L.A. Now

Setting Times stories to music: From R.E.M. to David Bowie

One of this week’s Great Reads was about finding the little joys in the sometimes unlovable expanse that is Los Angeles.

The pair of indie-pop musicians in the story have created an app called Five Every Day – five things to see or do in L.A. daily. Inspired by that, I thought I’d list five of my own.

1) The signage of Chinatown. The pagoda-shaped neon outlining the entrance to a lantern-filled plaza. The ramshackle '50s diner look of Lucky Deli. The doorways with the names of unknown-to-me societies in small type.

2) Classic movies at Hollywood Forever cemetery. It’s hard to imagine a more quintessential L.A. experience than one I just had: watching “Goldfinger” surrounded by the graves of the famous, a full moon rising over palm trees, helicopters circling overhead.

3) Taking Malibu Canyon Road back from the beach. In those miles of wilderness, all rugged and solitary, it’s easy to forget that millions of people live over the ridges.

4) Your own backyard. Where else can you set up a portable turntable outside (as I did recently) and know it can stay there for the whole summer? This is America’s indoor-outdoor city, pretty much year round.

5) I’ll end with the obvious: the Hollywood Bowl. If you’ve fallen out of love with the city, or resisted its charms, go there. I’ve sat in movie producers’ boxes and way at the top in the dollar seats. It really doesn’t matter where you sit. Take a picnic and know it doesn’t get much better than listening to beautiful music under the Hollywood sign, the stars above (and around) you.

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!

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Monday’s Great Read:

Mexico City's 'Barrio Bravo' refuses to be conquered

Alfonso Hernandez stands before a mural of Jesus Christ being ferried on a lion-drawn carriage, trailed by Catholic bishops and priests. Behind them, scores of men in crisp suits — some smiling, some somber, one in dark shades — kneel as they watch the procession.

They are among the dead of Tepito.

“It's called the mural of the absent. They're people from here,” said Hernandez, a native of the famously tough — and famously untamable — Mexico City neighborhood. “These are people who died because of the drug wars. This is to remember them here and not just in the crime blotter of the newspapers.”

Hernandez is the chronicler of the “Barrio Bravo” — fierce barrio — where the whiff of danger hangs over even the simple act of walking down the street. (Walk with a purpose, he says. Avoid what locals call the “galleria walk.”)

By day, a vast, bustling marketplace sells items as varied as tripe tacos, freshly squeezed orange juice, Louis Vuitton knockoffs and illegal Chinese cigarettes stacked like Legos. By night, some of Tepito's streets are a bazaar of a different sort: drugs, guns and vice.
everything is for sale, locals like to say, but Tepito's dignity.

Hernandez, 70, whose day job is working for a government office, half-jokingly calls the tours he conducts here “the safari.”

He knows that aside from teaching outsiders about the neighborhood and hopefully humanizing it, he's also satisfying a need among many visitors to feel like they walked on the wild side and survived Tepito.

Tepito, he says, is a microcosm of Mexico, with its cultural richness, the warmth of its people, their sense of humor, their adroit improvisation in a place where few count on the government for their survival.

And then there's the rest.

“At the global level, Mexico is corrupt, governed by cartels, with incompetent officials,” Hernandez says. “The same thing that happens at the level of the country happens in Tepito. Why judge Tepito when Mexico is the Tepito of the world?”

#soundtrack: “Walk on the Wild Side,” by Lou Reed. Trying to imagine the reaction to this song when it came out 40 years ago.

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Tuesday’s Great Read:

For a 3-year-old boy, a risky operation may mean a chance to hear

Auguste is 3 years old, a charmer with big blue eyes, long lashes and a playful smile. He's wearing a T-shirt that says “Make some noise” and fiddling with his Etch A Sketch in a hospital exam room.

But when a doctor reaches toward his temple, he quickly releases the knobs and tilts his head. He knows what they're looking for. Behind each ear, under the skin, are cochlear implants — surgically implanted devices meant to help process sound.

But they didn't help Auguste.

He was born without an auditory nerve, the wire that ferries sound from the ear to the brain. He points out planes in the sky but can't hear their engines roar. He's never heard the voices of his 4-year-old sister or 1-year-old brother. He doesn't know the sound of his own name.

Now, a team of Los Angeles doctors and researchers believes it can help Auguste hear. But the device the team is testing will require surgeons to go much deeper into Auguste's skull, all the way to the brain.

Sophie Gareau, Auguste's mom, often tears up when she thinks about what's ahead.

“He's so perfect, you know?” she says. Her voice breaks. “I don't want anything to happen to him. But I am so convinced that it's going to work.”

#soundtrack: “Can You Hear Me,” by David Bowie. From the wonderful “Young Americans” album. I prefer the other side, but I have a sentimental attachment to this one.

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Wednesday’s Great Read:

Physicists, others using science to help art of film animation

In a small, utilitarian office in Glendale, Ron Henderson methodically jotted down equations for Isaac Newton's Three Laws of Motion on a whiteboard next to his desk.

The equations, the physicist explained, are the mathematical building blocks for constructing a three-dimensional, bubble-like sphere.

Henderson could easily have been preparing a lesson at Caltech, where he once was a faculty member. Instead, he was at DreamWorks Animation's Tuscany-style campus, doing his part to bridge the divide between art and science.

