An Oral History Of CIRCUS Magazine #2
"Complete Interview By The Boss"; May 2009
Conducted by Shawn Schroeder / edited by J.W.
(This interview was conducted before we reinstated the boss as our chief admin and began the reconstruction of CIRCUS.)
Interviewer: I am speaking with the boss, creator/publisher of CIRCUS Magazine. As a fan, I've been going back and repurchasing any of these that I can find at garage sales, swap meets or through eBay. I'm trying to get these back because the pictures were so good that when I was a teenager, I tore them out of the magazines and put them up all over my walls.
The boss: Right. Over the years we’ve gotten many letters and pictures where kids would show their walls all papered with Jimmy Page, Robert Plant or whoever. Not only the walls, but the ceiling, too.
Interviewer: I was one of those people. Steven Ward has put together an oral history on CIRCUS Magazine. What do you think of it? Do you think he did a good job?
The boss: Oh, yes. I mean there are positive comments about me and negative comments. That’s to be expected. But I think Steve did an excellent job of getting to the people, listing a response and I think it was an accurate response of the magazine.
Interviewer: Let’s go back to the very beginning. I read that at one time there was a magazine called HULLABALOO?
The boss: Yes. In the late sixties, the magazine's name was HULLABALOO. At that time NBC had owned a show called Hullabaloo which was a TV version of a song and dance show that reflected young, popular music. When we started the magazine, I can’t really remember, there was some association with NBC at the time. But then we wanted to go our separate ways. Instead of getting into negotiations or legal hassles with NBC, we just decided to change the name of the magazine and came up with CIRCUS. It was changed in March of 1969. At that time, the word “CIRCUS” was very much associated with rock and roll. There was the Rolling Stones' Rock And Roll CIRCUS and I think Rod Stewart did something like that, too. But that word (CIRCUS) kind of bounced around the various music press and we just picked it up, designed a logo around it and that became the name of the magazine. The first issues cover had CIRCUS on top, a little HULLABALOO underneath and the photo was Jimi Hendrix.
Interviewer: Do you realize how many CIRCUS readers became rock writers and are now doing this professionally today, all because of that magazine?
The boss: I see. Well, I'm very happy to hear that. When we were putting the magazine together, we were very careful to use good writers, to staff up with good writers and also to not necessarily get into the slang language of the day, because that changes rapidly. We wanted to speak to the audience in contemporary English. I mean it HAD to have a capital letter in the beginning (laugh) and a period at the end. We were sort of fussy about that. And true, sometimes the kids didn’t care, but it was really important for us to present the material in an intelligent way. And I’m sure many people learned a great deal from the magazine.
Interviewer: I agree. In the writing, especially in the days of the counter-culture movement, you can go back to the early days of Rolling Stone magazine where the vernacular says, “You should go and see this groovy gig…” and the “Far out, man!” and such…
The boss: (laughs) I was never fond of that kind of language. We tended not to use that because by the time you printed the magazine, “Far out!” would BE far out! (laughing) It wasn’t "in" anymore. So of course some of that slipped in, but we weren’t trying to be hip. We just tried to report and appreciate the music.
Interviewer: I still re-read these issues. They have that point of view of “everyman” and a lot of times the reporter would come across as a fan. Although as I have read, not all of the reporters were fans of what they were covering.
The boss: Yes…
Interviewer: Was it your intention to go head to head with other popular music magazines like Rolling Stone, Creem & Hit Parader?
The boss: Well, I didn’t really think that way. It was to produce a magazine that would rise to the top. And we did. I believe it was the combination of both photos and text that worked. I was insistent that we didn’t use posed shots. In the early days it was hard to get live photography. Live photos were more interesting. In those days, they wouldn’t permit flash photography and I always insisted that the photographers use flash. We’d constantly get into trouble with the artists and record companies because the lighting was never good, and with flash you could see some detail and the band in action. That, to me, gave the music the excitement that it had -- or portrayed the music WITH the excitement it had. Whereas if you have a publicity shot or a posed shot, it’s just bland. So CIRCUS was probably the first to have live photography and to introduce that to rock music journalism. We PUSHED that idea with a lot of resistance from time to time, but we overcame that and I think did a very credible job with our photography.
✱ ✱ ✱ (unedited portion) ✱ ✱ ✱
Interviewer: I’m VERY glad you did because a lot of the other magazines of the time and even SINCE then, if they’re still out there today, they went [mostly] with the publicity shoot. People in the studio taking shots of [the band] posing and there really wasn’t the liveliness to the pictures. CIRCUS was the one that photographed the stars live and sweating, doing their work.
