Robert Hilburn, in quintessence

LA Observed reported  last month that Robert Hilburn, the LA Times’ pop music critic since the 1960s, will finally give up his post, accepting a buyout offered as part of yet another staff reduction.

Though he didn’t join the Times’ staff full-time until 1970, Hilburn concert and album reviews started running in 1966.  In the late 60s and 70s, when I started reading the Times, its most prominent writers were the movie reviewer Charles Champlin, the sports columnist Jim Murray, the uncategorizable columnist Jack Smith (he’d have made a fine blogger), the gossip columnist Joyce Haber, the acerbic classical music critic Martin Bernheimer, various political writers like Jack Nelson, Bill Boyarsky and George Skelton, editorialist Tony Day, the brilliant feature/profile writers Bella Stumbo and John Balzar–and Hilburn. Most of them are gone now.

How did Hilburn survive for so long? He’s by far the worst writer of the above group. His prose style was always clunky. Describing music in words is challenging to be sure, but Hilburn’s vocabulary was exceptionally limited. “Inviting textures” abounded. Just look at what he wrote today, in what is probably one of his final pieces as a staff writer, a review of the best songs of 2005:

 8. Fiona Apple’s “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” (Epic/Clean Slate). There’s an almost irresistible feel-good spirit to this refreshing tale of self-affirmation, served up in a pop-cabaret style reminiscent of the rich sophistication of French chanteuse Edith Piaf (special credit to producer Jon Brion and orchestral arranger Patrick Warren). The reminder that we’re all OK is especially useful if you’re feeling out of step on New Year’s Eve.

4. Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils & Dust” (Columbia). Here is someone who has given us lots of New Year’s Eve music, some of it pure entertainment, some of it as thoughtful as this timely meditation on matters of faith and morals. It’s the story of a soldier in Iraq, but its implications travel much further.

1. Neil Young’s “When God Made Me” (Reprise). The tune, from Young’s recent “Prairie Wind” album, has such a warm, traditional feeling that it seemed like something from a family hymnal when Young introduced it at a Live 8 benefit last summer. Yet it was equally tender and touching when Young repeated it during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims in September. It should be no less haunting tonight.

Arrgh.  He makes you want to take out a red pencil and chop out the windy phrases and unneeded adjectives. An “almost irresistable feel-good spirit.”  A “warm, traditional feeling.”  Has Hilburn ever encountered a meditation that wasn’t “timely,” or sophistication that wasn’t “rich”? Some other words Hilburn couldn’t help but overuse: “vital,” “elements,” “lovely,” “adventurous,” “troubling,” “thoughtful,” “engaging.” 

A few months ago, Patterico vented his rage against Hilburn for a 1973 Jethro Tull review that allegedly steered the band’s career in an unrewarding direction. Helpfully, he links to the review, which Hilburn could’ve written yesterday:  

If there was ever any question about the rambling, disjointed nature of (Ian) Anderson’s longer works, the placement of these punchier, crisper, more concise pieces from Aqualung on the same show answered it. Anderson remains a talented, serious, imaginative artist, but his extended works need more easily identifiable, engaging themes and varied musical elements if they are to be worthy of the attention he wants for them.

Ngh! Why use one adjective when three will do?

So the question hangs still:  What accounts for Hilburn’s survival?  Well: To his credit, his taste–and the disproportionate effect his taste had on the LA-based music industry–was generally reliable. A top-ten list for any year during his career would probably feature music one would still find worthwhile today. He had a few blind spots. He never “got” Steely Dan, for example. His embrace of hip-hop and rap struck me as an unpersuasive political concession. On balance, though, he championed performers and songwriters who deserved the attention.

He was also a good reporter. His interviews were less clumsy than his reviews. His 2004 Bob Dylan interview, in which Dylan revealed his songwriting methods, was quite insightful.  Performers obviously trusted him.

