State of Mind: The Los Angeles Times and Me, Pt. 3

by Casey Dolan

[I name a lot of names in the following. I'll forego the hyperlinks; you can find them easily by Google or another search engine. I want to be clear, however, that although I am critical of some of the decisions and policies of my former colleagues, I bear no one any bad will and am still very proud of having written for the Los Angeles Times].

In 2000, I was lost in the Valley, but I began to get lucky and forge new trails. The former San Fernando Valley edition editor, the generous Lewis Leader, put in a good word for me to do an advance obit on actor Peter O’Toole and helped with some final editing (the obit has since been replaced and Leader was marginalized to such an embarrassing extent that he finally had to leave the Times). John Corrigan, now Deputy Editor on the Business desk, gave me business briefs to write and suggested that I apply for a features desk assistant job downtown.

Under the new rationalization emanating from the paper’s new owners, the Tribune Company, it was becoming clear that the Valley edition was doomed and that the Los Angeles Times would be centralized downtown.

Downtown accepted me, but it was merely a lateral move from one hamster wheel to another. It was downtown where I truly discovered one of the cardinal corporate principals: Position is everything. You could be a graduate of the London School of Economics with a brilliant dissertation on aggregate production functions in Post-Keynesian economics but God help you, poor wretch, you are NOTHING but a “features desk assistant” in the eyes of a page designer on the features design desk. “Fetch me my page dummy, Casey.” Potential is not part of the equation. You are defined by your “job definition.”

This entrenched caste system was rigorously enforced, as I was about to find out. Those like myself, who transcended the divisions, were not universally loved. The prevailing attitude was “We worked our butts off on the Metro desk of the Fayetteville Observer for six years before coming to the Cleveland Plain Dealer! Pay your dues.”

In some respects I understood the resentment. There’s a prescribed route and an expected profile. Journalists, particularly those who do the daily grind (not the feature writers), fit a type. They are earnest and square. They were presidents of the Politics Club in high school and wrote for the school newspaper. They had exceptionally high grades, but could not, under any consideration, claim to be intellectuals. Many lack imagination. They are expedient at processing information and useless at creating it. Of course, this is an extreme generalization and there are many exceptions, but one might be surprised to note the similarity between this metro reporter, that national editor, this business reporter — the same creased chinos and button-down shirt, the same lives spent prepped for this newsroom. 

Coming from the outside, without having gone to journalism school, without having had a stake in the highly competitive world of professional journalism, without having been hired by a paper immediately upon graduation from college, I hadn’t a clue what any of this was about. I had not been president of the Politics Club.

Some kind and, in a couple of cases, brave editors bucked the system and offered me some opportunities. Steve Wasserman, the Book Review Editor, let me do a 700-word writeup on a coffee-table book on punk music. Robin Abcarian, as editor of the Southern California Living section, took a very bold step, aided by, I believe, Sherry Stern, then Calendar Weekend Editor, and allowed me to edit the weekly letters to the section. The copy editor who had previously edited them, Mary Forgione, graciously showed me the ropes and all the intricacies of copy flow in the system (a system which was soon to change). That quickly led to me doing the letters for the Thursday Calendar section and, eventually, the Home section (for which I give thanks to Michalene Busico and Barbara King respectively).

I enjoyed editing the letters. I was still a man in search of a vocation, but it gave me a chance to interact with the public who were, on many occasions, correct in pointing out our shortcomings as a paper.  I also began to do some of the listings for the short-lived Outdoors section, commanded by Tom Curwen, still my favorite writer at the paper.

Understand that all this was in addition to my desk assistant duties and my boss was not pleased that I had taken on the extra work. I had broken the ancillary rule to the first tenet of “Position is everything” – Know your place.  You think you’re some lowly sub-altern in a British novel set in the Raj, but, no, this isn’t Kipling. It’s the Los Angeles Times.

This boss, who suffered the same fate as I did in July, threw up as many roadblocks as he could. I didn’t receive a raise in wages for nearly three years and at one unforgettable meeting, he looked at me and said, “You’re never going anywhere. This job is a dead end.” Other editors (notably the Deputy Entertainment Editor Betsy Sharkey and Sherry Stern) had considerable problems getting him to free me up.

Ultimately, they succeeded and I started editing the Sunday Calendar letters page (when Kelly Scott was first editor of the section, followed by Bret Israel) and then writing short features for page 3 of Sunday Calendar. The insightful Deputy Sunday Calendar Editor Donna Frazier was my guiding light. The short pieces were enormously gratifying and, by column inches, I started to conceive of myself as a writer again for the first time since Ireland.

