Speak contributor Roger Sabin and editor Dan Rolleri

Dan: You've not only contributed to more issues of Speak than anyone else, but you're the only current Speak writer remaining from its early, dark days.In fact one of your first assignments for the magazine was on vacuous Brit popsters Republica [Speak #3], an article in which you managed to generously praise the group. And of course you were always very polite regarding Speak. Honestly, what did you really think of both of us at the time?

Roger: Hmm ... Republica? Vacuous is perhaps a little harsh. Then again singer Saffron was charming but clueless in a rock star kind of way. She made a point of remembering my name, and answered every question with "Well, Roger ...," all the time avoiding my gaze completely. Not that I was gazing at her, y'understand—only later was she built up into a massive sex symbol by the British "lad mags." Actually, I wasn't that nice to the band in the piece, and said they had no idea about politics or their image. I'm sure they all took that very hard, as they counted the money from "Ready to Go" (a huge hit, used on just about every TV sports show).

As for Speak, I always liked it—really. The design was a lot more unrestrained in the early days, and I used to get mildly annoyed that some of my pieces seemed hard to read, but that seemed a small price to pay for my being there. I was aware that a lot of folk were buying it for the design, so I decided to either put up or shut up—and I shut up. (Martin, if you're reading this, I do genuinely admire the vast majority of what you do--and some of my crappier efforts were made to look intelligent by the context you put them in.) The mag never had a corporate feel to it—and I can see what people mean when they say it's "ziney." That was a big plus for me. I'd previously worked for some UK mags that were too much the other way: a grim experience. (The term "lifestyle magazine" sends shivers down my spine to this day.) By comparison, writing for Speak (where, incidentally, my copy was hardly messed with at all—fantastic!) was a delight.

The only thing missing from those early issues, to my mind, was a sense of humor. Everybody seemed to be trying soooo hard to be soooo earnest! That was curious, because talking to you on the phone was always a source of great amusement (even if we were laughing at the mag's grotesque lack of ads). I think things have lightened up a lot recently, which is great, and the text/picture content is more in line with what, for example, Chris Ware is about. The guy is a superb draughtsman—and you can see why the design crowd love him—but he's also gut-bustingly funny (I've laughed my ass off at some of those strips). Of course, making any mag "funnier" is no easy thing—especially since something like Speak tends to attract rather serious writers and readers (some of 'em give the impression that they'd rather stick pins in their eyes than sit within a hundred meters of a cigarette butt). But I think it's getting there, and the dry, dry, dry gags are having an impact (at the moment the vibe is a little bit analogous to MAD's "We Don't Try Very Hard" ethic).

Dan: Funny you mention the design because looking back at that Republica profile, I noticed that Martin ran a thick black line right through it, rendering one sentence totally illegible. It's a testament to our writers' restraint that not one of them put a hit out on Martin. (They complained to me instead.)

Indeed the magazine was bad, over-designed and humorless in those days—though, in fairness, I think there was always a lot of humor to Martin's design. I thought it most important to overcome being bad first. In the meantime, I assigned you some lighter pieces and wrote wacky editor's notes. I remember one issue [Speak #11] in which every piece was more earnest than the one before it—it was a good issue, just totally lacking in humor. (You interviewed Billy Bragg for that one--not exactly a laugh riot himself.) So I purposely wrote an offhanded note that included a phony interview with a made-up young Hollywood wannabe star. Seeing the issue all together, I felt incredibly self-conscious, thinking "here's this magazine that so desperately wants to be taken seriously, and be seen as an alternative to all the shitty fashion/lifestyle mags, and yet the editor seems to be a bit of a goof."

I think it's easier to edit serious pieces. I have no problem telling a writer that his/her point isn't coming across, that this part drags, or that part needs to be fleshed out. But I find it extremely difficult to tell someone that he/she is not sufficiently funny. Everyone thinks they have a sense of humor and can be funny, like everyone thinks they have a fine appreciation for music. Yet somehow Celine Dion and Billy Joel live in mansions.

Of course one necessary element of humor writing is that the author display an effortlessness, something that Speak hasn't consistently done particularly well. I will say that several pieces in the last issue [Speak #20] are very funny, with a special mention for Brian Baise, who we stuck on a twenty-four-hour gambling tour bus to Reno and he turned in feature that was witty, vivid and warm.

Your pieces are always easygoing and light on their feet—a quality that seems to be characteristic of many UK magazine and newspaper writers. Even when a British journalist is shouting recriminations from the rooftops, a palpable, this-is-all-a-game smirk comes through. Maxim—trashy as it is—makes good use of this. Whereas the American Details tries to have it both ways—at once seem smart and dapper, while discreetly peeking over at the tits—Maxim is unashamed.

