It was a weekday in the summer of 2009 when I spotted Bob Mack outside a Herald Square bodega sucking down his second tall boy of the morning, rumpled New York Post under his arm. Sporting an untucked, outsize dress shirt and overgrown do-it-yourself salt-and-pepper crew cut, he was getting ready to pile onto the Bolt Bus (a.k.a. the Broke Bus) headed for Baltimore, where two guest list spots for that night’s Beastie Boys show awaited us. To be clear, the tickets were being held under “Stefan Marolachakis + 1” because, according to both Bob and the longstanding mutual friend who’d arranged our rendezvous, the band hadn’t seen him in a while, had no interest in seeing him, and had not been told he was coming.
They were avoiding him for the very reason I’d tracked him down: He’d served as editor of their Grand Royal magazine, the short-lived mid-90s rag that had flipped fanzine culture on its head. The magazine wasn’t about a band, it was by a band, one of the biggest of the era. It was the literary arm of the band’s record label of the same name, and they published just six issues before going under. For me, at fifteen years old, it served as a handbook, the place where musicians I idolized told me how to bet at the racetrack and turned me on to records I had to hear, alongside esoteric profiles of guys like Timothy Leary and Charles Guiteau, President Garfield’s assassin. I couldn’t believe my favorite band had gone through the trouble of printing up a manual that taught fifteen-year-old white kids on the Upper East Side like me how to hang.
My plan was straightforward: I wanted to write an oral history of the magazine. This trip to Baltimore would be the start of the requisite research, and Bob was going to be just the first step in a long journey—but we never managed to get past the first question. Bob has spent the last forty-some-odd years talking, and is still frantically in search of his point.
“How did I meet the Beastie Boys? I knew I’d have to answer that. Ok, I was trying to write for Spin magazine and I was hitting them with a lot of ideas… Kids today, what are we going to do with the youth? They’re bored. Bored? You got fucking a thousand TV stations and twice as many games in the computer! Which is why kids are fat and un-athletic and all of that. Columbine and Virginia Tech—see, I told you to ask me questions. Oh, you did ask me a question—I’m just giving you the punch line beforehand.”
Talking to Bob is an act of surrender. Sometimes you’re his pro bono therapist, sometimes the stand-up comedy crowd he never had, but either way you aren’t going to be doing any talking. This is Bob at work, this is Bob shining: sitting in the back of the bus, brown paper-bagged domestic in hand, waxing poetic on the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “When Licensed to Ill came out, I was the person the Beastie Boys were talking about. The whole thing about listening to Led Zeppelin, drinking Budweiser, and smoking brown pot, well, that’s what I was still doing at that age in Brooklyn.”
Though Bob is a big galoot, pushing six foot four, he can be docile to the point of disappearing—but given the right amount of beer, he’ll talk till kingdom come, employing the sizable vocabulary of a former magazine editor and longtime slang enthusiast. He studied journalism for a spell at the University of Missouri before dropping out and moving to New York, where he “slowly started shedding the priorities of libertarianism and objectivism and heading towards National Lampoon and Danceteria.” He decided to study economics at Brooklyn Polytechnic before getting an internship at the Village Voice. From there, he joined the Master’s program at the McGill School of Journalism until being asked to leave due to his “sloth.” (He described this to me as “a great embarrassment,” in a tone worthy of an archduke.) Nevertheless, he wound up with gigs at the National Review, Spy, and then Spin—and it was there that Bob really started to stretch out, as evidenced by this December ’91 feature on the Red Hot Chili Peppers:
…Flea keeps bitching about how it better be a cover story. It was one of those times when I wished I had bigger balls and had said: ‘Look, Flea, you were on the cover a year ago, and you didn’t even deserve it then. Why? Because you and your band, more than any other band in rock, have failed to actualize your potential, that’s why. And now Warner is paying you 5.7 million bones for three albums? Give me a break. All that dough spent, all that stink raised, all that ink spilled, and you’ve come up with what, one gold album? You’re just like your boy Agassi, who never wins the big ones, now does he? In fact, you shouldn’t have pimped for Nike with him, you should have been in his ad for Canon, saying ‘Image Is Everything.’ ‘Cause that’s all you are: tube steaks in tube socks, flexed pecs and strained necks, punk ’n’ funk ’n’ junk. So yo bro’, take all that crap and shove it up your tattooed ass!’ Of course, I just smiled and took my lumps.
