The ‘Penthouse’ Prince Who Made Rock Dangerous Again
When Spin magazine began in 1985, rock journalism lacked an edge. Founder Bob Guccione Jr. recalls an era of sex, ambition, death threats, and mischief-making.
In the beginning was the name.
When he launched Spin with Madonna on the cover of the May 1985 inaugural issue, it was the founding editor’s identity—more than the magazine’s or even the pop star’s—that got people’s attention. (The interview is republished in full on The Daily Beast today.)
Bob Guccione Jr. was the namesake and eldest son of the one of the planet’s more notorious pornographers, whose Penthouse magazine—albeit with aspirations for serious journalism—rushed in where even Playboy feared to tread, featuring especially graphic full-frontal nudity graced by pubic hair.
The younger Guccione’s unearned celebrity “was both an advantage and a disadvantage,” he recalls today, speaking with traces of an English accent acquired during a childhood spent in London, attending a Catholic boys school in working-class Shepherd’s Bush, when dad was a struggling painter who was launching a skin mag on a shoestring.
“But the advantages were overwhelming and the disadvantages were minor... There were advertisers who didn’t want to advertise with us because we were financed by a pornography empire,” he says, but any disadvantage was temporary.
“The greatest advantage of all was that everyone wanted to meet me,” says Guccione, who looked and dressed like a rock icon in those days, favoring luxuriantly long hair and plenty of leather.
“There wasn’t an advertiser or a distributor I couldn’t meet with, because they all probably thought I was a bit of a clown, a bit of a lightheaded guy. But they gave me the meeting because they wanted to see what a son of Bob Guccione might be like.
“And I went in there and I was dead-serious and very professional and pitched my magazine—and they forgot whether I was an oddity and began to think about what I was doing.”
Guccione—who, with his investment partners, sold Spin in 1997 for $43.3 million to the publishers of Vibe—is reminiscing on the occasion of Spin’s 30th anniversary year.
He’s spending the next five months as a consulting editor, mining the archives for 30 of the mag’s classic articles (most of them published pre-Internet) and presenting them anew in a Web-friendly format.
He says he’s also toiling on a fresh feature package slated for October—now that the mag has migrated, as of 2012, from dead-tree to online-only—on what the music scene will be like 30 years from now.
Spin was conceived as a gritty, youth-oriented antidote to Rolling Stone, which Jann Wenner had started in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco in 1967 with a $7,500 investment; but by 1985 Wenner was a wealthy member of the media establishment, turning his company into a comfortable conglomerate, and getting ready to add the celebrity mag Us Weekly to his portfolio.
“He moved it to New York and it had become very corporate,” Guccione says, noting that he admires and has enjoyed cordial chats with the Rolling Stone founder and editor in chief.
“Actors were on the cover! Only big, fat, successful mainstream stars were on the cover! They just didn’t touch a lot of the music I was listening to, and my friends were listening to, and younger people were listening to. They would no more have touched college radio than they would have touched an open jar of Ebola.”
Spin, by contrast, was championing hip-hop groups like Public Enemy, punk musicians like the Beastie Boys, and barely known acts like the Smiths, R.E.M., U2, Nick Cave, and Nirvana; Guccione says he became a close friend and surrogate older brother to the doomed Kurt Cobain.
But he says it wasn’t until the fourth issue that Spin hit its stride, at the height of Tina Turner’s popularity with her huge 1984 single What’s Love Got to Do With It?
“We were in an editorial meeting, and people were talking about, ‘What do we think about Tina Turner?’” Guccione recalls. “And I said ‘No no no no, I want to know where Ike is, because I grew up listening to Ike and Tina Turner, and it was very clear that Ike was the musical genius.’”
Ike had disappeared; no one had heard from him for years. “People thought he was dead, or in jail, or both—and our reporter [Edward Kiersh], just like a gumshoe, went and tracked him down.”
The resulting August 1985 piece, “What’s Ike Got to Do with It?”—in which the elusive legend recalled his famed partnership with his ex-wife and attempted to justify physically abusing her—inaugurated Guccione’s current series of 30 classic Spin articles. (It is also republished today on The Daily Beast.)
“That was the story,” Guccione recalls, “that really defined us, where people in the music industry and the magazine press said, ‘Oh, we get it now—you guys are counterintuitive. You’re not going to be “me, too,” looking to the record companies to give you the next interview with their latest artist.’ This piece actually clicked with people. And it wasn’t politically correct, in the sense that today no one would talk to a guy who beat his wife.”
Equally counterintuitive was Spin’s sleuthing on Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof (also to be featured in the 30-article series), the Irish pop star who was given an honorary British knighthood and widely celebrated as the savior of famine-plagued Ethiopians, having raised a billion dollars, until Spin reported that much of that money had gone to Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam to fund a civil war.
Guccione says he heard that Geldof had once threatened to kill him, and, by happenstance in 1990, found himself standing 10 feet from Geldof on a London street corner as the latter was yakking on his cellphone.
“I thought, ‘I really should go over to him and say, “I hear you want to kill me. Here I am.’” But there came a moment of wisdom and I didn’t do it,” Guccione recalls.
He says another of Spin’s discoveries—Irish singer Sinead O’Connor—was typical in that it was completely accidental.
“I used to work very late into the night in those days, and I’d go around the office fishing the tape cassettes out of the wastepaper baskets that people on the staff had thrown away,” he says. “And one of them was Sinead O’Connor’s The Lion and the Cobra,” her 1987 debut album. “I listened to it, enchanted, and didn’t leave the office till 5 in the morning.”
