It’s September 1979. I’m three weeks into the job at The Aquarian Weekly as a paste-up artist and put in charge of the environmental section of the paper. The art department and Jim’s office shared a space, and Jim’s room was in the back.
I didn’t notice who walked through the art department and into Jim’s room, it was nobody I recognized, but after Jim’s door shut hard, there were loud voices, yelling and I could hear what sounded like a barroom brawl going on.
The door flings open and I swear to God, this guy walks out the door flailing his arms, and Jim follows giving him a swift kick right in the ass. I mean, it was a square bum’s rush shot, which sent the guy flying across the room and landing on the floor. Jim yells, “Now get the fuck out of this office.” He goes back in his room and shuts the door. I had never seen anything like that ever.
That was my introduction to James Rensenbrink. He could be intimidating, compassionate and a hard ass all at the same time. And many times he could be very funny when things didn’t go as planned. He would just shrug it off and carry on.
I knew Jim differently than most of the remembrances that I’ve read recently. The art department was responsible for physically getting the job done and delivered to the press. We were the ones who cut the text gallies, shot veloxes, burned our fingers on hot wax, ran our hands through the photographic chemicals, cut color overlays on Amberlith with X-Acto blades and used t-squares and triangles. All that is old school now in the publishing business, but back then The Aquarian staff was a community responsible each and every week to produce “counter-culture art” in a newspaper form. It was like giving birth every Monday at 5 p.m. when the paper was done.
Of course, on Tuesday when the paper came back and something was fucked up, I would have to walk the green mile into Jim’s room and tell him before someone else noticed it. Those are memories that still haunt me. In particular there was “An Interview With Art Garfuckle,” “Robert Redford’s two-headed son,” and a favorable review we did for the movie On Golden Pond where the last line was supposed to read, “…and the most appealing of all.” Unfortunately, it read “…and the most appalling of all,” which made the movie companies pull their ads. That was not a good day.
But most of the time Jim would come into the art department and say he really liked the artwork and layout, and in general was part of the team just like everyone else.
They were crazy times—a significant moment in history where we all felt we were part of something great and happening. It was all Jim’s vision. We were all “working hippies.” He was very competitive with other newspapers in the Tri-State Area. He had published countless periodicals from local gazettes to going after the New York market. At one point we were pumping out five newspapers a week. The production team of myself, Theresa Allen and a host of dedicated artists and writers kept Jim’s maniacal passion for print on the newsstands.
I stayed onboard with Jim through five different office changes, hundreds of employees and through the good times and the bad. In 1999 he decided to pack up and move to Oregon. The hippies dream was over for him in New Jersey. Everything must change.
He encouraged me to do Weird NJ. He saw I had that vision he once had. He offered me the company, which I turned down a few times, but in the end I agreed to carry it on. The Aquarian was a part of me, as with anyone who has ever worked within its walls—you can never shake it off, even when you try.
Jim was truly one of the most unique individuals I have ever met in my life and will always be one of my top ten influences. After he left for the West Coast, we corresponded a few times on the phone and in letters, but I could tell he was glad to be free of what he had created here in New Jersey so long ago.
Thank you Jim for the long strange trip.
New Jersey was a very different place in the late ‘70s. With a legal drinking age of only 18, nightlife had blossomed into one of the Garden State’s major industries. You could stay up till dawn listening to the jazz guys blow tunes in Asbury Park, or cruise up Route 17 to the Showplace in Denver and catch all the hottest punk bands from CBGB. There were bowling alleys and discos, roller rinks and rock clubs in every town, it seemed, all serving alcohol to the tail end of the baby boomer generation. And The Aquarian Weekly took full advantage, filling its pages with advertising from bars, clubs, and discos; it was as fat as the yellow pages every week, a magical guidebook of where to go to see a band, get a drink, take a date… or just hang out and hope to hook up.
Founder Jim Rensenbrink had started The Aquarian Weekly in the late ‘60s, and much like its West Coast counterpart Rolling Stone, its early issues resounded with hippie idealism: Anti-war, free love, casual drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. As the paper grew, fueled by the abundant lifestyle advertising of the era, so did its coverage. You could not only read about politics, drugs, and music in its pages, but movies and theater too. And that’s where I came in.
My four years at Rutgers—most of them spent publishing the Daily Targum—had taught me basic journalism skills, but I also had a deep love of the arts. Our college class created the Targum’s first weekly arts supplement, and my friends and I would write about the latest records, plays, books, and movies.
