Into this garden of earthly delights walked Mike Sigman, the Weekly’s new general manager.
The year was 1983. Jay had been looking for a victim to wrangle the paper’s business and management affairs so he himself could concentrate on the editorial side, and Mike, a bright Long Islander who smiles even when he’s in pain, had been a candidate. A Bucknell University philosophy major, at 22 Mike began editing the trade magazine Record World, keeping that position until it folded 10 years later, in 1982. He was initially passed over for the Weeklyjob. Jay’s original choice didn’t work out, though — one of that gentleman’s introductory injunctions was to tell the women on the staff to shave their armpits because they looked like lesbians.
"I was entirely unqualified for the Weekly job," says Mike. "I didn’t know alternative newspapers, I didn’t know L.A., and I had never worked on the business side of a publication."
Mike soon realized that mere lack of credentials was the least of his worries. "My first experience at the Weekly was this. I was supposed to be met by somebody at the airport holding up a copy of L.A. Weekly. There was nobody there. So, after two hours, I took a cab to the office with my bags and everything. Part of my deal was that I got a car, which was supposed to be left for me at the office. But it was a messenger car and had every cigarette butt and Coke can in it, and all this debris. It smelled, and had no gas, and it was dented all over. I was allowed to drive it to and from work, but could never go out to lunch or anything, because all during the day it was out being used.
"The Weekly wasn’t just dysfunctional, it was absurdly, cosmically screwed up. We would constantly be doing things that no one would believe when I told them that we did them. Like the time we ran a big contest in the paper, and we printed the answers in the same issue." Ă¤
Silver Lake Crackup
In 1983, the Weekly decamped to a bunker-style warehouse at 2140 Hyperion Ave. in Silver Lake. It was already too small — the circulation, classified and accounting staffs soon had to open satellite offices in the neighborhood.
Things got weird as the ’80s waned. With the paper now past the early years of communal marijuana, ecstasy and speed, numerous staffers had become full-time rock & roll alcoholics and heroin addicts. Successive managing editors Phil Tracy and Mayer Vishner struggled to cope with the perennial cataclysms. As for Jay, his main drug was work, and he needed intervention. Though he’d tried one holistic-medicine booster after another, his shoulders slumped and the bags under his eyes looked as if they were stuffed with kittens.
"I was going crazy," says Jay. "I was so exhausted, I turned toxic from all the stress. Seriously — my brain chemistry had changed. So I needed out. I couldn’t stand to see myself constantly making mistakes and hurting people." He also wanted to realize a longtime dream of starting an alternative television network, and felt himself pulling away from the Weekly.
"The political coverage got erratic," Michael Ventura remembers. "I saw Jay go from an exciting, unpredictable editor to a very obsessive man who was writing stories with no apparent basis."
The nadir was reached on the eve of the final 1988 presidential debate when, as part of an anti-Republican package, the Weekly ran a story citing a number of rumors about what tarts the president might have been sampling on the side. In a sarcastic, condescending 1990 L.A. Times article on the Weekly by Frank Clifford, Jay was quoted as saying, "I loved that story, but boy, did we take a lot of heat for it."
In what seemed to be becoming a Weekly tradition, this special moment was the occasion for the arrival of a new management figure.
Kit Rachlis, the Weekly’s second editor, is a tall, big-brotherly kind of man who looks you in the eye. "Jay published the piece on the Thursday that the Dukakis-Bush debate was taking place in Los Angeles," he says, "and handed out a press notice and a copy of the paper to every national journalist who’d arrived here." Now the fallout was in Kit’s lap.
Kit, formerly The Village Voice’s executive editor, had come to town with some goals. "I wanted to re-establish the Weekly’s journalistic credibility, expand the notion of what it ought to do, and identify it as an alternative paper that was farther ahead than any straight publication, whether it was on performance artists or rock & rollers. I believed in progressive, left-wing politics, but I thought most progressive, left-wing newspapers were lousy and ideological."
Kit’s hiring of Harold Meyerson, a socialist activist and Democratic organizer, as news editor — he’s now executive editor — created one of many situations that made Kit glad he’d insisted on a contract that assured his autonomy.
"I almost fired Kit on the spot," says Jay, who had retained the title of president at the time of transition. "I didn’t think Harold’s news sensibilities and political sensibilities were radical enough. I told Kit I felt betrayed."