In an apocalyptic merger, The Independent purchases and swallows the Spectator, its 20-year rival and nemesis. Some readers praise it as the final victory of progressive ideas on the alternative newsstand, others curse it as the death knell of creative competition and intellectual diversity in what was once the outlaw press. In point of fact, only a concentration of resources could have extended the lives of two publications whose survival had long defied conventional wisdom and the harsh realities of the monopoly marketplace.Politics aside, the best reason to applaud The Independent‘s victory is that it’s still 100 percent local–still independent of the chain publishers whose tentacles had long since snatched up the Spectator. National strategies, bottom lines and skeleton editorial budgets inevitably cheat the reader with a taste for the best that “alternative” journalism has to offer. The Spectator was a ghost of what it used to be, and the alternative market is such a young market that most of its current readers have no memory of its prime, when it was ground-breaking and belligerent and literate beyond its years or its budget.
When we were young. I always loved Jim Graham’s line that he was “the oldest rat in the Democratic barn”; now that I’m clearly the oldest rat in the alternative barn, maybe I’m just the ancient mariner to grab the wedding guest by his sleeve and tell him the sobering story of all that came before.
It’s pointless to reflect on the Spectator without reflecting first on the Founding Father, “Mr. Spectator,” the unique and controversial R.B. Reeves. He conceived it, he talked the rest of us into it, and he drove most of us gaunt and gray and palsied before our time. Some people are tagged “controversial” only because their fellow citizens are so timid and conventional. Others earn their controversy, and Mr. Spectator was one of those chosen few.
If I make him sound too warm and fuzzy, I’ll hear cries of protest from Murphy to Manteo. But my pride is attached to the quality of the vintage Spectator, and I’d be ashamed to distribute credit for it without saving a big slice for R.B. Reeves.
Did he invent “The Triangle” as a marketing concept? He always said so. Certainly he was one of the first to grasp it. His personal politics were Paleozoic, by my timeline. (When the baby dinosaurs of the Lockjaw–I mean John Locke–Society first crawled out of the primordial muck and spread their little webbed feet to dry in the warm Carolina sun, Mr. S was there on the shore to wipe off their fins, poke a Marlboro in their gill slits and offer them a warm place to breed.) But he succeeded because he never tried to impose his ideology on the talented band of Bedouins he used to call his staff. These nomadic wordsmiths pitched their tents and worked their obsessions and he presided paternally, magisterially, more like a pasha than a publisher.
There was almost nothing on which Mr. S and I agreed. But to the best of my memory we never quarreled over anything I offered for publication–and in those days The Reagan Revolution had me in a frenzy. It’s not surprising that Mr. Spectator could handle prima donnas.
Our differences were biblical in scope. He was an Anglophile, I was an Anglophobe. When I lived in Edinburgh, all my friends were Laborites, Trotskyites or Scottish separatists; I’ve never met an Old Etonian. When Reeves traveled in Great Britain, he seemed to meet only peers of the realm. He’d bring earls and barons into my office in Raleigh, and on another occasion the Canadian billionaire Jack Kent Cooke, who just stopped by to say hello.
Old-timers remember the smoking wars. I’m allergic to cigarette smoke and totally, self-righteously hostile toward smokers; Bernie Reeves once said that people who didn’t smoke should get out of North Carolina. The Spectator offices were divided into zones like Berlin, halls hazy with smoke on his side and a rigidly patrolled smoke-free corridor on mine. There was even a hiring competition between us, in the interest of extending our boundaries. I’m confessing for the first time that on more than one occasion I offered a cigarette to a job applicant, from an old pack of Godfrey Cheshire’s I had in my desk. If the luckless aspirant said “yes, thanks” and reached for one, of course, he was history.
But the truth is that Reeves was good at hiring and I was hopeless. For the position of arts editor, I hired one strange man who ran out of my office weeping operatically after two weeks on the job, and later denounced me to The Independent‘s Katherine Fulton as a closet Nazi. Another, who devoted an ominous amount of his conversation to the Kama Sutra, confessed on departing that he’d smoked dope every day in his office and was usually too stoned to answer the telephone. Yet another was the mysterious author of popular novels I saw at the airport. My best one was a blond rock god, Jonathan Mudd, lead singer for a band called Jo-Jo Ex-Mariner.
