In L.A. Man, Legendary Alt-Weekly Journalist Joe Donnelly Looks Back at the Driving Force of His Tumultuous Career

Donnelly. Photo by Hank Cherry

Joe Donnelly is worried.

Not to the point of shoveling fistfuls of Xanax down his throat, but he’s worried, or perhaps somewhat perturbed, about a few things.

He’s worried about the write-up he’ll receive soon from the Los Angeles Review of Books about a new anthology of profiles culled from his 20 years of writing for Southern California publications, L.A. Man: Profiles From a Big City and a Small World.

“They’ve assigned it to someone from the Bay Area,” he says. “And if there’s a blind spot [in my writing], it’s the Bay Area.”

He’s worried about the state of contemporary journalism. As a writer, editor and publisher for publications ranging from LA Weekly to Slake, he realizes the profession is under siege. “[Journalism] matters to those who think there’s still a fight,” Donnelly says. “And I’m with them, but I’m not sure it matters to this city and community, and that’s sad. It needs to matter. Something needs to matter. We are in a perilous place with journalism, with the literature of our civic life. We fucking need [journalism] to actually have a good civic life.”

He’s worried about Los Angeles, the city he has grown to love. “It’s getting harder to survive,” he says. “And I think one of the great things of the spirit of Los Angeles is that it wasn’t the hardest of places to survive. It’s one of the smartest and most interesting of places, and it was kind of a miracle for a while to have this vast, intellectually stimulating creative place that wasn’t as much of a struggle to survive in. I think Los Angeles is in danger of losing some of that magic you can whiff in the pages of [this book].”

He’s worried about his 4-year-old daughter’s obsession with Hawaii. “That’s all she talks about,” he explains. “She wants to go to Hawaii. I mean, I don’t know where it came from. Maybe watching Moana?”

Corner pocket. Photo by Hank Cherry

But, at this moment, as he sips from a non-alcoholic Becks and plays an atrocious game of pool at a downtown Fullerton bar, he’s mostly worried about the very words you’re reading right now. “Is this even a story?” he asks. “Where’s the story? I mean, for OC Weekly?”

“Well, you’re a notable Southern California journalist who has an anthology of some of your finest work out.”

“That’s a peg.” (Note to the uninitiated: The word peg is journospeak for some kind of news hook.)

“You’re someone who has worked in the trenches of both mainstream and alternative journalism and are an ideal source to talk about it.”

“That’s a peg.”

“You were editor of OC Weekly for one hot minute back in 2007.”

“That’s a peg.”

Here’s the story, Joe Donnelly and anyone else who has stuck around long enough to give a shit: Donnelly is the kind of journalist in woefully short supply in America, 2018. Not because they aren’t around, but because their forums are shrinking at an alarming rate. He is thoughtful, angry, impassioned, self-deprecating, curious, questioning, a touch neurotic, a lot talented and the kind of person ALL of us need to read all the time. He cuts through bullshit, even as he immerses himself in the bullshit he is reporting on. He’s someone who cares deeply and writes about what he cares about.

“Joe is a uniquely Southern Californian voice,” says former OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano. “One of those great Southern California voices, like a Nathanael West or John Fante, but a non-fiction version. He’s obviously made his mark on the Southern California scene, but he’s maybe not read as much as he should be. But he is definitely a part of that generation of the past 25 years of great Los Angeles writers who I think deserves a national audience.”

It’s hard to fathom these days, but there was a time when journalism, when writing, wasn’t a commodity or a transaction, but rather a necessity. When it was less urgent for people to share something they scanned in order to push their personal agenda or cue other people in to how tuned-in they were, but because what they read opened a door in their mind and helped them engage with the larger world around them. It revealed something different. Confided something more genuine.

A time when stories mattered. Stories that were written, not designed to generate clicks or shares or likes, but because they were true, or at least as close to an approximation of truth as a talented and honest writer could make them. A time when stories, and the people who weaved them, the storytellers, mattered.

And Donnelly is a storyteller.

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A bemused editor. Photo by Hank Cherry

You get more than a taste of that storytelling from L.A. Man,a collection of 15 profiles Donnelly wrote from 1997 to 2017. The stories include the Dogtown collective of surfers, skaters and artists who helped to shape the Southern California aesthetic; traveling to Texas with film director Wes Anderson the weekend his film Rushmore opened in New York City and Los Angeles; interviews with Christian Bale, Sean Penn and Lou Reed; and a heart-wrenching portrait of Donnelly driving his terminally ill father from Colorado to Syracuse in his final days.

If there is a through-line through the pieces, other than the obvious Los Angeles one, it’s that most deal with rebels, iconoclasts, people outside the mainstream. “I like dissidents,” Donnelly says. “In their own ways, people like Bale, Penn and Anderson are kind of a little bit outsider or dissident. The guys from Dogtown, [artist] Craig Stecyk . . . I’ve always been kind of drawn to that type of person, of people swimming upstream a little bit.”

