Thursday, December 30, 2010

New View of General Lee

OKAY, get ready for a deluge of coverage of the Civil War, whose 150th anniversary begins in the new year. One of the first shots fired will be a new documentary on Gen. Robert E. Lee, who emerges as a complex, brilliant, at times tormented, and deeply human character. The doc, which goes up Monday on PBS, avoids the hero-worship of neo-Confederates and a debunking approach that might have been tempting.

HERE is my article on the film, which involves an interview with filmmaker Mark Zwonitzer (who has also written an acclaimed book on country music's Carter Family) and two eminent historians, Joan Waugh of UCLA and Joseph Glatthaar of UNC Chapel Hill.

We often hear that Americans are cut off from or uninterested in their own history. It's often true, but especially since the Ken Burns documentary in the early '90s, the Civil War has been a growth industry, and an obsession with the war has never gone away in the American South. And many historians see the war and its immediate aftermath as the period in which contemporary American culture was forged.

The film is quite explicit, by the way, about the cause of the war: For all the talk about "state's rights," it was quite solidly about slavery. Just look at the secession documents for each state: They were pretty unambiguous about what mattered to them.

And let me urge anyone interested in the Civil War to read historian C. Vann Woodward and his "Irony of Southern History."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Great New Novel

THIS week the first novel by a former indie rock guitarist comes out on Crown. The novel, The Metropolis Case, has a lot to do with opera, though you don't have to be an opera fan to enjoy the book. If you dig Tristan und Isolde -- or have every been transported by music -- the novel will have special meaning and depth.

HERE  is my review from today's New York Times.

I pick up a lot of novels, old and new, with hopes of getting through them. In the case of The Metropolis Case, I was drawn into the characters' fates after a few pages.

The novel is also set more or less in the opera world, but you shouldn't let that scare you any more than the ballet in Black Swan: Gallaway writes as if those old anxieties surrounding "high" culture have worn themselves out.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Show of the Year: Pavement

HERE at The Misread City, we saw a lot of great shows this year -- from a roaring Ted Leo and the Pharmacists to a funky Belle & Sebastian to a spooky Esa-Pekka Salonen returning to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

But the concert that stands out the most for us is one with a lot of history and symbolism behind it, as well as plenty of kickass guitar playing: The first North American show by Pavement in more than a decade. Held at Pomona's Fox Theater, the gig took a few songs to get going. But by the end, the Stockton-to-Brooklyn quintet had shredded much of its catalog, including most of Slanted and Enchanted. They sounded far better, more focussed and committed, than they had during their original run in the '90s.

Even the wonderful Hollywood Bowl concert, with Sonic Youth and No Age along for the ride, couldn't quite equal it.

Wishing everyone a great holiday. My readership has given me some solace during these very tough times.


Friday, December 17, 2010

The Glories of the Marin Coast

OVER 13 years in Los Angeles, I've seen much of this beautiful state. But my trip to Point Reyes Station, which I visited in September because novelist Philip K. Dick lived there 50 years ago, stands out for the area's mellow natural beauty.

I wrote about the town, and the surrounding National Seashore, in a travel story for the Oregonian, HERE.

West Marin has a fortuitous setting: tiny towns that haven't been suburbanized to death, ample Pacific coastline, numerous smaller bodies of water, including Tomales Bay, and plenty of wildlife in the redwoods and eucalyptus groves. It feels like the edge of the world but you're really just 40-some miles from San Francisco. By the time you drive in through Samuel P. Taylor State Park -- a shady enclave with Lagunitas Creek running alongside -- you've left the sprawl behind. 

One of the highlights was a restaurant called Osteria Stellina, with a sophistication I was surprised to find in such a small town. It's started to get some well-deserved attention from the food press -- Food and Wine magazine just singled out one of its recipes -- and I hope it's still there the next time I visit the Marin Coast.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Masters of Cinema, Through French Eyes

THE French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema may be the most important, game-changing publication in the history of film, thanks to its role in the auteur theory and its instigation of the New Wave. The magazine also rethought film history in a way that honored directors like Hitchcock and Hawks at the expense of supposedly more serious French filmmakers. 