I've just finished the book No News at Throat Lake by Lawrence Donegan, a writer originally from Scotland. It documents Donegan's departure from crowded urban London for the small-town life of a tiny Irish town. He gets a job at a tabloid newspaper, and in a funny sequence, he recalls publishing a song parody of "Candle in the Wind," marking the first anniversary of Princess Di's death: "Good-bye, Princess Di,/ Though I didn't know you at all/ Gosh, I really liked your hair/ And the clothes you used to wear/ But it seems to me that you fell in/ With a crowd of queers,/ Phil the Greek, his wife Liz,/ And that bloke with big ears." "A lethal combination of bad poetry and bad taste," the author admits.

I thought of you when I read this, remembering the Princess Di joke I deleted, with hesitation, from one of your features. You would not see such a thing even in the States' least respectful tabloids. I don't mean to link you with Maxim or Princess Di jokes—certainly these are at the far end of the continuum—but this difference in approach is curious to me. I assume Britain's irreverence is an outgrowth of, or a reaction to, its culture and tradition.

Roger: Yes, I think it has a lot to do with the print tradition here, from the underground press of the 1960s through the music press of the 1970s and down to today's mags. Some of the old issues of IT (a 1960s UK underground paper, which I collect) are hilarious. Totally off the wall. You didn't really see that in the US equivalents—at least I didn't (I'm not old enough to remember them at the time, but used to collect them, too). Rolling Stone always seemed to be overly earnest, almost like it was carrying the burden of anti-Vietnam protest by itself. Another example of wit from Britain: In 1971, Charles Shaar Murray reviewed Yes: The Yes Album for Oz magazine (another very amusing hippie mag). His review, in total, read: "Yes? Maybe."

By the way, Maxim is unashamed because it's a Felix Dennis publication. Dennis was one of the leading lights of the UK underground, and a very funny man. He was one of the three editors of Oz who were jailed for obscenity. At the trial, the judge called him "the least intelligent" of the three. Didn't do him any harm, though, did it?

Speaking personally, I wish I could write funnier, but my god it's hard. As a big reader of mags myself, I'm always much more impressed by amusing pieces than straight ones. (Shallow? Moi?) As a rule of thumb, the wittier the writer, the more successful they are—e.g. Julie Burchill in the UK and PJ O'Rourke in the US (I guess he used to write for the US underground ... bang goes my theory). By comparison, serious pieces are ten a penny, not that there isn't a place for them. As you say, some of my pieces haven't exactly been about jolly subjects—e.g. the Holocaust [Speak #19]—but then the style doesn't have to be correspondingly heavy. Critics who've been good at treading that fine line include Christopher Hitchens (OK, he's an arrogant swine, but if he can make you laugh about Bosnia he's got something going for him) and the late Lester Bangs, who said serious things about music in a stream-of-consciousness coked-to-the-eyeballs humorous kind of way.

Of course, funny is in the eye of the beholder. If a book jacket says "The funniest writer I have read," I avoid it–can't stand the cult of the ironic satirist, for example. On a more straight comedy level, I hear that Steve Martin's producing some amusing stuff for The New Yorker, but I haven't read any. Have you ever read any early writing by Woody Allen? There's a collection called Without Feathers, which I'd recommend. Otherwise, I'd stick to comic books. (I haven't read this Donegan guy, but I'll keep an eye out.)

Dan: Donegan's writing reminds me somewhat of your own, in that he doesn't specifically strain to be funny himself, but casually observes the humor in situations. His previous book is also likable—Maybe It Should Have Been A Three Iron, a document of his year as a caddie for the 438th ranked golfer on the European tour. Best at this sort of thing will always be E.B. White—Essays of E.B. White and One Man's Meat are highly recommended. And, yes, Woody Allen's collections are great. I'm not as enthusiastic as some are about Martin's essays, which are very clever, but leave me cold. David Thomson, who you of course interviewed [Speak #13], is critical of Martin's acting: "Fake bells go off in my head when he says lines. That is not to say he is unfunny ... simply that this viewer feels a barrier, a tenseness in Martin, that cannot yield to pretending." I notice a similar tenseness in his writing.

