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Setting Times' stories to music: Dusty Springfield, Bob Dylan

April 06, 2013|By Kari Howard
  • Panorama High wrestler Diana Oliva listens to boy band One Direction before a home match.
Panorama High wrestler Diana Oliva listens to boy band One Direction before… (Christina House / For The…)

Some people wonder if I can really work with music blaring on my headphones--especially music with distracting lyrics. But my brain is hard-wired a different way: The lyrics inspire me, and help the creativity kick in.

It’s like this amplification effect: Most of the Column Ones take emotions to a higher level, be they joy, or grief or amusement. To borrow from “Spinal Tap,” the music turns the volume of feelings up to 11.

This week, though, a story-song combo for an upcoming Column One was almost too much. I was reading about an Egyptian town stunned by a terrible loss of its children, and listening to a song about facing the loss of those you love. Wait until you read the story. Powerful.

In these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Column One--maybe they’ll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later. A story-song combo!

Monday’s Column One:

Tales of a teenage ballpark rat

The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, as it was once known, is an unlovely concrete bowl squatting near the city's airport and waterfront, in the rough part of town called the flats.

It's where the A's play baseball and long ago a lucky kid forged a fleeting pair of friendships that turned the Coliseum into his own personal playground, where he visited the clubhouse, hung around the batting cage and had the freedom to roam from the bleachers to the luxury seats.

I grew up in the Oakland hills, in a charmed area called Montclair Village, but spent every moment I could at the ballpark. I watched the playoffs and World Series, collected enough memorabilia — bats, gloves, autographed baseballs — to fill a museum case and even rode in the parade in 1972 when the city celebrated the first of three straight Major League championships.

#storysongs combo: “Oakland Zone,” by local band Tower of Power. It was a bit of funk to start the workweek right. 

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Tuesday’s Column One:

Myanmar's once-proud film industry a flicker of its former self

Down a back road in northern Yangon, a sagging teak house fights back the jungle. On the gate, barely noticeable under the weeds, rusty ironwork spells out “A1 Film.”

Myanmar's first movie studio, once known as the Burma Film Co., opened nearly a century ago, its lineage dating to the nation's first feature film, “Love and Liquor,” a 1920 cautionary tale about gambling and alcoholism that proved a big hit despite its rather monotonous single camera angle.

“We used to be huge,” said actor and director Ko Myint, the great-grandson of A1's founder, sounding like a Burmese version of “Sunset Boulevard” as he welcomed a rare Western guest in a sitting room of well-worn furniture and fading photos.

#storysongs combo: The very lyrical “The End of the Movie,” by Stornoway. (Who have a new album called “Tales From Terra Firma” that’s quite wonderful.)

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Wednesday’s Column One:

Wrestling down stereotypes

Boys — move!” a woman's voice commanded. The wrestling team lollygagged offstage at the lunchtime pep rally at Panorama High School, and the crowd wasn't paying much attention.

Suddenly, the DJ cranked a bass-heavy beat, and a group of girls came strolling out. Coach Abby Herrera told the students there had never been an all-girls high school wrestling squad in Los Angeles, but this season, a group of students from Panorama was changing that.

“And you're looking at 'em,” she said.

Fourteen girls, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, faced their classmates with cold stares.

“At 98 pounds,” the coach announced. “The Beast: Coellet Rangel.” The wrestler, who doubles as a cheerleader, flashed a quick smile and bowed playfully. Then the game face returned.

Herrera continued down the line: “Miss Bucket” at 109 pounds, “Hippo” at 126 pounds, and, at 230 pounds, Micah Nacpil, who forced a shy smile.

For most teenage girls, having their weight on display in front of their classmates is a nightmare scenario. But these young women have proven to be braver than your average teen.

#storysongs combo: I chose “Girls It Ain’t Easy,” by Dusty Springfield. But writer Stephen Ceasar bested me with “I’m Just a Girl,” by No Doubt. Gwen Stefani should be their patron saint: girly, but fierce! 

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Thursday’s Column One:

Trying to prove their love

She was a brainy honors student bound for UC Berkeley. He was a chatty Glendale city bus driver who never missed Sunday Mass. He called her Chiquita — little one. She called him Pollo — chicken, for his skinny legs.

Her mother called him something else: El Viejito — the little old man.

When their romance bloomed in 2008, Ana Verdin-Hernandez was 22 and Gerardo Herrejon was 63. Ana's friends and family were scandalized. How could she throw away her youth on a man with an eighth-grade education and three children older than her?

Two years later, Ana and Gerardo got married anyway and moved into Gerardo's bungalow-style home in Cypress Park. Over time, their apparent devotion swayed many doubters. After all, Gerardo was spry and with his full head of hair looked much younger than his age. And Ana had always gravitated to older people, an old soul trapped in a young woman's body.

But there was one more person to convince: the official eyeing the couple suspiciously across the desk at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on a foggy day in March 2012.

#storysongs combo: The music for this one was like a mood ring. When feeling optimistic about their chances, I played “Someday We’ll Be Together,” by Diana Ross and the Supremes. When feeling gloomy, I thought of the bridge over the Rio Grande and chose the downbeat “Look on Down From the Bridge,” by Mazzy Star. In the end, the Supremes, and optimism, prevailed. Love the outfits in this video.

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Friday’s Column One:

Texas preacher teaches guns and religion

BEAUMONT, Texas — Two years ago on Super Bowl Sunday, Pentecostal preacher James McAbee was getting into his car after services when he heard a commotion. He saw two men break a window and enter a church hall that was being renovated.

McAbee called 911. The dispatcher said it would take officers at least 11 minutes to respond.

He lingered outside for a moment, frustrated.

“I could hear them snapping the lumber and carrying the sheet rock,” McAbee said.

The pastor drew a .380 pistol he wore in an ankle holster and burst into the hall — only to find two adolescents.

McAbee, who'd had a troubled youth, saw himself in the pair. He lowered his gun to offer some fatherly advice, but the older one, a 17-year-old with two outstanding drug warrants, rushed the pastor with the pointy end of a broken 2-by-4.

“I got my gun back out in time,” McAbee said. “He froze in his tracks. I said, 'Son, you better not move or I'll put one right in your watermelon!'“

#storysongs combo: “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Bob Dylan. From one of the most perfectly minimal soundtracks ever, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” (This song is like a two-minute screenplay: “Mama, put my guns in the ground/I can’t shoot them anymore/That long, black cloud is coming down/I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door...”) 

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If you have ideas for story-song pairings of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATimesColumn1 with the hashtag #storysongs.

-- Kari Howard

kari.howard@latimes.com / @karihow

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