Once Is A Mistake, Twice Is Jazz

Posted: June 9, 2009 12:55 PM
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When I started working for LA Weekly in the early ’80s, the paper was almost as famous for its mistakes as for its cutting edge film reviews, lefty politics and porn ads.

Sometimes the errors were intentional, like when a smart-aleck designer pasted a Hitler mustache on an Uncle Sam photo in a July 4th ad for a barbeque joint. I had to reprimand the designer and grovel to the restaurant owner while doing my best to suppress a giggle.

Most of the blunders were a function of the chaos that reigned — some would say gloriously — at The Weekly in those early days. One of the ripest opportunities for flubs was the paper’s glut of before-and-after ads — haircuts to weight-loss to plastic surgery. The haircut ones were tough because it was so hard to tell the latest punk hairdos from very bad hair-days. When we mixed them up, sometimes even the advertisers didn’t notice.

Shortly after MTV jump-started the destruction of the record business, The Weekly published a music-trivia contest. Readers who answered the arcane questions were eligible for prizes courtesy, if memory serves, of Tower Records. When we inadvertently ran the questions and the answers on facing pages in the same issue, we gave new meaning to the phrase “win-win situation.”

My favorite howler was a plastic-surgery pitch meant to feature before-and-after shots of a plain-looking woman and her new knockout self under the headline, “Look Better — Not Different.” We ran the photos correctly, but the copy read, “Look Different — Not Better.” And while that line might have worked as a come-on for the Witness Protection Program, the client was not amused and a lawsuit ensued.

Over the years, as The Weekly became more profitable, proofreaders and fact checkers were added and the gaffes diminished. But those improvements were nothing but a nuisance to one famous writer who — advised that a correction was being made in his piece — resisted by arguing, “You have your facts, I have mine.”

When a musician performs a Bach Fugue or Beethoven Sonata, a wrong note is called a “clinker,” and can be as jarring as a mixed-up before-and-after ad. (If the performer accidentally plays any note during John Cage’s 4’33” — where the pianist sits silently at the bench for four and a half minutes — the whole ballgame is over.) Of course, calculated clinkers can poke fun at a piece in a way that delights the listener. Victor Borge made a career out of this, and my friend Marsha cracks up the crowd every time she plays “Theme from Love Story” like a drunken saloon player caught in an endless loop of repeating phrases.

In jazz and other improvisational modes, Miles Davis observed “There are no mistakes.” Here performance and composition merge when players often stumble upon notes, chords, and rhythms that defy expected patterns and beget entirely new structures. This leads to more innovation, ad infinitum. (Less well known is that the great classical composers were themselves heroic improvisers, and many of their pieces — though played note-for-note today — were originally improvised and only later written out.)

In music and in life, of course, one man’s deft maneuver is another man’s clinker. Last week LA Weekly “parted ways” with its excellent long-time editor Laurie Ochoa. (Laurie began as a 19-year-old intern at the paper in the early ’80s, and, who knows, may have improvised a memorable mistake or two. Disclosure: I hired Laurie back as editor of The Weekly in 2000.) It’s awkward for someone suddenly leaving a high-level job to explain why, but here’s a thought: since Laurie’s husband — Pulitzer-winning writer Jonathan Gold — still works at The Weekly, maybe she could upend the cliche by saying she’s leaving to spend less time with her family.

The Weekly has cut way back on editorial spending for obvious reasons — the Internet, Craigslist, the recession — and by most accounts Laurie has done a brilliant job keeping the paper’s quality as high as possible under the circumstances.

Was “parting ways” with Laurie — a smart, sophisticated editor who knows L.A. like the back of her hand — a good idea, especially with no replacement in sight? (Ah, but they’re advertising for a new editor on Craigslist!) No. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a mistake is just a mistake.

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