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Remembering Clif Garboden

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

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SAM PFEIFFLE (Portland Phoenix listings editor 1999-2001, managing editor 2001-2005)
Most readers probably never even noticed that Clif Garboden worked for the Phoenix. Maybe you saw the odd byline on an art review. His talents were massively underutilized there — he was terrific at writing about art, especially photography. I still remember his review of the Sebastiao Salgado show at the PMA. Maybe you remember his 2004 screed “Screw You, America,” after John Kerry bollocksed everything up. Maybe you had the good fortune to meet him during one of our Best Music Poll award shows.

He was the goofy little guy with the round glasses and the camera that looked like it was from 1983. It’s possible he creeped a few of you out because his sense of humor was strange and he tended to roll his eyeballs up into his head when he talked. Smoked a ton of cigarettes. Well, until the cancer. Clif beat that cancer the first time, though he suffered terribly.

If you didn’t know he worked for us, let me assure you that he’s the one who made the Phoenix work. In 1999, when we launched, I didn’t really know what the fuck I was doing. Before our first issue launched, I was the listings editor and writing “8 Days a Week,” raking in $6.75 an hour, a former English teacher who had never published anything other than a couple of poems in the UVM poetry mag. I hadn’t even met our managing editor, Sam Smith, yet. But somehow, when that first paper hit the streets on September 15, we had the best arts and music listings in town.

That was all Clif. Well, not the data input part. That was me. But he was the one who designed the systems that made it possible. From the database that allowed me to enter stuff in any old order and then find what I cared about to the automatic faxes I sent out from Microsoft Word (state of the art, back then) to the way we posted movie times to the website using perl scripts (don’t ask — they still kind of make my eyes bleed just thinking about them).

His system for coding style sheets into Filemaker so they spit out a Word file that could flow into Quark pre-styled is still the most efficient way of putting together a paper I’ve ever encountered (this is publishing-dork stuff, but trust me).

All of which he taught me with painstaking patience, humor, and effectiveness. He was the best teacher I ever had because he passed on not only how to do everything, but why it mattered so fucking much (he also loved to swear, which is why I’m swearing so much here. I can’t think of him without swearing). Clif cared about the readers more than any journalist/writer/media-type I’ve ever met. If the system didn’t work and the wrong time wound up printed with the wrong show, somebody was going to turn up at the wrong place and be pissed off. Then they would hate the Phoenix forever.

If they learned about a cool show, and showed up at the right place at the right time and had the best night of their life? They’d love the Phoenix forever and never stop coming back for more.

He taught me that everything served the reader. My job was to introduce something to people that would make them happy. Or make them smarter. Or make them care. If the reader wasn’t likely to care, he’d ask, Why are you doing it? He wouldn’t let me use the first person in writing until I’d been writing for the Phoenix for two years, by which time I’d taken over editing: “Nobody even knows who you are! Why the fuck do they care what you think? And you don’t need to write ‘I think’ anyway! You’re writing it! Obviously that’s what you fucking think!”

And, somehow, that was said in a very supporting and nurturing kind of way. Seriously.

Clif made me understand that we weren’t creating this paper every week for ourselves, but for everyone else. For you. I’ve spent every week for the last 11 years trying to remember that. I hope I never forget it. Or Clif.

JESS KILBY (Portland Phoenix staff writer 2001-2003, columnist 2003-2004)
I bawled my eyes out when I heard the news. I left the Phoenix on a bit of a down note; I was jaded, emotionally exhausted from some heavy stuff going on in my personal life, and definitely no longer doing my best work. I departed quietly — no farewells. It was an awful way to leave, after two years. I felt miserable, like I had let down myself and everybody else at the paper.

But Clif said goodbye. He e-mailed me from Boston and thanked me for helping to grow the Portland Phoenix, and encouraged me to use him as a reference and a resource if I ever wanted to get back into the biz.

You could say it’s the type of letter that any conscientious employer would write to any reasonably competent departing employee. But I was at such a low point then, and I admired and respected Clif so much; it meant a great deal to me. I’ve never forgotten it.

It was the humanity of it, I can see now. Even if he had no idea what I was going through — it was just Clif being Clif. The alternative press is a hard slog — the pay is shit and the important stories that you’re telling rarely get the wider audience they deserve. But Clif was living proof that it was worth persevering, that it mattered. And unlike so many career journalists, he was without ego. His writing was full of wit, insight, and the occasional wallop of righteous indignation, but it was never full of him — even when he was sharing personal stories.

He was a lot of things that I’m sure other people will write about — a fighter, a teacher, an incredibly talented writer and editor — but above all and to his very core, Clif was one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever met. I’ll miss him. Like the rest of the Phoenix family, I’m still in shock at the news. I wish I’d taken the time to tell him all these things myself.

DEIRDRE FULTON (Phoenix staff writer, Boston, 2004-2006; staff writer, Portland 2007-present) 
One afternoon in 2004, Clif took me out to lunch at an Irish pub near the Boston Phoenix office. I’d been interning at the Phoenix for a year and I was a recent Boston University graduate; his stories — about the radical student newspaper the BU News and its connection to the early days of alternative journalism (he recommended I read an account called Famous Long Ago, which is now out-of-print but obtainable used online), and about how the Phoenix evolved over the years — excited me. I had been considering taking a standard reporting job at a Massachusetts community newspaper. Seemed like a safer bet than holding out for a full-time gig to open up at the Phoenix. But Clif said no. Wait it out, he said. You’ll be glad you did. And he convinced me.

Clif wasn’t just indulging in nostalgia when he told those stories. He was keeping the flame alive. He knew that the alternative philosophy took many forms. He’d spent the majority of his career surrounded by passionate, crazy, intelligent writers who really cared about what they did every day. Who knew how to spin a good tale. Who had good instincts about news and people. He wanted to share that, to expand that circle, to indoctrinate a new generation. It worked!

I was one of many young journalists whom Clif took a shine to over the years, and we all benefited from his attentiveness. We got better jobs and we got better at our jobs, all thanks to him. (We maybe even got better at taking ourselves less seriously.) But beyond that, we became this informal network of next-gen alt-weekliers, who mourned Clif collectively via Facebook and blogosphere but who also understand the deep history of the alternative press, and the responsibilities it tries to live up to as an institution. So for that, Clif, for believing in us and believing in something, thanks.

JEFF INGLIS (Portland Phoenix managing editor, 2005-present)
The man lived the very values of considerate humanism that he espoused, re-lit the fire of journalism in my belly, and showed me my journalistic attention was most properly focused on those who failed to use their power (political, social, cultural, or otherwise) to advance the greater good.

How do you thank someone for that? In the end, the only thing I could come up with was water. I never knew Clif before he beat cancer — and I think it’s telling that it wasn’t cancer but pneumonia that beat him this time. The cancer took a chunk of his esophagus and several salivary glands.

Swallowing was nigh impossible; he was literally fighting for sustenance with every sputter. (I hope he’s chowing down obstruction-free in the next world right now.)

So whenever Clif and I ate lunch, I made sure his water glass was never empty. And the one time I scored an entire pitcher, I had the quiet joy of watching Clif eat his fill, for once.

I thought it was a simple human kindness, until reflecting on it after his death. I am left wondering whether he sensed what I was doing, and let me do it, out of his own compassion for me, a fellow traveler struggling to find a way to improve a situation far beyond my own pale. Again I find myself in Clif’s debt — as many times in the past five years, and countless more in the decades to come.

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