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Setting Times stories to music: From Radiohead to Matthew Sweet

April 13, 2013|By Kari Howard
  • Jeff Littrel and his son Malik stand in the doorway of their home in the Ramona Gardens housing project in Los Angeles. The Littrel's were were eating dinner when a rock thrown by young men crashed through their living room window and to this day have kept the rock as a reminder and inspiration.
Jeff Littrel and his son Malik stand in the doorway of their home in the Ramona… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

So the thought has probably occurred to some of you: If I listen to this one specially chosen song while editing, does that mean I can edit a story in three minutes?

Yes, I’m that good.

OK, the real answer is that sometimes I listen to that particular song as I start working the story, and then move on to other music by the same band, or something with a similar mood.

Or I go into full “High Fidelity” mode (see: near-perfect novel and movie of the same name) and listen to that song over and over and over (see: “Someone to Pull the Trigger,” for the Wednesday story.)

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:

A hunt for dark matter in a former gold mine

The scientists don hard hats, jumpsuits and steel-toed boots to pile into a metal cage for a rumbling 11-minute descent into an abandoned South Dakota gold mine. They step over old mine-cart rails, through rough-walled tunnels and into a bright white room. There, they cast off their dusty garb and enter a lab hidden nearly a mile beneath the Earth.

Inside, Patrick Phelps peers at valves connected to half a million dollars' worth of some of the purest xenon in the world.

“Is everyone ready?” the Case Western Reserve graduate student calls out over growling machinery filling the cavernous space. Ice piles on a nearby tank, digital displays glow green, and bundles of wires curl in every direction.

“Let's do it,” says Attila Dobi, a University of Marylandgraduate student.

Here, with a two-story state-of-the-art detector sheltered in what was once North America's deepest gold mine, the scientists are panning the cosmos for a flash of something far more elusive than gold: dark matter.

#storysongs combo: “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” Radiohead. The band is brilliant in both the American and British senses of the word, so thought the song fit a story that’s brilliant in both senses too.


Tuesday’s Column One:

For gunsmith, a full-bore interest and a high gauge of expertise

For Terry Tussey, a gun is the perfect marriage of form and function, a carefully crafted machine that can contain an explosion delivering 20,000 pounds of pressure per square inch and drive a bullet through a barrel at 1,000 feet per second.

Every spring, catch, plunger, plug, pin and cap must work for it to fire properly. Dirt, rust and abuse lead to jams, misfires and parts breaking.

This morning, he's holding a .45 semiautomatic, popularly known as a 1911. Built in the '70s with military surplus parts, it has a plastic opalescent grip and a slide engraved with what looks like the tendrils of a climbing rose.

The design's too garish for Tussey, but right now looks don't matter. He drops the magazine, pulls back the slide to make sure there isn't a cartridge in the chamber and soon has the gun in three pieces: barrel, slide and frame.

#storysongs combo: “Someone to Pull the Trigger,” Matthew Sweet. Here we have a case of a singer’s name perfectly describing his pop. Why wasn’t he a big star? Maybe it was that pining thing (which I happen to love). Hey, two of this week’s bands could do a pining/self-loathing song smackdown: Radiohead’s “Creep” and Matthew Sweet’s “Sick of Myself.”


Wednesday’s Column One:

In Egypt, grief lives where 50 children died

Let us eat first, he says. “I will tell you, after, my memories of who they were.” Liver. Bread. Cheese. Coffee. A cigarette. A train hurtles past the village, shaking his table, slicing through fields of wheat.

Trains come so often that they feel like family, yes like uncles and cousins, or so they once did.

Hamada Anwar speaks of God and the harvest. But the meal is done and he can no longer put off the story he has promised to tell. He breathes in and begins. It was just after dawn in November when the train — he wants to say here that he's forgiven everyone — raced through the crossing and tore into the school bus carrying his children.

Four of them. A tangle of backpacks, drawings blowing in blood and dust. Reem, 10; Adham, 8; Arwa, 6; Nour, not yet 3. He gathered and buried them in a graveyard beneath the black smoke of a brick kiln. Forty-six other children died that day. The bus driver too. All of Egypt mourned.

The government paid out $5,000 per child; no one ever asked how one calculates the worth of a son or daughter.

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