People who care about magazines know that the odds are stacked against them. To love magazines is to be always aware of the bottom of the recycling bin — to accept that your grand contribution to arts and letters will someday end up as pulp or packing material, or the basis of some kid’s collage art, and to know that that is just the natural order.
Here at Memphis magazine, after 40 years in the trenches, we feel lucky for our time on newsstands and in mailboxes around the city. But we never forget that our longevity is an anomaly in an industry whose products may be designed to last forever, but rarely do.
There’s nothing like browsing through an archive of lost periodicals to give a magazine junkie a weird kind of high. Magazine back issues are unique sources of local history because they earmark the kind of cultural ephemera deemed too low-brow for books and too extraneous for print dailies. Where else can you find snarky reviews of mid-nineties TV shows written by college students than a publication like Whut! Magazine? Or delve into a full-color examination of the great Mid-Southern homes of the 1960s, if it wasn’t for the Delta Review?
We examined a random cross-section of the good and the bad of dissolved periodicals as an exercise both in memory and in caution. We know it is bad form to speak ill of the dead, especially if the deceased in question are failed print magazines and you happen to be a magazine writer in a period of time frequently decried as the end of print journalism. But we did it because — however we might make fun of them — we love old magazines.
The eight magazines posthumously reviewed here are only a small sample of the monthlies and quarterlies that have, at one time or another, populated Memphis newsstands: among them, magazines for teens, for women, for the rich, for the literary, for people in bars, for musicians, for indie musicians, for black students, for Midtowners, for people who love weekends, for artists, for writers, for homeowners and home-owning hopefuls … the list goes on. We only hope we will, too.
Skirt! was a Memphis and DeSoto County monthly that published exclusively essays by women writers, both locally and nationally sourced. It intended to be “all about women ... their work, play, families, creativity, style, health and wealth, bodies and souls,” but at face value the tabloid is all curly fonts and clipart margarita glasses. Somewhere between the bath-candle-endorsed, boutique grrrlpower of the early aughts and the corporate feminism of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, the art direction of Skirt! finds itself: colorfully inscribed and bubbly, (to borrow from text on the issue’s cover) “a stargazer lily with sky-high dreams.”
We live in a golden age for the exclamation point. American English, already shot through with saleable booster-isms like “really,” “very,” “great,” “wow,” and “super,” is primed for our heavy-handed use of the exclamation point. Even utilitarian nouns like “skirt” (formerly a clothing item without leg-dividing fabric parts) can become “Skirt!” (which I think translates roughly to “Holy Skirt, Batman! It’s Ladies!”) and go on to title a Mid-Southern periodical.
Editorially, we get slightly more grit. The issue kicks off with an essay by a waitress/editor about a helpful friendship she developed with a coworker. It then segues into a piece called “Citizen Mom” about a new mother who took a war zone reporting gig, written by a Peabody Award-winning journalist named Kim Lute. There is also a section called “Women to Watch” that highlights successful professionals, an essay on the community of folk concerts, a shopping guide, a book guide, a travel guide, and an inspirational comic. Closing the magazine is a featurette called “Skirt!alerts” that flags human-rights stories from around the world. If the personal essays in Skirt! can be a little windswept, well, most reporting is on the dour side. Perhaps it’s ipso-facto.
Grade: C+ for too many fonts
In October 1996, the arts and culture journal EYE Magazine ran as its cover story a fashion spread dubbed “Vampire Fashion,” and for this we have to give it its due. The vampiric stylings are presented snapshot-style in an eight-page spread, accompanied by little epistolary descriptions such as, “October 3 — My name is Cloe. I am over 200 years old. I was brought over in Paris, now Ripley and I hunt here.” The models, who, to their credit, manage to look mostly serious and dead, are decked out in darker selections from the high-end boutique James Davis. One photo credit reads: “Castle courtesy of Prince Mongo.” The takeaway here: In the mid-nineties, it was sexy to be a vampire, even achievable, so long as you had a loaner castle from Prince Mongo.
