RECENTLY I had the pleasure to speak to two of the heroes of '90s indie LA, Stew and Heidi Rodewald. The duo -- then known as The Negro Problem -- have since moved to New York and become "show folk" with the musical Passing Strange. Spike Lee made it into a movie.
HERE is my story on the past and future of Stew and The Negro Problem.
Two LA shows -- Saturday at the Getty and Tuesday at the Echoplex -- are their first in five (!) years. See you there.
LOCAL culture vultures know Denise Hamilton for her work as a journalist and mystery writer. She's also edited two anthologies of crime fiction, Los Angeles Noir and its sequel, for Akashic Press.
The city of Glendale has just chosen the first book, made up mostly of new writing, as part of its One City/ One Book program. (The book includes pieces by Gary Phillips, Naomi Hirahawa, Michael Connelly, Janet Fitch and others.)
Here is my interview with Hamilton when LA Noir came out -- she speaks quite intelligently about the importance of tradition while recognizing that the changing art form and much changed city make it feeble to fall back on familiar fedora-and-dahlia imagery.
THE international explosion of the Millennium trilogy -- which begins with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -- remains baffling even to those who know and love the books. In fact, even Sonny Mehta, the Knopf head who brought the books to the States, considers their popularity a happy enigma.
HERE is my piece in today's LA Times about the books and their world takeover. (The story is timed to tomorrow's release of the third and presumably final of the Swedish films made from the books. David Fincher's first Girl is still to come; after seeing The Social Network I am impressed with Rooney Mara.)
A lot of the success, most agree, comes down to heroine Lisbeth Salander.
Salander – the survivor of an abusive childhood who resembles a Goth Pippi Longstocking – is a withdrawn, sometimes violent, sexually kinky computer hacker with a dark charisma. In the novels she collaborates, often warily, with Mikael Blomkvist, a left-wing investigative journalist who in many ways resembled Larsson himself. Noir authority Otto Penzler calls her “the most interesting character I’ve read since Hannibal Lecter.”
I should make clear that while I see these books as in some ways unlikely success stories, they're terrific. They're not without flaw, but when the plot engages they're like Henning Mankell's atmospheric Wallander books on speed. It's gratifying to see long, at times difficult books -- in translation, no less -- generate this kind of intense and widespread following.
It will be even more satisfying to see readers move on to Nordic crime writers like Mankell, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo, and so on.
Readers curious about these books and their characters -- and politics -- should check out this this smart and analytical essay by crime-fiction critic/blogger Sarah Weinman.
IS Built to Spill the best indie rock band going? That's always hard to say. But of the indie bands that broke in the 90s, this Boise collective that resembles a team of lumberjacks has put on the most consistently inspiring shows I've seen. With their two- and three-guitar attack, they manage to take interplay to places even Television didn't dream. Their gig at the Echoplex not long ago was devastating, loud and precise at the same time.
HERE is my piece on the band from a few years back.
"I don't really think of us as virtuosos," singer-guitarist Doug Martsch, a mellow, pickup-basketball-and-Noam-Chomsky kind of guy, told me. "It's more about a feel than putting out a bunch of notes; it's about emotions coming out of the guitar."
HERE at The Misread City we’re longtime fans of Ted Gioia, whose book West Coast Jazz recreated the worlds of Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck and others, reframing the way we looked at postwar California music.
Ted, who also writes on the blues and runs the blog Conceptual Fiction, which looks at the intersection of literature with fantasy and science fiction, has just launched Postmodern Mystery: New Angeles on an Old Genre.
He’s already posted on Borges’ Ficciones, Pynchon’s Lot 49 (!!), Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
This week, Ted writes about one of our favorite contemporary novels – Jonathan Lethem’s Lew Archer-with-Tourette’s novel Motherless Brooklyn.
Here’s what Ted Gioia tells The Misread City about the impetus behind the new blog.
There is a disconnect going on in the literary world when it comes to genre fiction. These books have traditionally been marginalized or ignored by literary critics, academics, and even book reviewers. Yet some of the most creative works of modern fiction draw on genre elements, either openly or subversively.
