The Boston Phoenix, the alternative weekly newspaper that played a crucial part in the cultural, political and journalistic life of the Boston area, announced that it is ceasing publication today, the victim of shrinking national ad dollars. That it lasted 47 years as an independent, well-staffed, progressive political voice when so many other alt-weeklies have been either gutted, mainstreamed or fallen victim to soulless corporate takeover, is something like a miracle.
When the Phoenix and other alt-weeklies began in the 1960s, they were the media voice of the counterculture. Alt-weeklies were the place to read muckraking anti-war journalism, long, scholarly reviews of the latest Dylan album or Truffaut film, and to comb the classified ads for student apartments, bands in need of drummers and, of course, BWMs seeking GBMs or SWFs for BD/SM. In the pre-Craigslist days, the classifieds paid the bills and the salaries. Yes, staffers got paid for their work. Imagine that.
The Boston Phoenix began life in March, 1966 as a four-page entertainment listing paper called Boston After Dark, which was given away free on college campuses around Boston and Cambridge. It eventually included theater and film reviews. In 1972, publisher Stephen Mindich bought the rival alt-weekly the Cambridge Phoenix, renamed it the Boston Phoenix and kept the name Boston After Dark for its entertainment and listings section; it was still given away free to boost circulation and ad revenue. The staff of the Cambridge Phoenix then founded a new alt-weekly called The Real Paper, which continued as the righteous alternative-alternative weekly. But the Boston Phoenix eventually won the circulation war, and the Real Paper folded for good in 1981.
I watched all of this drama unreeling as a high school student who dreamed of being a rock critic for the Real Paper. But it was the Phoenix that finally gave me my shot. I was fresh out of Boston University with a journalism degree and a fistful of rejections. I sent my clips to Kit Rachlis, the very cool Phoenix music editor. For reasons still unknown, Rachlis assigned me an album review on spec (Kim Wilde, if you must know). Whatever the test was, I passed it. I started writing pop music reviews for the Phoenix in 1981, eventually also taking on TV reviews before I left to join the San Francisco Examiner in 1987. You know that line in Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender” — “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school”? That’s me and the Phoenix. I learned more about writing criticism, about thinking critically, from Kit Rachlis and his successor Milo Miles than I ever did from my journalism classes.
And when I say “criticism,” I don’t mean 250-word blurbs or glorified press releases. I’m talking about long, thought-out, 2,000-word epics. And if my draft didn’t hang together as an argument, my editors would sit there with me, for hours if necessary, making me rewrite, rethink and polish until it gleamed. I covered Live Aid for the Phoenix. I wrote think-pieces about (among other subjects) Springsteen’s Born in the USA tour, “Papa Don’t Preach”-era Madonna, Led Zeppelin’s enduring adolescent appeal and Elvis Costello’s King of America. I covered the local music beat, and I have the hate mail to prove it. I wrote a parody of People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful Women” issue, with a “Most Beautiful Men on TV” list that included Tony Randall, Gene Siskel and Robert “Chief” Parish of the Boston Celtics. My Phoenix editors were open to pretty much anything.
The competition for the cover of the arts section was fierce, the arguments as hilarious as they were edifying. And the roster of critics whose bylines appeared in the Boston Phoenix is almost ridiculously stellar. Tom Carson, Dave Marsh, Ken Tucker, Janet Maslin, David Denby and Stephen Schiff came before me; Ariel Swartley, Mark Moses, Doug Simmons, Deborah Frost, Howard Hampton, classical music critic (and Pulitzer winner) Lloyd Schwartz, film critics Michael Sragow, Owen Gleiberman, Scott Rosenberg and David Edelstein were some of my contemporaries.
I’m immeasurably sad that the Phoenix ended with no warning (and no severance for its staff). What did it mean to me to be a part of its history? Everything. I was about 10 years too young to have participated directly in the cultural tidal wave that was the ’60s and early ’70s; I had to watch from the sidelines and wish I was an adult already. But when I got to the Phoenix in ’81, I found a tattered flag of idealism still stubbornly flying. I found a tribe, and we shared a language and we tried to share it with our readers in the most readable and elegant way we knew how. We were in a dying profession, but we acted like it was going to last forever. The Phoenix was my Summer of Love.
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape 2013