Downtown Dirt By Manhole: Metro Pulse RIP

The funeral has ended; the eulogies have been spoken; the last shovelfuls of fresh dirt have been ladled over the coffin. Let the mourning period commence, brief as it may be in this Era of the Short Attention Span.

And yet before we turn another page in the Book of Life, relegating the story of Metro Pulse, Knoxville’s erstwhile alternative weekly, to just another Previous Chapter, I would first have my say. I was a part of Metro Pulse, as either a full-time staff member or a chief contributor, for a goodly number of years. Right up to the end, in point of fact. And mine is a perspective that can be freely shared, as there is no severance check held hostage to purchase my silence.

The Metro Pulse I will always hold dear in my heart was a wondrous place. Sitting in my cubicle on the third floor of the Arnstein Building—or maybe it was the fifth floor; time plays tricks, and all of that—on a weekday afternoon was akin to hanging out after hours at the carnie, with the barker making the rounds in his top hat, singing old war songs with a bottle of whiskey in hand, and the Fat Lady playing dice in the corner with Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.

Perched in my cubie, it was not uncommon to see someone whiz past on a kick scooter, or saunter by whilst keeping aloft four or five juggling pins. Or—and this was always my favorite—tour the office quite un-self-consciously in a full-length gorilla costume.

Weird and wonderful toys abounded, shoveled into every shelf and cranny—oddments, like the aforementioned juggling pins, related to the weird personal obsessions of the people who worked at MP, or else items offered up by various entities seeking some free advertising. Or at least a little attention.

My own personal collection from years of working at Metro Pulse included a 12-inch Iron Man action figure complete with operational flashlight repulsor rays; a hollowed-out emu egg; a gaggle of life-like plastic insects; a rubber snake; countless rock-star publicity photos; and an 18-inch hard-plastic moving/talking robot-elephant action figure named “Robo-Ele-Man”—a Made-in-Japan oddity that spoke two phrases, in weird, broken English.

In one corner of the room, sitting lonely on a shelf, was a product sample submitted by some poor, lost soul, a tin of what was purported to be—and I am not making this up—Vegetarian Haggis. Which always prompted me to think: Anyone who claims to be vegetarian, yet still craves something as repulsive as haggis, is truly in a state of profound denial.

My co-workers, for the most part, were a delightful, fun-loving lot. Many of them will remain dear in my heart for many years to come; one or two will be among the last fading images in my softening brain as it succumbs to the harrowing ravages of dementia.

It’s been well-chronicled that Metro Pulse began in the early ‘90s with Rand Pearson, a 25-year-old kid with big ideas and a gift of gab, teaming up with Ashley Capps, the man who would be King of music promotion in the Southeastern United States. They’re the ones who came up with the idea of founding a new music-and-arts publication, got the damned thing off the ground and running…

But for me the story of Metro Pulse began with Ian Blackburn, a mop-topped weirdo in soda-bottle glasses with a penchant for juggling. Co-founder of another clever, albeit short-lived little rag dubbed The Lame Monkey Manifesto, Ian was recruited for his technical expertise.

But the truth was that Ian—who stayed with the paper well into the next millenium, as IT specialist, designer, utility man, resident eccentric—was the only employee in the paper’s history who could have conceivably worked any job at the publication. Except for ad sales; no one will buy an ad from a man in a monkey suit.

Next on the MP Who’s Who roster is editor Coury Turczyn, a Detroit native and refugee editor from an L.A. monster truck magazine, who first came on board when the paper was still in its infancy, and later came back, after some years’ absence, to shepherd it through the final chapter. His vision defined the paper over the course of two long editorial stints; without him, there would have been no Metro Pulse, or at least not one that resembled the top-drawer weekly that so many Knoxvillians came to love, and sometimes loathe.

And then there is Joe Sullivan. Dear Old Papa Joe. A rich guy who made his fortune in some arcane Chicago financial market that none of us understood, Joe had also been a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, back at the dawn of time. He was rambling, fussy, neurotic, obsessive, and quite possibly the world’s messiest eater. Think Jimmy Stewart, in the throes of Prozac withdrawal.

But for all of his eccentricities, Joe was a prince among men. He had a heart of gold, and he loved Metro Pulse. Not only did he keep the paper afloat—despite the fact that it was seriously in the red for the first decade-plus of its existence—he also spent more money on the editorial product (as a percentage of revenues) than any other publisher of a comparable-sized weekly in the United States. When I am elected Pope—and this is inevitable, I think, in spite of my contempt for organized religion—I will nominate Joe Sullivan for sainthood.

And while I’m mentioning Metro Pulse sine qua nons, I mustn’t leave out Jesse Fox Mayshark. The proud owner of Knoxville’s most memorable tripartite byline, Mayshark was the pasty-faced vegetarian New York liberal son of Buddhist parents. Like Coury, he served two stints as a Metro Pulse editor, guiding the paper into the new millennium when Turczyn took his first leave of absence. The paper’s role as observer of the body politic was never stronger than when Jesse was at the helm.

