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Wax Rhapsodic

Circus magazine: What do you fear most?

Alice Cooper: I fear Budweiser beer will go on strike.

A few years ago, my family home was sold. Emptying out one’s old bedroom is surely one of the stranger, more unsettling rites of passage. The sadness of this ritual was mitigated somewhat by my anticipation of a treasure trove of vintage pop-culture detritus: albums, 8-tracks, 45s, posters, Mad magazines, and my extensive, clandestine stash of National Lampoons. Back in junior high and high school a great deal of my time—in lieu of studying—was spent pouring over issues of Rolling Stone and Creem. Most of them, I hoped, were still extant, squirreled away in some closet or corner of my room.

I did, in fact, retrieve many issues of Rolling Stone and Creem. What I didn’t expect to find was another extensive magazine collection, that of Circus.

I read Circus faithfully. It was easily available on every newsstand and had a substantial circulation with a sizable readership equal to that of any top-tier rock magazine. Circus was helmed by one man—Gerald Rothberg—during its entire publication history. It made its debut in 1966, covered all the musical news fit to print, eventually morphed into a heavy-metal magazine, and finally expired in 2006 after an astonishing forty-year run.

Circus, though, has been curiously overlooked. Despite its mass popularity and longevity, there has been no comprehensive history of Circus’s life and times.

The magazine’s regular interviews snared most of the era’s big names in music. Patti Smith wrote for Circus, as did her bandmate Lenny Kaye. Rock critic Kurt Loder was also a contributor, as was—somewhat incongruously—the late Lance Loud of An American Family fame. The roster of contributing writers included names familiar to anyone acquainted with rock journalism. A Circus reader could look forward to music reviews penned by the venomous, unfairly neglected Ed Naha, whose entire review of an album by the German rock group Can consisted of exactly one word: Can’t. And given the era’s printing constraints, the magazine was surprisingly lush, packed with high-quality color photography.

Rock ‘n roll was truly subterranean. It is almost impossible, from today’s vantage point, to convey this. Pre-Web, pre-YouTube, pre-cable, the music existed in a sphere utterly removed from mainstream media. It was not until the mid-1970s that the New York Times deigned to add rock coverage. The music existed—with the notable exception of Dick Cavett– in the nooks and crannies of television: basically banished from a prime time still dominated by the likes of Dean Martin and consigned to the late-night programming ghetto. When Lynyrd Skynyrd suffered their horrific plane crash in 1977, the redoubtable Walter Cronkite announced the bad news by completely mispronouncing the band’s name. A national wire service ran a story on the death of southern rock star Lynyrd Skynyrd, who had perished when his plane crashed, as if Lynyrd Skynyrd was an individual musician with an eccentric, possibly foreign, name.

Rock was relegated to the margins. Listening to this music was akin to belonging to a private club. What made this a unique paradox—also unimaginable today—was that this particular private club encompassed millions of people.

Circus was the epitome of that paradox: a mass-circulation, successful periodical completely ignored by cultural cognoscenti; a precise blur. And unencumbered by editorial self-consciousness, the magazine served as an under-the-radar chronicle.

Not surprisingly, a sizable percentage of text and images were devoted to the usual suspects: the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. But there was also a fascinating potpourri of artists firmly anchored in cult status: Sparks, Nektar, Humble Pie, Mott the Hoople. And Circus displayed an unexpectedly eclectic, wide-ranging scope, with print devoted to Robert Fripp, the New York Dolls, jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, British bluesman John Mayall, and Flo and Eddie.

There is much about the sixties, seventies, and eighties that are beyond parody. The pages of Circus certainly have their fill. A fairly typical ad was for a T-shirt exhorting any and all to “smoke Columbian” [sic]. The magazine ran dispatches informing the readership that Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman had been “outlining plans for a full-scale medieval pageant, complete with jousting knights and fair maidens, which he hopes will be held early next year in the green English countryside at…the mythical site of Arthur’s castle.”

Yet it would be  inaccurate to peg Circus as solely an exercise in lightweight kitsch. There were features on high-school violence, rock managers, and the lives of session guitarists. The magazine ran a substantive obituary of Groucho Marx.  Rush frontman Geddy Lee described his parents’ ordeal during the Holocaust. Circus had, for a time, a book-review section (including, oddly enough, a write-up on Henry James’s Washington Square).

Perusing the magazine today yields an endless stream of fascinating, evocative tidbits: John Lennon, facing possible deportation, works “frantically on his new album, trying to finish it before his final weeks in America” run out. Alice Cooper attends a party at the home of the (pre-Khomeini) Iranian ambassador. Jazz drummer Billy Cobham plays the first-ever set of drums made out of recycled paper.

The most striking example of Circus’s kitchen-sink editorial policy was therapist Vincent Bryan’s long-running “Into Your Head” advice column. Teenagers poured out their hearts and problems in letters that made for stark, heavy-duty reading. “Into Your Head” transcended simple teen angst, with expressions of suicidal feelings, of being an outcast, hopelessness, fears of incipient insanity, and unbearable loneliness running in every issue.

Circus hasn’t been given its proper measure of critical gravitas.  And that’s not entirely unreasonable. But the utter lack of analysis is more than a little puzzling. The music and topics Circus covered are a very accurate reading of the zeitgeist of young America. That alone is worth quite a bit.

Richard Klin’s writing has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, the Forward, Parabola, Moment, The Bloomsbury Review, online at January and Jewcy, and others. He lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley.

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