In “The Skills to Pay the Bills,” a 1992 song by the Beastie Boys, Mike D announces, “I’m on a crazy mission to wax Bob Mack.” Mack, an affable young gonzo journalist, had just spent the better part of a year harassing the Beasties for a Spin-magazine cover story, driving them to distraction. I witnessed this firsthand over the partition that separated our cubicles at Spy magazine, where Bob worked as a reporter—that is, when he wasn’t flagrantly freelancing on company time or failing to show up.
Through the receiver of Bob’s phone, I could hear a palpably agitated Mike D (and, on another occasion, Adam Yauch) rebuffing his questions, wondering how much longer this protracted profiling process was going to take. No wonder Mike D, full name Michael Diamond, wanted to wax—that is, finish off—Bob.
Yet a year later, Diamond and his bandmates installed Bob as the editor of the Beasties’ magazine, Grand Royal, where he continued to exasperate and fascinate them. All of us who knew Bob experienced this duality: the charm, smarts, and manic sense of enterprise that endeared him to us and the unreliability that tried our patience and made us really worry about him.
Bob took more than a year to follow up the first issue of Grand Royal with the second, but what he pulled together was incredible. Grand Royal #2, whose spine reads, “Long Awaited, Much Anticipated, Grossly Outdated,” is a landmark in the history of periodicals: a kaleidoscopic masterwork anchored by Bob’s brilliantly contentious interview with the rock ’n’ roll blowhard Ted Nugent (Bob to the Nuge: “You’re always trying to second-guess your public with all that cheese and all that bullshit. What happened?”) and a photo feature and essay in which Bob and the Beasties—etymologists, take note—coined the term “mullet” to describe a haircut that is short on the sides and long at the back.
On October 29, I’m sad to report, Bob finally got waxed. Riding his bicycle at 8:35 P.M. on Imperial Highway in Los Angeles, he was struck by a car and did not survive the collision.
Even as we grieve his death, we Friends of Bob have to laugh a little at the circumstances of it. A 60-year-old man riding a bike in the dark on a Sunday night near Los Angeles International Airport: how very Bob. “Whatever urgent mission Bob was on at the time, only he knows, but I’m sure he was pursuing it with his usual gusto,” says the screenwriter and producer Paul Simms, another colleague from our Spy days.
All of us who knew Bob experienced this duality: the charm, smarts, and manic sense of enterprise that endeared him to us and the unreliability that tried our patience and made us really worry about him.
Bob was a tall, shambolic fellow, handsome in a droopy, Huckleberry Hound way. He was congenitally sweet, irresistible to women and men alike. And he was an addict. His struggles with booze and narcotics resulted in prolonged disappearances and communication blackouts. I discovered only while preparing this tribute that there is a dedicated Facebook group entitled “Where the Fuck Is Bob Mack?”
I was also astonished to learn in my research that Bob excelled on his high school’s water-polo team, in his native La Cañada, California. At Spy, Bob was an outlier among the East Coast brainiacs who populated the staff: rougher around the edges, prone to dressing in clothes purchased at hardware stores, and with an esoteric patois all his own. A botched caper was a “kazaster”—a portmanteau of “catastrophe” and “disaster”—while anything that surprised Bob warranted the exclamation “Ba-doing-yoing-yoing!”
His tastes were defiantly contrary. While the rest of our cohort was into Pixies and Aimee Mann, Bob was a fan of Don Henley and Rush, whose virtuosic, libertarian drummer and principal lyricist, Neil Peart, was one of his heroes. Once, when the Spy editor George Kalogerakis left on Simms’s desk a clipped-out Village Voice ad for an upcoming Brooklyn concert by the British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, Bob scribbled on it in Magic Marker, “NO!!! BAN the rock-crit establishment!” This prompted me, in the mid-1990s, to conscript Bob for a humor book that I was writing with Steven Daly, The Rock Snob’s Dictionary. Bob being Bob, he didn’t end up contributing much, but I shall forever value his succinct summation of Gram Parsons as a “trustafarian pretty-boy.”
