Glenn is, without a doubt, one of my favorite writers, and easily my favorite magazine writer. I wrote this long read for D&T about him and what his work means to me.
I had a meeting yesterday at a big building with a small name. I sat in a chair and talked about matters to another guy who reminded me a lot of my good friend Eric Martin. It was the kind of meeting you go to where you put on a blazer and a nice shirt. These are things you learn the hard way: after 25, you are expected to own a nice shirt and a nice suit jacket. Preferably ones not pilfered from Goodwill. Invest, amigo. Invest in something of quality and it will last a lifetime.
I read somewhere that the best way to get through meetings or interviews, for that matter, is to imagine that you just sat next to them on a bus. This might not work as well in the business world but it sure as shit works for when I run something at Interview mag; god knows I’d like to sit next to Kristen Ritter on a bus for half an hour. Wouldn’t we all.
Somewhere in the ether of misguided intention I started talking about what made me want to get into magazine writing in the first place, or what drew me to it. Contrary to (un)popular belief it is not simply because I enjoy using the letter “I” as often as possible, nor is it the fact that my ego is an untended garden. Well, possibly. But I have some time to kill so I’ll talk about a great influence.
After high school I took a year off because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I took classes at a community college and sat around reading a lot, watching a lot of movies, and generally absorbing as much as possible. It was a very happy time for me and I’m incredibly lucky to have had parents who were willing to let me figure out what the fuck I was going to do.
I used to go to bookstores a lot, chain bookstores, the few indie ones there were, and I’d take my Mom’s old cookbooks (she worked, at the time, at a cooking school, and had boxes of them) and return them for store credit. Sorry, Mom. I don’t think I’ve ever told you that. It only happened a few times. That is a lie. It happened enough times for Barnes & Noble to put me on some sort of swindler’s list.
I’d pick up magazines, too. I picked up whatever looked interesting. I ended up picking up a lot of GQ and Esquire and Details from around that time (‘02, ‘03) and poring through them, reading and rereading, sometimes out of boredom and others out of sheer love of reading some of the articles. I ended up doing the acting thing in college (because you’re only young once and, fuck it) but I still kept buying the magazines. Buying the magazines was the one single constant through the five, six years I spent ping-ponging around Chicago and Los Angeles.
Out of all of the magazines I bought over that five year period I remember reading Glenn O’Brien’s Style Guy section over and over and over again. It was the first thing I flipped to when I opened up the magazine. Being older and wiser now and having read a lot more of his work I can honestly say that the Style Guy column isn’t his best work (that falls under his book “How To Be A Man" which should be required reading in schools) but it was the thing that grabbed me the most.
A lot of magazine writing is fairly straightforward. There are some BRILLIANT exceptions, like The Golden Suicides, Consider The Lobster, The Falling Man or even Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, but by and large a lot of magazine writing is economical. You get in, you say the facts, you get out. There isn’t anything wrong with economy, not at all, and I’m paraphrasing here, but people often sacrifice voice for economy. There is (as always) a balance.
In the Style Guy column Glenn gets letters from readers about fashion. They ask him questions from the inane (“What kind of dress shoes to wear with jeans?”) to the sublime (“What kind of ascot can I wear into the board room?”) – it leads to a lot of unintentional comedy. Glenn answers in the most droll ways possible, often using some weird anecdote or pithy remark. The point being: it might be a column about clothes, but it is also a column about how to handle yourself in a cool, calm, and collected fashion. It is the sartorial writing equivalent of a Bill Murray movie, or a Bugs Bunny cartoon. It is still one of my favorite things to read regularly, in any publication.
I’ve always had a theory, if you will join me down this tangential cul-de-sac, about why Bugs Bunny is the most American popular character of the last (too lazy to actually look up the number) years. Bugs is a lovable jerk, and I think that is true Americana, right there, that deep down we all sort of wish we were the slightly-removed voice of ironic distance – close enough to partake yet just far away enough to observe the weirdness of it all. This is the basis of the vast majority of American humor: observation. The majority of the rest of the world, I’ve found, when left to their own humor devices, are very keen on humor deriving from situations as opposed to the slight detached distance that American humor provides. This is by and large a sweeping generalization. But it is grounded in reality. When I traveled to the rainforest in Ecuador last year I stayed at a hotel in the middle of nowhere and what was on the TV in the bar? Seinfeld. Really.
Glenn’s column and Glenn’s writing in particular reminded me of how I thought. I was both shocked and amazed that here, on the pages of a magazine, was essentially the kind of catty, pithy shit that I might be thinking in my head at a party. It made me buy (or sometimes steal) the magazine each month. I honestly can’t remember who the fuck was on the cover of any of them but I can remember Glenn’s takedown of someone who realllly wanted to wear socks and sandals. Glenn didn’t give too much of a shit. It showed. And it was wonderful.
Glenn was the first editor of Interview Magazine, hired by Andy Warhol, and also the first person to ever have the title of Editor-at-Large, when he worked at High Times in the mid-to-late 1970s. He got that title because he was rarely in the office, preferring to work from home. People would ask where he was and the rest of the High Times staff would say “he’s at large” - like on a wanted poster. The first thing I did when I got hired as an editor at D&T was give myself that title. I mean, shit, I work from home, too. But it gave me great satisfaction to give myself the same title as he did.
Another tangent: I tripped over a blurb a few months ago from someone saying that “people should grow out of their early influences” – it was an article about Bukowski or something, and there is a case to be made about people that ape Charles’s work and live by the “tortured artist” mentality in particular. I put down the whiskey bottle and got vaguely into wine and grew out of that phase, thank god. But I digress.
I think it is important to have these early influences, and to hold on to them. They are your totems, your talismen, if you will, through the rest of your life or career or what have you. When you’re 30 you’ll look back on the foundation you built in your late teens and early 20s. Especially good ones like Glenn. He’s no Orwell, but he has an incredible way with words regardless.
He has, of course, been doing this since before I was even born. He started at a time when New York media could mean anything and the publishing scene wasn’t full of the big, perilous buildings like the one I was in yesterday. I can only imagine what the publishing / magazine industry would be like if it was run with the same kind of punk-rock energy as we try to put in at Death & Taxes. It is sort of like the suit jacket: invest in something of quality and it will last a lifetime. Style costs something but it will last a lot longer than the economical dry-wall that most writing/art/media is, now.
There are few voices in the media landscape these days – a perilous thought if there ever was one. One of the first things to go in any industry, when the money gets tight, is style. Style is often seen as superflous and not a necessity. Economy rules all in this day and age, amigo. And I’m not talking about clothes; well, maybe I am. But clothes come and go. A voice can last forever. And what is a voice but style with words?
Style is what happens when you stop caring about what other people think and start caring about how you see yourself. Glenn’s column, at least, showed me what actual style was. And at a great age to be shown that, too.