Henderson was explaining the math behind a fluid-simulation technology that would help artists working on the upcoming movie “Home” draw soap bubbles inhabited by a race of diminutive aliens called the Boov.

To give them visual references, Henderson and his team began by studying drawings and photos of soap films and bubbles last year. He invited a physicist colleague from San Jose State to give a lecture titled “Bubble Science.”

The physicist, Alejandro Garcia, took a low-tech approach. He arrived at the studio with boxes of liquid soap and party bubbles, using a plastic wand to fashion large bubbles for an audience of artists and technicians gathered at an outdoor amphitheater.

“He did cool things that we're not doing, like what happens when you make a soap bubble out of hydrogen and set it on fire?” Henderson said, chuckling. “What does that look like?” (The bubble made a loud boom and burst into a fireball when an assistant took a Tiki torch to it.)

That's the kind of thing that happens when the scientific set makes the move to the movies.
“What we're doing here is creating tools for artists,” Henderson said. “I think it's going to be a success.”

#soundtrack: “Imitation of Life,” by R.E.M. It even has a line about Hollywood.

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Thursday’s Great Read:

Owens Valley relic hunter not one to back down

Norman Starks, the anti-hero of Owens Valley, greeted a stranger at his door with something like a defiant haiku.

“Fifty-three Neanderthals,” he sputtered.

“Twelve hours.”

“I beat 'em twice.”

Starks stood on his decrepit porch surrounded by relics of a Native American civilization that once flourished in this valley. His home and yard were strewn with hundreds of prehistoric cutting tools, granite bowls, beads, rock etchings, arrowheads and grinding stones.

They are his trophies, the product of a life's obsession with gathering ancient artifacts from the surrounding lands — and they are the reason 53 federal agents raided his home last month on his 76th birthday.

Agents spent 12 hours rummaging through his century-old house, seizing artifacts they say he illegally dug up on public land.

“They made a real mess of things around here and scattered my prescription medicine bottles from hell to breakfast,” Starks grumbled.

“Thing of it is, I can explain everything, but the Neanderthals won't listen to me.”
He hasn't been listening to them, either.

The raid marked the third time in a decade that state and federal authorities have tried to end what they allege is his looting of the prehistoric items. The first two attempts failed.

Paiute-Shoshone tribal leaders and federal archaeologists say Starks has destroyed priceless cultural connections, along with scientific data that could help determine human behavior from the distant past.

Many of the items he has collected are sacred, they say, placed by loved ones at the graves of hunter-gatherers for use in the afterlife.

“What he's doing is heartbreaking, disrespectful and illegal,” said Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation. “It must stop.”

Not going to happen, Starks says. Spend a couple of days with him and it's easy to see why. His is a personality unacquainted with the concept of retreat.

He scoffs at the idea that the artifacts are sacred.

“The Indians that made this stuff didn't think it was anything special,” he said. “They used it and tossed it aside. It was just used junk to them.”

#soundtrack: “I Won’t Back Down,” by Tom Petty. Far from my favorite Petty song, but it sure does fit Norman Starks.

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Friday’s Great Read:

Pair live their passion for L.A., and share it with an app

Claire Evans is on a mission: to get you to love L.A. She’s come up with a jam-packed itinerary to show off the not-always-obvious magic of this sprawling, jumbled-up city — a hidden garden built as a labor of love by an Iranian immigrant, a taco stand that may or may not be able to serve you, a mini-train ride that gives you a glimpse of Walt Disney’s barn.

But right now she’s lost.

Somewhere around this tidy Atwater Village neighborhood with its square front yards and tired landscaping, there’s an entrance to the L.A. River — but where?

It’s one of those summer days when the thermometer reads 88 before 11 a.m., and her companions are starting to wilt. “But,” she says, running back from yet another dead end, “I promise it will be worth it!”

At the end of the third street she tries, she finds it. Not a dusty chain-link fence, but a lush, watery oasis flowing below her — a thrilling strip of real live nature running through the parched city landscape.

Evans and her boyfriend, Jona Bechtolt, hold hands as they cross the narrow pedestrian bridge over one of the only unpaved stretches of the L.A. River.

Going deep into L.A. can be exhausting, but for these urban appreciators, it’s worth it to see something totally unexpected in the city they call home.

Like Instagram-era Huell Howsers, Evans and Bechtolt are wide-eyed L.A. explorers, their love of the city fueled by a tireless enthusiasm and often expressed in exclamation points. Their mantra might be: “Get into it!”

The pair, members of an indie pop band, are dressed appropriately for their day of adventuring. Evans, tall and thin with short, platinum-blond hair, wears a T-shirt featuring the local punk legend X. Bechtolt, who has a ring of star tattoos on his right arm, wears rolled-up jeans and an Angelyne T-shirt bought from the self-created celebrity out of the back of her hot pink Corvette.

“L.A. rewards curiosity,” says Evans, 29. “It’s a big city and not everybody wants to go tromping all around. But if you allow yourself to cut out and through and across and between all these little micro-pockets and mini-cities, you feel like you are traveling through the universe, like you are a space explorer.”

#soundtrack: “Shangri-La,” by YACHT. This is Evans and Bechtolt’s band, and it could be their theme song. “If I can’t go to heaven/let me go to L.A.” Love the video.

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

@karihow

kari.howard@latimes.com

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