Thursday, July 28, 2011

More Trouble at the LA Times

THIS week saw the fourth (or fifth?) wave of executions since I myself was sent to my bitter end in October 2008. My heart goes out to my old colleagues who've suddenly lost their jobs -- you deserve better.

Unlike a lot of former Times people, I still get the paper delivered and derive some -- though it looks like in the future, less -- of my income, from the place. (The company that gave Cereal Killer Mark Willes, David Hiller and others who helped sink the ship multi-million dollar golden parachutes has just cut all freelance book coverage: Man, those $500 book reviews were bleeding the place dry!)

And today's front page piece by Scott Gold on the Jupiter mission shows just how good the Times' coverage can be even in these difficult days.

But what I'm struck by is the kowtowing, go-team! farewell notes that fired LATimes staffers write as they're on their way to the gallows. I wrote one too, on the day I was told, out of the blue, that I had til 5 pm to leave the premises or be escorted out by security.

Jack Shafer at Slate penned a piece not long ago about what angry employees write when they are cashiered. 

I guess I'm not thinking anger, but honesty. How bout this: 

"Today is my last day at the Times. Those of you at your desks: I will miss you all. Someday, when you least expect it, this will happen to you, too, and you will be writing one of these stupid notes as you madly pack your belongings and shuffle toward the guillotine. 

"And you will, as I soon will, struggle to keep your marriage together, to keep your kids in school, to keep your house from being repossessed. You may not sleep straight through the night for months (or years). 

"If the economy continues to limp along as Congress obsesses over the deficit and ignores unemployment, you might not work for years. Some of you will never hold a job again. For some of you, things will go a bit better, but the chances of you regaining your current salary are almost zero.

Meanwhile, Tribune brass are giving themselves bonuses and Sam Zell is griping about how hard the deal he cooked up ended up being to his net worth.

Have a bitchin' summer..." 

Journalists pride themselves on "speaking truth to power," so I'm scratching my head as to this docility. (My friend Steve Wasserman describes picking up "a whiff of the good commissars being sent to the Gulag and thanking the Party for the privilege of serving.") 

Part of it is just confusion -- I was so blindsided that day that I was in a kind of low-grade shock, and mostly just remember a good friend buying me lunch and another friend helping me get out of the building before security dragged me out.)

My wife, who works in the school system, says teachers, librarians and others work their fingers to the bone until the very minute they are laid off -- and with few plans as to what to do next -- because they see themselves as working for "the kids," not some uncaring bureaucracy that will fire them in the blink of an eye. 

I did the same thing -- I was toiling for "the reader" whom I idolize and revere, staying up late reading the books I was covering, or obsessing over my stories while I was taking a shower or clearing the table or watching a movie, so that reader could have the very best work I was capable of. "Go, Scott, go!" my editors said. "We love what you are doing! Keep it up!"

But as with these "classy" farewell notes, it's all a lie. To the people who fire you, you are a number on a spreadsheet. 

If you still work at the Times -- and I have many friends left at what is still, most days, quite a good paper -- please protect yourself. Take it from me: No amount of good evaluations, no number of high fives, no apparent love and support from your bosses will save you.

And my best wishes to those now launched on the dark adventure I've been on for almost three years now. Good luck -- you will need it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Eddie Izzard at the Hollywood Bowl

THE other morning -- it was the 4th of July -- the phone rang. It was Eddie Izzard calling from England. I'd had no caffeine yet. And due to the holiday -- on a Monday no less -- and a kid who'd just gotten out of the emergency room, I'd completely forgotten that he'd be calling.


But Izzard ended up being a perfect gentleman and we spoke for a while about his career and the figures who'd shaped him, including some of my very favorites, The Beatles and Monty Python. He talked very sincerely about his debts to earlier comic figures and referred to himself as an inheritor of a rational, humanistic tradition going back to Darwin and beyond.

HERE is my brief feature on the comedian, who I look forward to seeing perform tonight at the Hollywood Bowl. Be there or be square.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The 5 Browns on the Piano

Photo Andrew Southam
A GROUP of cherubic, Julliard-educated young people came to Irvine this weekend to play 5 pianos in tandem. This could be heaven or it could be hell, but this group of siblings is good.

HERE is my interview with the band in the LA Times. There is more to the story than met the eye when I accepted this piece -- their backstory is a bit complicated. I enjoyed talking to two of the young men in the group a great deal; their sincerity was unfeigned.

Happy 100th to John Lautner

THIS weekend would been the 100th birthday of the man who may be my favorite architect -- he was voted runner up, just below Neutra, in this blog's Favorite California Modernist poll not long ago.

Lautner's Chemosphere house, above the trees
Not long after wild-man publisher Benedikt Taschen restored the Hollywood Hills-sited Chemosphere House, which had fallen into very serious disrepair, I wrote a lengthy piece on both the octagonal structure and on the ornery architect. Here it is.