Now, with Hilburn retiring, an era comes to an end.  Before Hilburn, the Times and most other newspapers did not take pop music seriously. Now, it hardly matters what newspapers say or do–the fan reviews on probably drive far more music purchases, and besides, via Rhapsody or iTunes, you can listen to the “inviting textures” for yourself.


Let’s Agree to Agree

Do all cities run this way? 

Eleven years ago, both of Los Angeles’ NFL teams moved away.  The Raiders abandoned the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, while the Rams, having ditched the Coliseum some 20 years prior, abandoned their Anaheim home.  Both teams went to places that, on the face of it, shouldn’t be stealing teams from such a big market. St. Louis? A city of little distinction, size or importance.  Oakland?  Interesting city, totally in the shadow of its glamorous neighbor across the Bay. 

Since these historic defections, what’s happened?  LA’s political community has all agreed: The NFL will come back.  It has to.  Without the Los Angeles market, the National Football League is not truly “national.”  A generation of sports fans in this gigantic market will grow up without an interest in pro football. The league will be hurt! And once the pain becomes intolerable, just watch, they’ll come crawling back, on our terms.

And what are our terms?  That the next Los Angeles NFL franchise will play in the Coliseum.

It’s an Orwellian thoughtcrime to think any other site even deserves consideration.  If you don’t think so, ask Michael Ovitz.  Or Peter O’Malley.  Or Tim Leiweke, Philip Anschutz and Casey Wasserman. Or, today, Dodger owner Frank McCourt:

The City Council, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger all have publicly endorsed the Coliseum.

“I’ve got to believe he [McCourt] didn’t understand the depth and the extent of the community consensus behind the Coliseum as the site for an NFL team in Los Angeles,” Villaraigosa said.

(Supervisor Zev) Yaroslavsky said the Dodgers had “broken ranks with what has been a united community — the business, sports, political and environmental communities, all of them behind the Coliseum project.”

Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district includes Dodger Stadium, said he would not support a football stadium there and noted that McCourt had promised to keep elected officials and community leaders informed of any potential development on the site. Reyes said McCourt had not spoken with him about an NFL stadium.

“If he’s making these overtures, it’s a big blow to the folks who are building a level of trust with him,” Reyes said. “That’s important when you’re dealing with issues of that scale.”

This “community consensus” is more accurately described as “the party line.” Deviance from it is not tolerated–despite the fact that the NFL’s made it clear in ways both direct and subtle that it doesn’t want to bring another team to this stadium.

Yes, I’m aware that just last month, local news outlets were able to shout in headlines that the NFL had reached a “preliminary agreement” to install a team in the Coliseum.  These headlines followed a meeting between NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Mayor Villaraigosa. But what did they really agree on?  According to the AP story:

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue emerged from a closed-door meeting with the mayor, stood on the steps of City Hall and announced that a preliminary agreement had been reached to finally return a team to Los Angeles.

After answering reporters’ questions for 15 minutes, even he couldn’t gauge the significance of his announcement Thursday.

“I’d rather not try,” Tagliabue said as he was guided into the back seat of a limousine and whisked away.

Even Mayor Villaraigosa’s own press release is a sticky mess of rhetoric that leads in no particular direction:

“Mr. Tagliabue and I had a very productive meeting and great exchange. There is both tremendous enthusiasm and spirited consensus in our community about the Coliseum as the preeminent venue for professional football. Leaders from the city, county and state have all come together to prepare the groundwork here. It’s time for professional football to come home to the Coliseum after 13 years — to become part of our community, to generate jobs and economic vitality, and to create new moments of football history.”

I think the agreement between the NFL and the city/county/state comes down to this.  From the NFL:  We’ll tell our owners to stop saying that renovating the Coliseum is like “trying to put a new dress on an old hooker.”  From LA: We’ll continue to pretend it matters if the NFL ever comes back.

