Richie and the Acid Casualty

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Michael Burns as Benjy “Blue Boy” Carver, 1967.

On January 12, 1967, the 1950s television series Dragnet was revived after a hiatus of nearly eight years. As if to highlight the fact that the new version of the show was being presented in color, the first episode was called “The LSD Story.” It begins with detectives Friday and Gannon responding to a report that a young man has been spotted in a vacant lot painted “like an Indian” and chewing the bark off a tree. They arrive to find the suspect with his head buried in a pile of loose dirt. When the two officers pull him to his feet it becomes apparent that half his face has been painted blue and the other half yellow. The sugar cubes found in his pocket tell the cops all they need to know. The episode, popularly known as “Blue Boy,” is an early example of hippie exploitation, a sub-genre that would explode later the same year with films such as Hallucination Generation and The Love-Ins. The result of this cinematic disinformation was that LSD became the scapegoat for a whole range of issues affecting America’s youth. When Art Linkletter’s daughter Diane leapt to her death from the 6th floor of her West Hollywood apartment on October 4, 1969, toxicology results confirmed that there were no drugs in her system. She had reportedly used LSD in the past, however, so it only took her father’s unfounded statement at a press conference that her death “wasn’t a suicide. She was not herself. She was murdered by the people who manufacture and distribute LSD,” for Diane Linkletter to become one of history’s most famous “acid casualties.”

With the help of newspaper reports, these negative images of LSD became firmly embedded in the “official” narrative, and the acid casualty soon became something of an archetype. The idea was further strengthened at the end of the decade, when both Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd and Alexander “Skip” Spence of Moby Grape left their respective bands after having mental breakdowns. Their mental disorders were popularly attributed to LSD, despite the fact that Spence was later diagnosed as being schizophrenic and Barrett showed signs that would suggest he suffered from the same condition. The reality appears to be that in most every case the “acid casualty” label was conveniently applied to anyone with mental health issues who had also used LSD at some point. This narrative in which LSD was cast as a drug that had the power to destroy the psyche soon became so strong that even many regular users of LSD believed it.

Around 1970 Richie Nelms was in the US Navy, working as a corpsman in the psychiatric ward of the hospital at the Charleston Naval Base in South Carolina. One patient in the ward had been admitted for a several month stay after having “tripped out on LSD.” He and Nelms became friendly and soon discovered they had something in common: both men were musicians. Nelms borrowed a guitar from the Red Cross, and the pair would often play together. At some point during these sessions the patient suggested they cut a record together. Nelms “thought it was a pipe dream,” but was surprised when some time in 1971, six months after his release, the patient contacted him and asked if he was still interested in going into the studio.

In 1971 if you wanted to cut a record in a professional studio in South Carolina there were few options. The regional market at this time was dominated by Crandel “C. B.” Herndon’s United Music World Recording in West Columbia. Herndon was the owner of a local trucking company and ran the studio as a side business, staffed by professionals, some brought in from Nashville. (For another example of the unlikely relationship between the trucking and recording industries, see my earlier post “The Lutenist and the Publisher: A Trucksploitation Tale.”) The studio did mostly custom work, and its output in the very late 60s and into the 70s was rather prolific. A large number of records were released on its house labels United Music World, Music World, United, and Smoke.

Nelms and his former patient entered the studio in West Columbia armed with a couple of tunes Nelms had written. It is not known whether they brought along their own rhythm section or used local session musicians. The first tune recorded, “Now She’s Gone,” is a forgettably maudlin number with a countrypolitan crooner vibe. The flip, “The Way I Feel,” is more interesting. With a guitar player who has only been identified as an “acid casualty,” the listener might have high hopes that the track could turn out to be an unknown psychedelic masterpiece. In this case, though, one has to strain a bit to find any hint of psychedelia. The arrangement is somewhat sparse, with a single guitar playing wiry lead lines over the bass and drums. Probably the most remarkable thing about the track is that stylistically it does not even remotely sound like it was recorded in 1971. To me, it sounds like a very competent demo by a songwriter hoping to pitch a tune to Gene Pitney circa 1962. This sort of anachronism is an interesting aspect of many custom releases. Styles changed so quickly in the middle decades of the 20th century that even a delay of two or three years between writing a tune and recording it could make it seem hopelessly out of date. In this case, the record was too unself-conscious to be considered a pastiche, appeared far too early to be seen as any sort of revival of its style, and was released far too late to be relevant.