I should back up and note that Bob at his best, meaning during his Spy and Grand Royal years, was a dogged, resourceful participatory journalist. He and John Brodie were a comic team of sorts, the two of them putting on tuxes and bluffing their way into parties and restaurants to track the movements of New York’s foremost party-goers—the book editor Morgan Entrekin, the journalist Carl Bernstein, and the writer Anthony Haden-Guest—for an entirely Spy-invented competition called the “Celebrity Pro-Am Ironman Nightlife Decathlon Championship.”
A botched caper was a “kazaster”—a portmanteau of “catastrophe” and “disaster”—while anything that surprised Bob warranted the exclamation “Ba-doing-yoing-yoing!”
When Spy did a Washington, D.C., issue, in 1990, Bob and John took their act on the road, shadowing the hateful Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater, a social butterfly himself. Renting a car, they idled behind Atwater’s chauffeured limo while he attended a party at the Washington Hilton.
As they sat waiting, Bob told John he had an idea. “He opened his briefcase to reveal an Idaho baking potato,” John says. “Before I could say anything, he walked up to the rear bumper of Atwater’s car, dropped down on his knees, and shoved the potato into the tailpipe. Bob thought it would be funny to have a loud bang go off in a sea of Republicans.”
But the car’s dual-exhaust system precluded a theatrical pop. Instead, Atwater departed the party without incident but with Bob and John on his tail. Somewhere along the way, their prey figured out what was going on. Atwater had his driver stop, got out, and rapped on Bob’s window. “You boys seem to know where I’m goin’,” he said. “Why don’t you give me a ride home?”
As Bob became Atwater’s new chauffeur, the G.O.P. strategist popped a demo cassette of his upcoming blues album into the tape player, singing along with it. Then he invited the boys to come inside his house, treating them to Miller Lites in his basement rec room while he played air guitar to a recording of his own music.
Atwater turned on the TV. There was a news flash that Marion Barry, the mayor of D.C., had just been arrested at the Vista Hotel for smoking crack cocaine.
“Holy shit, that’s the hotel where we’re staying,” said Bob.
Atwater cracked up. “Here you guys are, following borin’ ol’ me around when the mayor of D.C.’s gettin’ busted right under your noses.... You guys are the Katzenjammer Kids of American journalism—no, the F Troop!” Addressing Bob, he said, “In fact, you kind of even look like Larry Storch.”
Bob was amused by Atwater’s kicker. “Cultural references were his love language,” says the novelist Elissa Schappell, back then another member of Spy’s junior-varsity staff. “He was delighted when I turned up at Spy with a white buzz cut and a leopard coat: ‘Hey, Edie Sedgwick, Factory girl!’”
“Cultural references were his love language.”
And, well, speaking of addicts … John and I used to address Bob as “Bob Crack,” a sly but (to us) hyperbolic acknowledgment of his penchant for excess. Sadly, our sobriquet proved prescient. In the years that followed, as Spy’s young staff spread out to new jobs and Bob moved back to the West Coast, he experienced a bunch of busts, bust-ups, and stints in rehab. Those of us who held editor jobs, such as John, Michael Hainey, and I, did our best to keep him out of arrears, extending fourth, fifth, and sixth chances to turn in articles that never materialized.
This wasn’t out of pity. Bob remained a force of positivity: an erratic friend but a friend nonetheless, and an uncommonly gifted one. We all wanted to right the Good Ship Bob. But it didn’t happen. Still, on the rare occasions when he surfaced, he was as funny and florid as ever. He told me of attending a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in West Hollywood where he had to dodge the agitated, mistrustful glances of famous musicians he had profiled. In one of his final communications with Paul Simms, a blast of 11 texts sent at five A.M. Pacific time last June, he signed off by describing himself as “an absurd Jethro Tull centric part time 2K critic and full time crankcase operator.”
“I almost think Bob couldn’t imagine a future for himself, because there was so much of the past in front of him all the time,” says Schappell.
Oh, Bob. Rest in Peart, you lovable kazaster of a man.
Bob Mack, Spy guy and Grand Royal gonzo, was born in 1963. He died on October 29
David Kamp is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL and the author of several books, including Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America