The boss: Yes. One of the reasons I was against staged photos was that rock and roll, to me, wasn’t a phenomenon posed in the studio. It’s live, it’s raw, it’s action. It’s lights, it’s music. The camera catching a live action photograph of a performer or band was exciting, and the posed stuff didn’t appeal to me.
Interviewer: I agree with you. For someone who WANTED to put those posters or pics up on the walls….Speaking a little bit about some of the people you had on your staff, and I like to know if they were hired by you, if they were freelance, how you came about these people. People like, well names that are in the business that people will recognize now are Kurt Loder, of course from MTV News in the ‘80s and early ‘90’s. David Fricke of Rolling Stone, photographer and I think he’s done a little writing as well, Neil Zlozower…
The boss: Yes. Kurt [Loder], I think, brought David for an interview. Kurt, as I recall, was hired first, I believe and he was brought in, I think, from the Boston Phoenix and was a local paper at that time and was very popular paper that had a music section, as I recall. I believe one of our people on staff knew Kurt and suggested he come in for an interview. He applied, and I interviewed him and hired him. I believe he, then, brought David Fricke with him; I think they were both friends [or at least] they knew each other. On Kurt’s recommendation I hired David Fricke. Zlozower must have gotten a hold of me. I mean, people would call and say can we come in and see you and talk to you or sometimes I remember hiring someone over the phone…. a photographer if they submitted their work. I’d never met them but if [there were] a good repartee, whomever you’re interviewing, you say yes, you come to terms and you hire them.
Interviewer: Well you had some of the best in the business. At that point, I don’t want to say they were unknown but they were just coming into their own and, I think in these interviews that Steven CIRCUS magazine, and then they become who they are today. David Fricke, was a managing editor, now a senior editor at Rolling Stone magazine. Kurt Loder is a film critic, author, TV personality and former editor at Rolling Stone. Neil Zlozowers' photography has been all over the place. Album covers, video shoots, countless music magazines. This guy has been around the music business along time.
The boss: [Neil] was with us (CIRCUS) from the early stages, the very beginning. Neil Zlozower and many others. I think there was an eagerness there. They were very young at the time. There was an eagerness to connect with CIRCUS magazine. Basically we set certain guidelines. Then we let the photographer….that was a tough job. One photographer, I forget who, had said that they should get combat pay. Because when they go into a concert hall and these kids are screaming and jumping and yelling, and they have to fight through the audience, then fight the management to get up front to get their shot, their photographs, that was a very tough job. They did superb work. The writers had certain guidelines and then they were free to do their thing. The more talented writer really came though because it was in him. Yes, it was an opportunity to develop skill at the magazine and practice their stuff and so on… In a way I’m happy and proud that CIRCUS magazine was a laboratory, if you will, of good writing and photography.
Interviewer: CIRCUS Magazine also had its ups and downs. It had the transition phases of the ‘70’s. Where were you trying to guide it or did you know where you were guiding it in the ‘70’s where at one time it was a monthly, then it became a bi-weekly, then it was like you were trying to go up against People [magazine] and become more of a pop “People-type” magazine, doing it weekly. What were you trying to go for there, and did you find that niche you were looking for?
The boss: Well, every move that was made, that I thought would work, sometimes didn’t work. We always fell back on the music. In the ‘70’s, the era of, say, Alice Cooper and Led Zeppelin – up until the late ‘70’s, when disco came in it, disco really just decimated the magazine. I mean kids who were into rock, just weren’t into disco. I mean the Bee Gees were a set force, which is ironic in a way. But disco put us on our backs, practically. So everything seems to be moving well from the early ‘70’s ‘till about ’77, maybe ’78. Then disco comes in and flattens us and I had tried different things. Just kind of different moves. Many of them didn’t work. There was an attempt to do a weekly; a bi-weekly, in the ‘80’s DID work, meaning every two weeks. The weekly thing didn’t work. The reason I kind of pushed it towards a, shall we say a “pop-rock weekly”, was that I believed at the time, one needed a broader base. The readership just wouldn’t take to it. I mean the CIRCUS magazine readership were very devoted, very dedicated ROCK music fans. And they would have nothing to do with that.
