It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the freakin' weirdest of times. They were fun times and they were stressful times. It was two decades ago, and we were starting this strange little newspaper called the Memphis Flyer. I was the first editor and in my 20s (for a very short time) and weighed about 50 pounds less than I do now. We didn't have e-mail, the World Wide Web, spell-check, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, or even cell phones, but, by damn, we could — and did — smoke at our desks, and sometimes it was more than mere tobacco. We were out to change the world or, at least, Memphis. All two-and-a-half of us on the editorial staff who were putting the paper out each week. And we were nuts. Not as nuts, though, as many of the people who took to our little paper and thought that they had finally found the Holy Grail of alternative news reporting and opinion. But more about that later.
For this special 20th anniversary issue, I just dug out my big bound book that includes the issues from the Flyer's first year and thumbed through it all. Well, almost all. There's one cover story missing: the one that got me sued for $75 million. I guess that one had to be ripped out of all existing issues. Yes, $75 million! One of the finer moments in my career, even though I didn't write the story. I won't mention here who or what it was about, just in case I'm still under some sort of gag order.
Actually, after going through that first year of issues, it looks like maybe I should have been under a gag order then, based solely on the video (yeah, movies on VHS) reviews I wrote in the column "One Night Stands." While the co-author of the column, Ed Weathers (one of the smartest people I've ever known and the executive editor at the time), reviewed really engrossing foreign films and movies of social importance, I managed to review every movie ever made by John Waters, Andy Warhol, Tennessee Williams, and every other creator of camp who ever made it to the silver screen — anything involving sex changes, drugs, suffocating in sinks of spaghetti, babies being thrown out of windows, legs getting cut off; anything that starred Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, or Elizabeth Taylor or any other manner of absurdity. I was not going to pass on the chance to officially write about these films. So why did women keep asking me out?
But we did some serious stuff, too. The first issue had a photo on the front cover with the words "THE CIRCLE OF POISON!" It was about a chemical company in Memphis making dangerous pesticides that it was peddling to the "Third World." We were so awesome. The table of contents in that first issue had a great photo of Rufus Thomas on it and a review of one of his records inside. We were so cool. We used words like "verisimilitude." We were so smart. And we covered art. We even covered performance art. It was, after all, the 1980s, and we were so hip. The best performance art we covered was probably our own first "fashion guide," in which the models' hair was bigger than the paper's delivery trucks and several women sported high heels with socks rolled down at the top. I pray that look doesn't make a comeback.
Before the first issue of the Flyer ever hit the streets, we had people calling us to tell us what we were doing wrong. I kid you not. And then the aforementioned crowd of eccentrics who had taken to the paper began ringing our phones off the hook and showing up at the office to voice their opinions. Of course, their opinions had little to do with the actual paper. They were people who had been wronged by society and thought we should help make it right for them. I came back from lunch one day and there was a very sweet young man sitting at my desk talking to the FBI on the telephone, revealing new proof about who really assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King. If I wasn't going to write his story, he was surely going to get it out there somehow. (I think he's okay now, and it really wasn't his father who did it.) The letters and calls from prison were especially interesting, but not quite as much as the visits by the inmates once they were released. Kind of scary, but there was no stopping us. I did have to have my home phone number (remember land lines?) unlisted, but that was more to fend off our own columnists, who didn't like their prose edited and called at night to curse me. You know who you are. You can't have my cell-phone number to this day.
And we did have some interesting columnists. Does anyone remember the Cinema Sisters, who, in theory, were reviewing movies but instead wrote a couple of sentences about the flick and devoted the rest of their space to comment on what people in the theater lobby were wearing? LOVED them. The best part was how our freelance writers turned in their columns. As I mentioned, we didn't have e-mail, so they either brought them to me (sometimes handwritten) or I had to go to their houses at night, pick them up, and then type them in myself on what might have been the world's first mass-manufactured computer. And then some people just mailed in unsolicited works of journalism, like the elderly man who sent me an essay on the "persecution of small penises," which he wrote in his sister's closet.
For those of you who are too young to remember the early days of the Flyer and spend all of your time FB'ing your BFF's all day, I hope you appreciate those of us who had to walk miles in the snow to get to work to get this paper out. We were gnarly dudes and chicks with passion and journalistic pizzazz. For the most part, we haven't changed all that much.