Meanwhile, McCourt is in the doghouse for pursuing one of the various alternatives that actually makes sense–putting an NFL stadium on the Dodgers’ land.  Because McCourt is widely disliked, his political and PR gaffe is generating much schadenfreude.  (The PR people around McCourt knew full well the impact this would have; it’s surprising they let this happen.) But it reminds me of the sad hash former Mayor Riordan made when he first asked Peter O’Malley to look into the same idea and then–after O’Malley burned through about a million dollars and a year and a half of his life on preliminary studies–Riordan withdrew his support, and demanded O’Malley withdraw.

It’s been reported in many places that this embarassing chain-jerking was the final straw for O’Malley. He would have continued as owner of the Dodgers if he’d had the chance to also own an NFL franchise. The two together would have made a profit for him. But when Riordan pulled the rug out from under him, O’Malley was forced to realize he couldn’t afford to keep the Dodgers.  And so they were sold to Fox, and then by Fox to McCourt. Understandably, Dodger fans continue to wish there was such a thing as time travel so all that could have been averted.

Creative slump

According to Variety’s Peter Bart, the entertainment industry suffered through a disquieting 2005. Among other problems, he says,

    • Box office is down 5%, and a couple of the major studios are wracked by rumors of management change.
    • Album sales have dwindled by 7.8%, and volume at Virgin Megastores alone is down nearly 20%.
    • Videogame sales are sagging badly despite the heralded introduction of the Xbox 360.

The all-fronts decline is leading to what Bart terms “a curious form of creative paralysis.”  Clearly the old ideas aren’t working, but embracing new ideas means taking chances, with no guarantees.

We’re in a time when the owners of the entertainment media cannot seem to produce any cultural artifact that is a “must-see” or “must-hear.”  Everything is so denatured now. Too many films are written to a formula you could set your watch by.  Too many creative bets are hedged.

The corporate massaging of ideas into products creates a culture with few stories to guide us, few characters to identify with.  The romantic movies teach us nothing about romance.  The adventures teach us nothing about being a hero. The comedies teach nothing about the foibles of humanity.

People used to walk out of the movie theater in the style of the lead character, talking like him (or her), even breathing the same way.  Do moviegoers today want to emulate Ben Stiller, or Jennifer Aniston, or Adam Sandler, or Cameron Diaz? They’re like bad guests at a party, memorable mainly for being annoying.

It’s a cycle; sooner or later a “barbaric yawp” will break through, and inspire a new rush of great filmed stories. But the trough we’re in now is going to cost a lot of people their jobs, which is Bart’s main concern.  He’s an insider.  For those of us in the audience, and for creative people on the outside looking in, it might be addition by subtraction.

Dialogue in green paint

The Cezanne & Pissarro show at the LA County Museum of Art is unlike any art exhibit I’ve ever seen.  It points the way to the kind of art show we might see more of in the future–one that explores the process of making art, and the progress of an artist’s eye. 

You enter the exhibit and see two paintings side by side: One by Pissarro and one by Cezanne.  They are both of the same subject: A country road with trees on the left side and, in the distance, a village on the right. Two figures on the road, one of them a child. Some clouds. Both paintings are called Louveciennes. Pissarro painted his in 1871. Cezanne borrowed it, and painted his own version the following year.

It’s a copy–and yet it’s not.

Pissarro’s original, though beautiful, does not prettify the landscape; it analyzes it. His amazing array of techniques are harnessed to serve the creation of a detailed depiction of nature, light and shadows. His brush strokes are thick here, delicate there, and in some places the paint is troweled onto the canvas. All in service of capturing the ineffable play of light at a moment in time.

It’s important to note that, in his time, Pissarro was a revolutionary artist, and is now generally regarded as the father of the impressionist style.  But in his copy of Louveciennes, and throughout the exhibit, you see how Cezanne starts where Pissarro leaves off. He too wants to see nature as it is, but takes it a step further, into pure form.  Not for Cezanne are the delicately rendered details. To him, the trees, the rooftops, the clouds are all shapes, delineated by color, and organized into a geometric pattern. 

