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Eyewear editor James Spina brings '20/20' vision to music and sports

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If you should happen to come across the eyewear trade magazine 20/20, don’t be fooled.

Sure the covers rightly focus on high fashion and function eyewear worn by celebrities, but more ofen than not the celebrities are athletes and musicians. In fact, “It’s really a car magazine and music magazine disguised as an optical magazine,” declares James Spina, 20/20’s VP and editor-in-chief.

That’s because Spina’s main interests—and journalist background—are, that’s right, cars and music.

He holds up the Aug. 15, 2012 issue, with Dario Franchitti’s red racing cap being splashed with milk as white as his Oakley sport shades following his Indy 500 victory months earlier.

“As you can see, if there’s a sports guy who has something to do with cars, I jump on it!” says Spina, a self-proclaimed “car guy.”

“My first job interview was at Car and Driver,” he recalls. “I loved music and loved cars, and told them they needed somebody who wasn’t technically inclined, that nothing connects with people better than music.”

"I got nowhere!” he continues. “But I was always a car guy: Even before I was a writer, I wanted to get car books, and when I was doing Rock Marketplace with Alan Betrock, I put out a mimeographed fanzine called Cartalog—as opposed to 'Catalog'--and leave it at car dealerships up and down Queens Boulevard. I’d review car books in it, so all the car companies were sending me books.”

With the late rock historian Betrock, with whom he’d gone to Queens College, Spina first published early fanzine JAMZ (“the first issue was about every group you wanted to know that sounded like The Move”) as a college course, and then Rock Marketplace, which featured classified ads for record collectors and articles and reviews on bands ranging from Blue Cheer to the Flamin' Groovies. The pair would later found the important punk/new wave paper The New York Rocker.

“We were putting out Rock Marketplace in 1974, when there was a huge newspaper strike,” says Spina. “It included all the dailies except for Women’s Wear Daily. I went there and said, ‘If you had a music column you could corner the market.’ They said, ‘Yes. We need a copy boy,’ and hired me at $89 a week.”

Foot in the door, Spina began submitting music reviews.

"They ran them to shut me up, and one got over 40 letters! It was a negative review of Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard album [1974], which included ‘I Shot the Sheriff.’ I said I wished someone would shoot him, and they got letters—which they never did--and made it a weekly feature.”

When Spina and Betrock launched New York Rocker in 1976 (after selling Rock Marketplace to another New York punk/new wave magazine, Trouser Press), the first year of issues were printed in end-of-run press work at the same New Jersey printing plant that did Women’s Wear Daily and W. When Betrock decided to concentrate on girl groups (he authored the 1982 book Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound), Spina assisted on his girl group fanzines and production of an early Blondie recording session.

Meanwhile, prominent rock journalist/editor Lisa Robinson gave Spina work at publications including Rock Scene, and especially Hit Parader, where musician/critic Lenny Kaye was leaving to join the Patti Smith Group.

“So they needed a record reviewer, and I worked there for 11 years and wrote reviews twice a week at Women’s Wear Daily,” says Spina, who also covered the Long Island music scene for Soho Weekly News. Leaving Women’s Wear “not under great circumstances,” he commenced a term as art director at W from 1975 to 1993.

He came to 20/20 in 1995, the same year he compiled the CD anthology Some Years: It's the Time of Colin Blunstone, with singer-songwriter Ed Rogers—who has modeled eyewear for 20/20’s annual “Music in Their Eyes” music issue.

“Colin was out of music completely,” he says of Zombies lead singer Blunstone. “We pulled from three of his solo albums, and it did considerably well and he put a band together again and the first place he played was Ed’s and his wife Melani's anniversary party. It started the whole resurgence of The Zombies.”

Spina’s and Rogers’ liner notes also earned a pan from one Amazon.com critic, much to Spina’s “great pride.” But his attention was now centered on 20/20, “a W for eyewear,” he says—not to mention a car magazine and music magazine disguised as an optical magazine.

“The premise from the very beginning was that eyewear is just like rock ‘n’ roll: It’s on your face and in your face!” says Spina, whose 20/20 pages are full of music references, many, he admits, that he alone gets.

“Thank God John Varvatos is rock ‘n’ roll!” says Spina of his March, 2013 cover boy, and maybe someone caught The Beatles’ reference in the issue's cover line “A Day in the Life of John Vavatos: The Man, the Brand and the Eyewear,” though they certainly knew at least that the main cover line “Go! Johnny Go!” is a classic rock ‘n’ roll song title.

Few, however, likely knew that a Varvatos cover story sidebar titled “Greatest Hits (Through His Past, Smartly)” played on the Rolling Stones 1969 compilation Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2).

“You know nobody gets it—but it’s okay,” he says.

After all, 20/20 is “totally for the trade,” acknowledges Spina. “The weird thing is, it’s a limited subscription: It’s free, and advertiser-supported--but to the optical trade. But with social media now—Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—we have two million followers, because eyewear and sunwear [sunglasses] are hot as hell.”

“But if I have the chance to make a rock ‘n’ roll or car reference, I just can’t sidestep it!” concludes Spina.

Subscribe to my examiner.com pages and jimbessman.com website and follow me on Twitter @JimBessman!

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