The abrupt shuttering of the Boston Phoenix earlier this month left HUP Executive Editor for the Humanities Lindsay Waters reflecting on the many great writers he came to know during the paper’s glory days. One in particular whom Waters remembers discovering in the Phoenix is Howard Hampton, a collection of whose writings we published in 2007 as Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses. “I was hungry for what Howard might be writing in the Phoenix,” Waters says, “because it was in the pages of the Phoenix, the Twin Cities’ City Pages, the old Voice, and the LA Weekly that the spirit of combative aesthetic critical writing had migrated once a repressive super-professional industrial strength writing had killed most criticism in the academy. What I loved persisted in the writings of Frank Kermode and Tony Tanner and Greil Marcus and Bob Christgau and Pauline Kael, whom I had the great and stinging pleasure of visiting with Howard in 1999 at her home in Great Barrington, Mass. It took me some time to get Howard to pull his writings together, but when we did it made for a book that is a real doozie, one of the ones I love the most.”
Below, Howard Hampton himself looks back on his formative early days writing for the Phoenix.
I have always been partial to the title of an early Graham Greene novel (later a film): England Made Me. That’s how I felt about a certain recently deceased alternative newspaper—The Boston Phoenix made me.
In January 1982, I received a manila envelope containing a few copies of the weekly’s Arts Section along with a short invitation from their Music (soon to be Arts) Editor Kit Rachlis. By then, his music section (along with Robert Christgau’s at the Village Voice) had displaced Rolling Stone and Creem as the major leagues of rock criticism. I was an unemployed college dropout who had never written a word professionally, but Greil Marcus had forwarded Rachlis a long, opinionated, obsessive letter of mine. Intrigued, he invited me to join the ongoing conversation amongst the twenty-odd writers who covered music for the paper.
Joyce Millman has written a lovely evocation of that era at the Phoenix. What I remember most vividly was the process of getting a piece into shape. Kit was a superb and utterly meticulous editor: we went over every piece line by line on the phone (I live on the other side of the country), and the writer had to be able to justify every comma, every claim, every flight of fancy/nonsense. It was sobering and bracing—Kit gave you a sense your writing mattered, but that to do anything less than full justice to the record at hand was to betray not only the music you loved but yourself as well.
My first feature assignment was a review of Laurie Anderson’s debut album Big Science. Kit pronounced the piece dead on arrival and went through it like a patient coroner, taking me through every lifeless abstraction and stiff locution. I whined one passage was perfectly valid in the stuck-up vein of a now-forgotten mid-level scribe at the Voice; “You’re better than him,” he shot back, and that was that.
I rewrote the review, and as I was doing so, the landscape shifted as well: Lester Bangs died and Greil Marcus published “The Long Walk of the Situationist International.” (If memory serves, the Bangs obits and the Voice Literary Supplement with “Walk” were bundled in the same issue.) I wrote (or at least felt) like Dorothy abandoned in Alphaville, or Lemmy Caution stranded in Oz. (I guess that made Laurie Anderson… Anna Karina.) The piece established a beachhead for me. The Phoenix offered the opportunity to write about everyone from John Berger to Cyndi Lauper—there was a lot of open space there. I bonded with the wonderful Phoenix critic Mark Moses over our boundless love for Tapper Zukie’s Man Ah Warrior and our disdain for the gas-baggage that increasingly attached itself to music like barnacles on the Titanic.
Mark’s death in 1989 was, to my mind, the end of the paper: music editor Milo Miles (Kit’s excellent successor) had been sacked, and it was left to his unctuous replacement to eulogize Mark, a writer whose values (and compatriots) he swept away with the vacuous impunity of a robotic broom. Later, the regime changed again and the paper rebounded, but it never mattered to me; what was done was done. The Phoenix had nurtured the rock dreams of a bygone era: such stuff as Ray Davies and Alex Chilton songs were made of.