Setting Times stories to music: From Frank Black to David Bowie
“Los Angeles looks like a topographic map, its skyscrapers not worthy of their name.”
That line, from Monday’s Great Read, was one of my favorites of the past week and beyond. I loved the imagery, and the rhythm of the language. I also loved how it illuminated a truth about this city: Los Angeles isn’t a New York or a Hong Kong -- its beauty isn’t in the buildings reaching for the sky. Its beauty is in the topography.
Look around -- we have the mountains, the beaches, the deserts, the sea. But closest to my heart are the canyons. Does any other major city wrap itself around these rugged folds in the earth like Los Angeles? Laurel. Topanga. And dozens more not captured in the public imagination. Rustic places where you can see the city if you want, but can also feel a million miles away.
So many musicians have lived in them, especially Laurel Canyon, I’m surprised we have so few songs about canyon living. Help me: What is there beyond “Ladies of the Canyon,” by Joni Mitchell?
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-song combo!
Capturing the mysteries of the sun one drawing at a time
The elevator is less an elevator than an open-air bucket. In high winds, it wobbles and sways like an old amusement park ride. Today the air is still.
Steve Padilla clips on his safety harness and crouches on a small ledge inside the bucket. He yanks the tiller rope; the winch engages, and the century-old contraption begins its two-minute ascent 150 feet to the top of the tallest solar telescope on Mt. Wilson.
The sun, low and bright in the east, has washed away the pastels of dawn and cuts across the top of the forest. A maroon windbreaker wards off the morning chill. Only once, Padilla says, has the bucket stalled, leaving him stranded mid-journey.
He’s been making the trip for nearly 40 years, through Santa Anas and cold snaps, budgets cuts and shifts in research. Throughout it all, one part of the job has remained constant: the drawings.
Like cloistered monks in the Dark Ages who devoted hours of their lives to creating manuscripts that few could read, Padilla draws, maps and classifies the sunspots that have formed on this familiar star, adding to almost 28,350 daily drawings that date back to 1917.
Only fire, repairs and inclement weather have interrupted the record of the sunspots, which were once blamed for grain shortages and stock market runs and are now predictors of damaging solar flares.
#storysongs combo: “Staring at the Sun,” by TV on the Radio. A bit of a Peter Gabriel thing going on here.
Two worlds meet in Wyoming’s smallest town
They’re two men from nations once at war, faraway realms with starkly foreign languages, cultures and such opposing weather as frozen wind and tropical heat.
But these days, Don Sammons and Nguyen Dinh Pham prefer to concentrate on what they have in common: a tiny patch of real estate on the wind-swept plains of southern Wyoming.
In an auction that was also streamed online, Pham, a 38-year-old entrepreneur from Vietnam, bought a 10-acre property billed as the smallest town in America, a locale that traces its roots to the construction of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad 150 years ago.
For $900,000, he took over an isolated roadside stopover owned by Sammons — who served as the mayor, postmaster and proprietor of a gas station/trading post and five other buildings along Interstate 80, an hour and a half northwest of Denver.
Pham is using the spot to launch a coffee empire, selling strong-tasting Vietnamese brews to an American audience. In Sammons, he has an ally who remains dizzied by the relationship.
As a young man, Sammons, now 63, fought in the jungles of Vietnam. For now, he manages his old store, helping to market PhinDeli coffee, and plans to return to the country to learn the company’s coffee-making secrets.
“If you would have told me a few months ago I’d be selling this place to a Vietnamese citizen, I would not have believed you,” Sammons said.
#storysongs combo: “The Man Who Sold the World,” by David Bowie. I like the covers by Lulu and Nirvana, but have to stay loyal to Bowie. Here he is singing it 30 years after he wrote it (and still looking stunning, I might add).
Los Angeles Aqueduct bomber reveals his story
Mention the name Mark Berry to old-timers at Jake’s Saloon in Lone Pine and you get winks and knowing smiles.
His treacherous exploit has been whispered around the Owens Valley for nearly four decades, though Berry never talked much about it with anyone.
On a warm autumn afternoon recently, Berry settled into a lawn chair under a massive shade tree behind his home in the eastern Sierra. He took a deep breath and told a story few know the truth about.
“It wasn’t a planned deal,” said Berry, now 54. “I was an impressionable kid at the time, just 17.”
