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Running Away With the Circus (VII)

Mordechai Kleidermacher
"Gerry, for some reason, got it in his head that we should do a cover story featuring this popular rap group. On the cover of a metal magazine. This was long before there was so much crossover between the two genres. All hell broke loose."

By Steven Ward


Writer Mordechai Kleidermacher has had music journalism published in Guitar World, Guitar School, and Revolver. He is currently working on a freelance basis for Jazz Improv magazine. The leader of the band J.A.M., Inc., Kleidermacher has just finished making his first CD of original instrumental rock. During the early and mid '90s, Kleidermacher worked as an associate editor and, briefly, as managing editor at Circus. Below, he discuses what it was like in the Circus offices when grunge became the next big thing and Warrant and Skid Row were nothing more than a hangover.

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Circus, 1992 Circus, 1993

"I started working at Circus in November 1990. At the time, I had been working as a freelancer for Harris Publications--writing for Guitar World and Guitar School. I had also written one review for RIP magazine. A friend of mine who had also been working for Harris as an editor (and who in fact was the person who got me hooked up in music writing in the first place) had seen an ad in the N.Y. Times which went something like 'Rock magazine with metal orientation looking for Associate Editor.' He told me about it. At the time, I was also substitute teaching in the N.Y. public schools in Brooklyn.

"Music journalism was only a part-time thing that I was doing for fun as much as for money. I had just gotten out of college and I was pursuing teaching rather than journalism as a career. But I thought, hey, I'd much rather review albums and write about rock and roll for a living, so without too much expectation I sent in my resumé and sort of forgot about it. A few weeks later I got a call from Gerry Rothberg's assistant. I went down to 6 West 18th Street, where the magazine was located at the time (right across the street from Spin) and I was interviewed by Publisher/Editor-In-Chief Gerry Rothberg, Managing Editor Gary Cee, and Senior Editor Corey Levitan. The magazine's orientation at the time was primarily coverage of metal and pop-metal groups like Guns 'N Roses, Motley Crue, Warrant, Metallica, Megadeth, so on and so forth. These were the sort of groups I had been covering at Guitar World and Guitar School. So I guess they were impressed by my knowledge of the music, my writing, and my experience. So I got the job. And there went my teaching career out the window.

"It was great working with Gary and Corey, both were extremely supportive. There was always a sense of camaraderie, and we had a great deal of fun. Back then, much of the writing was done in house but Dan Hedges did a lot of freelance work for us. Nick Bowcott (of the British metal band Grim Reaper) did the guitar column. Jeff Kitts, who is the managing editor at Guitar World now, also did some work for us.

"Gerry Rothberg was a very nice guy. You'd see a lot of him around the office. He had a good sense of humor, and he was very informal with the staff. During the monthly editorial meetings and in the office in general there'd be a lot of kidding around and joking. Gerry didn't really care that much about what was going on editorially or otherwise as long as the magazine was selling. Unfortunately, it was around the time that I started working at the magazine when the circulation started plummeting. I don't think there was any connection. In the mid '80s when the pop-metal thing was at its biggest, Circus was moving close to a half a million copies in sales a month pushing bands like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. But by the early '90s, the whole pop-metal thing really started to dry up. Metal was dying and alternative and the whole Seattle thing was really starting to take off. That posed an editorial challenge to us. Of course the whole Guns 'N Roses debacle didn't really help us either. Axl Rose had been pissed at Circus because he had felt we had overexposed the band. So he was dissing us on stage and in the band song, 'Get in the Ring.'

"On top of that we had this whole spat going with our competition, RIP magazine. We were basically kicking RIP's ass at the newsstand. So Lonn Friend--RIP's editor, who was in with Axl Rose--was trying to present us (and Hit Parader, the other warhorse hard-rock mag) as this stuffy, old poseur magazine that was hopelessly out of touch and just in it for the money while RIP was the new, hip street metal mag.

"At the same time, Circus was taking a beating from MTV, which had its own music news coverage, and more mainstream music mags like Rolling Stone, which had started encroaching on Circus's traditional terrain by covering big hard rock acts like Motley Crue, Skid Row and Guns 'N Roses. Back in the '60s and '70s, there was a clear difference between Rolling Stone and Circus. While Rolling Stone covered more 'serious' rock acts like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Circus made a name for itself for covering the sort of unwashed harder rock bands like Black Sabbath, Kiss, and Alice Cooper, and in their earlier days, Led Zeppelin. But by the '80s, Rolling Stone was becoming less hoity toity and more of a general music magazine, and by the '90s that coverage started to whittle away at the circulation of Circus.