Donnelly will sign copies of his book at Libromobile. Image courtesy Joe Donnelly

Published by Rare Bird Books, L.A. Man’s title is a play on words. Yes, the profiles are written by a Los Angeles-based journalist and most center on people whose lives and work have helped impact the creative synergy of the city. But it also means layman, of learning as you go. “Journalists are laymen: We have to dive in and do whatever the people we are covering do,” Donnelly says. “We have to become instant experts. We have to go surfing with professional surfers; we have to play pool with pool sharks. We have to go on dates with starlets. Whatever. It’s what we have to do.”

It took a while for Donnelly to slip into writing. As a kid growing up everywhere (East Coast, Florida, Ireland), he wanted to be a professional soccer player (he was good enough to play at Colgate University). Then he wanted to be a rock star. Then he just wanted to party. After a few rough-and-tumble years in New York City, where he was trying to figure out his life, Donnelly, always an avid outdoorsman, found himself in Vail, Colorado. Realizing that he pretty much sucked as a musician and smoking and drinking anything he could get his hands on, he decided at age 27 that he needed a fallback option.

As fortune would have it, next door to the bar Donnelly was working at was a newspaper: the Vail Trail.

It was a new kind of writing for Donnelly, who majored in history at Colgate. And something about journalism clicked. He applied for grad school at UC Berkeley and, in 1994, graduated and embarked on a whirlwind tour of mainstream journalism.

He’d already interned the summer before at the New York Daily News, which he calls “the funnest summer of my life.” He alighted in LA for a spring internship with the Los Angeles Times in 1994 (his first night in town was the Northridge Earthquake), followed by a summer internship with the Washington Post. But though he felt he kicked ass and was getting lead front-page stories, at the end of the internship, he was offered only a three-month contract.

“I was too young, dumb and full of cum, even at 30, so I told them to fuck off,” he says. “I was stupid. I went back to Vail, where I was before, which was great, and I started working again for the local paper, but it probably wasn’t the best career move. But they were like, ‘Hey, come back; we’ll give you a free ski pass.’ And I said, ‘All right.’ Washington Post versus ski pass? What can you say to that?”

Now professionally seasoned, Donnelly leapt back into reporting. “I really grew a lot as a reporter and writer,” he says, “but I was partying out of bounds, getting in fights, wrecking shit, breaking ankles snowboarding, writing an overwrought novel.”

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Donnelly reads. Photo by Hank Cherry

That’s when Los Angeles called for a second and final time. He lit out to LA in 1996 and helped to launch a snowboarding magazine called Stick for Raygun Publishing. That was his entry point into indie journalism, followed by stints at Ray Gun and Bikini magazines, a short stay as arts editor at New Times Los Angeles in 2002, and then LA Weekly for six years. About half the profiles in L.A. Man are pulled from his time at LA Weekly, a time when the newspaper was fat and successful, a vital, lively part of the cityscape. And then it all came crashing down.

By this time, dear reader, you may very well be asking yourself the same question Donnelly first posed at the top of this piece: What does a Los Angeles-based print journalist’s life and anthology have to do with Orange County? Well, it’s simple:

Orange County ruined Joe Donnelly.

Well, that’s isn’t actually true. Donnelly’s not ruined. He’s got a lovely wife and vibrant 4-year-old girl. He’s still writing and creating, teaching English and journalism at Whittier College, and conversing with like-minded creative people about a way to bust out of the funk that Southern California journalism, hell, all journalism is currently mired in. But his days as a paid editor for a publication pretty much ended after a few short weeks spent in our lovely county.

We’ll spare the gristly details, but basically, after New Times Media merged with Village Voice Media, which owned LA Weekly and OC Weekly, in 2005, it was only a matter of time before both papers were fucked-up. Layoffs, purges, mass exoduses of talented writers and editors ensued. Donnelly had worked for New Times’ short-lived Los Angeles paper. “I saw the writing on the wall for the Weekly when New Times got involved,” he recalls. “I said during an editorial meeting, ‘Take advantage of this while you can because it’s going away.’”

The cookie-cutter, franchise model of New Times, which standardized all its papers to the detriment of the beating heart of the communities they were located in, didn’t fit in Los Angeles, Donnelly said. By 2007, both LA Weekly and OC Weekly were reeling from the draconian sensibilities of the new corporate management. Already disenchanted, Donnelly received a startling summons in early 2007. He was asked to fill in as editor of OC Weekly, which was ravaged after corporate finally turned its attention to it.

“It was just bizarre,” he says of his time at OC Weekly, which only lasted a few weeks. “I guess they needed to stick some finger in the dike for a little while, but it was indicative of something. I mean, no person is indispensable, but I was pretty vital to LA Weekly at the time, as were many others. But it didn’t matter to them. Their thinking was ‘We’ve got our machine, and this is just another cog in the wheel.’”

Donnelly accepted the temporary assignment, grudgingly. “I don’t remember things specifically, but I know there were some scared people [at OC Weekly],” he says. “They had an energy, and they were feisty, and it was a great fucking team with a lot of juice, but I could also tell they were worried about losing even more. . . . But I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t belong there. I just kept thinking, ‘Isn’t there someone who wants to be here?’

