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Friday, December 14, 2012

The Tenacity of the Cockroach

(I briefly mentioned this in yesterday's post, but I wanted to write a separate post on Keith Phipps' departure from The A.V. Club.)

When Keith broke the news on his site yesterday morning, I was surprised and saddened. I'm not one to think that one person will remain in the same job position until retirement, but the departure seemed abrupt. Especially since this was just a few days after The A.V. Club reached a pop culture milestone when it was spoofed on The Simpsons.

I will remain a daily reader of the site as long as the content is worth reading. I hope Keith will land on his feet in a job that brings out the best of his talents as a writer and editor. But I can't help reflect on how much the site has meant to me under his command. He had been with The Onion for fifteen years, helping make a small section of it into a full-on epicenter of pop culture discussions.

How I came to know Keith was from a very brief encounter while I was writing my first book. 

Back in 2004, I interviewed Bryan Jones, who was a longtime pen pal of mine because he played in a band that I loved called Horace Pinker. I wanted to talk to him about his involvement with At the Drive-In in their early days and we had a great discussion. As we finished up the interview, I expressed interest in talking with fellow writers for the book and he said he knew somebody at Punk Planet. That was Kyle Ryan, a fellow Houstonian and a writer/editor who had a number of his Punk Planet articles uploaded onto his personal site. I contacted Kyle via an e-mail address Bryan gave me, we hit it off right away, and about a year later, Kyle asked me if I wanted to write music reviews for Punk Planet. This was the first chance for my writing to be published in a printed capacity, so I jumped at the chance.

As it would turn out, I ended up working on only one issue with Kyle as my editor. He left Punk Planet to take a full-time job at The A.V. Club. Working with his successor Dave Hofer, I stayed with the magazine until it folded a couple of years later. I bore no hard feelings towards Kyle because by then, I was a regular (and avid) reader of The A.V. Club. I was proud of him to go onto a great place.

What led me to the site was The Tenacity of the Cockroach, a collection of A.V. Club interviews with all kinds of people in the entertainment industry. I was in the research phase with my book and I was looking for anything and everything I could use as reference material. I bought Tenacity because it had an interview with Ian MacKaye, one of the major players in the book I was trying to write. I was very interested in many of the other people interviewed, like Tom Waits, Aimee Mann, Gene Simmons, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and Jello Biafra. What was talked about and how it was talked about was quite different from anything I had ever read before. Talking more about the craft, the inner-workings of the entertainment business, and horror stories about the business, there was more substance to these interviews compared to other publications. These interviews were more conversational, like the ones I enjoyed reading in The Big Takeover. (If you want to know where I got my interview "style" from, it's Punk Planet, The Big Takeover, and The A.V. Club.)

Eventually I came back to Chicago and made a lunch date with Kyle. I went to his office, which he shared with Keith and a few other full-time writers. I introduced myself to Keith, told him about this book I was writing and the blog I was keeping to track the book's progress. Keith, pulling his keyboard in front of him, acted very interested in my project and asked for the name of my blog. Not too long after, Kyle and I went to lunch, and to this day, that has been the only time I've been in the same room with Keith.

Luckily, the power of the Internet allowed us to keep in contact over the years. Whether it was trading e-mails, commenting on respective blog posts, or befriending each other on various social networks (including MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and GoodReads) the lines of communication remained open. Given how The A.V. Club welcomes feedback and dialogue from their regular readers, I was happy to be a friend of the site, getting to know many of the other writers as well. (I had considered pitching/asking for some freelance work with them over the years, but decided not to, mainly because my fields of expertise are handled extremely well in the hands of Kyle, Jason Heller, Noel Murray, and Steven Hyden.)

The site has been a wonderful source for people like me who take a deeper look and appreciation of pop culture. Whether it's an Inventory, a Random Roles, or an A.V. Club Q&A, I usually find out something new or brand new information I can't find elsewhere. Where else could I find a genuinely well-written review by actual fans on a film about the Replacements or about Bob Mould's autobiography? Better yet, where else can I depend on writers who aren't trying to be hipper or cooler than the average consumer? As vast as the Internet is, these kinds of traits are a little hard to find in a reputable place.

I've found the site to be a place where I can find out about a new release by Texas is the Reason, a review of a micro-budget documentary about fathers and sons, and a well-written review of The Avengers. Usually, stuff on the fringes of pop culture stay on niche websites, but The A.V. Club tends to give things a better chance than other sites. Thanks to the site, I've seen many great films I was iffy about seeing initially (The Descent, The Mist, and Zodiac come to mind right away) and books I was iffy about reading (especially Jason Zinoman's Shock Value.) Doesn't matter how big or small the thing is, if there's a sizable interest with the readers, chances are, they'll cover it. (Personal note: I was honored when Jason Heller was kind enough to plug my then-unreleased book back in April of 2008.)

Wherever the site goes post-Keith, I want to give it a shot. If it goes in a direction that I don't like, I will simply stop reading it. I have a feeling they will continue to be good, given the number of writers I like that are still writing for them. (I certainly hope it doesn't take the direction that Idolator took after Maura Johnston left.)

But on a personal note, I'd like to talk about the virtual friendship that I've had with Keith since that brief conversation all those years ago. Because of blogs, Facebook status updates, updates on GoodReads, and tweets on Twitter, he's given light to things going on in his life. Be it details on the last few years of his father's life, the birth of his daughter, or a neighbor who was scared of him while he walked his dog, I've enjoyed the slices of life that he's shared. These are ways of keeping in touch when it's hard to find the time to see each other, e-mail each other, or talk on the phone.

When he announced his departure yesterday, many passed the word along via Twitter and Facebook, including myself. Many shared praises of his work and his personality, and it certainly was a delight when he tweeted last night: "Thanks to everyone who made me feel like Jimmy Stewart at the end of It's a Wonderful Life today." I think the praise was overdue, especially with the reputation he has built over the years.

In my time as a reader and a pen pal, there have been instances where what he said and what he did were kind. Extremely kind, actually, towards someone he'd only briefly talked to a number of years ago. When I had a question about some freelance database work and thought his wife Stevie could help answer my question, he sent me her way. When my previous girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer, he referred me to a friend of his named Jean who was in the process of finishing her cancer treatment. In addition, he told me two words that sounded so simple, but meant plenty when he wrote them in an e-mail: "Stay positive." And when he and Stevie sent Jean cupcakes with "Fuck Cancer" written on them, I was inspired to make vegan red velvet cupcakes featuring that phrase for my then-girlfriend's birthday.

Certainly meaning more than just another guy who writes and edits pop culture stuff, he's someone that exudes a positive personality. That's why when I read testimonials on Facebook by Todd VanDerWerff and Donna Bowman on Keith's impact on them, my heart was warm. I truly wish the best with what comes next for him. He deserves it.

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