Have you ever seen a music video with a story so compelling, so moving, you don’t even really hear the song the first time you see it?
That just happened to me with the video to “New York Morning,” the new song by the British band Elbow. Like a five-minute documentary, it tells the story of Dennis and Lois, two of New York City’s biggest music fans. They’ve seen it all, from the glory days of CBGB and the Ramones to Britpop bands like Happy Mondays (who even wrote a song about them).
They must be near retirement age now, but their passion for music is just as strong as it was back in the ’70s. “That’s what I do with my money – buy gas and go see bands,” Lois says.
But even more wonderful than the love they have for the music -- and for New York -- is the love they have for each other. You feel like the hand of fate brought them together, and something bigger than that keeps them together.
Oh, and the song is beautiful too.
Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they’re known in print, 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 if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story soundtrack!
Restaurant goes belly up, but resident fish swim on
For decades, Rosemead tiki restaurant Bahooka drew crowds with its incredible aquatic menagerie of more than 1,000 creatures: red devils, silver dollars, sharks, goldfish and koi, so many it was as if you were eating underwater.
There was the turtle that swam up to your margarita at the aquarium bar. The giant gourami floating serenely behind the bartender. And Rufus, a huge, elderly pacu fish who greeted everyone who came in.
Rufus watched many of the restaurant's diners grow up. As children, they clamored to host their birthday parties at Bahooka. Later, the restaurant's shadowy booths saw their first dates and hid their first kisses. The same kids celebrated their 21st birthdays at Bahooka, taking their first sips of alcohol at the aquarium bar.
But Bahooka closed last March, and the new owner still hasn't decided what to do with all the fish. For nearly a year now, Rufus and the others have been living in the abandoned restaurant, a dim warren of dark scarred wood and burbling water.
Jorge Mastache, the restaurant's fish keeper since 2001, has been feeding them and cleaning their tanks after he gets off work. On a recent weeknight, Mastache unlocked the side entrance and entered through the kitchen.
Bahooka hasn't aged well. Like the rusted boats in the parking lot, the restaurant has lost its seaworthiness. Loose plugs and old decorations hang like dead kelp from the walls of the dining room. Brightly colored aquarium gravel crunches underfoot. The place smells as a shipwreck might.
Mastache steps around row after row of glowing fish tanks. When he nears a large blue-tinted tank near the restaurant's front, Rufus swims up to investigate, his soft wrinkled nose pressed flat against the glass.
#soundtrack: “Tiki Tiki Tiki Room,” by Los Lobos. The band from East L.A. does a Disney album. Love it.
Families cheer Sochi athletes from near and far
A bright sun shone on the Caucasus Mountains as snowboarders flew one after another down the hill.
It was the men's slopestyle final on the second day of the Sochi Olympics. The competitors spun across metal rails painted red against the white snow, then launched themselves off steep jumps, hoping to impress the judges.
Stephen and Carol Ann Kotsenburg had dreamed of this moment for years, ever since their youngest son, Sage, began to show promise on the slopes.
Driving him to practice sessions, accompanying him to contests, they had envisioned “this wild ride,” as they called it, ending with Sage at the Games and them cheering from the stands.
“You couldn't hold us back,” Carol Ann said.
Last month, when he qualified for the U.S. team, the family immediately bought plane tickets to Sochi. But suicide bombers had struck in nearby Volgograd and the news was filled with speculation of terrorist attacks at the 2014 Winter Games.
The 20-year-old sat his parents down to say that he was worried about their safety.
“I was like, hey, if you guys could just kind of hang out at home,” he recalled telling them. “It's like better for me in my mind.”
So the Kotsenburgs — who did not share their son's fear about traveling to Russia — watched his Olympic moment from 6,000 miles away, staying up past midnight at their home in the Utah mountains.
“For his peace of mind, we decided to back off,” Carol Ann said. “It was one of the hardest things I've ever done.”
#soundtrack: “Pride and Joy,” by Marvin Gaye. OK, I insist you watch this video. Gaye looking so handsome and stylish, and those go-go dancers!
Produce trucks a slice of home for Latino immigrants
Benjamin Cruz's signature honk — three quick toots and a long beep — announces his arrival on a north Pasadena street. A woman in fur-lined slippers shuffles toward the open back of his boxy white truck and peers into a colorful splash of groceries and sundries. Her young daughter, Hanna, trails along, giggling and chasing a skittish Chihuahua.
There's an ease of familiarity and ritual as Guadalupe Parra chats in Spanish about the dog's antics and what Parra needs this morning. Cruz pulls items from the bulge of merchandise around him — a roll of toilet paper off the top shelf, a few zucchinis from a cardboard crate, an avocado, a Coke can pulled out of a cooler filled with ice.