"As a result, the monthly editorial meetings became pretty combative. Gerry was desperate to get the circulation up and often he would consider, in the point of view of Gary, Corey and myself, some pretty weird ideas. Just before I joined the staff, Circus had done an issue--Gerry's idea--featuring The New Kids on the Block which had earned the magazine the vituperation of many of its metal readers. (During editorial meetings where Gerry would berate us for the magazine's poor performance, Gary Cee would often remind Gerry that The New Kids on the Block issue was his idea not the editors.)

"We were trying everything to get the circulation going: blowout issues on Motley Crue, Guns 'N Roses, Skid Row, Megadeth, Metallica, loaded with pictures, stats, and facts, band interviews--all the traditional things Circus was known for. But none of the traditional metal acts were working for us anymore. Later we started covering alternative acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, doing big blowout issues on them. It was a problem because many of those acts (with the exception of STP) wouldn't give us interviews. So we found any angle we could and tried to make something out of it: reviewed concerts, re-hashed old interviews, used press quotes, and turned it into a story, bought interviews from from foreign journalists, did band histories (oh, the band histories!). Gerry didn't really care that much about getting exclusive interviews. Hell, he didn't even care if we had an interview. If he thought it would sell the magazine, just do what you had to do to get them in it, even if it meant reprinting or rehashing old interviews countless times.

"I did this one interview with Pearl Jam very early on when their first album just came out, before all the hype. It was a really long and cool interview. Eddie Vedder was really relaxed and really nice. I don't know how many times we shamelessly cannibalized that interview to pull some kind of story from it. We did the same things with a Nirvana interview that Dan Hedges had done with Dave Grohl.

"Nonetheless, the alternative thing didn't fly. We tried classic rock issues with histories on Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix. We did classic Circus 'From the Vaults' issues where we reprinted vintage Circus stories and interviews featuring classic rock heroes like Kiss, The Doors, and Black Sabbath to remind the public of our history and pedigree. We were trying to redefine the magazine without completely alienating its solid hard rock core.

"But Gerry became increasingly desperate and was willing to try anything. At one point we even discussed doing a Jurassic Park issue tied into the release of the movie. The editors were against the idea and thankfully it was dropped. As a compromise, we nervously began to integrate more mainstream rock bands like U2, REM and the Spin Doctors, which really didn't help at all. We even began doing a video games column to appeal to a youth audience.

"Unfortunately, I think all the experimentation really hurt us because it was alienating our core hard rock readership and not really picking us up a new readership. Gerry was not really a rock fan, so for him, anything went. All of that culminated in the dreaded Arrested Development issue. Gerry, for some reason, got it in his head that we should do a cover story featuring this popular rap group. On the cover of a metal magazine. This was long before there was so much crossover between the two genres. All hell broke loose. Gary, Corey and myself were completely against it. We were willing to entertain a short feature buried somewhere inside, but not on the cover. Oh boy did we argue over that one.

"Anyway, as expected, the issue didn't change our numbers one way or the other but the amount of anti-Circus mail we got was unbelievable. The hard rock fans were outraged to say the least. It was a bad move and it hurt the magazine greatly. Gerry was always looking for the magic potion, some magic band or personality, such as a Kiss or Alice Cooper or a Bon Jovi. There were very few of those acts in the '90s.

"As far as my leaving, things got so bad in the mid '90s that at one point Gerry had to lay off the whole staff...whatever was left of it, that is, because the staff had been getting leaner and leaner through attrition and lay offs all through the 90s. I knew it was coming. I had seen the ad staff leave, Gary Cee and Corey, the art staff. After Gary's departure, I became Managing Editor and for a few months I was running the magazine practically by myself, except for the help of Bobby Lynn, who was sort of Gerry's personal assistant. Bobby and I were sort of the last holdouts from the early-to-mid '90s period. Gerry just came in one day without much ado and basically said that's it, that he couldn't afford to keep the staff on anymore. And that was the end of my tenure at Circus.

"What do I miss the most about working at Circus? I miss many of the staff--Gary, Corey, Bobby Lynn and many others. I also really enjoyed my lunches at Sorrentos, the greasy spoon across the street. They made a great meatball hero. I also really loved getting those nice packages of promos from the record companies, especially Sony, mmm, all those great box sets and classic reissues. Ahh, life's little pleasures."


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