May 1991

One continues to remind himself that, circa 1991, Spy merely had larger type and fewer pages, but was not noticeably worse, though this month the magazine was perhaps too serious, too straight-up.

I dunno. Maybe that makes it worse after all.

Right at the outset, we note a weirdly dreamy and atmospheric double-truck ad for Z. Cavaricci (“I’d like to buy a vowel, Pat”), some kind of fashion outfit. A collage of two dozen stills from the (presumably) Italian countryside – an odd word, that: countryside – depicts cherries, blown kisses, old peasant men, sun-drenched barns, and lots and lots of jeans, in and out of artistically-posed gams. (I’m doing a Leslie Savan there, if you want the reference.)

Just how fashionable do you need to be when, during your tour of the Italian countryside, it is entirely apparent to everyone you meet that you aren’t from there in the first place?

Even odder is the tagline (“strapline,” as our dear British friends call it): “When your heart tells you what to wear.” It’s the ornate, pre-Remedy script face that I notice.

Meanwhile, do men even drink Grand Marnier? Heavy-in-the-loafers men, at least? “The legend continues with cream” declares the strapline of a full-pager that might be more suited to a textiles display. One male and two female hands, orchids, a bow, a straw hat, the top of a straw hamper, an ornate embroidered macramé blouse, and a jacket, shirt, and tie, and painted fingernails conduct a symphony in tiny variations of a colour palette running the gamut from beige to cream. Ah. Now the strapline makes sense.

Well, here’s a shocker: Paul Rudnick wrote a play entitled I Hate Hamlet, advertised in this issue of Spy with a full-pager that sensitively uses six or eight sizes of Futura. Poor Bill lies atop the play’s title, voodoo-doll-style, skewered with pins.

Rudnick is quite shockingly droll, even on TV talk shows. He somehow got Charlie Rose to laugh, for heaven’s sake. Now, what’s this play all about?

Historical footnote: The only castmember whose name rings a bell these many years on is Adam Arkin. (I guess we’d call Joe Pantoliano [“Joey Pants”] the poor man’s Adam Arkin were that saying not gender-specific and had Chris Rock not pointed out that the converse can and should also be said: Adam Arkin is the rich man’s Joe Pantoliano [“Joey Pants”]. Rock’s example had something to do with Skeet Ulrich, but I don’t know who the rich version of him is. Ulrich was great in The Newton Boys, though, while Vincent D’Onofrio stank.)

Right. Spy. Well, Rudnick wrote for Spy, too, and was even reviewed in these pages. I even used nearly the same headline.

In a classic case of making a mountain out of a graphical molehill, the untrained but estimable Tibor Kalman, who proved that you don’t need to be able to draw to design, has been lauded for his ultra-simplistic campaign for Restaurant Florent, said laudations appearing in posthumous articles and, if I recall correctly, the biographical book. Florent’s gimmicks were several: An early setting up shop in what was then the rather-untrendy meatpacking district, running 24/7, and, this month, offering Recession Prix Fix Dinners.

Now, was this advertisement another Kalmanist production? The plain-Jane gothic heds (I always blank on the names of those fonts, but Hoefler and Frere-Jones made a good bundle reviving them), the script subhed at page top, and of course the centre-column copy typeset in the IBM Selectric Script typeface, which, I am reminded now, was utterly fabulous. (That needs a retrospective.) The real Kalmanist giveaway is the slightly-letterspaced restaurant name and address.

Kalman loved to talk about his then-novel use of clip art (particularly a drawing of a pistol to represent the dicey meatpacking district), but the technique wears a tad thin here, as the notches of a tightened belt assemble a “recession timeline” listing ’91, ’81, ’74, ’69, and ’57, all rendered with ultraclassy neutral apostrophes.

Another era, another design, another satirical illustrated subsection. “Private Lives of Public Figures,” né “Private Lives of Public Enemies,” Drew Friedman’s photorealistic yet pointillistic caricatures of celebrities in “compromising situations,” is about due for a retrospective, if only on the Web. (Wait till I get around to the issue featuring Sofia Coppola. Yes, she was on the scene even back then.)

Anyway, now we’ve got a featurette entitled “Topsy-Turvy,” a kind of trompe-l’œil illustration of some notorious satire victim or other that, when flipped over, reveals yet another satire victim. Needless to say, there are a lot of conjoined-twin-esque meldings of jawbones, maxillæ, and noses. This month, it’s Willie Horton (“or will he not get elected?”) and Saddam Hussein. Frankly, it doesn’t work. Illustrator Steve Brodner (not mentioned in “Contributors”) should be in no rush to look forward to calls for a retrospective.

I suppose the early-’90s nouvelle formulation Spy is different in another way. As mentioned previously, we now have an actual “Contributors” column. I find those a tad self-aggrandizing. Anyway, writers are rarely anything much to look at (the slimmed-down Scott Raab a notable exception), and the best we can say about photographers and illustrators is that they at least know how to dress themselves, comb their hair, and shave. (Almost all pictured Spy contributors I have seen in these latter-day issues are men.)