Music had not disappeared entirely. I had been playing in a pop band at the same time, a good band headed by Steve Barton, the former lead singer/songwriter/guitarist for the San Francisco band, Translator. That band had called it quits in the late ’80s after four albums for CBS and several important singles, but Steve had not stopped writing. The problem was that our band, Steve Barton and the Oblivion Click, was not playing nearly 1/10 as much as we should have. Everyone had an excuse — we were all middle-aged men — and mine increasingly happened to be the L.A. Times…

Which didn’t trouble me because I was enjoying my work. Circumstances had changed radically in late 2005. I was promoted to Editorial Aide, assisting the Entertainment Editor, Lennie LaGuire, and, best of all, writing two weekly music columns: “Surfacing” and “Downloads.”

This was enormously significant for a couple of reasons: 1. I had been told for years that I could not write on music because it would be a conflict of interests. In fact, longtime pop music editor Robert Hilburn (another supporter who deserves special mention, although he opposed my writing at this stage) had meetings with Lennie LaGuire and Betsy Sharkey on that very subject. I am still unclear to this very day how those two columns slipped by acting pop editor Randy Lewis (Hilburn had just retired), but the previous writer for the columns, Chris Lee, had said, “Do you want them?” and of course I did; and 2. Very few people in the past 25-30 years had risen from support positions to writing for the paper on a regular basis — at least that was the case in the features sections. Kevin Crust had done it for film, but it had taken him something like 15 years. Before Kevin, you had people like Kevin Thomas, Jon Thurber, or Narda Zacchino, but these figures almost take on the quality of myth, so long ago are their success stories.

I was a true anomaly and proud of it. I had beaten, or redefined, the golden principle of Know Your Place. But I came up against another form of prejudice more topically within the pop staff: music writers vs. musicians who write. On one unforgettable occasion, Randy Lewis said to me, “You’re too inside.” I was so inside, I was outside, certainly in the eyes of my pop staff colleagues.

As unbelievable as it seems (and it is unbelievable to me), those who are most informed about the art they write on are regarded with suspicion and derision. There is a prevailing opinion that a musician will alienate the general reader with arcane knowledge and that, just possibly, the musician will not have enough distance from the art to properly assess it. Or else, that musician should write for Guitar Player, Modern Drummer and not the Los Angeles Times.

This is, of course, absolute crap and many musicians who write have proven it so, from Elvis Costello to John Darnielle. The jazz world, of course, has had many brilliant writer-musicians, as my iRoM co-conspirator, Don Heckman, exemplifies. And the classical world, or, pardon, the film-scoring world, could include my own father. 

Here is the down and dirty truth behind all of this, the truth that forces these pop writers to close ranks – most pop music writers don’t know the mechanics of music and they resent those who do. 

To counter-balance their lack of musical knowledge, they will stress the lyrical content in a song — words, something they do know something about. Or they will write from a generically sociological, historical context (“The Ramones took a black leather template from Link Wray and the Velvet Underground and updated it to express the yearnings of their Forest Hills teenage youth, etc. etc.”). They will assert that the phenomenon of pop music is, in its very essence, as much of a social movement as a musical one…if not more.

This legacy of pop criticism has had a long history, so long that it has become codified and freed its practitioners from the kind of scrutiny most informed readers would direct upon, say, the L.A. Times’ classical music critic, the exceptionally trained Mark Swed. From the earliest writings of Robert Christgau through the hell-for-leather rantings of Greil Marcus, from Robert Hilburn’s three-decade catalogue (I’m reluctant to mention Bob, to whom I owe a great deal — no one is a greater enthusiast — but he’s a primary architect of the modern critical style) to Ann Powers’ ironic musings, the stress has been on cultural movements and impacts, macro instead of micro.

The result is that musicians rarely find the writers credible, hold them in contempt, and regard all criticism as just another form of publicity. Writers don’t want to be told that and they will dismiss it, but it’s the truth. That’s the situation.

In my small way I tried, not always successfully, to fight some of this in the Downloads column and bridge the two worlds. I never became quite as analytical as the liner notes for a ’60s Blue Note recording, but if I heard a bouzouki enter on the third verse, if a triplet figure became a motif, if there was a reference, a musical quote, conscious or unconscious, I mentioned it.

I was also, perhaps more than my colleagues, suspicious of hype and I think that came precisely from my practical experience as a musician, producer and songwriter and not as simply a music consumer. Because of this, I held some minority opinions on some very popular artists. I quickly saw how the dots were connected.

Conversely, I spotlighted quite a few unknown acts that I felt showed real promise. This didn’t go down well with my editor who wanted more recognizable, popular artists. I gave him those names, but with criticism. I peppered the column with hip-hop, country, jazz, electronica, R&B, indie rock, black metal, noise, even a cylinder recording from the 1890s! 

