The Indignity of the Dollar Continues

With all the global financial upheaval over the course of the past five years, the financial system of the United States seems a lot less secure than it used to, although it’s in measurably better straits than the economies of many European nations. However, as the New York Times noted in an article on Italian counterfeiters, for a key demographic of hard currency enthusiasts, the dollar no longer holds court as the supreme symbol of  ill-gotten gains.

The euro — particularly the 500-euro note, worth about $660 — has become the currency of choice for drug dealers worldwide, and fake euros have become part of their operations.

Categories: Economy, Media

Marketing Markets: Frugal Delights

Frugal traveler (what a job!) Seth Kugel hit the mark when he filed a brief report from Los Angeles on a recent layover. His subject? The delicious and bewildering ethnic markets of Los Angeles, an article that makes for a welcome departure from the usual knee-jerk tropes of Los Angeles. For a person who isn’t timid about asking workers or customers at these stores, many pleasures are to be had, from unfamiliar cuts of meat to affordable and delicious morsels. Kugel missed some of the more vibrant markets in town; sadly, there’s nothing on the list from Koreatown and no mention of Super King, which straddles enough ethnic  categories as to render the idea of ethnic as moot. As Kugel finds out, though, the best part about shopping in these largely noncorporate markets is getting insight into the many varied relationships Angelenos have with food.

So I asked a woman who had just ordered what the difference was between the two large flatbreads in her bag. “They’re the same. Same flavor, different shape” she said, to the vigorous objections of the woman behind the counter.

“So why did you buy both?” I asked.

“My mother loves this one,” she said, pulling out the matnakash. “My husband loves this one,” she said, pointing at the barbari. (Note to the husband: she bought two matnakash and one barbari.) I went for a matnakash, but also scored by ordering a beef lula sandwich, a seasoned, molded log-shaped kebab, wrapped in fresh bread that was thicker than a tortilla but thinner than pita, for $5.99.

Categories: Food, Los Angeles, Media

Top Tapes

One of my favorite discoveries from last year was the unpredictable and hiss-filled joys of the Cleaners from Venus. On albums like Midnight Cleaners and Under Wartime Conditions, the eccentric and wonderful songs are full of jangly guitars and chattering percussions coupled with odd cacophonies of found sounds and catchy choruses. Beyond the music itself, part of the group’s charm, at least to my categorically driven ears, is the fact that the band kind of exists beyond the framework of most musical mappings.

Recording in the sleepy town of Wivenhoe in southeast England at the start of the tumultuous Thatcher years, the group usually consisted of Martin Newell and a revolving group of collaborators such as Lol Elliot, Giles Smith, and others. Starting with Blow Away your Troubles in 1981, the Cleaners issued albums on cassette to a small audience of fellow anarchists and musicians, usually through mail order, tape trading in fanzines, or word of mouth. Their sound is intimate, as if it were composed and performed in someone’s squat, illuminated by homemade candles, which it many times was.

Newell’s compositions owe a lot to the DIY aesthetic championed by the post-punk movement in the U.K., but instead of the atonal voyages into sound championed by groups like Throbbing Gristle or the dub-driven work of the Slits, the Cleaners from Venus flaunt an unabashed love of pop music and delivery on its releases. Some of the songs are brief and rough hewn, never progressing past an initial sketch of a tune, but they usually highlight Newell’s inventive songwriting, which is equal parts playful, lonesome, and sardonic. Even though the songs are frequently buried under a bed of slightly muddled sound, complete with various hums, clicks, and crackles, the outline of great pop songs sometimes emerges. At the height of its powers, this is pure dreamy pop in the tradition of the Kinks and other British pop masters, although with a nearly complete disdain for the carefully modulated studio effects and precision that characterized more widely known productions.

The Cleaners’s dislike and indifference toward professionalism and the commercialism of the music industry now doesn’t seem like so much like idiosyncrasy as inspiration for a new crop of successors. Artists such as Ariel Pink have taken up the lo-fi torch from the Cleaners from Venus and others (including the recently re-discovered R. Stevie Moore), favoring both the off-the-cuff home recording approach to production as well as the preference to release music on small editions of cassettes. The defiantly DIY quality of these releases gives the music an intimate and bespoke feel that is at odds with other currents of distribution, such as most obviously the easily downloadable and spreadable mp3.

Despite a short-lived CD release or two over the years, the Cleaners seem to have escaped notice in the larger rock cosmology of the time, except perhaps as a footnote, though a small but enthusiastic group of fans have kept the flame alive. Thanks in large part to the Internet, these erstwhile secret fruits of English anarchist musicians re-surfaced on sharity blogs on the Internet and in the setlists of current bands like MGMT.

