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Setting Times stories to music: Radiohead to Staple Singers

April 26, 2014|By Kari Howard
  • A boy standing with a rifle and an ice cream cone in Aleppo, Syria, says he is a fighter with the Suqoor Al Sham group, a member of the Islamic Front.
A boy standing with a rifle and an ice cream cone in Aleppo, Syria, says he… (Raja Abdulrahim / Los Angeles…)

Ever since I started working with Raja Abdulrahim on her Syria stories two years ago, I’ve listened to Radiohead while editing them.

It didn’t start out as a running soundtrack to a writer and the conflict she still covers, but Radiohead’s music has that combination of sorrow and alienation and dread and vulnerability that runs through the Syria conflict.

I remember choosing “Talk Show Host” for the first story. (Warning: There's a bit of Anglo-Saxon language.) Its line about “I’ll be waiting with a gun and a pack of sandwiches” seemed to echo the story’s juxtaposition of violence and everyday life.

This is the lede of the piece. Still knocks me out:

“Scattered around the house that Abu Nadim once shared with his wife and five children are hints of its former existence: a SpongeBob SquarePants pillow, a baby's crib, a woman's purse.

Now the four-room home is a bomb-making workshop.”

For Thursday’s Great Read, which featured the unforgettable photo above, also taken by Raja, I chose “Bulletproof ... I Wish I Were,” from “The Bends” album (which happens to have at least three other songs that fit the mood, either musically or lyrically: “High and Dry,” “Black Star” and one of my favorite Radiohead songs, “Fake Plastic Trees.”)

Great band, great reporter.

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 soundtrack!


Monday’s Great Read:

Resurrection story inspires on Prophet's campaign trail

The kids at Compton YouthBuild can be a tough audience. Many come from broken homes, flunked out of multiple schools, even spent time in jail.

By the last day of Black History Month, some at the alternative school — which looks boarded shut from Compton Boulevard — had gotten their fill of talk about hope and perseverance.

On this late Friday afternoon, though, a tall young man strode into their big multipurpose room and flashed a flawless smile. He looked a bit like the rapper Drake. Or so said a girl near the front, giggling.

When the visitor began, "How many people here are familiar with Nickerson Gardens?" some of the students stopped mugging and poking one another. They not only knew the housing project where their guest came up, they knew other young men not unlike him whose mothers struggled with addiction, who had children while still nearly children themselves, who had let violence win them over.

#soundtrack: “Redemption Song,” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Obvious, perhaps, but it works. Here’s a live version with a cool wop-doo-wop jam in the middle.


Tuesday’s Great Read:

A Central Valley high school goes Bollywood

Luckily, Shandeep Dhillon's cousin had recently gotten married.

That meant he alone could outfit much of Fowler High School for its first Bollywood night. His uncle's regal, embroidered sherwani coat went to the Central Valley school's principal, Hank Gutierrez. The outfit Shandeep, 13, had worn but outgrew went to Gutierrez's son Jordan, and Shandheep wore another cousin's, on down the line of his extended family's wedding clothes.

The Punjabi girls at school all had salvar kameez outfits they could lend to their Latina, Armenian and Swedish classmates.

“We go to lots and lots of Indian weddings and you dress up and feel like a princess,” said Manpreet Shaliwal, 16, in silky, peacock blue.

Even girls she had never talked to before had been introducing themselves over the last month, hoping to borrow one of her colorful outfits.

The cafeteria's ceiling was transformed by a parachute of tulle. That Pinterest vision had cost more than $200. But Harcoover Singh Bhatti, the Punjabi club president, argued that it would be worth it for the gasps now being emitted as students entered.

More students than he had dared expect bought $10 tickets to the dance. The 18-year-old ran about in a happy panic checking the supply of samosas.

“This was three years in the making. Three years!” he shouted as he sped past in his usual black turban. “It's a first!”

#soundtrack: “Surrey,” by Jazzy B. The kids danced to Jazzy B. at the Bollywood ball, and I loved listening to him as I edited. Dancing in my chair time.


Wednesday’s Great Read:

Ex-lawyer is on a mission to keep schools fair

As Sally Smith strode to the lectern, a few people in the audience rolled their eyes. Behind their nameplates, members of the San Diego school board fiddled with a cellphone, stared at laptops and rustled papers.

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