I was no stranger to drugs when I came to the Weekly in 1982. I had once spent a day with Rosalynn Carter and the Secret Service, while on assignment as a journalist in another city, with a little vial of cocaine around my neck for occasional refreshment. But it was in L.A. that I was introduced to black-tar heroin — it was opium, I was told, which sounded far less scary to a novice like me — by one of the exquisite “Persian” boys we used to meet in the Rainbow’s parking lot, which was, in the early ’80s, Holly wood’s premier pickup spot. Their families had fled the Ayatollah with assets intact, apparently, and they seemed happy to gain entrée to Western culture by lavishing drugs and late-night breakfasts on American girls.
So I don’t pretend for a minute that the Weekly made me a drug addict. And don’t you pretend for a minute that it works like Nancy Reagan told us: that a drug addict can “just say no.” But then, the Reagans were wrong about so many things that it made you wonder if you were crazy sometimes because you saw it one way — so clearly — when America’s “silent majority” saw it another. And it was some combination of this sense of alienation and whatever personal shortcomings caused me to want drugs in the first place that brought me to the Weekly and the subculture of dissent that it celebrated.
Dissent was a many-splendored thing at the L.A. Weekly in the ’80s. Because the status quo presented so much opportunity for it. It was a moribund period for mainstream anything — music, film, religion, medicine, media. And the Weekly responded to the intense craving for new ideas. Michael Ventura, Jay Levin, Craig Lee, Ginger Varney, Joie Davidow, Carolyn Reuben — all of them were saying things that no one else was saying. I won’t attest to the validity of their claims — in fact I would challenge many of them — but that’s beside the point. In the throes of the Reagan administration, we as a culture were so desperately in need of provocation that I was among those who embraced Sid Vicious as a tragic hero.
And the L.A. Weekly sought to provoke. Sure, the Weekly’s news section was based on rumors that no one could quite back up with facts. But at least it was interesting. And it made you think. Why were the L.A. County supervisors allowing developers to rape and pillage the remaining wild acreage in the Santa Monica Mountains? Why was the LAPD routinely allowed to beat up people of color? Was the USA financing a covert war in Central America? What was this new illness afflicting the gay community, and shouldn’t we be doing something about it? Important questions, you’ll have to agree, that astonishingly weren’t being asked in the halls of power.
Where did we get the courage and inspiration to ask hard questions and pose interesting answers? Well, I would say drugs ignited the spirit of the paper, or at least ignited the spiritual, cultural and political rebellion that took hold of the world, really, with the Sex Pistols and the Clash providing the soundtrack and the punk movement providing the casting — all of which was inspiration for the Weekly. Drugs and irreverence go well together. Providing that you know where to draw the line. Which is the dangerous part, obviously.
No one worried about that in the beginning. There was more than one occasion when concern about the staff making the printer’s deadline prompted someone in management — I won’t say who — to count hands: Who wanted cocaine? Speed? Acid? Marijuana? But then we had probably started drinking beer at noon, and the cocktail cart came out at 4 p.m. Daiquiris, anyone? Margaritas? And the music would get louder and fiercer. And the antics of staffers became increasingly remarkable.
There was juvenile behavior like photocopying body parts and taping the pictures up all over the office, field trips to Forest Lawn for inspiration, sharing drugs with advertisers and then inserting photographs of staffers into the pictures of the bands they were advertising, and hobnobbing with the prostitutes who plied their trade on the seedy corner of Sunset where our office was located. We’d turn off all the lights and watch as they took their johns into the Weekly’s back parking lot to transact business. There were such a lot of slimy condoms littering the driveway the next morning, which was hard to take after a night of drugs and drinking, but it all served to underscore the fact that the Reagan era might be glitzy and Gucci on top, but it was rotten on the underside, and this made our criticisms seem even more important.
I’ll never forget the night that one exuberant art-department crew member dripped Bestine (a turpentinelike substance used in the art room) in a trail throughout the warren of rooms that made up our dive of an office and lit it on fire! ä Why did a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook keep reappearing in the bathroom? The mood was so highly charged with revolution and revelry, it was small wonder that when I accidentally left my briefcase in the office one night, editor/publisher Jay Levin was so frightened it contained explosives that he hastily dispatched a security guard to get rid of the thing. I suppose he should have called the bomb squad, but we seldom turned to the authorities for anything.