When I launched my Conceptual Fiction web site two years ago, my aim was to celebrate some of the finer works of science fiction and fantasy, both straight genre works as well as literary fiction that drew on genre elements. But I realized that the mystery genre was also widely misunderstood. It had inspired a large number of intriguing, and often explicitly experimental works in recent decades -- books that turned genre formulas upside down and inside out. For the last 18 months, I've been working on my new site Postmodern Mystery (www.postmodernmystery.com), which finally launched on October 7.
My Postmodern Mystery site looks at unconventional and experimental stories of crime and suspense. Readers might be surprised to learn how many of the leading fiction writers of recent decades have drawn on elements of the mystery genre for their works. My site has essays either published or soon-to-be-published on books by Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Auster, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Bolano, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Leonardo Sciascia, Thomas Pynchon, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Flann O'Brien, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jonathan Lethem, Thomas Bernhard, Truman Capote, Haruki Murakami, Gilbert Sorrentino, Witold Gombrowicz, Michael Chabon, Miguel Syjuco and a dozen or so other authors. Soon I will be publishing a complete reading list and survey essays tying together the various threads of this body of literature.
I hope the site will spur a few people to read some fine books they might otherwise have missed. But also I'd like to challenge conventional views of what constitutes important literature. I believe that a shift is already underway. Strange to say, the writers already understand what is happening. If you have any doubts, just look at the works of a Jonathan Lethem or a David Mitchell or a Michael Chabon. They understand that the longstanding division between literary fiction and genre fiction is both arbitrary and misguided. I'm aiming to make the same point, but via a body of criticism.
FANS of The Wire will be especially gratified by the new BBC series, Luther, in which the man we once knew as Stringer Bell (Brit actor Idris Elba) becomes a brilliant/tormented police detective.
The show is dark, understated, and psychologically serious; the characters and their relationships are complex and well-drawn. The whole thing has a kind of brooding vibe to it: The Massive Attack song that plays over the opening credits sets the tone quite well.
HERE is my review from The Hollywood Reporter. The show made its U.S. debut last night and goes up Sundays at 10 pm.
ONE of the Misread City's favorite LA hangouts in Colorado Wine Company in Eagle Rock: It opened shortly before we moved to the Eastside and has been a sort of neighborhood bar. Fans of the dedication to low prices and high quality -- as well as eccentric and small-batch wines -- this place serves up will be as excited as your humble blogger about the latest news.
John and Jen Nugent, who own the wine shop, will help launch and run Sunset Beer Company, which, with luck, will open on Sunset Blvd. next spring. (An article in Echo Park Now.) It's based on the set up of the wine shop, which includes a tasting area.
I should say that while this couple has turned me on to many fine bottles of wine, John is also responsible for introducing me to Belgium's wonderful farmhouse ale Saison Dupont and hence bringing back -- in part -- to beer.
Ths morning John sent out the following note about the new venture and his need for support:
Slated to open in Spring of 2011, Sunset Beer Company will happily live on Sunset boulevard in Echo Park. The concept behind Sunset Beer Co. comes from many evenings of beer drinking (uh...tasting) on one of the most famous porches in Eagle Rock at the home of Jenna and Drew VonAh. It's here that we tried Eagle Rock Brewery beer before the brewery opened and listened to our beer fanatic friends talk about the lengths they must go to to find their coveted beers. Why not make the hunt a little easier by putting everything in one place?
Sunset Beer Co. is a partnership between Jennifer and John of CoWineCo and Jenna and Drew VonAh. The concept will be quite familiar to you - a retail shop with a tasting area. But the retail shop will be twice the size of CoWineCo featuring many hundreds of bottles of beer from around the globe (all properly chilled of course), and the tasting area will have taps instead of rows of wine glasses (but for you grape-centric die-hards, yes there will be wine available as well). And I must mention, our nifty logo comes courtesy Evan Spiridellis of JibJab.com, an old friend who is also a lover of beer.
Do you like the idea? Are you salivating and annoyed that this place won't open until Spring 2011? Well, you can help! If you would like to express your support for this business either as a potential customer or as a current customer of CoWineCo who just wants the city to know that we run a responsible business, please write a letter or email. Our hearing is very soon, so letters would have to be postmarked by this coming Monday, October 18th. Any and all support will help us get our license in a timely manner and would be MUCH appreciated by Jenna, Drew, Jennifer, John, Evie, Walter, their cats, their extended families and that family of skunks living in their garage.
