Thursday, December 09, 2004

Flash! Pow!

Early this year, I got an e-mail from a woman named Kim Cooper asking if she could reprint something of mine from the 1970s in a book she and her co-author David Smay were compiling. Having recently seen an article of mine from 1971 and been horrified by its sheer ineptitude, I asked her for a copy of what they were planning to reprint, and she sent it, I read it again, wasn't appalled, and said "sure, go ahead."

Anyway, yesterday the book arrived, and, like any good egomaniac, I headed straight to the index to look up my name. It appeared, not once, but five times! (Pages 11, 63, 110, 159, and 209 for those of you impatient to know). Dutifully, I checked each one, and each was a review from Flash magazine. I remembered Flash very well; it was a formative experience in my life and career.

Just...not this Flash.

Right! As I was reminded turning the pages, Mark Shipper was one of the sharpest young writers on popular music in L.A. in the '70s, the guy who resurrected the Sonics, however legally, and introduced me to the wild and dangerous world of Northwestern garage bands. (As I said when I did a piece on the Sonics on Fresh Air, "Forget whether you'd let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone; you really don't want her marrying a Sonic.") He also wrote a book called Paperback Writer, which was an "alternate history" of the Beatles, which I recommend. And yeah, he'd had a magazine called Flash, which he'd done after we'd done ours.

Some years before Shipper cranked up his Gestetner (or whatever he used; he was pretty graphics-smart, so it was probably much higher quality than that), I had worked at Rolling Stone along with a number of other fine folk. We (well, mostly they: I was only the record review editor) did a bunch of stories which resulted in the magazine getting a Columbia Journalism Award, which would have been great, but we'd all been fired by then (and by "we" I mean "they," too).

A number of the fired folks had just gone back down the street from 625 3rd St. to 746 Brannan, where the magazine had started (in a moveable type print-shop, no less: kids, ask your grandparents), to join an "alternative fashion magazine" called Rags which had been started by a woman with the eminently appropriate name of Mary Peacock. In fact, as Rolling Stone fired us one by one, we all seemed to find a place there, and it was as their music editor that I was sitting in their offices, admiring a story in that day's New York Times that said something like "Rags is the fastest-growing magazine in the history of American magazine publishing" when the business manager walked out of his office to announce that the magazine was closing because the cash-flow wasn't flowing fast enough.

This left a bunch of very disappointed and talented people without anything to do, and, given that we (and I mean they) knew we'd given birth to two superb magazines, we didn't see why we couldn't start one ourselves and make it the magazine of our dreams. Lord knows the talent was there, the enthusiasm was there, the knowledge of who we were writing to was why not?

Meetings were had, talk was talked, and ideas were hatched. John Burks (today the head of the journalism department at San Francisco State University) was the editor (he had to be: he'd left Newsweek to work at Rolling Stone, which made him acceptable in the eyes of Straight People), and Jon Carroll (who has been writing a wonderful column for the San Francisco Chronicle for many years) was also on board. We had a name (Flash), we had tons of stuff we'd written for the first issue, we had a business plan, we had a mass-mail guru ready to mail out flyers, but...we didn't have a cover story.

"Wait, I think I can get an interview with Groucho Marx," Carroll said. He's still alive? the rest of us said. "Oh, sure!" Well, fine: that would be a real coup. And so Jon made the appropriate calls and learned that Groucho would happily submit to an interview if Jon bought him lunch at the Brown Derby. Off went Mr. Carroll to Los Angeles.

A few days later, he was back. How'd it go? we all wanted to know. "Oh, it went great. He seemed very happy to have someone paying attention to him. I think he's lonely. I got some great quotes. Here..." and Jon fiddled through his notes "he said 'I think the only hope for this country is the assassination of Richard Nixon.'" There was a pause. Groucho was cool!

With our cover story in hand, we lost no time producing what's known in the trade as a dummy, a fake magazine that you produce to show people what it would look like if you could get financing. Only our dummy had full stories in it so the prospective investors would see what a stunning bunch of talent came with this project. In fact, we made two dummies, because we thought the first cover wasn't very good, so we did a second one with just Groucho's photo (by Robert Altman -- no, not that Robert Altman). He looks like a sly old man, and the moustache is real instead of painted on. The cigar, of course, was real.

We didn't distribute many Flash dummies, because they were reserved for people who were seriously interested. And this is where I learned my lesson. I knew someone with lots of money, and I gave him one of our dummies. He really liked the articles, but he said something that has stuck with me ever since -- and which I offer to anyone else who thinks he or she has a great idea for a magazine. "I will invest a serious amount of money in this," he said, "if you or anyone else on the staff can complete this sentence to my satisfaction: 'Flash is the magazine of _________.'"

That let the air out of the balloon. In our excitement to give ourselves jobs, to turn the world on to what we thought was cool, to ferret out the stuff we loved, we forgot to have a concept. And advertisers need a concept. So do investors, because they know that without advertisers you're sunk. And we were sunk.

But not before we got the best publicity money can't buy.

It seems that somehow a copy of our dummy got into the hands of the Secret Service, and, as you may be aware, one of the jobs the Secret Service has is to investigate threats against the life of the President. And Groucho Marx had made such a threat. Not seriously, but...there it was, in print. So he got a visit. And he called up the New York Times and told them he'd had a visit. And they, in turn, made it into a front-page item (below the fold, but front page). And (after the jump -- don't you just love these journalism in-words?) there was a nice reference to our magazine project.

All of us went on to other things, even Groucho, who found his career resurrected, and had a one-man show on Broadway and a couple of records come out of the affair. And I've tried to start magazines since then, and I've never forgotten that unfinished sentence.


All of which is preface to saying that I'm really looking forward to reading this book, which, I should have mentioned, is called Lost In The Grooves, and is described as a "guide to the music you missed," which, just glancing through it, it certainly is. In fact, I believe that in a day or two, an order button for it may appear by those Rose & Briar ones over on the right, for all you offbeat music fans.

Meanwhile, as I wrote this, I realized that I've referred to Kim Cooper as a woman, and yet I'm not sure, so my apologies if Kim is a man, or (hey, s/he's in California) awaiting gender reassignment. Whatever, here's hoping you don't get a visit from the Secret Service. Or you do, if you think it'll help you sell books!


Late-breaking news: Ms. Cooper has confirmed gender. I feel less nervous now.

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