The Nose magazine published from 1989-1995, 26 issues total, and was a combination of satirical news and weird-but-true stories culled from west of the Mississippi. We claimed 50,000 circulation, and counted among our subscribers Matt Groening, Jay Leno, George Carlin, and for some reason, one of the Pointer Sisters. The staff was almost all volunteer, and we were perpetually late with the office rent, but we managed to consistently produce five issues a year (a bi-monthly schedule of sorts).
Readers reported seeing copies in Hollywood waiting rooms, in Manhattan shop windows, and one well-thumbed issue made it to a bar in Costa Rica. Media response ranged from positive articles (“the successor to Lenny Bruce”, to a bewildering reaction from USA Today (“astonishingly offensive”), to radio interviews and MTV News. We sold T-shirts, buttons, roadkill calendars, and “postal killer” caps, which were US Postal Service caps decorated with a bloody bullet hole.
Each issue was launched with a crazy themed party. We figured it would get listed in the media, and the freaks always came out of the woodwork and filled the room nicely. We produced way too many events, including several comedy variety shows, a diaper fashion show, a Gulf War anti-patriotism bash, a New Age book-burning at the beach, Bettie Page lookalike contests, two big nights with the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, a weeks’ worth of parties in Los Angeles (with special guests Billy Idol and Jimmy Page), a “Battle of the Bands,” and a marijuana nostalgia warehouse “happening” featuring a stoner-rock band made up of the masthead.
There was lots and lots of drinking. The office received a steady stream of invitations to parties inSan Francisco, and the staff was determined to hit every one of them and stay until they kicked us out. Advertisers donated cases of beer and tequila and vodka. I vaguely remember attending a party for Pete’s Wicked Ale, and when the PR flacks told us we could take a case home, five editors immediately grabbed two cases each, and we hauled them on foot back to our office. We held editorial meetings at the Edinburgh Castle pub in the Tenderloin, and because of the alcohol consumption, it was necessary to call separate meetings just to write headlines.
We were banned from Safeway, and at least one prison, and received plenty of angry letters from upset parents. But for everyone involved, it would be the most fun anyone would ever have in the publishing industry.
It started in 1988 when I approached a small magazine publisher in San Francisco with the idea of doing a satirical investigative magazine along the lines of Spy. Except instead of New York and the Ivy League, it would be about the America I knew – the Western U.S., filled with crackers and outlaws and freaks. It made perfect sense, San Francisco was the weirdo capital of America in the late 1980s, why not capitalize on the abundant natural resources available? At the time I was obsessed with the magazines of Robert Harrison from the late 40s and early 50s, titles like Confidential and Whisper. The graphics were bold and outrageous, and the language was tight, tales about fighting animals and VD in the Navy, and Frank Sinatra eating Wheaties to keep up his stamina during a weekend tryst. And yet in the day, these were the most popular magazines in America.
I wanted to pay tribute to this era, which looked like a lot more fun than most magazines I saw on the newsstand in the late 1980s. And we also set out to chronicle the nation’s growing subculture of bizarre behavior and fascination with apocalyptic information. All across America, kids were getting tattoos and piercings, Lollapalooza was touring, bands decorated their CDs with surgical photos and vintage cheesecake, fringe publishers were producing books and zines about Freemasons and UFOs and serial killers. So why not have some fun, right?
We met in a diner in the Tenderloin populated by transvestites, and discussed the idea. I came prepared with a five-year spreadsheet of numbers that were wildly exaggerated and completely unattainable. But we got past all that logical business stuff, and agreed he would handle the publishing and I would be the editor. Easily stolen desktop software was creating a miniature boom in publishing, and the Bay Area was already beginning to flood with cool magazines like On Our Backs and Mondo 2000.
A newsstand South of Market was our first office, and we launched The Nose in the spring of 1989 as a free insert in one of the city’s weekly newspapers. The cover story, about the local parking system, included tips on how to vandalize meters, and paint curbs with the same paint used by the city. On the day of our launch, Rob Morse, a columnist at the San Francisco Examiner, completely trashed our debut issue. Needless to say, his review put a bit of a damper on the launch party. We promptly printed up envelopes that read “THE MAGAZINE ROB MORSE HATES,” stuffed our issue inside of each, snuck inside the building which at that time housed both the Examiner and the Chronicle, and left one inside the mailbox of every employee at both papers. I don’t know what this accomplished exactly, but it made us feel better.