Please send emails/letters to our license expediter and they will be presented to the Zoning Adminstrator during our hearing:
To celebrate the impending opening of our new store, we are revamping our in-store beer pricing at CoWineCo to match the format of Sunset Beer Co. You can now enjoy any bottled beer at our bar for the retail price + $2. That means that Allagash White that is $5-$9 a glass at every brewpub in LA will be $4.50. So beer nerds, you will be very happy about our 30-40 beers at CoWineCo, and you'll be REALLY happy when Sunset Beer Co. opens its doors.
MUSIC from Italy is about more than just opera, "Volare'," and the songs of singing gondoliers. It's the goal of Hitweek LA to show Angelenos how wide the range is.
Last year I wrote about the festival here, and spoke to the organizer and a few of the bands for an LA Times story.
"We have very successful artists, from rock to heavy metal to reggae to world music," Francesco del Maro told me. "Negrita has sold out stadiums. Franco Battiato has collaborated with Antony and the Johnsons; he's very far from what you would think of as Italian music."
Schedule here for the shows at the Ford Amphitheater and the El Rey, from Weds (tonight) through Sunday as well as Djsets at The Standard West Hollywood (tonight and Sunday) and the film, TheBasement, at the Italian Cultural Institute.
The bands this year include crooner Elisa (who has recorded a song with Antony), solo piano player Giovanni Allevi, ska punk band Apres la Classe, and eclectic no-guitars quintet My Awesome Mixtape.
Just a quick post to say, Saturday night I went out after my bedtime to see Bambi Kino, a newish band formed around the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance in Hamburg and with the goal of recreating those raw early years. ("Slow Down" is here.)
I've seen some great shows recently -- Sonic Youth, Pavement, Belle & Sebastian -- but in its very different way this was as thrilling. Even as a Boomer-disdaining Xer, my musical taste was founded on early exposure to the Beatles, a band I've never seen live. To see the blend of rockabilly, girl group songs and early Lennon-McCartney tracks ("Ask Me Why"!) was a rare thrill -- especially because this stuff is not the Beatles songbook overplayed on AOR, commercials, etc.
Not to mention how well all this stuff was played, with great enthusiasm and on vintage instruments and amps. I hope this group has an afterlife. (With Doug Gillard, the band has a virtuoso guitarist of the sort the Beatles never did.) Most of the surviving recordings of the Beatles playing these songs are marred by bad fidelity, screaming girls, or both, so seeing it this way was a gas.
My interview with a Mark Rozzo, rhythm guitarist for the band (whose members are drawn from Guided by Voices, Catpower, Nada Surf and Maplewood) here.
Let me fly an R.I.P. here for the great soul-singer who struck gold during the Beatles' era, Solomon Burke. His early Atlantic sides will always endure. His Joe Henry-produced Don't Give Up On Me, from '02 is a landmark of a different kind and, and was a very important record for my then girlfriend, now wife, in the year or two after it came out. King Solomon will be missed!
RARELY has a band gone from overrated to undersung so quickly. But when the air went out of the "alternative" boom in the mid-'90s, some great bands got lost in the flood. Teenage Fanclub's Gram Parsons-flavored Songs From Northern Britain, from 1997, proved that this group was made of more than just feedback drenched irony. But almost nobody in this country heard it.
So it's a real pleasure to have the Glaswegian band back in Los Angles for the first time in five years: They play the El Rey on Monday night. Their new LP, Shadows, on Merge, is low-key and bittersweet, like most of their recent work, with some great songs in "Baby Lee," "The Fall," and "When I Still Have Thee."
HERE is my interview with the band from when they last visited our shores.
Neighborhood are complicated organisms – like a marriage or a human body, they can get better and worse at the same time as some aspects wax, others wane. That seems to be the case with Eagle Rock, the Northeast LA hood I’ve written about a few times, most controversially with this 2009 New York Times piece about the impact of the recession.
