Thursday, February 26, 2009

Eagle Rock and Bourgeois Bohemia Imperiled

ON a crisp winter day, with snow glinting on the san gabriel mountains, air cleansed by a recent rain, and mighty oak trees looming over the quiet streets above colorado blvd, eagle rock can seem like the kind of place '60s bands used to write songs about. but these days, people aren't singing -- or if they are, it's in a bittersweet key.

over the last few years northeast LA has become a kind of socal brooklyn, with craftsmans and palm trees instead of  brownstones and maples. but things are slowing here as they are everywhere else. HERE is my new york times story on this neighborhood and how it may or may not survive the recession. (and here is a brief piece from the LAT written for the 2007 opening of larkin's, a new-wave soul food joint.)

i only regret that the tight pages of a newspaper means i didnt have room to mention by name some of the places that give ER its identity -- whether old (casa bianca pizza) or new (colorado wine company, auntie em's bakery/cafe, vegeterian restaurant fatty's, cool bar the chalet.)

my story suggests that this and other neighborhoods will suffer with the economic downturn -- this is a case where i am entirely happy to be wrong.

tonight, by coincidence, is what i hope is not the last-stand of hipster culture in eagle rock: the elusive kogi korean/taco truck is parking outside colorado wine co. to accompany a massively sold out tasting.

it looks like ABC news may be following the story as part of a larger package about the awful california economy.

what do my distinguished readers expect will happen to this and other on-the-verge eastside LA neighborhoods?

Photo credit: Flickr user 30 and Colorado Wine Company

Scott Walker: Icon of Obscurity

NOW HERE is a guy who made nick drake look gregarious. 

back in the 60s, scott walker was part of british boy band the walker brothers -- the most popular group, in their day, you've never heard of. but it's the moody, heavily orchestrated records he made after leaving the trio that made him a huge influence on everyone from david bowie to brian eno to laurie anderson and jarvis cocker. my story, which includes conversations with some of those, here.

walker's music is a bit static for me -- tho i admire the nerve of a guy who writes a (dead serious) song about a bergman movie. scott had the best 60s style of any rocker this side of john lennon. lots of great shots of him brooding behind shades and a scarf -- this would be my sartorial signature year-round if i could pull it off -- taken over the years by the london-to-LA photographer chris walter.

any scott fans out there?

Photo credit: Chris Walter

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Retro Rock Posters and The Small Stakes

OVER the last few year i've been turned on to a new wave of poster design that relies on '40s book jackets, minimalism and mid-century fonts for its effects. much of this stuff is rock posters, even though the visual language comes almost entirely outside rock n roll. i'll take it over the psychedelic nightmare of the fillmore school or the robert-williams blazing-eyeball-on-a-hotrod school -- any day of the week.

one of my favorite designers is jason munn, whose work with the small stakes is simple and bracing. here is my story on munn in sunday's LAT.

other favorites of mine includes heads of state, jeff kleinsmith and LA's own cole gerst, whose work -- slightly less crisp and more folk-arty -- i've also displayed here.

Photo credit: The Small Stakes and option-g

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wallace Stegner and the American West

THOUGH he's best known for his novels, wallace stegner's non-fiction, especially his essays, are among the wonders of the american west... here is a fine NYT piece by northwest correspondent timothy egan on the occasion of the great writer's 100th birthday. (stegner was born 60 years before yours truly, almost to the day.)

the subject of egan's piece is stegner's assertion that the literary west was being overlooked by the new york/east coast literary establishment. i get into some of this in an LAT piece here, which includes an interview with philip fradkin, author of the bio, just out in paperback, to the right. i also speak briefly to renowned poet/farmer wendell berry.

stegner has become a patron saint of resentful westerners, which i find myself some days becoming. but what's sometimes overlooked is that he was, like all good writers, a critic and conscience of his region as well. as stegner pointed out, the west had more than its share of local-boosterism, and this is part of what kept the east from taking its claims seriously. 

my favorite line of stegner's comes from this side of his intellect: that the relationship of the rural west to washington, dc (the other axis of that dreaded eastern establishment) is "leave us alone and send us more money."

on a day when stegner's beloved state of california has struggled against homegrown anti-tax zealots to get a budget signed, and is still more than $40 billion in the hole -- and waiting for assistance from, ah, washington and its tax revenues -- the man seems more prescient than ever!

