Running Away With The CIRCUS #4
Jim Farber is the pop music critic for the New York Daily News. Back in the '70s and '80s, Farber wrote for Rolling Stone, Creem, and Crawdaddy!. Farber's first full-time job in rock journalism was at CIRCUS while he attended college. Below, Farber talks about what the magazine meant to him as a kid and what it was like working there as a staffer in the late '70s.
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"What put CIRCUS on a special pedestal for me as a kid was the photography. No other rock mag had great photography at the time. At least CIRCUS had what I thought was great photography. I was only 13, so I really had no idea what a good picture was. All I knew was that the shots were in color and I had never seen candid pictures of rock stars in color before, outside of the most stylized shots on album covers. This was a time, remember, when rock stars hardly ever appeared on TV and I was too young to see them in concert. The only other rock magazine I'd seen was Rolling Stone, which my older brother read and which was in black and white. It was also way too sophisticated for me. I remember their first article on Black Sabbath--how it went on and on about how fat Ozzy Osbourne's hips were. I didn't even know what that meant.
"Seeing my first copy of CIRCUS was life changing. I remember it the way many people remember man's first walk on the moon. I was in the 7th grade and Susan Sibley, a fat girl who sat two rows ahead of me, had something impossible in her hands. We were supposed to be studying about Anne Frank, but she was clutching these beautiful, huge pictures of Led Zeppelin!! This was early 1971. There were no color pictures of them at this point. The shots on the covers of the first two albums were all sepia toned. (The third album wasn't out yet). I was shocked. I nudged the kid in front of me to tap her on the back so she could tell me what this incredible treasure was. She looked at me like I was insane. She said it was a magazine and it was called CIRCUS and that you could buy it at any stationary store. It didn't seem possible. I couldn't believe you could own something that amazing just for money. It was like telling someone that you could buy love. I couldn't wait to race to a stationary store that afternoon and buy a copy. But it was only noon--three hours before school ended. That was the longest afternoon of my life. When the bell finally struck three I raced out of the school like I was being chased by a knife-wielding killer and ran to the Tanglewood Shopping strip in Yonkers (there were few enclosed malls then). They had two issues of the magazine. But neither one had Led Zeppelin in it. One had Leon Russell on the cover, the other had Jefferson Airplane. I snapped them right up. Together, they cost one dollar. But I felt like they had paid me.
"It was only years later that I realized just how ugly the early magazine was. In the early '90s, I was assigned to write a lead review for Entertainment Weekly on the reissuing of the entire Queen catalogue and they hired an illustrator for the piece who didn't know squat from Queen. So they asked me if I had any old CIRCUS Magazines I could bring in to show him. I had saved them all. I was flabbergasted when I looked back at the old shots of Freddie Mercury and crew. Many of them were blurry or the musicians had red eyes. I was momentarily disillusioned. Then I felt all the more wonderful since this only proved the purity of my early love. CIRCUS did start to look really good in the mid to late '70s when Publisher the boss hired Milton Glazer to redesign it.
"I was writing regularly in 1976 for Good Times, the give-away music publication from Long Island. Good Times needed a Westchester correspondent and I think I was the only person they knew who lived there. I was about 18 and ready to graduate from high school. By this point I had also written reviews for Rolling Stone and features for Trouser Press, as well as for some Westchester magazines. I had interviewed Al Stewart for Good Times and his publicist told me that CIRCUS wanted a piece but he wasn't around to do any more interviews. So I called CIRCUS up and they said they'd look at it on spec. They wound up running it and since they liked it, I got more assignments. Shortly thereafter, I was assigned to interview Ted Nugent, who was the funniest interview subject of the day. The boss, the editor/publisher, really liked the piece and put it on the 6/23/77 cover (this was also Ted's first national cover). Then the editors asked me if I wanted to be a staff writer. Just like that. I was starting college so I knew I couldn't take a full time job. But they said I could just contribute to each issue and I wouldn't have to come into the office except to hand in my stuff. (No faxes and e-mails back then). The boss hired two staff writers at the time: me and Wesley Strick, who was a very funny journalist who went on to become a major screenwriter.
"When I was a kid, I thought the offices of CIRCUS were very glamorous and sophisticated. God knows what the grown ups thought of it. When I was reading the magazine as a kid, they had a made a style decision to always refer to the offices as 'CIRCUS World Headquarters.' I was totally snowed by this. I thought it must be like MGM Studios or the C.I.A. By the time I actually got there, the magazine was indeed doing quite well, and while it wasn't old time Hollywood, it did seem pretty tony by my standards. They had offices in a space age looking building on Third Avenue. Things went even more upscale a while later when the boss moved the offices of the Galleria Building on West 57th: the most prestigious new work address at the time.
"I worked with some great people during those years. First: Robert Smith, who was very funny and supportive and loved the fact that I was such a young brat. I remember he asked me once if I wanted to take a ride out to Long Island with Aerosmith where they were doing a show. I turned up my nose. I thought they were kind of corny at the time. (Standards were far higher then). He laughed and said, 'wow, jaded at 18.' After that, I worked with people like Kurt Loder, Fred Schruers, David Fricke, and Daisanne McLane, who were wonderful writers and very funny people. They were very disdainful of the magazine, which made it even more fun. We were all very cocky and bitchy and loved to rip everyone and everything apart. Ah, youth!
"Of course, the most wonderful person to work for back then was Paul Nelson. I idolized him. Everyone did. I was also terrified of him. He was too cool to ever set foot in the office and the only way you could contact him was to call after 2 a.m. Then he'd murmur on and on about the horrible state of music and the world. He spoke really softly and haltingly. So you never knew when the conservation was over. There would be these long pauses and then he'd begin another slow diatribe. Several times I was about to hang up when I heard more murmuring coming from the receiver. I'd have to suddenly yank it back to my ear. But I was always thrilled to get any assignments from him.
"The boss was generally very hands on. But he largely left copy alone. He did like things to be fluffy and supportive, but again, the standards for that sort of thing in the '70s were far different. Yesterday's fluff would be today's hatchet job. I don't know how much the boss really cared about the music. It was a business. He did like the magazine to look as good at it could, though. And he wanted the stars to look sexy. He was always stressing crotch shots. Jim Dandy of Black Oak Arkansas was a favorite because he had such an amazing basket. I think it played to the unconscious homosexual desires of the magazine's young male audience. Or maybe that was just my projection. I certainly got off on it and always admired CIRCUS for bringing that crucial part of rock and roll to the fore.
"I left CIRCUS when I got an internship at Rolling Stone at the end of college and they felt that if I continued to write for Circus I would be a spy. What an exciting notion! Of course, I quit instantly. Rolling Stone was a big step up. But I really did miss the magazine. I liked the slick paper and I had so many fantasies wrapped up in the place from childhood. As luck would have it, I didn't get the job I was on track for at Rolling Stone, so I continued to do some freelancing for CIRCUS, Creem, and Crawdaddy!, and at the same time started a regular record review column at CIRCUS after graduating from college.
"I do think CIRCUS had some real strengths as a magazine. At its peak in the mid to late '70s, it had a neat design. It had Paul Nelson as its Record Reviews Editor and it acted as a stepping stone for writers who went on to Rolling Stone or to big city papers at the time. Everyone wrote for them at one time or another, from Eric Van Lustbader, Michael Gross, and Steven Gaines (who all went on to become a best selling authors) to the aforementioned Wesley Strick, who I think wrote some of the most creative pieces of the day. The list goes on. And so do the memories."