Though it’s the last thing Mr. Spectator ever consciously pursued, you’d better believe we had diversity. When I moved my operation to The Independent, I found a community of journalists who shared an ideology and a worldview. Even though most of their beliefs were my beliefs, their harmony made me very uncomfortable. At the Spectator, the staff was not a community. They were not a team. When they were called upon to cooperate, what Bernie Reeves fondly described as “creative tension” could paint the walls of a conference room with blood and hair.
Heterodox, motley, unpredictable, unruly. Dignified elder contributors like Phyllis Tyler and Noel Yancey shared column space with shaggy mendicants who probably slept in their vans in Cameron Village. The sales manager, Tom Smith, was an ex-Carolina football jock who owned polo ponies. Jim Baxter ran a gay newsletter, The Front Page, out of the Spectator‘s production room. One of our music editors was Rick Miller, better known to Raleigh’s night people as Rick Rock (and later nationally as Parthenon Huxley). They rarely shared a beer after work.
Harnessing anarchy was Mr. Spectator’s particular genius. But the commissar of countercultural subversion, the midnight mayor of Hillsborough Street, the arbiter of the avant-garde was the Spectator‘s man in black, the man called God. We know him now as the formidable film critic Godfrey Cheshire. But in his blazing youth he was godfather to a dozen rock bands and guru to the gonzo journalists of the Blind Boys Gazette, a sleeper cell of teenage guerrillas who ran their ultra-alternative weekly out of Broughton High School.
Thanks to Cheshire, rock ‘n’ roll so permeated the early Spectator–“the reggae Spec,” a vivacious sales rep called it–that it was hard to tell newsroom employees from loitering drummers who hoped Godfrey could find them a gig. What touched me most was Cheshire’s insistence that I could learn to love his music. (“You’ll love this band, Hal. It’s a softer, older sound even you can relate to.”) It led to a dozen guided adventures in smoky clubs where my untutored ear heard nothing but wall after wall of sound.
Arrogance, the Fabulous Knobs, Corrosion of Conformity–it was a year before I realized that the Spectator had no contractual connection to the bands that roamed our offices and preyed ruthlessly on our impressionable young women.
But through or in spite of it all–the clash of incompatible cultures, unexplained disappearances and abductions, unsubstantiated rumors of substance abuse, the pounding garage-band beat–some remarkable things were published.
The Spectator lost focus and influence in recent years, to such a degree that most people forget the ’80s, the Golden Years. The paper was a little light on social conscience–except, I hope, in my columns. Mr. Spectator was no missionary, and his taste in investigative journalism ran toward assassination theory and the Shroud of Turin. But the quality of its writing and the sophistication of its arts coverage (Cheshire, Bob “Bull Man” Burtman and Joe Vanderford enjoyed rich revivals at The Independent) placed the Spectator, at its peak, in a class by itself. From the beginning we had a board-certified poet, Michael McFee, in charge of book reviews, and later on his anchorman was the redoubtable Jerry Leath Mills. I doubt that any newsprint weekly, with the possible exception of the Village Voice, ever published a book supplement to match one I edited in 1985: Twelve pages (with few ads) of reviews by the likes of Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Fred Chappell and Mike Reynolds, as well as McFee and myself.
At the same time we were publishing premium nonfiction by Daphne Athas, Bland Simpson, John Kessel, Marvin Hunt and the late Tim McLaurin, among many other gifted, underpaid writers it pains me to pass over. We had style, erudition, and attitude in abundance. All newsprint journalism is ephemeral, and tabloid writers often feel that our best prose was written on the wind. But maybe there was something incurably “alternative” about our souls. None of us ever doubted that the Spectator was a hell of a lot more stimulating than a cubicle at The News & Observer.
I’m aware that this salute to the Spectator is symbolic. It would be disingenuous now to pretend that anything we built or created remains. But what Mr. S and his wild irregulars accomplished, not so very long ago, was extraordinary. And for those of us who remember, an abiding source of pride.
Hal Crowther, now a columnist for The Independent, was executive editor of the Spectator from 1986 to 1989.