Looking back, looking forward: For Mike Usinger, the Straight has always been at its best when all about fun
Let’s start with a caveat: you will make assumptions based on what follows, and I can pretty much guarantee whatever assumptions you make will be wrong. And, sorry, while it would certainly clarify things, not a lot of names will be given here, not so much to protect the innocent, but the guilty. That’s important because even the guilty had, for the most part, a streak of decency.
What the hell happened?
That’s a valid question. It’s also, weirdly, a fitting one, mostly because when I first came on at the Straight as a supporting-cast editor, the paper was putting together a book called, for the curious, What the Hell Happened? Published in 1997, it collected 30 years of groundbreaking writing from one of North America’s pioneering alternative weeklies. Even though I’d been freelancing at the Straight for a good two or three years, I don’t think I even got a mention in it. For which I blamed no one—I wouldn’t have included me either, even though I once wrote a Butthole Surfers review I thought was pretty good, and a Hole review that pissed half of Vancouver off.
During university, and then journalism school, the Straight was where I always wanted to work. If you grew up in heavy-metal-obsessed Burnaby, it was one of the first and only places you could read about early punk bands like D.O.A., the Subhumans, Modernettes, and Young Canadians. In the mid-’80s, it became the place to find the city’s best young writers (you’re still missed, Dave Watson), wickedly funny illustrators (hello, Rod Filbrandt), and top photographers (too many to list here).
When I was finally brought on staff by brilliant, visionary editor Charles Campbell, it was like being let into the asylum in the best of ways. The Straight was filled with endlessly creative, wonderful, gorgeous weirdos—a place where everyone from Portishead to Frank Sinatra to, um, Alan Parsons Project blared constantly on the production department boombox. You learned to write with a lot of noise.
A place where, on any given day, someone from that production department (which was where the true cool kids worked) would ride through the editorial department in clown pants on a bicycle, singing Julius Fučík’s “Entrance of the Gladiators” (you know: “doot-doot-doodle-oodle oot doot do do”) at the top their lungs. And everyone loved it.
A place where endlessly interesting founder and publisher Dan McLeod thankfully subscribed to the following Tina Fey theory: “In most cases, being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.”
A place where, no matter what crazy idea you came up with (Payback Time, Who Are You?, sprawling multipage Best of Vancouver Bands photo shoots, cutlines designed to do nothing other than make people laugh, and full pages of local CD reviews featuring then-unknown acts like Mother Mother and Dan Mangan), you never had to worry about someone saying, “You can’t do that.”
Here’s the thing—it was insanely hard work. But it was, above all, fun. So much fun it never felt like work.
And then, gradually, there was a weird culture shift, where the fun was slowly sucked out of things, and getting anything new greenlighted became difficult. When was this, you likely want to know? That’s information you’re not getting unless you’re footing the bill for a night at the fabulous Keefer Bar, with the warning I can drink a lot before even thinking about cracking open the vault.
I will allow this, however: how’d you like to have someone wearing $500 dungarees and 10 Kabbalah bracelets tell you what Vancouver really wants isn’t a Georgia Straight focused on arts, music, and culture, but instead e-sports and sneakers?
Things finally came crashing down for the Straight as Vancouver once knew it this past summer. The company that bought the paper from the McLeod family in 2020 finished its 2.5 years at the helm by letting everyone go, including me, and then selling it.
I subsequently got a call from the paper’s new owners, Overstory Media, asking if I wanted to come back.
More on that in a second. First, I’m not the only one returning from the Straight you once loved; in the pages of this issue you’ll see some familiar bylines. And, because it’s always important to look forward while building on the past, some new ones. Look for that mix to continue.
But back to why you’re reading this.
In my interview before I came back on board, I was asked a lot of questions, including, “What the hell happened?” and how things might be better moving forward. What I liked was that Overstory had a vision—an emphasis on arts, music, culture, and not playing it safe—that aligned with the Straight I desperately wanted to be part of back in journalism school. And was lucky enough to be a part of for years.
Just as importantly, there seemed to be one directive during the interview that was more important than all others: to have fun.
No lie—it’s been kind of crazy since I’ve been back, to the point where I’m writing this, heinously flu-ridden, at 11:15 p.m., semi-delirious at the tail end of a 15-hour day. Which weirdly seems like a deadline-Tuesday throwback to my first years at the Straight, when you’d sometimes walk in at 8 in the morning and wouldn’t leave until midnight.
It was glorious, and I loved it.
Like then, today it’s somehow all become fun again, mostly because it seems like anything is again possible.
Now if only someone would ride through the middle of Zoom meeting on a bicycle dressed like the bride of J.P. Patches while singing “Entrance of the Gladiators.” That would be truly awesome.