As part of our 40th-anniversary celebrations, beloved former music editor John Payne returns as honorary music editor this week, taking the reins for the print and online music content. Here he looks back on his tenure with the paper. —Brett Callwood
I was music editor at L.A. Weekly officially for about eight years, circa roughly 1997 to 2005, plus I had filled the role on an interim basis a few times before that. Following my and near all of my Weekly colleagues' (humph!) unceremonious dumping in 2005, some might say I pathetically continued to contribute to the Weekly's music and film sections, which I still do from time to time. Taken all together, that makes me the L.A. Weekly's longest-serving writer/editor (I started at the Weekly in 1985), a fact about which I am, I think, quite proud.
During the aforementioned so-grand JP Era, one thing I noticed was that there was no universally admired way of doing this L.A. Weekly music editor job. Never had I had so many people hate my guts. First of all, re: my own writing, I was often called too arch, and my sentences were too long, and I was full of myself; in my defense, I'd say that as music editor of the L.A. Weekly, all this kinda crap was my prerogative.
And then the Weekly's pre-internet open-to-comment feature stories and reviews about music were gifted with occasional letters to the editor, on paper mostly. One day a letter arrived, a missive that succinctly stated the case for my canning: "Hey, Why you got to diss [insert album title]? It's a great record. You're an asshole." This was a pretty typical L.A. Weekly music section reader's letter during my time at "the top."
Music- and culture-wise, this particular era for the music "scene" in L.A. was a bit between things — decidedly post-post-punk, nascently hip-hoppy, kinda country and not really clear on any kind of main direction we all ought to be heading in; that state of affairs has become permanent, BTW. Well, I had to take the world's emerging musical eclecticism into account, so as far as a big "concept" for my music section goes, my idea was that generally speaking Los Angeles was a place whose music fans needed to be dragged into the future, if not somewhat into the present. You might say I was trying for a new paradigm, far away from the dictates of the parochial and bossy New York/East Coast publicity/media corndogs who, along with Robert Hilburn at the L.A. Times, had shaped practically every idea about popular music, rock in particular, that L.A. musicheads ever had, in too limited, culturally biased and basically blah ways, too.
Thus I tried to do some curation that would highlight the best and most relevant music happening here in L.A. and elsewhere on the planet, and I mean the best of every kind of music. My feeling was, and still is, why not? Somewhere in the middle of this grand, grand era, I also found the time (for time was a big issue, at 60 to 80 hours a week of sloggin' away at all this) to do a couple of columns, called "Third Ear" and "Triple Echo." On these pages I would typically review up to a dozen or so recent record releases that were, I admit, a heapin' hodgepodge of every kind of recorded music under the big orange sun, from rock, pop, teeny bop, R&B and jazz to classical, world/ethnic, electronic and polka; my point was merely that it was all new music that was worthy of attention, and that one might look for connections twixt all of it. I had ripped off John Peel's basic approach: "Here is something I like; you might like it, too." I could have some real fun with those columns; one time I reviewed a U2 album and my graphic designer, Dave Shulman, and I planted Robin Williams' face over a picture of Bono, and no one noticed. This sort of thing is now a federal offense.
On the procedural tip, things were really different in those days, as far as how an editor deals with writers (in person, on the phone or at least exchange of emails). This is how an editor brings out the best in writers, I think –– ultimately makes them sound more like themselves than they themselves maybe were capable of doing. This was the part I liked the most, these one-on-ones with the writer where we join heads and hearts, shoot the creative shizz and try to make something new together. This was immensely rewarding for me; I found out that when you talk to people, you discover the secrets of the universe.
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Meanwhile, along the way I or we decided to reboot the L.A. Weekly Music Awards, which had been tried a couple of times in previous years but which strangely had simply been dropped. These were great nights of hilarity and chaos and awesome performances that did manage to bring a broad assortment of musicians, fans and scenesters all together under one big multicolored umbrella. Current Weekly contributor and stellar feller Paul Rogers was among my co-producers for these events; good on yer, Pup.
I got a lot of great help from a most righteously hard-working bunch of teammates at the Weekly. Why, back then we editors had copy editors and proofreaders, for cryin' out loud, and motherfarging fact checkers! Can you believe it? And we had superb photographers and photo editors, including the great Kathy Clark and Debra DiPaolo. I'd be remiss, too, if I didn't offer praise here for my longtime colleague Greg Burk, who first hired me to be a proofreader at the Weekly back in '85, which I appreciated because I was living in my car at the time and getting tired of it. Greg was a pivotal figure in the music section for all my years as editor, and contributed some of the finest jazz/new-genre criticism you or I have ever read anywhere.
What's my word count here? Better wrap it up. Much of my time as music editor at the Weekly was spent under two bosses, editor-in-chief Sue Horton (now at L.A. Times) and arts editor Tom Christie, both of whom I considered ace for having the sense to trust my judgment and leaving me the hell alone to curate/pontificate the way I wanted. Thanks, guys.
Thanks for reading, onward 'n' upward!