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Setting Times stories to music: From the Kinks to Sugarhill Gang

May 10, 2013|By Kari Howard
  • A pedestrian walks past the Los Feliz Theater on Vermont Avenue, a landmark of the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.
A pedestrian walks past the Los Feliz Theater on Vermont Avenue, a landmark… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Would you do a double-take if I said that that words were a recurring theme in this week’s Great Reads?

Yes, beautiful language is a mainstay in these stories, but this week, two standouts focused on words.

Exhibit A: The words “Los Feliz.” I pronounce it Los FEE-lus. I know it’s not correct, but it’s “right” (marks me as an old-timer, I know).

Exhibit B: The word “delight.” Silicon Valley types have been tripping all over themselves to use the word. At least it’s better than another buzzword that makes me go urghhh: freemium.

And the language thing carried over to the week’s music. First of all, Ray Davies of the Kinks is one of the best lyricists on the planet. And I have a fondness for a lyric from another one of this week’s bands, the Sugarhill Gang. Sing with me: “Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn.”

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

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Monday’s Great Read:

Smashed U.S. cars get a second chance in Afghanistan

They sit in the sun harboring their lost histories, their forgotten dreams, their traces of funerals, graduations and stolen kisses. On dusty windshields, insurance stickers from Travelers and State Farm bear witness to wrecks in “Metro DC,” “Hardin, Texas,” and “North Hollywood,” some with bright orange “total loss” decals.

For their former owners, that was it, nothing left but a story to recount of a corner rounded too quickly, a red light run, one too many drinks for the road.

But here on the highway to Iran, thousands of used cars from America and Western Europe begin a second life.

Afghanistan doesn't manufacture its own cars, or much else, so most vehicles sold here are “pre-owned” (and many pre-crashed — but with barely a dent thanks to deft repair work by local body shops).

Most begin their journey by ship to a new world of unpaved roads, kidnappers and Islamist militants after being auctioned to middlemen by U.S. or European insurers. The vehicles land in Dubai or other ports and are then transferred onto other ships bound for Pakistan or — after being resold to circumvent U.S. and European sanctions — Iran.

The final leg of their trip to this “graveyard of empires” (and Toyota Corollas) is via transport truck.

American brands don't sell as well as Japanese and are hard to find parts for, said Abdullah, a salesman with Herat's Tamin Ansar Autos who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. “I know one guy who sells Fords,” he said. “He sold them very cheap. They use too much gas.”

#storysongs combo: “Used Cars,” by Bruce Springsteen. The first two paragraphs of this story remind me of a Springsteen song (and I guess now I can say that this song reminds me of a Magnier story.) Two lines alone summon a life: “Now, my ma, she fingers her wedding band/ And watches the salesman stare at my old man's hands."

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Tuesday’s Great Read:

'Los Feliz': How you say it tells about you and L.A.

The phone jangles in the bright white-walled computer shop off Hillhurst Avenue, and Ariel Belkin picks it up.

“Los FEE-lus Hi-Tech,” he says. “This is Ariel.”

After the call comes his confession. The 30-year-old tech whiz, who also plays guitar in a band, moved to Los Feliz from the Valley a year and a half ago. Back then, he resolved to pronounce his new neighborhood as Los Fey-LEASE. The Spanish pronunciation, he says, is the “the right way.”

But pretty soon he caved to the weird stares and smug corrections from locals and switched to the more common anglicized pronunciation.

“It's kind of sad,” he said. “Like I gave in to the Man.”

But Belkin isn't the only one in a pronunciation quandary, and neither is Los Feliz. Many of the names that dot the maps of Southern California originate with the Spanish settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries and the Native Americans before them.

The English-speaking people who eventually developed the region loved the romantic feel of the Spanish place names but brought a decidedly Midwestern way of pronouncing them.

Rancho Los Feliz became Los FEE-lus. La bahía de San Pedro, San PEE-dro. El Segundo, Elsie Gunndo. And when left to Sam Yorty, a Nebraska native who served as L.A. mayor four decades ago, “Los An-gel-lus” — already a big jump from el pueblo de los Ángeles — got a sort-of nasal pronunciation with a hard-g “Law SANG-lus.”

#storysongs combo: “You Say Tomato, I Say Tomato,” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

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Wednesday’s Great Read:

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