December 1987

One emerges from his pointless and unproductive hiatus to return to what worked before: “Investing” (that is, sinking) hours of effort each month into Ten Years Ago in Spy.

Just by coinkydink, the issue on the top of the pile is one I do not ever recall having read: October 1987, a full-on “Separated at Birth?” XXXtravaganza whose cover photo involves Tama Janowitz and Grandpa Munster. (Separated at Area? Separated at the Mudd Club?) Oddly, that feature article is of so little interest I won’t even excerpt it here.

In other news, it will be revealed that I have yet again lost eBay auctions for early Spy issues. We’re well past the “This is getting ridiculous” stage and well into “What kind of a fuckup are you?” stage. Still and all, as I gaze over at the current Spy cover, I reassure myself that at least I look better than Tama Jamowitz did 17 years ago. She was already 30 by then.

Advertising analysis

Design analysis

Alex Isley was, by this point, very near to perfecting the Spy æsthetic of recherché typography (mixing and matching eras and styles in display and body copy) and layouts that promote multiple “entry points,” as they are now derisively called.

But “very near to perfecting” leaves noticeable room. The proportions and gutters are not exactly right. Tables and sidebars have too much whitespace and are set at body-copy size, which is fractionally too large. Type is too often set against murky backgrounds. The red spot colour is too salmony-pink. The organization of the many-page “Separated at Birth?” feature makes it hard to tell what’s being compared to what (again with the proportions and gutters, also rules).

On the plus side, the copy-editing is as rigorous as we later came to expect.

Letters to Spy

For the following letters, I had to steel myself against a supremely disagreeable photograph of a carbuncled and wizened Anthony Quinn biting his own fingers in an advertisement for Interview on the facing page. I’m assuming it’s him, but he’s too ugly to fact-check. He looks like he was carved from a brittle, pockmarked material that combines the worst features of cauliflower and rice cakes.

‘Naked City’

A column whose sole raison d’être seemed to be the practice of building up, in a few short paragraphs, to deliver a dry and nasty punchline at the expense of some minor public figure, “Naked City” was never something I much felt like excerpting in this modest column.

Not this month. In fact, I have to cut back so that I won’t blatantly compromise Spy’s copyright.

What’s a Mummer?

Elsewhere in this issue, Ann Hodgman uninterestingly recounts the endless tours and third-rate restaurants that New York City tourists might undergo. Unlike a later Spy exposé, “The Ugly European,” the massive article told us little beyond the expected truism that real New Yorkers would never put up with that kind of tedium and dreck.

Meanwhile, “The Spy Trip Tip: Curse of the Mummers” talks about something or other called “[t]he annual New Year’s Day Mummers parade.” Apparently it has to do with Philadelphia. “Yes, mummery is always fun, but who needs to attend this cold, unsightly display, when instead you can visit the comparatively-vomit-free Mummers Museum?”

Who needs to do either – especially 17 years later?

And why do I keep visualizing Kermit the Frog throwing to the Mummenschanz on grainy PAL-transferred video?

What’s a memory play?

“December Datebook”:

An Auto-Erotic Misadventure, or A Memory Play Now & Then, a play by F.J. Hartland; at the Ward-Nasse Gallery, 178 Prince Street. With the world’s supply of unused titles getting dangerously low (thanks to people like Isaac Asimov), this playwright appropriates two. For a one-act play.

‘Football, football... Homoeroticism in... Oddball Canadian rules...’

A Spy tabular comparison of New York Giants players’ ghostwritten autobiographies includes Point of Attack: The Defense Strikes Back by Harry Carson (who?).

Strange but true
Terrified of being hospitalized in San Francisco: “I had a nightmare that I’d be attacked by gays.”

Don’t drop your soap, Harry.

Nine Years Ago in Spy

In this, the first full year of the magazine’s operation, Spy ran a single-column ad that listed upcoming stories, some of which are familiar now, others not. Selections:

Anyone remember Ralph Lipshitz?

A “Selling” column by Rachel Urquhart entitled “Polo, Anyone?” luxuriates in someone else’s conflict of interest:

Speaking of Esquire, wasn’t that [Ralph] Lauren on the magazine’s September cover...? “Ever since Ralph Lauren first told you to wear your blue jeans with a tie,” the introduction gushed, ”the world of mens’ fashion has been changed by choices.” And wasn’t that a swell fashion story in the very same issue of Esquire on polo? (The game, not the line of clothing. Or, perhaps more accurately, not the game but the clothes in which to dream of watching it being played.) [...] And weren’t those eight pages of Polo advertising in that very same September issue of Esquire really swell, too? It’s been more than a year since Lauren bought even a spread for his Polo line in Esquire, but it’s probably only a coincidence that he happened to choose that particular issue in which to do it. And finally, what better way to seal the whole beautiful mano a mano friendship than to feature Ralph Lauren in a full-page ad in the New York Times – for Esquire.

