A Hell Of A Run:
Leather Publishing And San Francisco
[Note: This is the third in a series of five articles originally published in the Official Folsom Fair Program for the annual San Francisco Folsom Street Fair. I have had the privilege to write for the Program for several years and I would like to thank my publishers and the Folsom Street Fair Board for allowing me to share them with you. This was published in the 2001 Program.]
We may not be able to define whether we are a leather tribe, a kink kulture, a SMBD nation or a fetish sub-culture or a community. We may not agree about our history or traditions, we may dispute and criticize where we are going, but most of us know where we first saw the stories and images that first started us on a journey of sexual exploration.
The late 1970's to late 1980's incubated many of the most familiar names in gay male leather and SM erotica: Drummer, Bear, Manifest Reader, Bound & Gagged. While there were many commercial sex magazines with leather or SM themes, they were usually either clinical knot-tying manuals or else just another offering by straight-owned smut factories. These magazines were different. These were more than mere pornography; they were our textbooks, our yellow pages and our scripture. They were created and owned by gay men for gay men. Many of these sprang up here in San Francisco and their roots, growth and decline paralleled the Golden Age of the city's leather underground. These publications were the wild, youthful, fiercely independent voices of an awakening generation. They all shared explosive growth, losses and hard times and now they all seem to feel the aches of encroaching middle age.
John Embry started Drummer magazine in 1975 with $2,000 and leased production facilities in Los Angeles. In 1977, the publication moved to San Francisco, setting up shop first on Divisidero. Embry's publishing company, Alternate Publishing, experimented with many different formats including launching Mach, Foreskin Quarterly, Alternate and several other titles. At one time, operations included a leather shop and a bar named the Drummer Club, both located south of Market in San Francisco.
Embry sold Drummer in 1986 to the late Tony DeBlase who in turn sold it in 1991 to Martijn Bakker of Amsterdam. The last Drummer (Issue 214) published in April of 1999. At nearly the same time, an agreement was being negotiated to lease the rights to the International Mr. Drummer contests (which had been held in San Francisco since 1981) to an organization in Pittsburgh, thus ending San Francisco's historic relationship with the Drummer name.
After Drummer, Embry and his Alternate Publishing continued to print irregularly Manifest Reader, Manhood Rituals and other special issues. In 1999, Manifest Reader and Manhood Rituals were combined to create SuperMR magazine, which included classic Robert Payne (Embry's alter ego) touches as well as website reviews, published six issues over the next year. The last issue was released in February of 2001.
Bound & Gagged
Bob Wingate started Bound & Gagged magazine in 1987 with $2,000 and several hundred completed questionnaires filled out by people revealing their deepest bondage fantasies and experiences. Soon after publishing the first few issues, Wingate's mailbox was flooded with more letters sharing steamy stories in their own words, giving Bound & Gagged it's unique character.
"I found it to be the best porn I had ever read," says Wingate. "It was head and shoulders above all the slicker and more polished porn and to me it seemed to have an authenticity, a "real" sound to it. You could hear the tone of the people's voices who were writing."
Although based in New York, the bondage monthly's subscription base and many correspondents were centered in San Francisco. But recently, the magazine has had to run pleas for material. Even from its secure niche, Bound & Gagged has seen a decline in advertising and sales.
Brush Creek Media
Bear magazine started in 1987 and produced 64 issues of the seminal voice that spoke for an entire group of previously over-looked market or masculine, hirsute, husky gay men. After acquiring International Leatherman from Packwood Publishing, Brush Creek Media at one time produced a total of nine gay titles including Foreskin Quarterly, Bunkhouse, Roundup, Hombres, GBM, Powerplay and Mach in addition to an extensive video catalog and the Bear and LeSalon retail stores.
But this spring Brush Creek drastically cut employees and reduced their magazine titles by half., culminating in an embarrassing week when the offices were padlocked by the IRS.
The business changed. The technology changed. The people who manufactured and sold dreams changed, as did the people buying dreams. These publications were hardly immune to the same economic realities that face straight publishers. Drummer made the classic mistake many "new economy" media companies moving into the Internet had done. Blinded by the vision of reduced overhead, they forgot two very important elements: voice and value. In shedding the production, printing and shipping costs, they also discarded reliable sources for new content and the revenue stream of advertisers and sales that gave the brandname worth.
Graylin Thornton, former editor at Brush Creek Media, observes, "When these magazines were started they were more of a labor of love. But then the original owner eventually gets out and when they change hands they become not so much a labor of love any longer but they need to be a money-making tool." Blaming overly ambitious expansion for Brush Creek's recent troubles, he quickly allows that there are many other forces at work.
Discussing the impact of age and AIDS on the market: "The segment of the population, who made a lot of those magazines and the Leatherman's Handbook popular, are gone. People coming up today do not necessarily want to read. A younger generation doesn't know who these people are, nor do they really care. They are not accessible, hot men to them. The people we see as the "leather gods" are just old men to them and they have not interest in old men or old men's magazines."
