC/heating units squatted outside my apartment window, servicing the restaurants downstairs. When these behemoths rumbled into action around three or four every morning, the sound resembled the roar of a low-flying jet passing overhead. I’d wake up about half-way and groggily imagine: Here Come The Bombers. All the apocalyptic anti-Soviet rhetoric that Ronald Reagan threw around in the early 1980s scared me, and plenty of other people.

Naturally I attended the huge Nuclear Disarmament rally on June 12, 1982. Some estimates put the turnout at nearly one million people. This momentous event occurred on the weekend after my first business trip, a disastrous jaunt to the Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. Making my way to the Central Park with some college friends on that sunny Saturday, I remembered the rusted Fallout Shelter signs on public buildings in Cincinnati.

There was a civil defense drill on every first Wednesday of the month while I attended  elementary school. This was in the middle-to-late 1960s, the Vietnam era. And yet here we were, still performing an absurd ritual left over from the cold war. A siren on the roof of the school blasted and we’d get marched out of the classrooms onto the ‘playground’ – actually it was the back parking lot of the church. So much for “duck and cover.” We were sitting ducks! Even as a ten year old I didn’t get it. Nobody ever explained what we were supposed to be doing. There was a lot of that in Catholic school. Unquestioning faith.

Flash forward to 1982: we skipped the parade and headed straight to the rally. We entered Central Park at Columbus Circle near 59th street, after riding uptown on the boogie-down D train. Painstakingly, we made our way toward the general vicinity of the Great Lawn, joining the herds slowly moving north on the park drive. The day was seasonably warm. I sported my new post-punk summer uniform: short-sleeved white collared shirt, black Levis and Palladium canvas shoes from Dave’s Army Surplus, cheap sunglasses from a recent 14th Street shopping lark.

The assembled masses were peaceable, not at all riot-inclined. Planet Earth balloons bounced on strings and the banners unfurled.

Bombs Kill Babies 
Mothers Against Nuclear Arms
Students Not Mutants

Ironically and perhaps intentionally, the inescapable boombox songs-of-the-day were Trouble Funk’s “Drop The Bomb” or The Gap Band’s “You Dropped A Bomb On Me.” Everywhere. The effect was eerie, though of course both songs were dance-party anthems.

My friends wanted to catch Jackson Browne, the eternal bard of sensitive ‘70s teenagers, so we settled on a gnarled patch of grass that seemed theoretically within earshot of the stage. But the speeches and music were audible only as background noise. So we watched the crowd. A message was sent that day, but President Reagan didn’t receive it. Perhaps January 21 2017 will turn out differently.

Uptown funk comes downtown pt.1

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Club Negril was a dive reggae bar on the corner of Second Ave and 12th Street. The occasion was my first look at hip-hop: Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Romantic MCs promised to “rock the house.” South Bronx meets the East Village.

If I’d learned anything about New York by that point, I knew not to arrive early for a nightclub performance. So I watched the late news and Johnny Carson’s opening monologue on my brand new b&w TV ($43 at Uncle Steve’s) before shoving off. The 14th Street bus deposited me two blocks from the bar just as the big clock on the Con Edison building silently pointed to midnight. Witching hour. It was unseasonably cold, clear, sometime in November or early December 1981.

Inside, Club Negril boasted a small stage, a compact dance floor, and a long bar. The décor consisted of Christmas lights and a few fake palm trees. The joint was packed with people, shrouded in smoke and dim yellow glow. I forked over a very reasonable $5 to the wary Rasta acting as sentry at the door. “Nah reggae tonight.”

The funky beat pulsating from the PA system sounded vaguely familiar and utterly foreign, exotic, at the same time. Literally the music here functioned as a siren song, sweeping any stragglers toward the dance floor, myself included, though up to that point I hadn’t seriously danced since the senior prom.

Recognizing the loopy bass line of “Flashlight” by Parliament, I tentatively swayed with the rhythm, rotating my broad shoulders to the beat. Surrounding me was a writhing sea of humanity, evenly split between the downtown set (white bohemians in their twenties) and the uptown crowd (black and Hispanic teenagers). For New York, in my admittedly brief experience, this ratio was extremely rare. Make no mistake: it was the music that put all of us at ease.

Unlike the discos and rock clubs, where people essentially danced alone in a narcissistic trance, here everybody moved in tandem with everybody else in an ecstatic collective frenzy. Grand Wizard Theodore, a short, solidly built black guy maybe 20 years old, occupied center stage behind two turntables. The soulful groove emanating from the big speakers on either side of the room ebbed and flowed with the fluid assurance of a long-distance swimmer switching strokes in mid-stream. I’ve never felt so compelled to dance yet I kept stopping in my tracks, trying to divine the source of the celebratory, fresh sounds.

