Setting Times stories to music: From the Smiths to R.E.M.

By Kari Howard

These songs are a personal soundtrack for this week’s wonderful Column Ones, but one below is featured on an actual soundtrack, for the Danny Boyle movie “The Beach.”

The band is called Underworld, and Boyle has used them for several of his films, not to mention the completely brilliant soundtrack for the London Olympics he produced last summer. (I can die happy: I’ve heard the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” at the Olympics.)

But Boyle’s movies have always had some of the best soundtracks. Perhaps matched only by Quentin Tarantino. And I have a soft spot for Wes Anderson’s musical choices. (My favorite music moment ever in a film might be in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” where the henchman character voiced by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker is singing a silly song and his bad-guy boss, voiced by Michael Gambon, says: “That’s just weak songwriting! You wrote a bad song, Petey!”)


Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each 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. A story-song combo!


Monday’s Column One:

Online music lessons in the key of see

Talc Tolchin ducks into the music studio he built behind his Marin County cottage, where the sun filters through a towering redwood tree and his daughter has dotted the flower beds with fairy houses. It’s time for his next piano lesson.

An hour’s drive northwest of San Francisco, this woodsy town tucked among rolling golden hills claims only 500 or so dispersed residents. But not all of Tolchin’s students are close by. When it’s time to greet his second student on a recent Friday, he reaches for the laptop perched on his upright piano and summons her — via Skype.

Madeline Sheron pops up, peering at Tolchin from under her dark bangs. They banter — about an app that offers piano, bass and drum accompaniment, adjusted for groove and tempo. Then they dive into “All of Me,” the song Sheron had chosen in hopes of mastering jazz improvisation.

Her computer camera is aimed over her shoulder and Tolchin watches her left hand as it bops from sevenths to thirds. Tolchin has two cameras — one mounted on the ceiling so students can watch his hands, the other trained on his face.

“Go, girl!” he exclaims, tapping his foot as she masters the first turnaround.
Sheron was 200 miles away, in the Sierra Nevada ski town of Truckee. But she could just as well have been across the globe.

#storysongs combo: “My Foolish Heart,” by Bill Evans, my favorite pianist. In this video, you can see him hunched over the keys, inhabiting the song.


Tuesday’s Column One:

A billiards pro who sinks them all

The billiards joint is hazy with cigarette smoke as fans on metal bleachers lean in toward the action. Max Eberle stands over his shot, oblivious to the buzzing crowd and wandering waitresses, his mind’s eye focused on the miniature cosmos before him.

The veteran pro player views the pool table as his own universe, its colorful planetary orbs propelled across a green-felt solar system. His break is the Big Bang, the sheer force of the stroke bending the maple cue stick into a cartoonish curve.

He paces the 7-foot-long table, mentally assessing the physics of spin and the geometry of angles crucial to running a rack. There’s a grace to his movements as he sets up a series of bank and spin shots, the cue stick’s follow-through pure and straight, commanding the cue ball to stop dead, careen sideways or strike with premeditated violence.

Just hours before, Eberle eclipsed a fellow pro known as King Kong, harking back to an old moniker, “No Mercy Max,” running 54 balls straight while his opponent never touched his cue.
His present foe, a player in a baseball cap and graying beard, is faring no better.

Another break, another run in this first-to-win-six-games nine-ball match. Like a spectator, the other guy can do nothing but sit and watch.

Then Eberle hits a difficult spin-rail shot. The crowd hushes as someone whispers: “Whoa.”

#storysongs combo: “Eight Ball,” by trance music group Underworld. “Today I saw a man/with a flaming eight ball tattooed on his arm.”


Wednesday’s Column One:

WWII poster calls for calm; now it stokes frenzy, feud

Has a piece of advice ever seemed so apt, or so frightfully ironic?

Thirteen years ago, Stuart Manley stumbled upon a slightly faded red poster tucked at the bottom of a box of books he had bought at auction. Unfolding it, he found himself staring at a relic of World War II, a long-forgotten piece of government propaganda bearing the logo of the British crown and this pithy message:

Keep calm and carry on.

Charmed by its classic design and no-fuss stoicism, Manley and his wife, Mary, framed the vintage poster and hung it up by the cash register in their secondhand bookshop in a disused Victorian train station in the far north of England. After many admiring comments and inquiries from customers, Manley started selling copies — behind Mary’s back, because she didn’t want to commercialize it.

Ahem. Enter perhaps the most commercialized British product since David Beckham.

Manley’s little side venture spawned a marketing and cultural phenomenon, inspiring a million imitations around the world (“Keep calm and kill zombies,” anyone?) and also, alas, one very acrimonious feud.

#storysongs combo: “Panic,” by the Smiths. Thought I’d go for the flip side of that famous Brit stoicism. And in my book, the Smiths are as much a British treasure as the Keep Calm poster.


Thursday’s Column One:

Migrants find torture, death in the Sinai

He counted his scars at the desert’s edge.

Scabbed electrical burns, purple splotches etched by chains, a map of blisters raised by candle wax dripped across his back. His captors threatened to bury his body beneath the sand and stars. They had buried others, he knew. They held him down and called his family in Eritrea.

“Thirty-three thousand dollars for your boy’s freedom.”

“That amount,” said his father, a cattle herder, “is bigger than our dreams.”

Frezzghi Geremedhin left his East African village 15 months ago, an army deserter believing a better future as a driver or a laborer awaited him in Sudan. He was kidnapped there, smuggled into Egypt, ferried across the Suez Canal, handed over to Bedouin tribesman and chained to another African.

“I only wanted to change my life,” he said.

The deserts of the Sinai Peninsula do not grant wishes. This land of stick huts and nomads has long been untamed, but any inkling of government order vanished after the revolution that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s police state. Islamist militants roam, smugglers hold sway and crimes are absolved or punished by ancient codes of tribal justice.

#storysongs combo: “Barra Barra,” by Rachid Taha. The Algerian-born singer apparently wrote this about his homeland’s government. But I looked up the translation from the Arabic and thought its theme of pitilessness and enslavement fit the story perfectly.


Friday’s Column One:

A day in the strawberry fields seems like forever

About 30 minutes into my job as a picker, the strawberry fairy left her first gift.

On one of the beds of berries that seemed to stretch forever into the Santa Maria marine layer, Elvia Lopez had laid a little bundle of picked fruit.

She and the other three dozen Mexican immigrants in the field were bent at an almost 90-degree angle, using two hands to pack strawberries into plastic containers that they pushed along on ungainly one-wheeled carts.

They moved forward, relentlessly, ever bent, following a hulking machine with a conveyor belt that spirited away their fruit. But Lopez, a 31-year-old immigrant from Baja California, knew I was falling behind.

And she responded with an act of kindness.

Like the other women, Lopez wore a cap, several layers of clothing and a bandanna over her face to protect her from dust — and, she said, to keep her complexion nice.

I wore the uniform of the other men: jeans, a tad too baggy so that I kept having to pull them up; a sweat shirt with a hoodie and a jacket over it; a baseball cap; and dusty, steel-toed work boots that a daddy long-legs had called home.

But even if I was dressed like the other workers, the clothes felt like a disguise. As soon as I opened my mouth, my fluent but American-sounding Spanish, not to mention my baby-soft hands, gave me away.

#storysongs combo: “Finest Worksong,” R.E.M. Yes, the obvious choice would have been the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” But this suits the mood of the story more. “What we want and what we need/has been confused.”


If you have ideas for story-song pairings of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATimesColumn1 with the hashtag #storysongs.

Twitter: @karihow