When editor-founder Jay Levin had the mad idea to start a weekly alternative newspaper in Los Angeles in 1978, corralling a small group of investors including actor Michael Douglas, there were already such notable predecessors as Los Angeles Free Press and the Village Voice. But Levin's L.A. Weekly soon tapped into — and helped to propel — a riotous explosion in art, music, fashion, film and literature that had long been simmering around the Southland and by the late '70s had begun welling up with a force that could no longer be contained in the underground.
The city's newspapers of record, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and the Los Angeles Times, were fairly conservative back then, and the two publications' cultural coverage generally centered on the mainstream preoccupations and vanities of their perceived audience of mostly white, mostly male and mostly upper- and middle-class readers. Some of the more perceptive writers at both papers made fitful attempts to tap into the burgeoning local interest in underground film, art and punk rock, for instance, but there were suddenly dozens of events at new venues every week that escaped notice or were too subversive to merit the full attention of those two staid newspapers.
If nothing else, L.A. Weekly quickly filled a void that hadn't existed a few years earlier — a void of a void, if you will — eventually outdistancing such local alt-weekly rivals as Los Angeles Reader by having more comprehensive calendar listings of both mainstream and indie films as well as compiling virtually every major concert and tiny gig at local dives every week, alongside extensive listings for dance, theater, readings, politics and other events. These weren't just flat, dry recitations of show dates and times; wise-ass music writers such as the late Scott Morrow, classical-music maven Mary Beth Crain and music critic Jonny Whiteside took gleeful delight in goring the prevailing sacred cows of the 1980s (Whiteside continues to do so today) while championing iconoclastic new performers several years before the rest of the world caught up to them. Early editor/co-founder/publisher Joie Davidow had a lot to do with setting the tone of the newspaper's style and vision, and her efforts to make the Weekly embrace all the local sub-scenes in art and fashion were carried on in part by longtime calendar editor Sharon Bell.
As L.A. Weekly grew over the course of its first decade, the paper expanded to encompass a variety of distractions and provocations, from Matt Groening's "Life in Hell" comic (which continued running every week for years, long after the artist found fame as the creator of The Simpsons) to other recurring strips and columns by Lynda Barry, Carol Lay, Lalo Alcaraz and Robbie Conal, among others. The newspaper also championed the work of numerous artful and, on occasion, even daringly brave photographers, from Ted Soqui to Virginia Lee Hunter and many others. Hollywood punk princess Pleasant Gehman launched an audacious gossip column, "L.A. Dee Da," that was carried on over the years in evolving formats by archly witty and remorselessly wicked modern-day Rona Barretts such as Kim Jones and, later, Belissa Cohen. The Weekly's long-running astrology column, "Rocky Horoscope" by Rockie Gardiner, was a multilayered piece of scripture that traced the patterns and cycles of celestial bodies with an astronomical precision while being inlaid with cryptic riddles and pop-culture references that were richer, more detailed and, more often than not, uncannily accurate in mapping out readers' futures than generic horoscopes.
Throughout the '80s and into the early '90s, the Weekly was loaded with a diverse and motley assortment of distinctive columnists, staffers and freelance contributors such as Michael Ventura, Ginger Varney, Harlan Ellison and Steve Erickson. Early music editor Jonathan Gold eventually switched to covering restaurants — and not the stodgy, European-style "fine-dining" establishments that most other publications were focused on, as he ravenously tore through and explored this city's wide variety of cultures and street foods. Gold's replacement as music editor, former Bags guitarist Craig Lee, ushered in an era of wildly provocative, untamed writers such as Germs drummer Don Bolles, the incomparable punk stylist Shredder, the quietly subversive Felicia Dominguez and longtime staffer and prog-experimental connoisseur John Payne. Payne eventually was appointed music editor in the 1990s, following a series of more mainstream-minded editors who had often moved away from in-depth coverage of the paper's bread and butter and early raison d'etre, the local underground music scene. Under Lee and Payne, with input from associate music editor/unconventional jazz-metal critic Greg Burk, the Weekly's music coverage would evolve from fannish, punk-style writing to more in-depth, provocative, contemplative and/or insightful musings from such luminaries as Ernest Hardy, classical-music columnist Alan Rich and punk pioneer Brendan Mullen.
Both Lee and Payne recognized the rich variety of local music that was occurring across an increasingly wide variety of genres. Payne also revived L.A. Weekly's music awards for a short spell, after Lee started the annual series of popular award show/concerts in the late '80s.