Some of Cahiers’ advocacy (Sam Fuller) now seems ahead of its time; other calls (Jerrry Lewis, "le Roi du Crazy") still provoke head-scratching on this side of the Atlantic. Cahiers skeptics, especially among the Brits, have suggested that the magazine’s pantheon is geared so heavily toward explicitly visual filmmakers since its critics were too lazy to read English subtitles. 

This season, Cahiers' book arm has put out 10 thin, affordable volumes, each devoted to a different director, most of them American, and including Scorsese, Eastwood, Tim Burton and others. Dubbed "Masters of Cinema," the series is pretty good and offers some surprises.

HERE is my review in today's LA Weekly.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Christopher Isherwood's LA

LAST night the Hammer Museum held an event about Isherwood's years in LA that included his companion Don Bachardy and and journalist David Kipen. 

Isherwood with Auden, 1939
Connection problems keep me from filling this out further, but HERE is the piece I wrote on the British author's years in California, which included a visit to his old house in the Palisades. The story begins:

He abandoned a sexually decadent Berlin and an unsettled Britain to come to a bright city full of churchgoers, orange groves and beach boys. But those extremes were on the point of convergence. During the nearly 50 years that Christopher Isherwood was to spend here, Europe embraced Southern California styles transmitted by Hollywood, and Los Angeles grew closer to Europe both culturally and intellectually.
Most readers still know Isherwood as the man who wrote the stories that became "Cabaret." To many observers, however, he also presided over the transformation of his adopted hometown from a sleepy burg with Westside lima bean fields and a folksy, Midwestern tone to a cosmopolitan metropolis with powerful ambitions. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Happy, and Sad, 70th to John Lennon

THIRTY years ago, on a cold December morning, I woke up to see my mom, a bit addled, standing in my bedroom doorway. "I've got some bad news," she said. "John Lennon was shot."

"Well, is he okay?" I asked.

I was in 6th grade, and I'd spent much of the previous few years sitting in the basement while my head spun along with the turntable to the Beatles music -- especially "Revolver" and an album my best friend had given me the year before, "Rubber Soul"; I especially liked the psychedelic "I'm Only Sleeping," the reflective "In My Life" and the darkly romantic "It's Only Love."  Of course I liked all the Beatles, but John was my first and fiercest cultural hero; I memorized the lyrics to his songs and read everything I could about him.

Not everyone was as zealous as me, and some friends preferred Paul or George, but it seemed inconceivable that someone might not like the Beatles.

I trudged to school, where the teacher was a supposedly "tough" customer who'd taken a special liking to me for some reason -- she was a kind of hero of mine as well. Partway through school, maybe at the lunch hour, she brought up Lennon's murder.

She was shocked, in fact -- because an opera singer had died the day before and no one had noticed. And here this "druggie" had been killed, and people were crying in the streets. Why all the fuss for a rock n roll singer?

Of course, this didn't exactly endear me to my beloved teacher. What was even weirder than the pitting of high vs. popular culture -- something I've always hated and still fight against, and especially wrong in the case of John -- was the fact that none of the other kids seemed as shaken up as I was. I knew my folks were upset, and an old friend from my previous school called me later in the day and we talked forever about it. But had I landed in some baleful alternate universe where nobody liked the Beatles? The conversation moved on to another topic, but I didn't.

I'm the kind of person that likes to reconcile opposing points of view, to understand people's perspectives in the widest possible context. Maybe on the 40th anniversary of John's death -- which will also be the day before his 80th birthday, as today is the day before his 70th -- I'll be able to see my teacher's reaction with more detachment. But today, I'm still so upset about John's death, and realize that day -- the end of his life -- was the beginning, for me, of the distrust of authority that I'm now old enough to read in his songs and life.

In September David Kamp wrote this funny and heartbreaking interview with Lennon as if he were preparing to celebrate his 70th: "Lennon, who will turn 70 on October 9, remains enviably slim and has a deep late-summer tan. The longish hair is mostly white and a bit thinned out on top but becomingly so, in the manner of late-period Richard Harris."

RIP John Lennon. It's a cliche' to close a recollection of an artist's life by talking about how his art will endure, but it's rarely seemed as true as it is with Lennon. My four-year-old son Ian, who, oddly, prefers Paul, is proof of the way Beatles songs grab people at all ages. (He can name about every song on Beatles for Sale.) 

