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Setting Times stories to music: From Frank Black to David Bowie

November 02, 2013|By Kari Howard

“Los Angeles looks like a topographic map, its skyscrapers not worthy of their name.”

That line, from Monday’s Great Read, was one of my favorites of the past week and beyond. I loved the imagery, and the rhythm of the language. I also loved how it illuminated a truth about this city: Los Angeles isn’t a New York or a Hong Kong -- its beauty isn’t in the buildings reaching for the sky. Its beauty is in the topography.

Look around -- we have the mountains, the beaches, the deserts, the sea. But closest to my heart are the canyons. Does any other major city wrap itself around these rugged folds in the earth like Los Angeles? Laurel. Topanga. And dozens more not captured in the public imagination. Rustic places where you can see the city if you want, but can also feel a million miles away.

So many musicians have lived in them, especially Laurel Canyon, I’m surprised we have so few songs about canyon living. Help me: What is there beyond “Ladies of the Canyon,” by Joni Mitchell?

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 read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story-song combo!


Monday’s Great Read:

Capturing the mysteries of the sun one drawing at a time

The elevator is less an elevator than an open-air bucket. In high winds, it wobbles and sways like an old amusement park ride. Today the air is still.

Steve Padilla clips on his safety harness and crouches on a small ledge inside the bucket. He yanks the tiller rope; the winch engages, and the century-old contraption begins its two-minute ascent 150 feet to the top of the tallest solar telescope on Mt. Wilson.

The sun, low and bright in the east, has washed away the pastels of dawn and cuts across the top of the forest. A maroon windbreaker wards off the morning chill. Only once, Padilla says, has the bucket stalled, leaving him stranded mid-journey.

He's been making the trip for nearly 40 years, through Santa Anas and cold snaps, budgets cuts and shifts in research. Throughout it all, one part of the job has remained constant: the drawings.

Like cloistered monks in the Dark Ages who devoted hours of their lives to creating manuscripts that few could read, Padilla draws, maps and classifies the sunspots that have formed on this familiar star, adding to almost 28,350 daily drawings that date back to 1917.

Only fire, repairs and inclement weather have interrupted the record of the sunspots, which were once blamed for grain shortages and stock market runs and are now predictors of damaging solar flares.

#storysongs combo: “Staring at the Sun,” by TV on the Radio. A bit of a Peter Gabriel thing going on here.


Tuesday’s Great Read:

Two worlds meet in Wyoming's smallest town

They're two men from nations once at war, faraway realms with starkly foreign languages, cultures and such opposing weather as frozen wind and tropical heat.

But these days, Don Sammons and Nguyen Dinh Pham prefer to concentrate on what they have in common: a tiny patch of real estate on the wind-swept plains of southern Wyoming.

In an auction that was also streamed online, Pham, a 38-year-old entrepreneur from Vietnam, bought a 10-acre property billed as the smallest town in America, a locale that traces its roots to the construction of the nation's first transcontinental railroad 150 years ago.

For $900,000, he took over an isolated roadside stopover owned by Sammons — who served as the mayor, postmaster and proprietor of a gas station/trading post and five other buildings along Interstate 80, an hour and a half northwest of Denver.

Pham is using the spot to launch a coffee empire, selling strong-tasting Vietnamese brews to an American audience. In Sammons, he has an ally who remains dizzied by the relationship.

As a young man, Sammons, now 63, fought in the jungles of Vietnam. For now, he manages his old store, helping to market PhinDeli coffee, and plans to return to the country to learn the company's coffee-making secrets.

“If you would have told me a few months ago I'd be selling this place to a Vietnamese citizen, I would not have believed you,” Sammons said.

#storysongs combo: “The Man Who Sold the World,” by David Bowie. I like the covers by Lulu and Nirvana, but have to stay loyal to Bowie. Here he is singing it 30 years after he wrote it (and still looking stunning, I might add).


Wednesday’s Great Read:

Los Angeles Aqueduct bomber reveals his story

Mention the name Mark Berry to old-timers at Jake's Saloon in Lone Pine and you get winks and knowing smiles.

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