Our pranks and drug taking, however, tended to put management on the defensive, and for good reason. Because when you drink and smoke and inhale drugs, you may think you’re working hard — and we were convinced we were being martyred for the almighty dollar — but in fact you may be hardly working. And this was one of the paradoxes that made our situation increasingly untenable.
Here we were, critics of capitalism and Reaganism and junk bonds and the trickle-down theory and the hegemony of corporate culture, yet we were making money precisely because these things were working. On the one hand, we criticized the hierarchical structure of the patriarchy and of corporate culture, which bestowed authority on people who may not have had any moral authority or any experience of what it meant to be black and poor or otherwise “different” from the white men in power. On the other, there was a clear hierarchy of power — with white men at the top — operating at the Weekly.
It’s true that our little world was ruled by a benevolent dictator who was a visionary and was willing to experiment with some rather unorthodox power-sharing arrangements. And in the end Jay Levin did, when the paper was sold to its current owner, put in place a profit-sharing plan that distributed a substantial portion of what would have been his profits to all his employees. But that was much later. In the meantime, the natives were getting restless on the L.A. Weekly plantation.
So we moved to a slightly more upscale address, in Silver Lake, and our old office became an S&M parlor, an irony not lost on a staff that was feeling increasingly underpaid and exploited. We wanted benefits. Health insurance. Overtime. A catered lunch and dinner when on deadline. We had become fat and successful because of our bravado, because we mythologized our local heroes and our local bands and ourselves (we were in all the bands that we wrote about) and our good advertisers on Melrose. And we reveled in our celebrity. Yes, we were in the money because we wrote advertorial that read like editorial, because of the go-go ’80s, because of Ronald Reagan. So we wanted to share the wealth. Or to kill the rich. We weren’t sure which would be more satisfying.
The partying took on a fevered pitch in our new location. Of course we weren’t really fat — strictly speaking — because of all that speed we were consuming. And because of the heroin chaser that was required to take the edge off. Until the edge became so uncomfortable that some of us began chasing the heroin with heroin. We bought it. We sold it. We had to have it to work. Because we had to have money to buy drugs. So we could work. So we could buy drugs. The life of a drug addict is a reassuringly simple and predictable one.
And the show went on with a cast that was continually changing. There were palace coups, and staff members were exiled, or executed, or shipped off to join the Sandinistas. There were former punk-legends-turned-freelance-writers living under the table in the conference room. Callers to the paper were put on hold and would be subjected to L.A.’s earliest, angriest, now-defunct rap-music radio station. On staff were various local celebrities and performance artists and leather boys and bull dykes and transvestites and at least one dominatrix. There were weird pets, and sex on the patio and in the broom closet. There were rock stars in limousines cruising the side streets looking for drug deals.
Then, slowly but surely, the fun began to seep out of it. You can guess the next chapter, in which the characters find themselves in drug rehab and 12-step programs — or HIV-positive, or dead, or somewhere on the street never to be heard from again. And you know the plotline of subsequent chapters, in which the characters find themselves in mainstream jobs with upscale salaries, or with a script in development, and having babies and dealing with the problems of finding quality child care and whether to circumcise and inoculate. The urge for revolution was very gradually replaced by a sense of responsibility for the next generation.
Prosperity is good as far as it goes. And the wealth did trickle down — just as Ronald Reagan said it would — at least as far as the lowliest staffer, though not so far as the people who were compelled to take part in the L.A. riots, or who work in the garment industry, or who have to leave their spouses and children in Mexico in order to even have a chance of making a living in this country.
And that’s the end of the first volume of this L.A. story. The Weekly has become an institution, and a respectable one, with all the baggage that comes with that label. And someday, somewhere, somebody else will ignite another fire. Maybe it will be at La Opinión, or L.A. Weekly, or Las Semanas. The rest will be history.