Interviewer: They didn’t need to see Cheryl Tiegs on the cover…
The boss: (Laughs) No! However, one of the funniest things was putting Miss Piggy in the centerfold. (Laughs) And I walked into CBGB’s one time, the famed rock place that, unfortunately, isn’t there anymore, here in New York City. And on the wall in the manager’s office was the centerfold of Miss Piggy from CIRCUS magazine. I mean people would criticize the stuff we did. But then they would kind of eat it up, in a way.
Interviewer: At some point in the ‘80’s though, maybe right at 1980, maybe it was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, you guys hit your stride and hit it for a long time.
The boss: Yes, with Def Leppard in ’81 – ’82 and, well even Van Halen which was American, of course. But with Def Leppard and Van Halen and further into the ‘80’s you got Motley Crue and Kiss. And Kiss was there from the ‘70’s to the ‘80’s and they were an important band. And we were criticized so much by the so-called “intellectuals” aspect of the rock and roll press for doing Kiss. We were, probably, the first ones on them, but we stuck to it, because kids just wanted Kiss, and you don’t just stand up against your audience, you go with them.
Interviewer: And as a life-long Kiss fan, I gotta say from all of the other Kiss fans out there, Thank You, very much! Thanks for not listening to the other people who said that they were just a flash in the pan, a gimmick, they’re not gonna last. Where are those people now? They’re saying, “Well, we were wrong!” Now the ‘80’s…They were such a big decade, as people would say the “decade of decadence”. The whole “rise and fall” of the hair band, glam metal, whatever you want to call it. That was a big time for Circus. That was a time where you were a monthly magazine, at that point, right?
The boss: No, we were bi-weekly, every two weeks. The way we entered into the bi-weekly thing was we had CIRCUS that we had come out every month. And two weeks later, a publication called CIRCUS Rave came out. So you had CIRCUS for week one and two, CIRCUS Rave for weeks three and four, and then we just pulled the “Rave” aspect off the title and just had CIRCUS every two weeks.
CIRCUS magazines but never saw the other. So, I was thinking it was just a monthly thing; I would get them every month at the store. Do you have a data-base or date publication of all of the dates of when each issue came out? Is there something like that?
The boss: Unfortunately, I do not have anything like that.
Interviewer: That’s too bad…
The boss: Yeah, it is VERY bad. All that stuff was never put together on that basis. We never did that initially. I certainly don’t have that now.
Interviewer: CIRCUS started heading downhill and pretty quickly, really before the whole computer/internet thing really grabbed hold, so finding the back ups or things you would have needed at that time for that [just weren’t available or in the budget.] What would you say, from the horse’s mouth, was the reason for the collapse of the magazine?
The boss: It kind of tread water into the late ‘90’s, I would say. And maybe even 2000 or 2001. But it kept losing ground. And the audience….I suppose it was rap and hip-hop…..Again, it was disco that did us in for a while, but rock bounced back. Hip-hop did the magazine in, but rock DID NOT bounce back and every issue we put out just didn’t sell, and kept selling fewer and fewer copies… I had experienced ups and downs with the magazine through-out its 35-40 some odd year tenure, but this one was just….I couldn’t figure out how to maneuver it to, at least, maintain a bottom level and keep going. And [I] poured every asset I personally had into the magazine and nothing came of it. I mean I just lost everything. The magazine went down the tubes as, unfortunately, (chuckle) I did. It was a bad time.
Interviewer: Let’s go into that just a little bit, because there have been some people who, if you’ve read the rockcritics.com tribute interviews, some of those past writers or people from the magazine, have said that they thought you were driving it into the ground. There were some who’ve said you did everything you could to keep it going. Then there were some who said that you kept it going as much as you could but were sure you were going to do just fine [economically].
The boss: Well that’s not the case. I did very poorly. I was hurt financially, terribly with that. I mean I tried everything that I could possibly do to keep the magazine afloat. When you get to the early part of the 2000’s, print is not the most attractive commodity around. So it’s hard to entice people to say, “Hey, we’ve got this magazine, and it’s a rock magazine…”. A rock magazine was just not attractive in those days. So I sold our house and lived in an apartment, I sold my personal possessions and pushed it into the magazine, to keep it going and to pay writers, printing, office upkeep, etc. It just sucked in the money and didn’t spit out any sales.
Interviewer: What was the last issue? What was the date? Do you remember what was on the cover?
The boss: I probably chose purposely to forget (laughs). The last date was somewhere in 2005 or ‘06.