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A thousand copies of the disc were pressed by Precision Record Pressing in Nashville, and it was released on Music World MW-232 as by The Next Step. The only reason we know as much of this story as we do is because Nelms left a comment on 45cat in 2012 relating how the record was born. I attempted to contact him through the site but got no response. Nelms was only in South Carolina because he was stationed there, so the questions of his origins and his previous musical history are open ones. Perhaps more intriguing is the mystery guitarist. He seemed to know that not only was the possibility of cutting a record not a “pipe dream,” but how to make it happen. Because of this, it’s tempting to speculate that he had recorded before, but where and with whom? At the moment, he is a complete cipher. It’s important not to make too much of the guitarist’s hospitalization. It’s not hard to imagine the sorts of pressures a young man in the US military in 1970 faced. With a transfer to Vietnam as close as the anonymous stroke of an administrator’s pen, turning to drugs as an escape from stress is not a surprising choice. A breakdown, with or without drugs, is also something that could easily happen to most anyone placed in such a situation. It is only because of the pre-existing “acid casualty” narrative, one constructed from distorted media portrayals of LSD, assumptions, and folklore, that he bears this label in our story. Most likely he was a musician who was drafted and temporarily crumpled under the pressure of his situation. Perhaps someday he will emerge and tell his own story.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

The Next Step: “The Way I Feel”

Dragnet: “The LSD Story”

 

 

 

Mystery Vinyl and the Art of Detection

There are few greater joys to the researcher-collector than acquiring a new piece of vinyl about which little or nothing is known. When an Internet search and the standard reference books fail to turn up any information, an exercise in inductive reasoning begins. After taking into account the record’s provenance, chiefly considering where and how it was found, the next step is to research the label itself. By checking Discogs or 45cat it is often possible to find other releases on the same label. This can provide hints as to geography and date, as well as give a bit of context based on what other sorts of records the label released. Looking at songwriting credits can sometimes provide the names of band members. Any information about who produced or engineered the record can also be helpful. Publishing information can be another clue, as sometimes a particular publishing imprint is known to be associated with certain individuals or a certain city. Examining the matrix numbers etched into the dead wax can be a hint as to where the record was manufactured. Since the numbering schemes of the big pressing plants of the 1960s and 70s have been heavily researched, it’s often possible to date the record this way. The last resort of the frustrated researcher is often to listen to the record for lyrical content. Does the vocalist reference a town or a local landmark that might be a clue as to where the artist was based?

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Sometimes a record fails to provide even these most basic points of entry to the researcher. An example is a 45 on Angelus Records by a band called Acid Test. The disc, “What Do I Love?” b/w “Make Her Mine,” released as Angelus WR 4803, stubbornly refuses to give up much information. A reasonable amount is known about Angelus Records as it was relatively prolific, operating in Los Angeles from at least the early 1960s until the late 1970s. It was a custom label that primarily released forgettable gospel records, although odd gems like Stone Garden’s “Oceans Inside Me” 45 or the Moon Blood LP by Christian psych band Fraction do turn up. Besides a rough guess as to the year of release based on the catalog number—late 1960s—there is nothing else on the disc to help the researcher. No songwriting credits or other names, no publishing information, and the number inscribed in the dead wax is only a repeat of the catalog number. According to the collector grapevine, there are two known copies of the Acid Test disc, one found in Spokane and the other in northwest Montana. This hints that the band may have been from that region. Often, this sort of circumstantial information is all that is “known” about a disc.

