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Scott Timberg, spirited listener, reader and writer, is dead at 50

Scott Timberg
Scott Timberg, the former Times culture writer and “Culture Crash” author, died Dec. 10.
(From the Timberg family)

Scott Timberg, a ferocious listener and reader whose cultural appetites fueled his career as an author and journalist in Los Angeles and led him to question the future of the arts in the internet age, died Tuesday.

Timberg, 50, worked as a Los Angeles Times reporter for six years before writing “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class,” a 2015 book that examined how digital technology and economic polarization were damaging American cultural life. The book was energized by the author’s deep, broad enthusiasm for the arts, from the poetry of W.H. Auden to vintage guitars, but its roots were in Timberg’s own career reversals.

The sting of those disappointments, friends and family said, never seemed to fade.

“His death by suicide shocked us all while also silencing a voice of tremendous insight and eloquence about so, so many things that he loved,” wrote the writer’s brother, Craig Timberg, in a message to friends.

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“He was always discovering new things,” said Sara Scribner, Timberg’s wife. “He would have these incredible conversations with our Uber drivers.”

It was impossible, Scribner said, to comprehend that “a brilliant man completely devoted to the idea of being a good father, husband, brother, son and friend would take himself away from us. Scott was grappling with problems that very few people can understand. Please wrap your arms around the people you love. Hold them close.”

Word of Timberg’s death moved fast among local writers, journalists and musicians, sending many on searches for favorite Timberg articles and passages.

In a Los Angeles Magazine profile published in August on Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music and artistic director, Timberg followed the conductor to a speaking engagement and noted how “Dudamel never raised his voice above a murmur and did not say anything particularly memorable, but the crowd was as quiet and attentive as if Young Elvis had risen to address them. Like many who have spent a lot of time outside their native tongue, he communicates with gestures and eye contact as much as with words but never seems to play to the gallery. He’s focused. He’s there. He’s listening.”

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Author Janet Fitch tweeted Friday, “I am reeling from the brutal loss of Scott Timberg, his passion and humor and irascible clarity ... I will see aspects of the world through his eyes, always.”

Born in Palo Alto and mostly raised in Maryland, Timberg majored in English at Wesleyan University and earned his master of arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came west to work as an editor for New Times L.A. and joined the Los Angeles Times as a staff writer in 2002.

The position gave him a chance to roam the cultural landscape of Southern California and made him a familiar figure at concerts, readings and openings, rarely without a question to ask or opinion to share.

Timberg’s cultural explorations continued after The Times laid him off amid budget cuts in 2008, and the Timberg family had to relinquish their home. Timberg began to question conventional wisdom about the internet boosting opportunities for writers, artists, musicians and others.

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Between freelance assignments for clients including the New York Times, Timberg gradually assembled the manuscript that became “Culture Crash” and took it to Steve Wasserman, who edited the book for Yale University Press and now serves as publisher and executive director of Heyday.

The book, wrote reviewer Richard Brody in the New Yorker, is “a quietly radical rethinking of the very nature of art in modern life.”

Timberg’s lament for the creative class “seemed to have been written with a pen dipped into the inkwell of his own blood,” Wasserman said Friday. He called Timberg a man of “exquisite, promiscuous curiosities” whose death “is the moral equivalent of a book-burning.”

“He could write about music better than any other literary journalist, and he could write about literature better than any other music journalist,” said David Kipen, a friend, editor and founder of the nonprofit Boyle Heights lending library Libros Schmibros.

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“We started off debating the creative class & found we had much in common,” tweeted author Richard Florida, whose upbeat volume “The Rise of the Creative Class,” in part, provoked Timberg’s more somber book. “I was a huge admirer of his work and learned a ton from him.”

After writing “Culture Crash,” Timberg wrote for Salon and kept a busy schedule as a freelancer, writing for the Los Angeles Times, Vox and other outlets. He and his family moved out of state briefly — prompting a memorable bittersweet essay in Los Angeles Magazine — and then moved back.

For the Los Angeles Review of Books, he interviewed many musicians, including Rhiannon Giddens, Aimee Mann and Jeff Tweedy, about their literary influences.

“You could talk to him about virtually any subject,” wrote friend and author Ted Gioia. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who combined earnestness and enthusiasm (typically opposed traits) in such a high degree.”

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Timberg talked about Philip Larkin’s poetry with Martin Amis; Rimbaud’s with Patti Smith. Lately, while continuing to search in vain for the financial security of a lasting staff job, he had been collaborating with musician Richard Thompson with a book on Britain, folk rock and the end of the ’60s.

In Timberg’s company, Thompson wrote in an email, “casual conversations always turned into passionate, intellectual thrusts and ripostes on the nature of music, the comparative merits of musicians and styles, and occasional dips into a wide range of topics that certainly included history, geography and philosophy. Scott was never less than an enthusiastic champion of the good stuff, and a discerning critic of the junk.”

No matter how their book collaboration is received, Thompson said, “for me, it will always stand as a tribute to a fine writer and a good human being.”

“He was a brother in arms,” said Joe Donnelly, a longtime friend who served as Timberg’s editor at New Times L.A. in the early 2000s and is now visiting assistant professor of English and journalism at Whittier College. “We lost our jobs, our houses, and in some ways our identities in the recession and afterward … And he believed deeply in the value and necessity of having a place for artists and poets in the city, and what would be lost if we didn’t have a place for them … He was a fighter. That guy had steel in him ... His death is a casualty in the fight for the soul of the city.“

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Timberg is survived by his wife and their son, Ian, 13. Also surviving him are siblings Amanda Timberg in London, Sam Timberg in New York and Craig Timberg in Washington, D.C.; and his mother, Jane Timberg, in Maryland. He was predeceased in 2016 by his father, Robert Timberg, an author and longtime journalist for the Baltimore Sun. A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday at All Saints Church in Pasadena. A GoFundMe page, titled Scott Timberg memorial and college fund, has been established by family friend David Daley.


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