I don’t want to play favorites with the Great Reads (like a parent, I love them all equally, if differently). But...
If you did an algorithm of my tastes, Friday’s Great Read might pop up. Not only was it about music, it was – be still my heart -- about old-school LPs: a maker of album jackets that has come back from the (near) dead with the vinyl revival. And it was full of cool details and lovely writing by our pop critic Randall Roberts.
Music love + writing love = me.
Vinyl has been a recurring motif this week. Rummaging through my collection, I came across a gorgeous picture disc for 1970's “Airconditioning,” by Curved Air. Not only is it beautiful, apparently it’s the first rock music picture disc.
Because it’s prog rock, I may not necessarily listen to the album much, but creativity like that should be rewarded. (And isn't it wonderful to find something like by accident? Everyday serendipity.)
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!
Unexplained decisions, unthinkable grief
Like a sentinel, wildland fire chief Darrell Willis watched the blaze march toward him with 50-foot-high flames. For the first time since the Yarnell fire began 38 hours earlier, he felt real anxiety.
“We've got a major problem here,” he thought.
It had been manageable the night before. The breeze was gusty but relatively light. The fire had grown to 300 acres, but two well-trained hotshot crews — including the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Willis' own department in nearby Prescott — were being deployed to surround it and knock it down. The threat to Yarnell, an old mining town southeast of the blaze, and Peeples Valley, a few miles north, still seemed small.
Plans had been laid to launch small planes at dawn to drop retardant, followed by big-bellied water tanker aircraft. But dawn had come and gone, and there was no sign of the planes.
State dispatch logs show that small single-engine air tankers, or SEATs, were launched not at dawn, but close to 9 a.m. By 10 a.m., as Willis faced those 50-foot flames, the big DC-10 tankers were finally being called in — but the first wouldn't arrive with its 12,000-gallon load for several hours.
The fire was edging toward Peeples Valley, where Willis and several other firefighters watched wide-eyed as the flames grew to 80 feet by noon. They sensed the fire's superiority.
They didn't know it yet, but this third day of the Yarnell Hill fire, June 30, 2013, would become a lesson in missed opportunities, bungled communications and the enduring power of nature to defy expectations.
Willis, one of the senior managers overseeing the multi-pronged firefighting effort, thought about his Granite Mountain Hotshots, deployed three miles south of where Willis stood, on the back side of the blaze closer to Yarnell. What was team leader Eric Marsh facing, out on that rocky ridge with spotty radio reception and tardy air support?
None of it looked good.
Willis knew Marsh. He knew the crew. They would not sit idle while a fire swept toward houses in their home county.
“If there's no leadership, they're going to take action.”
#soundtrack: “It’s a Fire,” by Portishead. Two of the singers on this week’s soundtracks have otherworldly voices: Beth Gibbons of Portishead and Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes (see Tuesday’s Great Read).
Creative San Francisco laments death of guerrilla art
Brian Goggin perched on the blue sofa that hung halfway off the roof. He looked down one last time on his guerrilla art masterpiece, “Defenestration,” that had become one of the city's unlikeliest icons.
More than 17 years ago, Goggin and an army of artists had transformed the four-story, dilapidated building below him by attaching a menagerie of furniture to the sides, creating the illusion of objects being flung into the air.
It was a physical manifestation of the word “defenestration,” which means “a throwing of a person or thing out of a window.”
There was the vintage green refrigerator. The grandfather clock twisted into a slight corkscrew shape. The tables and TV whose bent legs made it appear they were running and leaping. A telephone, swirling lamps, an old radio. Altogether, 34 pieces, including the blue sofa.
Now it was time to take them down. The building is scheduled to be demolished to make way for much-needed affordable housing.
Goggin, 48, donned a hard hat and climbed into the basket of a giant crane that moved him from piece to piece. Using an electric buzz saw and blowtorch, he cut through the metal beams that held the furniture in place, then lowered each piece to the street below. By the end of the day, all but two pieces were down: the sofa and a bathtub that hangs out of a window.
Over the years, the whimsy of “Defenestration” came to symbolize, for many, the city's prankster spirit and an anarchic, artistic sensibility that fostered the absurd and embraced the desire to make something for its own sake rather than its commercial value.
The demise of “Defenestration” has fed the simmering fear that those same qualities are being driven away as soaring rents and evictions push more artists out of the city. City leaders have become alarmed at the exodus and have launched programs to support artists, particularly those who create public art.
#soundtrack: “Out the Window,” by Violent Femmes. Gordon Gano is so strangely wonderful.
For him, satellite reboot is about reconnecting with an old friend
His wife calls him an egotist, NASA calls him a genius, and his friends call him a sore loser and insufferable winner.
Bob Farquhar says they're all right.
“I not only want to get things done, I want to be in your face at the end,” the 82-year-old spaceflight engineer said. “And yes, I have a big ego, but it's not as big as Buzz Aldrin's.”