Photo credit: Amazon

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

American Newspapers and the Los Angeles Times

OVER the last few months, the only thing i've heard more than Thomas Jefferson's line -- that he would rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers -- is people telling me they plan to cancel their LA Times subscription.

i can't say i'm surprised by this -- the paper has become a poster child of bad ownership recently, and it's lost so many talented staffers, in some cases in a heartless manner, i wont even get started.

but it always saddens me when people do that -- not only because it hurts the whole culture when people do that, but because this (falling subscription rates) is what got us into this mess in the first place, and will get us deeper if people keep doing it.

these issues and more are dealt with very incisively in this New Republic story by my former colleagues Joe Mathews, who like me comes from a journalism family. 

Joe begins the story wondering, Should i cancel my LAT subscription? he asks, and then: what is lost when a paper and its news gathering operation fades away? 

Photo credit: Superstock

Monday, February 16, 2009

New "Lost" Story by John Cheever

I'm pleased to direct my distinguished readers' attention to a story only recently unearthed called "Of Love: A Testimony." the story was part of cheever's first story collection, from 1943,fell out of print for decades,  and it's now up on the site, which is typically dedicated to work of contemporary authors.

(this post is also the latest in my "WASP writers of the 20th c" series. good scotch and unseasoned food will be served.)

cheever watchers should know that blake bailey, author of "a tragic honesty," the acclaimed richard yates' biography, will soon publish is cheever bio, and the library of america will put out everything the bard of westchester ever wrote, edited by bailey.

i cant think of too many writers who've given me more reading pleasure than cheever. discovered him not in college or grad school, where he is very rarely taught, but while living in a WASP milieu in connecticut -- it would be a commonplace to say that his work transcends that setting. what i most admire about cheever's work is his control, his insistence on making every sentence nearly perfect and elegant, and his ability to bring things to a persuasive emotional pitch. simply unbelievable writer -- the art tatum or teddy wilson of the short story.

curious what my readers thing of this new (old) one.

Photo credit: Flickr user 25

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Yiyun Li, "The Vagrants" and China's Cultural Revolution

This sunday i have a piece in the LAT on author Yiyun Li, a native of China now living in Oakland -- and her new novel, "The Vagrants," which is quite beautifully observed as well as brutal in the tale it tells. some of you may know her from her exquisite short stories, which have a bit of william trevor to them.

interested to read a bit of the book? this will take you to an excerpt published on

the profile is the latest of what i'm calling my "writers in peril" series. (this was especially true when she was in peril with US immigration.)

the week i spoke to her, it seemed like every cultural figure i was dealing with was chinese.

Photo credit: Flicr user 24

Roberto Saviano and "Gomorrah"

THE italian journalist roberto saviano has become famous for his book blowing the roof off the neapolitan mob, which is bigger, older and likely more deadly than the sicilian mafia.

Here is my interview with saviano, who has been under police protection since late 2006. his book is pretty incredible, and full of ideas and analysis in the way some of these tough you-are-there books arent. we talked a bit about his literary influences -- truman capote, primo levi, the journalists who reported on the nazi concentration camps.

dude had old neighbors in southern italy push him out of his house for "bringing shame" to his native region, he's survived a death threat from a mob that wanted him dead by last christmas, he's been abandoned by many of his friends.

(i will never again complain about my life as a struggling freelance writer.)

the film of "gomorrah," a cannes grand prix winner, opened in LA and New York yesterday.

