Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
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June 1–8, 2000

cover story

The Mayor of Hostile City



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Misanthropic columnist Jim Knipfel is a successful author with fans from Thomas Pynchon to Morley Safer. Is it Philadelphia’s fault?

by Sam Adams/p>

part 1 | part 2

Philly was in desperate times. It was a city where, as I discovered watching the local news, people were slaughtered on the streets when the sun was shining. The second day I was there, three eight-year-olds were shot on the street corner outside the place I had almost rented in West Philly. The third day I was there, a garbage truck split in half on the street outside our new apartment, and nobody came to clean up the mountain of rotting filth for a week.… What’s more, all the windows in our apartment, no matter which direction they faced, stared out at brick walls. I was home at last."

—Jim Knipfel, Slackjaw

It’s been a long time since Jim Knipfel left Philadelphia. Nine years, in fact, since he packed up and moved to Brooklyn, though his Slackjaw column continued to run in the old Welcomat until mid-1994. Since then, he’s taken Slackjaw to the Manhattan weekly New York Press, where he’s now the sole staff writer; authored a well-received memoir, titled after his column, which garnered praise from Thomas Pynchon and The New York Times; even found himself interviewed by Morley Safer on 60 Minutes. And a second memoir, Quitting the Nairobi Trio (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam), arrives in stores this week. But like a lot of people whose success defies rational explanation, Knipfel got his start in the town the band Rancid Vat dubbed "Hostile City, U.S.A." Like it or not, Philadelphia will always have Jim Knipfel on its conscience. Just take it from him:

"Without Philly, Slackjaw never would have been."

In Quitting the Nairobi Trio and Slackjaw (both from J.P. Tarcher Press) Knipfel writes with a wit as black, as corrosive and as eye-opening as truck-stop coffee. The books’ subject matter couldn’t be bleaker — Slackjaw opens with Knipfel attempting to take his own life and climaxes with the discovery that he is going slowly, irrevocably blind; Nairobi chronicles the six months he spent in a Minneapolis mental ward after his second suicide attempt. But Knipfel has as little use for self-pity as he does for any kind of sentiment. He invariably refers to Nairobi’s mental ward as "the nuthouse" or simply "the Bin," and the Slackjaw chapter which deals with adapting to his near-blindness is called "Getting Hip to the Lights-out Way." Like his 11 years’ worth of Slackjaw columns, the books are filled with human misery and freakish interactions, but Knipfel keeps daring you to find it as funny as he does: His gallows humor goes all the way to the grave. It would probably make him retch to hear it, but there’s something genuinely uplifting about the fact that Knipfel’s still around to tell his tale, and the way he turns the worst of human experience into an opportunity for investigation.

Readers who remember Knipfel’s bitter, sometimes incoherent Welcomat columns may gape, well, slackjawed in disbelief at reviews that labeled his first book "funny, heroic, and, yes, entertaining" (The New York Times), even "a vision of brave and astonishing impact" (Mirabella). That is, unless they’ve read the book, which justifies all of the above and then some. Simply put, the Knipfel of today is a far cry from the pissed-off 27-year-old who urged his audience to burn down the newly opened Borders Books, or began a paragraph with the announcement that he’d spent the previous 45 minutes passed out drunk on the floor. It’s not that he’s mellowed (although he has) so much as that he’s turned inward, both because his failing eyesight has limited his ability to get himself into what he calls "adventures" and, maybe, because whipping his audience into a froth simply got too easy.

The piercing introspection which is the heart of Knipfel’s books and present-day Slackjaw isn’t hard to find in his old columns, at least with the benefit of hindsight, although it requires a certain willingness to wade through (or, hell, revel in) Knipfel’s fanged misanthropy. Certainly Derek Davis, who hired Knipfel at the Welcomat, saw it, as did John Strausbaugh, Knipfel’s editor at New York Press. Even though Strausbaugh says Knipfel is writing much better now than he did a decade ago, he maintains that everything that’s garnered Knipfel a "rabid cult following" in Manhattan has been there from the beginning. "The voice was always there," Strausbaugh says. "He’s developed a narrative style that I don’t think he had in Philadelphia, but you could see it was in there. He was writing more anecdotally then, more of a commentator, and he became a storyteller. But I don’t think that was a great leap for him."

Even more astonishing, Strausbaugh says that the flood of hate mail Knipfel attracted in Philadelphia has dwindled to a trickle now that he’s in New York. "I think if Morley Safer likes him, his days of generating hate mail are behind him. A typical Knipfel letter is ‘I love Knipfel, I hate the rest of you. Shut up and let him write the whole paper.’ We get that gallingly often." Not only that, but in Press polls, Slackjaw is regularly voted not only the best column in the paper, but in the city.

Knipfel, who still speaks incredulously of fans who bought him beers at the Khyber Pass, sounds shocked and almost galled by his recent acclaim. He shakes his head when recalling reviews that called Slackjaw "inspirational." "What the hell book were you reading?" he rails. "Read the last line!" But in fact, the line — "I’ll keep fucking up. I know I will. It’s what I do best." — goes a long way toward explaining Knipfel’s appeal. Beneath its obvious self-flagellation is the promise that, no matter what, Knipfel will be true to his unsociable self, and that in accepting the fact that things can only get worse, he’s beaten bad luck at its own game. He’s hardly become an avatar of cheerfulness, but there’s an acceptance in Knipfel that hovers somewhere between resignation and a state of grace.

"I think [audiences] respond to the humanity in his writing," says Davis, who like Strausbaugh has become a close friend. "It almost doesn’t matter what he’s writing about. [At the Welcomat] he would have this horrendous ranting column and bring in his own sicknesses, and the little old ladies would write in empathizing with his eye problems and what a shame it was he had to go through all this."

