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spies like us
remembering a great magazine
by joe procopio (@jproco)
8.3.09
writing


I had completely forgotten about the existence of Spy magazine until I saw the coffee table retrospective Spy: The Funny Years for sale at Borders.
click here to see the book on B&NAnd to add insult to injury, I hadn't even seen the book until it was in the bargain bin. This was awesome, because I picked it up for $2.99, but it was also immediately sad because it was like accidentally seeing one of your rock star heroes headline the lounge at the Hilton.
Might as well get drunk, stand up front, and sing along. Who knows you in Akron anyway?

24 spy covers
24 spy covers - click image for full version

In the late '80s and '90s, Spy was, simply, the shit. It was pages and pages chock full of fame, wealth, music, books, Hollywood, politics, the building blocks of pop-culture, and it was eviscerating all of it. Spy was the very model of anti-celebrity that I am fascinated with. It spoke to the fact that the line between success and selling out was not fine; it was broad, huge, and had warning signs and razor wire along its length. If you wanted to cross said line, you had to jump, you needed room to get up enough speed, and there may have even been waivers to sign warning you of what you'd become.

You know, like those actors who bemoan the fact that they can't have a quiet lunch on the patio of the hottest restaurant in LA on a sunny day during tourist season the weekend their movie premieres without some shlub asking for an autograph.

Spy destroyed these people.

russian tea room
russian tea room - click image for full version

Growing up, I'm not even sure how I found Spy but I couldn't get enough of it once I did. I was a kid, and I didn't understand half of it because it was distinctly Manhattan-centric and dropped names of publishers, investment bankers, and Page Six people I had never heard of. It also pummeled the Hollywood elite, and I got the Ovitz jokes, and it would also knock Jay McInerney. Now this was something, because I totally dug Bright Lights Big City, the book. And while the J. Fox dramatic-turn project was not horrible, it sort of reduced the whole thing down to what would be considered Twilight today -- only for a different kind of nerd.

Here was a magazine that got what I got, even if it was killing it, it was doing it with warmth. Everyone with any sort of skin in the game in New York or LA hated the hell out of Spy.

feuds
feuds - click image for full version

So having Spy in my backpack made me more grown up, in the same manner that having menthol cigarettes or a pint of Peppermint Schnapps might have been, but it was headier and classier. So maybe it was like having a pouch of pipe tobacco and a silver flask full of Cognac in my backpack. I'm not sure that's cool, necessarily, but it got me somewhere with the brainy chicks, like carrying around the McInerney, Ellis, and Wolfe novels I was (secretly) into at the time.

The snark that Spy probably invented was not all that uncommon back then. Rolling Stone and Spin had an edge, National Lampoon was funny if way over the top. But can you imagine a print glossy today that not only didn't suck up to the social elite, but actually tried to take them all down a peg? The downfall of print journalism isn't due to the Internet, it's the fact that that same Borders where I found the book had a magazine rack with a Michael Jackson memorial cover ratio of about 40%.

Should he even be on the cover of Car and Driver?

the spy 100
the spy 100 - click image for full version

Consequentially, no one can be trusted today. ESPN sucks up to the athletes. EW lauds the celebrities above a certain box office draw and trashes only when it's perfectly safe (Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, etc.). Political media is safely in the pocket of one side or the other. And nobody is minding the store. Spy had a knack for not only covering the sketchier side of celebrity, but documenting the machinations of the agents, publicists, handlers, and make-up artists that retouched the stories behind the stories behind the superstars.

I know what you're thinking. This kind of transparency is exactly what the Interwebs promised, and it is indeed delivering, but where Spy was Hefner-chic Playboy cool, the hole-pokers on the webs today are more Penthouse, if not Hustler.

yuppie porn
yuppie porn - click image for full version

Perez Hilton might be dangerous. Might be. But he isn't funny. OK, maybe he's Andy Kaufman funny, but the spotlight is more on the spectacle, with nothing to take away other than the base grit of the story. I felt sneaky ready Spy -- rule-breaky, if you will. I feel dirty reading Hilton.

Ain't-it-Cool, Smoking Gun, and whatsishname, Drudge, they've all become parodies of themselves.

And sure you've got the blogs - the Fugs, the TWOPs, Rotten Tomatoes and the like (Defamer was close, now that I think of it, before the makeover). They're great, but very niche. Seriously, how ugly Lindsey Lohan's outfits are really isn't the same kind of thing as a reporter sneaking into the most prestigious and powerful summer camp in history, hobnobbing with Kissinger, Rockefeller, and Bush I, and all the time I'm reading it wondering if it was indeed true.

bohemian grove
bohemian grove - click image for full version

And yeah, I suppose Intrepid Media is a direct descendent of Spy, although, like I said, I had completely forgotten about it. Funnily enough, Spy bowed out in 1998 (although by that time a slightly different pub) and we debuted in 1999 (ten years next month!). I had lost touch with it years before its demise, but I won't lie to you and say it had nothing to do with what you see here. I'm just saying it wasn't conscious, not like "Let's remake Spy!"

Intrepid was, however, born of the same stuff. As I read the retrospective and saw how Spy came together, I was shocked to discover how close the vibe was to what we were thinking -- let's do something on pop-culture, but for the love of all that is holy let's make it different, independent, honest, and funny. We're not out to get the elite, but we do reserve that right. And without Spy having shown me the way all those formative years ago, this would probably be more of a straight-up writers' site.

And by now it'd probably either be all kiss-ass or defunct.


ABOUT JOE PROCOPIO

Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.

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