I am aware that writer and shooter bios are old hat in the magazine business. But Spy was a single evolutionary step removed from Economist- or Private Eye–style byline anonymity. All you had were bylines, which are notoriously hard for readers to track. (I even miss them when recapping these old issues.)

Just a couple of points of interest.

By the time this appears in print, Gorbachev may have moved the tanks around his disintegrating empire in a vain attempt to salvage his “kingdom” – and journalists may again take up their trusty laptops to pooh-pooh the freedom fight of those risking their lives rather than vegetating under the horrors of Communism.

They had laptops back in 1991?

Actually, I know they did. I borrowed a Toshiba from my workplace circa 1989, and in fact had a couple of them. A Toshiba 640 (was that the model number?) had a squashed LCD display with shitty IBM CGA fonts, but a really, really great keyboard. It was a joy to run WordPerfect 5.1 on. More sexy but less actually useful was a Toshiba with a brilliant-orange plasma display, a technology that would require a mere 14 years to really catch on. (Now everybody knows what a “plasma” is. Everybody, including me, even calls them “plasmas.”)

So yeah. Laptops in 1991. Probably a bit sleeker than the Kaypro, which I also distinctly remember. (WordStar under CP/M: Easily the eighth circle of hell.)

Oh, how I want to be in that number. “From the Spy Mailroom” on the topic of the Spy redesign:

[O]ur many-months-in-the-making redesign of Spy is unveiled in the very issue you hold before you. This is also – coincidentally – our first issue with some new investors aboard. So, naturally, you’ll be looking to see whether we can still cut it. We’ll save you the effort: We can’t. If this issue seems less sharp, less irreverent, it’s because it is. We’re not sure what went wrong. It may simply be that the new, larger typeface (you did notice) threw us, that we’re essentially 10½-point writers and editors, and making the transition to 11-point is beyond our present abilities. (Certainly we have always felt that our jokes worked best in – and were indeed created specifically for – smaller-size type, and with a grey background. Half a point may not seem like much, but in dealing with the mail, it can be the difference between merciless skewering and benign acknowledgement.) [...] So here we are – it’s the talkies, and we’re the silent-movie stars of satirical magazines. [...]

Must we spell it out? We would never have spent the time and resources to answer some insane question about Bill Plante’s teeth in 10½-point type.

Yeah, but the entire “Letters to Spy”/“From the Spy Mailroom” has been rationalized, the fun drained out of it. Not only is the type bigger on the output, now they want type on the input: “Spy welcomes letters from its readers.... Typewritten letters are preferred.”

So, what, people are hand-scrawling letters to Spy? And the next best thing is typewriting? Isn’t that what we’ve got trusty laptops for – connected, preferably, to “letter-quality” printers?

I know we were ever so much younger then, but what were we thinking as we even bothered to watch The Arsenio Hall Show?

Apart from getting a lot of black people on the air, which is fine by any standard, we do recall his setting up Earvin “Magic” Johnson for a smug denial of homosexualism that, with the resulting audience barking and elliptical air-punching, quickly turned ugly. It’s another case of failing to ask the right question. It was easier to try to queer him up, then let him demolish not only the innuendo but the entire notion that seven-foot-tall black athletes could ever be gay, than it was to ask “How’d you get it?” (Needles, presumably.)

“The Clap, and How to Get It” is not the title of a song by R.E.M. but is a cute tabular graphical presentation by Peter Carlin and Adam Platt (and illustrators) “measuring the duration of each burst of applause, [through which] one can discover America’s true feelings.”


4.14 seconds* [*Applause was accompanied by barking]
Arsenio says Barbra Streisand is a bitch
Arsenio tells Ryan O’Neal he covets Farrah Fawcett
Arsenio says men with back hair shouldn’t wear tank tops
Arsenio observes that you’d never catch a black person singing show tunes
Schwarzenegger silences audience with whistle

Measuring Arsenio Hall applause in seconds: So 1991. Measuring Arsenio Hall’s obscurity in decades: So 2003.

David Bourgeois (a good New Brunswick name): “If you’re like most people, your dream job is that of a rock critic for a major publication. You get to receive free records, wear a Walkman in the office, and produce prose that need be only vaguely comprehensible.”

You wish.

I am a former freelance music writer for various inconsequential publications. Yes, you get free shit, but the labels inundate you with free shit you don’t want and nickel-and-dime you on what you do want; it’s an intrinsically wasteful system. More importantly, writing about music really is about as easy as dancing about architecture. There is no more difficult task I have ever attempted in a decade as a freelance journalist. Most of the time, what I wrote was barely passable at best. Nonetheless, you could at least understand it.