I spoke to a number of people for the story, including architect Frank Escher, who helped remake the place, the realtor who had struggled to sell it, original resident Leonard Malin, and design historian Alan Hess, who coined the spot-on term "organic modernist" to describe Lautner.

Happy birthday to John Lautner, a man who disliked Los Angeles but did a great deal to make it a more interesting place.

UPDATE: Here is a wonderful piece by Alan Hess from Saturday's LAT Home section on Lautner and LA.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Retro rock with LA's Dawes

ONE of my favorite newish West Coast bands is the LA quartet Dawes, who both draw from the classical canyon rock of the 60s and 70s and work to carve their individual place in the tradition. The voices of Jackson Browne, the Byrds, Neil Young and others echo through their songs.

HERE is my profile of the band in today's LA Times.

I really enjoyed talking to singer/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith: We could have discussed music all day. (I especially enjoyed the alt-country version of the Replacements "Achin' to Be" he knocked out on his J-45.) Taylor told me he and the gang run a wedding band as a side project where they play Motown and Stax/Volt songs -- I'm tempted to get married again just to book these guys to play.

When I'm away from California, playing Dawes' music in the car is one of my best way to remember my adopted home state. Weirdly, at a restaurant last night I heard "Time Spent in Los Angeles."

Please note: An editor at the Times wrote a deck suggesting that the band lives in Laurel Canyon. For all their roots in that sound, these guys are rockin in La Crescenta.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Two Weeks in Indie Rock

OVER the last few weeks I've seen a bunch of bands and gotten some good new albums by groups on tour; three of the four are from the Golden State. I'll have to be brief here, but I want to sign the praises of a few of them.

The bands are:

The Bixby Knolls:

I've been hearing about these guys for a while now, so was happy to stumble into them at a show at the Silverlake Lounge about a week ago. There's a real punk-style force to these guys, but it's matched with fine, melodic songwriting and a style as retro-Brit as their name... Remind me of the Buzzcocks and The Jam. Nothing I find on youtube matches what I saw the other night, but here's something:


I've known Patrick as my bartender at The York, one of my favorite gastropubs in town, for a while now -- it often takes me a long time to order food and drink because we get sidetracked into conversations into Neil Young, Ryan Adams or Blonde on Blonde. So I was pleased to finally check out his band, which reflects his fandom but also takes his influences somewhere. Very sweet old California backup band complete with chick on tambourine.

Patrick, who some might know from the Capshuns, also plays a mean harmonica. The late hour required me to split mid-set, but here's a talent to watch. Here's the last song from a recent set.

The Postelles:

Missed these guys at the Echo last week because of exhaustion, but as I keep playing their debut LP over and over again and kicking myself for it. They're a young bunch of Anglophiles from Brooklyn with a knack for catchy, hard pop and an association with the Strokes. A reviewer on the All Music Guide called them too squeaky clean, but frankly I find that louche, prep-school swagger of the Strokes a bit lame at this point. I'll take the more polished style of these guys anyday. And next time they're in town I'll be there for sure.

Alela Diane:

This Northern California singer-songwriter impressed me with her last record, the intimate folky LP To Be Still. Her voice and songwriting have deepened since then and her music has taken an alt-country direction. (Some have said she sounds like Cat Power fronting one of Gram Parsons' old bands.) Whatever it is, she's a serious talent and I'm not gonna let her get in and out of town next time without catching her set.  Here's a sweet little live bit from a benefit in NY; it's the first song from her new LP, on Rough Trade.

I guess the moral of this story is that I need to sleep a lot less.

The Roots of Bobby McFerrin

IS there a more annoying song from the 1980s than "Don't Worry Be Happy"? Maybe -- a lot of bad childhood memories are now flowing back, some of them involving George Michael -- but not one of my favorite number from that low dishonest decade.

Debut LP
HERE is my brief LA Times exchange with the man who helped revolutionize jazz singing and has made an impact in the classical world as well. (He also did the right thing after George Herbert Walker Bush stole his song without permission, just as Reagan did with Springsteen's not-so-conservative "Born in the USA.")
Miles pic by Tom Palumbo

McFerrin, needless to say, is an interesting guy, and he lists his among his most important influences Miles "Prince of Darkness" Davis and the Christian savior. Now that's what I call a diverse roster.

McFerrin is at the Hollywood Bowl next week, by the way.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Kickass swimmer Diana Nyad

NOT often do I venture far from my music-film-authors obsession to write about sports, but I could not resist the chance to speak to Diana Nyad, the record-breaking swimmer and NPR commentator who has decided, in her 60s, to swim more than 100 miles between Cuba and Florida.

We spoke about regrets, physical endurance, killer sharks, nasty jellyfish and the importance of Neil Young for the site SecondAct.

"I used to be a thoroughbred racehorse," she told me, explaining that her style was more graceful when she was young. "I'd get colds all the time -- but I was fast. Now I'm more like a Clydesdale. I'm much stronger."

Here is my full piece.

Nyad takes off on her journey -- twice postponed now -- as soon as the weather cooperates. The Misread City wishes her luck.