The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Convenes in Hell

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Don't listen to that guff about a dry heat, either. Phoenix spreads out flat in all directions like an egg frying in a big desert pan, and at 110 that sun will burn you into the grave just as quickly as the heat and humidity back East will steam-kill you. You step out under that sun and instantly it desiccates your sweat glands and kilns the mucus in your nostrils like Indian pottery clay. Depending on the allergies you have, this can be okay (me) or a curse (Mickey Kaus, who hid in his room).

    We were in Phoenix for the 23rd annual convention of [AAN], the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, of which New York Press is a member?grudgingly?along with, much more recently, the Voice, and more than 100 other papers around the country. A few of them are real and worth reading, many are neighborhood, smalltown or regional shoppers and drab Voice wannabes in the boonies, whose editorial staffs entertain delusions of hipster grandeur and/or uncovering City Hall corruption while their owners sit back and count the ad revenues. I always avoid these conventions. The last time I was with a concentrated bunch of AAN people was during the Gulf War, and they annoyed me so badly with their neo-hippie veggie-burger middle-class whitefolk self-righteous kneejerk doctrinaire naivete I had to escape to the nearest bar to drink with normal people.

    I must say that this time I found the crowd much more tolerable, and some of them it was even fun to see. Maybe I've mellowed?and definitely AAN has. I should have expected it. Ten years ago it was easier for AAN types to still cling to a romantic image of themselves as grassroots independents and righteous mom-and-pops telling their isolated niche markets the truths The Man at their local daily paper was too corrupt to tell. The big story for the 90s was the increasing number of weeklies bought up or started up by The Man Himself?disinterested investment groups, dailies and regional newspaper chains?or by homegrown chains like the New Times group. David Carr of [] would report the following week that scouts from Warren Buffett and other outside financial interests trolled this convention.

    As many of the first generation of moms and pops cashed in and retired during the 90s, there's been a detectable generational shift from old-school hippie capitalists to a more nondenominational hip capitalism. There's still plenty of kneejerking from the editorial wings...but less. One sign of the change was the salting in of a few conservative guest speakers and panelists among all the expected liberal ones, in the interest of sparking a little debate, or at least just sparks, instead of the usual in-church head-bobbing agreement. It was almost a MUGGER Invitational AAN Convention. (Though MUGGER himself was MIA, the bastard. I'll get to that.)

    Another sign was having it at the Biltmore. In the old days they would've wanted to hold it out on one of the local Indian reservations to show their solidarity with AIM. Yes, there was a fair amount of the required commentary about how odd it was for alternative journalism to be convening in such a swank place, with its pools and hot tubs, its two golf courses and spa. (Carr kept using terms like "luxurious." That was a bit hayseed of him, and I say this fully acknowledging my own hick roots. Sometime I'll tell you the story of my first encounter with a minibar. I thought the Biltmore was a little downmarket, or at least end-of-season; the a.c. in my room was dodgy, the hot water cut out in the middle of one of my showers, a corner of my room smelled like bug spray and the ice machine on my floor was broken. And the meals, though pricey, were strictly hotel-quality. Though I did like the ostrich I had one night.)

    You couldn't avoid the irony that on the first night of the alterna-convention George W. Bush was also at the Biltmore, giving a fundraising speech to Arizona power-brokers and filling the place with security guys who lurked in every hallway and all over the artificially green lawn. Still, a lot of those AAN types settled right in to the "plush" setting, playing golf, lounging in the pools, hanging out in the bar. General levels of disingenuous hippie hair-shirting were far lower than I remembered from a decade earlier.

    I wasn't there 30 minutes that first evening when I ran into a couple soreheads from the Baltimore City Paper contingent. Staff writer Michael Anft, an old pal, and art director Joe MacLeod did a lot of touchy Baltimoron grumbling at me about the "City of Rednecks" reminiscence I'd written a few weeks earlier. I suspect the inability to find a bottle of Natty Boh, the official beer of Baltimore, contributed to their bad moods. And maybe it didn't help that I kept calling City Paper the Hillbilly Times. That notwithstanding, publisher Don Farley, seeing that Paul Abrams, our CFO, and I were a couple of orphans just off the plane, whisked us off to dinner with his large group. That's a gent.

    But then my sole purpose in being at the convention was to needle AAN members. That's the traditional role MUGGER plays at these things, and I was there as his proxy?he'd taken sick and stayed home. Did I get a lot of crestfallen oh-it's-only-you reception.

    I did my best. First I sat in for him on a panel advertised as a "trio of bad boys," with Tim Keck?founder of The Onion, publisher of The Stranger in Seattle and the new Mercury in Portland, and actually one of the nicest guys in the business?and Tim Rogers, who writes for The Met, a very un-AAN-like (in fact it's not a member), tits-on-the-cover weekly in Dallas. I told the crowd their papers are all boring, kneejerk Voice impersonators; said that the big room where all the participating papers had set out copies of their recent issues was an art directors' hall of shame; told them that the only difference between most of them and the local dailies they're supposed to be an "alternative" to is the size of their "newsholes" (the space you allow for editorial). So when there aren't enough swings in city parks, the local daily will do 300 deadpan words on it, and the weekly will splash an outraged 5000-word feature on the cover, always with an illo of some poor little (invariably black) kid looking forlorn next to a broken swing?when it really should have been only a 300-word story.

    All three of us suggested that a little more spirit of fun, of playfulness and invention, wouldn't hurt most of these papers, either.