And on that score, I know where Bourgeois is coming from. I hate the clubby, hermetic pseudodialect the New York rock critics onanistically nurture. Hence, Spy’s “Rock-Critic-o-Matic” (hyphens sic) rings hideously true even a dozen years later. Choose from the following edited selections:

In their first album since their eponymous effort of last year, [band name here],
without a doubt one of the
  • best
  • worst
  • heaviest
  • least-well-aged
  • most influential
  • most rubber-bellied
  • art-funk
  • speedmetal
  • folk-rock
  • post-punk
  • indie-label
  • acid-rock
  • glam-rock
  • [disco-thrash]
groups of the
  • 1990s,
  • 1980s,
  • 1970s,
  • 1960s,
  • 1940s,
return with their latest release, [title here].
Filled with
  • self-absorbed
  • hip-hop-ized Parliafunkadelicment
  • culturally purposeful
  • undanceable, rhythmatic
  • nice [!]
  • Latin pop
  • Trinidadian soca,
  • songs,
the album screams
  • kitschy, crude New York racket
  • black-clad zimmerdweeb
  • post-punk/post-disco art-school pop
with its use of
  • high-pitched whine.
  • insistent double-bass undertow.
  • fuse-blowing amps.
Influenced by
  • Phil Spector,
  • Tommy James and the Shondells,
  • the polyrhythms
  • the snaking bass lines
  • the napalmin’ search-and-slaughter guitars
gorgeous electronic textures
finally explode into a shower of
  • FM-friendly pop.
  • insufferable self-amusement.
  • icy synth textures.

“As you can see, producing criticism that is virtually indistinguishable from that found in Rolling Stone, Spin, or the Village Voice is now as easy as connecting one-two-three!”

Adam Greenfield, this means you.

But back again to the serious, unsatiric nature of this issue.

  1. Michael Hainey’s “The Gazpacho Gestapo” promises to shed light on the festering totalitarianism not merely creeping but growing rampantly and in plain view under the auspices of LAPD chief Daryl Gates. How can you make this topic boring? It’s like blowing the cover off a Mafia don. It’s intrinsically interesting... except here. “ ‘You can never get hard proof,’ says an insider, ‘but everyone knows that Gates has “Hoover” smear files on every politician in this city.... [S]ome embarrassing photos [might] mysteriously find their way to the papers. [...] Gates still commands a lot of loyalty among people from the same sorts of low-budget Pasadenas that nurtured him. At the same time, the rich, powerful Hollywood liberal community has other fish to fry – mostly in the rain forests of Brazil, it would seem.” Listen, William Gibson put more juice into a single concept in Virtual Light – the LAPD puts up its own spy satellite! – than eight pages manage here. Loved the production stills from L.A.-based cop shows, though (Police Woman!).
  2. Former diplomat Fred Shaver recounts his time as “senior [U.S.] diplomatic aide” to Gabon. President El Hadj Omar Bongo, standing 4′10″ in elevator disco-boots, was somewhat free with the liquor and a had a wandering paw. The whole article seems to act as though a president named Bongo is so inherently sidesplitting it can carry an entire memoir. It can’t.
  3. John Brodie (good solid Spy byline of yore) documents the behind-the-red-curtain influence of architect Philip Johnson, who knows everybody and convenes his own monthly or bimonthly Star Chamber at the Century Club, where a dozen male architects congregate to nurture themselves under the august gaze of their mentor. Funny how he barely ever designs a building. The piece is stolid, fact-dense, serviceable, unfun. Sidebar “The Empire’s New Clothes” shows the Empire State Building as Johnson designed it in 1931, as he would have done in 1981 and 1991, and as redrawn by Meier, Gehry, Graves, Eiesenman, and Stern. I remember something about Spy’s covering postmodernism, claiming any workaday object (“tackle box... Hyundai”) could be rendered postmodern by adding a pyramid to it.
  4. Mark Lasswell’s “The Lost Tycoons” attempts to explain how incompetent Hollywood executives could run into the ground a studio (Orion) with a couple of hits and Woody Allen in its stable. Well, failure isn’t always interesting, you know.

Spy High was apparently a companion book they published. Gonna have to look for that one, baby. Here, “Spy High” is “A Special Bonus Excerpt.” Screamingly scabrous reuse of stock photos.

I’ll add more if I get scans of the pages, but some of the gags don’t even need illustration.

Blake Bailey gets the saliva flowing in “Dream-House Confidential: The Renovatin’ PerelmansThey’re Ba-a-ack!

“Luckily,” said [contractor Jim] Peeples, “we had documentation” – which must have proved that such unique features as a $130,000 network of stereo, whirlpool, and security-system wiring as well as a vast tonnage of air-conditioning units and swanky Crema Marfil stonework had indeed been ordered, installed, and then perhaps reordered and reinstalled, and so on to blurry eternity. Somehow, it is all so fitting: The fearsome Perelmans, scourges of contractors, felled by that humblest of instruments, the initialed change order.

Oh, and no “Party Poop.” At all.

These new owners need to get their eyes tested. And they need to get a life.

You are here: fawny.orgTen Years Ago in SPYArchives → May 1991

Posted: 2003.12.09 ¶ Updated: 2004.05.09

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