Overall, of course, the Los Angeles economy has remained grim. A number of the places I wrote about back then – hipster thrift shop Regeneration, stationery/gift shop Paper – have folded. The Big Blue Heeler space on Eagle Rock Blvd. has still not been occupied. I do more and more of my hanging out in Highland Park – The York pub, Café de Leche -- where rents seem to be substantially lower than they are on Colorado Blvd, allowing independent businesses to take off.
Other things have improved or at least arrived in Eagle Rock. Old Focals, with its retro eyeglasses and excellent design, is a welcome addition to the old Paper space. Four Café, on the same block, is my favorite new restaurant – fresh and seasonal ingredients turned into affordable sandwiches and salads. Very cool, accessible owners – there almost every night -- and some of the best desserts in town. Café Cacao, over by the Trader Joe’s, is non-obvious Mexican food – duck carnitas, excellent cactus salsa.
Some old favorites, like Colorado Wine Co., continue strong business, and the owners, John and Jen Nugent, they tell me, will open a bar dedicated to craft beers in Echo Park sometime early next year.
Last but not least: Last Saturday’s Eagle Rock Music Festival was a blast. In fact, it was so well attended I thought for a moment I must be in New York, London or a city more familiar with huge street fairs. (It's always a shock to see street closures in car-obsessed LA.) How many thousands of people was that gathering around the dub djs, the rockabilly bands, the trucks selling tacos and slices, signing up for local groups and greeting friends?
I must admit I saw just a tiny bit of most musical offerings, but caught a few deliciously Byrdsy songs by LA band Darker My Love.
One sad note: I’ve been so remiss in going to Auntie Em’s that I’ve lost track a bit of the staff at this funky bakery/café. The other day, stopping by to get sandwiches for the Pavement Hollywood Bowl concert, I found out that Jody Nauhaus, the enthusiastic cheese-monger, has returned to Arizona.
Jody is such a connoisseur of goat, sheep and cow’s milk cheeses she even made your (mildly) lactose intolerant correspondent into a lover of the wares of Cowgirl Creamery, Rogue and others. Jody was also an early admirer of my little son, born in 2006, from back in the day when we were there every week or so. Auntie Em’s will continue to be a wonderful place, but Jody will be sorely missed
IN the spring of 2008 I was called into the office of the editor who was supposedly running my section, Calendar. He said good things about my previous year of output and how much he was looking forward to what I’d turn out next. (Nearly every day I had a story in the paper, he came by my desk with a smile to tell me how much he liked it.)
The LA Times building after its bombing 100 years ago
He referred me to an annual evaluation in which my assignment editor praised the “excellent and productive year” I’d just had, and told me I’d earned 1 4 percent raise in a bad year for the company. I went back to work and continued to have a fruitful and, er, productive time as the papers books and ideas reporter.
A few months later – almost exactly two years ago today – I was called into the office of my new editor. Sitting with him was a woman with Sarah Palin glasses and a series of bright blue folders. I was told I had until 5 p.m. to clear out of the newsroom and that my job was terminated immediately. (Though I'd written multiple stories on indie rock, classical music, architecture, movies and other topics, I was not reassigned.)
I was made to sign forms that forbid me to say much more – proving that for all our political excitement about Constitutional rights, a corporation can take anything they like away from you.
I went home to my wife and two-year-old son and told them, blithely, that everything would be all right. (Over the next few days I got repeated calls from a Pasadena placement company offering resume’ writing workshops free of charge thanks to my employer’s great generosity.)
Confused? I was, too. I'd been hired by John Carroll, then perhaps the most respected editor in the country, in 2002, when the LA paper was so hot it was poaching talent from New York and winning multiple Pulitzers; now hundreds of us were unemployed in a scorched-earth economy. What happened?
Some of the cause has to do with technology and larger economic issues, but some of it is more specific: A gripping, well-researched and deeply disturbing piece by the New York Times’ David Carr documents the greed and ignorance of impotent robber baron Sam Zell and his gang of thugs who took over a once-great newspaper and drove its parent company into bankruptcy.
The day I lost my job, I knew I would go through a tough year or even two, but that things would stabilize before long: I was raised to believe that hard work always wins out.