‘Party Poop’

...was, curiously, of no interest at all save for a photo of gargoylish Pat Buckley (who?).

Chapter 11

Am amusing researched piece – Spy made research amusing, it seems – on New York businesses that file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Caffè Roma
“In the event that salaries are not paid, the debtor has good reason to believe that many of the employees will immediately leave the debtor’s premises and not return to work,” [the owner] sagely pointed out. “Many of the employees rely on paychecks in order to meet their daily living expenses and to support themselves and their families.”
Sasson Jeans

...Like some other jeans firms, Sasson hit the skids when the denim craze waned in 1982. For chairman and Tunisian intimidator Paul Guez – once arrested for bugging his wife’s phone, once arrested for assaulting a Manhattan artist (both charges were dropped), once allegedly targeted for assassination by a mysterious associate – the Sasson Chapter 11 was just one more thing to do at the courthouse. [...]

  • Lawyer: How was Mr. Guez dressed?
  • Paralegal: Only in his trousers.
  • Lawyer: Pants buckled up and zipped?
  • Paralegal: No, they weren’t. [...] Mr. Guez was very argumentative the whole time. He was yelling that these were his “fuckin’ papers,” that none of what I needed was there. That if I found a single Sasson document he would cut his balls off.... Instead of paralegal he called me a paraplegic.
Playgirl magazine

When Spy asked Playgirl’s attorney what those various fields [“in which it was engaged”] were, he replied, “Uh, well, I’m going to have to speak to the firm about that.”

Curiously, many bankrupts owed money to Captain Post, a purveyor of pickles and horseradish.

‘It’s Yuppie Porn’

Yes, but is it postmodern?

Bruce Handy (who would later write the abovelinked article) tackles the insidious problem of espresso makers and home shredders head-on in this hard-hitting reportage (excerpted):

But we’ve got a few problems.

  1. The opening double-truck spread sets entire paragraphs in Commercial Script. Alex Isley, you’ve got a lot to answer for here.
  2. The story does not deal so much with porn (“publish the photo in a magazine... [and] you invest the original act of fellatio with a lurid power it might not otherwise have had.... That’s pornography – the objectification [sic] of bodies”) but with the objects themselves. Instead of calling pornography obscene, it calls the human body obscene, by implication.
  3. Like so many drive-by assaults on yuppies, a group that only came to existence when it was named (and I recall a Mother Jones story in which the woman who coined the term was called up to confirm that the group was a figment of her imagination when she did so), the piece is subtly anti-intellectual. It’s possible that well-designed goods are actually better than other types of goods, that they cost more, and that you need to be somewhat educated to tell the difference. (Indeed, only educated people can tell the difference.)
  4. Amusingly 17 years later, it treats cellphones and compact-disc players (and, via one photo, CD changers) as quasi-unattainable and decadent goods: “And God knows we’ve all felt those exquisite little pangs, that telltale, vaguely eroticized covetousness, when confronted with a compact-disc player.” Now my house alone has nine lasers in it, though I seem to be unusual in not owning a shoephone.

Nonetheless, the piece is replete with bons mots (excerpted):

How to Know It When You See It

  1. Will the simple fact of owning it make me feel morally superior, even though it’s not a book or a record?
  2. Does it do something that at one point in my life never occurred to me needed to be done?
  3. Is it imported?
  4. Is it imported from a northern European country or from northern Italy?
  5. Would Steve Jobs own it?
  6. Would David Byrne own it?
  7. Does it involve halogen?
  8. Would I look sharp if I used it and a cordless phone at the same time?
  9. Is there no chance that my parents would own it?
  10. If ten years ago I had time-traveled ten years into the future and seen myself buying it now, would I have been embarrassed?
  11. Do I want it because – oh, I don’t know, because I just want to go for it?
  12. Is it both advertised and mocked in Spy?

Handy’s conclusion?

Anywhere upscale surface flash is an end in itself, there’s yuppie porn: American Gigolo and Power and RoboCop are yuppie-porn movies;

No, they are not. The first is an exposition of a vacant personality playing dress-up; the last is an all-out satire. (“I’d buy that for a dollar!) Now, Power? What is that?

To continue:

New York Woman and L.A. Style are yuppie-porn magazines; Vintage Contemporaries are yuppie-porn books; Gary Hart and Joe Biden [who?] were yuppie-porn candidates; surrogate motherhood and liposuction are yuppie-porn biology; this is yuppie-porn thought.

You are here: fawny.orgTen Years Ago in SPYArchives → December 1987

Posted: 2004.12.13

See also: Interview with Alex Isley, former SPY art director