David Edelstein on the Spirit of the Boston Phoenix

Photo: Photos: Corbis; The Boston Phoenix

The closing of the Boston Phoenix should hit me hard — it was my first professional gig as a film (and theater) critic, and I stayed nearly three years in the early eighties, before decamping for the Village Voice. I was thrilled every minute of my time there. No hyperbole: every minute. Naively or not, I felt it was everything I’d ever dreamed of in a place of work —loose, quirky, but with a sense of mission. A mandate to be smarter, more idiosyncratic, fearless. But I haven’t read it in years, even though it  continued to publish many gifted writers. I think I stopped because it didn’t seem “special” anymore, because alternative journalism doesn’t mean what it did back then. Most journalism — almost everything on the Internet — is “alternative.” We won, and the Phoenix, I guess, finally lost.

As Boston After Dark, it rode in on the counterculture, when the Times was the “Gray Lady” and the Boston Globe often viewed (perhaps unjustly) as a repository of conventional wisdom. You could write long in the Phoenix. You could write “fuck” in the Phoenix. You could make fun of the Globe and the Times. The enterprise, admittedly, was hardly pure. It had been taken over by a former writer named Stephen Mindich — at which point many of the original staff quit and set up a rival publication called The Real Paper. That story was colorfully fictionalized in Joan Micklin Silver’s film Between the Lines, which I saw in the theater three times while writing for the Harvard Crimson — then also imbued with a lefty-counterculture spirit and a lot of roguish individualists. I loved the onscreen cynicism of John Heard’s investigative reporter and the flakiness of Jeff Goldblum as the celebrity rock critic and the cast that included Lindsay Crouse, Jill Eikenberry, and Bruno Kirby.

But I didn’t get a job at The Real Paper. It was the Phoenix that was looking for a third-string theater critic and later a fourth-string film critic. I made $35 a review. I was in heaven.

The lowly freelancers had little contact with Mindich, who once told an editor who complimented his sweater that it “cost more than you make in a week.” Mindich also worked diligently and successfully to keep the writers from unionizing. There were rumors — never proven — that he helped drive The Real Paper out of business. But he let us all write what we wanted, for which I am still grateful.

There wasn’t a single hack at the Phoenix when I was there — no one who didn’t care deeply about his or her prose. My first editors, Carolyn Clay (theater) and Stephen Schiff (film) still rank among the best I’ve ever had. The Phoenix (and Real Paper) had been a place for critics like Janet Maslin and David Denby and Jon Landau to shine. Lloyd Schwartz was and is brilliant on classical music. Charlie Pierce — now a superlative political blogger for Esquire — was there, along with writers I deeply admire such as Gail Caldwell, Caroline Knapp, Laura Jacobs, Michael Sragow, Scott Rosenberg, Josh Kornbluth. I’m forgetting many others, but not my colleague on the film desk, Owen Gleiberman, who was among the most generous and convivial I’ve ever known. We’d go out and see movies and come back breathlessly to report. The people at the top of the masthead weren’t friendly, but we — or at least I — didn’t need them because the Phoenix let me find my own voice. I could try anything and see if it would fly. Ads — including Personals — paid for a lot of what we did, but for the most part the writers didn’t have to deal with that side. (For the most part: a rapacious theater-chain poobah now and then made his feelings known.) Although I write now for a mainstream magazine, I think I’m still an “alternative” journalist — largely thanks to the spirit of the Phoenix and the memory of people whose work I still cherish.

When a few years back the Voice was bought out by the New Times syndicate and began shedding long-time writers and editors it sent a message to the world. You couldn’t do what you wanted to do in “alternative” journalism anymore. You had to behave. Sure, it made for less self-indulgence (and shorter pieces). But it made — ironically — alternative journalism seem less alternative than blogs, in which writers could think of themselves as cult figures and often be correct rather than grandiose. Without that sense of danger — and at a time when readers don’t need Personals or listings in print form — the Boston Phoenix didn’t have a reason for being.

No, that’s wrong. Good writing and reporting is always its own reason for being. Its being just didn’t have the same urgency. It wasn’t what I remember — and no doubt romanticize: a beacon.

This post has been revised since first publication.

David Edelstein on the Spirit of the Phoenix