Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Losing FACE

[For those of you from “away”, this rant won’t make a lot of sense. It may not make sense, even if you are from Maine. Feel free to follow along, however, if you like.]

I grew up reading great rock journalists. When I was coming of age and learning the cred and lingo of rock and roll, the legendary Lester Bangs, of Creem fame, was a constant read. Bangs, a freelancer after my own heart, went on to write for the Village Voice, Playboy, and New Musical Express, always writing about rock and roll in his inimitable, gonzo style.

Later, I would check out Dave Marsh and other stalwarts at Rolling Stone (Marsh, interestingly, also got his start at Creem). In later years, I gravitated to Spin, APress back before these became the trendy publications (filled with advertisements) they now are.

The Maine rock scene has always had a rock and roll publication, because Maine, despite being a rural state with a lack of population density, has produced some kick-ass rock over the last 30 years. When I was in high school, it was Sweet Potato, a free publication that spawned Jim Sullivan, who went on to bigger and better things at the Boston Globe, before falling off my radar screen.

Sweet Potato was a sought out publication for teens, as well as other fans of music, like myself, wanting to know what was new and who the up-and-coming bands were in and around Portland (the state’s rock and roll mecca then, as it is now).

With the demise of Sweet Potato, came FACE. I don’t know the exact date, but I do remember the years when FACE was Benny Green’s baby. Green was one of those guys, like a Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh, who truly never lost his love and fascination with the juvenilia of rock.

As happens so often with free publications, the hours are long and the pay (if there is any) is never sufficient. Green burnt out and he left. Other writers like Steve Curtis (Dr. Rock n’ Roll), S.D. Feeney and others, continued the FACE tradition of always respecting the music enough, not to become bigger than the bands or artists they were writing about. Now one could argue that my reference to Bangs, who did achieve a certain celebrity for his upbraiding and insulting of his subjects, invalidates my point of adulation for the reputation of FACE and its predecessor, Sweet Potato. I’d argue that despite Bangs’ ability to grandstand, he never lost sight of the basic essence of rock and roll.

That brings me back to FACE, or at least the last issue that was produced and distributed by the departed editor, Paul Woodfin. Woodfin, like Green, reached a point where he wanted to do something else.

My brief experience with Paul consisted of making an inquiry and then writing a couple of articles over the last few months of his editorship. From my perspective as a freelance writer, he respected writers and was a pleasure to deal with. I was sad to see him go, but never did I imagine that his departure would leave the FACE masthead in such a sorry state as its current manifestation.

FACE has been published under the auspices of The Portland Phoenix for some time. I don’t know the exact relationship, but if I had to use a business analogy, I’d liken the role of FACE to being a subsidiary of The Phoenix. That meant with Woodfin’s departure, the ship was left in the hands of The Phoenix’ editor, Sam Pfeifle.

I don’t know Pfeifle. I have my opinions of him based from my place of pitching occasional ideas to an editor. For whatever reason, he doesn’t think my writing measures up to The Phoenix’ post-modernistic, pregnant with the irony-style, so popular with their 20-something audience. Hey, it’s no biggy. I’ve figured it out with The Phoenix and I’m cool with that.

What has become a big deal, is that after writing a couple of well-recieved profiles on both Jose Ayerve and Spouse and Matt Newberg and the Hurricane, I had hoped that with the new situation at FACE, there would still be the occasional opportunity to write some music pieces, which I enjoyed and thought that my professionalism and knowledge of music made me a good fit to write. I also looked forward to writing about musicians who were more than just talented performers--they were also unique and interesting people, doing something beyond the usual self-indulgent and narcissistic gig that rock can become for some.

Pfiefle did inform me that the “new” FACE was going to be different and I should check it out to see what he meant. Well, I couldn’t find the new paper at all for January and I looked in all the usual places. I have always found it at Bullmoose locations, even in outlying towns like Lewiston. I don’t know if it went to press or not.

This past week, when I came into town on Monday night, lo and behold, I had the good fortune of finding the “new and improved” FACE and boy, was I in for a fucking surprise!

The cover had a couple of trendy rock-wannabes gracing the cover, kissing, with the caption, “In Love With Rock and Roll”. The guy, of the leather jacket and flannel shirt look, and the girl, the indie rock, “I’m so hip it hurts” type of chick, cigarette in hand.

When I opened it up, I realized what Pfiefle had meant about changes. Apparently, the inmates are now running the asylum because the style, reeking of amateurism, is vintage zine, as in, the kind you run off on copiers at the local library. Replete with hand written info and oh-so-clever masthead, the creators outdid themselves with this one.

While former FACE columnist Shane Kinney keeps a column (regular readers already know about his writing and possibly why he stayed on board), the other "new" writers thought it important to list helpful, descriptive info in their bios like, "A high-school slut, she's the only known person to have slept with all four members of New Kids on the Block", and another one writes, "She was fired from Disney World for sexual harassment". I am so impressed with your tongue-in-cheek cleverness. How about you tell us what you've done, or who you've written for that might be germane to why you're qualified to be a writer of a publication that others read? Oh, right, I didn't think so.

Needless to say, from the gang that are now running the show, to the writing style and article selection, Portland no longer has a representative music magazine any longer.

