The Boston Phoenix Set Me Free

And now it's gone.
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"Consider yourself off the leash," he said. I was moaning about editors to my new editor, Lance Gould, in his office at the Boston Phoenix. Editors had been messing me around my whole life, I told him—neutering my style, rejecting my ideas, making me explain myself, fucking up my thing. Bloody editors... Gripe, grumble... I fumed and fidgeted in the crappy chair. And yet here he was, this kind man, this editor, regarding me with eyes of understanding and telling me that I was FREE. Was it a dream?

It feels rather dream-like today, now that the Phoenix is kaput. I received the news of the paper's closing, last week, the way I receive most bad news—which is to say, I barely received it at all. It bounced numbly off my heart. Doink! But now I'm thinking about it, and beginning to feel it.

I was a staff writer at the Phoenix for 18 months, 2007-2008. Free? I was practically feral. I wrote much too fast and much too frequently about whatever took my interest. Poems, weekly. A column about reality tv, also weekly. (My secret plan was to turn it into a column about bullriding. This never happened. But it could have.) In the name of the Phoenix I interviewed—how about this for a journalistic coup—a man who hadn't written a biography of GG Allin, the most horrible punk rock frontman ever; in the name of the Phoenix I accompanied a Wildlife Removal Specialist as he tore embedded raccoons from one suburban loft-space after another; in the name of Phoenix I went into a men's prison and watched a priest lead a group of convicts through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

And I loved my colleagues. The muse of the Phoenix, as I came to know her, hovered in the space between the groovy young buggers who were coming up and the old-school eminences who wouldn't quit. At this higher level, scholarship abounded. Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin Classics translator of The Mabinogion and ardent—in fact incandescent—Chelsea fan, rushed between cubicles like the White Rabbit, a hand to his forehead. He knew everything. Jon Garelick would lend his exquisite jazzman's ear to your prose, tell you where you'd gone out of tune. The great Clif Garboden sat hunched in his special managing-editor's alcove at the back of the third floor, with torrents of copy churning beneath his ironic eye: from time to time he would bark an oath at his computer, or exhale in a shuddering, Job-like manner. (I'm quoting here from something I wrote for the paper after his death. Hope you don't mind, Clif.) It was a uniquely supportive environment, an accidental ecology in which—if you were the least bit accidental yourself—you could thrive.

These days, whenever an assignment begins to cramp me up, I pretend I'm doing it for the Phoenix: instant relief.

My fellow staff writers were delightful. I marveled at the gumshoe tenacity of political reporter David Bernstein, and the fact that—on a diet of pizza, cigarettes, and noisy phonecalls—he somehow preserved the complexion of an athletic schoolgirl. I annoyed Sharon Steel by throwing bits of paper at her. I slipped out for surreptitious pints with Adam Reilly. Mike Miliard helped me, endlessly.

So I was free, and the paper was free. It was flung out onto the street for whoever wanted it, whoever happened to be passing—not for some technocrat in Peets, pecking out a URL. It was a loose transaction, and it kept you loose. Even the leaking sordor from the "Adult Services" section, I confess, I found helpful. Trash and fecundity are neighbors, after all. These days, whenever an assignment begins to cramp me up, I pretend I'm doing it for the Phoenix: instant relief.

All a dream, all a dream... I can see Pat D pushing around his enormous dustbin as if, rather than putting things into it, he might produce things from out of it—ingots or rayguns or shrunken heads. I can hear the hacking and rumbling of Killing Joke's Jaz Coleman, on the line from Prague, fantastically intoxicated: "I don't like human beings, I think they're parasites, they're fucking parasites." Eheu fugaces labuntur anni. About the industry, journalism, the Internet, the row of grinning skulls where all the good writers used to be, I have nothing useful to say: I share in what I assume to be the general state of dazed apprehension. Not so long ago, many things were possible for a lucky writer. As of last week—this is how it feels—they are a little less possible.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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