Monday, April 25, 2005

David Menconi: Backstreets of Carrboro

Editor keeps Springsteen fan magazine vital

By DAVID MENCONI, Staff Writer
The News & Observer

CARRBORO -- By now, Chris Phillips is used to weird things showing up in the mail. Not for him, but for Bruce Springsteen -- sent care of Backstreets, the Springsteen fan magazine that Phillips edits and publishes.

"Springsteen doesn't give out an address for fan mail, so people send a lot of that our way," says Phillips. "There are cute poems, the occasional fan letter to the Backstreet Boys. Years ago, someone sent a blanket they had crocheted that said, 'Bruce Springsteen Cover Me.' That was nice. But once, some woman sent a vial of blood with these strange David Lynch-ian writings.

"Yeah," Phillips adds with a laugh, "every now and then we do get something weird that needs forwarding to the proper authorities."

The funny part is that Carrboro-based Backstreets has no real link to Springsteen, operating completely independently of his organization -- a point made quite humorously in the "Frequently Asked Questions" section of But it's an easy mistake to make, given how thoroughly the magazine chronicles The Boss and all his doings.

Since 1980, Backstreets has covered all things Bruce with admirable attention to obsessive detail. When Springsteen released 1998's "Tracks," a four-disc box set of previously unreleased rarities, it had no liner notes to speak of. So Backstreets published a special liner-notes pullout section that traced the history of each song -- and it even fit inside the "Tracks" box.

When Springsteen gets busy, so does Backstreets. With a new Springsteen album, "Devils & Dust" (Columbia Records), dropping Tuesday, Phillips and his staff have been working overtime to get the spring issue out on the same schedule. The magazine will go to the printer this week and start hitting mailboxes by the beginning of May.

"Right now, I'm trying to finish an editorial that's sort of a 'Devils & Dust' review, and sort of an explanation as to why it's not really a review," Phillips says, sitting at his desk on a recent afternoon. "I just haven't had enough time with the record. This issue will also have something about Bruce's Hall of Fame induction speech for U2, and a piece on DJs who were influential in Bruce's career. That's about 12 pages of interviews, archival photos, stuff about how radio changed and what Bruce's career would've been without it.

"A lot of nerd minutiae we can sprawl with," Phillips concludes. "But what would Backstreets be without minutiae?"

Back in the day

Backstreets began in Seattle in 1980, founded by Seattle Rocket editor Charles Cross and named after his favorite Springsteen song (from 1975's "Born to Run" album). The first issue was four newspaper pages, which Cross handed out at a Springsteen concert in Seattle.

While Backstreets remains very much a grass-roots outfit, the product is considerably heftier nowadays. The quarterly glossy magazine has a staff of four and a circulation of 16,000. Most issues are 56 pages, filled up by a stable of about 10 regular freelance contributors plus reader submissions. Backstreets runs very few advertisements. Most of its revenue comes from subscriptions and newsstand sales, and the sale of Springsteen merchandise such as hard-to-find vinyl copies of the new Springsteen album.

"I like the way it covers pretty much every facet," says Charlie Board, a Cary software engineer who has subscribed to Backstreets since 1986. "Bootleg reviews, definitive tour reviews with run-downs of every show -- the rare songs played, guests, fan reaction. You get editorials about the music, articles about tangentially related artists like Southside Johnny or Garland Jeffreys. It's sort of a way to be part of the community, like a print version of being a Deadhead."

Phillips joined Bruce nation in his early teenage years, after seeing what he calls a "life-changing show" on the 1984 "Born in the U.S.A." tour. But he wound up working for Backstreets almost by chance. After graduating from Duke University in 1993, Phillips picked up and moved to Seattle on a whim.

"No job, no nothing," he says. "I'm not sure what I was thinking. But then I remembered, 'Wait a minute, isn't Backstreets here?' I was a fan and a reader, so I got ahold of a back issue to look up the phone number and sent a resume."

Fortuitously, Backstreets was looking for a managing editor. Phillips got the job, and it's the only one he's had since college. He took over from Cross as editor/publisher in 1998 and moved the operation to Washington, D.C., in 2000.

Last summer, Backstreets moved again, to Carrboro. Phillips and his wife both went to Duke, and they count the proximity of Allen & Son Bar-B-Q near their house as a major plus. Also nearby is Phillips' brother Jon, who edits and publishes a book magazine called Bookmarks out of an office in his house. The Backstreets office in Carr Mill is considerably roomier than its D.C. quarters, where the main storage space was a bathtub. But there's still a lot of stuff in boxes.

"Since we moved here, we've had the big 'Vote For Change' tour and now 'Devils & Dust,'" Phillips says. "I hope it will settle down enough so we can eventually unpack, but it hasn't happened yet. I always used to think after every issue, 'This will be the biggest issue for a while, the next one should be smaller.' But that is just not happening."

Talkin' to the Boss

Inevitably, Phillips gets a lot of questions about what Springsteen is "really like." But he can honestly say he doesn't know. Phillips and Springsteen have met only once, at a Patty Scialfa show last year. And Phillips has interviewed Springsteen only once, a phone interview in conjunction with last fall's "Vote For Change" tour -- the only interview that the press-shy Springsteen has ever given Backstreets in its 25-year existence.

"The biggest thing I have to explain is that we're not connected to Bruce Springsteen's organization," Phillips says. "We're not a fan club or anything like that. I used to be able to say, 'I've never talked to or even met the guy.' Getting the interview was a huge thrill. But the down side is that it reinforced this weird impression people have, that I've got a red phone on my desk with a hotline to Bruce's house."

Phillips has dutifully put in another interview request for Springsteen's "Devils & Dust" tour, which isn't coming to North Carolina (Phillips is going to shows in Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago). But he's not holding his breath about getting another audience.

"Haven't heard a word," he says. "My fantasy is they've got a plan. They're waiting until after X number of shows, and then they'll spring it on me. But it probably won't happen. I just hope I won't have to wait another 11 years for the next one."

Staff writer David Menconi can be reached at 829-4759 or

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