LA Ignored the Warnings

You could use the title for almost any story about reverses affecting Los Angeles’ economy, but this one happens to be about LAX.  According to LA Biz Observed blogger Mark Lacter, and the Daily Breeze, LAX is facing losses in its lucrative overseas business, business that has a largely unseen positive effect on the Los Angeles economy.  It’s so unseen that City Hall has utterly mismanaged the needed upgrades at LAX for the past 15 years, preferring to listen to NIMBY-minded voters than the economists, labor leaders and airline executives who kept telling them LAX’s huge advantage in international flights was not God-given, and that the airport needed some major fixes or the airlines would go elsewhere.

Sure, Air India’s decision to stop flying out of Los Angeles could be blamed on high fuel prices.  That alibi was already claimed by the Department of World Airports chief executive. But Air India still flies out of San Francisco, and fuel costs just as much up there.

The fact that you could reach dozens of cities overseas via nonstop flights from LAX gave this region an enormous edge economically.  But the locals didn’t care much about that and it was easy and more beneficial to make LAX and its stewards a target for political posturing.  And eventually, much easier for those stewards to tell the city council whatever nonsense it wants to hear.  It’s not their airport.  It’s Los Angeles’.

This is the problem with term limits.  The idea was to force the politicians to focus on their responsibilities as elected officials and not on their electoral fortunes.  This part of term limits has failed. The politicians are much less connected to the city they serve than they were in the days of John Ferraro and Gilbert Lindsey.  In Los Angeles, you now have a political culture built around tearing down city assets rather than protecting them, because having a few notches in your belt positions you for the next campaign.  So what if a critical institution like LAX is weakened?  That’s a trivial concern to the city’s political leadership now.

P.S. Bill Boyarsky has a post explaining what council members really think about when they think about LAX.

Hollywood Gets a Stern Lecture

Owen Wilson’s apparent suicide attempt prompts this burst of old-fashioned, snooty condescension from the U.K. Independent.  I find it quaintly reassuring.  Essentially, the anonymous writer’s position is, Owen Wilson is a minor talent who appears in films barely worth discussing.  But he makes other people a lot of money, and as a result, everyone in Hollywood is acting in a beastly fashion, focusing only on the business implications of his private tragedy.

The whole thing makes for a bracing read.  Here’s how it starts:

Anyone wanting to understand the sheer blood-sucking ghoulishness of today’s Hollywood star factory could do worse than look at what happened to Owen Wilson – the dishevelled, broken-nosed, 38-year-old luminary of such lowbrow comedies as Wedding Crashers and Zoolander – after he was taken to hospital at the weekend.

And here’s a little more of it, to whet your appetite for the high dudgeon on offer:

It wasn’t just the media whose behaviour veered towards the ghoulish, though. Hollywood itself quickly showed its true colours as it worried not about the well-being and recovery of Owen Wilson as a human being, but rather the future of various investments that production companies and studios had placed in him as the star of a flurry of completed and upcoming movies.

DreamWorks Pictures rapidly put out a statement assuring investors that filming on Tropic Thunder, a comedy co-starring Wilson and Jack Black and directed by Wilson’s longtime friend and partner Ben Stiller, would continue regardless. DreamWorks did not say whether Wilson’s part would be recast, although that is presumably an option if he cannot return to work relatively quickly.

Daily Variety, Hollywood’s paper of record, left little doubt about the industry’s bottom-line thinking on Wilson as it catalogued the various projects now left hanging. His incapacitation was “creating a conundrum” for Fox Searchlight pictures, which is putting together a marketing strategy for The Darjeeling Limited, directed by Wilson’s former college room-mate Wes Anderson and due out on American screens at the end of next month.

Paramount Pictures, Variety further reported, faces an even bigger problem with its Wilson-headlined film, Drillbit Taylor, due out next March, “because of the … film’s young male demographic”.

In short, nobody – or almost nobody – in this town appeared to give a crap about Wilson himself, only about his marketability and his capacity to make money for other people, be they reporters, photographers or film producers.

Indeed.

The one thing this writer misses is how difficult it’s going to be to cast Wilson in the roles for which he has almost become a stereotypical choice:  The hang-loose dude with a sleepy sense of humor and the facial expression that says, “It’s all good.”  Clearly, it isn’t, and now that we know of his torments, it’ll be a lot harder for him to fake it.   

Hal Fishman, R.I.P.

hal-fishman.jpgHal Fishman, the anchor for KTLA’s News at 10 for decades, died today, just a few days after a collapse sent him to the hospital, and to a diagnosis of colon and liver cancer.

