Setting Times stories to music: from Bobby Womack to Spiritualized

Setting Times stories to music: from Bobby Womack to Spiritualized
A man walks by Centerfold International Newsstand in Los Angeles. (Jabin Botsford / Los Angeles Times)

Vulnerability was a motif in this week's Great Reads – and some of their soundtracks.

One of the last surviving newsstands in Los Angeles. A Christian woman living under the Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. A horse cast adrift after a family tragedy.


In different ways, my heart lurched for all of them as they faced threats to their existence. I longed for happy endings, but fear that only one of them -- the horse -- will get one.

The singers for two of the story soundtracks have always moved me with their vulnerability: Gram Parsons and Spiritualized's Jason Pierce.

Parsons might have the most vulnerable voice in rock (matched, possibly, by Neil Young). Even without knowing how it all ended in that Joshua Tree motel, you feel the brokenness of him in that sadly beautiful voice. I never fail to get goosebumps at the moment his voice trembles when he sings "I'm your toy, I'm your old boy/But I don't want no one but you to love me" in "Hot Burrito #1."

Pierce gets to me the same way. Earlier this year, I saw the band at the opening of the Ace Theatre downtown, performing the (wonderful) album "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space" in its entirety. Pierce, so thin, his white T-shirt and jeans giving him the look of a hospital patient, never moved from his chair. The robust choir backing him seemed to reinforce his fragility. But he was electrifying.

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 newsstand where the world still unfolds as print fades to black

A red truck pulls into an empty parking lot off Fairfax Avenue just before 6 a.m. René Portillo gets out in a rush and heads to a blue shoe box of a building wearing a message in faded paint: "THE NEW YORK TIMES Expect The World." To the right, a California Lottery banner proclaims: "Millionaire made here."

Portillo unbolts two padlocks and flicks on the lights. He rips the plastic tether on a stack of newspapers and begins arranging them on a wire rack. Then he hears footsteps.

"Buenos diiiiiiias," he says, greeting his first customer with the chirpiness of a morning person, even if he might not be one. The men chitchat in Spanish as Portillo rings up the man's stack: seven copies of the Los Angeles Times, seven more of the New York Times, three USA Todays, two Orange County Registers and one La Opinión.

The man works for CNN and comes in every weekday to buy papers to take to work. After he leaves, Portillo peels his breakfast banana. Then a customer with a tangled, graying beard and dirt caked on his red cheeks shows up, buys a cold Starbucks mocha for $3 and walks around the shop. He pauses in front of a magazine with Kim Kardashian on the cover and asks her a couple of random questions.

"Et tu, Brute?" he says. "Are you ordering a hamburger again?" He puts his ear next to her picture for a second and shrugs. She didn't answer, he says as he walks out. Portillo laughs and waves goodbye.

It's just another day at Centerfold International Newsstand.


Sure, Portillo says, the Fairfax neighborhood stand has become a lot less international over the years. When his brother, Manuel, bought the place in 2006, it carried dozens of dailies from overseas: the Times of London, Egypt's Al Ahram, five newspapers from Italy. Now the brothers make half as much money, and their foreign offerings have dwindled to weekly versions of the Guardian and Le Monde and a Russian-language paper printed in New York.

"People have the Internet for anything," he says. "Now only old people come in — like me. I don't like the Internet."

#soundtrack: "News of the World," by the Jam. Up there in my top 20 bands for sure. Paul Weller looks so young in this video! Oddly, the camera focuses on bassist Bruce Foxton. Did they think he had more pop-star appeal? I beg to differ.


Boko Haram shows no mercy in Nigeria, wrecking churches, homes, lives

When Boko Haram invaded her village last year, the Islamist extremists burned the churches, destroyed Bibles and photographs and forced Hamatu Juwanda to renounce Christianity.
"They said we should never go back to church because they had brought a new religion," the 50-year-old said. "We were going to be converted to Islam."

The head of the village, a Muslim, presented her with a thick nylon hijab to cover her head and renamed her Aisha.

She submitted, smarting with rage. Women who didn't wear the hijab were beaten.

"When I went to the market, I wore the veil," she said. "But at home, I took it off and prayed."
The gunmen returned time after time to the village of Barawa, shooting people, burning houses and wearing down the resistance of the villagers.

In September, the attackers came again: 30 turbaned men with covered faces, big guns and camouflage clothing. Juwanda's husband tried to flee but was shot in the chest and killed.
Horrors became commonplace for Juwanda: She saw a young man shot in the head as he fled along a rural track. She watched a neighboring woman weep bitterly as gunmen abducted her with her children.

"She was crying, but they told her not to," Juwanda said. "The leader of the group told her, 'If you cry, it's useless. If you don't cry, it's useless.' "

#soundtrack: "Lord Can You Hear Me," by Spiritualized. Another one of my favorite bands (see above).