During the Weekly's first decade, the newspaper was thoroughly unpredictable, with a sense of anarchy and frantic deadline excitement in the crowded, chaotic newsrooms in Silver Lake infusing the articles and columns with a freewheeling, jubilant, messy wildness. The atmosphere in the office was as eclectic as the content, with the likes of Ron Athey and Vaginal Davis (both renowned performance artists today), managing editor Kateri Butler, designers Bill Smith and John Curry, and music and art lovers in the production department, such as L7's Donita Sparks and The Mutts' Jacques Olivier.
After Levin stepped down from his multiple roles running the newspaper in 1992, the Weekly was sold and resold to a variety of sober-minded corporations including, at one point, a pet food company. The company expanded its copyediting and fact-checking departments, and the paper's prized news coverage headed in a more responsible and comprehensive journalistic direction in the following 20 years, with such dogged and persistent reporters, columnists and editors as Christine Pelisek, Patrick Range McDonald, David Zahniser, Gene Maddaus, Dennis Romero, Marc Cooper and Harold Meyerson breaking numerous important stories while confronting local, state and federal politicians with an unsentimental, unbiased and cynical perspective missing from other publications.
Much of the frenetic and boundary-pushing atmosphere of the old Weekly faded away under the various corporate owners, but newer writers in the '90s and beyond — such as incisive film editor Manohla Dargis, thoughtful film critic Ella Taylor, provocative columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan, witty staff writer Gendy Alimurung, fervent and tireless theater editor Steven Lee Morris, theater critics Lovell Estell III, Deborah Klugman and Bill Raden, and art mavens Peter Frank, Ralph Rugoff and Doug Harvey, among others — instilled a sense of higher, more intellectual standards while mixing their prose with unconventional imagery and revisionist views.
In the early '90s, Cohen's column became a celebratory yet skewering scenester chronicle everyone wanted to be in, while the Weekly's calendar section under Bell and the especially clever and irreverent writer Libby Molyneaux became the true bible of L.A., its extensive listings leaving little out in terms of things to do in Los Angeles. Pre-internet, L.A. Weekly's free print edition was in every record store, movie theater, cool retail shop and kiosk all over town, providing a guide to the city like no other, with special issues such as the Best of L.A., and issues dedicated to L.A. music, food and, later, the People issue (which grew out of the paper's "Considerable Town" offshoot column called "Considerable People"), experimenting designwise with multiple covers and glossy magazine stock versus its usual newsprint.
Having moved from its Silver Lake digs to the former Hollywood Reporter building on Sunset in the early '90s, the Weekly found its spiritual home in many ways. Mike Lacey's New Times Media took over the paper in 2002, in a complex deal with Village Voice Media (the parent company of L.A. Weekly until last year) that saw Jill Stewart replace news editor Alan Mittelstaedt. With editor-in-chief Laurie Ochoa at the helm along with associate editor Joe Donnelly, the Weekly went on to win more national journalism awards than any other alternative newspaper in the country (including a Pulitzer Prize for food writing for Ochoa's husband, Gold, in 2007).
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By this time the influence of the web was undeniable, and more and more of the Weekly's content was migrating online, including popular pop culture–driven columns by Dave Shulman, Henry Rollins and Nikki Finke, whose "Deadline Hollywood" column became a watchdog for the entertainment industry. LAWeekly.com incorporated online slideshows and some video as well. In 2008, the Weekly's offices moved once again, this time to Culver City. VVM took the opportunity to issue budget cuts that saw many staffers ousted, including — despite the staff's successes — the top editors.
Lacey had sold the Weekly to Voice Media Group in 2012 and the paper went through several personnel changes in the years that followed. But it always maintained a hard-working staff and a network of passionate freelancers, who continued to publish important stories reflecting the culture of Los Angeles with dedicated reverence, garnering many awards in the process. In 2017, VMG announced the sale of L.A. Weekly. It was purchased by Semanal Media in December of that year, with longtime art director Darrick Rainey named editor-in-chief and contributors who'd been working with the publication from several decades before joining the staff. The offices moved once again, in spring of this year, to the heart of downtown Los Angeles.
Through the country's most tragic and triumphant times, through the paper's own historical high points and low points, through acclaim and controversy, L.A. Weekly has endured, calling out injustices in social and political spheres, shining a spotlight on the city's creative culture, art and music, and bringing together a variety of voices and perspectives that reflect and embody our city and our world — male and female; cis and LGBTQ; Caucasian and people of color; young and old. Everyone who contributed in the past 40 years is part of this rich legacy. Here's to four more decades of doing so with the same expository vision, thoughtful approach and unfettered devotion.