Even better for converts like myself is the strange but welcome news that the Cleaners from Venus will get the deluxe reissue treatment from Brooklyn record label Captured Tracks. Never mind the irony of these lo-fi tape recordings being remastered in high quality for a vinyl reissue on a popular record label—the genius of Martin Newell is being finally being discussed outside the margins of fanzines and obscure music blogs. I can’t wait to re-visit Midnight Cleaners, a breathless collection of pop songs that gets more addictive and urgent with every listen. I wonder if listening to a clean version of the record will foreground the Cleaners’s songwriting bona fides or dissolve the illusion that the group is rehearsing a set in your living room on some Sunday afternoon.

Newell, for his part, has remained active since the 1980s, releasing a dozen or so Cleaners from Venus albums, a few productions under the Brotherhood of Lizards name, several solo records, and even a project with XTC’s Andy Partridge. He’s also a celebrated and well-published poet. More about Newell can be found here, as well as in a couple of interviews.

Sounds of the Multiverse

Coming off a sparkling run in 2011, Daniel Snaith, aka Daphni (and also Caribou), emerges with another 12″ on the Jiaolong label. This time, he magnifies burbling power electronics from the streaking Emeralds, turning it into propulsive evening trance.

Categories: Disco Non-Stop

Chavez Ravine Agonistes

29/03/2012 1 comment

Sports fans were breathless yesterday with the news that a group publicly headed by Magic Johnson made the winning bid to purchase the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. Almost immediately, baseball fans rejoiced at the departure of the least popular owner in the history of professional sports in Southern California and the ascension of the most popular sports popular sports figure in the city.

Almost immediately, fans seem sure that Magic Johnson will deliver the team and its fans from the ignominious state of recent history—a middling record, atrocious public relations disasters, and an owner who seemed eager to enrich himself at the expense of the team. Euphoric comments abound, with many fans certain that the former Lakers point guard and five-time NBA champion will restore the luster of the Dodgers brand and personally direct the team’s operations. Johnson’s role, though, will probably be mostly as a figurehead since the majority of the winning ownership bid is controlled by Chicago-based Guggenheim Partners, the main source of the winning $2.15 billion bid (supposedly to be paid in cash). Of course, Johnson and his winning smile are a PR coup for the group, which also includes seasoned baseball man Stan Kasten and Hollywood producer Peter Guber.

In fact, the composition of the bid and its murky ownership motivations is reminiscient of a another recent ownership group featuring a savvy athlete/entertainer turned businessman backed by powerful business interests. New York developer Bruce Ratner used the purchase of the New Jersey Nets (with the promise of moving them into new digs in Brooklyn) to enable the lucrative commercial development of the Atlantic Yards area, picking up native son Jay-Z as a partner to smooth over the eminent-domain land grab. As detailed by Malcolm Gladwell piece last year, it was a very shrewd navigation of loopholes in real estate law and exploitation of public appetite for prestige, celebrity, and sports.

The over-the-top price paid for the Dodgers indicates that like the Brooklyn development, the sports team itself is only a lesser byproduct of the deal. Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist and Mark Rosenstraub seem to think the Guggenheim group significantly overpaid for reasons that are unclear.

“It’s the craziest deal ever; it makes no sense. That’s why you saw so many groups drop out,” said Mark Rosentraub, a University of Michigan sports management professor. “I don’t get it. The numbers just don’t work. It doesn’t make business sense. Nobody came up with this number. Under the most favorable circumstance you broke $1.1 billion with $1.4 billion getting crazy. Now you’re up in the $2 billion range, which is over $800 million more than what pencils out for a profitable investment for a baseball team. If making money doesn’t count, this is a great move. But now we’re into buying art and I can’t value art. I can just run the model numbers and this doesn’t make sense.”

Clearly, a skilled financial operator from Chicago is not buying a Los Angeles sports team for its emotional and nostalgic appeal. Part of the reason lies with the escalating profits and influence of regional sports networks.

According to SNL Kagan, affiliate-fee revenue for all regional sports networks rose 44% in the past five years, from $3.2 billion in 2007 to $4.6 billion in 2011. At the same time, affiliate revenue for non-sports cable networks has climbed nearly 41% in the same period, from $12.3 billion in 2007 to $17.3 billion in 2011… Some reports have said based on the estimated $3 billion TWC paid the Lakers for rights to air their games for 20 years, the MSO will need to charge as much as a combined $3.50 per subscriber per month for the two networks to turn a profit. 

This comes on the heels of Time Warner Cable’s $3 billion deal for the rights for the Lakers, which seemed astronomical. With similar deals now in place with for the nearby Angels, the Texas Rangers, and even the San Diego Padres, among others, professional sports has shifted into an incredibly high-priced race to obtain television channels, cable subscriptions, and control of other content-delivery systems. (Some of this may be due to the proliferation of devices to watch games, with some viewers keeping track on multiple screens.)

