State of Mind: The Los Angeles Times and Me, Pt. 1

by Casey Dolan

(This is a chronicle of sorts. I’m dividing it into three parts with the third part making up the largest, and weirdest, portion).

I’ve deliberated long and hard about writing the following since I was laid off by the Los Angeles Times in July. Many memories of working there are fond and it was a turning point in my life, but this week we hear of 75 more layoffs in editorial, bringing the total this year to somewhere around 250 and reducing the entire editorial staff of the paper to 660, roughly slightly more than half of what it was when I came (back) on board in 2000.

How this will affect music coverage — all arts coverage — is easily imagined.

I don’t intend to regurgitate the familiar arguments of Internet vs. print, dwindling advertisement revenue, the folly of Sam Zell’s stewardship and the ESOP construct. Nor do I intend to point many fingers at those who have, willingly or unwillingly, done wrong. (I’m a firm believer in the inevitability of karma. I once worked at a real estate investment trust headed by the most disturbed, corrupt Caligula I have ever had the displeasure of meeting. That man, who continues to mask his evil with a veneer of philanthropy, has sidestepped several federal investigations into violations of securities laws, but someday the courts won’t go in this guy’s favor. I know it).

When I was let go, I had been writing regularly on music, mainly pop and rock. Every so often I would slip in the odd jazz thing or two. I had not been hired as a writer (my dear friend Kevin Bronson once unkindly reminded me of that after one of our exhausting pop staff meetings), but that’s part of what makes the story interesting and reflects a curious light on how the mainstream press chooses to cover popular music.

Being hired in 2000 was a strange comeback for me.

I had done a 6-year stint previously at the L.A. Times in the ’80s as a “wire attendant,” ultimately ending up as the foreign desk assistant. It was just a job to me — an absorbing one, but really a means to pay for rent, food, transportation and recording time and musical equipment. My real vocation was as a musician/composer/producer juggling several projects and I was on a committed career track.

Making music has always come easy to me; making a living from it, far less so. My father, Robert Emmett Dolan, had been a successful film composer, but he never wanted me to get into the business. I began piano lessons at age four, but it was clear early on that I was undisciplined and lacked the sort of drive that propelled him as a child music and mathematics prodigy (he attended college at 14). In my teenage years, he encouraged me, instead, to be a writer. He was a hyperliterate man and recognized that I had some talent with words. Thus began a split in focus which has lasted my lifetime.

After some amazing luck in having poems published when I was young, I burned out on writing while doing a degree in English Literature and minoring in Politics at UC Santa Cruz. When I traveled to Ireland after graduation to write a novel, I wrote myself into a neurotic stalemate. I returned as a failure.

On my wise mother’s suggestion, I commenced studies in harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and, lo, excelled! Soon after, I formed a band, Red Sneakers, with some college friends (including the highly-regarded multi-intrumentalist/composer, Doug Wieselman) and we dove into the hotbed of the 1979 Los Angeles punk and new wave scene. The band played constantly for two years (too often by today’s standards) but fizzled out more or less because of my drunken antics on the stage of the Troubadour in front of a packed house of hundreds. Another band began and ended, then…another…and finally a solo offer from a major label ended in sordid sexual contingencies and poverty in a New York loft. I came back to L.A. with that now-familiar feeling of failure. Sitting in the adjoining seat, Dennis Quaid comforted me on the plane home. This was 1983.

I took the above-referenced low-level job at the Los Angeles Times to survive, during which time I played with and produced an instrumental band, the Satellites 4 (with the varied lineup of Doug Wieselman, Marvin Etzioni, Danny Frankel and me), co-wrote songs with Michael Steele (bassist of the Bangles), produced records by Milo Binder and a fabulous songwriter named Kyle Johnson (whose unreleased album featured performances by Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Richard Thompson, Al McKay (Earth, Wind & Fire), Bruce Fowler, Walt Fowler (both from Frank Zappa’s band and Bruce is one of the major film orchestrators today), Jerry Donahue (the Hellecasters) and Bruce Kaphan (American Music Club)). I was sober, organized, taking meetings and boring Gary Gersh (then A&R at Geffen) with all my projects.

How I managed to do all this and hold down a full-time job is beyond me, but I did. The bubble burst in 1990 when I quit the Times on the hunch that Geffen Records was about to sign me as a staff producer. The hunch was wrong and it never happened (my hiring would have been tied to a specific project I was working on. The artist elected to blow off Geffen Records, who elected to blow off me).

I ate rice and beans for three years, worked on two or three more album projects but gradually dimmed from industry sight. Pride kept me from returning to the Times.

to be continued…

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