With each issue, we attracted more advertisers and more volunteer contributors, and after a few years we had a core group of editors who slaved over every piece of copy with the same precision as any magazine coming out of New York. We created funny departments like a Police Blotter column composed solely of items where police officers committed crimes against ordinary citizens. A pseudonymous “Paige Turner” compiled a weird news page. We ran gossip columns for publishing, business, and entertainment. Regular columnists included political comedian Will Durst, commentator Ian Shoales, weird vinyl expert Gregg Turkington, musical satirist J. Raoul Brody, and a dubious food critic named Earl C. Woodruff, a cranky retired Marine sergeant who nevertheless happened to know a great deal about everything from French cuisine, to smart drugs and the art of preparing chili for a thousand men in the battlefield. Woodruff was taken seriously by many readers. He received invitations to foodie events like the James Beard Awards, and was even mailed a sample pack of gourmet salsas, from the daughters of Barry Goldwater.
Because so many of the editors grew up reading MAD and National Lampoon, we occasionally produced parodies of popular magazines like Men’s Journal, and phony ads for a Kurt Cobain “Spoonbender” guitar pedal, and the Marlboro Adventure Team. And with a nod to San Francisco’s desperate appeal to tourists, we published a stand-alone map of the city, which featured historical sites like the Manson Family house, and the location of Billie Holliday’s drug bust. The mayor unwittingly contributed a very nice introductory letter. A couple of production companies met with us about creating a TV series for the Comedy Channel, but like so many meetings, it never went anywhere.
Dozens of contributors came from all over the U.S., and many have gone on to careers of their own, from comedians like Greg Proops, Patton Oswalt and Marc Maron, to book authors, TV producers, screenwriters, and a slew of writers and artists for magazines like Playboy, Maxim, Blender, Vogue, Esquire, Wired, Salon, Mother Jones, New Yorker, and the New York Times.
It’s been several years, but I still hold some favorite stories dear. I got to interview Spinal Tap and Bill Hicks, and check out Tijuana bullfights and the Branch Davidian anniversary. A freelancer from New Mexico wrote us a great feature about the Catholic Church’s “Club Ped” facility for wayward pedophile priests, complete with photos of the sun-drenched tennis court. A retired military photojournalist contributed one of the earliest stories about the secret Area 51 base in the Nevada desert, and The Nose was the first magazine to run photos of the base (technically, a federal offense). We did an amazing fashion shoot with the reclusive Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. A doctor acquaintance alerted us to the peculiar medical oddity of autoerotic asphyxiation with John Deere tractors, which became a terrific feature, “Love in Low Gear.” Legendary zine author John Marr provided a couple of tremendous stories about deaths at Disneyland, and heinous crimes committed by renegade Mormons. Page Six of the New York Post wrote up our official California execution application. A cover story about how to eat your dog, alongside Asian recipes that began with instructions like “Eviscerate and clean a puppy,” brought a slew of hate mail, particularly from Orange County. We once interviewed a homeless woman who claimed to hang out with Warhol and was once married to Jack Nicholson. And a Los Angeles writer wrote a great little essay about spotting Charles Bukowski at the racetrack, and following him around trying to get an interview.
In retrospect, I have to agree it must have been difficult to sell ads for a magazine that tells readers how to eat their pet. We lasted longer than most start-ups did, but I knew it wasn’t going to last forever. And maybe we pushed it too far, but how often do you ever get that chance? It all collapsed in 1995, when the publisher pulled the plug, scattering everyone to the winds. Everyone went on a month-long bender, and then went back to their lives.
One reason it might have tanked, I found out later, was because of our accountant, an alcoholic who wore an ankle bracelet because he had killed someone in a hit-and-run accident. He was always nice, but stunk of gin and had a perpetually red face. It seems incomprehensible to hire such a person to mind the books, but our publisher had a soft spot for people in AA. Except I don’t think this guy was attending all of the meetings.
Not long after he began doing our finances, the magazine ran out of money. He then worked for a law firm, and was caught forging a check for several thousand dollars. After getting released from jail, he apparently embarked upon a freelance criminal spree, robbing banks and running off to gamble away the loot in Las Vegas with his girlfriend. San Francisco police eventually nabbed him in a bank in the Marina District, waving a pistol. He went to prison, and the last I heard he was writing his memoirs about his time spent as a legendary outlaw figure. If you ever read this, Chris, thanks for nothing.
Some people have told me over the years, that “the Daily Show stole your idea,” or “The Onion ripped you off.” I don’t know if any of that is true, and I don’t really care. We were just making it up as we went along. The whole experience was like being on the Bonneville Salt Flats of publishing, just run it up until the engine blows and the wheels fall off. And they eventually did. But I wouldn’t trade any of those six years for anything. Maybe someday I’ll publish something more substantial about The Nose, but for now here’s the short version, and some scans of the pages. A big thank you to all the people who helped put the magazine together over the years, especially the editors who hung in there for so long.