With his passing, another news voice with whom Los Angeles grew up vanishes. If you’re my age, you might remember he was the “sidekick” to George Putnam–the bombastic right-wing model for Ted Baxter–during Putnam’s two stints at KTLA. Next to Putnam’s theatrics, Fishman was the sober junior professor who seemed to share Putnam’s black-and-white view of the world, but was willing to let the facts speak, dryly, for themselves.

After Putnam left KTLA for good, Fishman stayed on and honed his straightforward, no-nonsense style. Putnam had a feature called “One Reporter’s Opinion,” and Fishman continued the tradition of commentaries that were, as I recall, right-leaning but lacking in the demagoguery of his former boss.

The Channel 5 broadcast reflected Fishman’s stodgy insistence on delivering news in a plain, brown wrapper. Fishman was a record-breaking pilot, and he treated the news like a pilot treats reports to air-traffic controllers: Matter-of-fact, but life-or-death. His co-anchors — Larry McCormick, Jann Carl, Marta Waller, Ed Arnold, Stu Nahan, to name but a few — adopted the same style: Eyes riveted to the camera, no detectable facial expression or vocal inflection, no glamour, no humor, just straight news reading. It was as if KTLA and Fishman had internalized former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s criticism of media bias, and were determined, at least on this one broadcast, to eradicate any trace of it, not even a raised eyebrow. Amid all the happy-talk sangria of its rivals, Fishman and his colleagues poured it straight and knocked it back.

KTLA got good ratings but eventually Fishman’s style must have struck someone as dated. KTLA’s Morning Show was meta-happy-talk, the news with a comic beat, with the anchors’ and reporters’ charm as the point of the show. A little bit of that feeling crept into the nightly broadcast over which Fishman continued to preside. And he did fine! He loosened up, smiling frequently, enjoying the teasing from his younger co-anchors. The underlying ethic was not changed significantly; his show was still the most serious and straightforward of all LA’s local news shows. He added just enough spice.

Fishman never seemed to age. Obviously, he was very sick at the end, but apparently didn’t know it and certainly didn’t show it. So I’m shocked at losing him, even though he was 75 and has been broadcasting continually since 1960. You could say he was the last of his breed, but it’s hard to think of anyone else who was so good at being unexciting.

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse Gives Antonio Villaraigosa Another Chance

I haven’t yet heard or seen Mayor Villaraigosa go on TV to talk about all the things he is going to do to check the status of all the bridges and other elevated structures on which Los Angeles drivers depend, many of which are older than the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis yesterday.

That’s okay.  They are still pulling people out of the Mississippi River.  It might be unseemly to move too quickly. But this tragic disaster presents the mayor with an unearned but vital opportunity to make the last two years of his term meaningful, and possibly recoup his political momentum.

As Stephen Flynn‘s column in Popular Mechanics points out, every city and state leader in America should look up on the dead and injured in the Mississippi River and realize it could have just as easily been our neighbors, and it might be us next time.

According to a report card released in 2005 by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), 160,570 bridges, or just over one-quarter of the nation’s 590,750-bridge inventory, were rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The nation’s bridges are being called upon to serve a population that has grown from 200 million to over 300 million since the time the first vehicles rolled across the I-35W bridge. Predictably that has translated into lots more cars. American commuters now spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, at a cost to the economy of $63.2 billion a year.

It is not just roads and bridges that are being stressed to the breaking point. Two weeks ago New Yorkers were scrambling for cover after a giant plume of 200-plus-degree steam and debris shot out of the street and into the air. The mayhem was caused by the explosion of a steam pipe, installed underground in 1924 to heat office buildings near Grand Central station. In January 2007, Kentuckians and Tennesseans woke up to the news that the water level of the largest man-made reservoir east of the Mississippi would have to be dropped by 10 ft. as an emergency measure. The Army Corps of Engineers feared that if it didn’t immediately reduce the pressure on the 57-year-old Wolf Creek Dam, it might fail, sending a wall of water downstream that would inundate communities all along the Cumberland River, including downtown Nashville.

The fact is that Americans have been squandering the infrastructure legacy bequeathed to us by earlier generations. Like the spoiled offspring of well-off parents, we behave as though we have no idea what is required to sustain the quality of our daily lives. Our electricity comes to us via a decades-old system of power generators, transformers and transmission lines—a system that has utility executives holding their collective breath on every hot day in July and August. We once had a transportation system that was the envy of the world. Now we are better known for our congested highways, second-rate ports, third-rate passenger trains and a primitive air traffic control system. Many of the great public works projects of the 20th century—dams and canal locks, bridges and tunnels, aquifers and aqueducts, and even the Eisenhower interstate highway system—are at or beyond their designed life span. 