When Cruz teasingly asks 4-year-old Hanna if she wants something, she peels her face away from the dog's snout, points up toward a bag of cotton candy and squeals, “Algodon!” (cotton). As they drift away, Cruz says he'll see them soon: “Sometimes they come three or four times a day.”
Cruz moves slowly down the street with the back door of his rolling convenience store open, columns of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and Cheddar & Sour Cream Ruffles swinging back and forth.
When he stops, the sidewalk and street around his truck become an open-air market, with customers pausing to catch up with one another and with Cruz, 33, goateed, with gelled-back hair and wearing a polo shirt and jeans.
A woman with a stroller buys tomatoes, and another walking by recognizes her, stops and says hello to her and her child, and the two walk away together pushing the stroller.
Approximately 600 trucks like Cruz's are licensed in Los Angeles and Orange counties, plying Latino neighborhoods from Van Nuys to Santa Ana. Unlike most food trucks, they don't serve hot meals on crowded city streets to urbanites on their lunch breaks. Instead, these trucks deliver produce, sweets and little household necessities to thousands of doorsteps each day.
#soundtrack: “Wheels,” by the Flying Burrito Brothers. I love seeing the guys in their Nudie the Rodeo Tailor suits.
LAPD recruits endure tough training, then hit reality on the streets
Before they hit the streets as new cops, the recruits took a final run together.
It was a fitting end, given all the miles they had logged over the last six months. In a few days, they would graduate from the Los Angeles Police Department's training academy and scatter to stations throughout the city for their rookie years.
On this misty morning in November 2010, they sang like soldiers do as they jogged from a training facility near LAX to the beach. “Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are. So we tell them, 'We are the LAPD! Best department in the world!'“
In the front was Clay Bell, a young ex-Marine from Texas who had emerged early as the class leader. In the pack behind him, Ed Anderson sang the loudest. At 46, Anderson was the oldest in the class and the most unlikely cop among them. Vanessa Lopez lagged in the back. Lopez hated running. Barely cracking 5 feet, she had come to the LAPD after the Army told her she was too short to be a helicopter pilot. The LAPD had helicopters.
“Up early with the California sun. Pride run! Last run! Oh, yeah! Almost done!”
They arrived at a bluff overlooking the Pacific and scrambled down to the beach. They stared out onto the water, each of them lost for a moment in their own thoughts. The quiet was broken when a few charged into the water. Others who held back were tossed in. Anderson walked up to Lopez. Still dry, she crossed her arms and shook her head.
They had come to the academy from different worlds — she was a Mexican American from Compton, Anderson a father of two from a wealthy Bay Area town.
They had forged a tight bond over the one thing they had in common: They wanted to be LAPD cops.
“It feels like we're just getting started,” Anderson said. “Like the hard part is only about to begin.”
#soundtrack: “Blue Lines,” by Massive Attack. From the wonderful album of the same time. Give it a listen.
Bachelors Ball is L.A.'s revel without a cause
You may have watched George Washington ride onto the floor of a packed hotel ballroom astride a white stallion. Or gaped as trapeze artists teetered high overhead in the big top. Or slurped from your friends' drinks until 4 a.m., using a long straw secreted in your sea monster costume.
If you experienced any or all of the above, you were likely a member or friend of The Bachelors, the exclusive and somewhat elusive organization of young Los Angeles gentlemen who have “made merry in the pleasure of delightful company” (as a society writer once said) since Teddy Roosevelt lived in the White House.
The group and about 700 of its friends will go at it again Friday night and well into Saturday morning, 109 years after The Bachelors convened downtown to plan its first ball. They will don “fancy dress” (more on that later), pre-party with purpose, greet society “patronesses” until 10 p.m. and then plunge into the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton hotel to learn this year's theme, which, like every year, remains a closely held secret.
Most parties of such magnitude and durability would have business or charitable underpinnings. Not the Bachelors Ball.
It exists because it can — and because, despite Los Angeles' reputation for eschewing tradition, there are still 75 young, single men in the area willing to pay into the thousands of dollars for a table so they can “repay social obligations” to their friends.
“It's really special to be part of something that has been around for over a century,” said Joe McCullough, 30, whose grandfather was a Bachelor in the 1940s and who now serves as president of the group. “For me, it's nice to hold on to the roots and history and culture of Los Angeles.”
#soundtrack: “Bachelor Party,” by Oingo Boingo. Was this the beginning of Danny Elfman’s music career in Hollywood?
If you have ideas for story soundtracks of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATgreatreads with the hashtag #soundtrack.