Setting Times stories to music: From the Beatles to the Kinks

Setting Times stories to music: From the Beatles to the Kinks
Newlyweds Candy Brennan, 79, left, and Lee Brennan, 84, hold hands during the last dance at Cowtown Square Dance Center in Riverside. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

I'm lucky -- good storytelling isn't only my passion, it's my career. My other passion is music, and it probably won't surprise you that some of my favorite songwriters are wonderful storytellers.

One of this week's story soundtracks was written by one of the best narrative songwriters in pop-rock history, Ray Davies of the Kinks.


Sometimes he gives us a mini-screenplay, like in "Come Dancing" (see Thursday's Great Read, below). In that song, the arc of the narrator's childhood is viewed through his older sister's dates, and dreams, at the Palais dance hall. It ends with a wistful look at growing up and leaving those old dreams behind.

And of course there's "Lola." The transvestite story line gets all the attention, and what's not to love about a clever double entendre like "I know what I am/and I'm glad I'm a man/And so's Lola." But, like "Come Dancing," it's filled with keen observation -- and sweetness and humor in equal measure.

Then there's his masterpiece, "Waterloo Sunset," which takes a completely different approach. It's so elliptical, it leaves almost everything to your imagination. But with this suggestive line, "Every day I look at the world from my window," he leads you into the narrator's interior life. (Bonus: It's one of the better love letters to London.)

Good storytelling -- it's everywhere, from the website you're reading to the confines of a three-minute pop song.

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!


Actors draw med school students into caregiver role

David Solomon lay in bed, a sheet draped over his legs. His darkened bedroom was silent, except for the ticking of a clock on the wall. A box of tissues sat on a bedside table; a Hebrew-and-English siddur, or prayer book, rested on his lap.

The cancer that the 70-year-old cosmetics merchant had held at bay for 12 years was no longer responding to chemo. His breathing was labored, and his morphine-addled gaze wandered. It took all his effort to focus on the white-jacketed medical student who stood next to him.

"Even though we're done treating your lymphoma, we're still here to help," the student said, gently.

"I want to talk about hospice," Solomon croaked.

He had signed paperwork urging doctors to withhold interventions such as a feeding tube during his final weeks and thought he wanted to die here, at home. At the same time, he worried how his decision would affect his family.

"Do I want my family to walk into this room and the last memories be saying goodbye to me?" he asked.


The room fell quiet again. The medical student was still. Two of his classmates, in chairs nearby, dabbed their eyes. One reached past Solomon, grabbed a tissue and blew her nose.

"Time out!" their instructor shouted.

The patient sat up in his bed, pulled a canary-yellow yarmulke off his head and smiled.

"I am not David Solomon," actor Bob Rumnock told the students, "though we all will be at some point."

#story soundtrack: "In the Land of Make Believe," by Dusty Springfield. Broken record—love the album this is on.


Taking a step toward a machine that can think

Jim Gimzewski grabs a silicon wafer with a pair of tweezers and raises it to the light, thinking about Jackson Pollock, snowflakes and Tibetan mandalas.

No bigger than a quarter, the wafer looks like a small circuit board with a dozen or so electrodes converging at a darkened center, which under a microscope is an ugly tangle of wires randomly crisscrossed and interwoven like hairs in a tiny dust ball.

He places it inside a box the size of a mini-fridge. He closes the lid, and one of his graduate students, Henry Sillin, begins to run electricity into the box. A nearby monitor shows a sine-wave. The dust ball, messy and anarchic as it is, has come to life.

Gimzewski is one step closer toward what he calls his final frontier: building a machine that can think.

His tousled hair, Scottish brogue and clandestine pack of Marlboros would give an impression of a hip madness to the claim — if the science wasn't working so well.

Sillin adjusts his computer and picks up another series of pulses, an exercise not unlike measuring the electrical activity of the brain with an electroencephalogram.

"We should have walked away," Sillin says, "but it never failed enough for us to give up."

Gimzewski, a professor of chemistry at UCLA with more than 30 years working in the field of nanotechnology, believes that the tangled design of the chip is the reason for its resilience. The synapses of the brain are, after all, similarly organic and just as untidy.

Colleagues have been skeptical. Some thought the dust ball would melt down or either stay permanently on or off. And compared with the conventional chip, with its orderly array of wires, it seems hardly capable of driving a pocket calculator.

Yet Gimzewski has faith in the nature of eccentric invention. "We're operating somewhere between chaos and order, somewhere on the edge of chaos," he says.

#story soundtrack: "You Might Think," by the Cars. Can a video look more '80s than this?


In a grim city, marching to an uplifting beat

Ice and mud surrounded the water tower in a rough neighborhood in this roughest of cities. Graffiti on the tower and on boarded-up windows of nearby houses spoke of despair: "Stop the Violence." "Stop Hating." "Keep Camden Clean."