Otherwise, EYE trafficked in media criticism, pulpy photo essays, and Q & A’s. The treasures in the October 1996 issue include an interview by author Robert Gordon with late bluesman B.B. King, a photo essay from Reverend Al Green’s church, and a coffee bar guide that will make you pause over the dust-to-dust nature of human achievement. There’s even a screed on the current state of the media, interest rates, and politics from a cranky publicist. “We spend too much time trying to soak in as much information as possible and not enough time living,” writes the publicist. Word to that.
Grade: B+ for vampires
Memphis Star: The Voice of Memphis Music
"Over 500 Live Entertainment Listings!” boasts the cover of Memphis Star, Memphis’ late but great “Most Complete Monthly Guide To Music And Entertainment.” The jam-packed, newsy magazine — a compendium of music charts, studio news, obituaries, and mini-profiles — has no heir in the Memphis publishing scene, although the Memphis Flyer covers music extensively online and in print. The Star’s demise is what insurers would call a total loss. Features like “Joe Walsh: The Mort Sahl of Rock-n-Roll,” by Susan Hopper, which appeared in the March 1987 issue, have simply disappeared into the open maw of time. (Quotes from Joe Walsh, drawn from the article: “The highpoint of being with the Eagles was probably that ‘Hotel California’ would affect so many people on the planet”; and, “I don’t want to be any more famous.” Got it, Joe Walsh.)
Also all-but-forgotten is the magazine’s interview with Raffi, the superstar of late-eighties children’s music, and a fashion feature that promoted a “stand-by button-down shirt, electrified in gold lame.” The only aspect of Memphis Star that seems to have survived the years are the prominently placed ads for Wizards, still available in certain newspapers in Memphis, which then advertised not only “Contemporary Smoking & Snuff Accessories” but also “hard to find Gentleman’s accessories” including “walking sticks, panama hats, flasks, umbrellas, and shaving kits.” Otherwise, many of the advertisers, from recording studios to record shops, have gone out the way the Star did — at the hands of the cheap, the digital, and the inadequate.
Grade: B+ for “Hotel California”
Gamut: the arts and culture of memphis
Gamut was glossy, worthwhile, full-color, and therefore doomed before it even began. A mnemonic couplet for arts and culture magazine publishers everywhere: “Aim high, you die. Aim low, you flow.” Or something. Gamut is dead. Long live Gamut.
Gamut was a product of the early-2000s, and a testament to the fact that print media was in better shape than it would be a half-decade later. Most creative types back then concerned themselves with (to quote a Gamut article about Midtown’s late Media Co-op) sitting around “in a church basement with free coffee and fifteen or so people that looked so different from one another that there is no way they could be gathered in the same place unless this was some sort of support group.” In other words, we were optimistic. One article from the September 2002 issue, titled “Time for a Revolution,” bemoans the fact that young artists move away from Memphis and proposes something called “Tha Movement” as a potential solution. “There may still be hope for the creative minds of the city,” the writer maintains. Perhaps hope for the creative minds, but sadly not for a local arts journal as nice as Gamut.
Grade: A for glossy photos
Grace was a magazine written for and by black professional women in the Mid-South. Its inaugural issue (March 1997), includes a symposium from female business leaders, a zodiac column, an essay dubbed, “Putting Heart and Soul into Your Relationship,” memos on health and beauty, a retrospective on Memphis radio station WDIA, and boutique fashion. All-in-all, Grace was a well-balanced, even-keeled publication: Fun without seeming too trendy, serious without being too newsy … and it had a zodiac column written by Thelma Balfour, probably the most grounded astrologer ever to publish in Memphis. (“Chill out,” writes Balfour, “and enjoy astrology for what it is, an exercise in fun!”) Also an enjoyable read, for the fan of 1997: A column, “Are You Ready To Surf the Net?” reasoned that, while “many Americans have overcome their fears about using PCs, they are still dubious about the internet.”
