You can tell journalism professor David Standish is a successful rock ‘n’ roll journalist from the stuff on his walls. There's a print by author Henry Miller he bought at a garage sale for a dollar; a psychedelic poster of the Doors; a surreal, winged corn on the cob.
His bookshelf is crammed with American classics—battered volumes of Mark Twain, Saul Bellow and Henry David Thoreau. "I was born into a classic American working-class family in the boring part of Cleveland,” Standish says. "I was the first person in my family to even look at a college."
Standish began his unorthodox journalism career while studying English at Miami University in Ohio, where he launched a humor magazine with some friends, very little experience and no money. They called the magazine Plague, after an Albert Camus novel."We were too stupid to know it should fail," Standish says. Plague's first issue sold enough to cover printing, pizza and beer. By its 20th issue, it was attracting national advertisers.
Standish’s adventures in journalism might’ve ended with Plague and an American Studies Ph.D. from Indiana University. But halfway through his dissertation, he took a trip to Chicago—and stayed there.
"I went for the very best of reasons," Standish says. "Chasing a girl."
Once in the city, Standish was hired to select jokes for Playboy magazine's Party Jokes page.
"I was going from obscure seminars in Thoreau’s laundry lists to sitting in this windowless office ... stacked nearly to the ceiling with unread party jokes," he says.
Standish’s first-ever interview was with Eric Clapton, Cream's then-lead guitarist, and it was a disaster. "I didn’t know what the hell I was doing," Standish says.
The nervous Standish could hardly grip Clapton's famous fingers; he sweated alone on a giant couch across from Clapton and asked him very little. Halfway through their interview, Frank Zappa and Ginger Baker walked in from a night of wild partying. The pair plopped on either side of the couch and conducted a surreal mock interview with Standish.
"Ginger Baker was a notorious speed freak back then, so his eyes were like pinwheels," he says. "Frank Zappa was strange enough that he didn’t need any chemical help. They asked questions like, 'Why is the moon? What is cheese? What is up and what is down?'"
Forty years later, Standish weaves every anecdote with a studied feel, a testament to a lifetime of experience. Each chapter of his life has a decided ring to it, as if he figured out how they fit together a long time ago. His innate sense of structure was especially helpful when, as a freelance writer for the travel magazine Diversion, Standish found himself in Fukuoka, Japan, without any kind of story angle and decided to do a sea-to-stomach progression of fugu, sushi made from a poisonous blowfish.
"There’s two schools of thought about eating fugu," Standish, whose dangerous plate of sashimi cost $180, explains. "One is that it’s much ado about nothing. The other is ... even if it’s eviscerated properly, there’s still a trace of the poison that gets you high. And I think that’s true, because I wasn’t hungry at all when I sat down ... but I’m telling you, I cleaned my plate."
Beyond state-altering sushi, Standish’s career as a freelancer and Playboy editor has taken him to some amazing places. He spent a week in Willie Nelson’s tour bus with “cans of the coldest beer and clouds of the very best marijuana,” three weeks in Japan with KISS and a couple of weeks in South America with Queen. He’s interviewed Janis Joplin, Elton John and Jerry Garcia.
But lately he’s settled down. He says he loves teaching full-time at Medill, his gig since 2000; at this point, he says, he’d rather cultivate talent in young people than write at home, "stir crazy ... just me and the computer and the cat."
Standish has a wealth of wisdom for aspiring freelancers, but he distills it to two important tips.
"Start thinking about a book," he says. Standish himself has written two, one of which, Hollow Earth, was named an "Editor’s Choice" by the New York Times Sunday Book Review. "It will get you noticed better than the traditional apprenticeships nowadays."
Given Standish’s track record, one may do well to heed his advice. He’s certainly had a hell of a good time.
"Journalism is the best profession in the world," he says, folding his arms across his worn wool sweater and grinning broadly.