Politicians like Villaraigosa get advice from seasoned campaign operatives that talking about “infrastructure” is a losing political strategy.   Elections are won on emotion — elevating the candidate to mythic stature, and denigrating opponents as corrupt scum — not on the candidates’ plans to address the prosaic priorities of the government he or she wants to lead.  This dynamic has led to a critical underinvestment in the physical structure of our cities and states, especially in California.

It’s easier to tell people they need tax cuts, or to shovel more money to public employees.  Bridges, power plants and ports are not only unsexy, they become oddly controversial.  For an example, take LAX.  If you’re running for mayor or council, the quickest way to win applause in Westchester, El Segundo or Inglewood is to take the most irresponsible position possible with regard to upgrading that critical facility.  Safety? Security? Trade? Tourism?  Who cares!? The people around LAX don’t like it, and apparently figure that if nothing is done to fix it, it might go away.

The tragedy in Minnesota potentially could change the politics of infrastructure.   The desperate search for 20 or 30 missing people is anything but boring or unemotional.  The crumbling bridge puts the most important issue facing most cities and states at the top of the news — with a warning that it could happen here.  Villaraigosa, fighting to look like a serious leader again, could do himself and Los Angeles a lot of good by seizing this urgent moment to get the needed repairs on track.

Breezin’ Along with the Breeze

south-bay-scene-for-blog.jpgI have been trying to keep in mind Tony Soprano’s sixth-season admonition, “‘Remember When’ is the lowest form of conversation.”

I’m in my fifties now, I’ve seen a lot of things here in my little world, and I find history both pleasurable and important. But I also think change is good, new things excite me and as a father of an incoming high-school senior, the future is far more important to me now than the past. For me, too. It has to be. What I once thought of as my life has ended abruptly, twice, with no turning back. This is a condition of everyone’s existence. Sometimes this truth is hidden, but it’s there.

I remember floating on a water taxi in Venice early one foggy morning, seeing these ornate palaces emerge from the opaque dampness, one-by-one like a procession of ghosts. Whoever built these gilded homes never imagined that mighty Venice would ever lose its grip on the world of commerce. But it did. When the end came — in the form of Napoleon’s armies — Venice didn’t even put up a fight. They wanted to save the palaces to remind them and future generations of how rich and powerful and glorious they were, once. So, in exchange for no bombardment, Venetians handed over the keys to the invader. And now the whole place is sinking.

Someday they’ll say of Venice: “Remember when?”

Curiously, I thought of all that when I came across LA Observed‘s link to a post on Life on the Edge, a San Pedro blog. The post is about the Daily Breeze, the supposed newspaper of record for my part of Los Angeles, the South Bay and Harbor areas. When longtime owner Copley News sold it to Dean Singleton’s Los Angeles Newspaper Group a year or two ago, it was inevitable that we would read about the Breeze’s descent into the lower depths of journalism. LANG’s a cheapo-cheopo organization, proudly so. They buy up newspapers in a region, they consolidate as much of the operation as they can, and then they cut cut cut.

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I Never Knew Theresa Duncan

I never knew Theresa Duncan, author of the blog The Wit of the Staircase among many other creative accomplishments. But I happened to get a note from an admirer of hers last week, asking if I could confirm her death.

Our connection was LA Observed. Kevin Roderick loved Duncan’s blog, and he says nice things about this one, too. Somehow, the e-mailer thought we might know each other, and hoped I might be able to dispel what was then just a rumor.

This thread led me on a search through the Internet to find out what had happened. The facts are unbelievably sad and frankly bewildering. Not only is Duncan gone, but so is her boyfriend of 12 years, the well-known artist Jeremy Blake, who apparently drowned himself a few days after finding Duncan’s body in their New York apartment.

The New York papers have all now weighed in. The most straightforward account appeared in Saturday’s New York Daily News:

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Maria McKee: The Voice, Up Close, at McCabe’s

maria-mckee.jpgIt’s a little room, smaller than the smallest theater in a suburban multi-plex, where Maria McKee performed Friday night.  Although every seat was filled, the crowd at McCabe’s Guitar Shop couldn’t have been more than 200 people.  It’s almost crazy: How could a performer with so much talent be presented, how could she be available, in such an intimate setting? 

Maria McKee is only 42 years old.  She is still in her prime, some 22 years after the hyped debut of Lone Justice, her original band.  She has an opera singer’s range and power.  She masters songs that are sometimes fiendishly complex, poetic and emotionally overwhelming.  She skillfully accompanies herself on piano or guitar.  She looks like she could do this for another 25 years.  There is still time for you to hear her.

Onstage, McKee is nervous and obsessive, but has a sense of humor about it, stumbling around trying to read her set list, find a water bottle or fix a broken strand of jet.  Then she starts up a song and… I can’t think of any apt comparison.  Aretha Franklin?  Bruce Springsteen? Patsy Cline? Elvis Presley? Janis Joplin?  Maria McKee is as good a singer as any of them, as good as anyone I’ve ever heard, including Beverly Sills and Renee Fleming. 