A mystery disc in my own collection that yields a bit more information, but barely, is Cynthia Kellems’ “Sonata” b/w “Lily-Lavendar” on the Where Rainbows End label. This appears to be a vanity label created by Kellems herself. The copyright is given as “1979 Ms. Brown.” There is no publishing information except for a reference to BMI, but a search of the BMI repertoire database turns up nothing on Kellems. The numbers on the dead wax (X-5344/Sonata and X-5345/Lily-Lavendar) do not jibe with the format of any pressing plant I’m familiar with. The dealer I bought it from told me that he acquired it in San Francisco in a batch of records that had previously belonged to a radio station. There seem to be a number of people named Cynthia Kellems in the US, and I reached out to one of them, a southern California realtor. She seemed amused by the question but confirmed that she was not the same Cynthia who made the record and, despite the less- than-common surname, had no knowledge of who the mystery artist might be.

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This record is almost completely unknown, but has the potential to become something of a cult favorite, especially if it were comped along with a nice collection of similar material. Despite its relatively late copyright date, it is dark, avant-outsider folk, which gives it the feel of an earlier era. The record fits the “loner folk” category, and some might go as far as calling it “downer” or even “wristcutter folk.” It really doesn’t sound like anything else, though. To get an idea, imagine that the Fair brothers of Half Japanese had a morose little sister who decided to become a folk singer, or that one of the Wiggins sisters from The Shaggs locked herself in her room late one night with an acoustic guitar and laid her heart out into a cassette recorder. The dissonant guitar playing is inept to the point of brilliance. There’s something so primitive about it as to sound nearly ancient. The lyrics seem to be Cynthia’s poems set to music or perhaps even completely made up on the spot. There’s a free-associative vibe that makes it hard to tell whether we are in the presence of composition or improvisation. This is folk music sui generis.

One possible hint as to the geographical origin of the record is found in the lyrics. With Kellems’ odd delivery buried under layers of reverb, it’s often difficult to clearly understand what is being said. But at one point in “Lily-Lavendar” she clearly says, “Sons of Catalina shall titillate you gently.” The United Sons of Catalina was a Filipino-American fraternal mutual aid society that existed in several cities in California prior to World War Two. Is this nothing more than a coincidence, a songwriter creating a poetic image that just happens to coincide with something in the real world? Or does this line mean that she was aware of the organization, either through a family connection or by seeing the name on the sign of a decaying local lodge building? If so, this would imply that she was indeed based in California. As rickety as this sort of reasoning is, it is a good example of the very fragile framework upon which initial research into a disc like this is often built.

The dead ends can outnumber the leads, and the researcher is often left with no more firm information than existed at the beginning of the process. This is a common situation with the most obscure discs. What sometimes happens is that someone involved with the record, or a family member, discovers a blog post or a Youtube video and comments on it. More than one vinyl mystery has been solved this way. Hopefully, Cynthia or someone else with inside knowledge of this disc will see this post and help us shed light on it.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Cynthia Kellems: “Sonata” b/w “Lily-Lavendar”

Tragedy Protecting: A Louisville Tale

Like many cultural artifacts, 45 rpm singles often act as narrative lightning rods. Stories seem to cluster around them, especially the smaller, independent releases. It often feels like this catalytic quality is directly proportional to how far from the main channel of the music industry the disc emerged. In moving from obscurity to being noticed, on however small a scale, a record will pull threads of narrative into the light along with it.

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A winter scene in Louisville, Kentucky, 1960s

On the afternoon of December 30, 1969, police responded to a call of suspicious activity at Greenwell’s Market at the corner of 25th and Osage in Louisville’s Parkland neighborhood. By the end of the day, due to a botched robbery attempt, two of the responding officers were dead and another two were clinging to life in a local hospital.

Sergeant Edgar N. Kelley, a police officer in nearby Jeffersontown, had long fancied himself a poet. It wasn’t long after hearing of the deaths of Detective James Ratliff and Patrolman Donald Gaskin that he composed a pair of poems to memorialize the two dead men. The first, “Tragedy Protecting,” was a straightforward recounting of the events of December 30. The second, “He’ll Never See the Springtime,” looked at the tragedy through the eyes of the widow of one of the fallen officers. Kelley took the poems into the police station and circulated them among his friends there. “Everybody kept telling me to put them to music,” he later told the Louisville Courier-Journal. So he went off in search of musicians who were up to the task.

