Yet another requiem for the Boston Phoenix

Phoenix pages 5

Some of my headlines.

As you may have heard, the Boston Phoenix, a storied 47-year-old alternative newsweekly, is no more, a victim of the online age and the resulting revenue free-fall that has left print media decimated and gasping for air everywhere in the First World. Since the announcement a week ago, when the publisher suddenly removed the paper from life support, tributes, eulogies and encomiums have poured in from the four corners, mainly from former staffers and freelancers, from Susan Orlean in the New Yorker to Camille Dodero on Gawker to Charles Pierce on grantland.com to the Phoenix’s own editor-in-chief, Carly Carioli, on its in-house blog. (For a clear-eyed view of both management failures and the paper’s diminished role in today’s media landscape, see Peter Vigneron’s piece on the Boston Magazine blog.) All of them speak with far more eloquence and insight on the subject than I could hope to provide, and the greatest favor I could do you, gentle reader, is refer you to them. But the feeling persists that I should say a few words about my history with the Phoenix. I know, of course, that it’s not all about me, but this paper — or more correctly, its staffers — did play a significant part in my growth as a writer, and I learned certain useful things there that have stayed with me to this day.

I freelanced fairly regularly for the Phoenix between 1989 and 1996. Aside from an abortive stint as a freelance copy editor, I was never on the paper’s inside crew and had only brief glimpses of its inner workings, mainly when I would come in to discuss a piece with an editor or even, in those pre-Internet days, bang out a piece on one of its vintage computer terminals. The paper had a well-deserved reputation in those days — beginning way before I arrived and continuing way after I left — of not paying its staffers well (or, God knows, its freelancers), but attracted an extraordinary amount of talent by offering them a different coin, that of allowing them the freedom to write about things they cared about as long as they cared enough to perform due diligence and, oh yes, to write well. (For lists of the distinguished arts critics and investigative reporters who toiled for a time at the Phoenix, I refer you to the links above.)

The first piece I wrote for the Phoenix was an article about gift calendars that ran in a holiday supplement in December of 1985. It was assigned to me by the then editor of the lifestyle section, Sandra (Sandy) Shea. I remember her joking with me, as we were walking outside the Phoenix’s offices on the grittier end of Newbury Street, about how editors at the paper were paid less than fresh hires at the local TV stations. Her remarks had nothing to do with it, but it would be nearly four years before I’d start writing for the Phoenix again (my recollections are hazy as to why this gap ensued, but it was probably a combination of my freelancing for other outlets, the non-receptiveness of certain Phoenix editors to my pitches, or simply the time not being right).

November of ’89 pretty much coincided with Caroline Knapp‘s ascension from columnist to Styles (as in Lifestyles) editor. I first met her a few weeks before that, when I complimented her on a column she’d written and she acknowledged it with a shyness almost painful to witness. Caroline — an intensely self-directed, really smart person who exemplified the David Foster Wallace quote about writers being “exhibitionists in private,” since she let it all out in print and nowhere else (at least nowhere I observed) — must have seen something in me that I probably didn’t even see in myself, since my relationship with her — which never extended outside of the office — was instrumental in my broadening my horizons from record and concert reviews to writing about subjects like the arts scene on South Street and the South End of Boston; the resurgence of religion, in newer and more interesting forms; the so-called “men’s movement,” midwifed (or mid-husbanded) by Robert Bly, which made the cover, subtitled “Why are so many men dancing, chanting, spear-throwing, and running naked through the woods?”; ruminations on the baby boomers vs. Generation X, a trendy topic in late ’92; and a long piece on the science of memory, for which I interviewed the director of the Memory Disorders Research Center at Boston University’s medical school.  Working on such pieces, I developed a journalistic voice that still appeals to me — one without a spin or agenda, at least not an overt one. It’s a voice that, ideally, just presents the facts and lets the readers make up their own mind about which side to take. To this day, I enjoy interviewing people — I like the challenge of thinking up interesting, out-of-the-ordinary questions that might illuminate some hitherto unknown aspects of the interviewee’s character.

