Thursday, August 17, 2006

It's, It's The Ballroom Blitz: Intro the First: Deep Background

Careful readers (hah) of this blog now know what I did with my summers during the late '80s. So now I'm setting myself up to deliver a treatment of what I did during the school years.

I was an honors student, graduated Magna Cum Laude, and got a bunch of academic awards that I don't think I even saved, but that's the last time I'm going to mention studies, because they were highly secondary to my main occupation in college: Outlaw Media Mogul.

OK, maybe I have to mention studies once more, briefly, to make sense of that. I double-majored in print journalism and international relations. The latter was my real major; the former I threw in because ... well, there aren't many Political Science shops in my neighborhood to work for.

It's hard to get rich as a newspaper reporter, too. But I was a newspaper junkie from early childhood, and I had been writing for publication off and on since I was 15, so it was a pretty natural choice, and I tend to make the lazy choices in life, coach.

My first paying job was writing a "chicken dinner" type column for my hometown newspaper, which I did for about two and a half years during high school. A "chicken dinner" column is more or less what the nickname suggests -- ultralocal stuff. Church suppers, junior high basketball results, birthday announcements, civic booster stuff. But they would pretty much print anything I wrote -- and paid me 30 cents a column inch for it. Not that I tested them much, but I did write a few personal and probably narcissistic columns about weird stuff that happened to me and my family -- like stumbling into an FBI bust of a crooked beef racket (transporting under-grade beef -- due to cancerous tumors in the meat and the like -- across state lines from Pennsylvania to Maryland) and enjoying the experience of looking at a bunch of cops with big shotguns making the decision whether to shoot first and ask questions later, or maybe instead let the nice nuclear family from Illinois just pick up that black and white portable TV from crazy Uncle Dave's apartment over the butcher shop and leave in peace, because the family's Number One Son can't get through a week in the mountains without television. ("Screw you, coppers! I want to watch Letterman!") So, in a way, it was kind of like an early blog experience. Hell, if you had a blog -- or a chicken-dinner news column -- you'd probably write about that, too.

I've always had one problem fitting in when it comes to the newspaper biz, though. Put diplomatically, the problem was this: That profession is full of idiots, jerks, and dullards. There's no bias in American media, I'm telling you -- unless stupidity and hopeless squarenosity is a form of bias. Well, I tried to be diplomatic. Believe me, I could have said worse.

An exception to this basic truth -- and the one that hooked me on mass media foolishness -- was my experience in the spring semester of 1987 -- the year I spent at College of Lake County for two reasons that made sense at the time: my freshman year at Northern Illinois was a drag; and I wanted to stay in Lake County so I could stay shacked up with The (academically disinclined) Stickler in my parents' basement. Anyway ... that semester I was the News Editor of the campus weekly -- which was, to be frank, a piece of shit, although I had fun with it, and I think I did some decent reporting. Except for the time that I tried to cover a Board of Trustees meeting with the Editor in Chief, Tony, after we'd smoked a big hunk of hash in the paper's office (which was housed in a small trailer on the outskirts of campus) and we kept busting up laughing so hard that we had to leave ... after about 20 minutes.

That was a wild bunch, the staff of the CLC Chronicle. None of them had professional aspirations -- which is what probably made it fun. Luckily, we only had to put out about 8 tabloid pages a week, so there was plenty of time for underage drinking, petty vandalism, and even pettier feuds with the dorky uptight student government and their Dean Wormer-like staff adviser. I pissed them off the most when I decided to completely ignore the student council election that year -- although they did prevail upon Tony to slap a lame box graphic on page 1 with the candidates' names at the last minute.

I did some actual news reporting, too -- just not irrelevant bullshit like student council crap. The best piece I did was a two-part, lengthy piece about ecological misdeeds and political shenanigans by a nearby landfill that was trying to ramrod a permit through the county board allowing them to expand against the will of most of its neighbors.

Anyway, I went back to NIU the next year, along with The Stickler, and I immediately joined the student paper there. I had a pretty lackluster career in which I wrote zero stories and was on the staff for about three days. The contrast was just too much to take. During my first year at NIU, the student paper there did a really hard-hitting, meticulous expose of financial crimes by the university president (the details of which escape me now), which brought about his ouster. When I joined the paper, I was all revved up for war ... but instead I found a building full of bland and scrubbed little young Republicans, full of ambition to "give Reagan a fair shake in the media" and other twatty horseshit.

The difference between the CLC student paper and the NIU student paper was like the difference between Delta House and Omega House. (In nerdy journalism terms, that is.)

So I quit ... or was I fired? I think it was mutual. I said some pretty nasty things to the editor and managing editor that pretty much burned the bridge, although I don't remember what they were. At any rate, that paper, its building, and its staff were enemy territory from then on.

Trouble was, I still sat through half my classes with these assholes. For a while, it was a one-way hate-stream, though, because nobody knew me from Ratso Rizzo ... until I started publishing my own paper.

The story of The Public Address System (nee MUSH!) deserves (and would require) its own obsessive memoir, but it factors heavily into the saga of The Ballroom Blitz, so I think I've gotta set it up right. But flashing past a lot of details, during the last two years of my five-year college burgoo, I was pretty well known and disliked among my journalism student colleagues as a Crazy, Irresponsible, and Possibly Dangerous radical weirdo. Which was just what I set out to accomplish.