And while at this time of year, the song "Imagine" always gets overplayed, I'm gonna dig a bit deeper into the Lennon solo catalog tonight. One of my favorite of his songs is "# 9 Dream," which lends its name to the first novel by one of my favorite writers, David Mitchell. It's melodic, profound, and imperfect -- the chorus is almost bad enough to wreck the song and the orchestration is too much. Good and bad, it's a fitting tribute to the man himself.

Monday, December 6, 2010

James Franco and The Adderall Diaries

ONE of the best and most unpredictable memoirs I've read in years is The Adderall Diaries, which is a weird hybrid of a murder trial, S&M chronicle, and document of drug abuse. I just bumped into its author, Stephen Elliott, who is a far more level guy than you'd expect given that previous description, at the local coffee shop. Elliott, who's an editor at the excellent literary site The Rumpus, is in town for a reading of an anthology of Rumpus Women: Personal Essays By Women Tuesday night at the Traveler's Bookshelf on 3rd St. (He tells me the event will include a brief performance by Jill Sobule.)

Anyway, Elliott mentioned that actor James Franco -- who I will always think of as the tough kid from Freaks and Geeks despite his more high profile appearances -- has optioned the book for film adaptation. (Franco, tentatively, will both direct and appear in the film.)

I met Elliott in LA last year to discuss his memoir -- HERE is the ensuing LA Times piece.

The author enjoyed working with Franco, who is course a writer himself and has a recent book of deadpan short stories that have gotten mixed reviews. "He's making a serious attempt to be an artist," Elliott says. "Which is all you can do. There's an integrity to him."

Elliott adapted the script -- calling it "the easiest thing I've ever done." He's hot to write more scripts now.

All kinds of things get optioned and never see daylight, but we're optimistic about Franco these days. We'll keep our eye on this one.

Friday, December 3, 2010

WikiLeaks and Daniel Ellsberg

IN September, I interviewed Daniel Ellsberg, famed for his role in leaking the Pentagon Papers and thus helping to end the Vietnam War. At the time he spoke of the importance of the actions of WikiLeaks, arguing that governments keep so much secret that almost any leak is a good one. (Here is my piece, timed to the excellent documentary on the former RAND analyst.)

Now he has come out again in favor of WikiLeaks: Here is a letter to Amazon, terminating his account and urging a boycott of the online retailer.

"I'm disgusted by Amazon's cowardice and servility in abruptly terminating today its hosting of the Wikileaks website, in the face of threats from Senator Joe Lieberman and other Congressional right-wingers. I want no further association with any company that encourages legislative and executive officials to aspire to China's control of information and deterrence of whistle-blowing." 

The whole letter is pretty scorching.

And here's a relevant bit from my article: 

He's heartened by the recent cache of documents released by WikiLeaks on the Afghan war, though he thinks newspapers are more credible places to publish than the Internet. But he applauds the site for offering a clearer look at what the U.S. government is up to: "There should be a Pentagon Papers out ever year," he says.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Salman Rushdie in Los Angeles

ONE of my best experiences as a books/authors reporter was spending most of a day wandering around LA with Salman Rushdie. We discussed his longtime interest in film while strolling through his old neighborhood in West Hollywood, talked about the Beatles and the English '60s over iced coffees at the Kings Road Cafe, and got into his years in hiding while having lunch nearby.

Rushdie is in town tonight as part of the public library's wonderful ALOUD series. It's held tonight at the Japan America Theatre, where he will be interviewed by Reza Aslan. (Rushdie is touring on his new novel, Luka and the Fire of Life.)

HERE is my piece on the author.

Would he have been happier as an obscure literary novelist, I asked him, rather than as an international celebrity?

"I think you make the best of what you get," he said in his plummy accent, wearing a dark blue suit and gesturing donnishly. "And it's really easy for me to shut it out. Like most novelists, I developed early on quite strong habits of concentration, and even a requirement of solitude. Every day I just go to a room, shut the door and work. And the fame thing feels very trivial."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Philip K. Dick in Marin Co.