Just as I’d felt with Sonic Youth a few weeks previous, the earth seemed to shift under my shuffling feet. Only this wasn’t punk rock – it was a party. Theodore expertly manipulated the crowd’s energy with the records he played, dragging the needle back-and-forth in rhythmic scratches, teasing the dancers with climatic snatches – a honking gutbucket saxophone riff, a thunderous jungle drum break – that triggered mass hysteria.

Around 2:00 AM a space cleared at the lip of the stage for the five Fantastic Romantic MC’s. They were smooth and sure, rhyming in unison and individually, gamely attempting Temptations-style choreography, yet the rappers appeared as an afterthought, a sideshow to the three-ring circus. The main attraction was the DJ, not to mention the action on the dance floor.

At times during the night the dancers would intuitively pause and pull back, making space for the boogaloo crews to athletically twist and twirl their limbs in robotic contortions. But the vision that has stayed with me ever since is not this early sighting of break-dancers but rather the kids dancing around them. I loved the loose-limbed way the b-boys and fly girls bobbed and swayed. Unconsciously I soon found myself duplicating their moves. The sound of hip-hop stimulated a reflex I didn’t know I possessed.

When I reached 14th Street a few minutes after the show ended, the crosstown bus sat at the stop, engines idling, doors open — as if the driver was waiting for me. For the second time in the same night, miraculously, I managed to be in the right place at the right time. As the bus crept westward, I interpreted the evening as a hopeful omen. I couldn’t help thinking that my luck had turned. Finally.

Sleep Alternatives

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You can sleep on it, lounge on it, read on it, exercise on it, and dream on it…in fact, the uses of the versatile mattress pictured here are practically endless.

After the first few nights at 48th Ninth Avenue, sleeping on the floor lost its luster. My back hurt. The Village Voice featured several pages of bed advertisements each week — “a full range of sleep alternatives.” The traditional Japanese futon, or sleeping mat offered a popular solution to the couch versus bed conundrum. Planet Futon (let’s call it) was only a couple blocks south of the Railway Age office on Hudson Street.

A salesperson latched onto me seconds after entering. She was in her thirties, medium-frumpy, wearing blue jeans and Earth shoes. Caffeinated chat flowed from her thin lips. Not necessarily someone who slept well herself.

Her name was “Sunsh” as in Sunshine. I swallowed a giggle.

An old-school convertible couch looked to be way out of my league, price wise, so my guide led me to the main showroom. The basic futon was too basic for my taste: three cushions attached with hinges so they could be either flattened into a mattress or arranged into a vaguely chair-like stance. Clearly, a futon required some kind of brace or support to qualify as furniture.

Scrunching around on the various crossbreed models in the store I found them unsatisfying as both bed and chair. Buying a frame so I could actually sit on the futon without ruining my back felt like the only way to go: more money, but less than a real bed or couch. My eyes fell on an off-white love seat sofa that enfolded a futon cushion. This made for an acceptably spongy compromise, though not exactly the best of both worlds. I would still be spending the night on the floor, in effect, but during the day I’d be sitting on a couch of sorts – a stationary object with back support.

“I thought you weren’t interested in convertibles,” said Sunsh, accusingly, as I circled the futon love seat for the fourth time.

“I didn’t say I wasn’t interested. I said they cost too much! But I like couch beds better, just the plain futon seems too cushion-y.”

“Then this futon love seat has to be what you’re looking for.”

“I guess so but $200 is way more than I can spend.”

“It’s $225. Hey wait, I can probably, maybe, take a little off.”

“That’s nice, but it might not be enough. I’ve got, like $150.”

“Why did you even come over here? Sorry, no, I didn’t mean that. I can’t, no I shouldn’t do this, but you seem like a nice guy. What about $175?”

“Look, I appreciate your offer but I’m overextended. Sorry, you’re right, I shouldn’t have come in here and played it cheap.”

“I’ll give you this for $160. You drive a hard bargain.”

“Well, that I can handle but what about the uh delivery?”

“You didn’t think of that before? Delivery fee is $25.”

“See I can’t really afford this, sorry. Thanks, though.”

“How far away do you live?”

“Not far, 14th Street and 9th Avenue. Why?”

“I could help, you know, I have a car.”

How much is this going to cost, I wondered. For a split second I considered bolting from the store right then and there. But the promise of a good night’s sleep was too seductive to resist.

“Are you sure? I can give you some gas money.”

“No, no. I’ve got a Toyota hatchback, it’ll fit right in.”

I rode in the shotgun seat. The loveseat hung out the back hatch, tethered to the rear bumper by yours truly, an ex-boy scout. The super at my new place, a chubby Spanish guy named Ray, was younger than Jeff, and far more capable. By chance he met us at the door, and helped me haul the pseudo-sofa up one flight of steps and then tilt it through my front door. I slipped him my last $10.