For some reason — perhaps I was unconsciously looking for mentors — I found myself especially drawn to those Phoenix staffers I perceived as being adults, Serious People, like Caroline and the dignified, reliably sober Carolyn Clay, who had been the Phoenix’s theater editor and chief drama critic since time immemorial, in which post she continued until the bitter end. There were a couple of other editors and writers I’d known before their Phoenix days, but I suppose I felt most comfortable around the Serious People; I liked the challenge of winning them over (which succeeded, well, some of the time).

Throughout all these excursions I continued to write about musicians and comedians for the arts section, along with a bunch of cheap-eats restaurant reviews and even an article on the rising Seattle rock scene, reported from on location in the Pacific Northwest hub, which was published June 21, 1991, mere nanoseconds before the release of “Nevermind” (no, I wasn’t prescient enough to score an interview with Kurt, Courtney and company, though I did at least chat with Messrs. Pavitt and Poneman, the lords of SubPop, and Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows). For what it’s worth, I also wrote one “Cellars by Starlight,” the longtime local-music column which, in the hands of a succession of accomplished, dedicated writers, did much to promote, cohere and, I’m sure, encourage generations of Boston musicians. I took over for the issue of July 17, 1992; it was an honor. (Just for the record, I think the relationship between musicians and the people who write about them isn’t parasitic, it’s symbiotic, or at least it should be. Writers tell people things they should know; musicians show people ways they can feel.)

My contributions to the Phoenix are largely offline and likely to remain so, except for a very few pieces archived in a piecemeal fashion on bostonphoenix.com. Aside from a couple of short record reviews, my online Phoenix archive consists of a 1996 recap of a post-Grateful Dead music festival at Great Woods and my next-to-last article for the paper, this July 1999 article about my home at the time, Slovenia (picked up by the Weekly Wire website). If newsprint exists only in some writer’s dusty, yellowing scrapbooks and not online, did it ever matter beyond the day or week of publication? In some people’s memories, perhaps, if one is lucky; but one can’t know such things. I hope the online archives continue to be maintained in a reasonable way by someone, somewhere.

My very last piece for the Phoenix was a report on the memorial service in London for the singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl, which ran in January, 2001 (for some reason it’s not archived on the Phoenix site, but you can find it elsewhere on this blog). By then I’d long since moved on from Boston, and the Phoenix, both physically and mentally.

And yes, again, I know: It’s not about me. Dozens of staffers are currently looking for another job, and who knows how many important articles, reviews and columns won’t get written.  The cruise ship has sunk in the North Atlantic, and freezing, wet journalists in life jackets are clinging to the wreckage. (Okay, I’ll stop.)

I sometimes reflect about the natures of journalists — whose role in life is, ostensibly, to tell the rest of us about stuff we at least theoretically ought to be paying attention to, stuff we should know — and how, at least in the alternative-newspaper universe, they’re so often put down by outsiders, the normals, to be, well, kind of weird folk. The Phoenix was the antithesis of a buttoned-down workplace, and it’s striking to me that in all of the reminiscences I’ve read about the paper, almost none of it relates to the work itself, the stuff that was written; all of the writers’ memories have to do with their relationships with the other writers and editors on the staff. As if they’re taking for granted that the work was important, but that the work speaks for itself. What’s not so apparent, perhaps, what could use a little publicity, has to do with journalists explaining themselves to themselves, why they chose that life, or why it chose them.

The Boston Phoenix closing its doors is sad, for sure, but the atomized molecules of the staff will eventually recombine, coagulate and express themselves in different forms. One day you look up from what you were doing, look around, a bit dazed perhaps, and realize that you’ve built a life in a certain place; that it was as permanent as anything could expect to be in this world, that is, not permanent at all; but if you’re lucky, you have other people around you who knew what it meant to you, knew what you did there, and valued you and were, in turn, themselves valued. It has to have meant something.

That’s the news this evening. Good luck, all.

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