My Favorite Boss (Maybe)

felix dennis party animal

“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.

felix

*

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.

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.

Recombinant

DNA_241281 001
DNA 1981 photo by Catherine Cresole

The guitarist scraped and scratched at his electric 12-string while stuttering, squealing, shouting and sighing near-indeciperhable lyrics. The drummer beat intermittent off-center patterns seemingly independent of time signatures while the bassist stalked the stage in a trance, plucking deeply propulsive patterns dictated by some inner sense rather than the sounds surrounding him. Somehow, it all added up into a perfect cohesive whole.

DNA was the power trio to end all power trios and a pioneering musical force in downtown Manhattan circa 1980-82. I must’ve seen them perform ten times or more; with each viewing, their music sounded less random and raw, more purposeful and well not polished but pointed. Guitarist/singer Arto Lindsay, drummer Ikue Mori and bassist Tim Wright knew exactly what they were doing, despite their relative lack of experience as musicians.

Arto was the son of Protestant missionaries who spent a crucial portion of his childhood in Brazil, absorbing the Tropicalismo of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. You can feel that influence guiding his explosive, emotional delivery. Ikue began playing drums not long after moving to New York from Japan, almost before she learned to speak English, developing an intuitive feel for rhythm. Tim Wright possessed the closest thing to a resume, briefly playing bass in Cleveland’s Pere Ubu. He supplied the musical glue and traditional rock and roll stage presence.

Their recorded legacy is basically the EP A Taste Of DNA and live tapes. Most of their songs were a minute or two long, so live sets lasted 20 minutes. The later-day NYC band Blonde Red Head took their name from DNA’s best song. It’s a stunning, beautiful piece of music than only opens up the more you listen. I’m still trying to figure out the lyrics after 30+ years. “I’ve got a snake on my mind and it’s not my spine.” You go, Arto.
DNA “Blonde Red Head”
DNA live at the Mudd Club 1980

dont you ever stop long enough to start take your car outta that gear…

Reading tabloid articles in the aftermath was as close to the Public Image rout as I cared to be but The Clash’s proposed seven-night stand at Bond’s International Casino in Times Square, just a couple weeks later in May 1981, was a different matter. I’d witnessed the Detroit stops on every preceding Clash tour and there was no way I would miss my favorite band when they hit my new home turf.

True to form the group had recently released a sprawling, foolishly ambitious three-record titled Sandinista! The name was a tribute to the left-wing guerilla movement in El Salvador that was currently giving Ronald Reagan a serious case of indigestion. Politics aside, to my ears the diversely influenced songs on the album succeeded more often than not. Even disco – the bete noir of every punk-rock true believer – was seamlessly woven into the Clash’s newly cosmopolitan style. On a track called “The Magnificent Seven” the English rockers appropriated the rhythmic rhymes of rap, the latest sound to rise from the uptown city streets. And New York returned the compliment: on WBLS, Frankie Crocker was spinning a funky instrumental remix called “Magnificent Dance” in heavy rotation. After a few stagnant years, America’s musical melting pot was bubbling again.

Naturally I wasn’t the only person hotly anticipating these concerts but even the Clash must’ve been surprised at the ensuing melee and melodrama. I expected a mob scene when I showed up at Bond’s, a former department store converted into a disco, with my ticket in hand. The presence of mounted police and blue barricades was initially reassuring. All in a Saturday night’s work for the NYPD, I figured, but the subsequent arrival of fire trucks with sirens blaring suggested something extraordinary was afoot. Indeed I never made it in; the show had been oversold, double the club’s capacity according to news reports, and the Fire Department shut it down. Sticking to their guns, The Clash hurriedly called a press conference the next day and extended their stay at Bond’s for another seven nights.

Finally shuffling into the vast ballroom on the following Thursday I wasn’t disappointed. Balancing their recent material with the urgent anthems of their punk past, as far as I was concerned The Clash ascended a new peak that night. “Guns of Brixton,” in particular, came across like a promise delivered rather than an implied threat. But I sensed impatience in the audience, bordering on intolerance. Not for the Clash themselves, who were irresistibly charismatic performers to the end, but for the direction they sought to push their followers. The indifferent reaction accorded to the opening act, the luminous reggae superstar Burning Spear (Winston Rodney), came as no surprise. Later, I cringed when the saintly poet Allen Ginsberg was booed as he joined The Clash onstage. Free verse beatitudes and clanging guitars clamor isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Still the crowd’s close-mindedness was upsetting. I kept waiting to hear somebody call for “Whipping Post!” or “Free Bird!”

Public Image, Limited Viewing: PiL @ The Ritz

One night in May 1981 I toyed with the idea of seeing Public Image Ltd, when the post-Sex Pistols vehicle of John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon pulled into the Ritz. One year previous, the group executed a mesmerizing set at an old roller rink in Detroit, weaving abstract guitar squalls around pulsating reggae bass lines as Lydon’s incantatory catcalls floated through the air like ominous clouds. One year later the group had evolved – or devolved – into a purely conceptual expression of Lydon’s free-ranging contempt for his audience’s expectations.