Photo credit: Flickr user 23

Friday, February 13, 2009

Airborne Toxic Event and Indie Rock

last night i saw the L.A. band Airborne Toxic Event at the henry fonda/music box here in L.A. (i probably should have posted on this the day >before<, rather then the day after, but i got distracted reminiscing about old girlfriends.) airborne is well known to local indie watchers -- they take their name from a phrase of don delillo's (in "white noise"), the lead singer, who is also a nabokov-loving writer, went through a series of terrible trials, etc.

here is my story on the band from a few months ago.

the show was even better than i'd expected. for a veteran of the '90s indie scene like myself, they come across as a throwback -- they are indie without being smug, ironic or too cool for school. in some ways they remind me more than anything of 80s british bands like new order or echo and the bunnymen who were into drama and big explosions of earnest passion and weren't afraid to dance now and again. (some of their songs, with their mix of noise and tunefulness, recall the pixies, as well, tho they have none of that menace.) steven chen, the band's kickass guitarist, told me he's very interested in E+B guitar player will sergeant.

i think, though, that all too much has been made of how grounded the group is in other, older music. indie rock is a circumscribed language, one that now has 25 or 30 years of roots if you begin in the early "alternative" or post-punk years, and a band dedicated to an indie aesthetic is going to echo other bands. they are not nearly as deritivative, say, as the strokes.

in any case, they are among the smartest, most down to earth musicians i've interviewed and it's nice to see the show as strong as the record. bonus points: they brought out the calder quartet, which has a family relation to airborne. here is my piece on the young chamber group, from several years back. sometimes a classical/rock fusion doesnt work (see: art rock) but this mostly did.

Photo credit: Flickr user 22

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Great Makeout Records and Happy Valentine's Day

Please forgive me a bit of cheesecake, folks, as i celebrate Valentine's Day, a bogus holiday that i learned the hard way (with a college girlfriend i considered too bohemian to care about such a hallmark inspired custom) not to ignore.

i guess today i am feeling something to lift the spirits after looking at all that east german cold-war art. so today i'm going to be building a list of great makeout records, and i hope my distinguished readers will jump in and contribute.

1) Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue": this is probably the most celebrated, the most famous, and bestselling of jazz records. it may lead to a slightly abstract makeout session -- this was the key recording of what's called "modal" jazz and miles was of course the coolest of trumpeters -- but it's always worked for me. fans of this might look for dexter gordon's "one flight up."

2) Air, "Moon Safari": a truly otherworldly record that surrounds the listener in a very mellow 70s-sci-fi-movie glow... one of the greatest-ever downtempo records and one that this french duo has never come close to topping.

3) "Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster": This meeting of two of the finest swing-era tenor men is easily one of the 10 greatest jazz records ever. it's also well suited for our purposes here: the first song is a barrelhouse blues that evokes a 1920s speakeasy, the rest of romantic, rhapsodic and gentle. the only thing that keeps it from being perfect is that it is a bit too short. so put it on "repeat."

4) Mazzy Star, "Among My Swans": perhaps a little heroin chic, but one of the sexiest bands of the 90s. blitzed-out white noise with great jaded female vocals. see also: joy zipper's sublime second record.

5) "The Supreme Al Green": okay, this one's obvious, but soul doesnt get any sweeter than this. many '70s al green records would do the trick, and marvin gaye's "let's get it on" would be a very close runner up.

6) Carla Bruni, "Someone Told Me": this has a french title which i will never spell right. pretend you are president sarkozy (okay scratch that) with this debut record by the lovely and talented italian-born model... not sure she has the depth of rival chaunteuse keren ann (love her "not going anywhere" lp), but this one is plenty suited to the task.

7) Chopin "Nocturnes": some of the first classical music i ever responded too -- music doesnt get any "dreamier" than this. for a high-class makeout session. the first version of this i ever heard was by the portugese/brazilian pianist maria pires, but of course the classic recordings, by rubinstein, are insurmountable. 