In one memorable meeting between me, one of our major critics and the pop editor, I argued for increased coverage on new artists in the section (and not in the industry-driven “Surfacing” column). The critic disagreed and said it was not our task as a paper and, besides which, he/she did not feel entirely qualified to do that. “Qualified” was the word used. I was stunned, almost speechless. It reminded me of the old joke of a&r staffers in a club all watching each other for a reaction to a band before they would react. Or “How many producers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

Pop staff meetings left me enervated and, frankly, depressed despite the double cappuccinos that I brought in. They sometimes lasted two to three hours around an oval table in a book-lined conference room that either felt too warm or too cold. Ann Powers and Geoff Boucher were always loaded for bear and usually came in with a quiver of pitches and ideas (I often marveled at Geoff’s ability to work on about five stories simultaneously. I can’t do that). Richard Cromelin would sit back with a myopic grin, silent for a great while, then utter some withering barb. He was great for the gallows humor. Randy Lewis tried to bring a dry levity, although Boucher regularly had the funniest lines, but so often seemed overwhelmed as acting pop editor. Chris Lee and I would end up writing notes to each other (“This is so bogus” “I’m falling asleep”), and I often felt that the only way I would be heard was if I verbally fought for space. I didn’t feel like fighting nor did I feel like I should have had to fight.

Eventually, Kevin Bronson (who knows more about the local indie rock scene than any other writer in this city) was “excused” from attending these marathon sessions (Kevin might claim he was banned for attitude problems). Bronson was running the early Buzz Bands blog, later trumped by Soundboard (now Pop and Hiss) whose staff began to make appearances at the pop meetings. I was only invited sporadically. I’m not sure why that was true. I think it was clear that I felt we were always behind the curve and whenever someone like myself would suggest doing a story that could be ahead of the curve, it was either too risky or not quite right for the L.A. Times.

Jazz was always risky. As Don Heckman has written, the Times paid scant attention to jazz. I was the sole person on staff who cared. It received secondary consideration before. Today, there is no coverage at all.

My status changed dramatically when Randy Lewis returned to being a writer and Gina McIntyre was drafted in from being the Assistant Entertainment Editor to head up the pop music desk. Gina threw open some previously closed doors and let me loose. By the time I left the Los Angeles Times on July 15, I had compiled over 120 bylines for both the print and online edition. I had become the go-to guy at the paper for many publicists who felt stonewalled by the more established writers. In my last two months during Gina’s reign, I wrote 12 stories of varying lengths. Our pop coverage was narrowing, but I thought I had become the golden boy. The world was my oyster and, after another promotion last year, there was nowhere to go but up. To use Richard Farina’s word, I felt “exempt” or blessed.

I was seriously mistaken. 

The existential kernel is that I had made a transition, almost unconsciously, from pursuing a musical career to a career in journalism. I would not stop being a musician, but I knew that music writers badly needed someone like me in their ranks. The transition, however, was all in my mind and not in the mind of those above me and on July 15 I was told that my position was no longer required.

Since that time, I’ve moved through several reactions — bafflement, sadness, anger. Strangely in contrast to several others who were let go at that time, I was not angry, but the anger finally did surface some time in September and October. It does seem incredible to me that I should have been cut down right at a time that I had found my wings.

But we move on and the Times continues to sink in the vortex of diminishing coverage like a doomed ship caught in the whirlpools of Charybdis.

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3 Responses to State of Mind: The Los Angeles Times and Me, Pt. 3

  1. chris says:

    This is great — we had some seriously similar experiences in spots.

  2. Alec Bemis says:

    Hi Casey,
    I remember yr kindnesses while I was going through my own odd dance w/ LA’s paper of record. Hope yr doing alright & thanks for writing this. I find the parsing of the paper’s internal politics & wranglings pretty fascinating — though I’d say my final read was that there was no sense to the politics, really; it was merely a predictor of an institution in slow motion free fall. Now, perhaps, the motion is merely moving forward w/ more speed.

    In any case, good luck re-establishing yr foundations & I hope this note finds you well,

    Alec

  3. rickfle says:

    Interesting piece, Casey. I have always made a living at music (thank the luck, there) but have often freelanced pieces to fill the gaps in my time and to pursue topics that interested me, and for the odd buck. I wrote a few film pieces for the LAT Calendar in the ’90s but always made sure to avoid pitching music stories. Editors tend to think musicians will be either too dense about the mechanics of music, or else they see us as undependable and worry that we’ll be off snorting coke in the cloakroom with Mick and Keith when we’re supposed to be on deadline on the last of a ten-parter on the fifteith anniversary of “Don’t Be Cruel.” You bring up the interesting point – classical critics; architecture critics – there’s an endangered species – even automobile critics, are expected to actually know something about their subject, and to express and convey that knowledge in their writing. Seems like in pop or jazz, the more you know, the less likely you are to be expected, or required, to show. I got ione steady writing job because I knew my stuff, but that’s another story. Keep it up – the playing and the writing.

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