This is the Bob I love—the Bob who had no problem calling Ted Nugent a racist as they went blow-for-blow in a screaming match; who got obliterated in the process of impersonating Mike D at golf’s prestigious Ryder Cup (“which turned out much more like my own Fear and Loathing than I ever intended”); who “went method” in Jamaica with Lee Perry and, according to him, was never the same. All in the pages of Grand Royal.
It was back at Spin that Bob first met the band while traveling with them for a cover story in early ’92. The trip resulted in a fast friendship and led to them asking him to help launch their fledgling magazine, a landmark moment in Bob’s life. “They gave me a ride across the country, we said goodbye to each other, and I immediately got a DUI.” After his travels with the Beastie Boys, Bob moved to LA and bussed tables over at Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant in Carmel, California, until receiving the all-important fax from Mike D requesting his assistance over at the magazine.
Our Baltimore blowout with the Beastie Boys proved relatively uneventful. I talked basketball backstage with that night’s opening act Biz Markie while Bob hid out in any darkened corner he could find, exchanging only passing pleasantries with the band at the very end of the night. Bob would go on not answering my very first question over the course of the following three years, dozens of voicemails, a handful of meetings, and, despite being a card-carrying Luddite, even an email or two.
His eagerness to connect with me was a function of his having alienated nearly everyone from his past life. At some point in the late ‘90s, Bob had entered a very dark passage, something he only alludes to via long pauses in conversation and the occasional loaded look. I didn’t manage to get many details out of him; he would only tell me that his drinking had gone off the rails and he’d fallen out of the world. As a result, his working relationship with the Beastie Boys had not ended amicably, with Bob saying that, “the very fact that any of them are friendly to me is of enormous importance to me and is why I am eternally grateful. They could be anything from chilly to outright hostile and they’d be justified—but they’re not.” His byline stopped showing up and he became known to most in his Rolodex as the guy who, in his own words, would “leave long-winded lunatic phone messages in several long-suffering souls’ voicemails, a once somewhat entertaining but now somewhat pathetic pastime.”
I was to be the next in line, and came to expect three to five rambling voicemails a week. About two years into our correspondence, Bob got a gig writing in-house copy for the Teamsters down in DC and shacked up with an old friend of his down in Maryland, one of the last guys around willing to throw him a bone. Around that time, I received this message:
February 4, 2011 – Voicemail, 7:34 PM
“Stefan! It’s your boy! I’m in a holding pattern, young man. I’m still down in Maryland. I turned in the draft they didn’t think I was capable of doing. I was. They screamed bloody murder when I said that Jimmy Hoffa, you know, had an intuitive literary flare akin to Mickey Spillane after a few Malt-O-Meals, but, you know, I gave ‘em something to hang their hat on. You understand me? [Belch.] I didn’t think so.”
Bob once again overstayed his welcome, estranging yet another friend reaching out to him. Was it his drinking? The weird hours he kept? His general air of unreliability and wild card-ness? More likely, it was his inability to stick to the script at his Teamsters gig. To Bob, the copy for the Teamsters couldn’t simply be about the Teamsters—it needed to use the organization as a device to uncover the secret history of the world! The Union reps didn’t appreciate his brand of wit as much as the cognoscenti of the ‘90s downtown music scene. He was quickly asked to vacate the premises. The pattern I’d heard so much about was repeating itself in front of me in real time.
In the summer of 2011, Bob made a pilgrimage out to Long Island’s East End in an ill-advised attempt to rekindle his long-dormant working relationship with the East Hampton Star. Per his M.O., he began executing this plan with no plan in mind, and found no open ears at the paper. Having prematurely lined up an East Hampton living arrangement, he decided to pick up a job as a busboy at a Greek restaurant where he worked for “two brothers, both named George, who look and talk remarkably like the psycho siblings that give Woody Allen the evil eye in Broadway Danny Rose.” To supplement that income, he’d also picked up a job at a local rug store. During this period, I received daily phone inquiries from Bob as to the details of the Hampton Jitney schedule, since he was still keeping the Internet at arm’s length. I was editing a small online magazine at the time, a huge deal to Bob since he had no sense of the digital landscape. Where I had once thought Bob would help me with my book, he now thought I would somehow reinvigorate his writing career—including a book on the history of the t-shirt into which he’d already poured over a decade of work.
