When I was a child, around 11 years old, the magazine known as Heavy Metal (HM, henceforth) was a cultural force. Some of you might remember the animated film (rumoured, among my schoolyard buddies, to feature cartoon fellatio). Critics say the film was a half-baked, semi-coherent romp, strategically aimed at regressive men (read, fanboys) and pubescent boys – and they have a very strong point. I believe the film went a long way towards both popularizing and tarnishing the mostly-misunderstood magazine of the same name. It’s now best-remembered for its all-star soundtrack and as much as I love and often wax-nostalgic for that double vinyl record with the iconic Achilleos sleeve, IMHO the film’s music supervisors got it all wrong (with the exception of including Devo and Trust). The music of HM was not classic rock, hard rock or even heavy metal…
I bought my first issue of HM in the summer of 82 (July issue) while on a camping trip with my family. It was right there on the newsstand in the park store, right at knee height. The cover sported two robots in a passionate embrace. After all, those were the tumultuous, post-sexual-revolution, days of the Reagan-Era. But even by those really low standards, and despite having a woman on the editorial staff (Julie Simmons-Lynch, if I recall correctly), the magazine seemed positively retrograde when it came to issues of social equality. This would play a major force in shaping my adolescent self and perhaps damage it (something I will write about in another piece). It took a lot of deprogramming to heal some of that damage…
If the July 82 issue’s cover wasn’t enough to spark a little controversy with my parents, upon opening the mag and finding fully-rendered nude women and (softcore) sex scenes (and Den with his dork hanging out), my mother promptly threw the thing into the campfire. But I was hooked. I was hooked not only for the amazing art and bombastic works of the likes of Jean Giraud (AKA Möbius or Moebius), Philippe Druillet, Richard Corben, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and more…but also by the editorial section titled Dossier – a collection of interviews with pop culture (and cult) icons, book and record reviews and thought pieces – edited (with copious contributions by) one Lou Stathis. This guy should have worked at Creem or Rolling Stone….HM was literally my first exposure to the living counterculture that still (miraculously) existed in the Satan-obsessed Age of Reagan.
Let me give you three excellent examples, all from that very same July 82 issue:
Exhibit A: You may know Michael Gira as the frontman for the seminal no-wave/art-rock project Swans. His piece in the Dossier, entitled Entertainment Through Pain, introduces the reader to three seminal cult bands on the vanguard of artful noise: Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and The Heat. Gira says of Throbbing Gristle, “this is music you’ll hear as you prowl the sewers looking for food.”
Exhibit B: In 1982 the video arcade phenomenon was in full swing and video games felt like some artifact transported from a promised future. Cartoonist and founder of Punk Magazine, John Holmstrom contributed his take on the very-popular game, Donkey Kong in his short piece entitled, Nintendo’s Donkey Kong: Morality Tale Or Theatre Of The Absurd. Holmstrom compares the video game’s protagonist (the yet-to-be-named Mario) to Don Quixote and concludes, “the game echoes modern existential despair.” He does raise the interesting point: “the fact that video games involve the player more directly and intimately than books, film or tv has not yet been appreciated by any major media critic.”
Exhibit C: Stathis also contributed his regular Nu Vinyl column; this one dedicated to the burgeoning new movement in music he called Electro-Popism. Herein he introduced my eleven-year-old self to such bands as Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, Fad Gadget, Yellow, Japan, Wall of Voodoo, among others; most of whom got lackluster reviews. He declared Soft Cell a “low-rent, up-market Suicide.” (By Suicide, he meant the 70’s minimalist electro-punk band.)
What an education! But Back to Stathis himself.
From what I can tell, Stathis started out at HM, strictly as a contributor, writing a music column (the rather blandly named Muzick) and despite the magazine’s namesake, Stathis seemed to have a penchant for the new and this primarily meant obscure, ambient, synth-driven sounds as well as post-punk and new wave. I happen to own the January 1980 issue where Stathis’ column first appears and he clearly draws a line in the musical sand by condensing any progress made in music during the 1970’s down to three letters: Eno. In the same article, he claims: “all that was authentic to the seventies can be summed up in about four words: Roxy Music and Sex Pistols.” But for Stathis, Brian Eno set the bar, and drew a direct evolutionary line to bands such as (I quote) “the Cars, Magazine, Gary Numan and Tubeway Army, Wire, Devo, the Residents, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, (and) XTC.” The only redeemable artist from the 60’s? He lists: “Beatles, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, the Soft Machine, Iggy and the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground.” Of all the bands listed, I knew the Beatles and Pink Floyd (and I thank Lou for introducing me to all the remaining names).