Throughout most of the 1960s, the independent rock scene in Louisville was dominated by an organization that curiously called itself SAMBO, Inc. SAMBO was formed in 1959 by a pair of local musicians—Hardy Martin and Floyd Lewellyn, who would soon change his name to Ray Allen—who had proven themselves very successful at self-promotion. Seeing their success, other musicians began approaching them for help, and before long they found themselves something of a local music powerhouse. SAMBO stood for Sanders, Allen, & Martin Booking Office, Jack Sanders being a local DJ who helped the duo by providing airplay for their acts in their early days. Soon, the enterprise consisted of a booking agency called Triangle Talent, at least three publishing companies, a number of record labels, and a recording studio located in a converted house at 9912 Taylorsville Road, just on the edge of Jeffersontown. During the heyday of the post-Beatles 1960s rock boom, Allen and Martin were responsible for booking, recording, and promoting most any rock act of note in the greater Louisville area. This dominance extended even outside the city limits, as Triangle Talent booked gigs as far away as Mitchell and Jasper, Indiana, and Lebanon, Kentucky. In August 1966 the partners told Billboard magazine that their little enterprise was grossing $250,000 in annual revenue, a huge sum in those days.

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Triangle Talent ad, 1967

By early 1970 when Kelley set off in search of someone to record his poems, SAMBO had become Allen-Martin Productions. Asking around the local scene, it is likely that anyone in the know would have pointed Kelley in the direction of Allen and Martin to find local musicians to work with.

Evidence suggests that it was indeed Allen and Martin who put Kelley in touch with a local band, The Opposite Reaction. Little is known about this group except that they “played in Louisville-area nightclubs” and had broken up by July of 1970. The group donated its services to the project, recording both of Kelley’s poems in May, almost certainly in the Allen-Martin studio on Taylorsville Road. The record was quickly pressed by Precision Record Pressing in Nashville, and appeared on the unfortunately-named Trump label, one of many label names used by Allen and Martin. The disc was offered for sale at the traffic bureau of the Louisville Police Department by the end of the month, and later at the Jeffersontown town hall. Although it’s unlikely that Kelley actually set the poems to music himself, both sides are credited solely to him, with Allen and Martin’s Falls City Music—which shows up on the label as “Fall City,” an apparent typo—listed as publisher.

According to a June 1970 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Kelley was worried about being accused of capitalizing on the deaths of the officers. “Everything above the $450 I spent getting the records made will go to the Louisville Police Officers’ Association,” he told the paper. A follow-up article in late July stated that the initial pressing of 1,000 copies had sold out very quickly, and that Kelley had ordered another 2,000 pressed. Reportedly, the record had been sent to five local radio stations but had not yet received airplay, although one local station told Kelley that the disc was “under review.”

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Listening to a copy of the disc, it becomes clear why local radio would be hesitant to play it. Despite the best of intentions, Kelley’s creation sounds like exactly what it is: a song poem record. In the 1960s and 1970s companies ran ads in magazines offering to set aspiring songwriters’ lyrics to music. As long as the fee was included, these outfits would record a musical arrangement of the lyrics and press a short run of a disc, no matter the quality. The thousands of discs that resulted from this practice are known as song poem records. Many of them are hilariously bad. Most of them are just bad. Even though Kelley managed the release on his own, the result was still very similar to the output from the song poem houses.

Kelley’s lyrics are basically doggerel. Forced rhymes, clunky meter, and saccharine sentiments place him firmly in the world of the amateur poet-lyricists the song poem companies so eagerly preyed upon:

It was a cold day with snow on the street
Police cars were answering a call, not knowing death they would meet

If the disc is representative of the group’s usual sound, Opposite Reaction seems to have been a lounge-rock band, a style that was very common in the late 60s and early 70s. Lounge rock combined pop-rock sensibilities with touches of jazz and folk. The result was usually an uninspired, inoffensive music that passed for hip to the traveling salesmen and adulterous couples who frequented the cocktail lounges in which this style briefly thrived. This is the musical space that Opposite Reaction apparently inhabited. The slightly nasal delivery of the female vocalist and the band’s overall sound are competent enough, but the performance has the lackluster feel of a local Holiday Inn act, which only adds to the amateur song poem vibe of the record.

