Reading it for the articlesWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
As my mid-40s segue toward 50, the warmth of nostalgia is turning icy. My favorite album, “Synchronicity” by The Police, is 30 years old. My favorite movie, “Star Wars,” has a second sequel that is 30 years old. What used to be soft-focus landmarks of my cultural composition are becoming reminders that there are more years behind me than in front of me.
At a flea market last week in Britton, Mich., one of those touchstones appeared before my eyes like the ghost of a forgotten mentor. While sifting through a stack of magazines from the 1970s and ’80s — Life, Time, Newsweek, etc. — my hands found themselves holding a copy of the January 1981 Playboy. No other relic of its kind could have propelled me down the rabbit hole of time like that specific issue.
When our family lived in Walbridge, in a Cedar Court cul de sac, our downstairs living room was modestly furnished, with a couch, a small stand with a television and an end table with a front door that swung open and never completely closed. That table contained torn pages of newspapers, photo albums, checkbooks, and bills and, at the bottom of the pile, a lone copy of Playboy.
I was 15 or so when I discovered the issue, and for many reasons, it was a transformative experience. Compared to what is available today in a Google search, the sexual content of that issue is downright chaste. There were of course pictorials of topless women, from actress Barbara Bach to a spread of several “urban cowgirls,” but zero depictions of any sex act. And while modern context allows me to describe those pictures as relatively modest, I also understand that they were my first acknowledged exposure to women presented solely as a commodity and generic sex fantasy.
The impact of such presentation would be best discussed another time, but I can at least trace the source point for my fascination with women and guitars, women in denim and women in uniform. While the photos were the siren call that led to my sneaking peeks at the issue whenever I could, it was three collections of words therein that created a seismic shift in my cultural and career orientation.
Each of the three articles that changed my direction are highlighted on the cover: “An exclusive interview: JOHN LENNON and YOKO ONO on love, sex, money, fame and ALL about The Beatles” is text wrapped around Ms. Bach’s gauze-embraced right hip. On her left hip are the words, “STEPHEN KING on horror and everyday life” and “Plus, fiction by RAY BRADBURY.”
By 1981, I was a confirmed and devout Beatles fan. I had slowly saved money from mowing lawns and during the course of two years, acquired several Beatles albums from Woolworth at Woodville Mall. My mother already owned “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be,” and I filled in everything from “Meet The Beatles” to “Revolver,” “Rubber Soul” and beyond. I had read a few books from the library, but pre-Internet, did know that much about the group and its enigmatic leader, John Lennon. Lennon had been assassinated in December 1980, and it hit my mother and me like a hurricane of grief and outrage. The January 1981 Playboy went to press before his death, and when I found it, it was like a communication from the man himself. The interview, brilliantly conducted by David Sheff, walks Lennon and Ono through an update of their lives, focusing on their about-to-be released album “Double Fantasy,” interspersed with comments about life in the world’s biggest band. But the heart and soul of the piece is a long stretch in which Sheff simply names a Beatles song and Lennon discusses its origin and impact. The two go back and forth like tennis players, illuminating dozens of songs.
“LENNON: We all know so much about ‘Yesterday,’ I have had SO much accolade for ‘Yesterday.’ That is Paul’s song, of course, and Paul’s baby. Well done. Beautiful — and I never wished I had written it.”
It goes on like that for thousands of words; Lennon, candidly offering creative glimpses of “A Day in the Life,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and a litany of others. It is fascinating journalism, compelling as a historic document and a glimpse at Lennon’s ego and artistry. It was the first time I recognized journalism as a tool for unlocking mysteries and I was immediately and forever hooked. To this day, Sheff’s interview stands a touchstone of rock criticism and reporting.
Just as impactful to me was Stephen King’s long essay “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” which, although I did not know it at the time, was an excerpt from his nonfiction criticism book “Danse Macabre.”
At the time, King was best known for “Carrie” and “The Shining,” neither of which I had read. But I was struck by the tone, humor and authority of his essay in Playboy, which walks the reader through the distinction between “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which King describes as “art,” and “The Horror of Party Beach,” which he describes as a “pathetic little wet fart of a movie.”
It’s not poetry, but it is effective description. Here, again, was journalism of pop culture (although King’s work is more academic than Sheff’s) and I was blown away by the fact that these men were apparently being paid to write about music, movies and the things they loved. I eventually began reading King’s novels, but it was “Danse Macabre” I tracked down first, and that remains his most influential and resonant work for me.
The issue also contains a brief story by Ray Bradbury, “Heart Transplant,” which follows two adulterers who make an unlikely wish after a tryst. I had not yet discovered Bradbury, but the following paragraph unlocked the potential of the English language for me as definitively as the naked women on the surrounding pages awoke their own special desires:
“He awoke for no reason except that he had had a dream that the Earth had shrugged, or an earthquake had happened 10,000 miles away that no one felt, or that there had been a second Annunciation but everyone was deaf, or perhaps it was only that the moon had come into the room during the night and changed the shape of the room and changed the looks on their faces and the flesh on their bones, or perhaps it had rained all night and now had stopped so abruptly that the quick silence had stirred his eyes wide. In the moment of opening, he knew the streets were dry, there had been no rain. Only perhaps, some sort of crying.”
The possibilities of language demonstrated by Sheff, King and Bradbury served as a launching pad for my own life of words, and while my efforts fall short of their lofty achievements, I cannot imagine my life without the years of trying to get to where they were when I met them sometime in 1981.
I am not sure what the element of the forbidden nature of the Playboy added to the impact of its articles, but I have never once been ashamed of my love for the works of Lennon, Bradbury and King.
And while I would never leave my $1 flea market copy of Playboy lying around for my sons to discover, I do wonder what touchstones of life, love, sex and art are waiting for them, and what will form their sensibilities and tastes, and what will impact them enough that they still remember it when they start to approach 50. They could do a lot worse than Lennon, Bradbury and King, even if they have to navigate the complicated waters of Miss January to discover them.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at mmiller@toledo freepress.com.