By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
So is the Twin Cities better served by a single, strong alternative paper? Not really. But the one that remains well reflects the city it inhabits and purports to cover--I've always been a City Pages reader and still am.
I miss the jihad, though.
(Craig Cox was with City Pagesfrom 1985 until 1989, spending most of that time as editor. He is now managing editor of the Utne Reader.)
You can't trust this memory thing. I'm almost 30 years removed from air force basic training, for instance, and I recall none of the horrors of barking drill sergeants, only the surprising frivolity of the obstacle course. Nearly 20 years after my father's descent into cancer and a too-early death, I've pretty much blocked from my memory the months of tortuous uncertainty in favor of the cleansing relief of his funeral. I suppose that's just the way we operate.
So when I have occasion to recall my late-Eighties stint at the helm of City Pages, I'm inclined to forget the dreary midnights, cranking out yet another cynical column or feature, or the volcanic managers' meetings, or the paycheck that never quite measured up to the workload. I'll remember instead the exhilaration of beating the Strib or the Reader to a story, the manic thrill of reporting and writing a cover feature between Wednesday and Monday, and the oddly satisfying knowledge that we were always kind of making it up as we went along (not the stories, mind you).
A lot of it was pretty much an inside joke, of course: the hip jocularity, the Uptown pose, the too-righteous indignation at the first whiff of hypocrisy. It played well at the C.C. Club and First Ave. and other shrines of the tiny New Wave Ghetto, where our only real audience lived, but what it must have meant to the guy who picked up the paper off the bus stop bench on his way home to Columbia Heights on a Thursday night I can't even fathom. In our minds we were providing the masses with a rambunctious alternative to the mainstream media, not a free tabloid full of bar ads.
You've got to learn your craft somewhere, though, and in that place and at that time, I can't imagine having a better vehicle for our collective rant or a livelier classroom for Reporting 101. I learned a lot on the third floor of Butler Square, but my epiphany came three or four jobs down the road, when I finally realized that our grubby City Pages crew wasn't alone in its delusions and misconceptions and hubris, that this business of delivering ideas and information to that little slice of the world we hope is still reading is well-populated with uncertainty, fear, and downright cluelessness. And if that's not some balm to a guy with a lousy memory, I don't know what is.
(Will Hermes, City Pages' arts and music editor from 1993 to 1997, is a freelance writer and senior editor for Spin.)
In these free-for-all days of late-stage capitalism, brand names--of newspapers and magazines, restaurants and radio stations, clothing lines and sports franchises--don't guarantee a goddamn thing. Companies are bought and sold by shadow figures, staffs remade, and "products" remodeled by spreadsheet logic. Whether you get the cookie you'd hoped for, or one of those dog biscuits passed off as Famous Amos after the inventor was pushed out of his own company, is a crapshoot at best.
But when a spirit of shared obsession infects a group of people, it can be a hard thing to drive out. I took a job as arts and music editor with City Pages back in 1992 after working with (and admiring the writing of) editors like Jim Walsh, Terri Sutton, and Helen Antrobus. City Pages arts criticism then, as now, was by turns funny, obnoxious, erudite, pretentious, impassioned, self-indulgent, confrontational, navel-gazing, flippant, and flipped out. When these qualities were balanced, it was a beautiful thing. When they weren't, it still beat the hell out of the neutered, focus-group arts coverage of the mainstream.
As a writer and editor, I was in love. Obsessed. And over time I was surprised to find that my fantasy of the "alternative press" wasn't all delusional. The Chicago Manual of Style was happily chucked out the window whenever appropriate, powerful assholes were called assholes, and lame art was trumpeted as such. I saw some of the subtle and not-so-subtle ugliness that happens when advertisers and publishers try to influence content. But integrity ran remarkably high, and the editors and writers were left largely to their own devices.
They took those devices and ran with them pretty good. I believe City Pages produced some of the bangin'-est political commentary and arts writing penned in this country over the past ten years. Various journalism awards have testified as much, if you believe awards. In his recent "Artist of the Decade" essay for Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus quoted lines from City Pages' Kurt Cobain postmortem cover story, if you believe glossy magazines.
The editorial staff I worked with were world-class obsessives--among them Steve Perry, Jennifer Vogel, Monika Bauerlein, Britt Robson, Julie Caniglia, Rob Nelson, Michael Tortorello, Josie Rawson, Phil Anderson, Joe Hart, David Schimke, Beth Hawkins, and a busload of mad-talented contributors and interns. Maybe the era was golden; I'd be a poor judge. All I can say is I stayed four years and was sad to leave. As I watch daily newspapers, alt weeklies, and magazines reach what seems like a new nadir, getting dumber and duller by the day, and not expecting Internet salvation anytime soon, I trust the City Pages spirit of shared obsession will continue to produce writing that matters, that lives up to its brand name, that looks from the Twin Cities out to the world and back again, that locates a regional voice that's not parochial, that speaks truth to bullshit, and--when required--bullshits with the best of them.