The Wizard of Arnstein

Pay attention to that Man Behind the Curtain

Ian Blackburn is the only person on staff who was working here 10 years ago. Metro Pulse was, in fact, born in Ian's Fort Sanders apartment that summer of '91. He's been working here longest, and he still works here most. He does most of his work silently in a dark, windowless, closet-sized office in the interior of our suite on the third floor of the Arnstein Building. It's lit only by the flicker of computer screens, at least two of them. His keyboards are laid out before him in levels. Ian plays Metro Pulse like a church organ.

He's not wholly alone in there. Surrounding Ian in this weird light are gargoyles, peculiar toys, sculptures of harlequins and minor deities. And everywhere in Ian's office are monkeys. A boxing monkey puppet. Barrell-of-Monkeys monkeys. A flying-trapeze monkey. A monkey on a spring. Big fuzzy teddy monkeys. A black-and-white photograph of live monkeys. See-no-evil monkeys.

Also handy, in case he needs them, are a unicycle, a guitar, a Razor scooter, and several sets of juggling pins. Once a street performer, Ian belongs to what must be a tiny fraternity of showmen who have successfully juggled on the very top of the Sunsphere.

Exactly what Ian does is a mystery to most of us who depend on him to do it. Just because we can't think of a better title, we call him "systems manager." When the computers are acting up, we call him. He's the only one of the 20 of us who knows how to fix them. It's impossible, by watching him, to tell how he does it.

He takes care of that, the stacks of computers in his office and the hundreds of feet of wires that loop through the ceiling. He tends to our e-mails systems. He originated, governs, and owns the website, metropulse.com. His feature articles are a rare treat, but he writes one unusual feature for every single issue under the name Montford Manassas. Look for it: it's surely the most elaborate locally specific crossword puzzle in Knoxville history.

Tall, slender, often bespectacled, he's somewhere in the 16-to-49 age group—Ian has not changed since we've known him. He hasn't even gotten a haircut. Ian, and Ian's hair, are two of the few constants in a changing world.

He wears shorts, sandals, a T-shirt. All that stands in contrast to the fact that Ian wears an almost British formality about him. He sometimes augments his attire with a blue blazer and walks and sits as erectly as an Oxford don. He never speaks until he has at least one full and grammatically interesting sentence ready for release. That sentence is likely to be fitted with multisyllabic words, alternating with certain one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words uttered so politely that you might not on first hearing even recognize them. He has the air of the disinherited younger brother of an earl.

Some even jump to the conclusion that Ian's from some British principality: Cornwall, maybe, or New Zealand. Canada, at least. However, he insists, "I will continue to count myself a proud American—until I can regain my rightful position as the Viceroy of Andorra."

I've known Ian since the first Bush administration. We share a taste in bars, and often find ourselves arriving at the same one on the same night. We sit quietly as the noisy world swirls around us. But there's a lot I still don't know about him.

Asked about his background, Ian is characteristically precise. "I rolled off the assembly line in 1968 as one of the cyborg models developed by Westinghouse," he allows. "All owners of the Ian XJ-2 are strongly encouraged to install firmware revision 6, as earlier updates may cause your cyborg to become involved in alternative publishing."

Born in Palo Alto, California, to a highly mobile family, the flesh-and-blood Ian grew up all over, several years in Chicago, several years in the Greeneville-Johnson City areas. Around 1979, the boy began fiddling with his dad's Apple II computer. "It was hard to pry me off that machine," he says. To this day, he strongly favors Macs.

He eventually attended UT, majoring in religious studies. During that time, Ian became involved in an even more alternative alternative publication, the late-'80s Fort Sanders journal known as the Lame Monkey Manifesto. He says Metro Pulse evolved, in part, from the Lame Monkey. "You can see a lot of the LMM aesthetic in the early issues of Metro Pulse," he says.

Ian claims Metro Pulse came as a revelation. "A shining angel of the Lord appeared to me at the Falafel Hut and said, 'Go forth and assemble a missive unto thy people so they may verily discern what bands are playing this weekend,'" he says. "Later, after the funny mushrooms in my shish tawook had worn off, I realized it was just Ashley Capps. But it still sounded like a good idea." He later met Rand Pearson, who became the paper's first publisher.

The first issues of Metro Pulse, then a nightclubby publication about the size of a used-car guide, were composed and printed in Ian's 13th Street apartment.

"The best memories of those days are of collapsing on the floor knowing another issue got to press," says Ian, who recalls the trials of living on $4,000 a year (not bad money, actually, for an employee of a startup alternative publication). "The early days of Metro Pulse are like a Greyhound ride I once took between here and San Francisco: I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, but I'm in no hurry to go through it again."

After about 16 months of that, an unlikely investor expressed interest in the project. Ian admits that when he first met 60-ish investments expert Joe Sullivan in late 1992, he thought it was curtains for the Lame Monkey aesthetic. When this old-family Republican bought his paper, Ian began updating his resume. "I didn't think our freewheeling little band of ne'er-do-wells could survive in any interesting form under the command of a former Chicago Board of Trader roughly twice the staff's average age," he admits. "I've never been so happy to be proven so thoroughly wrong."

With the paper systems working smoothly and the paper evolving from a biweekly to a weekly, Ian began experimenting with metropulse.com. "It was something entirely new to me," he says. "The upside was that relatively few people were online at the time, so I could be confident that almost nobody would see it."

His online version of Metro Pulse may be as well read as the paper version: this year alone, staffers have heard from interested first-time readers in France, Hong Kong, and Passaic, New Jersey, all of it funneled through Ian's half-lit chambers.

Ian is, by the way, the only Metro Pulse staffer to display a framed, cross-sectional representation of his brain. An inset, magnified 100X, shows the microscopic neuron reserved for "Respect for Dictative Authority Figures." Hanging from his wall is an oil painting of a devil prodding a plump, naked man with a frat-boy cap into a chasm of hell fire.

After some urging, Ian offers one prediction about our fair weekly 10 years from now: "I expect Metro Pulse to have filled City Council with our own hand-picked cabal of Hamadryas baboons." He keeps several likely candidates in his office.

"I frequently think, How on earth did we get here from there?" he adds."I may well be asking the same question 10 years from now, working alongside people who can't remember a Knoxville without Metro Pulse. I'm hard-pressed to think of anything I'd rather be doing."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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