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Setting Times stories to music: From Nirvana to Yo La Tengo

May 18, 2013

By Kari Howard

The stories I read spark musical connections every day. It’s a bit more rare when the walk to work does.

But one of my favorite moments this week came when I was strolling down Broadway past Grand Park in downtown LA, a section that used to be a parking lot for the criminal courts building. A woman was walking in the other direction talking on the phone, vexation in your voice. And I overheard her say this:

“They turned it into a damn park!”

It made me laugh – it was a bizarro-world Joni Mitchell lyric in reverse: “They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot.”

Months ago, I had watched the parking lot being unpaved so paradise could be put up, so another of the song’s lyrics had resonance: “They took all the trees/Put ‘em in a tree museum.” The first thing the construction workers did? Uproot the trees that had somehow managed to survive for years in their concrete jungle—and replaced them later with baby trees.

I felt so bad for the old ones, but maybe they’re in a tree museum now.

Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they’re known in print, Column One) --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:

Bieber vs. Beethoven; a new twist on battle rap

Comedian Lloyd Ahlquist steps onto the stage, girded for battle. Wearing the uniform of a Soviet officer, with medals dripping from his chest, he channels dictator Joseph Stalin and prepares to deliver a rhyming smackdown on Russia's mad monk, Grigori Rasputin.

The cameras roll, the music playback reverberates through the Culver City studio — then an unexpected glitch halts production on “Epic Rap Battles of History's” second-season finale. Ahlquist's thick mustache is obscuring his mouth, making it difficult to see him snarl such insults as “All your wizard friends: shot! Anyone who sold you pirogi: shot!”

Ahlquist, director Dave McCary and a makeup artist consult: Should they compromise authenticity and give Stalin's mustache a trim? After a 10-minute discussion, co-creator Peter Shukoff enters the studio wearing Rasputin's flowing black garment and a long, scraggly beard. He says the mustache “looks great” — it's the overcompensation that's the problem.

“I've been trying to keep my mouth open a little bit, and jut my jaw out,” Ahlquist explains. “I just don't want to look too much like Wario.”

The mustache would retain its Nintendo antihero glory.

#storysongs combo: “Conjunction Junction,” Schoolhouse Rock. You probably have to be a certain age, but these guys made me think of those old Saturday morning attempts to make learning fun with music. It’s how I learned the preamble to the Constitution. And I’ll never forget that little slumped bill sitting on Capitol Hill. But this is my favorite.

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Tuesday’s Great Read:

'Go destroy them,' artist says of his paintings

On the second floor of a nursery school in a Turkish border town, artist Nader Haj Kadour preferred talking about painting butterflies than painting Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The classically trained Syrian artist pointed to a recently completed yellow and purple cartoon, part of the growing acrylic garden along the walls of the school in this town crowded with refugees. Then he delved into the finer points of painting for a young audience.

“See this butterfly? If you paint it in a classical style, you haven't done anything for the child,” he said.

Haj Kadour was less eager to speak about his main subject for the last four decades: the late President Hafez Assad and, later, his son Bashar.

Their faces have dominated walls, storefronts and car windows all over Syria, a visual declaration of loyalty to the dictators. Their images — sometimes partially hidden behind sunglasses, other times in military uniform but always stern and slightly foreboding — were the ubiquitous reminders that Big Brother was watching.

Haj Kadour painted hundreds of the portraits.

“We don't need to dwell on that,” he said.

#storysongs combo: “Written on the Forehead,” by PJ Harvey. This is from her brilliant album on the disastrous wars of the 2000s, “Let England Shake.”

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Wednesday’s Great Read:

Angelina Jolie's choice is clear to one who faced it

Fear of cancer is a horrible thing. It stays with you all day long, and it wakes you up at night.

I didn't want to live with that, especially when I knew I could do something about it.

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