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Setting Times stories to music: From the Smiths to R.E.M.

May 03, 2013

By Kari Howard

These songs are a personal soundtrack for this week’s wonderful Column Ones, but one below is featured on an actual soundtrack, for the Danny Boyle movie “The Beach.”

The band is called Underworld, and Boyle has used them for several of his films, not to mention the completely brilliant soundtrack for the London Olympics he produced last summer. (I can die happy: I’ve heard the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” at the Olympics.)

But Boyle’s movies have always had some of the best soundtracks. Perhaps matched only by Quentin Tarantino. And I have a soft spot for Wes Anderson’s musical choices. (My favorite music moment ever in a film might be in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” where the henchman character voiced by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker is singing a silly song and his bad-guy boss, voiced by Michael Gambon, says: “That’s just weak songwriting! You wrote a bad song, Petey!”)

Anyway, 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:

Online music lessons in the key of see

Talc Tolchin ducks into the music studio he built behind his Marin County cottage, where the sun filters through a towering redwood tree and his daughter has dotted the flower beds with fairy houses. It's time for his next piano lesson.

An hour's drive northwest of San Francisco, this woodsy town tucked among rolling golden hills claims only 500 or so dispersed residents. But not all of Tolchin's students are close by. When it's time to greet his second student on a recent Friday, he reaches for the laptop perched on his upright piano and summons her — via Skype.

Madeline Sheron pops up, peering at Tolchin from under her dark bangs. They banter — about an app that offers piano, bass and drum accompaniment, adjusted for groove and tempo. Then they dive into “All of Me,” the song Sheron had chosen in hopes of mastering jazz improvisation.

Her computer camera is aimed over her shoulder and Tolchin watches her left hand as it bops from sevenths to thirds. Tolchin has two cameras — one mounted on the ceiling so students can watch his hands, the other trained on his face.

“Go, girl!” he exclaims, tapping his foot as she masters the first turnaround.
Sheron was 200 miles away, in the Sierra Nevada ski town of Truckee. But she could just as well have been across the globe.

#storysongs combo: “My Foolish Heart,” by Bill Evans, my favorite pianist. In this video, you can see him hunched over the keys, inhabiting the song.


Tuesday’s Column One:

A billiards pro who sinks them all

The billiards joint is hazy with cigarette smoke as fans on metal bleachers lean in toward the action. Max Eberle stands over his shot, oblivious to the buzzing crowd and wandering waitresses, his mind's eye focused on the miniature cosmos before him.

The veteran pro player views the pool table as his own universe, its colorful planetary orbs propelled across a green-felt solar system. His break is the Big Bang, the sheer force of the stroke bending the maple cue stick into a cartoonish curve.

He paces the 7-foot-long table, mentally assessing the physics of spin and the geometry of angles crucial to running a rack. There's a grace to his movements as he sets up a series of bank and spin shots, the cue stick's follow-through pure and straight, commanding the cue ball to stop dead, careen sideways or strike with premeditated violence.

Just hours before, Eberle eclipsed a fellow pro known as King Kong, harking back to an old moniker, “No Mercy Max,” running 54 balls straight while his opponent never touched his cue.
His present foe, a player in a baseball cap and graying beard, is faring no better.

Another break, another run in this first-to-win-six-games nine-ball match. Like a spectator, the other guy can do nothing but sit and watch.

Then Eberle hits a difficult spin-rail shot. The crowd hushes as someone whispers: “Whoa.”

#storysongs combo: “Eight Ball,” by trance music group Underworld. “Today I saw a man/with a flaming eight ball tattooed on his arm.”


Wednesday’s Column One:

WWII poster calls for calm; now it stokes frenzy, feud

Has a piece of advice ever seemed so apt, or so frightfully ironic?

Thirteen years ago, Stuart Manley stumbled upon a slightly faded red poster tucked at the bottom of a box of books he had bought at auction. Unfolding it, he found himself staring at a relic of World War II, a long-forgotten piece of government propaganda bearing the logo of the British crown and this pithy message:

Keep calm and carry on.

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