G.K. Chesterton's (another Brit!) line "the opposite of funny isn't serious, it's not funny" relates to Burchill, O'Rourke and the like. But I think it's difficult for a writer, especially a young writer (which most of Speak's contributors are), to be both serious and funny. A healthy irreverence (not the same as knee-jerk postmodern irony) seems to be more common in writers who have lived for awhile. In San Francisco one is especially bombarded with earnest end-of-the-world declarations over everything from the closure of a co-op grocery store to the lack of bike lanes.

A lot of Speak's failure in this regard is my fault. There's no reason why an antidote to mags like Details can't have wit—those mags are pandering, frivolous and boorish, but never really funny. Yet somehow, in my determination to produce a real alternative, the humor got lost.

Your David Irving/Holocaust article, and your British gangster piece prior [Speak #17], do well to expose the silliness within serious stories. Yeah, Irving's a dangerous man. We all understand that. The expected approach would be to list each of his off-the-wall assertions, and counter them one by one. (And then maybe we can move on to "how Hitler got it all wrong.") But reading about you hulking in a doorway, spying on Irving for Searchlight, is somehow more satisfying.

One of my favorite of your articles for Speak was more of a straight journalistic piece on the race-related south London murder of Stephen Lawrence [Speak #12]. The murder, and subsequent trial, closely resembled several big racial media events in the States, yet the story, compelling as it was, received virtually no coverage here. And, compared to some of your other Speak pieces, it didn't generate much reader feedback either. Why do you think this is? And are the five accused killers still free? I assume it's now impossible to retry them.

Roger: The Stephen Lawrence piece was difficult to write for two reasons. First, I was promised an interview with The Nation of Islam, which never came off. I knew they had a policy of not talking to the press, which in their eyes is a white conspiracy, but I'd contacted their top man by phone, via his wife (I think), and was led to believe an interview was imminent. Fact was, they gave me the runaround—I kept ringing, they kept saying "one more day." In the end I gave up. Second, the police were unhelpful. Again, the press office had at first led me to believe that I'd get access to people, etc., but it never happened. The only person that would talk was one of the lawyers. So in the end I thought the piece was a bit weak—but thanks for your comments in a any case.

As for the suspects, they're still "at large." A few months ago, the police were tipped off that the murder weapon had been buried in one of their gardens (nope, they never searched there at the time). So, in came diggers, forensics, etc. and found a big knife. But UK law as it stands dictates that a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime—though I believe this is in the process of being reviewed, and will be a hot potato at the next election.

Reader feedback on the piece? I'm not surprised. It was desperately heavy and America has enough race problems of its own.

Interesting what you say about Steve Martin. Yeah, he's always seemed a bit wound-up. His performance in Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon was about as near as he got to a naturalistic performance, but even there ... Would like to see his new writing all the same.

Coming back to writing, you are right that a lot of journalists are a bit too reverential—but, of course, that's how "the stars" like it. You can go too far the other way, and on occasion I have done so. I once did an interview (for another magazine) with the director/writer Melvin Van Peebles, who must have been seventy-something, and his son Mario, who'd just directed and starred in the movie Panther. Mario was basically a sweet, intelligent, middle-class, polite guy, but his dad was a tinderbox. I'd done a lot of research for the interview, and it was going kinda badly. They were putting the case for the Black Panthers being a totally right-on organization, which was fine. But then I asked a question about violence and said that because the Panthers had that aura about them, they did attract a psycho element (I was thinking about several shoot-outs that I'd read about). Peebles senior hit the roof! He was off his chair and shouting, and would have had me thrown out had not his son restrained him. Now, thing was, I'd asked the question as a goad—it was complete devilment. And the copy I got out of it was fantastic. But it's an example of how not to treat the stars.

For Speak, there have been similar occasions, and there have been a few folk I just haven't liked. But then you have to remember that an interview situation is often stressful for them, and you're only seeing one side of their personality. For example, to put this diplomatically, my first draft of the piece about Nick Cave was a little more critical than it eventually turned out. (I goaded him, too.) On the other hand, you meet or talk to people who end up being totally delightful. The David Byrne piece was a "phoner," but there was no pretense about the man whatsoever—much to my surprise. He laughed throughout the interview—not at me, y'understand—and was really thoughtful about what he said. You also mentioned Billy Bragg a little earlier: now he's someone that a lot of folk don't like—even Wilco, with whom he's collaborated several times, are on record dissing him. But when I talked to him, he was funny and self-deprecating. So it goes. Who knows what they're like really. You get hints from an interview, but you can never really tell.