Pot's popularity, state law create trying times for U.S. prosecutor

Julie Shemitz watched warily as the judge asked prospective jurors whether they or anyone close to them had a card for medical marijuana.

Ten hands lifted, a third of the jury pool.

"Look at all those hands," the judge said.

An assistant U.S. attorney, Shemitz knew that this would be a problem.


The defendant, Noah Kleinman, ran a North Hollywood pot dispensary. Federal prosecutors rarely targeted medical dispensaries these days, but they accused Kleinman of using the shop as a front to sell large quantities of marijuana to other distributors in Los Angeles and to street dealers on the East Coast.

Shemitz felt she had a strong case. Drug Enforcement Administration agents had emails, ledgers, surveillance records and witnesses, including Kleinman's partner, employees, growers and out-of-state buyers.

But she feared that the broadening acceptance of marijuana and California's medical pot laws would bias the jury into thinking that Kleinman had not committed a crime.

The judge, Otis D. Wright II, questioned the jurors. A young woman said she had a medical marijuana card for anxiety. Another used it for a personality disorder. A middle-aged man said his wife used it with chemotherapy. At least 10 others said they believed marijuana should be legal for medical use.

Shemitz — a 57-year-old soft-spoken, self-described "nice Jewish girl" from a liberal family in Connecticut who started prosecuting federal narcotics cases more than 20 years ago in Washington, D.C. — has no grievance with the plant or people smoke it.

She wouldn't care if Congress made it legal. But it hasn't, and she believes the Justice Department, to remain credible, must enforce the law.

Even if that meant that Kleinman, 39, might spend the next 24 years in federal prison.

#soundtrack: "Legalize It," by Peter Tosh. OK, so it's obvious, but I like it.


Horse going to greener pastures after owner's heartbreaking tragedy

Megan Gaynes noticed the horse when she pulled up to the auction in Mira Loma. He was standing in a pen, his head down, his right hind leg swollen.

Gaynes, who runs a horse-rescue organization, feared the gelding was in such bad shape that he might hurt himself further if ridden during the auction. So she went to the organizer of last month's event and bought the horse for $300.

"It probably wasn't worth that much, but it looked like it was suffering so much, I just wanted to get it out of there," Gaynes said.

Gaynes thought he might have been injured during illegal rodeos where horses are intentionally tripped. She took him to a veterinary hospital, where doctors gave him painkillers and treated his legs.

When Gaynes went to visit the horse the next day, she sat in his stall and he put his head in her lap.

"He's almost more like a dog than a horse," she said. "You can tell he's been loved."

Gaynes took a photo of a tattoo on the animal's upper lip and texted it to a friend, who used it to identify the horse.

His name was Return of the King.

A few days later, Gaynes realized she knew who his former owners were. Theirs was a story of terrible loss and now she had found that their prized thoroughbred, who had once stood in the winner's circle at Santa Anita, was on the verge of death from overwork.

"Oh my God," Gaynes said. "It's that horse that belonged to that poor family."

#soundtrack: "Wild Horses," by the Flying Burrito Brothers. I much prefer this version to the Stones one. I'm one of the people who believe Gram Parsons must have had a role in writing it, no matter what the credits say.


Alhambra police work social media beat to reach Chinese speakers

An estranged daughter tearfully confronts her family at Twohey's Restaurant and refuses to leave. A few minutes later, the call dings into the laptop in Alhambra Police Sgt. Eddie Rodriguez's cruiser.

He steps on the gas as his partner for the day, police volunteer Walter Yu, fires up the department's Weibo account.

"Alhambra police are en route to Twohey to handle an incident of customer harassment," Yu writes in Chinese, and taps send.

Within minutes the post is deluged with likes and comments. One user says a man exposed himself near that location, and asks what to do. Another asks him to explain the meaning of harassment. Yu's fingers dance over his iPhone, trying to respond.

In a city with about 30,000 Chinese residents and just four sworn officers who can speak Chinese, police leaders hope Weibo, the world's largest social network, will help bridge the cultural divide.

Late last year, the Alhambra Police Department became the first police agency in the U.S. to launch a full-time Weibo account. The Chinese microblogging service, a mashup of Twitter and Facebook, has a strong following in the San Gabriel Valley, where Chinese residents use it to stay in touch with news and friends from back home.

Weibo sources are starting to produce some useful tips -- information from Weibo users helped Yu shine a light on a fake rental-car voucher scam targeting Chinese nationals. But most of the time, Weibo commenters just have questions. Is my landlord supposed to have a key to my apartment? Are police officers in the U.S. supposed to carry guns all the time? Do pedestrians really have the right of way?

Yu, who was born in China and moved to the U.S. during high school, says he spends up to 20 hours a week monitoring the account and answering questions.

The police department joined Weibo to do police work, but it soon fell into a different role: explaining America.

#soundtrack: "Communication," by Bobby Womack. The song works for the story's theme, but this is also in (belated) honor of the late, great singer-songwriter. Here he is looking grand on "Soul Train."


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