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Awash in Hyperbole and Special Reports Again

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You know how commercials are always telling us how useful the Donnelley Directory is, like maybe somehow phone numbers are better in it? Well, turns out the thing actually can prove useful.

Just the other week the new Donnelley Directory arrived on my doorstep, during one of the first days of rain. Water was pouring onto my front stoop through a gap in the masonry. I don’t have any sandbags, but darn if that directory didn’t fit right in there and stop up the gap. It’s still there, still doing the job.

I hope we’re finally past the disaster stage, so that if it should continue to rain, it will just be rain, instead of “the latest in a gauntlet of vengeful storms poised to again hammer the state viciously by lashing out with wrathful torrents of mud, death and inconvenience as apprehensive Angelenos brace for yet another wave of grim clouds bursting with the fury of a Mickey Rourke while further fronts are massing in the wings, ready to punish the Southland with gushers of liquid doom as. . . .”

In the old Sears catalogues there would sometimes be ads for Allstate Insurance with an illustration of all manner of residential loss taking place at a suburban ranch house: the garage is on fire while an elderly man trips on the brick walkway as burglars break a window and a tornado lifts off a corner of the roof while the dog is biting a tyke.

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Bummer, as we used to say. And it is truly a bummer that we’ve been whacked out by fire, earthquake and flood in recent days and months. But I’m getting worn out by this constant sense of crisis brought on by a few rain clouds, or “Storm ’95" as one TV news graphic has it. I mean, they had a flood in the Bible, but they didn’t put it on the cover. They just mentioned the thing in passing and got on with the begetting.

What are we now in California, professional victims? What’s the point? It isn’t like the whole state can go cash in on “Sally Jesse Raphael.” As a recent wave of storms entered its second week, one of my editors griped: “We had rain in Massachusetts too, but people didn’t die from it.”

We just have to do everything bigger and better here, or at least we’re made to believe so. Whole midwestern states can be underwater for weeks, where they need a diving bell just to go to Woolworth’s, and it’s given glancing attention on the news here. Meanwhile, we get a good hard rain and the Southland’s glut of camera crews are out there to bring us every swamped garage and washed-out patio deck.

And why, when it is hosing down rain here, do people act so surprised--two years in a row--when they get washed away just because they are sleeping in a dang riverbed?

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Do we need to post warning signs and make public service announcements?

Here:

DO NOT SLEEP IN A DANG RIVERBED WHEN IT’S HOSING DOWN RAIN.

All right?

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Everyone gets hysterical in these events. I got hysterical, catching my roof runoff in six trash cans and an executive-size zinc cattle tub I own for no good reason. I emptied these with buckets, while also digging a trench along the side of my house and knocking out a fence slat so water could drain out of my back yard. I did this for hours in the driving rain, all so water wouldn’t flow into my garage, which is jampacked with crud that largely deserves to get soaked. But somehow, I’d felt the need to go into crisis mode.

I blame the press for all this hysteria. Everyone else blames the press for everything, and I don’t see why we should miss out on the fun, just because we are the press. Besides, I’m not accepting any personal blame, because in this part of the paper we only handle entertainment news, and we tried to warn you about Milli Vanilli, didn’t we?

No, I’m talking about the serious press, like one local TV station which prefaced its lame coverage of the then-still-breaking and horribly tragic news of the thousands dead in the Kobe earthquake with, no kidding, teasers chirruping, “Coming up: Nine puppies who miraculously survived a cave-in, and Roseanne’s doctor gives her some stra-a-ange orders.” Yes, that serious press.

I’ve been thinking a bit about my profession, trying to get in order what it is I do and why, because last week a colleague and I spoke to a class of college journalism students. I think we carried it off pretty well, communicating to them the respect and passion we have for journalism without actually encouraging them to throw their lives away on a career in it.

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It isn’t a business in which to get rich. It’s not exactly filled with romance. If the movies have made you think it’s a glamorous profession, please compare the photo accompanying this column with one of Robert Redford, and bear in mind I’m not the dorkiest person here.

But even in the maligned journalistic branch we like to call rock criticism, the knowledge that you are going into a couple of hundred thousand newspapers can give one a sense of responsibility, and an amplified awareness of how all-too-human we journalists are.

My chosen field is largely one full of old men writing about young kids, kids who sometimes can scarcely play their instruments or articulate an idea. If you’re writing about something of no consequence, then by association you are inconsequential. But we all like to feel that what we do is important, so in much the same way rain becomes “Storm ’95,” these kids’ limitations become virtues, transformed into “musical innocence” and “the inarticulate rage of their alienated generation” in the critics’ eyes. Sometimes those are valid observations, sometimes just the emperor’s new clothes.

After years of trying desperately to be hip, I’d like to think I’ve given up on that conceit. Instead, I’ve come to regard the “cutting edge” as actually the safest place for a critic to be. If you can tout a work as controversial, in-your-face confrontational and out on the razor’s edge of social acceptability, you don’t necessarily have to address whether it works or not.

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I wouldn’t mind seeing Nine Inch Nails or whatever the next thing down the pike is, but I don’t feel at all miffed being sent to review graying acts that were miles from the “cutting edge” even when they were starting out decades ago.

Last week, for example, I was sent to see B.J. Thomas at the Crazy Horse Steak House. Thomas is not hip, never was and never will be, unless Quentin Tarantino resurrects “Hooked on a Feeling” in his next flick. Yet to me his performance had plenty of edge, because it had heart, warmth, humor and, crucially, a sense of being live , with even songs he’s sung thousands of times still open to change, a quality lacking in two-thirds of the new bands I hear.

To me, the most subversive message art can get across is that it’s OK to be alive, to be able to be moved, to feel things, to “be here now,” as Alan Watts used to say. The best music not only celebrates that, but also is a living example in its freedom and immediacy. And that is a real bear to try to translate into print, which is why you so often see critics write about how inspiring and compelling a show was in a thoroughly uninspired and non-compelling manner. At such times, we might as well be writing for the Donnelley Directory.


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