Our photography editor had a brother who worked at The Aquarian (which at the time, to a kid who had grown up in Jersey, seemed like Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times rolled up into one big weekly dose of counter-culture.) Through that connection, I submitted a few record reviews, but once I graduated (with little hope of a full-time job in journalism; it was the Ford recession. Remember “Ford To City: Drop Dead?”), I approached The Aquarian with hopes of doing a lot more. I wound up connecting with the Film & Theater Department (“Everynight” Charlie Crespo and Mike Greenblatt had the music beat sewn up,) and I started writing for them almost every issue.
I still vividly remember the first time I took the bus out to Montclair, walked to The Aquarian’s offices, and met the owner, publisher, and my future boss, Jim Rensenbrink. He was a big bear of a man, with a wild unkempt beard and a big bushy head of tousled hair. He looked like he’d slept in his clothes for a week, and his office was buried in tons of old newspapers, cigarettes, books, records, and magazines. I honestly couldn’t imagine how anyone could get any work done in that mess. But he did.
It was a long time ago, but I remember Jim Rensenbrink being kind, generous, and very supportive to this young writer. After I had freelanced for a few months, he called me back to his lair and announced that he was promoting me to Contributing Editor. I’d still be a freelancer, but I’d get paid a higher rate for every story.
Since I was living with my parents, and my only real source of income at the time was cashing in the savings bonds my grandparents had given me every Christmases and birthday, that meant a lot.
I won’t pretend that I was at any time the Golden Boy of The Aquarian bullpen; far from it. I was the third-string interviewer and reviewer, which meant I’d get assignments nobody else wanted. But boy, did I get some plum ones. Nobody cared about science fiction in 1977, so I attended the premiere of Star Wars: A New Beginning (yes, the first one) and reviewed it. Same with First Encounters Of The Third Kind. When Harrison Ford followed up his Star Wars debut with a forgettable World War II romance flick, I interviewed him too. The Smokey & The Bandit flicks with Burt Reynolds ruled the box office at the time, and my editor sent me to talk to Reynolds’ comedy party, Dom DeLuise. In my household, that was like interviewing Bob Hope. DeLuise’s Italian chef routine on The Dean Martin Show (“save it for da end!”) was beloved by my parents and grandparents. And DeLuise himself was as gracious and funny in person as he was on screen. I also attended Broadway openings and reviewed shows like The Wiz and The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. (I brought my mom to that one. Probably a mistake.) Who knows what might have happened if I had pursued that path and stuck to film and theater? But then a funny thing happened: Punk.
I started spending more and more of my time at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and, starting in 1980 or so, at a new club in Hoboken called Maxwell’s. I started writing about those bands for my friend Howard Wuelfing’s fanzine Dischords, and when that folded, I decided to start my own music fanzine and call it Jersey Beat. The Aquarian didn’t take kindly to competition (even though I was only publishing a 12-page homemade zine every couple of months at the time), so that was the end of my days there. But they were good ones, and I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without them.
Of course, hundreds of other writers passed through The Aquarian‘s ranks since then, including DJ Vin Scelsa, author Jeff Tamarkin, and Star-Ledger music editor Jay Lustig. And the paper continues to be that invaluable first job for new generations of wanna music journalists. So thank you, Jim Rensenbrink. You might have been a rumpled hippie lunatic baying at the moon to some people; but to me, you were always a mensch.
—Jim Testa, Jersey Beat
The news of yesterday’s death of Jim Rensenbrink, founder of The Aquarian Weekly newspaper in New Jersey, has bonded me today to the publication and staff that gave me my start in journalism in 1974. After many years of prodding by the newspaper’s chief photographer, Charlie Frick, one day I blindly submitted eight concert reviews to an editor I had never spoken to or met. The following week, I saw the newspaper had published six of those eight reviews. I was in. I wrote for the newspaper prolifically for the next 10 years or so.
I lived in New York, but I would visit the paper’s New Jersey office about twice a year just to check in. I met Rensenbrink soon after my first articles were published. He was an imposing man, even intimidating. His conviction was so powerful that I immediately gained great respect for his vision of putting out an intelligent and counter-culturally relevant newspaper. Despite the admiration I had for him as a visionary and an entrepreneur, however, I disliked something about his persona that often made me feel like I was cowering before a powerful person. Looking back, that probably says more about my nebbish self-image at the time than it says about Rensenbrink. I felt a strong desire to be a part of his team and support his agenda week after week, but I always preferred dealing with him on the telephone—or not at all.
