“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.
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.