Setting Times stories to music: From Beck to Spiritualized

Setting Times stories to music: From Beck to Spiritualized
"Dwelling in the Mount Fuchun" by Chinese artist Yao Lu, who has found inspiration in the country's environmental degradation. (Yao Lu)

This week I went to the Troubadour for the first time in ages. I'm embarrassed to admit the reasons for staying away: The long, trafficky drive. The fraught parking. The broken habit of late nights at clubs.

Lesson learned. You walk into this scruffy yet cozy space and have the feeling, "This is where I belong." You see this crowd of music buffs of all ages out on a weeknight to see a favorite band and think, "These are my people." That moment of recognition – beautiful.


Maybe appropriately, the band we were all there to see, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, have an album called "Belong."

That album is a pure pop dream. It could easily replace the soundtrack to a John Hughes film. An '80s vibe, but very now. Did I mention hooks? A million of them. And what's not to love about a song called this: "Heaven's Gonna Happen Now"?

In the title song, the outsiders-together vibe is very "Sixteen Candles" and "Breakfast Club," with the line, "We need to still belong. (I don't belong. I don't belong)." But my favorite is the sweetly romantic, "When you came through the door/I felt everything and nothing that I had before." That moment of recognition again.

I always hope that fans of the Great Reads have the same sense of belonging. That we're like a newspaper version of a book club. (Hmm, maybe we should have meetings and read our favorite bits aloud ...)

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!


A beer pioneer launches Jordan's first microbrewery

Yazan Karadsheh is wary of unannounced visitors. When a car without an appointment arrives in the outer yard of his factory, seven guard dogs surround it, barking furiously.

Karadsheh trudges out with three of his employees to check the source of the commotion, then calls off the canines to allow a visitor to make his way gingerly to what looks like a nondescript warehouse.

"It took two years just to get permission to build this place," he says as he opens a door labeled "Tasting Room." What lies beyond is stunning: a softly lighted, polished wooden space with two sets of bay windows, one overlooking a green-sloped valley, the other the austere metallic gray of the production floor.

Jordan, a Muslim country where alcohol use is tolerated but hardly embraced, isn't exactly the likeliest place to find a dedicated beer connoisseur. But Karadsheh is on a mission: to revolutionize tastes and customs in hostile terrain that just happens to be his homeland.

At the end of last year, he launched the country's first microbrewery, Carakale. On the long road to its first official brew, he battled everyone from foot-dragging bureaucrats to devout laborers who wanted nothing to do with his forbidden product.

The 29-year-old is in his element behind the bar, dispensing his brew with care, making sure the head is just so.


"This is where it all starts, this is my cave, my brain center, I come here, I have music on," he notes, mixing English and Arabic.

Karadsheh sniffs the amber-colored liquid and scans the contents with a discerning eye.
"This is what I call my whiskey ale," he says, sipping from the glass stein. "It has ripe banana scents on the nose. You'll get more body to it and more sweetness, a bit spicy, slight licorice notes, butterscotch, toffee."

A quick clink of the tankards, and he begins his story.

#soundtrack: "Beercan," by Beck. What a great groove. "Oh yeah. My goodness."


After daughter is found dead on conveyor belt, mother seeks answers

Tears formed on the edges of Jodi Estepp's eyes as she stared at the stiff quilt covering the bed inside Room 217 at the Anaheim Lodge Motel. Was this the last place her daughter slept?

A mirror, a framed picture of a garden and the smell of old cigarette smoke hung on the white walls. But no trace of Jarrae Estepp remained. All of her possessions were waiting in two bags at the Anaheim Police Department.

Jodi walked outside, where a longtime resident of the motel told her she had seen Jarrae briefly when the 21-year-old stopped to admire her tabby.

"Did she look happy?" Jodi asked in a raspy voice, wringing her hands, a star and crescent moon tattooed on the right one.

"She was content," the woman said. "She caught my attention because she was a very pretty girl."

Jarrae checked into Room 217 on March 13 along this stretch of Beach Boulevard where prostitutes, the restless and the down-and-out frequent motels with names like the Robin Hood and the Covered Wagon. A day later, an employee of an Anaheim trash facility discovered her naked body on a conveyor belt.

Her fingerprints and tattoos were used to identify her; the one on the left side of her neck spelled out her mother's name.

Jodi had made the journey from Modesto, cobbling together money from friends and family for gas. The Orange County district attorney's office had promised a hotel room.

She came to Southern California for answers about Jarrae's final days — but was haunted by questions about days long past.

"I did the best I could," she said, "but I wonder if I could've done more or done less of what I did do."

