LOCAL L.A. Now

Setting Times stories to music: From LL Cool J to Louis Prima

Even though I’m partial to a good hook in music, lyrics are my biggest love (perhaps not surprising for someone smitten with good storytelling). 

I think the best songwriters -- Bruce Springsteen, Paul Westerberg and Paul Weller spring to mind -- can summon a person’s entire life in a three-minute song.

Sometimes even a stanza can do that. Like a lot of you, I spent a long time listening to George Jones on Friday. How about this stanza, from “A Good Year for the Roses”:

And a lip print on a half-filled cup of coffee

That you poured and didn't drink

But at least you thought you wanted it

That's so much more than I can say for me.

In these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Column One -- maybe they’ll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later. A story-song combo!

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Monday’s Column One:

6,297 Chinese restaurants and hungry for more

The television cameras roll as Los Angeles attorney David Chan places the first forkful of cashew chicken in his mouth.

The crowd at Leong's Asian Diner in Springfield, Mo., falls silent as he chews and squints in the glare of the lights.

Springfield Cashew Chicken — a deep-fried, gravy-drenched version of the popular buffet item — is a local specialty and David Leong, the dish's 92-year-old inventor, was watching expectantly from across the table.

Chan kept chewing. The silence grew uncomfortable.

“How does it taste?” a reporter asked at last.

Chan didn't answer. The chicken was overcooked.

Finally, he spoke: “It's good,” Chan mumbled diplomatically, and quickly grabbed seconds.

Archive: David Chan chats with readers

Chan, 64, has eaten at 6,297 Chinese restaurants (at press time) and he has documented the experiences on an Excel spreadsheet, a data-centric diary of a gastronomic journey that spans the United States and beyond.

#storysongs combo: “Chop Suey Chow Mein,” by Louis Prima and Keely Smith. A great combo themselves, they’re more famous for their association with Italian food—the totally feel-good “Big Night” soundtrack. This one is retro-edging-toward-stereotypical, but David Chan himself admits to a fondness for Chinese American food.

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Tuesday’s Column One:

Timbuktu calligrapher keeps ancient learning alive

Homemade twig pens stand like off-duty soldiers in a jar on Boubacar Sadeck's worktable. The morning sun steals into a room stuffed with a jumble of papers, ink bottles and stretched animal hides. He sits thoughtfully before a blank sheet of paper, with several old manuscripts — the color of dark tea and covered with Arabic script — open at his side.

Occasionally a breeze wafts in and playfully flicks one of the old brown pages to the floor.

Copying the words of ancient scholars in elegant Arabic calligraphy makes Sadeck feel close to heaven.

“My weakness, my love, is calligraphy,” said the scribe, who fled Timbuktu, famed for its collection of centuries-old manuscripts, when Islamist militias invaded last year. “If I go a day without writing, I feel as if something is missing or strange. When I sit down with my paper and my pen, I feel wonderful. I feel at ease.”

Copying and recopying old manuscripts is an ancient Timbuktu calling. In the 15th century, there were hundreds of scribes; the job was one of the most highly paid and prestigious occupations in the city, then an intellectual center and trade hub.

#storysongs combo: “Imuhar,” by Bombino. Our pop critic, Randall Roberts, tweeted his rave of the new album by this ethnic Tuareg guitarist just as I was starting to edit this story about Mali, where Tuaregs have risen up against the government. Talk about timing. This is my favorite song on “Nomad,” but the whole album is pretty great. 

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Wednesday’s Column One:

A student with promise, a teacher who had to help

Itzel Ortega should have been bursting with the good news. Instead, her eyes filled with tears as she confided in her former English teacher.

She had just been accepted to the architecture program at Cal Poly Pomona. But she wasn't eligible for financial aid. She was six-months-  old when she crossed the border illegally, carried in her mother's arms.

There seemed to be just one way to come up with the money: Her father would get a second job. This was why he came to America — to provide a better future for his children. As a busboy, he was on his feet all day, chopping vegetables, wiping tables and washing dishes. Now, he would work even harder.

As Ortega spoke, Leticia Arreola thought of her own father, also a Mexican immigrant, also a restaurant worker. She remembered his footsteps in the hallway late at night after a long day — quick in the early years, slower as he aged.

Arreola saw potential in all her students at El Monte's Potrero Elementary, but Ortega, especially, seemed destined for greatness. She was creative and meticulous, outstanding at every subject. The two had kept in touch since Ortega was a star in Arreola's eighth-grade class.

Ortega had gone to her former teacher's classroom to unburden herself, not to ask for help. But in the days that followed, Arreola couldn't stop thinking about Ortega's father and those extra shifts. She kept hearing her own father's footsteps.

#storysongs combo: “Kind & Generous,” by Natalie Merchant. I enjoy her voice mostly in smallish doses, but this song is simply joyful—and fits the story perhaps better than any #storysongs combo yet. And there’s a gal drummer to boot in this live video.

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Thursday’s Column One:

Watch out! Angry little girl is sharing her feelings

Yeah, that's her, staring you down, eyes blazing, cursing under her breath. She's a piece of work with zigzag black bangs, a blood-red shirt and hands firmly planted on hips. When the guy who's in love with her inches forward, telling her, “I can't live without you,” she shoots him down: “Then why aren't you dead yet?”

She's not big on holding back.

And neither is her creator, Lela Lee, a Los Angeles-based artist who has sent Kim and her gal pals into cult status as the heroines of the “Angry Little Girls” online comic strip.

It's “South Park” with Asian attitude — a primal scream, a blast of defiance.

“It's not easy being a girl, stuck with mean parents, a dumb boyfriend and annoying friends,” Lee says, by way of introducing her main character. “I love the freedom of being able to say just what you need to say.”

The comic-strip heroine acts out where her creator never had the nerve. Lee tells of being raised by ultra-strict parents, the youngest of four daughters in a Korean American household who were constantly pushed to achieve and “be somebody.”

“I had lots of humiliating experiences and never had the guts to speak my mind,” she says, hugging her forearms as she speaks, her eyes locked onto her listener's.

Now in her late 30s, Lee is making up for lost time: Like Kim, she never seems at a loss for words, talking at a rapid clip, her dark hair bouncing on her shoulders.

#storysongs combo: “Trouble,” by Pink. The video tends toward the cheesy (cleavage and cowboys), but it does showcase her great attitude. 

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Friday’s Column One:

'Albanian Bear' Reshat Mati is always up for a fight

NEW YORK — The first hint of a bruise, blackish and glossy, appears under Reshat Mati's eye as he finishes a jujitsu workout. It seems that he took a knee to the face.

Someone offers to get an ice pack, but there isn't time. Reshat hurries off to another gym, a storefront several miles away where the windows steam up from all the boxers generating heat inside.

By 9:30 p.m., he has pulled on gloves and headgear to spar with a larger, more experienced opponent who likes to fight from close range with lots of banging elbows.

Though Reshat stands only 5 feet 4 and is a slender 110 pounds, he refuses to back down. The other guy hits him and he answers bang-bang with two hard punches of his own.

“There is nowhere I'd rather be,” he says later. “This is my life.”

It is an odd existence for a 14-year-old from Staten Island, a youngster with a smile full of braces and a friendly, chatty manner.

#storysongs combo: “Mama Said Knock You Out,” by LL Cool J. Gotta love the hypnotic repetition thing going on in this classic song.

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If you have ideas for story-song pairings of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATimesColumn1 with the hashtag #storysongs.

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Twitter: @karihow

kari.howard@latimes.com

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