He winked at me and turned toward his apartment. Sunsh was now standing in the hallway. She shifted her feet, unsure of herself.

“Aren’t you going to ask me in?”

“Yeah, come on in.”

I cut off clear ribbons of packing tape with my pocketknife. Then I shoved the love seat against the wall, facing the dresser I’d recently bought at Salvation Army’s thrift shop.

“Have a seat.” I switched on the radio, turned low. “I don’t have much to offer you. Maybe some ginger ale? Or tea? I just moved in.”

“Yeah I know. No I don’t want anything to drink.”

Suavely I opened the cheap folding chair Jeff had sold me as a “going away present” from Washington Place, and sat down. Sunsh settled into the futon love seat.

“So er how did you get into selling futons?”

“Nobody ‘gets into’ selling futons. You end up doing it.”

“Do you sleep on one at home, you know, a futon? From the store?”

“I sleep on a waterbed.”

“Really? I knew somebody who had a huge waterbed. So big he had to move it to the basement before this old house collapsed.”

“Yeah I live in Queens, there’s more room for it out there.”

“I didn’t like sleeping on a waterbed, the time or two I tried. It made me feel sore, like I need the support of something firmer.”

“So you’re all by yourself here.”

This was not phrased as a question. I nodded anyway.

“With a brand new bed to…sleep on.”

“Ah I appreciate you helping me out, really I do. But…”

“But?”

“But well that’s all, really. Thanks for setting me up.”

“Is that all you want? A new couch?”

“That’s enough. I mean, hey, you gave me the hard sell.”

“Well, excuse me, maybe this is why I don’t do deliveries.”

“Look, let me pay you something then. I feel bad now.”

“I don’t need your money. You got what you wanted.”

After that, I went out of my way to avoid walking past Planet Futon.

Blowing Dodge & Burning Rubber

I first read New York Rocker at my record store job in Ann Arbor during the summer of 1979. The newsprint tabloid miraculously appeared alongside slick publications like Billboard and Rolling Stone in the modest magazine rack near the check out counter. My appetite for the new rock coming out of lower Manhattan had been whetted by The Village Voice, and NYR further stimulated that hunger with deep coverage of each subsequent ripple, from radical no wave bands like the funky and confrontational Contortions to more user friendly Manhattan imports like the party-starting B-52s from Athens, Georgia.

Sharp writing and splashy graphics distinguished NYR from the amateur enthusiasm of the do-it-yourself journals that came to be known as fanzines. It proved an indispensable guide. Abrasive and syncopated, the Contortions’ Buy took a while to sink in. But the B-52s’ joyous debut became an in-store favorite. While I still loved the energy of punk and the melodic thrust of power pop, when the Knack hit with “My Sharona” that summer, my musical taste began to evolve and expand beyond the confines of rock and roll.

Controversially, I picked the latest disco singles when it was my turn to choose the in-store soundtrack. Never a dancer, I was attracted to Chic and Donna Summer by the soulful singing and sophisticated rhythmic pulse; trifles like “I Love The Night Life” by Alicia Bridges or Anita Ward’s “Ring Your Bell” felt like classic, catchy pop.

Eighteen months later, armed with a college diploma and several hundred LPs, I occupied my old bedroom in Cincinnati and fitfully plotted my next move. Sending resumes to newspapers in search of employment yielded little more than polite pro-forma rejections. Sometime in January 1981 (I’d graduated in December 1980), I noted the decreasing circulation size of the papers I queried. The prospect of obtaining a reporter’s job in say, Chillicothe and slowly working my way up to the Cincinnati Enquirer or Cleveland Plain Dealer seemed unlikely and perhaps not where I wanted to end up anyway. I continued to read The Village Voice every week, and frequented a punk/new wave record store off Calhoun Street in Clifton that carried New York Rocker along with all the latest UK imports and indie singles. The manager rudely dismissed my inquiry about part-time employment and seemed openly annoyed by my many browsing-only visits. Though I couldn’t afford to buy records, I vicariously tried to keep up.

Driving my parents’ car around town, I found myself tuned in to WCIN, the local R&B station; partially because the mainstream rock stations were so dire in those days, dominated by the Axis of Evil (Journey, Styx and Kansas), but also because the bass-heavy sound of funk and the fleet-footed swing of disco sounded so much better, frankly, than everything else available. My personal epiphany occurred not on the road to Damascus but somewhere on Winton Road between between Clifton and Finneytown. The Gap Band’s “Burn Rubber On Me” came pumping out of the cheap Volkswagon speakers and I realized this funky strut rocked more effectively than any current rock and roll, new wave or old hat. I growled along with the lyrics and drummed on the steering wheel, my mind accelerating beyond the speed limit. And as my musical horizons broadened, so did my perception of my own destiny. Suddenly I realized where I’d always wanted to go and only now had the confidence to say out loud. New York City.