Running Away With the Circus (X)

Corey Levitan
"One night I took a limo ride into the bowels of Madison Square Garden, just like Zeppelin in The Song Remains the Same. OK, so it was with Slaughter, but it still was cooler than if I'd gone to law school."

By Steven Ward

Journalist Corey Levitan started out at Circus working as an associate editor from 1989-1990. Following that, Levitan became a senior editor from 1990-1993. Today, Levitan is the magazine's West Coast Editor. Below, Levitan describes the world of Circus magazine back then and today.

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"Words can't describe what working for Circus meant to me. I had subscribed from the ages of 11-14 as a rabid fan of Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and John Lennon. Columnist Lou O'Neill Jr. was my idol; I interviewed him once for my high-school paper. Now we would be contemporaries!

"Frankly, I was shocked when Managing Editor Ben Liemer offered me the job as Associate Editor. My only previous staff experience had been writing mind-numbing M.I. copy for a recording technology trade called Pro Sound News. (Later, I discovered I was hired because Ben's first choice, a guy who worked at the CMJ newsletter, refused to work for $20k a year!)

"Instead of making Xeroxes and fetching coffee like other recent journalism grads, I was writing about rock musicians for a living! (Well, half a living anyway.) I was also getting free CDs, concert tickets, and party invites every night of the week. Rock stars like Steven Tyler and Slash knew me by sight and gold records were inscribed with my name, just for having written cover stories.

"One night I took a limo ride into the bowels of Madison Square Garden before a concert, just like Zeppelin in The Song Remains the Same. OK, so it was with Slaughter, but it still was cooler than if I'd gone to law school.

"In 1990, Ben and senior editor Daina Darzin quit at the same time, and publisher Gerry Rothberg made me the youngest Senior Editor in the mag's history. This was to be the first step toward a glorious Rolling Stone career--or so I thought. The Kurt Loder/David Fricke wormhole had long since closed, I later discovered. After Circus went practically all-Motley Crue in the mid '80s, it lost the respect of the elder rock cognoscenti.

"I didn't respect the hair metal I was forced to cover, either. The guys in Poison, Warrant and Danger Danger were the coolest to party with, but their music...well, frankly, it sucked elephant shit, didn't it? (Looking back, I can tell whose music I despised the most by the articles where I didn't mention it at all--just current events, theories of psychology, the nature of the universe. It's as if I was interviewing people who actually understood what I was asking!)

"To be fair, I occasionally got the rock interview of my adolescent wet dreams--although all 'old guys' had to be buried way down in my column, 'Front Pages.' I still have cassettes of my chats with Robert Plant, Johnny Cash and Brian May. And once, backstage at Farm Aid in 1990, I got Lou Reed to agree to give me 30 seconds. In the middle of his first answer, he peered down at his watch, then announced, 'That's 30 seconds' and cut me off. I remember thinking, 'I got dissed by Lou Reed! How cool!'

"A similarly bad/good experience was touring around Boston with the Black Crowes in 1990. Their road manager's hello was a warning not to touch any of the food or booze on the bus. Then Chris and Rich refused to speak with me, pawning me off on soon-to-be-fired guitarist Jeff Cease.

"Still, cooler than law school!

"My favorite Circus memory is probably reheating an old war between David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen in 1991. Via the fax right behind my desk, Eddie told David to stop having his father call him, begging for a reunion. (You should have heard Roth publicist Mitch Schneider squirm, trying to get me to kill that!)

"But the music I really loved was alternative rock. So when Nirvana busted through and Gerry gave the OK to switch formats in 1992, I was delirious. I would finally be entering Madison Square Garden with the right bands!

"Much as the entire staff loved alt-rock, however, its artists loathed the fan-based rock press in equal measure. Access to our subjects abruptly ended. No more limo rides. While I could appreciate the anti-fame posturing, I was also trying to write five-page features about Pearl Jam with only record-company weasels and my own personal friends willing to go on the record.

"And if Circus was vilified by the alt-rock community it attempted to support, that feeling came back doubly barbed from the metal community it deserted. Here's a tip: if you're going to piss off fans of any entire music genre, you don't want to tick off metalheads. Blood-stained death threats were common. (Luckily for Circus, metal came back strong enough to support it again in the late '90s, and most was forgiven.)

"Ben Liemer's replacement, Gary Cee, proved to be a great Managing Editor with the utmost respect for my writing. But I gave him too hard a time. Former Associate Editor Mordy Kleidermacher tells me that, after one editorial tiff with Gary, I tacked an enlarged photo of Ben Liemer up on my wall. I don't remember that, but it certainly sounds like me at the time. You see, it wasn't only Gary who marched into Gerry's office to demand the Managing Editor position when Ben and Daina quit. I did, too. Since I was next in the natural line of succession, I felt it was my entitlement. But, looking back, Gerry was right--I was too immature for the responsibility.

"Besides, I would have dreaded having to march back into Gerry's office every week to take sole responsibility for what was becoming a perilous circulation downslide. It wasn't the magazine's then-current editorial staff at fault but the death of hair metal--to which Gerry slaved his magazine too closely beginning five years earlier, at the expense of its former generalized rock focus.

"When Gary finally couldn't take any more in November 1993, Gerry offered me his position. I turned it down. Everyone told me it was a mistake, but it wasn't. Mordy and nearly the entire staff got laid off about six months later. Anyway, my heart was already set on moving to L.A., where I still reside and contribute the 'Front Pages' column, which is now called 'Rock Flash.'

"If you count that as still working for the magazine, then I officially have the longest Circus tenure at 16 years and counting. I freelance for Stone and its website now, in addition to the New York Post, Playboy, and Details. Although my Circus clips opened none of these doors, I still regard the gig as my coolest ever."

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