McKee called herself a “dilettante,” and joked that because of problems wrangling her instruments, her shows in Europe from night to night changed styles, from Broadway to folk to power-trio.   But what that really means is she can sing anything and make it authentic.  Some of that’s due to her musical pedigree, but mostly it’s because her voice and stylings are so compelling, she transcends any genre.

Back in 1984-5, I had no problem with the Lone Justice/Maria McKee hype.  I probably added to it, my enthusiasm the beat of a butterfly wing that swirled into a hurricane.  I stumbled across Lone Justice one night in that brief period when L.A. nightclubs were teeming with great bands that defied radio fashions.  Oh my God, who was that singer?  She was 19, spooky-pretty, and when she opened her mouth, it was the loudest thing I ever heard, louder even than Captain Beefheart, who was so loud my ears leaked.  Lone Justice was a “cowpunk” band when it started — metal twang. The guitars were fierce but McKee had no problem being heard over them.  I figured I had discovered the next big singing star, the next great band. 

Lone Justice put out an album that had all the songs I’d learned from watching them a few times, but the album did not capture what I recalled hearing.   Then they put out another one that didn’t sound remotely like what I’d heard; in fact it sounded like the quintessential tinkly-synth crap I was trying to escape.   Then Lone Justice broke up, and Maria McKee disappeared for awhile.  

In the early 1990s, McKee started up a solo career. Her first couple of albums were better than the Lone Justice albums, but still didn’t give me what I was looking for.  How could all these different producers and record-company executives not understand her talent?  Or maybe she was someone you had to hear live and live only.  A lot of the other LA bands I loved also didn’t translate that well in the studio — the Blasters and X in particular.  I figured that was McKee’s problem, too. 

She says it’s because she didn’t really care enough about being a star to make herself into one.  But who are the big pop divas of the past 20 years?  Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Beyonce — all of them talented, but all of them using an overdramatized style heavily dependent on melisma, defined as “the technique of changing the note (pitch) of a single syllable of text while it is being sung,” but that you all know as the “woah-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-eee-ohhhh.”  It’s showy but totally unmusical. 

Maria McKee, by contrast, has a natural vibrato, perfect pitch and rhythm, and respect for the lyrics. She’s dramatic too, but authentically so.  She wrings emotion out of the words, not a roller-coaster ride.   Which means her style was out of fashion.  McKee was the ultimate flowering of the folk/rock/soul style — think Linda Ronstadt, but much better — and she arrived too late.  I think she would have been huge if her first album had come out in, say, 1969.

But for talent like McKee’s, it’s never too late.   She will eventually find an audience, and in the meantime, she is building a distinctive body of work for her future fans to obsess over.  Time is on her side. From all appearances, McKee has not lived a decadent life.  I doubt she smokes; her voice is too pure, her skin so smooth she bragged about it onstage, swearing she hadn’t had plastic surgery.  She takes care of her instrument.  The melisma style will eventually get old, and, with a little luck, McKee’s style will come back in fashion.

The concert was my wife’s Father’s Day gift to me.  I bow down to her!  We hadn’t been out together alone for awhile. We’ve been in a sort of bunker for the past few months awaiting the big news that turned out to be good news.  This was our first chance to be free, to be ourselves, to dress up a little and have fun, in a long time.  Well, Nicky looked pretty anyway.  I’m the guy who gets mistaken for Michael Moore.  Anyway.  What a performance to see on your coming-out party!  Nicky has been following Maria McKee’s career as long as I have, and is actually a more knowledgeable fan.  I only recognized about three songs, while she recognized about half of them.  On the way home, driving through the beach cities on a cool, soft night, we couldn’t stop talking about what we’d seen.  It still seems unbelievable.

The opening act, the Willard Grant Conspiracy, is worthy of another post that I’ll probably never write.  Or maybe I will after I hear their CD.  That’s how good they were: I didn’t just buy two McKee CDs on the way out, I bought the opening act’s too.  That alone is high enough praise.

Oh, and there was a celebrity sighting: Gary Shandling.  Exactly who I figured to run into!

P.S. Listening again, the Lone Justice albums and McKee’s solo records sound a lot better than I remember them.  I don’ t want to leave the impression you shouldn’t listen to them; you should.  I applied too high a standard to them when they came out.

P.P.S.  This article, a recent piece in Paste, describes McKee’s current artistic focus, and her successful collaboration with her husband Jim Akin, who accompanied her on bass.  She discloses she has “rapid-cycling bipolar disorder.”

P.P.P.S.  I just found this MySpace fan tribute page.  Some great video clips are collected here.