A tragic local event, an earnest scribbler of doggerel, and the complex machinations of the regional music scene all intersect in the birth of this thin slice of vinyl. The pressing plant in Nashville, the members of Opposite Reaction, the music directors at the radio stations who politely ignored it, and anyone who bought the record (or found it while crate digging three decades later) all become part of the story. Had Kelley not decided to have his poems set to music, the threads of this tale would be disconnected from one another, lost in an infinite mire of possibilities. The creation of the record becomes an act of storytelling that far transcends Kelley’s original intent. The core event, the death of the police officers, is no longer the tale, but only its beginning.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Side A: He Will Never See the Springtime

Side B: Tragedy Protecting

The Lutenist and the Publisher: A Trucksploitation Tale

I can’t remember where I picked up my copy of Norman André’s 1966 single “Big Rig Man,” but I’m certain I didn’t pay more than a dollar for it. But when confronted with a picture sleeve showing a lutenist standing inside a semi trailer, apparently serenading the cab of an adjacent Mack, what sensible person would not be tempted to take the disc home?

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In August 1966 Billboard magazine announced that a new label, Palomino Records, was “tying in with the trucking industry to promote its debut disc.” The release was Norman André’s “Big Rig Man” b/w “Gotta Keep on the Move.” The article named Michael Parkhurst as label president and also mentioned that the disc was the theme from the film Big Rig, “produced by the parent company, Hollywood Continental pictures [sic].” Billboard called the record a “public relations image builder for the trucking field, with heavy load vehicles reportedly carrying posters for the disc, and truck stops phoning local radio stations to request airplay and stocking it on their jukeboxes.” The article also mentioned that Overdrive magazine, a major trucking trade publication, was “running a DJ contest with the label, asking DJs to write and tape an editorial on the importance of trucking to their area.” First prize was a trip to Tahiti. What the article did not say was that Mike Parkhurst was also the founder and editor of Overdrive (as well as being a rabid opponent of the Teamsters union and fervent supporter of the independent trucker). So, in reality, the release was not a trucking industry tie-in, but something that emerged from inside the industry itself.

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Norman André was the pseudonym of songwriter and composer Norman Andre Anderson. The reason we remember his name today at all centers around his association with Parkhurst. The most striking thing about Anderson is that though he penned rather straightforward, mainstream country tunes, his instrument of choice—at least around 1966—was a modified lute. Pictures show him playing an instrument with a lute body, a shortened standard guitar neck, and a “straight” headstock (as opposed to the head being bent backwards as is standard on both the traditional lute and its middle eastern variations such as the oud.) The sound of the instrument on “Big Rig Man” is not ethnic or “folkloric” as one might guess, but more like a boxy, cheap acoustic guitar providing the competent chug and shuffle that drives the tune. Sonically it works, but it is a curious choice of instrument when planning to market a record to an audience of truck drivers in the mid-1960s.

It seems that when Parkhurst decided to enter the arena of trucksploitation cinema he knew that music would help sell his film. Low budget films require low budget composers, however, so he set out to find someone who could do the job without breaking the bank. It is not known how Parkhurst and Anderson first met, but Big Rig was evidently in the planning stages as early as 1965. A promo disc of “Big Rig Man,” credited to Norman André and mentioning the film, was released on the tiny Martay Records label that year. It is not clear why Parkhurst saw the need to re-release the disc on his own label the following year, but as the Martay disc seems to be pretty rare, it is likely that only a handful were pressed. Once he decided to unleash a big promotion campaign, it only made sense to go with a full release of the disc. As part of this promotion, the July 1966 issue of Overdrive carried a long article on the record and the film. The cover featured Norman André, lute in hand, superimposed over a shot of two rigs sitting in a truck stop parking lot. Given the context, this was a decidedly surreal image, and is quite likely the only time in history a lute has appeared on the cover of a major trucking magazine.