Rensenbrink seemed to want to overthrow the Village Voice, but without compromising or sacrificing his commitment to working class values. As a result, The Aquarian remained an “underground” newspaper long after similar hippie-age publications lost their meaning and folded. He gave many budding journalists their first start, and was deeply offended when any of these writers would later “defect” and contributed for a rival paper. Knowing this about him, I never betrayed him, and wrote for many other kinds of publications. Because I believed in his grand but perhaps lofty mission, I gave him articles for $25 that would have been worth much more elsewhere. The clearest recollection I have of him today is when I gave him dirt-cheap an exclusive behind-the-scenes story of the Sex Pistols’ American tour in 1978. He kept prying me to reveal my sources, but I had gotten the information on the promise of confidentiality. For the first time, I was finally able to stand up to him. He was not pleased.
Rensenbrink and I last spoke sometime in the early to mid-1980s. He had to cut back costs, and asked me if I would take a pay cut from $125 to $75 for my weekly Everynight Charley column. I refused. My life was starting to move in another direction anyway, and this became my excuse to let go and move on. That last click of the telephone meant no more visits to his office. Nevertheless, I never forgot the hard-working, hard-driving man who gave me and many others an opportunity to launch a creative and fulfilling career in the publishing industry.
When Jim Rensenbrink hired me to work for the East Coast Rocker in 1986, my main responsibility was to write for the “Hard News” section that ran in the front of the paper. I was supposed to do 15 articles a week, but often—actually, just about always—I fell short of that goal.
Jim was looking for short, snarky reactions to the music news of the week, though it took me a while to realize that. I thought, at first, he really wanted hard news. I remember one time when he handed me an article, clipped from some other publication, about Willie Nelson being an ardent golfer, and asked me to write it up for “Hard News.” So, I put together a piece about the amusing irony of an outlaw-country icon spending so much time working on his driving and putting. I think I even called Nelson’s publicist—that’s what a reporter does, after all—to get the expected “no comment,” and put that into my story.
Jim looked at what I wrote, uttered a little moan and, with a look of disgust, announced he was going to show me how to do it. A half hour later, I read what he had written. He basically saw Willie Nelson playing golf as a declaration of war against all that was still decent about humanity, an act of taking sides against “us,” and with “them.” Nelson had crossed a line, Jim seemed to believe, and needed to pay for it.
I don’t think I ever managed to write with the edge Jim was looking for, but became a valued member of the staff, anyway. There were still some rough spots, though. Once, in my struggle to come up with those 15 items, I produced a bland report on the artists who were honored at a recent Boston Music Awards show. (At the time, we were trying to live up to our name and cover the whole East Coast, not just New Jersey and Manhattan.) Jim didn’t criticize the article directly, but the headline he wrote, and that ran in the paper—”Who Cares!”—told me all I needed to know.
Still, writing for ECR helped me find my voice, even if wasn’t the voice Jim was looking for. I feel lucky to have been able to work there for a few years. Getting that call from Jim in ’86, saying he was going to hire me, was a golden, head-spinning moment in my life. I was in journalism before, but to be offered a full-time job writing about rock music … it was like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when everything turns into color. And the only reason the job was there in the first place was that Jim created the paper, and kept it going, no matter what.
I could never thank him enough for that. And I’m sure just about everyone who works or worked there feels the same way.
Sometime, somewhere, not over the rainbow, not in a galaxy far far away, but in a dingy, cluttered storefront on Monroe Street next door to the legendary Capitol Theater in downtown Passaic, New Jersey, a young man, who looked a lot like me, with an army surplus shoulder bag holding a pair of Pentax Spotmatic 35mm film cameras, walked in the front door of The Aquarian Weekly. It was the fall of 1973, just about 40 years ago. The young man reached out his hand to embrace a tall lanky guy with a pencil stuck behind his ear who was sitting behind a desk cluttered with yellow legal pads, newspapers, typewritten manuscripts, and of course, the ubiquitous coffee cups.
“My name is Charlie Frick. I’m a newspaper man,” I said.
That was my introduction to Jim Rensenbrink, the legendary newspaper publisher, author, poet, media-mystic and godfather to several generations of writers, photographers and newspaper professionals. Little did I know in that moment that Jim was to become my friend, my mentor, my tormentor, my intellectual sparring partner, my political weather vane and the engineer driving the gravy train that would carry my career as a young photojournalist and rock writer, from Passaic, literarily around the world. Ours was a professional relationship as well as a friendship destined to last for the next quarter of a century.