There we were, equally misguided. So I decided to enlist Bob to do some writing for my website, but getting him to turn anything in proved impossible. He’d periodically call me with updates from the payphone at his local bar:
June 19, 2011 – Voicemail, 8:33 PM
“Hey, Stefan. It’s your boy. Now you’ve finally met the Bob Mack. The deadline-misser with the big fat kisser. I’m excited…which is usually a bad sign. All right. Later.”
The effort required to get Bob to submit just one post for the site exceeded all expectations. Your average Joe on the street might open his mouth, make a statement, and then shut it, but Bob isn’t just trying to connect, oh, two or three things in order to make a point. He’s desperately grasping around to find the ways in which it’s all connected. Every project he undertakes, every sentence he says is some arduous attempt to weave together every thought he’s ever had. That sensibility is what lost him his Teamsters job down in DC; delayed the release of the second issue of Grand Royal for over a year (“Long Awaited, Much Anticipated, Grossly Outdated,” the issue’s spine proclaimed); and cost him his job there as editor. It’s also what made the magazine great.
His obsessive need to create all-encompassing statements is what makes Grand Royal, in retrospect, feel like the wildly ambitious and ham-handed proto-Internet document it is. The second issue, Bob’s magnum opus, was itself responsible for triggering a number of viral trends in pop culture, not the least being the resurrection of cover star Lee “Scratch” Perry’s career and the introduction of the term “mullet” to society at large. His Beastie bosses may have reasonably envisioned the magazine as a snapshot of their scene and their moment in time, but Bob saw it as his ultimate chance at one-stop shopping, the tome to end all tomes, the volume that would somehow explain the world. He can’t help but infuse profound meaning into seemingly ephemeral things: news of an upcoming Metallica tour, the criminally overlooked second album from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Biz Markie’s cover of “Benny and the Jets.”
When I think of Bob, I’m reminded of my very first visit to the Planetarium. After a screening of the latest space flick, I walked down the exit ramp, along which ran a long and winding timeline of the history of the universe. At the very end was a highlighted section about half an inch wide labeled “The History of the Human Race.” I was forced to face that age-old query: How could such a tiny dot have any significance in the face of all this history, all this other business? As I left, I could think of only two options, two ways to approach life: either nothing at all is of any consequence, or every single thing is of great and equal importance. Bob Mack, whether he likes it or not, has gone with the latter, and it’s cost him—but it’s also why the work he did two decades ago still resonates. “I truly did do some remarkable things in those two issues. You have to understand, all joking aside, it took a lot out of me.”
I never did get that book on Grand Royal off the ground; I wasn’t even able to get Bob to turn in the third installment of his column. Towards the end of Bob’s run writing for my site, he left me this message:
July 9, 2011 – Voicemail, 3:09 PM
“Hey, Stef. Sorry I missed your call. Oh boy. It’s been busy here at the rug place. There’s nothing like having to go through a stack of like two hundred rugs for some customer and then they literally say that they like the one at the bottom, then you have to put the pile all back together and…Jesus Christ. Anyway, like I say, I have to work here again tomorrow and like kinda watch the shop all day, um, but what I’ll do is I’ll take the train in Monday and then just work all day there and then stay the night, do what it takes, just go get a hotel room either out by JFK or maybe over in Jersey, so I can keep working that night and then come back over during the day on Tuesday and we can work until it’s finished. All right? Guaranteed. When I quit the job at the restaurant I was really bumming out for a day or two, that’s for sure. And it’s a good thing that I did, but…it was harsh. In any event, don’t lose faith. I know I’ve pushed it to the point where you have no choice but to lose faith, but I’ll be good. All right, man? Aw, gosh. Ok. Thanks, man. Bye.”