Mütter Museum director Gretchen Worden, a friend since Knipfel’s Welcomat days, points to Knipfel’s aptitude for "de-mythologizing" his own tribulations: "He gives you a sense of permission: It’s OK to look at this stuff. I mean, my God, the self-exposure that Jim goes into — his guts are on display in his writing the way our specimens’ guts are. They’re just laid out there for you to look at."

Not surprisingly, Knipfel resolutely rejects the idea that’s he’s been through any more than anyone else. "People say that [I’ve been through a lot.] I don’t say that. It’s all a matter of how you look at it. If people really were to stop and pay attention to the things they go through on a daily basis — granted it’s not all these big things like madhouses or blindness or whatever — but even on a very small scale… It sounds kind of namby-pamby, but there really are stories everywhere. It’s all about perspective."

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Blind Visionary: Knipfel’s dust jacket photo.

photo: Debbie Egan-Chin

"The fundamental (with emphasis on the mental) idea behind Slackjaw is… well, confusion. Panic. Semantic interference, that sort of thing.… Let’s piss people off." — First Slackjaw column, Oct. 25, 1989

For those who don’t remember — or those, like me, who missed the whole damn thing — Knipfel’s Slackjaw column was a more-or-less weekly occurrence in the Welcomat from October 1989 through June 1994, a heady mixture of bile, outrage, self-loathing, calculated offensiveness and drunken rambling which could veer from manifesto to confessional and back, all in the space of a few columns. Arriving in Philadelphia at the age of 22, fresh out of his six months in the Bin, Knipfel was, in his own words, "young and full of hate." He’d already tried to take his own life twice, and moving to Philadelphia in the late 1980s was hardly a cure for depression.

But a funny thing happened: Knipfel found that the city’s pathology fed his own. "I could not have written Slackjaw in Madison, Wisconsin, in Chicago, in Minneapolis," he says in a cross between a drawl and a croak while lunching at a fairly horrible fake-Irish bar across the street from the Press’ offices. (He only uses it for interviews, presumably to protect the location of his real watering holes.) "Even though I hated those places [too], I hated them for different reasons; it was more of a revulsion, a sickness, an ennui. Philly was the realization of everything I’d ever felt. There was all this ugliness going on, but it all fed into my worldview at the time. It was everything I’d ever said I wanted."

Slackjaw began life as an arts column, but it was clear from the beginning that Jim Knipfel’s preferred subject was Knipfel himself. His very first Welcomat piece, a scathing Iggy Pop concert review titled "Sad Days for an Old Punk," devotes several hundred words to Knipfel’s unsuccessful search for pre-show beer and Pall Malls before getting around to the review proper. It also got Knipfel his first death threat.

Once the 23-year-old Knipfel was awarded the Slackjaw column — first biweekly, then weekly with occasional gaps — the gloves came off. What had been thinly veiled provocation in the guise of arts reviews became an all-out assault on bourgeois values, cultural conformity, squares, would-be hipsters, sacred cows and local favorites. (He relentlessly savaged WXPN and dubbed DJ Michaela Majoun a "hormonal mishap.") In other words, he did everything he could to make people as angry as possible.

"I was just a hateful kid who was out to burn down the world," Knipfel recalls, "and I thought I could do it."

Exactly how much trouble Knipfel caused is a subject of some debate. Knipfel claims he was fired at least five times, once for using the word "cunt" — "in quotation marks," he points out, "I was just referring to it" — and once for coming out in support of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. ("Finally," Slackjaw crowed, "a world leader with two balls to scratch.")

Former Welcomat Editor Dan Rottenberg, on the other hand, responded to an article on Knipfel in Philadelphia Weekly last February with a letter attesting that "no such firing ever took place," and if it had, he would have known, since only editors had the power to hire and fire writers. Although he remembers the late Welcomat publisher Susan Seiderman "saying she wanted us to get rid of his column," Rottenberg says "she deep down did not want Jim out of the paper. She loved [writers] getting under people’s skins. It’s just that she wanted to get under people’s skins [herself]. Her way of doing it was the paper would come out and she would yell and scream about what was in the paper. But if anybody ever said, ‘Stop running Knipfel’s column,’ she would be the first to turn around and say, ‘Don’t you tell me what I can put in my paper!’"

Knipfel says, in essence, that if the owner and publisher of the paper says you’re fired, you don’t worry about who has the power to do what. (I should mention here that Rottenberg and Davis gave me my first writing job at the Philadelphia Forum, where they and several other Welcomat refugees ended up after the paper was airbrushed into the Philadelphia Weekly. I never had more than the usual editor-writer disagreements with either, and I never met Seiderman.)

Rottenberg, who manifests a certain paternal disappointment that Knipfel’s column wasn’t more "honestly introspective," points out that Knipfel didn’t get the Welcomat into nearly as much trouble as some of their other writers — no lawsuits, no organized protests. But he will allow that Knipfel generated more response (both positive and negative) than the ’Mat’s other writers. "Jim certainly got a higher level of feedback than most of our writers, there’s no question about that."

Davis puts it more enthusiastically. "We used to get people who would scream at our jazz reviews, but the rock people always kept quiet. [Then Knipfel] wrote about Iggy Pop and got just horrible hate mail from the punk people. I didn’t think anybody could get that response from punks — I mean, they hate everybody anyway."

"Yes, I set out to piss people off, in just the most blatant, obvious ways imaginable," Knipfel admits. "Most of the time, that worked like a charm. And that made me even sadder about the human condition, that I could be so obvious about my intentions and still get a reaction."

part 1 | part 2

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