Today’s readers may not be aware of the fact that for many years, the paper under Jim’s direction was a respected and often quoted member of The Alternative Press Syndicate, a national coalition of alternative publications, college newspapers and radical rock rags, which grew out of the legendary Underground Press Syndicate of the late ‘60s. The Aquarian Weekly, like these other publications, gave a voice to those who were not fairly or equally represented by the “straight media.” Jim’s editorial vision shaped the reportage. The paper consistently focused its coverage on left-leaning and alternative news, movement politics, investigative journalism, muckraking exposes of corruption, political malfeasance, and corporate misdoing. There were many articles which reported on the government’s repression of dissident and anti-war voices, as well as coverage of the burgeoning environmental movement. Years before it was fashionable, the paper gave a forum to and a voice for women’s rights issues and gay and lesbian issues. And, oh yes, there was plenty of coverage for the culture of the time: sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Jim was the visionary behind it all, the driving force and the last word. His movement credentials and politics were, in my opinion, impeccable and un-impeachable. He had a set of personal and professional values, which reflected and amplified those of the ‘60s generation.
I believe his core mission was rooted in his admiration for the works of Henry David Thoreau. There were many times I would be ushered into his office for a meeting, a scolding, or to try and get paid, and he would have a copy of Walden open on his desk, or Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience within easy reach. For a few years, I saw a dog-eared and heavily annotated copy of Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings Of Don Juan lying around. This, among many of Jim’s other qualities, endeared him to me and renewed my respect and admiration for the man and his mission. He lived by a set of humanistic values, which reflected the promise of a greater good. He also had the dedication to the cause, and determination, never to sell out (though there were offers that he did refuse) and to keep those issues he felt were critical to all of us as a culture, as a movement, and as a nation, on the front page and in front of the public. As a publisher, Jim was a man who walked the walk, not just talked the talk. He made a huge difference in my life, in my career, and I trust in the culture at large.
I believe that all great and near great newspaper men of a certain age have one thing in common: a shared history. That of being a kid, watching Superman on television or reading the comic book versions of The Man Of Steel’s life and exploits. As you may remember, Superman accomplished his heroic and altruistic feats while hiding in plain sight in the newspaper offices of the mythical Daily Planet. At the opening of each episode of the television show, the narrator, in ponderous tones, introduces Clark Kent by saying, “…And who, disguised as a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” I think of those words today, I think of Clark Kent and yes, I think of my friend, Jim Rensenbrink, and I smile.
—Charlie Frick, a writer and photographer for The Aquarian Weekly from 1973 to 1979 and again from 1995 to 1998. In 1974 and 1975, he was the producer and host of The Aquarian Weekly’s radio program, The Electric Newspaper, which was broadcast weekly on WFMU-FM.
I got off the airplane from the Midwest, late summer 1975. I was 21. Somehow I got from LaGuardia Airport to the place where I was going to be living and working, an underground newspaper commune at the end of Bleecker Street. Nobody was there. I went to a nearby Bowery bar to wait. Picked up a paper that was on the counter.
It was The Aquarian, and it had articles about the very bar I was sitting in, CBGB, describing how it was the epicenter of a burgeoning new movement called “punk rock.” Thus, I experienced a surreal convergence of alternative journalism and the thing it was covering. I read about some of the bands. I remember thinking, “Oh, I’m 21—way over the hill for this scene,” not realizing, of course, that most of the people in the bands were older than I was.
But I can accurately say the very first thing I did when I moved to New York City was to read a newspaper published by James Rensenbrink, as I sat in the hippest place in town. No, I never became particularly hip. But years later I did become a topical songwriter—you could call my three-chord idiom “folk punk”—and played at CBGB’s Gallery.
Jim published some of my first song lyrics in The Aquarian, with a beautiful, lavish layout—a cheerful little ditty called “Germ Warfare.” He published some of my other lyrics, too. Man, was I proud! It was maybe the first creative writing I ever got into print. Later, I wrote an art column and some satirical pieces for his Downtown newspaper.
What a pillar of alternative journalism Jim was. I interacted with him as a contributor to his publications, but also for several years as the one who oversaw a longstanding arrangement (begun by High Times’ founder Tom Forcade) whereby The Aquarian, along with hundreds of other alternative magazines and newspapers, were microfilmed and put into libraries. No one was more dependable than Jim in putting out an exciting, quality paper week after week , month after month, year after year.
I met Jim Rensenbrink in the autumn of 1974 when I walked into his office with a beautiful Asian girl and asked if I could write for The Aquarian. He was sitting with his legs up on a desk, wearing overalls, smoking a cigar and writing a poem. When he saw my friend Luna, though, he straightened right up and asked me who I’d written for. I had only written one article in my life. It was for the Cranford Chronicle wherein I said local band Thulcandra would be a household name. That cracked him up and he said he’d call.