Rout and roll at the Ritz

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Billed as a video performance rather than a concert, this PiL appearance promised to be different from the usual fare at the Ritz, a cavernous dance hall on East 11th Street. The video aspect was ironic in that the Ritz, like most other new music clubs that followed in the wake of CBGB and the doomed Max’s Kansas City, prominently placed television screens throughout the club. The Ritz was slightly more democratic than the Mudd Club or Danceteria since tickets were sold in advance and there was no exclusionary door policy. Pay the price and you could get in, whether you were a clueless “Bridge & Tunnel” person from the outer boros/suburbs or a bonafide “slum & loft” downtown hipster.

As it happened a sudden thunderstorm and the usual lack of funds prevented me from joining the line for PiL tickets. This was a lucky stroke because the show sparked a riot. Lydon and his compatriots cavorted in silhouette behind the club’s 30-foot wide video screen, baiting the crowd until they responded in kind with hurled bottles, eventually storming the stage and pulling down the screen. If rock and roll was now bankrupt, as John Lydon kept insisting, at the Ritz he proved his point by painting himself into a corner. The only escape was selling out.

Silk Stockings & Sweatsuits

Back in the day, hip-hop meant not only music but the street culture surrounding rap: DJing, breakdancing, graffiti writing. All these elements are displayed in Blondie’s “Rapture” video. Since the song reached #1 on the Billboard Top 40 in February 1981, perhaps it’s the first time many American heard rap. Yes, I agree “Rapture” isn’t a real rap. It’s a catchy approximation. The “Rapture” video, unsurprisingly, became a staple in the pre-MTV NYC club scene.

Debbie Harry struts her stuff around a low-budget set, nods to the DJ spinning (a spaced-out Jean Michel Basquiat), watches Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy spray-paint graffiti, awkwardly cavorts with her Blondie band mates, window-shops upscale department store displays. That last moment transports me to the NYC of past times, where the vast gaping disparity between rich and poor living on the same tiny island was always visible. Silk stockings and sweatsuits, side by side.

Noise Fest June 1981

A passer-by might reasonably have wondered what the hell was going on. Dozens of people filtered out of a generic industrial building, milled around in the street for half an hour, and then drifted back inside. Repeat. Of course there were almost no passers-by; on weekend nights, the western fringes of Soho, home of printers and trade publishers like my first employer, were deserted.

During the week I’d passed by this place a couple times on my way to have a vodka-soaked lunch with my boss at the nearby Ear Inn, a homey bar with decent chili. Across the street, a sign in the big picture window identified the empty ground floor showroom as an art gallery called White Columns. If there actually was art hanging on the walls, then I never noticed.

I was drawn to my work neighborhood on the evening in question by an enticing Xeroxed handbill that read like this:

I wound up attending multiple nights of the Noise Fest but the top-billed performance on Saturday the 20th was the one that permanently rearranged my molecular structure. The evening’s entertainment, if you could call it that, was flat-out insane: half-a-dozen electric guitarists lined up like a firing squad, just hammering away at their amplifiers, each player strumming and scraping the same chord for ten minutes at a stretch, with a single rigid drummer keeping time.

Instantly I recognized the group’s leader. Glenn Branca conducted his ensemble by fanatically waving his battered Fender like a baton. Or weapon. I’d already seen this rangy guy striding around St. Marks Place and the East Village any number of times, always swilling from a 16 ounce can of Colt 45, accompanied by several severe-looking yet oddly attractive women – artistic types. Between these rapt followers and his radical approach to making, er, music, he resembled the leader of a cult.

While Branca played that Saturday night I could see the warm waves of raw high-volume sound waft out across the stuffy, smoke-filled room. It felt like standing on the runway at JFK behind a departing jet. The effect was cleansing, and after the initial shock, even uplifting. Listening was a fresh physical experience, brutally sensual, the actual notes (signal) and their amplified echo (noise) merging into one dense roar, connecting my ears, brain and guts on an instinctual circuit rarely plumbed by music. Above all else it felt controlled, deliberate: a far cry from the chaotic, cathartic release of punk rock.

I bought a lukewarm Heineken from the genial blond stringbean who more or less seemed to be running the show as well as the makeshift concession stand. (Of course he turned out to be Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.) Otherwise the ringing in my ears and my big city reticence precluded any reaching out to the kindred spirits in attendance. But the social ice began to melt away for me at the Noise Fest. As intimidating and crazy as the bill of fare appeared on the surface, I was encouraged by the fact that a handful of other people heard this cacophony as liberating rather than obnoxious. Nobody fostered any illusions about mass popularity or acceptance. In our obscure corner of the city, as long as somebody listened, well, anything seemed possible.