By Dave Carnie
Big Brother’s 30th anniversary is next year in 2022. There have been some rumblings of exhuming that dead horse once again and beating it one more time in the form of a last issue, or something. Negotiations are not going very well at the moment, however, so I’m not confident anything “big” like that is going to happen. Who knows? But amid our initial discussions, I was forced to venture into my archives for something or other and stumbled upon a folder filled with scans of my Red Herring covers. I hadn’t seen them in a long time so I was surprised that I was giggling at them and finding it difficult to select just two examples for my purposes. They’re so horrible, I thought. Perhaps they’re worth sharing?
The first Red Herring cover appeared in Issue 38, July 1998. They were created in response to a memo from the executives upstairs at Larry Flynt Publications (LFP). They had created an “Executive Cover Committee,” a small caucus of self-appointed executives who decided they would have final approval of the cover for every issue of each of Flynt’s publications. The memo said that we were to schedule a meeting with the Executive Cover Committee each month and present them with three cover options for them to choose from.
“What the fuck?” I said.
I had a bit of a tantrum over this decree because designing a cover is one of the most difficult tasks any magazine staff has to contend with every month, but it’s especially difficult for a skateboard magazine—you’re lucky if you have even one good image to choose from, let alone three. On top of that, the cover was Jeff Tremaine’s baby. We, the staff, barely had any say in his designs, how was Jeff going to handle a bunch of old suits who had never even stepped on a skateboard weighing in on his cover? Jeff is smart, though, and he had an immediate solution.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, “we’ll just make two fucked up covers and one real one.”
Ah, genius. There was a reason why Jeff was the magazine’s “Grand Poobah” (or “Editorial Pontiff,” as his masthead title read in Issue 38).
So I was designated as the decoy cover guy and I was required to make two fucked up covers each month (which became three fucked up covers because three fit the page better than two). We called them “Red Herrings,” a term used to describe something distracting and useless. It comes from the practice of dragging a red herring across a hunting trail to confuse the dogs—it throws off the scent. We were subscribing to the same strategy. We would present the Executive Cover Committee Jeff’s (real) cover plus my two fucked up Red Herrings to choose between—“Here are your three covers, honorable Executive Cover Committee.”
This is the first collection of Red Herrings, along with Jeff’s real cover (can you guess which one?), that we presented to the LFP Executive Cover Committee. They’re pretty bad, but I knew I could do much worse. (Interesting to note that we did eventually make the Bi
g Brother “Gay Issue” four years later, although with a cover that featured Jarret Berry nose grinding a handrail in a pair of assless chaps.)
I remember the first meeting clearly. The look on their silly lil executive faces was hilarious after they surveyed the cover printouts we had laid on the table. There was Jeff’s cover with the visually arresting image of Chany Jeanguenin’s—I actually have no idea what Chany’s doing in that image? Perhaps a f/s 5-O, or is it just an ollie over a rail? The caption inside doesn’t provide any clues: “Chany Jeanguenin’s latest work in progress focuses on creating a visual metaphor for modern man’s flight from the architectural jungle gym of society.” Doesn’t matter. Point is, Jeff’s cover was well designed and had an arresting skate photo. While the other three skateboard magazine cover options we exhibited featured images of my cat Gary, two nude men with their asses in the air (Chris Pontius is on the left), and a 17th century Rembrandt painting of some dude holding a piece of paper that wonders, “Who is this guy?”
At first there was a moment of confusion among the Committee members, which soon turned to anger, quickly followed by laughter.
They got the joke immediately. They chuckled because they knew they had been outmaneuvered. We then had a very frank conversation about how skateboard magazine covers come with a lot more baggage than the usual magazine cover. Not only does it have to be a high quality skate photo, it also has to be graphically interesting, it can’t be a sequence or horizontal (rarely works), and the trick also has to be good—or should I say, really, really, really fucking good?—and, of course, a make. The executives eventually came to understand that it was rare for us to get even one photo a month that checks all those boxes. Unlike, say, a porn mag where you just throw some tits on the cover and—boom—done. Even though we came to an agreement that we needn’t provide three covers, we still met with the Executive Cover Committee each month to allow them the opportunity to comment on our cover selection and also to show them the Red Herrings because they seemed to enjoy them.
We would have, of course, been overjoyed if they actually chose one of my graphically challenged disasters, but, aside from the improbability of the generally tasteless and crude images I was choosing to ever be allowed to grace a newsstand, my covers suffered from some other serious handicaps that rendered them incapable of competing with Jeff’s cover. For one, I was a horrible designer and at the time had only a rudimentary understanding of Photoshop and Quark (‘memmer Quark?). Second, my system was equipped with a mere nine fonts. Jeff further handicapped me by instituting a time limit on my creations: I could spend no more than 18 minutes per fake cover. Basically, the Red Herrings were booty from the get–go. Despite these enormous disadvantages, though, I eagerly accepted the challenge of making those stupid covers. It was one of my favorite columns every month.
Who knows, if we do indeed make a 30th anniversary issue maybe a Red Herring will finally become the actual, real cover?