Leather publications, like the sub-culture itself, cannot escape the normal dynamics of a generation gap exacerbated by epidemic. Of course the men who are seen, the ones who survive in our community, seem old. We are old; at least five or ten years older compared to the men who initiated and mentored us. That transitional generation is gone, and the young have only two future destinies to model upon: the surviving or the dead. This is what it looks like to survive past 40.
Thornton says, "You can pass down leather and clothes, but you can't pass down passion. The passion isn't there. It didn't make it through."
About the changing market, John Embry sees "a lack of creativity out there." He noted also that "all publishing has changed so much. Drummer started out at $2.50 a copy. Now you can barely make it selling something for $10 a copy."
Mainstream magazines make up the difference between the price paid per copy (often only 30% of the cover price) and the cost of production with advertising dollars. Because of the content of gay, adult, specialty magazines, advertising dollars are limited. The more daring the content, the more restricted the market.
Moving into the digital age, Bob Wingate says, "It's this insatiable 'I want more, I want more, I want more' tone that you get out of people nowadays that to me is a little daunting for anyone who is trying to survive through the Internet. There is only so much that any one person, or group, or company or magazine can do."
He sees the Internet as fission, rather than fusion. "I find the Internet an amazingly alienating device," he says, "At the same time it puts everyone in touch with everybody but with very little real contact with people. So, instead of opening up to others you limit and limit what you are looking for. There is so much cyber sex going on-- although I don't think people think of it as cyber sex because they are always hoping to make an actual contact or conquest-- but the Internet allows such anonymity. It allows so much lying and such specificity of desire."
Thornton agrees, citing the myriad of specialization in the popular hanky code. "It makes it into work. Why can't it just be 'I'm into SM and we will decide what that will be when we get to that place?' I'm hot. You're hot. Let's go."
For all their technological clumsiness, magazines at least provided filters of writers, editors, publishers, lawyers and regulators. Thornton says, "There's a lot of misinformation there. Even if people do go searching for information , they do not get good information. You just can't trust what's out there and I don't think people do." Wingate offers his own experiences of using printed classified ads as a much slower, safer alternative to instant Internet contacts. "There was a whole sort of courting experience going on and it didn't happen in 30 seconds in the course of IM's (instant messages)."
Embry is still optimistic about the future of the printed word. "People will always read. A best seller is still a best seller." As for the future of leather and SM literature: "I keep seeing videos where they put a little leather on somebody and say "There, you have leather video" which isn't the case at all. I don't think it's the trappings it's the attitude. It's the relationships. Someone has to be in charge."
Lured by the Citizen Kane romance of owning a magazine, some eager entrepreneurs still dream of creating the next Drummer. According to the most optimistic estimates of the publishing industry, even a mainstream magazine with solid financing and support could not expect profitability in less than five years. With draconian cost control and luck, you might be able to scrape by on just $200,000 (100 times what Drummer and Bound & Gagged began with) of financing, as long as your underwriters could wait 7 to 10 years to get their money back. Bob Wingate also suggests having at least two years of material before launching as well.
And a place to grow. "San Francisco is unique in how we approach everything," Thornton says, "The magazines and everything that happens here is surrounded by sex because we are surrounded by sex." This made the city a fertile ground for the writers, artists and photographers needed to feed hungry fantasies from Oswego to Omaha.
Do you set out to build a legend? John Embry says he never foresaw the impact that Drummer would have. "It was a big surprise to me. This started out as a personal curiosity, something I responded to. You go now to the Folsom Street Fair and see all those people-- 35-30 thousand people-- gathered in the name of leatherdom, I'm amazed." He characterizes the early magazine as "hitting a nerve." "It was something that came along at the right time," says Embry.
The right time, people, passion and technology-- all the right elements-- for independent gay leather SM magazines. The history of these magazines and that of San Francisco are inextricably and ironically entwined. The Victorian apartment building on upper Market Street where early Drummer editor John Rowberry put together several issues in his kitchen was torn down and replaced by a nondescript 70's-style office building. The last offices occupied by Drummer magazine were located on the top floor of the same building.
When I left the building for the last time, having presided over the end of Drummer, it felt as if something bigger than a magazine had slipped away. It had been my office where young, would-be models came in off the street and dropped their pants to get my attention. It had been the bustling headquarters of the International Mr. Drummer Contest during Folsom weekend. The last year or so, it had been my home, as my paychecks no longer covered my rent. All the frustration and desperation that I poured into each issue. All the tricks I had taken back to the storeroom and tied up between shelves piled high with the works of Jack Fritscher, Joseph Bean. John Preston, Jay Shapiro, Fledermaus and Robert Payne. All the stories, all the storytellers.
"A lot of fun. Wouldn't switch it for the world," sighs Embry, looking back, "I'm sure there might have been things that were more distinguished, but I've met a lot of very wonderful people. Talented people. Great people."
Damn, right. It was a hell of a run and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.