#soundtrack: "All of My Tears," by Spiritualized. A band that has  crept its way into my Top 10. The mood of many of the songs – of struggle, of pain, of redemption -- fit this story. Here's a live version. (Recommendation: If you get the chance to see them live, do.)


Artists finding inspiration in China's bad air

Photographer Wu Di's studio, tucked away in a dusty corner of northeast Beijing, isn't easy to find, but the mannequin out front wearing a military-style gas mask and a Roots sweatshirt is a sign you're in the right place.

Inside, Wu showed off some of his work, like the stylized shot of mannequins in brand-name clothes posed near a swirling cesspool of discharge from garment factories. Recently, he photographed a child wearing 445 paper face masks stretching out like an elephant's trunk.

"The government has promised the air quality will meet standards in 2030. So that means we'll have about 1,500 days of air below the standard between now and then. If you need one mask every three days, that's 445," he said, explaining his calculation using the number of "good days" and "bad days" in those 16 years.


The backbeat to life in China these days is a drone of statistics about the degraded environment: State media have reported that nearly 60% of China's groundwater is polluted and 19.4% of farmland is contaminated. Of 2,028 days between April 2008 and March 2014, Beijing had just 25 days of air quality considered "good" by U.S. standards, figures from the U.S. Embassy here showed.

The reports aim to inform and even shock citizens and officials into action, yet the effect can be the opposite — paralyzing.

Increasingly, though, artists are finding their muse in the ecological mire. With photos, paintings, conceptual pieces and performances, they're piercing through the din of data, seizing the attention and imagination of both the authorities and the public.

#soundtrack: "Smog Moon," by Matthew Sweet. One of my pop heroes, here describing a quintessential L.A. scene. Who hasn't seen a sunset made more beautiful by pollution?


Cynic's Paul Masvidal, Sean Reinert are out and ready to be loud

Paul Masvidal has played in some of America's most intense heavy metal bands for more than 20 years. Visit his Echo Park home, however, and it's clear he's finally found peace.

The 43-year-old singer-guitarist, sinewy and gently graying at the temples, lives in a royal-blue Craftsman with a wide view of Echo Park Lake. The bookcases are stacked with thick references on esoteric spirituality. Photos on the fridge show sweet, fading scenes from an old relationship; a tuckered-out Australian cattle-dog mix plonks itself at his feet.

His closets overflow with boxes of vinyl LPs of the new album by his band, Cynic, released in February to metal-scene acclaim. In the early '90s, the group he co-founded with drummer Sean Reinert mixed ferocious distortion with jazz-inspired musicianship that helped establish the genre of progressive metal. Two decades later, they're one of metal's coolest influences.
Most musicians would murder for a resume like that. But there's one thing that Masvidal and Reinert have stayed quiet about in their public lives, until now.

Both men are gay and stars in a music scene where bands can wear corpse-paint makeup and leather S&M garb while singing about Satan and dismemberment — yet genuinely nonconforming sexuality hasn't always been welcome.

Though they've been comfortably out for years in their private lives, the two haven't yet spoken about their sexuality in the context of their music.

As artists, they've pushed the edges of heavy metal music for most of their lives. Now they're ready to challenge old stereotypes about sexuality in one of music's most aggressively masculine genres.

"I see all those old dudes out there just banging their heads to our records," Reinert said, wearing an imposing goatee and extra-large Miami Dolphins jersey. "And I have to think — 'That stuff you're banging your head to? That is some gay, gay metal, man.'"

#soundtrack: "True Hallucination Speak," by Cynic. Had to go with one of the band's songs. I'm no metal fan, and the harsh vocals of their earlier record were not my cup of tea, but I did like the vocals on the new release. As the story said, they've found some peace, even in the mellower vocals.


Accident survivor and rescuers meet their heroes in each other

Captain Jeff Swingle sat alone in a workshop in his garage, his mind wandering in circles.

His day job was fighting brush fires and leading emergency response teams. He had grown accustomed to tragedy, to packing up his emotions in preparation for the next call.

But this one didn't feel real – a snowboarding accident in Northern California, his son Wyatt dead.

Sometimes the grief overwhelmed him, and he would retreat to his workshop, with no projects in mind, just remembering Wyatt, and trying to accept that he was gone. Today he fought the heaviness in his chest for an hour.

Then the phone rang.

"Remember the girl in Topanga Canyon?" the voice on the line said. "She's alive."

#soundtrack: "Good Day," by Paul Westerberg. Can I say it again? One of America's best songwriters.


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