Running Away With The CIRCUS #10

Ben Liemer

Ben Liemer has been the director of National Sales, Northeast at TVT Records for 10 years. Years ago, Leimer was the Managing Editor--second in command to publisher the boss -- at CIRCUS magazine from 1985 to 1989. Those years happen to be the most profitable in CIRCUS history thanks to the huge popularity of hair metal.


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"I was at Jem Records from 1982 to 1984. So I was at CIRCUS from 1984 to 1989. Spring of '84. I had just finished working the last Hanoi Rocks album before they moved to Epic. I did publicity. I was a Senior Editor when I started there. Philip Bashe had just left. When I came in, it was myself, Richard Hogan, Michael Smolen and Gary Cee. I was hired a co-Senior Editor alongside Richard Hogan. It took a year for me to become Managing Editor. As a Managing Editor, I wrote stuff. Less as a Managing Editor because, frankly, I was paid less to do it. I should have written nothing. However, I didn't want to do that. I felt that contributing articles was one way I could put my stamp on the magazine. We had a small editorial staff. There was myself, Daina Darzin, Paul Gallotta, and Gary Cee. I wanted to continue writing. I enjoyed talking to people like Metallica. We would go to concerts consistently--two to three shows a week. We would go to see the up and coming bands, newly signed bands at places like the Cat Club. You would see Faster Pussycat, Bango Tango, Bullet Boys. But then you would go to see Iron Maiden and Twisted Sister at Radio City Music Hall and Ozzy and Kiss at Madison Square Garden.


"CIRCUS at the time had been in a transition phase. It always covered bands like Kiss and Alice Cooper. But when Phil Bashe was there they covered new wave acts and more mainstream rock acts like Pat Benatar. The boss always liked the theatrical rock. The makeup, etc. But they covered the Rolling Stones and Bowie too. But around the time of Def Leppard and 1984-era Van Halen and all of that from Pyromania forward, it became more and more metal. That's when I came on board. Did I like metal? Yes and no. I loved Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Neil Young and early REM, Springsteen, Joy Division. I didn't like disco. My favorite band has always been the Velvet Underground. My taste was always eclectic. But the reason I could work for CIRCUS was that I grew up in central New Jersey and when I was in high school we listened to Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, the Who, early Kiss, Thin Lizzy, UFO. So for me, I was tired of working in New Jersey. While Jem Records was satisfying to my musical eclecticism, and I appreciated working with real artists, I wanted to live and work in New York City. That was my goal. I wanted to work in the music industry in New York City. I was an English major at Cornell.


"When I got there, CIRCUS was essentially metal. There were some holdovers. I believe Steve Weitzman was writing the 'Stage Pass' column (a live review column) and he wanted to do a Joan Armatrading review and the boss said no. He canned him or Steve left. I don't know. At the time I was there, Lisa Robinson was still writing a column--six or seven pieces about new wave acts. But the boss didn't want that anymore. And I had the tough job of firing her. Which was a pain in the ass a few months later when I went to the Keith Richards Talk is Cheap party and there's Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, and Lisa Robinson. Two of my heroes. And I couldn't approach them because I didn't want to deal with it. We had freelancers. As Managing Editor, I was the assignments editor, proofreader, chief copy editor. Daina Darzin and Paul Gallotta were proofreaders too. Adrianne Stone--who also wrote for Hit Parader--was one of the freelancers. There was Toby Goldstein who now writes a syndicated soap opera column. They were two of my favorites. Very reliable. Don Kaye and Moria McCormick were good. Dan Hedges wrote 'Stage Pass' and some articles for us. I loved writing about Metallica because they appealed to the metalheads but they were a brainy, musicians band too. I enjoyed talking to them.


