Running Away With the Circus (XI)

Robert Smith
"Within the confines of Circus we knew we were putting out a lot of stuff as good as Rolling Stone and Creem."

By Steven Ward

Robert Smith is the president of A&R at Zingy, Inc. today. But in the mid to late '70s, Smith was one of the editors at Circus magazine.

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"I was the managing editor at Crawdaddy! for a couple of years prior to working at Circus. The rock journalism world was pretty small considering its impact. I knew a lot of editors and writers in New York. I think it was Steven Demarest who was editing at Circus who introduced me to Gerry Rothberg. Danny Goldberg and Howard Bloom had passed through before me. I became the senior editor. Fred Schruers was the head Music Editor.

"Looking back at Circus, it was a far loonier place than I think any of us knew at the time. The culture itself was cranked up and excited, especially the rock scene in New York. Every writer and editor was really in it for the music. The ordinary pressure of getting a magazine out regularly was just an extension of college: some of the best stuff got done at the very last second. There were so many great writers connected to the magazine. Wesley Strick, Jim Farber, Paul Nelson (who edited the record reviews section) and John Swenson were all amazing to work with. They all had distinct points of view and were really good writers and had taste. The general atmosphere at Circus is hard to pin down. Small as the staff was, there were several different things going on at once. I can't fathom what was going on on the publishing side. Gerry kept to himself. For us, it was creative activity , which included the pressure of getting out a coherent, clever magazine that was basically a colorful rag for teen and early twenties rock fans.

"Gerry Rothberg was an idiosyncratic cottage industry entrepreneur who just happened to find himself in the rock magazine business. He was a mostly pleasant, generally hands-off publisher, given the rather formal restraints of the editorial content. He believed in a arcane editorial strategy based on repeating coverage on bands in waves of three stories. He relied on the the very whimsical flow of fan letters. If three kids wrote to him about Ritchie Blackmore in one week, we'd be doing Ritchie Blackmore features, covers, and pictorials far in excess of real demand. I don't think he ever realized how cool the stuff was or that we did some great work under the cover of Kiss and Led Zep covers. He did try to push the magazine into the realm of mainstream lifestyle pubs, which was a mistake that kept repeating itself. There was no way to compete (and certainly little interest from us to try and do so). Had he chosen to push it the other way--further into the forefront of music and music culture--I think Circus could have been far more successful. No kid was interested in health tips.

"That time for rock magazines was a period of extreme individuality. I think we all approached it differently in terms of comparison to other magazines. We would have liked to be as big and respected as Rolling Stone and as truly counterculture as Creem, but within the confines of Circus we knew we were putting out a lot of stuff as good as either of those magazines.

"There were glimmers of brilliance that I think were always overlooked because of the image of Circus. When you rerun pictures of artists for years, use pictures from a time not connected to the story at hand, have the printer make tossed salad of the layouts, write or edit endless drivel about Kiss--all things that you would imagine would diminish praise from the outside. But once beyond the big feature pieces, there were some great pieces of rock journalism slipped in all the time. Reviews in Circus were a good as anyone's.

"I left Circus in 1979 because I wanted to work at a record company, be closer to the music and because friends at Epic Records easily persuaded me to make the move. Also, it occurred to me that we were always going to be paid as peons.

"My fondest memory at Circus may be the 3 P.M. editorial meetings with Fred Schruers we had on the street behind the building. We needed the fresh air. Ask Fred about it."

(Of course quickly got in touch with Fred Schruers for some elaboration. Fred said: "Yep, as much fresh air as could be pulled out of the sooty New York City atmosphere through a tightly rolled funny cigarette...discretion forbids further particulars...")

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