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Before there was food, Jonathan Gold was a groundbreaking music critic

Before there was food, Jonathan Gold was a groundbreaking music critic
Even as a music critic, Jonathan Gold left a lasting legacy (Los Angeles Times)

He was a trained cellist with a background in composition and conducting, a defender of the worst heavy metal bands L.A. had to offer and often credited, or blamed, for inventing the term “gangsta rap.”

Jonathan Gold was a music fan and writer before he was a game-changing food critic. But he approached both disciplines with a similar sense of discovery, finding in each inspiration in a side of Los Angeles that had rarely been the subject of serious cultural introspection.

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Gold, who died Saturday at the age of 57, championed the under-covered, the misunderstood, the segregated and the sidelined. Throughout the 1980s he wrote about fledgling music acts that pop’s established critics had otherwise ignored or failed to realize existed. He considered N.W.A, Snoop Dogg, Young MC, W.A.S.P. and Guns ‘n’ Roses with the same intensity and deep thought that he later displayed as a food critic writing about Glendale’s Armenian dinner clubs or Pioneer Boulevard’s curry houses.

“He was such a brilliant thinker, and he cared about so many things that he could have been a prize-winning journalist if he had done any of a dozen things,” said former Times pop music critic and L.A. institution Robert Hilburn, who was also music editor when Gold arrived at the paper in 1989. “He could have been as groundbreaking in music as he is in food because he was always looking for the underdog, the unexpected, turning things around in a different way. He never just came back with a routine review.”

Gold started as a proofreader at the L.A. Weekly in the early 1980s, when the publication, then housed on Silver Lake’s Hyperion Avenue, was the ultimate guide to L.A.’s thriving arts and entertainment subcultures. New musical styles, and fresh takes on old genres, were breaking out all over the city – the West Coast hip hop scene, second-wave punk called hardcore, Orange County’s thrash metal scene and the swagger of glam rock inside sweaty Sunset Strip clubs.

It was among these misfits, rebels and weirdos (including a band called the Weirdos) that Gold found his calling ... or at least tapped into that sense of discovery that drives great criticism.

“Punk rock is sort of what got me out of my shell,” Gold told KCRW’s Garth Trinidad in 2009. “…I was a classical music nerd and somebody dragged me to, I think the Whiskey, to see a show of you know X and the Screamers. I was just, ‘You can do this? It's possible to do this?’ And it was as transforming as anything I've ever done.”

At the Weekly and then The Times, he wrote about bands, artists and rappers that performed in converted churches and car-repair garages, dive bars and dilapidated skating rinks in Compton. He gave time, space and critical thought to artists and styles considered below the talents and radars of other celebrated music writers.

“He established himself as a person who could write about rap music and heavy metal when there weren’t a lot of people writing about it,” said The Times’ television critic Robert Lloyd, who was a music editor and critic at the L.A. Weekly during Gold’s time there. Lloyd, a guitarist, also occasionally played with Gold, on electric cello, in a band called Guitar Army.

“He was ahead of the cultural curve at a time when writers were still saying things like, ‘Oh, [rap’s] not music,’” Lloyd said. “He was interested in it as music and culture. Heavy metal had a lot of the same prejudices but he saw through them as well. It relates in a way to his writing about food. He looked at what was coming up from the streets, seriously and with passion, as opposed to other people who didn’t think it was even worthy of giving space to.”

Before John Payne became music editor at the 1990s-era L.A. Weekly, he was a proofreader at the publication who submitted his work to then-editor Gold. “I liked surf music, but I wrote in total So Cal dude speak,” says Payne. “He was probably the one editor in the world who understood dude speak at the time, and he worked with me on it. Jonathan taught me how to turn my wildness into journalism.”

It was in 1989 when Gold wrote the first major feature on N.W.A, a piece that would launch him and the band to new heights. The group and Gold would go on to change mainstream notions about rap’s place in white America. Rock and pop music critics also had to reconsider their very titles if not their tunnel vision.

“He wrote about grunge, Mudhoney, Nirvana, punk rock, Bad Brains, heavy metal, things that were just emerging, anything that was bubbling up….,” recalled Hilburn. “If he had been pop critic he wouldn’t have wanted to write about Dylan and Springsteen. He wanted to write about other things, just like he did with restaurants. He wanted to explore.”

Gold broke into food writing in 1986 with his L.A. Weekly column “Counter Intelligence,” a column which he later moved over to The Times.

“When he started writing for us he was writing about food and writing about music with equal passion and equal intensity, and often back to back,” said Hilburn. “Then music eventually dropped off. But I always wondered what would have happened if he continued with music. In my mind, he would have been equally impactful.”

Hilburn says that even when he pushed Gold to review bands he didn’t like, the music writer found an artful way to make that clear. “One time he reviewed Rush at the Forum. He didn’t trash them, but he ended up saying they were kind of the Andrew Lloyd Webber of stadium rock clichés.”

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“Even if it was a [small] review, he would treat it like it was the most important story in the paper,” said Hilburn. “He wanted everything he did to be good. To be original, fresh, to stand apart. He wasn’t just looking for an opportunity to have a career in journalism. He loved these things he wrote about, even when he didn’t like them.”

Gold also wrote about music for other publications such as SPIN, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Details, making waves on a national level.

“Everyone wanted to write about Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but not everyone wanted to write about Stone Temple Pilots,” said former SPIN editor Craig Marks. “It was great to have someone with that kind of writing ability, who wasn’t holding their nose…. He didn’t write like a critic would, which I mean as a high compliment. He had an appreciation for the people who liked the band he was writing about, which is not the norm for writing about popular music. He wasn’t a snob about it.”

Since his death Saturday, the music world reacted across social media, with at least one writer referring to Gold as the Pauline Kael of music writing.

For me, Jonathan Gold represented the beginnings of my career in journalism and music criticism. I met him during my second week as an unpaid intern at L.A. Weekly. He was the music editor, or critic, or something like that. I wanted to write about music. And I was terrified.

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My assignment was fact-checking that now-famous N.W.A piece. I thought I knew about everything in L.A.’s music underground, but I had never seen or heard N.W.A.

Gold came by as I was struggling with how to mark up the copy. Yes, I’d confirmed with the band’s manager that “N did stand for, um, that word, but the slang version, something different from the racist pejorative. He was a quiet and sometimes unnerving presence, but that day, he was also amused.

“Most people don’t know what it stands for yet, but they will.” And they did, thanks in large part to Gold.

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