"You know why the boss considered my time there one of his favorite eras? He made money. When we put Bon Jovi on the cover around the time of 7800 Fahrenheit...the boss was a big time supporter of Bon Jovi. When we started doing that, we were selling 480,000 copies a month. We were making a lot of money in terms of advertising. There were almost daily battles near deadline for ads. There was no deadline for ads. They would accept them up to the last minute. This happened to me--I'd go on the road with Metallica and get four hours of interviews with all four members. And of course, I would later use that for two or three features over the next few months. But then you write this beautifully constructed article--staying up all night--and then they drop an ad in the middle of the article and say, sorry, but you have to cut eight paragraphs. Half a page. So that went on, but the boss made a lot of money then. We were the highest circulation all music magazine in America then.


"1984 was the beginning of MTV. They were a challenge for CIRCUS. Kids had relied on CIRCUS, Hit Parader, and Rolling Stone for their music news. That changed. We refocused. We always wrote factual, newsy stories and always included a few paragraphs of biographical information on a band so a person reading the 15th Kiss story we had done in 15 straight months--a new reader could still get a grasp of who this band was. That info would go into every article. So at that point, we decided that our focus should be greater depth. For example, MTV showed covers of CIRCUS magazine around the time of the Vince Neil car accident. I did interviews with Motley Crue at the time. We provided greater depth. We were not as timely.


"Rolling Stone would do a cover on Van Halen when the song 'Jump' became so huge. CIRCUS--we would not just do one. We would do Van Halen month after month after month. Do you know why that occurred? The fan questionnaire in every issue of the magazine. Kids would write us and tell us who their favorite bands were. A quick story: rock publicist Howard Bloom once asked me how we chose our cover subjects. I told him we had a editorial meeting every month and we would take all the publicity photos of all the likely candidates and put them on the wall behind X's desk. Then the editors would turn their backs and throw darts over their shoulders. Howard didn't like that answer too much. The truth is there was that little box in every issue of CIRCUS--'tell us what five groups you want to hear more about.' That's it. It will never change. the boss, to his credit, knows how to give the people what they want. If they wanted Metallica, we did it. We would do 15 consecutive Motley Crue stories. Probably Motley Crue and Metallica were on the cover more than anybody. Def Leppard and Van Halen when I first got there. CIRCUS went all metal for economic reasons. Even though we were writing for a mostly teen audience, the boss wanted us to run a serious journalistic enterprise--and I tried to do that. We had good writers and editors.


"The boss is a smart man but his own worst enemy. I remember having to beg for word processors. It was the '80s. We should have been computerized. By 1988-1989, he talked about computers but he went back and forth because he never knew what systems he wanted. I didn't learn about computers until I left CIRCUS. I was at CIRCUS for five and a half years. It was a great job. I could get to work in five minutes. I sent a resumé to Spin at one point before I left. I didn't have many options. There was Rolling Stone. No one else could pay me that kind of money. I didn't stay in journalism. I had enough. I wanted to work at a record company again. While at CIRCUS, I didn't sleep much but I had a lot of fun. Going to Monsters of Rock in Akron, Ohio and hanging out with Metallica and Dokken for two days--are you kidding?"




[Ben Liemer's afterword from 12/3/13]


“For the record, I was not particularly happy with this interview. Not because it wasn't accurate, it certainly was. I was asked questions and answered them as honestly as I could. I just felt it could have been so much better. And that's not to criticize the writer at all. It was because it felt like all we discussed was the business of running the magazine. Very little of the fun I had during these years comes through.


“Hanging out with Metallica, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, etc. was insane good times. Even when everyone was sober! Today in 2013 and into the future, the stories I always tell over a few drinks are usually focused on my interaction with the musicians, which is how I always saw them. Rock stars have very unique lives and their reality is nothing like a normal individuals… but one thing I've learned after 30 years in the music business working for various labels and distributors, working closely with artists, arranging in-store appearances and such, is that its easy for outsiders to criticize.


“But being on the road constantly is a unique lifestyle with its own challenges--like long stretches of boredom traveling just to get to the thrill of the next gig. That and distance from your friends & family really messes with your head. Pro athletes go through the same thing, especially those teams in baseball, basketball, etc. that play 5-6 nights a week. Anyway, some of my fellow editors told some of the great rock star stories and I just wish I had.”

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