Paste-Up Days at the Old Phoenix

I learned of the death of the Boston Phoenix on Twitter today. It seemed fitting, coming just a few months after a morbid e-mail exchange I had with Peter Kadzis, one of the Boston alternative weekly paper's final editors. Earlier, I had Googled John Ferguson, a great editor and wonderful guy I had worked with in the production "paste-up" room way back in 1977. What I found was an obituary, written by another editor who was there at the time, Clif Garboden.

On a whim, I Googled Clif too. He was also dead, having succumbed to pneumonia and cancer in early 2011. Good lord. I e-mailed Kadzis, author of a beautiful Garboden obit that ran in the Phoenix that week, to let him know I'd worked with John and Clif, as well as production supervisor Cleo Leontis and others there.

Cleo had also died. "Stop Googling us," was Kadzis' smart advice.

* * *

It was the summer of '76. I had just graduated from UMass/Amherst and taken a job doing newspaper production for the Advocate newspaper chain there. Everyone in the weekly business looked up at the Phoenix; after the Village Voice, it was the alternative flagship publication. I had designs on freelancing music or film reviews for them, so I took a job putting their enormous classifieds section together for $75 a week. I'm not kidding. This involved driving to Boston, crashing at a college girlfriend's place or wherever would have me, staying up late Friday nights to finish the pages before they were driven like a bat out of hell up to the printer in Lowell, then cruising back to my parents' house in Western Mass. before looping back up to Amherst for my other two-day job. It was nuts, but I was young, as they say.

Eventually the Phoenix hired me on full-time to help put their entire 200-page paper together, and I found an apartment in Boston. My third rental was a gem, a top floor large one-bedroom on Beacon Street in the Back Bay section that my roommate had split in half. Now it's a very expensive condominium. Back then I was paying $95 a month for the privilege of being able to walk ten minutes to the Phoenix.

The days started in early afternoon and were long, grueling, and exciting. By the late 70s, publisher Steve Mindich had assembled a wealth of editorial talent on that paper that was mind-blowing. You had Ferguson, Garboden and David Moran, great managing editors and even greater guys; music critics/editors Kit Rachlis and Ken Emerson; movie critic David Denby; theatre critic Carolyn Clay.

A talented, greying proofreader named John Chatterton who chain-smoked (as did most everyone) and sounded like Peter Lorre sat at a desk in the center of the room, with long strips of type on photo-repro paper hanging from clothespins all around him like editorial butcher's meat. After we trimmed his approved type with X-acto blades, put it through the wax machine and rolled it on paste-up boards, a crap-ton of ads had to go through the same process. Deadline production nights frequently went past midnight.

The fun came from just working and hanging out with the smart, funny staff, alcohol often part of the equation when we often had to go out and come back before the copy came through. One night our sports editor George Kimball (alas, also dead) traipsed through production with Red Sox pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee in tow. Another night Lee came through himself, looking desperately for George Kimball. David Denby invited me out for dinner at an eatery downstairs, where he told me about his just-written review of King Kong (the Jeff Bridges version), which he despised.

Maybe this was my lesser version of the wannabe rock critic kid's story in Almost Famous, because sometime late in 1976 Ken Emerson approached me in production and asked me to write a review of Cannonball Run 2 for the paper. I kept my cool but was babbling with joy on the inside. Went to see that piece of crap the next day, filling a notepad with copious notes like it was a new Scorsese picture. I authored a couple other freelance pieces for them--one a feature on a small city college for Garboden's education supplement, before I finally left in late '77 to start a weekly in Burlington, Vermont with three other Boston friends.

Once I left town, I lost touch with the Phoenix and most of my cohorts there, but the publication thrived for a long while, and not just because of its pages and pages of relationship classifieds and escort ads.The paper was the go-to place for intelligent, long form arts and news features, club listings, movie blurbs, you name it. It was the pulse of the city, and thus, indispensable.

Lives and all good things do come to ends, though, and like many of our long-time cultural staples -- book stores, record stores, and video stores, to name a few -- newspapers have been dying forever, and it's kind of amazing it took 47 years for the Phoenix to finally succumb.

I'm truly sad they have left us. On the other hand, I'm honored to have spent nearly two years of my earliest professional life toiling into the wee Back Bay hours to get those fat, glorious, twine-bound suckers on the Boston pavement by dawn.

Jeff Polman writes fictionalized baseball replay blogs, his just-completed endeavor being Mystery Ball '58. His first such blog, "1924 and You Are There!" has been published by Grassy Gutter Press and is available on Amazon.