RECENTLY your humble blogger ventured to Point Reyes Station, a beautiful little town on the Marin Coast, where Philip K. Dick spent several reclusive and very productive years. They were also perhaps his greatest period, during which he wrote The Man in the High Castle and began The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich.

The result is this New York Times story, which runs Tuesday and looks at a memoir/biography by his third wife, Anne Dick, called, The Search for Philip K. Dick.

In some ways, the area hasn't changed all that much since he lived there 50 years ago. West Marin is an isolated region of rolling hills, wind-swept beaches and small farms: Back then ranchers and farm workers dominated what’s become a liberal, affluent county north of the San Francisco Bay. On the street where the Dicks lived, it’s still easy to be startled by deer crossing the road, especially on nights when the fog has rolled in, and the region’s scent of redwood, fir and forest floor is strong. 

Anne described a lot of details I didn't have room for: At night the couple would play board games and Dick, who had worked at classical record stores in Berkeley in the ‘50s, would play Purcell or Schubert on the record player.

David Gill, who runs the Total Dick-head blog and wrote the book's introduction, spoke to me about "Dick's family-man period." He also observed that west Marin -- with its remoteness from civilization and tendency to shortages -- may've served as the author's model for the Mars he described in the novel Martian Time-Slip.

Our sense of an artist’s development usually involves some kind of external stimulus that knocks creativity into a higher pitch. But nobody knows where it comes from.

“Sometimes artists just do things because they’re ready to,” Jonathan Lethem told me. “But look at his life relationally: Dick was a son – an adolescent,” during his early, childless years, moving through a series of mentor relationships.

“In Marin, Anne was an adult in a different way than he was used to. Everything forced him into a role as a father as an adult. You can see the rest of his life as a running from that. But it also deepened the work.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Clowes' Wilson Headed for Hollywood

JUST announced: Alexander Payne of Sideways fame will direct an adaptation of Daniel Clowes Wilson, his latest graphic novel. has the story of the deal with Fox Searchlight here.

A few months ago I met the Bay Area-based Clowes, whose Ghost World and Art School Confidential have been adapted, to discuss Wilson. The character is an enraged loner who sometimes shows flashes of heart and soul. Still, he may be the most unlikable Clowes protagonist yet.

"I didn't intend to go in and try to push the envelope on how unpleasant I could make him," a slim, bald and darkly handsome Clowes told me over coffee at a Los Feliz cafe. "It came from within: I thought I'd make something both personally meaningful and something an audience would find interesting."
"I think we have a similar worldview," the author allowed. "And his sense of humor — finding humor in the razor's edge between tragedy and comedy — there's a lot of resonance between me and him."
Here is my full piece. Very eager to see how this project goes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Past Envisions the Future

LOOKING back at mid-century optimism is always both fascinating and depressing. All the labor-saving devices and exotic holidays -- weekends on the moon! -- we were going to get by now.

The science-fiction writer Gregory Benford, who teaches at UC/Irvine, and the editors of Popular Mechanics have put together hundreds of these predictions, from asbestos dresses to personal jetpacks, along with the original art which accompanied them in the magazine. Here is my story from Sunday's LA Times on The Wonderful Future That Never Was.

Benford, who also teaches physics, writes insightful essays that puts the whole future-looking enterprise into context. As any close reader of science fiction knows, we can tell a lot about an era by how it envisions its future.

Benford has also recently co-edited a tribute to science-fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke, whose powers of predictions, especially re satellite communication, he praises. Sentinels: In Honor of Arthur C. Clarke, edited with George Zebrokwski, includes essays on the writer himself as well as stories by Heinlein and Asimov that speak to Clarke's ambitions. (It's published by Hadley Rille Books.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Billy Bragg and Mavis Staples at UCLA

FRIDAY night at Royce Hall saw an unlikely double bill, with British folk-punk hero Billy Bragg playing a full set mixing politics and pop before soul goddess Mavis Staples, who channels the spirit of the black church and the civil rights movement.

This incongruous pairing ended up being a blast, though the two may have more in common politically than musically. (Both artists have also, of, course, worked with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.)