It’s the exact same composition as Pissarro used, but Cezanne finds something else in it, and emphasizes what he sees. His colors are not divorced from nature (as Pissarro renders it), but because they serve a different purpose, they are rendered with greater intensity and clarity.  

Cezanne starts where Pissarro leaves off; and then Cezanne takes us all the way to the doorway of abstract painting, where color, form and composition become pure expressions of an artist’s vision.

Throughout the exhibit (which closes January 16), paintings by each artist are paired.  There are no more “copies,” but many paintings of the same vista, or the same still life subject.  The contrast allows you to see not only the uniqueness of both artists’ visions but also the hinge of European art history, where it swung in a just a few short decades from the formal techniques favored by the Paris Salon  against which Pissarro rebelled, to the departure from representation that Cezanne approached.

I might be a bit out of my depth writing about art, but the show was enlightening and thrilling. More like this, please, curators.  

Sprawling Thru the Wreckage

Instapundit pointed me to a review by the Chicago Sun-Times’ architecture critic Kevin Nance of Sprawl: A Compact History, by Robert Bruegmann.  The point of the book, I gather, is “everything you know is wrong” — a popular theme for non-fiction books. 

For example, we know that sprawl leads to lengthier (and lengthier) commutes.  And that’s wrong. Er, no, actually that’s right. It’s our current transportation system that’s wrong:

 “The problem is that we have an old-fashioned 19th-century technology, the internal combustion engine using fossil fuels. Let’s solve that problem — maybe by creating small, fuel-efficient vehicles — and stop talking about putting the city back into its 19th-century state to make mass transit work. Instead, let’s see what people want to do, then see how the city can be built around them.”

Probably isn’t fair for me to comment without reading the book, but…are we supposed to take this seriously?  Cars today are far more efficient, and less polluting, than they were 40 years ago, but those gains have been largely offset by the vast increase in numbers of vehicles trying to reach regional centers of commerce, and the increasing distance they have to travel to reach them.  

Sprawl is a matter of degree. The more miles between home and work, the worse its effects are.  As each ring of suburbs is added, the challenge to serve those far-flung areas becomes less feasible and more expensive.  The miles of new roadway will never catch up with the increased population of vehicles.  Mass transit systems cannot affordably be designed to serve all those new areas, and voters in the unserved areas become–understandably–unwilling to fund a system that doesn’t directly benefit them.  And what’s true about transportation systems is also true about the other basic services: water, electricity, sewage.

It’s not just the environmental effects that have made sprawl such a nemesis.  So many households in far-flung suburbs are structured like this: Dad works full-time, and is away from home between the hours of 5 a.m. and 8 p.m.  Mom’s doing the same. Nannies or older relatives have to come in to get the kids to and from school. As the kids get older, they take on this role for themselves. They come home from school to a fridge, a TV, a computer, and a stern note from Mom to stay in the house until a parent arrives home. 

Eventually, a parent shows up–utterly exhausted from a day at the office plus four hours of driving. No time to prepare dinner?  Fast food. No time to help with homework? Oh well.  No way to get them to Little League or soccer practice?  They can play video games. Kids taking drugs, or having sex, in these empty houses?  Gee, I never knew, I didn’t notice anything had changed.  

I wish I could be like Mr. Bruegmann, and snap my fingers to create a solution to all these problems as facile as “creating small, fuel-efficient vehicles.”

Sprawl is so ingrained in our lifestyles in Southern California–and all over the country–that it will take generations to transform it into something more sustainable. And that assumes developers and home buyers are ever convinced to stop fostering it. So, perhaps books like Bruegmann’s are helpful in beginning to conceive how America can cope with the problems of its own device. But the cheerleading seems misplaced.    

