Donnelly agreed to talk with Westword about his love for the alt-weekly culture of the 1990s and today, about the art of the interview, about snowboarding, ski lifts, Jack Kemp, Wes Anderson, Lou Reed and more. And, of course, his career and his writing…and how it all began right here in Colorado.
Westword: Your book, L.A. Man, has California right there in the title — but you've spent some of your career in Colorado too, yeah? What part of Colorado did you call home, and what were some of the state-specific experiences that might make a sequel? (Half-Denver Man, maybe?)
Joe Donnelly: Journalism all began for me in Vail, Colorado. I was a disillusioned young man living in New York City and having one of those 26-year-old's existential crises. Typical stuff — I didn't know who I was or what I wanted to do. My girlfriend dumped me. I was drinking and partying heavily. It was a bad time, and I was kind of a mess. But in a fit of pique one day, I cleaned myself up, bought a suit and got a semi-fancy job at a semi-fancy advertising agency, mostly just to prove to the girl who'd dumped me that I could.
On what was supposed to be my first day at work, my would-be supervisor got in the same elevator as I and started talking about all the stuff we had to get busy with. It sounded awful. Our office was on the 23rd floor or something like that. By about the 15th floor I knew I wasn't going to make it to the 23rd. I apologized to my erstwhile boss and stepped off on the 22nd floor and got the hell out of Dodge. I ended up in Vail, basically hiding out from the "real world" for a little while. I think, though, I actually found the real world. I was working three or four tough jobs at a time — short-order cook, landscape construction, cleaning houses. I even swept a few chimneys.
One of my gigs happened to be at a small parlor in the tiny railroad town of Minturn. I think Minturn is fancy now, but it wasn't back in 1991. The joint was a hangout for the staff of the Vail Trail [Note: The Vail Trail published its last issue in 2008], and I slowly got to know them. They gave me a few breaks and started letting me write for them. It was great — like a magic wand, in some ways. I went from reviewing the occasional movie and art show to doing interviews and profiles of the likes of Ray Charles and George Clinton and others I'm sure I've forgotten. I ended up back at the Vail Trail after a couple years of grad school and plum internships at major metro newspapers, and I think I might have learned as much or more working for that small weekly in Colorado as anywhere else.
I also used to head down to Denver when I had a girlfriend there, and it was really Westword that turned me on to big-city alternative weeklies. I mean, I had some exposure to the Village Voice in New York, but I really started to take a look at Westword in those days. It was so exciting to pick it up and feel like someone was speaking my language when it came to music and art and culture, and writing in a way I could relate to about issues that mattered on the streets.
A lot of these pieces came from a different time in journalism, and part of the book's raison d'être, I think, is to preserve some of that for posterity. A public figure's engagement with the world is so controlled now — by publicists, by social media. There's no risk and little reward, if you ask me. The subjects or their teams are trying desperately to control the narrative these days, and they have a lot of ways to bypass having a real conversation. Not much is left to chance or spontaneity or genuine conversation. But that's when we reveal who we really are.
So to answer your question, I try my best to shake things up in order to get to a real conversation. It can be as simple as disarming the subject with a spontaneous quip, or driving across the country with him or her. It's not easy, and I'm thankful I was thrown into the deep end early. Some attempts to disarm can just be a turn-off, but usually, if you're not too contrived, if you're present and in the moment, the common humanity surfaces.
That brings to mind one of your Colorado interviews, with football legend and Republican politician Jack Kemp, with whom you shared a ski lift. Was the interview on the ski lift, or were these two separate instances?
I can't remember the details, but I think he and I met by chance on a ski lift and had a conversation that ended up leading to a full-on interview and profile. What I recall is that even though we disagreed on politics and policy, there was respect for the discourse, and he seemed like a good guy who had the social contract and the commonwealth's interests at heart. Ah, those were the days.
Ever get to cover Colorado politics?
When I came back to the Vail Trail after grad school and working at some big-city newspapers, I covered city hall and local government. It was great. You really get to see how things work. Vail was the future in microcosm — vast disparities in wealth and power and access to resources, public versus private interests, development and sustainability. These local concerns have become the concerns of the entire West, if not the entire country. Colorado, it seems, has been out in front in trying to confront and balance these issues for a long time.
