What a bittersweet little sojourn down memory lane it was, reaching into one of those nasty free boxes from which the Village Voice is dispensed these days to pick up a copy of the paper’s 50th-anniversary issue. A big, fat thing it was, too, the big five-oh, sporting a reproduction of a Voice cover from each year of its existence, 1955 on to now. There were reprints of old stories, rekindlings of famous, long-vanished bylines. Up front was Mailer’s, of course, the founding editor lambasting the paper’s nonexistent copy department for so many “obvious mis-spellings,” meaning alterations in his essay “The Hip and the Square,” and saying that he had no choice, given “the fairly sharp words—certain things said which can hardly be unsaid,” but to resign his column.
Other hallowed names were invoked: Jane Jacobs, who stopped Robert Moses’s Lower Manhattan Expressway, thereby making Soho safe for Prada, and Jack Newfield, who sent crooked judges and landlords to jail, ten at a time. Noted too were Jonas Mekas, Andrew Sarris (how much us budding Queens auteur theorists owed him!), the beatnik John Wilcock, Howard Smith, jill johnston (only lowercase for her), Lucian Truscott IV, Alexander Cockburn, Ellen Willis, and dozens more, with pictures by Fred McDarrah and cartoons by Feiffer, one more dance to the newsprint fungibility of it all.
The Voice: How to explain what it meant, in 1961, to plunk down a dime onto the counter of Union newsstand on 188th Street and thumb through those mucky little pages—pages that opened a Cocteau-like portal to a whole other world. Here was the ticket from Mom’s pot roast, from civil service and the neat six-foot square of lawn in front of the corner house on 53rd Avenue. Simply to be seen with the Voice set you apart: You were one of those people—hair too long, mouth too smart, not likely to go to the prom. Growing up in Flushing, the dream felt good.
Later on, as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, I had a subscription. The guys in the hall, all aggie majors and barely closeted Jew-haters (I assumed), looked at the picture of LeRoi Jones on the cover and asked, “What’s this, a commie paper?” No, I tried to explain to these sons of McCarthy, it wasn’t a commie paper, it had a lot of stuff in it: politics, jazz, stuff about movies. I tried to tell them I read the paper because I was from New York and to me the Voice embodied the legitimate, indigenous clarion of what mattered. Really, I read it because I was homesick and the Voice was my lifeline; it kept me sane, and warm, in the middle of goddamn Wisconsin, where the temperature hadn’t broken zero in weeks.
My dorm mates looked over the paper again. There were some naked hippies in there, I think, maybe a Newfield piece about some judge who took money. “This is a commie paper,” they said again. “Yeah, right, it’s a commie paper, you farmers,” I said, slamming the dorm-room door. The Voice: It was an attitude, back then.
This, and the fact that I would wind up writing for the paper during the seventies and eighties, made the 50th-anniversary issue a perfect nostalgia storm: Like, wow, look at that picture of Dustin Hoffman, I forgot he lived right next to that townhouse on 11th Street the Weather Underground bombers blew up. What a long, strange proverbial trip.
That was my frame of mind as I slipped past security at the current Voice office at 36 Cooper Square. I wanted to be there because it figured to be a special day, one that could only be conjured by the lords of irony that often hover over the Village Voice. On this day, the same one that the 50th-anniversary issue hit the streets, the Voice management thought it would be an excellent idea to have the paper’s new owner come by for the very first time. And there he was, blown in from the Barry Goldwater–whelped precincts of Phoenix, Arizona, no less, one Mr. Michael Lacey, a tallish 57-year-old with spiky gray hair, watery pale-blue eyes, and spreading shanty-Irish honker.
In the 50th, there is a piece by Jarrett Murphy tracking the checkered history of Voice ownership. They are all in there, from Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher, who along with Mailer spent $10,000 to open the paper in a second-floor office at 22 Greenwich Avenue. Wolf sold it to Kennedy pal Carter Burden, who sold it to Clay Felker, the founder of New York Magazine. Felker (one afternoon a disgruntled playwright who got a bad review burst into the office and screamed, “Clay Felker! Your days are numbered,” prompting the entire staff to stand up and cheer) lost the place to Rupert Murdoch, the penultimate bigger fish who knew not to mess with a moneymaker no matter what anti-Republican swill it published. After that came Leonard Stern, the pet-food magnate, who paid an unthinkable $55 million in 1985. By 2000, Stern sold out to a consortium of faceless bankers and lawyers for $170 million. Now there was Lacey, almost certainly the only Voice owner to get his kicks from revving his mustard yellow Mustang Cobra past 100 while cruising the Navajo Reservation.