When it was first thrown at the American newsstands (to see if it stuck), HM was all about the full colour, post-psychedelic visuals of the then-burgeoning European comics scene. While in France, overseeing the launch of the French/Euro version of his widely-popular humour magazine National Lampoon, Leonard Mogul discovered Les Humanoïdes Associés – a loose affiliation and imprint set up by Europe’s comics luminaries – and their amazing and vibrant bedsheet magazine, Métal Hurlant. For the first few years (April 1977 – January 1980), HM was primarily a note-for-note reprint of Hurlant, stripped of any editorial content and with its cramped speech balloons loosely translated into English. Early issues of HM sported the occasional fantasy/sci-fi novel excerpt or short story but very little in the way of actual editorial content. The section misleadingly named Editorial was often less than a few hundred words and rarely touched on anything outside the vacuum of the issue in hand. The letters column had the rather-campy name, Chain Mail.
Early HM was a cult phenomenon. It was considered a ground-level magazine – that is, something that straddled the precarious line between the underground and mainstream. It was a big hit with stoners, loners, and proto-geeks who liked their fantasy “swords and sorcery” and their sci-fi dark and gritty. In January 1980 the original editorial team of Sean Kelly and Valarie Merchant was replaced by one Ted White. The blog, hoodedutilitarian goes into some detail about how Mr. White had a very different, much more literary, vision for HM. It was Mr. White who first brought the mysterious Lou Stathis to the pages of HM and I thank him.
White had known Stathis for some time, well before he took the editorial reigns of HM. For years, White had been editing mainstream sci-fi/fantasy magazines in the 1970s, like Amazing Stories and Fantastic, when he first hired Stathis as a columnist. Naturally, Stathis was one of four regular columnists White hired for HM’s new editorial stance. Stathis on music, Jay Kinney on “comix,” Bhob Stewart on film, and Steve Brown on science fiction literature.
From an obituary piece written for a fanzine called Apparatchik in 1997, White’s recollection of his relationship with Stathis seems almost paternal. He writes:
I saw him [sic] great talent as a writer, which I encouraged editorially. I first published him, as a (brief) columnist, in Fantastic. Then, when I moved to Heavy Metal, I launched his career as a music writer by giving him a rock (or, as he spelled it in those days, “rok”) column. After I left HM, Lou succeeded Brad Balfour as HM’s “magazine section” editor…
That “magazine section” was Dossier. Stathis had been given the reigns to Dossier beginning with the May 82 issue. Stathis would go on to take Dossier (previously edited by Brad Balfour) to new heights. During his time overseeing the section he wrote a lot of music reviews (some full of classic Stathis vitriol) and did a lot of great interviews. These interviews ranged from the very obscure (the NYC synth band, Our Daughters Wedding to mind) to culture icons, like David Lynch. (Thankfully, the Lynch interview still lingers on the internet.)
I forgot to mention that Lou Stathis died young. He died in 1997. He had a brain tumour. He was only 45 years old. White’s memorial piece in Apparatchik gives some insight into Stathis’ life and humanity. He was never married but many of his ex-girlfriends came to the funeral. His last girlfriend, “on whose shoulders many of the burdens of his death fell,” writes White, stayed with him to the very end. According to White’s account, he had many friends. His funeral service was well-attended and partially in Greek. His Manhattan penthouse apartment was modest but also a mecca for late-working HM staff as well as visitors from out of town for many years after HM’s heyday. Like White, he had become a mentor to many in the writing and publishing business. Again, in his Apparatchik piece, White writes:
I was struck my how any people there felt they owed Lou a great deal — for discovering them, encouraging them, and prompting their best work, as their editor or boss. As someone who had played that role for Lou, it was fascinating to hear how well he’d passed it along to others. And it was odd to hear Lou — 14 years my junior — referred to as some sort of senior eminence by those who were younger yet.
By July 1985, Stathis was no longer on the HM masthead. He moved on to other places. For a while he was senior editor for High Times and for the last few years of his life he worked for DC Comics’ Vertigo Line (working on such titles as Preacher).
By 1985 (and perhaps as early as 1984) HM started to go downhill. It went quarterly, the Dossier section was phased out, it got a little too racy (featured a lot of gratuitous rape) and sort of lost its cool. Even though I was an impressionable teenage boy, the new format didn’t jive with my sensibilities and I stopped buying issues around this time. To top it off, HM lost Stathis.
Above and beyond my own collection of Heavy Metal magazines, I owe many debts to the following blogs and websites for many of the facts I present here: