An Unformed Heart
Joie Davidow, who’d hit the Free Press fresh from a job at the Santa Barbara News and Review, became the Weekly’s corporate vice president and Calendar editor, and soon launched a popular, conversationally toned style column that paralleled the Melrose boom. Before coming to California, she’d trained as an opera singer at New England Conservatory and the University of Pennsylvania, and had done some entrepreneuring: a neon-art gallery, a wearable-art shop, a video-production company. She shared duties as the Weekly’s bookkeeper, supply manager, baby sitter and more — later founding the Weekly offshoot L.A. Style (1985–88) and the Latino-culture magazine SĂ.
"It was very, very stressful," Joie says of the early days at the Weekly. "We were in that crappy little building — rotting carpets in the halls. There was no air conditioning in summer, so when we would paste up the [pages] the wax would melt off."
The start-up was a killer. "We worked right through Thanksgiving. And we worked through Christmas and New Year’s. New Year’s Eve at midnight, I said, ‘Jay, happy New Year,’ and he looked up for a second and said, ‘What? Oh.’ And he went right back to work. The paper was like a baby that was born prematurely, with an unformed heart or something — one that’s always in the incubator."
Joie had figured out a Calendar format she believed would make the Weekly indispensable, utilizing experts in dance, jazz and the rest. "Our idea was that people would pick up the paper because they just had to know what was going on, and that would give us the opportunity to do whatever we wanted — we wouldn’t have to do editorial that would appeal to anybody necessarily! That way we could sneak in all our political ideas."
The politics weren’t long in surfacing — though Jay, writing his Editor’s Statement in a September sample issue of the Weekly, hadn’t tipped his left hand to potential advertisers, preferring to emphasize the youth-culture and lifestyle coverage. Besides featuring such voices from the cultural jungle as post-rock absurdist Richard Meltzer, Warhol biographer Victor Bockris and punk intellectual Chris Desjardins, the early Weekly was making a dent with its revelations: the U.S. involvement with the Shah of Iran, Tom Bradley’s neglect of South-Central, the virtually ignored death squads in El Salvador, the scandals behind L.A.’s smog.
"We made an immediate difference," says Jay of the smog ambush. "The head of enforcement was fired the day the article came out."
Running All the Lights
Varney and Ventura belonged to an alien species unfamiliar to the L.A. film establishment.
Before reviewing films for the Austin Sun, Ginger Varney, the Weekly’s film editor, had been a bartender, an Air Force sergeant and a television weather forecaster. She had applied for a job as a seal trainer, blowing the gig when she cursed a pup that bit her. Today she is a private investigator. "I like it," Ginger chuckles. "You get to ask nosy questions, and you don’t have to write."
Michael Ventura credits Ginger with slipping the Weekly behind studio fortifications.
"I was nice," says Ginger. "And it turns out that most people out here are not nice. I have this Southern accent, and that was when Urban Cowboy was coming out. They wanted to know how many horses I had. I hate horses."
Less kind was Michael, whose reviews sometimes inflamed studios, unaccustomed to harsh treatment in their company town, into pulling their ads. The Weekly’s ad staff revolted the first time he trashed an advertiser’s product. Complained one ad rep, "My mother always said if you can’t say anything nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all."
Michael today, while elsewhere maintaining the journalistic assault he perfected with his definitive Weekly reviews and columns, has also published four novels. He sums up the original staff’s attitude: "We meant the paper to be disruptive and original, and we meant it to be a writers’ paper. We wanted it to be souped up, stripped down, a hot rod, burning rubber and going through as many lights as possible."
Rubber wasn’t the only thing burning. As the paper grew, Jay found it harder to deal with the pressure. There were days when he’d shuffle in unable to speak, because his previous night’s session of Janovian primal-scream therapy had blown out his vocal cords. He didn’t want to raise his voice at the office, and it seemed as if a parade of staffers was screaming at him.
One frustrated new accountant, a sidewalk swami on the Venice Pier the week before, used to rise up from the Weekly’s scrambled ledgers to pound the desk and bellow with rage. The paper’s messengers spent half their time serving small-claims actions against delinquent advertisers. Now and then, paychecks bounced. Many of the underpaid production staff, who routinely slaved 12-hour days on deadline only to watch Jay tear up their work, were frying on crystal meth to keep going. Salary disputes precipitated a work slowdown, and Jay was forced — not for the last time — to sell off some of his shares in the company so he could distribute raises and pay bills.