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Between the Lines 

The music at the edges

Wednesday, Dec 3 2008
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Proofreader, staff writer, restaurant columnist, music editor 1983-1989; restaurant critic 1996-present

I learned how to write at L.A. Weekly, largely under the tutelage of Bob LaBrasca, whose preferred method of getting a writer to change an offending passage was to read it back to him in a sarcastic tone. I found my politics at the Weekly, possibly the result of concussions sustained while butting heads with the editor, Jay Levin. I learned about love and loss and betrayal and loyalty and the inadvisability of changing so much as a comma in the copy of Michael Ventura. I edited a humor column whose conceit was that nothing in it was actually funny, and I edited so many “Best of L.A.” issues that I still have to be constrained from constructing paragraphs in its entirely too-imitable form.

I even found true love at the Weekly — I was a proofreader, she was an intern, and half the place’s male staff sustained whiplash every time she would pass by the photocopy machine in her tightest pair of jeans. (We’ve been married for 18 years.)

click to enlarge ANNE FISHBEIN

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But somebody might as well say it: The Weekly’s music section sucks. And I don’t mean that it sucks now, suddenly. It always sucked. It sucked when we ran love letters to the Knack and the Naughty Sweeties when Hollywood punk rock was in flower; it sucked when we ran Randy Newman hagiographies while the birth of hardcore raged around us, and it sucked when Metallica, Van Halen and Motley Crue, Jane’s Addiction, N.W.A and Poison were becoming the biggest bands on the planet, while we persisted in running thoughtful essays on the Blasters, Joe Ely and Maria McKee; PiL, REM and Tanita Tikaram; Depeche Mode and the Smiths — post-punk and grown-up stuff, mostly, more Tom Schnabel than Rodney Bingenheimer.

Is there an Angeleno alive who didn’t grow up calling the paper the L.A. Weakly, perhaps thinking that she was the first person ever to come up with that clever alternative spelling? Has there ever been a paper whose flaws were responsible for the launching of more zines? It has become a traditional step in the development of a Los Angeles teenager, the first realization that the Weekly has gotten her particular corner of the scene completely, horribly wrong — not excepting, I assure you, the Ice Cube–and-Slayer-soaked term I served as music editor in the late 1980s, which was a bad, bad time for Morrissey fans. My fate was sealed, I think, the day Kit Rachlis, the paper’s second editor, realized that my opinion of sainted folkies Richard and Linda Thompson was pretty much the same as his opinion of Quiet Riot. I was fired the second my contract expired.

But in its own subversive way, the Weekly was always at the center of music in Los Angeles, the employer of last resort for the misfits and malcontents who make up the majority of any respectable rock & roll scene, a place where an excess of tattoos, a tendency toward Tourette’s-like outbursts and an inability to rise before noon were not necessarily impediments to a semi-successful career. Levin was a famously soft touch for any transgressive artist or would-be magazine entrepreneurs with a line of bullshit and a dream. Half of Guns N’ Roses blew through the paper at one time or another; significant portions of Pigmy Love Circus, L7, Leaving Trains, the Fiends and Thelonious Monster, among many others, stuck around for years. When I wandered into the paper to apply for a proofreading job 25 years ago, I was ushered back to an office by the guitar player for the Fibonaccis, the guy administering the test was the singer for Dred Scott, the dispatch office seemed to be run by the Flyboys, and I bumped into members of the Bags, Redd Kross and the Germs in the hall. Never have I wanted a job more.

Music was what snuck in around the edges at the Weekly, less in the long articles and scholarly pronouncements on Prince and Amon Düül composed by the real writers than in what managed to sneak in as Wednesday-night rock picks, in rogue gig reviews, or as part of the listings written by a last-minute substitute, when the regular guy was off nursing a hangover. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Thelonious Monster became notorious as the muses of L.A. Dee Da, the Weekly’s gossip column, long before their music was heard much beyond the confines of the Anticlub and Al’s Bar. (Lotus Lame and the Lame Flames appeared in the column even more often than the Chilis: It wasn’t a perfect medium.) You were more likely to see the band you really wanted to know about in one of Gloria Ohland’s fashion spreads than you were to read an interview with them in the music section. When the rock listings were written by the late Scott Morrow, one of the funniest writers the paper has ever produced, they crackled with the kind of seditious intelligence and insider humor you may associate with the first years of Sportscenter, although to readers just trying to figure out who was opening for L.A. Guns, it must have been as impenetrable as Sanskrit.

This isn’t to say that the meat of the music section was bad. Bill Bentley, an auxiliary member of the Texas mafia, which ran the paper’s culture sections for years, was a terrific advocate of rootsy American music before he went on to run the publicity department at Warner Bros.; and Robert Lloyd, now the television writer at the L.A. Times, cloaked his muscular intellectualism in a kind of Kevlar-reinforced whimsy that the younger writers at the paper tried to imitate for years. The late Craig Lee, leader of a great class-of-’77 band called the Bags, often felt pressured to be the official spokesperson for Los Angeles punk rock — before he settled at the Weekly, he covered local punk for the Times — but his interviews with visiting bands tempered the goofy edge of fanzine Q&As with apolished prose. R.J. Smith came in from TheVillage Voice and put the section under adult supervision for the first time, allying it pretty closely with the cerebral, treatise-oriented music section his mentor, Robert Christgau, had instituted at TheVoice. John Payne tilted the coverage toward Brazilian pop, Krautrock and screechy jazz, music for people who had become thoroughly sick of rock & roll. Kate Sullivan was the best writer the section has ever had the luck to employ — an amazingly graceful critic whose essays about the White Stripes and the Brill Building, but especially about how pop music functions in our lives, may still be read in 50 years.

But the beauty of the Weekly’s music coverage, then as now, lies chiefly in the magnificence of its background noise, the marginalia that skitter across your consciousness like an army of ravenous pill bugs — the late Jac Zinder’s insistence that the Venezuelan Rolling Stones were at least as important as the real ones; Falling James’ quiet, back-of-the-book enthusiasm for the touring garage band with the potential to change your life; Don Bolles’ surreal ability to capture the moment of not just Guns N’ Roses but also demented, guitar-carrying nuns; Greg Burk’s stubborn dedication to senescent heavy-metal guitarists; Jonny Whiteside’s tireless advocacy of twang; Alan Rich’s measured, Virgil Thompson–like enthusiasm for a string quartet well played.

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