Jonathan L., who shaped Tucson music scene with radio & writing, dead at 76

Internationally syndicated DJ Jonathan L. Rosen, better known as Jonathan L, died Wednesday, Sept. 12. He was 76.

Jonathan L launched his radio career at Tucson radio station KLPX in 1982. For the next four decades, until he retired from broadcasting his “Lopsided World of L” show from Berlin earlier this year, he was dedicated to exposing his audience to new underground and little-known acts.

Tucson musicians who launched their careers in the late 1970s and early ’80s remembered him as a big supporter of their early work.

Howe Gelb, leader of Giant Sand, credited Jonathan L with shaping the Tucson music scene, first through his newspaper, the Mountain Newsreal (later just Newreal) and later with his radio show.

“Jon was the first one to make the Tucson scene a scene way back in the ’70s,” Gelb said. “A dedicated sonic journalist and the only one who cared enough to highlight the bands here in town way before anyone, to share with each other in print and eventual airplay. We were lucky to have him. And he loved having us.”

Gelb remained friends with Jonathan L throughout the years and visited him at his home in Berlin earlier this year. Gelb said that although Jonathan L was suffering from lung cancer, he remained passionate about completing a memoir.

“He was excited about his new project, like he knew he needed to immerse in some work as if it was part of the cure, and was thrilled about having some folks contribute to his memoir, ‘Pleasantly Annoying,’” Gelb remembered.

Brian Smith, a Tucson Weekly columnist and former member of the Arizona bands Beat Angels and Gentlemen Afterdark, said he was “stunned to hear of his death, and really saddened.”

“Man, Jonathan L. Beyond the scope of the man’s career in song, which, when you get right down to it, was essentially helping others get heard — the underdog, the local, the ignored, the worthy — he was a class act to me,” Smith said. “My old band Beat Angels once played his birthday party in a venue in Los Angeles, where he was heading up Album Network magazine. He was so grateful he paid us more, by far, than we’d ever earned playing in Los Angeles, and we’d had a few good ones. Plus, all the free booze, on his tab, and I can’t even imagine the accounting on that one. He didn’t have a lot of money — hell, he was from radio and journalism. He knew we were broke.”

David Slutes, entertainment director at Hotel Congress and a member of local band the Sidewinders, remembered that Jonathan L “really was unique in his field. His passion and  influence will be missed.”

“He was so fiercely independent—such an anomaly in commercial radio,” Slutes said. “He was always a champion of the unknown artist. He was always so proud to use his soapbox to advance the careers of artists he believed in.”

The Sidewinders were among the bands he boosted.

“On a personal note, he was the first radio personality to put our band on radio, interviewing us as if we were real artists. It was thrilling,” Slutes said. “He continued to support us after we got our first record major label record deal. You could tell he felt—rightly—that he shared in our success.”

Jonathan L launched his radio show, “Virgin Vinyl,” in 1982. It ran on Sunday nights from 7 p.m. to midnight. He would play unknown acts and his guests included the likes of Joey Ramone, Henry Rollins, the Circle Jerks and the Meat Puppets.

He left Tucson for the Phoenix market in 1986 and worked at several radio stations, including KUPD, where he hosted “Virgin Vinyl” from 1988 to 1992. In the mid-’90s, his returned to print journalism as editor of the music industry trade publication Virtually Alternative and he later launched an independent record promotion company. He would return to radio in 2005, launching “Lopsided World of L.”

He moved to Berlin in 2010 to be with the woman who would later become his wife, Gaby Rosen, and continued to create “Lopsided World of L” for syndication to numerous radio stations around the globe.

Larry Mac, program director at KLPX, remembered being a fan before he was a friend and colleague at radio stations in the Phoenix area. Mac said he was “the annoying kid who would call him up on the radio and ask him about the song I heard him play. … I even bothered him for a job at a Shriekback concert he put on at the Devil House. He hired someone else.”

Mac said Jonathan L “was a great teacher, a leader, a very loyal friend. A music fan. He saw things in people, and brought out the best in them. He was known to a lot of people as ‘The Godfather of Alternative,’ but he was more than that. He loved all kinds of music. Didn’t live in the past. Always tried to see and hear new music of any style.”

Mac remembers that Jonathan L would tell him that he “should be able to count your closest friends on one hand. They are your ‘five.’ People can go in and out of your ‘five’ depending on life circumstances and paths. He was one of my ‘five,’ and I am pretty sure I was one of his. But there were so many people that loved him, I have no idea how he could keep it to one hand, let alone two. When he was your friend, he was your friend for life.”

Jonathan L grew up on Long Island, living on the streets in his teens. After a stint in a juvenile detention facility, he wrote music articles for an underground Long Island paper, The Express.

He left New York in 1973 to move to California with his then-wife but after stopping in Tucson to recover from an illness, he decided to settle here rather than continue to the coast. In 1974, he launched the Mountain Newsreal, an underground paper that had a major focus on local music.

Doug Biggers, who founded the Tucson Weekly and Edible Baja Arizona, got his start in the publishing biz by working at the Mountain Newsreal offices in 1978 while attending classes as a freshman at the University of Arizona.

“For many folks remembering Rosen, he is lauded for his impact on Tucson’s music scene with the later incarnation of Newsreal as a music magazine, and his many years working in radio as a DJ ,” Biggers said. “For me, Rosen will always be the scrappy publisher of the Mountain Newsreal, the last underground newspaper in the US, with a direct connection to the countercultural icons and zeitgeist of the late ’60s and early ’70s.”

Biggers said that hanging out in the Newreal office was an experience that shaped his career as a publisher. Without that experience, he would have never had the skills necessary to launch the Weekly in 1984.

“The Newsreal office was a locus for writers, artists, photographers, activists, and an endless stream of out-of-town visitors that continually blew my mind, including people like legendary satirist Paul Krassner and the infamous Yippie Aron Kay, renowned as the Pie Man for his high profile “pie-ings” of famous literary and political figures,” Biggers said. “I first met Edward Abbey there when he dropped by in search of a back issue and invited us to interview him at his fire lookout on Aztec Peak. An incessant conversationalist with a raspy Brooklyn accent and cigarette in hand, Rosen would hold court with whatever cast of characters showed up—and as a 19-year-old I would simply marvel that I was in the midst of it all.”

Chris Wagganer, a musician and videographer whose footage of the Tucson music scene in the 1980s was recently featured in the film “A Tale of Two Houses,” remembers reading about local music in Newsreal and hearing it on “Virgin Vinyl.”

“I still have some of the cassette tapes with portions of his show which I taped off the air on my boom box,” said Wagganer, who now works in Hollywood. “He was a kind and gentle soul and a huge supporter of local bands and musicians. He was really down to earth— the kind of guy you could just chill and have a beer with at the bar at Ninos. He never went in for any of that loud, flashy stuff that many radio ‘personalities’ seemed to think was necessary. Throughout his long career as a radio DJ he helped many new artists break through and many owe him a huge debt of gratitude.  As I understand it, he was just putting the finishing touches on his memoir, and I hope to see that someday soon.”