The thing about reverence for celebrities is that it's hyped on their side, and boosted very carefully by their PR people. For example, the publicists (mostly slime in my experience) make sure that there's an air of mystery/untouchability about their star. When you arrive to do an interview, you might be one of several journos there, and you're told in hushed tones to sit quietly and wait your turn (this is hallowed ground, and you're not allowed to make a noise). If the interviewee is a man, the PR folk tend to be very attractive young women--and I'm sure that's deliberate too—and the venue is as glamorous as possible (fancy hotels are favored). Everything is done not to put you at your ease. The PRs might offer advice, or tell you what to avoid: "x is a little tired today, so please be aware of that. Oh, and he doesn't want you to mention his new album/film/book." They also let you know what a genius their charge is—over and over again. In extreme cases, you don't get the interview unless you show them the questions (I've never agreed to this). So, I can understand why inexperienced journos can get a bit intimidated. It's a jungle out there, Dan.

Oh, and on "funny": I've seen that GK Chesterton quote attributed to Oscar Wilde (which is right, I wonder). Plus, I don't think you have yourself to blame for the lack of humor in the early Speaks. After all, you hired Chris Ware, which made a hell of a difference, and you certainly can't control what the contributors write. You just have to go with it. Plus, the Ed's Notes were always very funny, especially when they were being ultra-critical of everybody else in the magazine industry (and I know you've got into trouble for that), and so too were the bits of "para text"—e.g. the ads for subscribers, which at the moment is one of my favorite things in the mag. Speak is actually pretty good, and you should be proud of it!

Dan: Oh, no, I'm probably wrong on the quote. How embarrassing. It's bad enough being a moron, but there's nothing worse than being an overreaching moron. I just checked Familiar Quotations and couldn't find it. Perhaps we should edit out the whole thing to save me the embarrassment.

I now remember all of those hiccups with the Lawrence piece. Of course readers only see what the piece is, and not what it could have been. Same with the magazine I suppose. Regarding interview subjects, I think Speak is sometimes too reverential. But it's difficult to expect a twenty-five-year-old writer to challenge a major figure. I've even suggested such hack techniques in approaching controversy like asking, "How do you respond when critics say ..." (Yep, that's the kind of wisdom I have to share.)

The Melvin Van Peeples story sounds harrowing. Considering the quality of that film, he probably should have been more modest. In Speak's case, often times the more pompous the interviewee, the better the interview. It's like Jerry Lewis: you won't find a bigger asshole in all of America, yet if you come across him on TV, you're a fool to turn away. He was on Larry King a year or so ago, and King mentioned a Lewis stalker who was apparently being released from prison. He asked the funny man if he felt some trepidation, and Lewis got this steely look in his eyes and slowly described a gun he had purchased and what it could do to a man. Then he looked into the camera and invited the stalker to visit his Las Vegas home. King, ever the gracious host, gave him an out, and said something like "Oh, you don't really mean that you want to shoot him." And Lewis, doing an exceptional Travis Bickle, practically begged the stalker to stalk him so he could blow his head off. He seems to be genuinely off his rocker, certainly his best days are decades behind him, yet I can't think of many people with whom I'd rather spend a day.

Back to the humor issue, I can control what the contributors write. I assign the stories, and that's where the fault lies. I'm always hesitant to direct a writer to be humorous, especially if I suspect that he or she can't pull it off. On the Wilde/Chesterton continuum, funny may be better than serious, but serious is miles ahead of unfunny. There is nothing worse than unfunny. I can't edit unfunny. It just sits there. So I usually hedge my bets and shoot for serious, then add balance with my editor's notes and subscription ads.

Let's switch gears here. The one constant in our conversations over the years is our repeated griping about the state of current music. We always seem to be listening to something twenty years old, have very little new in the way to recommend to each other, and generally sound like a couple of bitter old men whose lives have passed them by. But, honestly, I don't remember a more dire time in popular music, both in the States and the UK. Over here it's all dumbshit metal/rap, teen pop, and bland guitar bands. And in the UK, everyone suddenly sounds like Radiohead, whom I know you love! The highlight of my year is the Go-Betweens reunion album, a band whose previous record came out twelve years ago. Are things as bad as they seem, or are we just, um, past our prime?

Roger: We are bitter and twisted! We've had it, Dan ... dodos living on the precipice of extinction ... in the midst of existential plummet, in free-fall, waiting for it to end ... But it never does. Seriously, music does seem to be in a dire state at the moment, you're right—but "seem" is the word. There are several books just out in the UK about Oasis, claiming them as the peak of original, artistic achievement. The natural reaction to this, to my mind, is: "Something has to be wrong!" But at the same time, I fully admit that I'm not as tuned in as I used to be, and therefore am not hearing the good stuff. I'm sure it's there, and I tend to see it coming out of the techno tradition rather than the boys-with-guitars route, which (Go-Betweens aside, of course) was made to look passe by the whole rave/techno thing. I know that scene was never as big in the US as it was here, but nevertheless it represented an artistic leap forward—the first one, really, since punk.