It's easy to love Billy Bragg's early music -- those rough songs from the '80s belted out with a thick British accent and an electric guitar. For a while in the early '90s it seemed like Bragg was going to ride the alt-rock boom into something like fame: He had a small hit with the jaunty "Sexuality," co-written with Johnny Marr.  But the music that's come since the early '90s with some exceptions like the Woody Guthrie records with Wilco, has seemed less urgent.

So it was a thrill to see Bragg set up solo on the Royce stage with just a stack of amps and Telecaster. His set leaned heavily on political songs, including a cover of Woody Guthrie's "I Don't Have a Home in This World Anymore," and some new numbers that sounded good. His political rants in between songs were about as engaging and persuasive in their common sense and compassion. The recent U.S. elections clearly inspired him.

And his love songs -- "Greetings to the New Brunette," "Milkman of Human Kindness," "A New England" -- still sound great. I'd forgotten how great Bragg could be live. My wife lamented that she could not vote for this British citizen for president.

The highs of Mavis Staples -- best know as part of the Staples Singers -- were high indeed even if she was less consistent than Bragg. Alongside gospel -- "Creep Along, Moses" -- and soul numbers, with stirring vocal harmonies, she sang CCR's "Wrote a Song For Everyone" and The Band's "The Weight."

At times in the set Staples seemed to get lost, and she's some of her voice's middle range sounded worn. But Staples gave off so much decency and positive energy it was hard to mind, and her band was spectacular.

A fuller review HERE by Steven Mirkin in the Orange Co Register.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Stew and The Negro Problem Return to LA

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.

Los Angeles Noir Comes to Glendale

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.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Stieg Larsson's "Girl"

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. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Built to Spill in LA

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." 

They're at the El Rey Thursday night.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Announcing Postmodern Mystery

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 (, 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.   

Monday, October 18, 2010

Smart New Cop Show From UK

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.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New Beer Shop in Echo Park

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, 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:

Andy Inthavong


Art Rodriguez & Associates
Attn:  Andy Inthavong / RE: Sunset Beer Company
709 E. Colorado Blvd., Suite 200
Pasadena, CA 91101

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.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Italian Rock Returns to LA

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, The Basement, 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.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bambi Kino at Taix

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!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Teenage Fanclub On Its Way

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 1997proved 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.

Oh -- and LA's Radar Bros. open the show.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Green Shoots -- Eagle Rock

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

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tribune Corp, 2010

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.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Daniel Ellsberg's Secrets

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."

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Belle & Sebastian on the West Coast.

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.  

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Avett Brothers' Country Roots

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!"

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Alex Ross on Music and Noise

FOR my money, there is no more important and provocative essay about classical music over the last 10 years than an Alex Ross that begins this way: "I hate 'classical music': not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past." And he goes on: "For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority."
Ross's new collection, out this week

Hoarder that I am, I've still got the original 2004 New Yorker pages with that article. But those less obsessive than me can check back into this piece -- "Listen to This: Crossing the Border From Classical to Pop" -- and others on the enigma of Schubert, Radiohead, Bjork, classical music in China, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and the majesty of late Brahms. Even though I've read a lot of this stuff before, this new collection -- Listen to This -- is the most fun I've had with a new nonfiction book in ages.

Anyone telling the story of classical music over the last century or so would have to pay attention to composers, audiences, orchestras and conductors on the West Coast. Ross's first book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century took deep looks at Gershwin and Schoenberg's time in Los Angeles and the career of Bay Area composer John Adams. Listen to This gives us "The Anti-Maestro: Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic." (The piece ends with the arrival of Dudamel.)

I spoke to Ross when The Rest is Noise came out. Here is that interview; the first question went like this:

Q: Why does classical music from the last 100 or so years -- unlike the visual art from the same period -- remain what you call "this obscure pandemonium on the outskirts of culture"?
A It's had a struggle to find an audience, especially compared to other art forms. The first blasts of Modernism in painting and literature and so on all caused scandals: Audiences rebelled at first, but they quickly caught on, and Picasso and Jackson Pollock sell for $100 million a canvas. The esoteric has become popular in these other art forms, and that hasn't really happened in classical music.
And let me direct readers interested in the LA Phil to Sunday's excellent Reed Johnson piece about the Phil's  president, Deborah Borda.