8) Cassandra Wilson, "Loverly": this eclectic and sultry voiced singer became known in the 90s for unconventional jazz treatments of songs outside the jazz canon --  neil young, robert johnson. a major boundary-pushing impulse. but her latest record, "loverly," reminds me of how good she is with jazz standards like "lover come back to me," "the very though of you," and so on. i was just given this by my valentine and took it upon myself to beta-test it -- let's just say i'll have good memories of this record for a long time.


And on the topic of Valentine's Day, here is a fascinating Slate story about increasingly sex during the recession that gives us a new phrase: "Make love, not reservations."

Photo credit: SuperStock 

Monday, February 9, 2009

Postwar German Art, Mexican Printmaking and LACMA

The other day i made my first concentrated trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a very long time. in the last year or two i'd walked along the campus with architect renzo piano as he talked about upcoming renovations, and i attended the blowout opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, but this was my first visit as as civilian in quite a while. it also may be that only time i've been to lacma ever and wished i had more time to take in what was available. even with a big gallery closed off for installation there was plenty to see.

first stop was the latin-american art collection. this will be old news for some, but cuban-born sculptor's jorge pardo's redesign of the pre-columbian galleries is smartly and crisply modern; that collection has never looked so good. (tho in the contemporary department, probably a bit heavily weighed with work by francis alys.) my favorite of the 20th century latin am art was the prints/woodcuts of the TGP, or People's Print Workshops, a post-revolutionary group begun in 1937. very fine batch of postwar abstraction by artists like joaquin torres-garcia and carlos merida.

museum trips in college brought me to a love of german expressionism, where urban scenes were reframed on a fractured or shattered plane -- to me this was more urgent than most of the genteel-seeming french work i was seeing at the time. my love of german art took me to the "art of two germanys: cold war cultures" show, the first exhibit to be set up in the new BCAM. 
(here is christopher knight's LAT review, and here is the NYT calling the show "a coup for this california institution.")

far too much to say about this very powerful show here, but i'll mention, first, that werner heldt is a painter and draughtsman i hadnt known who embodies everything i like about german art. 

second, sigmar polke and gerhard richter's  "capitalist realism" -- austere germany, after decades of poverty, hitler and war, got hit so hard so fast by consumerism in the '50s that its artists came up with some of the sharpest critiques -- is especially well represented. richter's famous "uncle rudi" is there, and some of his abstractions.

as i said, so much to see i'll have to go back soon.

Photo credit: LACMA and Public domain

Friday, February 6, 2009

John Updike Redux

There's so much to say about the prolific john updike that i've filed a second story... and still didnt have room to get into topics like his take on male sexuality, his very funny Bech books, or his very fine art and book criticism. (his new yorker review of "my name is red" turned me on to turkish writer orhan pamuk, for instance.)

this piece came out of something i noticed over the years: when interviewing writers -- especially younger ones, experimentalists, literary science-fiction types, or west coast partisans -- i could often set my watch by how long it took them to knock udpike. it was a way of saying, "i dont do that stodgy, patriarchal realist stuff."

some of this, i imagine, is the usual generational warfare, as bret easton ellis suggests in my piece: eliot and his generation of modernists tore into the entire romantic tradition just as punk rockers initially  dismissed almost the entire school of '60s songcrafted that preceded them. but there's more to it than that.

anyway, hope readers enjoy the piece and i welcome comments. i must admit that in college, where i was a thomas pynchon devotee, i had some sympathy for the anti-updike argument.