Interviewer: So it hasn’t been as long as some of the people on the web have said that it lasted only until 1996?
The boss: Yeah.
Interviewer: You would say that hip-hop and the cookie-cutter kind of pop fluff is what killed rock at that time. Honestly if you turn on any radio station today that’s Top 40 or even a rock station, it is hard to find that true rock music anymore. It really does center on hip-hip, dance – Brittany Spears – bubblegum stuff…
The boss: Exactly. I suppose one possible way [to salvage CIRCUS] would have been to change the focus of the magazine. But then, it was just too far gone. The time around the 2003-2004 mark, I just couldn’t change it. I thought I was a WIZ at that kind of thing….
Interviewer: Because you’d done it before…
The boss: I did it before, and I always thought that, well, you got to wait it out, and as long as you have the resources to wait it out, it’ll pop back. But the time has changed. I suppose it’s like the Model “T” Ford or a horse and wagon… You hope the horse and wagon’s gonna come back, but the automobile industry put it out of style.
Interviewer: That’s right. This is a two-part question. Who owns the rights to CIRCUS now and is there any chance of coming back in either print or maybe on the web?
The boss: I suppose so… I mean it went into foreclosure and nobody’s doing anything with it. Probably because they don’t have the content.
Interviewer: With the resurgence of “looking back at the past” kind of bands and radio stations like the one I work at, the Classic Hit’s of the 70’s, 80’s and into the 90’s are what people are wanting. That kind of resurgence is why I, at the age of 36, wanted to track you down to find out the inside story of one of my, if not THE, favorite magazine of all-time. So it was nice to be able to talk to you about this. Have you thought about doing what Rolling Stone has done with the Multi-DVD box set with a coffee table book of every page of every issue from the beginning, scanned and archived for reading on a computer, page by page? Is that something you would have the capability of doing at any time?
The boss: I might be into it, but retrieving the issues would be very tough. I mean, I personally don’t have any. We’d have to go to collectors like yourself and eBay… I know they’re all over eBay….I know one of the issues was selling for over $100. It would be an ENORMOUS job because the material hasn’t been saved. Not only has it not been saved digitally, it also hasn’t been saved physically.
Interviewer: So you don’t have stacks of boxes of each of the issues somewhere……like I do….
The boss: That’s right. (Laughs) They’re all over there in your garage or wherever…. (laughs)
Interviewer: (Laughing) That would be grounds for divorce if I actually HAD all of that…although…. I’m still working on [collecting them all]. (Laughs) I do, really appreciate you talking to me about the magazine. What have you been up to since the closing of CIRCUS? What do you, X, do now?
The boss: I’m in the midst of writing a novel… a thriller kind of a cross between Indiana Jones and the DaVinci Code. It’s exciting, and I’m about three quarters, the way through this book. I’m hoping to finish it shortly, and see if I can market it. So that’s basically what I’m into and it keeps me busy. Keeps me out of trouble, I suppose.
Interviewer: Do you have any other books out there or is this your first?
The boss: No, it’s the second. I did one before called the Esau Swindle and it was all over Amazon. It was what’s called publishing on demand. You go to these companies and they physically publish the book, and then send them, not to the “brick and mortar” stores, (Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc.), but it gets into [their] online [thing]. The book market is still very much a tactile, print medium, where you do have to, until now, go into a store and feel it. Pick it up, put it down, and then possibly buy it. So that sales are nowhere near where they are on the web. In other words if you DO go onto Amazon.com or wherever, you can purchase a copy from them and they’ll send you a digital book. So it sold very modestly. Might have sold a couple thousand copies, I don’t remember the exact count. It got a lot of play in Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, review section, so it spurred me on to do another one, which I’m writing now. I, of course, will try book publishers, and if that fails, I’ll do it again in the online version.
Interviewer: That’s actually good news for anyone who was a fan of the magazine, or at least a fan of you, a visionary who did put together this magazine, that so many, millions of people loved over the years and are now saddened that we now have to go around and scrounge up every issue we can, wherever we can.
The boss: Well they keep popping up everywhere so I’m sure you can do that. Pull them together.
Interviewer: I’m hoping so. I really appreciate the time you’ve given me, I’m glad you were able to talk to me.
The boss: Absolutely. It was very good talking to you. I appreciate it, and good luck with this project.
Interviewer: Thank you very much, X! I appreciate it!
The boss: My pleasure, thank you