Do men need yet another monthly magazine to help them renegotiate their contract with the zeitgeist?
R.U. Sirius and Fred Dodsworth wager they do. So that's exactly what the Bay Area publishing veterans are delivering: a magazine — Axcess, by name — to aid men in their “search of a bad time.”
The bad time begins right on the cover of the revamped and newly Berkeley-based magazine, which features porn legend Christy Canyon posing next to her sister, Carla Sinclair. The Net Chick and Signal to Noise author is Christy's elder by two years. In their joint interview, Sinclair remembers how their stepfather used to let the girls watch him undress. But Canyon goes her several times better, reminiscing about her 1985 fling with Robin Williams.
“He stank,” Canyon says. “And he could never get it up 'cause he was so high on coke. He stank so bad we had to fumigate after he left.” The passage is pull-quoted on the facing page.
New magazines typically play it much safer. But Dodsworth, who's in his mid-40s, with curly brown hair and a taste for loud clothes, has always been something of a buccaneer. After working at The City for several years, he went on to edit Beer. Bill Owens, Beer's publisher, fired him in 1994. Dodsworth sued Owens; last April, he was awarded close to $400,000 in Superior Court. Meanwhile, Dodsworth had begun publishing a competing magazine, au Juice, “the journal of eatin', drinkin' & screwin' round.”
Dodsworth has a reputation for not paying free-lancers, relying instead on young contributors anxious for bylines. While enrolled in a magazine writing class at UC Berkeley Extension last spring, he made no secret of the fact that he was looking for writers willing to contribute to au Juice for free, according to students who also attended the class. Dodsworth claims free-lancers will be paid at Axcess.
His cohort R.U. Sirius, also in his mid-40s, resembles nothing so much as a long-haired cherub with a hangover. From his drug-fueled days — and nights — editing Mondo 2000, to co-authoring Timothy Leary's Design for Dying, Sirius has been at the wild heart of cyberculture.
In late November, Dodsworth, Sirius, and company took over Axcess, a then-San Diego-based magazine that had run out of money. Dodsworth, creative director and “publisher by default,” got the new Axcess on newsstands by mid-December to avoid a delay in publication that could scare off potential advertisers.
So far, Dodsworth reports the Sinclair/Canyon interview has brought no complaints from either advertisers or lawyers. Editor in Chief Sirius says he still has doubts about pull-quoting that passage. “But I thought, 'We're new, why not come out with both barrels blazing?' “
Dodsworth insists that he's not worried. “They [Canyon and Sinclair] say it's true and I believe it's true. If Robin Williams wants to drag it out [in public], it wouldn't be smart.”
Dodsworth and Sirius are intensely aware that a lack of smarts was exactly what killed the old Axcess. Despite its eye-popping graphics and desperate hipness, no one knew what the magazine's focus was. The cover usually featured a lesser-known actor, while inside was a schizophrenic grab bag of music, gadgets, games, and cyberculture. The text, unfortunately, was slightly less spicy than a pack of low-sodium saltines.
So Dodsworth and Sirius realize they need attitude to burn if they're going to take a credible swing at the likes of Details and Esquire.
“This is the bomb shit,” Dodsworth says, repeatedly, assessing the new Axcess. “Dream material.” His ambition for the magazine is a circulation of 150,000 to 200,000 within two years. “Why not? If piece-of-shit San Francisco Focus can do it, so can we.”
Here's Dodsworth's vision of the Axcess target reader. He is 21 to 35, college-educated, and unmarried. He lives in a great city, where he works hard, plays hard, and makes good money. His musical taste ranges from hip hop to punk. He's literate, too. Favors decent food and drink. Of course, his preference is for women who say yes.
At the same time, he's troubled. Life seems hollow, because despite all the money he makes and the sophisticated tastes he's acquired, he lacks the time in which to enjoy either. All this putative reader needs is a gentle hint — try the new Portishead disc, some pinot noir, and, when in Japan, a “love hotel” — from the right publication to become a better-rounded man. The kind of man who can make a chain wallet work with a midnight blue tuxedo. The kind of man who can talk deconstruction, or DJ at a dance club should the need arise. “Young, urban, and psychopathic,” as Sirius puts it.
Dodsworth and Sirius are convinced they're drilling into a great untapped market. Pointing out that men have taken it on the chin from feminists and do-gooders over the past decade, Dodsworth says, “Being a man is like being a terrible minority.” He just knows that there's a tribe of American men aching to toss off their shackles, read short fiction, and uncover the mysteries of cool '60s motorcycles in a magazine that, in its first issue at least, drips enough testosterone to supply a hormone replacement clinic.
Which is to say Axcess' dynamic is decidedly un-PC. And Dodsworth relishes that he's publishing it in Berkeley. “Why not? Everyone's being pussies, so we're going to be dicks.”
Actually, that's what many free-lancers already thought of Axcess during its San Diego days. Launched in 1993 in an office near the beach, the magazine developed a reputation for paying low and slow. On occasion, free-lancers would be offered editorial slots in exchange for unpaid work. When money got even tighter, the office turned into a crash pad for as many as six staffers.
Money may also prove tight around the new Axcess, Dodsworth says. His close-to-$400,000 court award is otherwise engaged in bankruptcy court. So Axcess will depend on ad revenues, as well as subscriptions and newsstand sales, to cover its expenses. Right now, Dodsworth says as much as 40 percent of the magazine is set aside for outside investors. “For $10,000 to $20,000 someone can come in tomorrow and be publisher.”
But five-figure cash infusions may not help in a marketplace ruled by corporate-backed magazines. Although Jo Bennett of Folio, a Connecticut-based trade publication that monitors the magazine industry, won't lay odds on Axcess' survival, she points out that the magazine is competing against publications owned by Conde Nast (Details and GQ), the Hearst Corp. (Esquire), and British-based Dennis Publishing (newcomer Maxim). When pressed, the most Bennett will allow is, “If they position themselves really well, it might work.”
Dodsworth and Sirius, asked if their magazine will fly, answer, “Why not?” Rather like the young urban psychopaths they intend to corral, they claim they're just junkies for media action.
“If there were a 12-step program for publishers,” Dodsworth says, “I'd be in it.