Personally, when I pick up a music paper, I want to read about bands with talent, written by writers who know their music, not articles about tampons and proper care of one’s vagina (I kid you not!). I’m no prude, but my music publication is about music, not lifestyle anarchism and DIY culture. Hey, I’m down with DIY, but of the musical variety, not the culture of slack and the posers who have co-opted the original concept. Other well-written and very informative features were the one where three folks, pictures and all, are asked "What's The Best CD To Listen To While Having Sex" and the "Identify the Urinal" contest was a hoot. There were actually a couple of music-related articles, one on Bright Eyes (written by Boston Phoenix staffer, Camille Dodero), Pfiefle recycles some stuff for another Ray LaMontagne article (the guy's good, but aren't there other singer/songwriters to profile in Maine?), and an all-too-brief piece on books about Johnny Cash. Sadly, I'm not able to link to the newest version of FACE, so you could see the damage firsthand, because since Woodfin's departure, no one's bothered to update the website.

I don’t have a problem with changing the focus of a paper or magazine. If Pfeifle, as editor, wanted to gradually segue over to a new look and editorial slant, possibly explaining himself as he went, that could have worked. Possibly, he could have kept on regular columnists like the Wisdom Weasel, who's wit and and historical grounding in the rock world made his columns a regular read for many. Of course, that would have required some effort on Pfeifle's part, so he basically has given it over to a couple of writers who aren't very talented.

If Pfeifle and the others have such a low opinion of the previous style of journalism and music writing that FACE represented, then do the honorable thing and change the name, since the current rag has no connection to its predecessor. Do everyone a favor who actually cared about the old paper and change the name to something else (I could think of a couple of more descriptive names, but I'll refrain from foisting them on my readers), just don’t call it FACE!

Oh, and just a wee bit more advice, advice that comes from personal experience. One of the keys to the success of free publications is getting it distributed, which means that sometimes, you have to load up the car and take a day and slog it around the state (just like Paul and others used to). Yeah, and have a bit more content worth reading, also.


ChefDunn said...

Jim, I actually read something recently about FACE that you may find interesting. Apparently, some employees from the Phoenix are doing the writing for FACE under assumed names. Some are actually writers and some are secretaries and other types. I can't remember where I read it. It was a couple of weeks ago while at lunch at the "unnamed" catalog retailer.

Jim said...

I’m sure that they (Pfeifle) “spun” it a particular way, as in, “gee, look at us—we’re going to let some of our office staff try their hands at running a paper.”

I personally wouldn't give a flip about the format change if there were other music pubs/options, or if I thought this was positive for the local music community. FACE really is the only publication of its kind. I hate to see it go the way of other free pubs, but unless they tighten up the product, I'm afraid that's what will happen.

I’m also curious why Pfeifle, who seems like he cares about the local scene and has been supportive of it, would want to put his paper in the hands of some folks that I don’t have any respect for at all. I know one of the writers from a previous free publication. I’m being kind when I say, “she did not impress me.”

I wish I had the time (and of course, the capital) to produce a music mag, but my focus right now is the book.

Maybe at some point during the summer.

Anonymous said...

who cares?

asfo_del said...

Years ago, when I lived in Houston, I used to write art reviews for a local free weekly. The editor there was extremely easygoing. I would drop off a disk with my review on it, and she would run it. Period. The pay was only $25, so if there had been other hassles involved, like having to go to editorial meetings to run the review by her before I wrote it, it would not have been worth the extra time. When she left, the haughty publisher of the paper took over her responsibilities. Dealing with him was just too much trouble, so I stopped writing for the paper. He had the gall to say, of the former editor, "I can't figure out what it was she actually did here." Gee, she actually made it possible for writers to provide content for your paper?

weasel said...

I have hesitated to comment (despite your kind and over-generous comments about my bits for Face Classic) for fear of been seen as a peeved ex-contributor who is in mid-hissy about losing a gig. Still, I agree with you; Maine needs a venue for intelligent music and arts writing for codgers like you and aspirant codgers like me as much as it needs a desperate attempt to recreate a mid 90s publication from the Bay Area (I haven't seen the new Face, but I fear it has the whiff of "trying to hard to look like its not trying").

I'm in favor of some kind of on line effort. Maybe we can pull off some kind of "Space Cowboys" geezer fest online with the assistance of the kindly Woodfin (don't ask the writers to organize it; that smacks a little too much of collectives and Blue Hill hippies from away).

Jim said...

"Codger" and "geezer"! I'm deeply offended! LOL!!

Yeah, I guess in a world where youth and lack of experience is trumpeted (maybe because that lack of perspective is so easily manipulated by Madison Ave. hucksters?), being 40+ does make me "older" (and hopefully wiser), but a "codger"?

We could call the new publication Geezer and market it towards all the well-heeled yuppies in and around Portland, Camden, Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth--features on micro-brews, new restaurants, with profiles on the bands around town with actual talent.

We should continue to have some conversations around this topic and maybe hook up w/ Paul at some point.

BTW, asfo_del, why don't editors make it easier to write and provide them with content? Referring back to the "cult of youth", I find that most of the local dailies in my area have gone the route of hiring a slew of young "journalists" just out of school--could it be that they're easier to push around and dictate editorial policy to, rather than deal with crotchety "geezers" like me, who might actually investigate an issue and dig up some dirt on one of the cash cows in town?

weasel said...

Codgerism, at least to my mind, is a worthy aspiration as it implies hard won experience, and the right to indulge in the glorious pleasure of being grumpy at will. "Crusty" is another great moniker we should claim.

The cult of youth. Hummph. The young are untested, full of inane ideas, fail to vote in large enough numbers despite various tongues being wedged up their arses every four years, and of course are always aware that theory trumps hard won experience every time. It doesn't mean they shouldn't contribute to society and debate, but they should get no more deference than any other age group (many codgers are downright stupid and irritating too; cf Don Rumsfeld).

Skateboarding grannies should be rounded up and deported, as should any man over 65 who wears jeans and isn't a farmer. Maybe it's being English that does this to me.