As darkness fell, police cars cruised the grim streets, their headlights illuminating barren residential blocks and commercial stretches pockmarked by vacant storefronts.

But inside the water tower, it was a different world. Girls and a few boys — toddlers to teens — peeled off coats and scarves and gathered in giddy groups beneath fluorescent lights, chatting, laughing and practicing dance moves and cartwheels. A man pulled drums from a storage space.

At the center of it all was a cheerful woman in orange jeans and a baseball cap, with hair extensions tumbling down her back.

"Get ready!" the woman, Tawanda Jones, bellowed in a voice that soared over the din.


The crowd, including a few parents watching from the side, fell silent.

"One line!" Jones hollered.

Three dozen pairs of feet shuffled across the concrete floor as the youngsters organized themselves from tallest to smallest, with the speed that comes from practice.

Then Jones sent them marching, adjusting their arms, shoulders and posture as they stomped the length of the room to the thunderous beat of the drum. "It should not dangle at all!" Jones shouted at a girl whose arm was less than rigid.

Jones, 40, spotted someone chewing gum and ordered her to spit it out. She swooped down to pick up a pair of eyeglasses that had flown off the face of a marcher. She yelled advice, orders and encouragement as sweat formed on foreheads.

"Pick it up! March!"

#story soundtrack: "Different Drum," by the Stone Poneys. A song as feel-good as the story. And have to love that it's the woman saying, don't tie me down.


Square dancing to heal the heart

Dan Lawyer was on the dance floor with a woman who wasn't his wife.

Betty Lawyer would usually lend her husband out for at least one dance a night. The women outnumber the men by so much at Cowtown Square Dance Center, she had to. But tonight, she was sidelined by a knee injury and had to be satisfied with watching the other members of the Cowtown Singles dancing club weave and circle and shuffle across the hardwood floor, reclaimed from an old wooden boxcar.

Many had danced for so long, they could instantaneously process the caller's commands. Part conductor, part crooner, part comedian — the caller rattled off a litany of steps, blended with the lyrics of a Kenny Chesney song: Crossfire. Slide thru. Ferris wheel. Diamond circulate. Wheel and deal.

These days at Cowtown the dancers are older, and nights don't go as late as they once did. But when members gather for a dance, a lifetime's struggles vanish amid the rush of endorphins and rhythm of music.

Dancers tell you they come to this old hall on the outskirts of Riverside for the exercise. One dancer wore a pedometer as an experiment and found that, in a single night, she got in about three miles. It also keeps the mind sharp: Many claim square dancing fends off Alzheimer's.
They come for more than that, though.

They share a meal and maybe a little gossip. For so many who have lost spouses or divorced, Cowtown offers community. And plenty of them come across something they say they weren't looking for: love, and marriage.

#story soundtrack: "Come Dancing," by the Kinks. (See above.)


Chauffeurs: a driving force for stars on Oscar night

Cylinders hum, dashboards glow. Hubcaps glitter like necklaces.

The limos are gassed and the chauffeurs, GPS apps glowing from hand-helds, are plotting routes for Sunday's Academy Awards at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. The drivers are the captains of a sleek, passing fleet of more than 1,200 cars and SUVs that will navigate police perimeters, barricades, bomb squads, helicopter searchlights, hundreds, maybe thousands of fans and probably a few stalkers lingering beyond the paparazzi flash.

"A 15-block-radius maze," said Christopher Smith, a chauffeur who doubles as a bodyguard and who in a previous life was a drug and alcohol counselor. "It can be crazy. If you don't have the right pass, you're not getting by.... The bomb squads may be putting tape on trunks this year to make sure they've been checked."

"It's like crossing into another country," said Reggie Colwell, whose black tie with the gold stripe ran like a ruler down his chest. "After we drop the client off, we go to the Hollywood Bowl to wait. The bowl is filled with limos. They feed us."

"Yeah," said Smith, "one burger, one fry, one drink."

Smith and Colwell drive for KLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services, owned by Alex Darbahani, whose first celebrity client was Jennifer Lopez. He did two of her weddings but not the doomed one to Ben Affleck, which was called off even after 150 cars were ordered and paid for.

Darbahani, whose trade demands discretion, wouldn't cough up details on that broken romance, and anyway, the buzz these days is who will wear what and who will roll home -- in one of his cars, hopefully -- with a gold statuette.

Darbahani, whose rates on Oscar night range from $1,200 to $5,000, has watched the rise of the SUVs -- Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade -- and the fall in popularity of the 10-mile-per-gallon stretch limo. ("That market is not big. It's for the executive producer.") Demands for environmentally friendly cars have tapered too. "People used to ask for Teslas and hybrids," he said. "I don't see many Priuses on the red carpet. That was something fashionable but it's gone."

#story soundtrack: "Drive My Car," by the Beatles. "Baby, can't you see? I wanna be famous, a star of the screen."


If you have ideas for story soundtracks of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATgreatreads with the hashtag #soundtrack.