Grade: A for grounded astrology
Never has a letter from the editor started with as much confidence as the one that sets off M-teen Magazine’s summer 2007 edition: “School is OUT! Music to every teen’s ears ... and mine too ... time to chill!”
Time to chill, indeed, M-teen Magazine, and chill we did during those neon-blasted teenage summers of the early millennium. That is, when we weren’t reading M-teen Magazine, an advertising vehicle cleverly disguised as a magazine for real teenagers. What was in M-teen, the gracious reader asks? It was pictures of kids in ill-fitted formalwear, stock photography of “Xtreme” dudes with spike gel in their blonde-as-a-corn-husk hair, advice columns that might have been written by extraterrestrials interfacing with a bad misreading of youth culture, and ... more pictures of prom. If M-teen Magazine were to be discovered a thousand years in the future by humans unfamiliar with our age, it would prove no less confusing than it is to the casual 2016 reader.
Best column: “How to earn your parents’ trust.” (“Staying out of trouble is really key because then you will not feel tempted to lie to your parents,” writes a “real” teenager.) Worst column: There are no more columns to review. The whole magazine was awkward prom pictures.
By comparison, the contemporaneous and short-lived Youth X-Press was an early-2000s monthly aimed at roughly the same demographic, but with a decent editorial team (full disclosure: I was on the “Young Journalists Youth Advisory Board” for Youth X-Press) and a variety of articles by slightly-more-believable teenage writers. It could be done, but M-teen was not in that business.
Grade: F for journalism, A+ for depictions of local proms
Whut! Magazine: A Magazine of Urban Music, Commentary and Style
Whut! Magazine (also published as Whut!sinnit Magazine) was written by a group of college kids. It’s more of a photocopied ’zine than a magazine, but it aimed to be the voice of young, black Memphis, and it packed a lot of punch. Alternately bold, conversational, and confessional, Whut! managed to transition between musings on whether God exists, to reviews of Mary J Blige’s new release (good), to the television show “Homeboys from Outer Space” (“It’s an insult to our intelligence”), to interviews with artists, to battle-of-the-sexes columns, to a fashion editorial called “breakin’ down the frontlines of style.”
The best feature in the inaugural issue of Whut! is a review of college papers at the University of Memphis and Shelby State Community College. The Daily Helmsman gets a critical pass, while Shelby State’s paper, The Red Beams, gets panned. Writes the Whut! critic: “Whoever is running The Red Beams is not doing their job. If it was a money making business, it would be out of business.” Whut! was capable of throwing that kind of shade because they were unimpeachably cool, because they put in the letterhead that “Whut! comes out whenever we feel like it,” and because these kids had the confidence of people who would go on to do great things. Though, unfortunately, those things did not include continuing to write and publish Whut!
Grade: A+ for attitude
The Delta Review
Let us observe a moment of silence for all the magazines that were better than we deserved. The Delta Review, which survived less than a decade in the 1960s, was a good one. Lovingly illustrated and carefully composed, the hundred-some-page journal published longer narrative journalism produced by regional reporters alongside fiction, opinion, society pages, and a feature called “Gracious Living” that catalogued the elegant homes of the Southern gentry. The Delta Review, if somewhat myopic in its calculation of Memphis outside wealthy and white circles, nonetheless tried to prove that Memphis was worthy of a first-class magazine.
In October 1966, the letter from the publisher, William King Self, began with a quote from an anonymous sage who opined, “Sensitive men view God’s changing seasons differently as their own ages change. Before they are thirty years old, they live in constant anticipation of young, capricious Spring; after thirty they learn to appreciate the maturity, music and color of Autumn.” He was speaking about the month of the year, but perhaps Self intuited that the late 1960s were arguably the autumn for the Delta Review’s certain brand of print journalism. Saturated spreads on the genius of Southern opera, ballet, and symphony, accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations, were soon to be a thing of the past.
The surviving copies of the Delta Review have a precious quality about them. They are the product of a lot of work, unusual in monthly magazines, and they feel like it. They are worth lingering over, if you can get your hands on one.
Grade: A+ for gracious living