In Notes on the Life and Death and Incandescent Banality of Rock 'n' Roll, Greil Marcus argues that rock as a single genre of music no longer exists. That it has become fractured into different musics and audiences. No longer does rock speak to everyone in the same language—there's no single person or band for everybody to argue about (e.g. Elvis, Beatles, etc). He goes on to say that this is a problem because it robs rock of its potential to be culturally important—e.g. no longer can a single song reach out to vast numbers of people and make them think. I think this is fair enough, but only to a point. I'm old enough to remember the impact of the Beatles, Stones, etc., even if I was a kid, and it did seem that they had the power to make people listen in a way that, say, the Gallagher brothers can't (OK, so "Wonderwall" is no "Penny Lane"). The plunging sales figures for albums seem to bear this out. But it's still a sentimental view. Was there ever really a time when everyone "spoke the same language?" I doubt it. There were always alternative folk who hated the Beatles, etc, and there were always groups that were excluded from the discourse (ethnic minorities, quite often). One of the positive things about music fracturing in the way it has in the last twenty years is that other voices have been amplified. Rap, hip-hop, techno, even world music have developed and grown to the point where they're really powerful forces. Even though they're reaching very specialized audiences, they are still important politically. So, music has changed, and audiences have changed, but there's still a whole lotta shakin' goin' on.

With this in mind, I think Speak has trodden quite a wise and specific path in terms of music coverage. It's generally been about offbeat bands who'd appeal to a certain constituency— i.e. probably white, probably educated, probably 25-40, and quite possibly male (I can't say any of this for certain, of course). I don't think there's anything wrong with this as long as the mag doesn't presume to be speaking to and for anything other than a specialized audience; that it's not talking about "music" in any wider sense. The publications that have tried to span the many musics that now exist have come a real cropper—in the UK, the once mighty NME, which covered indie rock so brilliantly in the seventies and eighties, saw which way things were going and now tries to cover everything—rap/dance/reggae/indie/etc. It's a mess—and sales are a small fraction of what they were back then: there's even some doubt as to whether it can survive long. Meanwhile, the specialty mags—Mixmag, Kerranngg, whatever, seem to be thriving. A sign of the times. Is it the same in the States?

Dan: I'm torn on this one. I think specialty mags can be horribly dull and of course one-dimensional by their nature. But in the case of music mags, both the UK and US have always had an abundance of general titles, all covering the same things month after month. Even today, flip through Q, Select and NME and you'll find lots of duplication. It went on for years here with Spin, RayGun, Option, Alternative Press, etc. etc. The mags with more money had better writers and better access to acts, but they were all basically doing the same thing. I agree that NME has become a mess, but I'm certain the environment that Marcus wrote about has made its shift necessary.

I think Marcus' lament that rock has lost its cultural impact, and my lament over the current state of things for that matter, are the cries of men who have lost touch with the cultural zeitgeist. The fact is Madonna has been massively important culturally, and to a lesser extent so is Britney Spears today. Of course that's not to say that the music is any good—that's where the Beatles and Elvis were special, and why Britney will have a desk job in a few years—but we're just not rubbing shoulders daily with the kids who are moved by this stuff. And you're absolutely right about the fracturing into sub-categories amplifying other voices. It's a tough pill to swallow, but it's our culture—yours, mine and Greil's—that is culturally irrelevant, not music as a whole.

Regarding Speak's music coverage, it's always been an afterthought. Inevitably I end up assigning articles on artists whom I enjoy. Most of your music interviews—Robyn Hitchcock, Nick Cave, The Go-Betweens—fall into that category, and I suppose reveal me to be hopelessly out of touch. Still, I do buy lots of new music—some electronic, lots of young artists, all the current Brit groups. In the last few weeks I've listened to new albums from Coldplay, the Doves, Cosmic Rough Riders, Badly Drawn Boy, Dakota Suite. All of these bands have been critically well received in the UK—Badly Drawn Boy just won the Brit Award I think—but I find them pretty uninvolving. And hype aside, I think the percentage of winners among electronica is no higher. Much of it is every bit as derivative as Oasis is as a guitar band. So I inevitably return to my Bowie CDs and wait to die.

Conversation #1 // Martin Venezky// Dan Rolleri