“Plus, I was getting divorced at the time, had to sell my house, my dog was dying, one of my best friends had just died, all this crazy shit was going on. And I’m commuting back and forth to Los Angeles because I still had work to do at LA Weekly. It was just a complete lack of understanding and curiosity by the new management about what was going on [at both places].”

Donnelly was offered the full-time gig at OC Weekly, but he declined. “When I said no, I knew I’d signed my death warrant. I’d now said no to them twice,” he says, referring to when he was hired away from New Times Los Angeles in 2002 by then-rival LA Weekly; he was offered more money to stay, but he refused. “And I knew LA Weekly, as I’d known it, was done [under the new ownership], even though they assured everyone up and down it wasn’t.”

In May 2008, Donnelly was terminated, after six years as deputy editor. But Donnelly bounced back. He used the money from the sale of his house to launch Slake, an award-winning quarterly of long-form journalism, fiction, essay, poetry, photography and art. It lasted only four issues, but it made a dozen appearances on the Los Angeles Times’ best-sellers list, and for a short time, Los Angeles had its version of The Paris Review. “That was my big act of [literary defiance],” Donnelly recalls. “I wouldn’t mind having all that money back, but I’m not singing the blues. I had never felt more fun and alive as a publisher, journalist and editor. It was a part of the community, and I loved every second of it.”

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The author in the wild. Photo by Curt Allan

Regardless of when or where the stories ran, what elevates L.A. Man above the norm of writer-centric anthologies, what makes it more than what the self-deprecating Donnelly calls nothing more than a “bathroom read where you can take a crap with Carmen Electra and Christian Bale,” are the contextual notes Donnelly supplies before each entry. Here, the focus is less on the profiled than the profiler, and Donnelly is achingly honest about where he was at the time of each piece.

“The intros give context to the stories themselves and to what was going on with me when they were written,” he says. “And sometimes, enough to make me cringe at times, the pieces reflect a lot of what was going on with me. . . . I was in a lot of distress during a lot of these pieces, and I think it helped to add to the quality of some of it. I think it helped with empathy. When you’re in pain, or stress, or distress, it really helps connect with these folks and helps to make things real.”

That is borne out by what may be the book’s centerpiece, a 2013 story written for the nature magazine Orion about the ultimate dissident, a renegade wolf. After reading it, then spending a little time with Donnelly, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to not see the writer-as-dissident in that wolf.

“Around 2011, I caught wind of a wild wolf who had come down into California, the first wolf to habitate here in [more than] 80 years,” he says. “I was completely burned out at the time. I had to end Slake. I’d blown all the money. I was fried. I was broke. I’d been fired from everywhere you could be fired from, and we were in the middle of this horrible recession. And then the Occupy movement started, which gave me a little hope. But I was at a spiritual dead-end, a crisis or something, and then here’s this wolf traversing across California right to the very place where the last wolf in California had been shot and killed in a massive extirpation program that occurred simultaneously with wiping out Native Americans. Those two things were in the way of manifest destiny, and we killed them all, basically.

“But here’s this wolf, and I was like, ‘Fuck yeah, this wolf is a fucking hero. This wolf is coming through here and saying fuck you to everybody, especially to those takers, the extractors, those people who are grinding our lives into the dust with the economic imperative and the take take take.’ . . . So I asked my girlfriend [now wife] to hop in the car and retrace this wolf’s steps.”

Photo by Hank Cherry. Design by Richie Beckman

His odyssey lasted two years. Though the closest Donnelly got to the wolf was finding its poop in Medford, Oregon, the piece is a masterful bit of writing.

At a recent reading in Los Feliz, Donnelly explained how much the story means to him, and at one point, he choked up. That emotion bleeds through the writing of the piece, and again, it’s hard to tell where Donnelly’s attraction to this maverick wolf ends and the self-reflection of a writer who has loved, lost, fought, drank (he’s been sober for 21 years) and lived life on his own terms begins. No, check that: It’s not hard. It’s not even necessary. Donnelly is a writer and a man who cuts a Hemingwayesque pose in his hard-living embrace of the physical, his need for a space to call home and his love of words. And if there’s any truth to the quote attributed to William Burroughs about Jack Kerouac—“The only thing real about a writer is what he has written, not his so-called life”—it’s found in the last graf of that wolf story:

The only thing we know for sure is that time outruns even a wolf. And as every new day dawns unfulfilled, the epic story of OR7’s journey to find a place for himself, to start a family and be the first of his kind so that others may follow, takes a turn toward a more familiar fate, that of a lonely middle age spent on the outside looking in while death does double time to chase you down.

There’s your story, Joe Donnelly; it’s all of ours.

Joe Donnelly reads from and signs copies of L.A. Man: Profiles From a Big City and a Small World at LibroMobile, 202 E. Fourth St., Ste. 107, Santa Ana, (657) 205-9907; May 17, 7 p.m. Free.

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