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Setting Times stories to music: From Isaac Hayes to Radiohead

This week, two images of California in drought have gotten lodged in my brain.

The first is the photograph above, from Friday’s heartbreaking Great Read about a pistachio farmer’s dying dreams, and a tree he named Survivor. Writer Diana Marcum and photographer Michael Robinson Chavez  teamed up to document the effects of the drought on farmers in  the Central Valley. In a word: devastating.

The second is from the July 4th parade I just attended on the rural fringes of Los Angeles. Float after float carried boys armed with those super soaker guns, spraying the crowd, and sometimes just the pavement, with gallons of water. To those city kids, water is an endless resource, a plaything.

When I sent out a tweet about the drought story, Diana suggested it sounded like a song lyric. And I have to admit that one phrase does seem a bit like a title: “Dreams to Dust.” Perhaps what this drought needs is a Woody Guthrie, or a Bruce Springsteen, to write a song to make it real to those of us whose everyday lives haven’t been affected by it yet.

I’m going to try to write one based on Diana’s story and Michael’s photographs. Anyone else want to join me?

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:

A tree's cinematic fame continues to grow in East L.A.

After traveling to Los Angeles from a small town in Hungary, Richard Hellenbort could have shadowed the Brentwood Country Mart, the Chateau Marmont or the Ivy hoping to catch a glimpse of stars such as Kobe, Brad or Angelina.

But the celebrity he was looking for was a tall, dark and scruffy one named Araucaria bidwillii, whose last (and only) role was more than 20 years ago in “Blood In Blood Out,” a cult movie about gangs and family and betrayal on the Eastside. Luckily, this star never gets around town: Hellenbort found the Australian conifer where it always is: up the hill from a carnitas shop in East Los Angeles.

Taking a video selfie in front of the tree, Hellenbort spread the fingers of his left hand into the sign of a gang that exists only in the film and, doing his best East L.A. accent, intoned: “Vatos Locos forever.”

Hellenbort, 34, said that on his list of places to see, the tree was up there with N.W.A. rapper Eazy-E's grave in Rose Hills.

“I know some people dream about visiting the Eiffel Tower or the big wall in China. But that was my dream,” he said of visiting the towering tree — which, perhaps fittingly, has needles like little switchblades.

Plenty of places in Los Angeles have gotten their close-ups with the camera over the years, including the Griffith Observatory in “Rebel Without a Cause,” City Hall in “Dragnet,” the Silver Lake stairs where Laurel and Hardy tried to deliver a piano in “Music Box” and the solitary Bunker Hill bench in “(500) Days of Summer.”

But the strangest slice of celebrity might belong to El Pino Famoso. In a case of Hollywood fiction becoming reality, an anonymous tree in an unremarkable neighborhood of stucco homes is cast as a landmark — and becomes one.

#soundtrack: “One Tree Hill,” by U2. I know it’s considered uncool to like U2, but “The Joshua Tree” was -- and is -- a good album.


Tuesday’s Great Read:

A decades-old same-sex marriage complicates a green-card case

Anthony Sullivan and Richard Adams were spending a quiet evening watching television in their Tujunga home when Johnny Carson joked about some liberal county clerk in Colorado who had done the unthinkable: issued a marriage license to two men.

It was 1975. Adams and Sullivan had been together for four years and knew they would stay together. They hopped a flight to Boulder, witnesses in tow, were granted Colorado Marriage License No. 1860 and got married.

“When we came home from the wedding, Richard bent down to put the key in the door of our place, and I just remember looking at him and having never felt such love as I did at that moment,” Sullivan recalled. “I thought, 'This dear, sweet, wonderful man has gone out on this tremendous limb for me.' I just remember feeling completely full.”

But that newlywed joy, as they expected, was quickly tempered by a world that wasn't ready for them.

Shortly after they married, Adams filed a petition with the Los Angeles office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (as it was then called) seeking permanent residency for Sullivan, an Australian citizen. For heterosexual married couples, the request was routine.

The agency, on official letterhead, responded with one sentence: “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.”

A year ago, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, making legally married gay couples eligible for green cards. But Sullivan is still fighting an old battle because his marriage — one of the first legal same-sex marriages in the country — pre-dated the abolishment of DOMA.

Sullivan is 72 now, with a soft voice and shy smile. His beloved Adams died in December 2012, just months before the Supreme Court's rulings on gay marriage.

This spring, Sullivan asked Los Angeles immigration authorities to reopen Adams' petition so he can be granted residency as the surviving spouse of a U.S. citizen.