The former Army paratrooper with a Stanford PhD is legendary for making spacecraft do things once thought impossible, and maybe even unwise. The only rules he followed faithfully during his 23 years at NASA were the laws of physics.
Take the time he had brass plaques commemorating his first and current wives affixed to one probe, and commanded the vehicle to land on the asteroid Eros on Valentine's Day. (It may bear mentioning that the spacecraft was neither designed nor intended to touch down on anything.)
And then there was Farquhar's fixation with scheduling mission milestones around birthdays, anniversaries or dates that featured his lucky number, 12.
“I tried to get twelves in everything,” he said. “I drove everybody nuts.”
Now, decades after his retirement from the space agency, Farquhar is plotting another crazy stunt.
After years of lobbying NASA, he and a group of self-described space cowboys have won permission to be the first privately organized group to take control of a retired government satellite and change its orbit.
And it's not just any satellite: Farquhar helped send the International Sun-Earth Explorer 3 into space 36 years ago — at 12 minutes and 12 seconds after the hour on Aug. 12.
While other team members say they're simply attracted to the sheer technical challenge of “rebooting” a Cold War-era satellite, ISEE-3 holds a special place in Farquhar's heart.
After he and the craft both nearly died just days apart in 1981, he came to believe they were connected.
“I always thought my life is tied to this spacecraft,” he said. “I thought that when it came back to Earth, then that's when I would die.”
#soundtrack: “Always Forgetting With You,” by Spiritualized. I can’t tell you how many times I listened to this song when it was released early this year. Definitely in the double digits. From a space-themed compilation album, it’s perfect for this story. Not only does it have spacey noises, I imagine the poor little abandoned satellite singing the pining lyrics to engineer Farquhar.
Dinosaur hunter is making prehistory
Scott Richardson is up at dawn, standing atop a rocky ridgeline near his base camp, a solitary figure in the slanting light. He surveys a primordial wilderness of dry creek beds and stands of juniper and pinyon pine.
“This is dinosaur country,” he says, gesturing toward the valley below. “There are bones all over this place.”
He cooks bacon on a camp stove, the sizzle breaking the silence. He then hops into his work truck for a bumpy trek deeper into the outback. He parks near a spot he wants to explore.
The 58-year-old Arizona native, dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and white clothes for protection from the sun, walks past darting lizards. He swats at the maddening gnats that hover like paparazzi as he follows a closed road left to revert to its natural state.
Just off the path, an object catches his eye. An odd, almost oval shape pokes from the dirt, and he quickly determines it's a 75-million-year-old hadrosaur vertebra. The fossil is caked with dirt, and it looks like any other rock. But not to Richardson: He's seen numerous similarly shaped bones and recognizes the object's size and heft.
He drags his fingers over the fragment and explains that it came from the top of the creature's spine, near its neck. “This is what it's all about,” he says. “If you brushed around and dug some holes, you might find other bones going into the ground. There might be a whole animal here.”
Richardson is a dinosaur finder, a bone prospector on the hunt for prehistoric predators and their prey.
#soundtrack: “Bones,” by Fat Freddy’s Drop. A bit of jazz funk for a Thursday.
As vinyl returns, they've got it covered
Thousands of old-style cardboard sleeves for Jack White’s album “Lazaretto” sit in tightly packed checkerboard rows at Stoughton Printing plant in the City of Industry, 12.3-inch squares waiting to be stuffed with 12-inch circles.
Jack Stoughton Jr., son of the company’s founder, takes one from the newly printed stack and admires the work. White’s blue suit pops off the print as he sits amid a flock of angel statuettes. The inside of the jacket is black — one more flourish to separate it from the others in the increasingly competitive vinyl business.
Nearby, a heavy Heidelberg press pushes Stereolab jackets across a conveyor belt: a reorder of the British band’s 1993 drone-rock gem, “Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements,” with its close-up image of a turntable tone arm gliding across an album.
In the vinyl comeback of the last decade, people like to credit the so-called warmth of LPs. But don’t overlook the artfully crafted jacket. After all, if a label expects fans to spend money on music that’s available for free online (and pay a premium over a download or CD), the object had better be desirable.
And Stoughton makes them desirable.
“It’s like when you get into an Audi or a BMW. You shut the door and it has that sound,” says Patrick McCarthy, project manager for Light in the Attic Records, a reissue label that uses Stoughton for most of its packages. “It’s this almost imperceptible quality, but you know it when you have it in your hands.”
Founded nearly 50 years ago, the unassuming company has ridden a roller-coaster ride from ubiquity to near-death and back, enduring the 45 rpm single, 33 1/3 rpm album, eight-track, cassette, compact disc, laser disc, MP3 and streaming eras — an arc that captures the history of the music business itself.
#soundtrack: “Analogue Rock,” by Stereolab. Couldn’t resist this – the album is name-checked in the third paragraph of the story, and although this song isn’t my favorite on it, its name really fits the story. If you don’t know the album, I recommend it. I may even buy the vinyl version with its Stoughton jacket.