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Setting Times stories to music: Falco, Flying Burrito Brothers

March 30, 2013|By Kari Howard
  • Thousands including Nathaniel Marshall, 22, of Tustin, participated in the 2013 Spring Dapper Day at Disneyland.
Thousands including Nathaniel Marshall, 22, of Tustin, participated… (Christina House / Los Angeles…)

When I clicked on the “Today’s Great Read” banner on the L.A. Times home page at week’s end, it hit me: The last five days of Column One stories, photos and videos—they were all presented like a gorgeous literary magazine.

Wow. It was a eureka moment. This is where lovers of beautiful writing can come, and find a curated selection of the best narrative  journalism we offer.

In these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each story--maybe they’ll buy your eye, and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And because I listen to music as I edit, 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:

He was transformed by Mozart

The morning commute was like any other — almost. As cars flew by on the northbound 710, I hit “play” on my iPod and a melody swept over me. Rush hour melted away.

“Ah-vey, ah-vey, veh-room corrrr-pooose,” the choir began. The Latin words open “Ave Verum Corpus” (Hail true body), a choral composition that has captivated listeners for more than two centuries.

I sang along, and I wasn't doing it alone. At that moment, two friends in New Jersey and Georgia were singing the words as well. It was our new daily ritual, a pact we had made three months earlier.

We were in upstate New York on a spiritual retreat when someone suggested forming a choir. We gathered on a warm August afternoon, 14 men and women around a piano. Soon we were holding three pages of sheet music and below the title was the composer's name: W.A. Mozart.

The quarter, half and whole notes seemed manageable — I could read the music — but the musical notation offered no hint of how profoundly this compact piece was about to transform my life.

#storysongs combo: “Rock Me Amadeus,” by Falco. I’m far from an expert on Mozart, so I stuck with what I know best: pop. The song is silly, the video even sillier (while at the same time brilliant). But it will be stuck in your head all day. My work here is done.

Tuesday’s Column One

Battling his demons from an old war, he goes the extra mile for vets

The Walking Man of Murphys, as he's known along a certain stretch of California 4 in Gold Country, sings.


“You've lost that loving feelin' ...,” the ex-Marine croons, his off-key notes traveling across traffic on the two-lane road.

The freedom to sing poorly is one reason Ric Ryan is out here — day after day, in every season — his walking stick clicking briskly through the miles. He likes to have “time with my tunes, when nobody else has to listen,” he said.

But he's also following unexpected paths of grace.

Ryan, 67, is fighting demons from an old war while helping soldiers returning from the latest ones. In two years, his solitary walks have raised $19,000 for UCLA Operation Mend, which offers free reconstructive surgery to disfigured soldiers and Marines. (About $4,000 has come from his own pocket, a quarter at a time.)

#storysongs combo: “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), by the Proclaimers. A song, and a band, guaranteed to put you in a good mood. Love the Reid twins.

Wednesday’s Column One

Dapper Day at Disneyland, the nattiest place on Earth

A day at Disneyland is a marathon, and the visitors lining up in the plaza outside the park were prepared to make it to the finish.

They had on sneakers and sweats and packs (both fanny and back). Young men with knee-length basketball shorts hanging off their hips shuffled alongside dads in cargo shorts and socks pulled up to their shins. Moms, their hair pulled back in no-nonsense ponytails, trudged along in capri pants pushing strollers loaded down like the truck in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Then, like a vision from another time, Christina Forst stood beside a lamppost in a blue floral dress and felt hat decorated with peacock feathers. Her lips were painted red and her fair skin matched the pearl drop earrings and double-strand necklace she had crafted herself.

“It's just as comfortable coming in a dress as jeans and a T-shirt,” said Forst, a travel agent from Irvine. “Why not add the jewelry and the makeup, and really make a statement?”

She was one in a group of thousands who had come on a recent Sunday for the twice-a-year event known as Dapper Day, hoping to add a touch of sartorial sophistication to a place where the words “Sunday” and “best” rarely meet.

Many saw themselves as tastefully appointed insurgents rebelling against a world in which jeans and golf shirts are acceptable at the office, celebrities have to be reminded to cover themselves when appearing on the red carpet and the attire in airport terminals looks better suited to a track meet than to air travel.

#storysongs combo: “Peacock Suit,” by Paul Weller. Here’s a live version, performed by the sharp-dressed ex-Mod on London’s South Bank.


Thursday’s Column One

Trapped between the covers of Nevada's Black Book

LAS VEGAS — Frank Citro Jr. is holding court at his regular table at a dingy roadhouse, about as far from the glamour of the Strip as you can get.

Men in suits stop to pay their respects, some kissing the cologne-splashed cheek of the guy they call Frankie. It's a gesture of affection, like those of his neighborhood cronies in Jersey City, back in the old days.

But more recent days haven't been so kind to Frankie. He loves this live-music joint, don't get him wrong. When you're Frank Citro Jr., there are only so many nightspots in this town where you're still welcome.

For 23 years, Frankie has been included in Nevada's Black Book, officially the “Excluded Person List,” an index of desert undesirables blackballed by the state's casino regulators. Since its inception in 1960, the book has included such mobsters as William “Icepick Willie” Alderman, Murray “the Camel” Humphries and Chicago crime boss Sam “the Cigar” Giancana.

Black Book inclusion means you can't own, manage or even enter a casino. The only way off the list is to die, and even then state regulators require a death certificate as proof that you are, indeed, truly departed.

Now the 68-year-old Frankie is attempting something never tried in the book's history: He wants off the list while he's still alive.

“I don't belong in this book,” he said in his thick Jersey accent, an unlit Camel dangling from his lips. “I never cheated a casino, never had a fight there. I'm just supposedly a notorious felon. There are lots of felons in this town. Why me?”

#storysongs combo: “Sin City,” by the Flying Burrito Brothers. The title notwithstanding, it’s not really about Vegas, but it works so well with this story. I saw Dwight Yoakam do a great version of this song at a tribute concert to Gram Parsons years ago at the Universal Amphitheatre. He really ripped it up. The video is out there—watch it. But here’s the original, with footage of the band in their Nudie Rodeo Tailor suits out in Joshua Tree that I’d never seen before.


Friday’s Column One

Jewish dead lie forgotten in East L.A. graves

The black gates of Mount Zion are chained. A sign stamped on a wall of bright bougainvillea on Downey Road asks visitors to call a neighboring graveyard if they want to go in. The phone number doesn’t exist anymore.

Robert Adler-Peckerar stood at the entrance of the Jewish cemetery in East L.A., the downtown skyline behind him, the rush of the 710 and 5 freeways around him. It was a Sunday, and he was on a quest to find the grave of a man born on that day more than 100 years before.

He tracked down a caretaker next door who led him through a fence into Mount Zion. Once inside, he saw dozens of children’s graves closely spaced. Tiny and delicate, several headstones had been knocked down.

Walking down a winding asphalt road scabbed with dirt, weeds and a shag carpet of dried cypress leaves, the 38-year-old saw that hundreds of tombstones were on the ground, some lying like small, toppled Stonehenges.

On one tomb, a vandal scrawled a cryptic graffiti: “Here lies Horse. RIP.”

An hour later, he finally found what he was looking for: the grave of Lamed Shapiro, a writer of gruesomely dark stories of pogroms in Eastern Europe who died a pauper in Los Angeles in 1948.

#storysongs combo: “To Love Is To Bury,” by the Cowboy Junkies. A beautiful lyric from the song: “They say to love is to bury/The demons from which we all hide.” 


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


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-- Kari Howard / @karihow

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