Running Away With the Circus (V)

Kurt Loder
"As an unpretentious, commercial prone metal mag, Circus was actually a lot of fun. But it was a foregone conclusion that writing of any technical ambition, about new acts of any real excitement or interest, would make it in the mag only by the sheerest accident."

By Steven Ward

Kurt Loder is probably best known as MTV's senior news correspondent. Before that, Loder was one of Rolling Stone's most talented and prolific feature writers in the '80s. Loder probably never would have gotten his job at Rolling Stone if it wasn't for his time working for Circus in the late '70s. Below, Loder goes into detail about that magical period...

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"I had been living in Europe for some time, and returned home to New Jersey at the end of 1972--my first trip back to the States in nearly seven years. Worked for awhile at a dreadful local 'community' newspaper, then hooked up with a little magazine that was being started in my hometown of Ocean City by the sister of noted writer (and fellow Ocean City homeboy) Gay Talese. In the summer of 1976, really weary of life in the sticks, I spotted an ad for a Long Island freebie rock weekly called Good Times, located in the self-consciously quaint sort of town called Roslyn. Drove up, interviewed, got hired for 200 bucks a week--shit, I thought I was gonna get rich!--and after a while, David Fricke, then employed at another rock rag, in Philly, applied for a job and got hired too. David's truly encyclopedic knowledge of virtually every genre of music was, and remains, hugely impressive. Fairly classic music geeks, we've been best friends ever since.

"David and his wife got an apartment across the street from me and my wife in Queens, and the two of us began driving into Manhattan virtually every night to wallow in the flourishing punk rock scene at CBGB's, Max's, etc. This was, fortunately, cool with the wives. I mean, we'd still be sitting upright at four in the morning through fist fights, mass nod-outs, and sets by bands with names like Blinding Headache, played to audiences of three people, of which we'd be two-thirds. I don't think I can quite convey how great days those were.

"Anyway, somehow, in 1978, David and I got wind of job openings at Circus which had the great, glittering virtue of actually being located in Manhattan. Also, it was known to be--along with Crawdaddy!--a sort of farm team for Rolling Stone, which was really the only place to work if music was what you wanted to write about--write seriously, that is.

"I went over and interviewed with Gerry Rothberg, got the job; David interviewed maybe an hour later, as I recall, got hired too, and suddenly we were Manhattanites. It was all very exciting.

"The Circus offices were in a chi-chi sort of building on eats 57th Street called the Galleria--a towering atrium in the period style, mini-jungles of discrete greenery splashed about the lobby. Gerry unusual sort of guy. The mag was strictly business to him (he could have been in the rag trade just as convincingly), although I think he was also under the impression that it made him a player in the big Manhattan media/show-biz game. A nice guy, though. Gerry had long and elaborately swept-back hair, the face of a lightly debauched cherub, and a wardrobe that ran to frilly lavender shirts with long, built-in scarves for collars. I understood he'd previously run a mag called Clyde, which was devoted to...horses. Whatever was said to be 'happening' in commercial pop music was what Gerry would want on the cover of Circus. Disco? Run with it. Shirtless teen popsters? Put 'em on the cover. (He had a, shall we say, ardent enthusiasm for pix of nubile youths.) Metal, of course, was really the mag's meat.

Circus, 1979 Circus, 1979

"I believe I was officially an editor at Circus although the memory's dim. Like everybody else, I churned reams of copy on a daily basis. The rest of the staff when I arrived--funny writers like Ira Wolfman and Mark Mehler; talented pros like Al Rudolph, the art director; semi-legendary freelancers like John Swenson (a friend of Lester Bangs)--tended to see their lives at the mag through a thick scrim of cynical wit and deep irony. As an unpretentious, commercial prone metal mag, Circus was actually a lot of fun. But it was a foregone conclusion that writing of any technical ambition, about new acts of any real excitement or interest, would make it in the mag only by the sheerest accident.

"We did our best to slip stuff by, of course. I remember when Vladimir Horowitz, the renowned classical pianist, actually made it onto the Billboard pop chart with one of his albums (forget which one), and I somehow managed to turn this into a Circus assignment. Horowitz and his RCA handlers were no doubt bemused by the interview request; but we did it and the story ran in Circus with the cover line: 'Vlad All Over.' Why not?

"Although Gerry sat in an office denoted as that of the Editor, he was an actual editor only in the most notional sense. (At least compared to Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone, who was a born editor of frequent brilliance.) One deadline day, he was in the art department reading through typeset copy that was being pasted onto boards for the next issue, when he came across a pull quote--I believe it was by David Lee Roth of Van Halen--that contained the phrase 'kinky shit,' I think. Gerry was all a-fluster about such rude language being so prominently displayed in the mag, so he stopped to the floor and began searching the carpet for discarded lines of type in the same large font till he came upon the word 'turns,' which--he checked it--would fit right into the space now being so objectionably taken up by 'shit.' So he had Al Rudolph--to his great dismay--paste it in, and that's how the David Lee Roth quote ran: 'I don't go for this kinky turns.' Brilliant, in a post-textual way.

"The atmosphere at Circus then was informed to a significant extent by beer-fueled lunches at various of the neighborhood's tacky chain eateries (and by regular after-work drinkathons as well). Such pissing and moaning...

"I don't recall that anybody onboard at the time thought that Circus was much more than a second-or third tier music magazine, despite the full-color, glossy format--a publication of even the slightest distinction only in the elaborately coiffed head of Gerry Rothberg. Perversely, however, we were living in exciting times: punk and new wave music were in the air all around us (there was a great new punk dance club uptown called Hurrah; I was there one night when Sid Vicious broke a beer bottle over the head of Patti Smith's brother), and the tiresome disco boom was about to hit an enormous wall of consumer sales resistance. (I remember a Circus ad guy--an habitue of the disco scene--telling me very seriously one day that rock and roll was dead; that disco was here to stay, and it was time for all of us editorial drones faced the fact. Asshole.)

"Circus wasn't really a big drug den, but I do recall a brief infatuation with a substance called 'Locker Room,' for which one or two of us would make regular trips to a nearby corner newsstand, where little bottles of the stuff were doled out right over the counter along with cigarettes and skin mags. 'Locker Room' was an inhalant along the lines of 'poppers' so prized on the gay disco scene--take a whiff or two and your heart started whomping against your ribcage in an effort to leap right through your chest. As I say, this infatuation was brief. One night after work, I was sitting in a bar (of course) with another staffer and fellow 'Locker Room' aficionado. Noting a sudden look of alarm on his face, I gazed down and realized that blood was gushing spontaneously out of my nose and down onto my shirt. After that, it was pretty much back to beer for the both of us.

"In the spring of 1979, Fred Schruers, another Circus escapee, having completed his requisite two years of running the Random Notes section at Rolling Stone, just up the street, was getting ready to move full-time into writing features for the magazine. A replacement was needed. It was Fred, I believe (and/or maybe Jon Pareles--another RSNY Times), who suggested me. After writing a try out piece on Poco (!), I started a nine-year hitch at Rolling Stone in May 1979.

"David (Fricke) lingered a bit longer at Circus, but eventually he made the big RS jump too, and remains one of the mag's preeminent oracles to this day.

"The idea of Circus being looked back upon now as some kind of classic rock mag is a little disorienting to somebody who worked there at the time. (You mean people were actually paying attention?) Maybe this is just the way history works. Some very good writers did work at Circus over the years, and they managed to get in some memorable licks against pretty tall editorial odds. For me, the whole experience--inextricable from the rich and exciting New York time in which it took place--was great fun in a way that I suspect it couldn't be today in quite the same way.

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