The staggering amount of the total sale is surprising in that it makes previous owner Frank McCourt an overwhelmingly winner, with the Los Angeles Times estimating that he may clear a billion greenbacks at the end of the day. Major League Baseball also comes out looking good, affirming the value of its teams in comparison with other professional sporting leagues. The National Football League’s Miami Dolphins were sold for $1.1 billion a few years back, and the sale of the Dodgers eclipses even the sale price of the English Premier’s league’s flagship club, Manchester United by at least $700 million (and the Manchester squad is considered perhaps the greatest sports brand in the world).

An offer that exceed expectations by such a large margin seems to suggest that even more than cable TV is at stake. Even with the mind boggling sales price, McCourt wrangled a stake in the land surrounding Dodger Stadium, which is currently being used for parking. Before his divorce curbed his development ambitions, he had envisioned a series of condominiums and retail space to occupy the area, with Dodger Stadium either being renovated or torn down to accommodate the new development. His continue involvement in the land indicates that some form of development will probably go forward, much to the chagrin of fans of open space and local residents. But an area full of condominiums, movie theaters, or retail outlets that congregrate in perverse shopping malls like the Grove and the Americana only makes the original eminent domain seizure that drove out the existing community seem even more shameless.


Life Before the Secession

A nice bit of Angeleno history today from a scion of the Ahmanson family. Born and raised in Nebraska, Howard Ahmanson moved to Los Angeles and became a successful insurance underwriter before starting Home Savings and Loan, which soon became the country’s largest savings and loan, and the foundation that bears his name (and that donated money for the downtown performing arts building).

Even though the area is of the city’s most vibrant cultural and culinary districts, it’s easy to forget that the mid-Wilshire/Koreatown area’s profile was much larger half a century ago.

In mid-century Los Angeles, anything on Wilshire Boulevard was considered more prestigious than anything on the side streets. On the eastern end near Lafayette Park was the Bullocks Wilshire department store. Several miles west were the Miracle Mile department stores, which had beautiful shop windows facing the boulevard, even though most people entered the stores through portes-cochères in the rear. Many of the major liberal establishment churches—the PCUSA, the United Methodists, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Rabbi Magnin’s huge reform synagogue—lined the street. The Ambassador Hotel was one of the great hotels of the city. And then there was The Brown Derby Restaurant, which gave us the Cobb Salad.

Ahmanson, Jr. traces some of the neighborhood’s diminishment to an exodus of well-heeled whites to the OC following the tumult of the 1960s.

After the Watts Riots of 1965, and in the 10 or 15 years after that, the upper and upper-middle classes of Pasadena, San Marino, Arcadia, and Hancock Park relocated en masse to the Newport Beach area in what I call the secessio patriciorum, or the secession of the patricians. Los Angeles Magazine featured an article in 1977 called “The Ripening of Orange County: Is It Stealing the L.A. Dream?” Indeed, a lot of the life seemed to get sucked out of Los Angeles at that time. One consequence of the secession was that finance and retail and new construction tended to concentrate either downtown or west of central Beverly Hills.

And, as he rightly points out, thanks largely to the efforts of Asian and Latin American immigrants, the neighborhood has enjoyed a new life, though not as a great retail and financial corridor envisioned by Ahmanson père. But that’s a small price to pay for a good Korean food and affordable rents in one of the city’s most walkable neighborhoods.

Categories: Fogs of Time, Los Angeles

On Style

It’s probably the J school background, but I’ve always been the sort to be fascinated with style guides and what they tell us about the publication and its audience. From the gallimaufry of anglicized spellings and punctuation in The New Yorker to the ghastly excuses for style in many Internet publications, style is a very important element to my reading experience. I’m not sure it’s recent, but today I got a peek at The Economist‘s style guide.

The introduction makes a quick plea for writing clearly and succintly by evoking George Orwell’s cardinal rules.

Never use a Metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do (see Short words).
If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out (see Unnecessary words).
Never use the Passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a Jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous (see Iconoclasm).

The Economist takes Orwell’s advice about metaphors to heart:

“A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image,” said Orwell, “while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (eg, iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” … Some of these are tired, and will therefore tire the reader. Most are so exhausted that they may be considered dead, and are therefore permissible. But use all metaphors, dead or alive, sparingly, otherwise you will make trouble for yourself.

Good stuff, as are the little clarifications that help us use the English language as carefully and precisely as we can, whether writing about political and economic developments or descriptive language in service of more creative aims. I particularly enjoyed the clarification of the difference between masterful (imperious) and masterly (skilled). I’ve certainly been guilty of incorrectly using the former term in many circumstances.

Categories: Media