He's decided to continue to push for his green card for a simple reason:

“The story's not complete.”

#soundtrack: “Our Day Will Come,” by Isaac Hayes. This is one of Hayes’ absolutely brilliant covers of unexpected songs. (If you haven’t heard them, please get a hold of the “Hot Buttered Soul” and “...To Be Continued” albums.) The lyrics seemed to resonate for this story about a couple whose love and marriage came too soon for a country that hadn’t opened its heart to equality.


Wednesday’s Great Read:

Playwright's 'ghosts' reflect spirit of Santa Ana

In Jose Cruz Gonzalez's mind, Santa Ana is a city haunted by the dead.

The playwright sees their ghosts watching from the cemeteries and rooftops: Klan members who patrolled local neighborhoods, men shouting their barrio names into the air, and la llorona, the weeping woman, playing tricks with refrigerator doors.

They preside over the city's unyielding landscape, its streets adorned by multicolored altars marking lost lives with school pictures and dollar store candles.

The ghosts, he writes, won't be found in Irvine or Costa Mesa. They haunt their own people in Santana.

For more than a year, Gonzalez has been getting to know the ghosts of this crowded, densely packed city in the heart of Orange County, mining its secrets through interviews with hundreds of residents.

A play, based on those interviews and commissioned by South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, is starting to take shape, and ghosts have found themselves in characters like a young boy named Andrés, who one day was playing in the street and never heard the truck barreling toward him.

Residents have opened up their lives, Gonzalez says. “I want to be able to show what they've shared in terms of their stories, stories of heartache, stories of love, stories of hope…the spirit of just picking themselves up and moving on.”

#soundtrack: “Ghosts That We Knew,” by Mumford & Sons. They can be a bit earnest for me, but I thought this song worked for the story. Here’s a nice live version from the Letterman show.


Thursday’s Great Read:

Kenyan kids jump across the world

When she first picked up a jump-rope, at age 11, Beryl Atieno was just another young girl in Kibera, Nairobi's notorious slum. Her horizon didn't extend far past its mud-slick streets and jagged patchwork of rusting rooftops..

Since then, she has appeared in her sky blue uniform in Kenyan newspapers and on television. A couple of years ago, she traveled to the coastal city of Mombasa, where for the first time she saw the sea.

“At school, we had been learning about the Indian Ocean, and had been told that it was salty,” she says. She discovered for herself that it actually is.

Now the 14-year-old is standing on the tarmac at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, looking up at the colossal wing of a 747. “Wow,” she says, sucking in her breath. “It's so big.”

Soon, the jet will take Beryl and several of her closest friends from Kibera to the other side of the world.

All because of a jump-rope.

#soundtrack: “Double Dutch,” by Malcolm McLaren. The Sex Pistols Svengali grabbed an African sound for this song off his album “Duck Rock.” The video shows some amazing moves with a rope.


Friday’s Great Read:

California drought imperils a dream

At first they called Fred Lujan a gentleman farmer.

The retired barber washed his tractor every night and parked it in the garage, a source of gentle amusement to the veteran growers around him. He called his pistachio trees his babies, his girls, and gave them names.

“Come on, Suzanne,” he'd say to his wife in the evenings. “Let's have a glass of wine and sit outside and watch our girls grow.”

Back when he was still learning to take corners while tilling, he sliced one of the saplings. The other farmers told him to pull it out, the tree wouldn't make it. But he wrapped the trunk in mud and water and tape the way his grandfather, born on an Indian reservation, had taught him.

He named the tree Survivor.

Eight years later, Survivor and the other trees were ready to give their first mature crop. In February, the 10-acre orchard was sprouting spring leaves.

Then a man from the irrigation district came and sealed off Lujan's water meter. A green tag read “No Irrigation Water Is Available This Year.” There was a $10,000 fine for breaking the seal.

For the first time in the more than half a century that the federal government had been diverting Sierra Nevada water to farmers, there would be no deliveries to most Central Valley irrigation districts. In the third year of drought, there wasn't enough water to go around.

It was a blow to the entire region, but a possible death knell to Terra Bella, whose pistachio and citrus groves are watered only by rain and the government’s canals.

“How am I supposed to just sit here and watch everything turn brown and die?” asked Lujan, 68.

Still, it was February and pistachio trees are drought-resistant. It just had to rain during March and April. He was sure it would.

#soundtrack: “High and Dry,” by Radiohead. “It’s the best thing that you ever had/the best thing you have had is gone away.” What a band.


If you have ideas for story soundtracks of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATgreatreads with the hashtag #soundtrack.



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