I had almost forgot about him but a few weeks later, sure enough, he called and asked me if I’d like to cover Ike & Tina Turner on New Year’s Eve.
Then he fired his music editor and asked me if I’d like the job.
I told him I never even took any journalism courses in college and my only experience with music was singing in a rock ‘n’ roll band. He loved that, and assigned Senior Editor Gene Kalbacher [1952-1999] to teach me how to edit.
Jim could be a royal pain at times, mercurial, unpredictable, prone to sudden bursts of anger, but he infused the entire staff with a sense of purpose and an us-versus-them mentality. We would do the story and the Village Voice would get the ad and that would set him off every time. His shouting matches on the phone with John Scher were legendary but damn if the whole staff didn’t squeeze into the Capitol Theater in Passaic to see the Rolling Stones with Prince opening. He turned me on to Leonard Cohen, left-wing politics and let me read his novel, The Basketball Player. We would discuss it after work many a night until late. I once told him how Jim Morrison pissed on Ahmet Ertegun’s expensive Persian rug and that’s why The Doors weren’t signed to Atlantic Records. He loved that story, and wound up working it into the novel.
He let me run the show my way, never interfering with who to assign and who to cover. Knowing I was a baseball fanatic, he even let me cover the Yankees and Mets, and I got to hang around the batting cage on the field in both stadiums. For that alone, I owe him a tremendous thanks. And he had me write “The Pot Page,” way back when medicinal marijuana was just a glint in progressives’ eyes.
We had our battles. He busted me from Music Editor down to being a lowly ad rep and I had to swallow that. Still, we kept in touch until he moved west. I had heard about his Parkinson’s and always meant to reach out. I guess there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Jim was a unique individualist who provided many folks with opportunities to be creative. Thanks, Jim.
—Bill Chemerka, Aquarian/East Coast Rocker 1979-1990
I am really glad to have worked with Jim and have seen a couple different sides of him. He and Johnny Dirt, if ever there was an odd couple…
There are a couple of goofy stories (of course).
Jim planned to run a poem of his and as I was rushing out of the office late one afternoon, he hit me with:
“Go to the park in Cedar Grove, along Bloomfield Avenue, and get some beautiful photos of a flock of geese flying up off the pond.”
Oh yeah. I could picture exactly what he needed, and needed quickly. Unfortunately, the few geese were not in the mood to leave, en masse or otherwise!
I believe I got chewed out the next day when I presented him with some placid photos of geese serenely floating in the pond.
I think this one must’ve been for The Essex County Gazette:
High school football. I never liked the sport. I never attended games when I was in school. And now I had to get exciting football photos! I guess I must’ve shot mostly along the edges of the action, where I could see the players’ faces. One day, Jim quietly explained, “You have to follow the football.” Such elegant exasperation!
Didn’t increase my interest in the game one least bit!
—Cathy Miller, Photographer
I was working in NYC as the editor of an insurance company’s newsletter when I saw an ad for a music editor’s job at The Aquarian, applied for it and was hired by Jim. I took a big cut in pay, but it was the best career move I ever made. I went from writing stories about insurance salesmen to covering rock ‘n’ roll. Since then, I’ve had a long and varied career, much of which would not have happened had I not spent a few years at The Aquarian.
Wow, I never got to meet him. But because of him, I can say he is definitely responsible for almost everything I did as a photographer/writer, ultimately bringing my work to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, record stores around the world, and I couldn’t even begin to explain how much meaning it all brought to my short stay on this planet. Much respect and gratitude to the man I never knew.
Although I’ve been on The Aquarian masthead pretty much since ’90, I never, to my regret, met the man (or, for that matter, set foot in the office). An influential and essential publication that helped guide my rebelling-teen-growing-up-in-Spotswood (NJ) years, it’s an honor to be a contributing writer for a publication that Jim’s vision helped guide into the archives of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. RIP.
I don’t write poetry, I don’t say fuck you (often), I don’t live in my office, I don’t play basketball. I’m a woman. I’m about as far from being a 1969 hippie as one could imagine. But I believe in “live and let live.”
I truly believe in Jim’s basic principle of life and that is to question everything.
And he did. And he started a pulpit for himself and countless others to do the same thing. He sacrificed his marriages, his home, his social life and more for his beliefs.
He was a true pioneer on the alternative newspaper landscape.
And I feel lucky as hell to be able to carry on that torch.