Guccione continues: “I got back to the office at noon and called O’Connor’s publicist, Elaine Schock, and said, ‘I’m sure we’re late to the game, but can we get an interview with Sinead?’ There was a long silence. And finally Elaine said, ‘You’re the only phone call I’ve gotten.’”
When Spin got up and running, many assumed that because of his parentage, the then-29-year-old Guccione, now pushing 60, had to be a sexist, misogynistic, piggish sort of lad who would naturally traffic in the objectification of women (although he maintains that his dad “was a total gentleman with women,” and taught the son to do likewise).
Still, professional feminists expected otherwise, he says, and would regularly be disarmed, during various “debates” on television shows, when he presented himself as an enlightened, sensitive, impassioned advocate of gender equality.
Instead of a boorish male chauvinist, they encountered an ebullient charmer.
The feminists “were licking their lips, like this was going to be a lion savaging a lamb,” Guccione recalls, noting that one of his frequent TV frenemies in the 1980s, Ms. magazine co-founder Patricia Carbine, actually became a friend. “She expected a fight, but we agreed on most issues, but then she realized we weren’t misogynist and sexist, and that we were much more thoughtful.”
Such commendably high-minded sentiments, however, did not transform the workplace culture at Spin into a woman-nurturing utopia; indeed, it wasn’t much different from that of other music magazines where overworked, ill-paid young male editors and female writers and interns, their hormones raging, toiled in close quarters and frequently hooked up—with Guccione himself hardly one to embrace celibacy or shun the occasional office romance.
And not just at the office.
Despite an iron edict from his father forbidding his three sons from dating Penthouse Pets—lest they become entangled with possible gold diggers—Guccione Jr. managed sneak around with a few of the nude models and beyond that, “I had kind of a hedonistic lifestyle,” he says. “I was a young single man in the prime of my life, with a tiny of bit of celebrity, and I’ve never been shy.”
He says that courtesy of Gore Vidal—who hosted him in his hillside home overlooking the Mediterranean in Ravello, Italy—he once had a blind date with a daughter of Imelda Marcos.
In the late 1990s, Guccione even had a serious relationship with conservative firebrand Ann Coulter.
“It was shtick when I knew her,” he says of his ex-girlfriend’s penchant for provoking liberals with outrageous remarks. “She became infatuated with her exploding celebrity, and really got caught up in that Republican heroine thing, and forgot that it was shtick.”
To which Coulter retorts: “Guccione’s greatest achievements were creating Spin magazine in the ’80s and getting me to date him briefly in the ’90s. I see he’s still living off those aging laurels.”
For the past dozen years, Guccione has been in a committed relationship with journalist and playwright Liza Lentini, and they live together in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania. “She’s brilliant,” Guccione says. “One of the best writers I know.”
For an avowed defender of women’s rights, it must have come as a nasty surprise when he learned that some women didn’t quite see him that way.
In 1997, Spin received a motherlode of unwelcome publicity from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a female former research editor, who claimed that Guccione promoted young women based on personal relationships with him, while other male editors at Spin promoted a hostile work environment characterized by unwanted fondling and lewd comments.
Instead of doing the expected thing and settling the $300,000 federal lawsuit, Guccione fought it head-on in a jury trial—and largely prevailed, with the jury voting that there had been no sexual favoritism or harassment, and initially awarding the plaintiff a mere $20,000 in back pay before the judge instructed them to increase the award to $110,000.
Today Guccione calls the lawsuit “a form of legal blackmail, and I refused to settle for any amount...I spent five times the amount originally asked to defend both my and the company’s reputation and never regretted it for a second.”
He adds: “As I pointed out at the time, we gave dozens of women their first jobs in media and had many times over the number of women reporters and editors than Rolling Stone, for instance. In fact I can't think of another magazine not in the woman’s field that had so many female bylines as when I edited Spin.”
As if to burnish his feminist bona fides, Guccione counts himself an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton for president.
“I think Hillary’s the best of the lot,” he says. “She’s clearly the most qualified and probably the smartest. And there are a lot of clowns in that field, definitely on the Republican side...But she’s been pitching herself as America’s Grandmother, and I don’t think the electorate is going to vote for a ‘grandmother.’ Margaret Thatcher never pitched herself as a grandmother.”
Guccione established his magazine in New York with $2 million in seed money from Bob Guccione Sr., initially occupying offices in the Penthouse corporate headquarters on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Two years later, as the magazine was gaining traction but still losing money, Guccione Sr. withdrew his support and tossed Spin out on the street—prompting an 18-year rift in which father and son didn’t speak.
It wasn’t until 2004, when Guccione Sr. was suffering catastrophic financial reverses from a series of bad business decisions, that the son resumed relations.
The Penthouse founder was once said to be worth as much as $400 million, and he had lived large. He was still fighting creditors to stay in his 22,000-square foot Manhattan mansion, said to be the city’s largest private residence at the time.
“My girlfriend and I moved in with him and stayed there for the last few months to keep him company,” Guccione says, “because his spirits were so slow. He was Lear, and he was about to lose his kingdom.”
Guccione recalls that his father—who died at age 79 in 2010—was finally forced out of his castle in January 2006.
“And I walked out with him, and that was it. And we got outside, and I said, ‘I’m very, very proud of you.’ And he said, ‘Why?’
“And I said, ‘Because you walked out of here. You weren’t carried out of here. You fought your sadness. You fought your depression. And you beat it. You walked out of here like a man. I’m proud of you.’”
Guccione adds: “I get emotional when I remember that scene. That was a very emotional moment.”