After the two worst years of my life, things are even more unstable for my family; neither journalism nor the economy have not recovered. (I drive a 16-year-old car that won’t last much longer.) We’re likely to leave the state by year’s end.
My story is not unique – the two best editors I worked with at the Times and many fine reporters were canned that same dark day and in ensuing months. Several thousand people have lost their jobs at Tribune papers over the last few years. (It gives me no pleasure to observe that many former Times hands I know are doing worse than I am.)
I often think of Louis Uchitelle’s The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. This 2006 book by the NY Times labor reporter shows how corporate power and a weak regulatory apparatus allow someone in a corporate tower to erase lives for the sake of quarterly profits and staggering CEO salaries. (The bonuses paid to Tribune bosses, documented in Carr’s story, beggar the imagination.) It’s a transaction my family – and many others – knows all too well.
THE home where the once-reviled Daniel Ellsberg has lived since the late '70s is hard to find: It's down a small redwood lined street and its address is out of order with its neighbors. When you review what Ellsberg went through in the '70s -- national manhunt, Nixon hiring thugs to break into his therapist's office, Kissinger denouncing him as "the most dangerous man in America" -- it's not hard to see why Ellberg, now nearing 80, would choose to live somewhere a bit removed.
Nixon and Mao, 1972
A few weeks ago I met Ellsberg to discuss his leaking of the Pentagon Papers -- the record of our involvement in Indochina -- which helped destroy the Nixon presidency and, eventually, bring an end to the war. We talked about the events of those days, secrecy itself, and the very fine POV documentary that goes up tonight on PBS, The Most Dangerous Man in America.
HERE is my piece from today's LATimes. Sobering stuff.
There's some fascinating stuff in the doc, some of which comes from Ellsberg's memoir of the period, Secrets, including tapes in which Nixon urges Kissinger to use nuclear weapons in the conflict. "I just want you to think big." Nixon also told his secretary of state: You're so goddamned concerned about the civilians and I don't give a damn. I don't care."
IT'S been four years since the Glasgow indie rock band Belle & Sebastian came to America. I remember that show, in which they were accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in part because of its sheer wonder. Also, because my wife and I were such fans we left our newborn son -- less than a full month old! -- to see the group. (Yes, we got a sitter.)
Belle & Sebastian of course, are a band that mixes a gift for melody with instrumental harmonies that recall classic West Coast rock. Their early songs often resembled folk rock or chamber pop; some of their more recent stuff, and their new record, Write About Love, are funkier and more expansive. Either way they are great live, and perhaps the greatest indie pop band since Pavement broke up.
HERE is my piece on the group before their '06 Bowl show. It begins this way:
When they started out in the mid-'90s as a project for a college business course, the group of Glaswegian students who called themselves Belle and Sebastian tried to keep things low-key. They named themselves for a French children's TV show, played gigs in churches and libraries, shunned the media and pressed only 1,000 copies -- on vinyl -- of their debut album.
I'm sure I'm not the only reader of The Misread City looking forward to the band's show Sunday night at the Hollywood Palladium.
SCOTT Avett plays his banjo like Will Sergeant from Echo and the Bunnymen played guitar. That's what the Avett Bros. manager thought the first time he saw this North Carolina band, which is both deeply rooted in Americana and on its own trip.
ALT-COUNTRY heroes The Avett Bros. are in town tonight, Oct. 1, at the Nokia Theater. I spoke to Scott and manager Rolph Ramseur for this story in today's LATimes.
I was a bit late coming to these guys, but they remind me in some ways of The Band in their attempt to connect rock with old-time music. Scott was as convincingly sincere and humble as any musician I've spoken to. (I can -- poorly -- play a few of their songs on guitar, like "Murder in the City" and "Will You Return".)
Here he told me how he discovered the banjo, which came later than you'd think:
"We were just totally into hard rock then — we were in a skate-punk scene," he says. "I wanted something ironic. And when I started playing street corners, I could hear this thing just project. We went all over the country, all the way to San Francisco and Seattle, and that banjo just projects down the street!"
I'm a former LA Times arts and culture writer, sometime New York Times, GQ and Salon contributor, the co-editor of "The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles," and an enthusiast of film, wine, indie rock, retro culture, archtop guitars and California history.