Photo credit: Flictr user 19

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Fresh view of Narnia

As a kid, i loved the first few books of c.s. lewis's narnia series... until i realized that they were actually christian propaganda. (my religious education was slight enough that it took me a while to even figure out the whole aslan-christ symbol part.)  

it was years before i forgave lewis, and my sense of those books never entirely recovered. i was drawn mightily into tolkien, "dune," vonnegut and others, and didnt much look back until the film of "the lion, the witch and the wardrobe" reminded me what an evocative writer lewis was. (let me recommend his book on the finite universe of the medieval worldview, "the discarded image.")

turns out i wasnt alone in feeling cheated, and laura miller -- who serious readers know as an erudite and beautifully clear literary critic whose work appears in -- addresses the issue in her wonderful new "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

the book, a kind of combined work of literary criticism, author biography and memoir, will be intriguing even to those who dont share my childhood atheism: miller gets into why we read, why children love animals, the bond between reader and writer, british masculinity, the friendship between lewis and tolkien, the moral of slasher films, her discussions with neil gaiman,  and so on.

her book, then, is an intellectual journey of the best kind. and it's driving me back to lewis's series, which has recently -- with fox planning to film "voyage of the dawn treader" -- gotten a new lease on its cinematic life.

Photo credit: Little, Brown and Flickr user 18

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Death of a Cramp

Well folks, normally i would not offer two posts on punk rock in the same week, much less the same day, but these aren't normal times.

Today, Lux Interior, lead singer for the band The Cramps, died (fine LAT story here). ohio native erick purkhiser became part of the CBGB punk scene and moved to california. (when i bought a house four years ago i realized i lived one street over from him and cramps guitarist poison ivy -- on the edge, natch, of one of LA's biggest cemeteries) ... the cramps combined punk, camp, rockabilly, surf guitar, sex, horror movie shtick and bizarre popcult references -- it was screamin' jay hawkins meets the ventures with punk-rock force. here they are with "tear it up."

lux reportedly died of "a preexisting heart condition" at the age of either 60 or 62.

they cramps were among the first bands i discovered as a teenager moving on from my obsession with the beatles and dylan into a harder-edged and more contemporary sound... tho the world of the cramps was never my world. i remember the excellent liner notes to either "gravest hits" or "songs the lord taught us," which described the band's germinating in "the cold blue rays of 50s television," or something. they captured the weird irony i came to love about the LA scene.

lux, RIP, we hardly knew ya!!

Photo credit Flickr user 17

Ex-Sex Pistol, Indie 103 and "Mr. Rock Steady"

Many Angelenos were disappointed recently when, without warning, the radio station Indie 103 closed up shop and moved onto the Internet. i must admit, i was always suspicious of the station because of its early links to clear channel, and i'm more a kcrw kind of guy anyway.

but i always enjoyed "jonesy's jukebox," the show by former sex pistols guitarist steve jones. (the huge amount of attention given to johnny rotten and sid vicious had led to jones, one of the main architects of the punk guitar style, being an undersung figure, though that has certainly changed of late.)

Here is a fine piece by my old LAT colleague geoff boucher on the station, jonesy and his next chapter.

part of my debt to jones comes from him turning me on to ken boothe. (jamaican music was of course almost the only kind of musical history that punks were allowed to admit to liking. the clash changed this a bit with london calling.) he spun "it it because i'm black" one day while i was driving around and i was delighted to realize there was a major rocksteady/reggea singer whose music i did not know, with a voice almost as sweet as the heavenly alton ellis.

Here's the Boothe song, which i take it from the lovely imagery was a B-side of his cover of Marvin Gaye's "let's get it on." and here's "everything i own," a number one hit in the UK in 1974 and the title track to a very fine 2-cd collection on trojan.

Photo credit xx and Flickr user 16

Monday, February 2, 2009

John Updike and Hollywood

It's been a very hard year or so for major writers -- we lost norman mailer near the end of 07, david foster wallace last year and now, last week, john updike. (and my boyhood hero kurt vonnegut a little further back.)
here is the first of two stories of mine on updike -- it ran in the new hollywood site the wrap. my editor there is the fiendishly talented maria russo, who i wrote for at the LA Times.

the story tries to answer the question, why weren't there more movies, and perhaps more good movies, from the work such a prolific, long-lived and lyrical writer? 

any other hunches?

Photo credit: Flickr user 15