I love the Q&A with Lou Reed in this book; as a Lou Reed fan myself, it was great to get to "hear" his voice again. This is an interview from 1998, but it's one of the gifts of the interview — it encapsulates someone at a moment in his or her life that gets to live on beyond the span of their own years. Is that part of the reason for the book itself? To report on the state of L.A. and the entertainment industry during your career?
I don't think the book is very concerned with celebrities or the entertainment industry explicitly, except in a couple of cases where it serves as almost an anthropological study of the throwaway culture of the day — the Carmen Electra piece comes to mind. But even she turns out to be far more complicated than a lazy eye might have guessed. But, really, the book mostly concerns itself with iconoclasts, whether they be Werner Herzog or Sean Penn, or even the great wolf, OR-7. I'm interested in people who doggedly cut against the grain, and Lou Reed is certainly one of those people. It was his insistent nonconformity as much as his music — which, by the way, is still so shockingly original — that I found compelling. I'm interested in ballsy folks. It just happens, by a quirk of geography and other contingencies, that who I had ready access to were often artists, musicians, surfers and skaters, or in the film industry.
Some of your titles — the originals from the individual publications, and the new ones for the book — are pretty great. For your piece on Carmen Electra, the original article was called "Please Don't Squeeze the Carmen," and in the book it was changed to "Morning Becomes Electra." The lead piece in the book is "Driving Wes Anderson" but was titled "The Road Wes Traveled" when it first appeared in L.A. Weekly. Why change the titles for the collection? The new ones are great, but the originals were good, too.
Well, I changed them to what I would have titled them had I been the editor. So, obviously, the new titles are better [laughs]. As an editor yourself, you know why my new titles are better. “Driving Wes Anderson” is far more intriguing. It's a play on words and an invitation: What's driving Wes Anderson? And, also, who doesn't want to drive Wes Anderson? It invites readers to participate in a way that the pun alone doesn't. The original Carmen Electra title was just a silly pun, slightly crass. The new title signifies a revelation of some sort, while also mixing a highbrow reference (the O'Neill play cycle) with lowbrow culture jamming. It's hard to explain the dark art of headlines.
Yeah, I was podcasting in print before they had a name for it. It's always been what I like to do. Unless the situation expressly calls for it, I like to do away with politesse as much as is possible or appropriate. Yes, you take a chance. For instance, if Lou Reed didn't laugh at whatever that joke was that I cracked [to start the interview], it could have killed the thing. But, then, I think, wouldn't it have been half dead already, if that were the case? I think we owe it to the readers to take a chance on their behalf, to try to be provocative in the best sense of the word, to try to give them something other than the rote. Otherwise, they will turn their attention elsewhere.
I can't remember any instance where I put someone off by being real. It's usually the opposite. These folks are often tired of the usual b.s. and find it refreshing when someone shakes things up — when someone has some game and engages them.
Who are the interviews that you still haven't been able to do but still want to (or wish you could have, if they've passed during your career)? Every journalist has a wish list, right? Who's on yours?
There are so many, but Donald Glover comes to mind. He's possibly the most important person in popular culture right now, but it seems like we're still waiting for a definitive, probing piece. I just read one that came out in a venerable national glossy, full of fawning adjectives and full of telling, not showing. I'd like to really dig in, Sean Penn-style, with him. There are politicians such as Kevin De Leon in California and "Beto" O'Rourke in Texas who seem worth our attention. I've been a Paul Beatty fan since The White Boy Shuffle came out in 1996 and have included him in a freshman lit course I teach for years. He seems like a tough nut to crack, and I understand why — but I'd love to give it a shot.
Since you've lived in Colorado before and are coming back now for this book tour, I'm assuming you have something that you want to come back to while you're in town. What Colorado thing have you been missing out there in L.A.?
I've been missing the mountains and snowboarding a lot lately. I haven't snowboarded in probably fifteen or more years, and I've been having some euphoric memories. I also have euphoric memories of Cricket on the Hill [note: also shuttered in 2008], but for other reasons. I remember playing an open mic gig there one night, and a buddy and I kind of really went for it. We were way out of our depth, but some cowboy said nice things to me after our three-song set. I think he appreciated the verve. Good burgers there, too, from what I remember.
I have a lot of family in Denver, though. We started migrating here bit by bit in the early to mid-’90s, and now my sister and her son, my brother and his wife and my mother still live here. We moved a lot when we were growing up and never really had a home town. Colorado, in many ways, is the place we agree upon.
Joe Donnelly will appear at the LoDo Tattered Cover at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 22. The event is free; books will be available for purchase.