Remembering Clif Garboden

The life and times of an alternative-media true believer
By PHOENIX STAFF  |  March 4, 2011

Garboden BU II_800

MARK JURKOWITZ (Project for Excellence in Journalism)
Clif Garboden assigned and edited the first story I ever wrote, putting me in the same category as many journalists who have plied their trade in Boston and elsewhere. More than thirty years later, I still vividly remember not only his skilled editing, but his deft and ego-free handling of a wet-behind-the-ears wannabe. He was a skilled writer, a keen observer, an astute manager, a pillar of one of the finest alternative newspapers in the country and a friend.

Perhaps more than anything else, when all (or many) around him were losing their heads, Clif kept his. The old joke goes: "How many Phoenix alums does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five: One to put in the new bulb and four to talk about how much better the old bulb was." Whatever the truth of that, Clif was definitely the one guy you'd want holding the ladder.

He will be sorely missed.

Beginning sometime in 1984, Clif and I would lock ourselves in a broom closet at the Phoenix and record his weekly WFNX feature "Hot Dots." Yes, our Phoenix studio back then was literally a broom closet with foam rubber soundproofing on the walls, and a few pieces of old audio equipment confiscated from the halls of WFNX in Lynn. At first he didn't know anything about professional audio recording, so I would engineer our sessions, from racking up the tape to positioning the microphone, getting everything just right. He'd be on mic, and I'd man the controls on the big Otari reel-to-reel, and direct his reads. But no matter how sardonic and clever the words in print, the delivery was as deadpan, dry, and monotone as a flat-lining EKG -- yet here he was telling us what cool shows to watch on TV. I would explain to him that in radio, it's crucial that the audience hear your smile, and I would say, "Okay Clif, let me hear your happy voice," at which point he would mumble something unintelligible and try it again, only faster. Then I'd try the what's-on-the-outside-drives-the-inside approach: "Clif," I'd say, "put on a big ear-to-ear grin, and let her rip." He'd scowl, mumble unintelligibly again, and go at it even faster. It didn't take long for me to realize that Clif was inimitably Clif, and there was no way I was going to win the weekly battles -- indeed, no reason I should.

Clif's delivery was his personality -- his dark, witty takes on what flickered on that small black box were his smile. Clif had taught me what really mattered, as he had so many others, and the "Hot Dots" feature became one 'FNX feature that I looked forward to hearing each and every week. Oh, and Clif eventually went on to learn the equipment well enough to engineer his own recordings and teach other Phoenix staffers to do the same.

CHRIS WRIGHT (The National, Abu Dhabi)
Shortly after I started work at the Boston Phoenix, back in the summer of 1995, Clif took up residence in the open cubicle at my back. I was a lowly editorial assistant, fresh out of college, and befuddled by simple tasks like answering the telephone. I had a knack for transferring important calls into oblivion, which would invariably elicit a gusty sigh from behind me. I barely said a word to Clif for the first six months, but I could hear him, muttering at his computer screen and sometimes punching it.

Computers then weren't quite the technological wonders they are today. One columnist used to send his copy in via modem, and I was charged with pressing all the right buttons and plugging in all the right cords to ensure it got to the office in one bit. This was a dauntingly complex process, made all the more unnerving by the fact that very often Clif Garboden would be standing behind me while I flailed and the modem let out its agonized squawks. These were some of the scariest moments of my life.

Be you man or machine, you didn't want to get between Clif and getting things done. There was a kind of fervor to the way he went about his work, and I think this lay at the heart of what made him such a great newspaper man. Clif wasn't setting to forge a career for himself or keep his ego nourished, as is the case with so many people in this business. He genuinely wanted to set the world right, and nothing was going to stand in the way of this.

Clif never gave himself over to sanctimony, however. His most potent weapon was his wit. I've never met anyone who could match the searing efficiency of his put-downs. He was not a gadfly, he was a blowtorch. But there was something else here, too. Clif's work was driven not so much by nagging disapproval but by a sense that things could be better, and that he could help make them so. He'd probably have skewered me for saying so, but Clif Garboden was an optimist.

I never did get that modem to work properly, but Clif didn't seem to hold that against me.

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