I’m Palmdale, Fly Me

Los Angeles is now on its fourth attempt to expand and modernize Los Angeles International Airport to accomodate the surging traffic in air passengers and cargo–especially international–that wants access to one of the world’s largest concentrations of people. Beginning in about 1998, a fantasy element started to creep into how city officials discussed this project. Instead of simply making LAX bigger and more convenient, they said we’re going to upgrade it somewhat but also pursue “a regional approach.” 

What this means is, assume the growth in traffic predicted for LAX is like the contents of a pinata. Break it open, and let all the kids share.  Give some of it to Palmdale, some of it to Ontario, some of it to Long Beach, some of it to John Wayne, and some of it to a new commercial airport at the former El Toro Marine Base.

This strategy defies how the commercial air business works.  You can’t just assign it where you’d like it to go.

Ontario is a successful, growing airport, but it still fails to deliver international service. Long Beach is in a great location, but its neighbors have gotten that city to constrain it.  Ditto John Wayne. The notion of turning El Toro into a commercial airport tore Orange County apart politically, and the idea is now pretty decisively dead.

That leaves Palmdale Regional Airport, a massive, 5800-acre piece of property in the Mojave Desert, purchased by the City of Los Angeles because back in the 1960s, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) predicted (prayed?) northern LA County’s population was where would grow. That population would be serviced by “Palmdale Intercontinental Airport.”

SCAG still thinks Palmdale will handle 12.8 million passengers per year in 25 years.  But today, one airline runs flights out of Palmdale, Scenic Airlines. It has one route, to North Las Vegas. And, according to news reports, Scenic is about to pull the plug:

Scenic was the first company to fly out of Palmdale Regional since April 1998, when United Express ended five years of shuttling people from Palmdale to connecting flights at Los Angeles International Airport.

Aaron A. Goerlich, an attorney representing Scenic Airlines, filed a 90-day notice of the company’s intention to terminate service with the U.S. Department of Transportation on Dec. 13, records show.

Paul Haney, spokesman for Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), which owns Palmdale Regional, said agency officials “are disappointed” with Scenic’s filing.

“We hope (Scenic) will change its plans before service ends. We believe the Antelope Valley is a growing and attractive market for airline service,” Haney said.

Palmdale Regional “will play a crucial role in the regional solution to accommodate the growing demand for air service in Southern California,” he said.

To meet that demand, “We will intensify marketing efforts and explore new ways to make the business case for airlines to schedule flights there, particularly regional jet service that would link Palmdale with major airline hubs,” Haney said. 

Mitzi Daines, Scenic’s director of business development, said the reason for ending service was a shortage of passengers.

Mr. Haney’s talking point about a “regional solution” is really all about LAWA someday getting permission to do what must be done to LAX. The more LAWA acts like they’re serious about developing Palmdale into a big, successful airport that will divert traffic from LAX, the better the politics becomes for the needed LAX expansion. That’s been the theory; I’m skeptical. The airlines don’t believe there’s a market in Palmdale that they can’t more profitably serve at LAX or Ontario. LA County residents outside of the Antelope Valley think Palmdale’s too far away. 

Nonetheless, the city family continues to talk like Palmdale will eventually become a major airport, and plans to spend a lot of money (from where?) on more roads and mass transit to make Palmdale seem closer:

“This is a symptom of the past, not of the future,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes LAX and who is working to find a way to distribute flights around the region.

“We need to do more with Palmdale to make it more attractive.”

When I worked in City Hall, I used to say you had to live the life span of Methuselah to see anything finished. Seeing Palmdale become a major airport will test even those limits.

As a PR consultant, I was part of the LAX Master Plan team from 1994-98. The rationale for the project was one thing: Demand. The community acted as if the people who ran LAX were a bunch of greedy developers, when in fact they were essentially just traffic engineers saying “here’s what’s coming.” Los Angeles was the nation’s international hub. What Dallas-Ft. Worth is to American Airlines, LAX is to many foreign carriers from Asia, the Pacific Islands region, Latin America and Australia/New Zealand.