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Later in 1966 Palomino released a second Norman André single, “I Don’t Like Women With Hairy Legs” b/w “I Don’t Like You,” but it’s not clear whether this disc was intended to have any link to the film. The somewhat elaborate promotional campaign would suggest that Big Rig was originally intended to be a feature film. Whatever the original intent, the film eventually surfaced (however briefly) as a 30-minute documentary “shot on location from California to Massachusetts.” It was not until a few years later that a Parkhurst-directed trucksploitation feature film—scored by André now using his real name, Norman A. Anderson—finally did appear.

Filmed in West Texas and around Tucson in 1969 and 1970, Moonfire, the feature film that Parkhurst eventually released, had its world premiere at the Cinema Theater in Columbiana, Ohio, on May 12, 1972, with some 250 truckers reportedly in attendance. According to an article in the previous day’s Salem News, the film was being debuted in Columbiana because Parkhurst got his start in the trucking business “twenty years ago” driving for a local farm bureau there. The “G-rated adventure film about truckers” starred Charles Napier, probably best remembered from his appearances in a number of Russ Meyer films, and boxing legend Sonny Liston, who died shortly after filming. While Anderson contributed the score to the film, the soundtrack was given star power by a pair of tunes also written by Anderson but performed by Marty Robbins. These tracks, “Wheel of Life” b/w “Get You Off My Mind,” were released as a promo-only 45 on Palomino in 1972.

Trucking songs already had a long history by the time “Big Rig Man” appeared. Although there are likely earlier examples, Terry Fell’s 1954 recording of his “Truck Drivin’ Man” provided a template for later artists to build upon. The sub-genre reached its apex by the mid-1960s, with big hits by artists such as Dave Dudley and Dick Curless, as well as the appearance of interesting low-budget compilation LPs like Starday’s 1963 Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves. Truck driving as a cinematic subject has an even longer history, Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940) and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 film version of Georges Arnaud’s novel Le salaire de la peur being a couple of classic examples. The 1970s saw something of an explosion of what would later be termed “trucksploitation cinema.” The release of these mostly low-budget films coincided with a popular obsession with both long-haul trucking and the citizen’s band radio, culminating in 1977 with the release of Smokey and the Bandit on one hand and Sorcerer (an updated take on Arnaud’s Le salaire de la peur) on the other.

Looking at these films chronologically, it becomes apparent that Parkhurst’s Moonfire was the first of this new wave of trucksploitation films. (Although some might include Spielberg’s 1971 TV movie, Duel, I would argue that despite the presence of a big rig in the film, it is much more a psychological thriller and has little in common with the low-brow “trucker buddy” films that followed it.) Although this may place Moonfire in an important position when studying the history of the sub-genre, artistically it was not a successful film. It opens promisingly enough with a long shot of trucks driving across an early evening desert landscape, with the voice of Marty Robbins singing the effective, Anderson-penned theme song “Wheel of Life.” The opening sequence has the gritty aesthetic of many low-budget movies of the era. But the moment the title sequence ends, the viewer is suddenly thrust into cheesy anachronism. This isn’t a trucker version of Two Lane Black Top. The best comparison I can make would be to James Landis’ 1964 The Nasty Rabbit, starring Arch Hall, Jr. The cinematography and location shots are interesting, but the film itself is one big cliché, filled with stereotypical (and somewhat offensive) Mexican villains, a missile plot, and even a renegade Nazi who must be defeated by our hero truckers. Overall the film plays like something that may have gotten mildly positive response from drive-in audiences in 1964, but not in 1972.

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The question lurking behind all of this is, why did the publisher of an industry trade magazine decide to launch a “public relations image builder for the trucking field”? Shouldn’t the companies that actually run the trucks be more concerned with how the industry is viewed by the public? Granted, the fascination with trucking that exploded in the mid-1970s may have increased the readership of Parkhurst’s magazine, but there was no way he could have foreseen this. With the previous success of trucker-themed country records, a trucking-related zeitgeist was already in the air by the mid-60s and it was only a matter of time before the film industry would respond. On one level Parkhurst’s early entry into this field can be interpreted as culturally savvy or even prescient. The cynical view, however, would be that he was simply interested in expanding his operations into film and music, fields that were seen as far “sexier” than magazine publishing, and used his industry connections to best possible advantage.

—Stephen Canner