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.

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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.

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.”

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.

Come On Feel The Noise

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“What’s the best way to play guitar with drumsticks? Well, when Thurston Moore jammed one up the neck of his electric during Sonic Youth’s Sunday afternoon set at CBGB it sounded great. Just as the quartet seemed to be on the verge of a melody, boom! A downstroke from bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Richard Edson’s cymbal crashes pushed the guitarists into glorious chaos. The room got drenched with droning feedback, ear-splitting harmonics, tangled rhythms and the amplified whir of an electric drill. A week later and I’m still not sure what hit me, but I know I loved it.” – New York Rocker 1981

In retrospect I was in the right place at the right time entirely by accident. My second assignment for New York Rocker was a live review of a new band called Sonic Youth. (The first was a John Cale show billed as solo piano that wound up being his full band circa Honi Soit LP.)  I’d actually witnessed the prototype version of the band (without Lee Ranaldo) at the noise fest the previous summer. But even that couldn’t have prepared me for what I heard and saw when I walked into CBGB one autumn night in 1981. The band was raw and still working out their radical approach to making music but the now-familiar elements were all in place: clanging harmonics and ear-numbing feedback, yes, but also moments of atmospheric calm and twisted beauty plus Kim Gordon’s hypnotic vocals on a song or two. I approached Thurston Moore after their set and told him I’d been assigned a review; this was long before the days of publicists, hangers-on and backroom protocol on every level of the music scene. Downtown in those days was democratic. People were equals on both sides of the stage. If you ask am I surprised that Sonic Youth went on to achieve everything they did my answer is a resounding NO. While I never could have predicted what happened to them – and me – in the years to come, I knew it would be something. It’s hard to pin down, but the sound of possibility was everywhere in New York City then. There was music in the streets.

All Aboard Amtrak

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My actual point of departure for New York City turned out to be less than romantic: a forlorn platform in the freight yards outside the grand old Union Terminal. One of Cincinnati’s architectural treasures, with murals by German artist Winold Reiss, thirty five years ago Union Terminal was functioning – fitfully — as an upscale shopping mall. Just a few stores huddled beneath the sprawling paintings, and customers were scarce, or at least they had been on my aimless exploratory visit the previous week.

The Amtrak Cardinal pulled through Cincinnati on its way to Washington D.C. from Chicago. It must’ve been about 6:00 pm, because I remember saying goodbye to my apprehensive mom and dad in something approaching daylight, après an early dinner at home. It was a frigid Tuesday in February 1981.

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Rural West Virginia passed by my window most of the night: a sea of pitch-black nothing, occasionally interrupted by random islands of illumination: the pointless blinking of a traffic signal over a deserted intersection, a beacon spot-light shining forth from the side of a windowless corrugated shed.

Changing trains in D.C. passed by as a blur. Somehow I managed to get aboard the Metroliner. The window view looked decidedly different from the day before: disused factories, decayed warehouses. A sign hanging on a huge smokestack in Wilmington, Delaware grabbed my attention: Documents Shredded. The gory details of Watergate, Nixon’s secrecy and paranoia, were fresh enough memories to render this service both wildly funny and slightly ominous. I was entering the part of the country – the east coast — where information mattered. Documents, words, data, ideas and writing: it was all taken quite seriously. Or so I presumed.

Pulling out of Philadelphia, the north side of the city stunned me, a vision out of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. North Philadelphia really did resemble a bombsite: crumbling row houses, junked autos, cracked concrete walls further pockmarked with cartoon-letter graffiti, bumper crops of broken bottles harvested in vacant lots.

The concluding hour or so of the journey consisted of a very leisurely crawl through a tunnel deep below New Jersey. This delay lent a starkly claustrophobic air to the already uncomfortable (cold, crowded) train car. I survived by fantasizing about the way my friends and I used to cruise to downtown Cincinnati via automobile, watching identical acres of ranch houses with lawns gradually shrink and give way to row houses, apartment complexes and office buildings. No, the east coast was different. Dive right in the muck.

Talk about being fresh off the boat, wet behind the ears you name it: I got played for a sucker not half a dozen steps into Penn Station. The entry-level exam in urban savvy is easy to flunk.

“Hey my man you need a cab?”

I sure did. However, this helpful stranger – a thirty-ish African-American with mustache and what I interpreted as a jaunty taxi driver’s cap – grabbed my battered Samsonites just as I nodded in the affirmative, lugging my suitcases toward a distant exit sign. About a minute later the truth sunk into the pit of my stomach. This guy was no cab driver. His “help” would consist entirely of steering the unwitting customer – me — toward the clearly marked cabstand where other potential passengers waited in an orderly line and the real drivers remained snugly behind the wheels of their cars. My guy demanded $10 and accepted $5, while I silently thanked him for a quick education in the potential hazards of public transportation and by extension, the city itself. People looking to take advantage waited around every corner.

“Just look for a red door under the cow sign…”

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For exactly one year, from fall 2012 to fall 2013, I went to work every day just a block away from where I lived in the early 1980s. Walking the same route thirty years later, I quickly concluded that no other Manhattan neighborhood could’ve changed as much as the meatpacking district. And after a few months of plowing up and down that still-familiar stretch of west 15th Street, I heard echoes of the 80s and the music in the street.

