Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Whale of a Tale

In its bid to conquer the world, Starbucks recognizes no boundaries.

Rather than corporate maneuvers, I prefer to follow the moves of Starbucks Entertainment: first the company was compiling its own anthology CDs, then it began producing new ones like the Ray Charles prizewinners (and now it's edging into Hollywood moviemaking). The other day in a CD store I found a new Bob Marley/Wailers disc offering (mostly) unreleased live performances from the band's prime early-Seventies period; and lo and behold, it's courtesy of Starbucks! If the company continues to make such great music available to us listeners, I'll certainly find it easier to forgive the other aggrandizing...

But the CD also persuades me to tell my own Seattle/Starbucks story:

"History is lies told by the living to appease the dead"—that’s one poet’s view. Another, maybe more reasonable opinion holds that memory, biography, even history, at best can only approach the truth, because something or someone is always forgotten or missed in the authorial shaping.

Among those who wrote for the original, edgier version of Seattle Magazine back in the late Sixties, both on staff for a year or so and freelance afterwards, was a fresh-from-grad school writer/editor named Leimbacher—your humble correspondent on this sorta-blog--who authored a couple of dozen articles, columns, and reviews between 1967 and 1970. (I also wrote for the Helix underground paper, Ramparts Magazine, Rolling Stone, Fusion, the University of Washington's Alumni Magazine, and various other media as well.)

Seattle Magazine at that time was a mix of Ivy League snobs, heavy drinkers, marketing rejects, and young writers eager to be gadflies on the rump of Seattle. I covered corrupt politicians, the Black Panthers, oil refinery risks ("Oil on Troubled Waters" was the title), and other hot-button issues as well as the Seattle Repertory Theater, modern-day logging, archeological digs, corporate art buying, and certain other cultural matters.

And, soon freelancing, I became the magazine's specialist in writing about the Rock music scene--I actually turned the Seattle Opera's boss onto the Who's rock opera Tommy; and a couple of years after that, the Opera staged a version of Tommy with Bette Midler in a leading role. (She told me later she HATED the experience!)

Around 1969 I teamed up with friends named Gordon Bowker (another Seattle Mag early regular) and Jerry Baldwin to create a brief, season-of-dreams film company intending to write and produce--for the networks, we foolishly thought, in the era before Public Television--a series of films that would document the Music (and musicians!) of the South. Our pilot project, for which I wrote a quasi-script, introduced the richly varied styles of music to be found across Louisiana--blues, jazz, zydeco, Cajun, gospel, and more.

Anyway, I quixotically named our supposed film company Pequod Productions--a bit of whimsy indicating that the company expected to sink without a trace, as had its namesake, one of the ships in Moby Dick. Our documentary proposals were ignored in New York and L.A., and our Pequod thus sank. I continued on freelancing, and the other guys moved on too, to co-found a fledgling coffee company soon named Starbucks, complete with ship’s-figurehead mermaid as logo and a name also taken from Moby Dick, that of Ahab's First Mate. (Melville's whale novel sure did get around. Forget Howard Schultz's version of history; I know that the lost Pequod helped trigger that coffee company's soon-to-be-famous name.)

By then Gordon was also partner with Terry Heckler (ex-Seattle Mag designer) in a then-still-tiny communications design firm named for the partners. Ad work for K2 Skis and JanSport (the Everett backpack company) quickly showed that the team possessed great conceptual flair and creativity. (Actually, and here’s a scoop, one of the two men later told me that his partner didn’t really believe in the inventive, concept-driven, and often weird approach to marketing that Heckler-Bowker immediately became known for--cutting edge in its time, commonplace these days. Who was who? Should be an easy guess.)

However, as often happens, the other people who worked for H-B continue to go unnamed and forgotten. In ’71 or ‘72, when the firm clearly needed a second writer (because providing creative services for both K2 Skis and brand new client Rainier Beer would be a Herculean task), I was invited to join the team. Then when Bowker left a year or so later, selling his share of the business to Heckler (in order to concentrate on rapidly succeeding Starbucks), I became the only writer and agency producer for the renamed Heckler Associates.

Which means that from 1973 to early 1985, about twelve years, I wrote every print and radio ad for the wildly popular Rainier (many every year, with the parody radio spots heard across the Northwest) and produced every television commercial, writing the scripts for many of them as well. (Gee, folks, that means that the famous Motorcycle, Running Rainiers, Mickey Rooney ads, rock music parodies, and all others came through me, after Bowker had left.) And I provided the same writer/producer services for many other Heckler Associates clients--K2, Keystone Resort, Canada's Eatons Department Stores, etc.

And I'm not the only forgotten player. Where would the "golden era" history of Heckler be without all the support people and associate designers and later writers who joined and usually stayed for years? But I’ll just cite Craig Marocco and Dale Lantz, and--especially--brilliant scattered resident genius Doug Fast, who served as key behind-the-scenes designer for nearly 30 years. So it continues to gall me that in the usual fond remembrances of Rainier Beer advertising, for example, only Bowker and Heckler ever get credited or interviewed.

Owners and bosses and successful moneymen aren’t the only people worthy of historical and biographical attention. Just as the true history of Starbucks goes back further than corporate powerhouse Schulz--"Got a whale of a tale to tell ya, lad, a whale of a tale or two..."--so too the story of Seattle Magazine and its unlikely offshoot Heckler Associates includes tales that have never been told!


VBM said...

Great pc. I enjoyed it very much. Who was the poety citing the liew of history?

VBM said...

Oops. Lies that is.

I Witness said...

shamelessly quoting myself! see the long Mystic sequence of poems in earlier posting.

Anonymous said...

Sensed a slight touch of bitterness

Norman said...

Hey Ed,
Ghost from Christmas past here. i've been trying to track down that old fart Fast. heckler's didn't get back to me. So I'm hoping you may have a phone number or email address for him?

Happy to have found your blog, I look forward to reading it.

Best to you Ed,

Norman Hathaway