The Public Address System. The basic facts: A small rotating group (de facto editor and publisher, yours truly, under the pseudonym "Mr. Newspaper"; de facto business manager, advertising director, layout editor, photographer, and all-around good sport, The Stickler; and de facto art director and cartoonist, Kurt "Kirby" Kiesel were the most consistent staff members) published a handful of 8-page issues of a tabloid rag (print run of 5,000). We didn't have a computer or any budget for any equipment at all. I typed every word we published into little columns and rubber cemented them onto pasteboard sheets. We took headlines to Kinko's to blow up to size, and pasted them down. We were about 75% satire and 25% news. It was a hell of a lot of work -- laying out an issue took two all-nighters, all-dayers in a row, and then we'd drive the masters to a very good-natured printing plant in Naperville, get up the next morning at 5, and guerrilla-dump copies in every building on campus. Then catch a few hours of sleep and get ready for the fallout. It was, in short, the most fun I have ever had in my life.

Aside from the labor and a chronic shortage of good material, the biggest problem was money. And that's where the Hustling came in. Which might have been the most fun of all. I didn't care for selling ads -- I had nothing against it, but I couldn't handle the Jackie Gleason "hat in hand" routine of asking a business to part with $20 or $50 for some farkakta pretend newspaper bullshit. We sold a few ads, thanks to The Stickler and Kurt, which helped, but that only accounted for a fraction of the cost of printing.

The way we paid for the paper was by promoting rock shows in the basement of the campus Wesley Foundation. The Wesley Foundation basement was actually a pretty vital venue at that time. The Smashing Pumpkins played there, and Jesus Lizard, and The Didjits. Those shows were sponsored by a couple of dudes named Dan Grzeca and Greg Dunlap, who were putting out a rock zine called THIS. It occurred to me that if Dan and Greg could finance their mag that way, so could we.

Only Dan and Greg were mostly interested in hobnobbing with the Chicago punk boys, whereas I wanted to publish a newspaper. So my focus was on maximizing profits. First of all, we'd only get bands that would play for free. This eliminated anybody with a name, but there were zillions of desperate bands out there, and local high school kids were desperate for entertainment. Second thing, the band would have to use their own amps as a sound system -- no dropping $150 on a P.A. (No pun intended. We did break this rule once or twice, and we probably even paid one or two of the bands a few bucks when it was necessary.) Third, no guest list. None. No girlfriends, no "plus ones," nothing. I was ruthless about that. I have never been so ruthless about money, before or since. I was homing in on damn near 100% profit, and nothing was gonna stand in my way.

It was a successful strategy. At least, we got the cash we needed to pay the printer. The shows also served as pretty huge promotional events in themselves, and were ... well, not dull or boring at all, as far as insane harrowing adventures go.

The story of The Ballroom Blitz is about what was going to be the biggest, best, kickingest assingnest Public Address System show of them all. We were building up a head of steam as a newspaper, accumulating readers, getting a lot of encouragement. And we had Our Man in Hoboken, Otis Ball, coming back to town on his first Midwest tour after being signed by a label that he'd probably prefer I leave nameless.

Otis had headlined our very first benefit, for our first issue, which was actually a sort of predecessor under the name of MUSH! (I came up with the name, I'm sorry to admit -- it played on the fact that the NIU sports teams are called "The Huskies" -- as in, "Mush, you Huskies!"), which was a whole nuther story. Let's just say that Otis played the first newspaper benefit show at the Wesley. I bet he doesn't even remember.

Also on that bill was June Bug Massacre (for you documentary completists out there) and somebody else I can't recall, a woman folksinger.

That show went okay, although it was really more of a learning experience than a successful fund-raiser. A foot wetter. An introduction to the art of crowd control, collection of admission fees, and cleaning up afterwards.

I have an anecdote about that last item, and then we'll call this monster a blog post. After that show, I was stacking chairs and picking up cigarette butts and beer cans along with six or seven others, and generally winding down. Somehow I got cornered by this goofball bus driver and gay activist guy, Jim Mc_______, who was in the mood to chat. Jim Mc_______ was a piece of work ... he eventually was fired from his bus driver gig for waving coat hangers around while driving the bus and delivering monologues about how abortion would not be a problem if the genders would just fuck among their own.

"I'm a bisexual," Jim Mc_______ announced.

"Oh," I said. "I guess that does double your chances."

"Yeah," he said. "You know, I don't get people who are exclusively straight or gay. I mean, they're all just hung up on genitals."

"But that's where all the nerve endings are," I said.

That got rid of him.


one o ball said...

Jim McFabris?

And so it begins again.

Anonymous said...

All fuckin' lies.

Anonymous said...

Not so fast, pal! What years were you at CLC / NIU, eh?

(I mean, come on; you said Building 1 [Building 1, ya, 1] and then you said Smashing Pumokins - all in the same blog!)

And if you are going to SAY Dean Wormer, just SAY Ed Snyder - he was Dick to me, too!

Stronger Than Dirt Pete Moss said...

Yes, Ed Snyder ... double secret probation, indeed.

I was at NIU in 1985-86 and then spent a year at CLC from 1986-87, before returning to NIU until 1990.

When were you there?

Maybe I'll have to dredge up some old CLC Chronicle tales for this space. Might have to change some names to protect the guilty, however. Heh heh.