At some point. the inability to grow LAX to meet demand will cause that demand to shift elsewhere.  I’d love to see an update of the demand forecast we used in the 90s. I suspect it will show traffic already adjusting to the political realities of Los Angeles–not by moving to Palmdale, but by moving to Dallas, Denver, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Phoenix.

The world of December 21, 1988

Seventeen years ago today, a Pan Am flight traveling from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York crashed in Lockerbie Scotland.  The New York Times’ “On this Day” feature reprints the front page and original article from the following day’s newspaper. 

The story, by Craig Whitney, is 1,400 words long.  The word “terrorism” is not one of them.

Aviation authorities thought that since the jet disappeared from ground controllers’ radar screens when it was at 31,000 feet, without an emergency call from the cockpit, whatever brought it down must have happened instantaneously.

What Happened to Transponder?

If the power to the electrical system operating the plane’s transponder had not been suddenly cut, the transponder would have kept sending signals about the aircraft’s position and altitude to radar screens on the ground, which would have shown it losing altitude as it fell.

Among the kinds of things that might have suddenly cut power would be a bomb, an explosive decompression caused by a structural weakness, or a decompression caused by a midair collision.

Mr. Kriendler said there was no indication of an explosion and that Pan Am had not received any threats.

He said that 30-mile-an-hour winds were reported at about 4,000 feet when the aircraft took off, but there was no information of how strong the winds were at 31,000 feet, the plane’s cruising altitude before it apparently lost power.

As it turned out, there was an explosion–of about 16 ounces of the plastic explosive Semtex-H hidden in a Samsonite suitcase packed in the forward cargo hold. A large consignment of Semtex had been sold to the Libyan government by a company affiliated with the former Czech communist government.  Semtex is manufactured in Semtin, Czechoslovakia. The bomb was hidden inside a cassette radio wrapped in clothing that had been made and sold in Malta. About two weeks before the bombing, the manager of Mary’s House in Sliema, a clothing store, sold some of the clothing to a man of Libyan appearance. The man didn’t seem to care what he was buying: An old tweed jacket, a baby’s jumpsuit, and other items of different sizes.  

Almost three years after the crash, the strangely indifferent clothing-store customer was formally charged with the murders of the Pan Am passengers and crew. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer who was head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA), and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, the LAA station manager in Luqa Airport, Malta, were indicted for murder by Scottish authorities.  Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi turned the two suspects over to Scottish police in 1999 after a lengthy negotiation and UN sanctions. Megrahi was convicted in 2001 and is now in a Glasgow prison. Fhimah was acquitted. In exchange for a lifting of UN sanctions, the government of Libya accepted responsibility and paid compensation of $8 million to each of the victims’ families. The sanctions were lifted in 2003.

Assuming that the various alternative theories of the bombing are incorrect and at least one of the right men are in prison, the motive appears to have been to retaliate for the 1986 U.S. bombings of Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya, which were themselves retaliation for a Gaddafi-ordered bombing of a Berlin nightclub frequented by U.S. military personnel, in which three died.

I sense a great nostalgia among many Americans for the pre-9/11 world.  And who can blame us?  The 9/11 attacks forced us to pay attention to the fact that we had enemies and they were making war on us.  We didn’t pay so much attention if the American victims died in Europe, Africa or the Middle East. For some, it was better to pretend the problem was small and remote. But the pre-9/11 innocence was, itself, a form of denial, a seemingly endless sleep going back to the 1970s. That the “newspaper of record” would report on a mysterious airline explosion in 1988 without even raising the possibility of terrorism goes beyond prudence and caution. It reflects a willed desire not to connect the dots. 

There’s a line of poetry by Yeats, “In dreams begin responsibilities.”  In our era, wakefulness brings responsibilities. Unwanted responsibilities, but also unavoidable.  Sleep brings freedom from these anxieties, I suppose, but we can’t all sleep at the same time.