And then there’s Jack Neely. For the public at large, no single person embodied Metro Pulse more than Jack. If his singular prose was the voice most associated with the paper for nearly 20 years, his wisdom and depth of observation were its very soul.

There were many other staff members over the years who did many wonderful and important things—I love some of them; I respect all of them. But if you want the history of Metro Pulse in six people or less, that would be it. Anyone who tells you different just wasn’t there.

My own history with the paper was… checkered, to say the least. I got fired by Metro Pulse a total of four times over the years, and rehired thrice. These circumstances were owing to the fact that I was prone to abusing many strange and terrible chemical substances, compounds that normal, well-behaved people wouldn’t use to flush out a grease trap. And I would often choose supremely… inopportune moments to get really waxed. Like the night before a big deadline. Or maybe in the office bathroom, in the middle of the workday.

Or maybe my MP bosses just had an unreasonable proscription against employees sleeping under their desks at 2 in the afternoon. Who’s to say? In any case, they allowed me to stick around as a free-lancer, and to attend weekly staff meetings, even after repeated firings. Presumably because they liked me, or at least, because they liked my work.

There’s no accounting for taste.

It has often amused me to listen to other people talk about Metro Pulse—particularly the paper’s editorial direction—as if they had some special insight into what was happening behind the scenes. At any given point, a certain number of people were prone to believing that the paper had taken a nosedive in quality as compared to some other, favored era of its publication, or that its editorial direction had been radically swayed by some particular malign influence.

The truth is this: We had our problems, from time to time, but for the most part, no one ever guessed what those problems really were.

We had our sacred cows, too, certain cans of worms we weren’t supposed to open. Joe loved Big Jim Haslam, for instance, thought the man could do no wrong; Brian Conley—who purchased the paper from Joe around 2003—got uptight when we wrote about KCDC, with whom he had done business in years past; Scripps had the proverbial cow when a reporter wrote about possible malfeasance at an area grocery store pharmacy, where local junkies were allegedly wont to score scrips of oxycontin.

But the scared cows were different with each of the four owners we enjoyed/suffered under. And the fact is that every single commercially viable print publication in existence has a few subjects around which they must tread lightly, else face the wrath of advertisers or politicos or the publisher’s mother-in-law. We had fewer than most.

The Scripps takeover started auspiciously enough. My friend Leslie Wylie was leaving the editorship, and Scripps did the right thing by rehiring Coury, who was back in town after a few years in Alabama, and then California.

But over time, Scripps’ culture took a heavy toll on an office that had once been a haven for merriment and amok creativity. Metro Pulse was a drabber, quieter place under Scripps’ reign. Gone were the scooters and ape suits and toys, swallowed by the leaden air of corporatism.

And in his regular meetings with Scripps’ Weasel-in-Chief, Coury found himself increasingly on the defensive, warding off the corporation’s natural instinct to @#$ everything up.

Metro Pulse was making money in its latter years, but apparently not enough money to satisfy the Scripps overlords. Coury was frequently told that though the paper was profitable, it wasn’t meeting projections, moving-target figures that publisher Patrick Birmingham seemingly plucked out of his ass in the executive washroom, probably whilst attempting to remove his head from the orifice in question.

On many occasions, he threatened to move Metro Pulse out of its office space downtown, above the Tennessee Theatre, and into the New Sentinel complex on Western Avenue. Which was a move that would have surely spelled the end of MP’s editorial autonomy.

Then when art director Travis Gray said he was leaving, picking up and moving back home to Nashville, Birmingham told Coury he couldn’t hire a replacement, due to a Scripps “hiring freeze.” Was that a sign? Probably. A month later, on a Wednesday afternoon the day after the staff had put the Oct. 16 issue to bed, Scripps called a lunchtime meeting and told everyone at Metro Pulse to—and I’m paraphrasing here—GTFO.

So now Metro Pulse is gone, and I’m sad. Because I’m tolerably sure we’ll never see its like again. Print media is a dead horse anyway; most people now can’t muster the mental focus to read anything longer than a tweet.

Except for Scruffington Post readers, of course. You people are a sharp, discriminating lot, and I love both of you like I love my right arm. See you in two weeks.

4 thoughts on “Downtown Dirt By Manhole: Metro Pulse RIP

  1. I was responsible for the Vegetarian Haggis, btw. It was a souvenir from a trip to Scotland and I’d given it to Jesse, who was our token vegetarian. Mystery solved.

    • Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to former Metro Pulse entertainment editor Adrienne Martini.
      And I still maintain that if Mayshark had actually eaten the stuff, then he would qualify as a closeted carnivore.

  2. One of my fondest MP memories is overhearing you on the phone with a reader highly irate over some story, wherein you explained in majestically eloquent terms exactly why he was completely full of shit.

  3. I’m glad to know you got fired too. When I was fired the Monday before Thanksgiving many years ago, I was in shock and told you and you said “bye.” Single mother, no insurance, the holidays coming up. I wasn’t one of the cool kids and no one cared. Except Jack. I am thankful Jack is still my friend. I miss Metro Pulse too and glad I survived those times.

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