Berry and his friend, Robert Howe, were caught up in the anger that then hung over the Owens Valley. The environmental damage caused by the Los Angeles Aqueduct, built in the early 1900s to divert much of the water from the region to the growing metropolis 200 miles away, was worsening and Owens Valley residents were exasperated.
“Things got out of hand,” Berry recalled.
The friends stole two cases of dynamite and headed to the aqueduct.
#storysongs combo: “Olé Mulholland,” by Frank Black. The song by the Pixies frontman even has a man’s voice saying what I believe are Mulholland’s words: “The concrete of the aqueduct will last as long as the pyramids of Egypt or the Parthenon of Athens.”
Trick or treat for science: Kids become test subjects
Each year, Halloween is a massive operation at Dean Karlan’s house, drawing in members of his family, particularly his 13-year-old daughter, Maya.
Maya’s enthusiasm for Halloween knows few bounds. She makes her own costumes: a castle with a working drawbridge, a full-color traffic light with a flashlight inside to switch signals. She’s been known to spend the whole year thinking about her next get-up.
“Normally I plan my Halloween costumes the day after Halloween,” Maya said. “I get very excited.”
But this year, the bubbly eighth-grader is giving up her trick-or-treat time — and her idea of dressing as a toaster — to help out at home, where the real action is.
At Maya’s house, the children marching inexorably through the darkness toward the promised candy will get their treats. But as they climb the creaking stairs of the Karlans’ porch, they’ll also do something else: become test subjects in a one-night science experiment.
No need to be spooked. Karlan, a Yale University behavioral economist, just taps into a rare study population with a guaranteed turnout: trick-or-treaters.
For seven years, hundreds of children have been lining up in front of his home to answer questions from clipboard-carrying college students, and then choose their candy. Though they may not realize it, the answers they give and the sweets they pick offer the scientists fresh insight into theories about children’s thinking, development, even their politics.
#storysongs combo: “Trick or Treat,” Otis Redding. “If you love me, don’t say you like me. If you like me, don’t say you love me.” Words to live by, Mr. Redding.
Effort to ID immigrants’ corpses is gratifying — and sad
The forensic anthropologist lifted a thighbone from the skeleton arrayed on her metal lab table and studied the fine cracks traversing its surface, gray and weathered as driftwood.
Associate professor Lori Baker, 44, set the bone down and cradled the man’s skull, its silver canines gleaming. She pointed to the eye sockets; they had been pecked, probably by vultures. Baker had recovered the remains from a ranch near the Mexico border. Judging by the skeleton’s size, shape and worn hip joints, she said, it probably belonged to a middle-aged Central American laborer.
Last year, U.S. border officials saw a significant increase in migrant deaths to 463, the second-highest total in 15 years; more than half were in Texas, often without identification.
Many Texas counties do not have medical examiners, so identifying the dead falls to the justice of the peace or funeral homes. Some can’t afford the expense of identifying the dead. In one county that has seen a sharp rise in such deaths, it costs at least $750 to transport remains, and another $2,000 for an autopsy.
Baker has made it her mission to meet the need, driven as much by faith as by science.
She opened a lab in 2002 at Baylor University in Waco and assembled scientists and a rotating cast of students who over the last decade have analyzed and extracted DNA from 278 sets of remains and identified 70 of them.
Last summer, Baker and her students took a trip south, expecting to excavate about two dozen migrant remains; instead, they recovered about 120.
She still remembers her first case. In 2003, Pima County, Ariz., had seen a growing number of Mexican immigrants dying in the desert. Baker offered to help. The bones had been found near a voter registration card, which the local consulate used to track down a family who volunteered saliva for DNA samples. Baker extracted DNA from the bones, and it matched.
Rosa Cano Dominguez, 32, was a mother of two from the Yucatan region who had been traveling to work in the Pacific Northwest when she sprained her ankle. She was abandoned by smugglers.
Baker was pregnant at the time and was struck by all she shared with Cano: They were both in their 30s, both working mothers from poor, less-educated families.
“I cried and cried over that case,” she said.
#storysongs combo: “Across the Border,” by Bruce Springsteen. Such yearning for the land of hope and dreams.
If you have ideas for story-song pairings of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATgreatreads with the hashtag #storysongs.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.