Home was the stark white three-story building on the north corner, across the street from the Apple Store today. A nameless Greek coffee shop, run by three separate men called “Georgie,” occupied the entire first floor. On 14th Street other neighbors included: faded Irish bar with live bluegrass music, failing Metro supermarket, busy beer distributor’s outlet, busy bicycle shop, gypsy fortune teller living with her family in a storefront that doubled as her salon. According to the sign, that is. I walked past the picture window every day and never once saw Madame with a client.

Around the corner on 9th Avenue neighbor sat The Old Homestead Steakhouse. A hulking neon-lit replica steer stood guard over the restaurant’s canopied and carpeted entranceway. Our front door, next to the Homestead’s satellite butcher shop, had just been painted a flagrant shade of red. Look for a red door underneath the cow sign, I’d tell my infrequent guests. You couldn’t miss it.

There was no intercom system in the building. Visitors had to bring a dime for the pay phone, and call me from across the street.

Crossing 9th Avenue and continuing west on 14th Street felt like falling off the map. During the day the meat-packers’ market formed a bleak panorama. By noon the butchers were finished with work and mostly gone. Even after the cobblestones were cleansed of the pre-dawn bloodbath, the streets still reeked. Open dumpsters and rubber trash barrels lined the sidewalks, filled to the rims with freshly rendered hunks of peppermint-striped animal fat. Forget about the rats; in the meatpacking district the flies were scary.

After dark the warehouses turned into hives of activity, much of it furtive. Camouflaged in black leathers, men prowled the shadowy blocks all night long, loners and duos stalking past the packs gathered near a doorway or loading dock. Were there dozens of people walking around on any given night, or hundreds, bar-hopping between the murky nightclubs and after-hours spots? I can’t say. It always looked like a lot of guys from across the street.

Around the building I hardly ever laid eyes on the other tenants. And when I did, passing them in the hall, the vast majority registered as taciturn, reluctant, grunting avoiders of eye contact.

There were exceptions. Bette lived right across the hall, with her husband Abe, a disabled man who barely left their studio apartment. She played Mom, always asking how I was doing even though she was obviously struggling with her husband. He must’ve been nearly 80, she looked younger, maybe 60. Her face was wizened, worn-out, yet Bette had a ready, raspy hack of a laugh. I’d see her at the Irish bar, through the window, smoking and nursing a Bud bottle. Between her warm drawl and crooked teeth, I pegged her as an Appalachian immigrant, though I never inquired.

The local equivalent of Frank and Jeff lived down the hall. Barry occupied the relatively spacious corner apartment; he was an obvious-gay type of guy, clean-cut and genial, always smiling. We got along on the smallest of small talk. Mr. Charles lived alone, next door to Barry’s place. A portly man in his 60s, Mr. Charles wore a bad toupee and insisted that I take his card the first time we bumped into each other. Stanley Charles: Theatrical & Show Business Agent. I endured his inevitable recruiting pitch. After that, I enacted a policy of not saying more than “hello” to Mr. Charles.

Gradually, even the eye-contact avoiders became familiar figures.

My apartment was located next to the stairwell, conveniently allowing for quick ins and outs as well as guaranteeing a bare minimum of neighbor sightings. A pair of virtually identical women lived next door on the other side: dyed-blondes with masculine haircuts, fire-hydrant bodies and the hard-bitten demeanor of old-fashioned stereotypical lesbians. For months or maybe longer I assumed they were the same person and I’m still not completely sure. Perhaps my memory has perfected cloning.

Beside Barry two other residents appeared to be roughly around my age. Subject One was a spiky peroxide-blond scarecrow, the kind of dude who dutifully wore the punk rock uniform year-round: black leather jacket, jeans, t-shirt, Converse high-top sneakers. I nicknamed him the Horror-Rocker. Naturally I suspected he was a junkie.

His apparent friend or sidekick or partner in crime was a middle-aged Hispanic woman who lived down the hall. She wore the uniform of a school crossing guard. (I often saw her in action at the P.S. near the housing projects on 17th, leading the children across 9th avenue.) Theirs was an unlikely relationship to say the least. It only heightened my unease about the Horror-Rocker.

Even more disquieting was Subject Two, whom I unimaginatively nicknamed the Crazy Guy. He sported shoulder-length reddish blond locks and the bushy beard of an Old Testament prophet, or Charlie Manson. Every Sunday his elderly mother came to visit. I ran into them all the time: sitting in the diner or walking arm in arm, painfully slow, the little old lady and the lug. She was, of course, the only person I saw ever with him.

Most of the time the Crazy Guy hurried past me, eyes fixed on the ground. The few instances when we established eye contact were frightening. His pupils glowed like bloodshot lasers, inflamed with anger, fueled by unfathomable rage. He made me step back.

Occasionally, a knock on the door would interrupt my reverie. On Sunday mornings I received regular visits from Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists – I learned how to tell the difference. One Saturday evening I fielded an inquiry from a determined young black guy who insisted his sister was hiding from him inside my apartment. “I know you’ve got her in there!”

I let him take a quick look over my shoulder, and the sight of an empty room apparently calmed him down “Sorry, my man.” After he disappeared down the hall, I realized my heart was pounding.

For the most part nobody bothered me. I became absorbed by the solitary pursuits of reading, writing, listening to music. I learned to cook on the creaky stove, bought discount groceries from the Western Beef retail outlet one block west on 14th Street.

When I wasn’t going out.

Living in cramped quarters propelled me outward, into the world. And the immediate environs, the neighborhood right outside my door, propelled me further still, to another – any other – part of town. More and more, beginning in 1982, my life occurred in public places.