    We didn't get much of a rise out of them. One huffy guy, I think he was the editor of the San Jose Metro, started tossing around jargon I'd never heard before, like "post-alternative" (by which he meant us, whom he professed to be "over") and even "post-post-alternative." Another guy called us lazy for not doing those park-swing stories. But in general I was disappointed by the polite, kick-us-again response. I think that damn Keck was too nice. He kept saying things like the competition between two weekly papers in one town is good for both; I kept saying things like it sure wasn't my goal in competing with the Voice to be good for the Voice, which I'd prefer to see die, and take The New York Observer with it. I was told I had a chip on my shoulder. Whatever. It's the beast in me.

    Next day I helped wrangle a panel MUGGER was to have moderated: Lucianne Goldberg, Joe Conason of the Observer and Mickey Kaus of[]. Patty Calhoun, editor of Denver's Westword and the other nicest person in the business, filled in for MUGGER. It was astonishing to see Lucianne and the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Bruce Brugmann, one of the oldest of the old-time alt-news lefties left, fall into each other's arms like old comrades. Turns out they're pals, go back years, used to travel together with their spouses, etc. He refers to her as "Lucy." That was an eye-opener.

    The panel was in the main a Lucianne-Conason slugfest, a grudge match on the theme of journalistic ethics, with the glowering Conason attacking her as a gossipmonger who went way over the public figure/right-to-privacy line in her pursuit of his boy Clinton. The heckling from the floor was better than it had been at my panel. I heckled Conason; Brugmann and Carr heckled Lucianne; and at one point someone?I think it was Jill Stewart, a good staff writer at New Times Los Angeles?called out to Conason to "shut up" and let Kaus get a word in edgewise.

    I went to a few other panels. One introduced a not very convincing program sponsored by the Chicago Reader to take a dozen or so promising minority writing students and, basically, screw up their lives by trying to woo them away from the lucrative jobs that await young minority journalists at places like Time and Newsweek and CNN. The goal was to direct them instead toward a life of relative poverty and obscurity among the poor disgruntled misfits of alterna-journalism. Why would we want to do that to them? Don't we like minorities?

    In the end, I think that the best thing to do in Phoenix is to get out of Phoenix. That Saturday, Paul Abrams and I piled into a rented Wagoneer and drove 120 miles due north to Sedona, climbing 5000, 6000 feet above sea level to a gorgeous landscape of red rock mesas, buttes and twisting gorges. It was 12 degrees less hot (I won't say cooler) than back down in Phoenix. We took a Jeep tour that bounced around some of that landscape, and a helicopter tour that flew over it. I almost bought a cowboy belt but thought better of it. The copter took off from a little airfield up on top of one of the mesas, where various movie stars like Tom Cruise fly in. The tiny town is said to get thick with celebrities when they're in season, but our only sighting was the guy who plays Lt. Fancy on NYPD Blue. He's the first actor I've ever seen who's bigger in person than you'd expect.

    Afterwords Blowjobs for Hitler: Apocalypse Culture II, the long-awaited sequel to the great fringe survey of 1987, will be slightly longer-awaited than its publisher had planned. Adam Parfrey, who edited both collections and is publishing II through his small press Feral House, has had to censor some of the illustrations after the book was rejected by "five or six" printers, he says. The half-dozen censored images will appear "with black areas covering the offending parts." A note in the front of the book will explain that the illos have been altered "due to weak-kneed printers across the country," and will direct readers to [], where they will be able to see the uncensored versions. The original Apocalypse Culture came from Amok Press, which was founded by Parfrey and my pal Ken Swezey (who published three of my books in the 90s through his Blast Books). It was a seminal survey of conspiracy theorists, political extremists, deviants, cults and loonies, and has gone through something like 13 printings in as many years.

    Parfrey obviously hopes for similar impact with AC II. Contributors feature fringe heroes and holdouts like Crispin Glover, Jim Goad, Ted Kaczynski, Boyd Rice, Peter Sotos, Trevor Brown, Michael A. Hoffman II and Michael Moynihan, plus conspiracist James Shelby Downard, conspiracy-trackers Colin Wilson and Jonathan Vankin, gloom artist Sarita Vendetta (she did the gruesomely lovely Struwwelpeter illos for Feral House) and others. The cover art is by Joe Coleman. Topics include cloning Jesus, sex behind bars, an interview with a cannibal, mind control, Satanism, necrophilia, pedophilia and the cult of JonBenet.

    What's spooking printers is images by three artists that all somehow involve kids. While Parfrey insists they're not erotic or pornographic?"It's all quite innocent stuff, really"?recent congressional expansions of what may be considered child pornography have made the industry very leery. One of the offending images is a politically satirical painting by the late German artist Blalla Hallmann. Parfrey describes it as "a beautiful painting" of Hitler in a lovely field of flowers, giving the Nazi salute...while a pretty little Aryan girl is giving him a blowjob. Another objectionable image is a collage by Beth Love. It's a World War I photo of a wounded soldier in a bed, surrounded by nurses; Love has collaged a couple of little Victorian girls, fully clothed, in the bed beside him. The problem, Parfrey says, is probably their proximity to his wound: it's his penis, all wrapped up in bandages.

    McNaughton & Gunn, a major printer of small-press books, will produce the self-censored version, which Parfrey hopes to have in stores "in five or six weeks," roughly a month behind his original schedule.

    A quick salute to the fallen: Newsweek's Jack Kroll died last week. He'd been there forever, most recently writing theater reviews that were ho-hum, but back in his heyday, mid-60s to mid-70s, he edited the magazine's arts coverage, which was smart and up-to-date in ways that might startle readers of today's Newsweek. He was 74.

    Blair Clark, whom we interviewed for a cover story last year, also died last week. A witty, pipe-smoking gentleman of the old school, he'd been Eugene McCarthy's campaign manager, a foreign correspondent and news executive for CBS, and edited The Nation 1976-'78. He was 82.