Brain Massage: The Radio Dept. and Fan Videos

The Radio Dept. are Swedish band who make perfect soundtracks for riding trains into stations at dusk, wandering around a beautiful city far from home, or just flipping through old photo albums and wondering where the years have gone.

When I come around to my unit on Sweden and the pop music industry in GEOG 371: Exploring Europe, narrowing down the bands I want to sample in my lectures is nearly impossible. Choosing one artist to represent a country,  language, or nation is always daunting, but for Sweden, I need to content with a nearly overwhelming volume. Stockholm and her smaller urban counterparts have been consistently grinding out both chart-topping hits and beloved indie pop gems for as long as I can remember. I remember seeing Refused destroy their instruments in the octagon back in 1998, which blew my teenage mind. In college, I sold some friends on Randy by simply naming off their song titles. Although I was reading Rolling Stone and devouring MTV news documentaries as often as they would air them at the time, I somehow missed that Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and many others owed their platinum success to Max Martin and the late Denniz Pop. Over the years, I would fill in these gaps in my knowledge while keeping tabs on the hottest Swedish artists diligently packaged and sold by indie labels. From what I remember of late 2006, it was impossible to go out anywhere in the DC area without hearing Peter, Bjorn, and John at some point.

In late 2010, I discovered Lund’s The Radio Dept. and wondered why it had taken me so long. Songs like “The Worst Taste in Music” and “Pulling our Weight” were exactly what my brain-soul Venn diagram needed at that time in my life. I included their music on my podcast (I believe they concluded an episode where I interviewed Harry Shearer, making for an odd but good juxtaposition), and sent their songs to anyone who would listen. I got one chance to see them at the Rock n’ Roll Hotel in Northeast DC on February 1, 2011. I was just out of touch enough with indie music trends to sleep on getting tickets; the show sold out fast. Fortunately, I found a face-value ticket on Craig’s List. The show was pretty good. No fireworks, no “duuuuuuuuuude you have to see this band before you die” sentiments, but pretty good. They took longer to come back for an encore (a ten minute wait for the demure and sweet “1995“) than any band I’d ever seen. I suspected that their blogger-bred reputation of being somewhat elusive and cranky was well-earned.

Recently, my friend in Long Beach sent me photos of The Radio Dept. playing a gig in Los Angeles, and I then spent the better part of the week catching up on the group. I was sizing up their music videos on YouTube for possible use introducing my Sweden lecture in a few weeks, and I discovered (or was at least reminded that) they have relatively few for a band of their renown. Again, this may have to do with their introverted, pointedly non-corporate approach to making and releasing music (see: their long gaps between albums).

In the course of this search, I found a handful of fan videos set to Radio Dept. songs. Fan videos, in a similar vein to fanzines, are publications created outside the artist’s purview. They use a particular song as a soundtrack to accompany film footage, and the Radio Dept. make exquisite music for this. Their dream-pop aesthetic, especially their more instrumental songs, creates a beautiful bed for equally dreamy footage.

There isn’t a heavy academic underpinning to this entry; I just wanted to revive my habit of spreading The Radio Dept’s musical love. I can see myself making something this an assignment in a future class, incorporating production, music, and geography. If I had a computer that could better handle video editing, I would start making these all the time, to procrastinate, inevitably.

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Paul Pomerantz in the Alps, Sometime in the Mid-1940s

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My grandfather, Paul Pomerantz, would have been 100 years old today. He passed away in early 2010, just shy of his 92nd birthday. My grandmother found this picture a few years ago. It stars him in his Army uniform and trench coat, some middle-aged Alpine man in what appears to be lederhosen, and the Alps rising in the background. I’m assuming this was sometime in 1943 or 1944, which would put Paul in his mid-twenties. To the best of my knowledge, he served at the rank of Lieutenant.

I wish I’d had the opportunity to ask him about this picture when he was still around. Does he remember the name of his friend in the lederhosen? Did he have a dog tethered to him, sitting outside the frame? Where exactly was this – Austria? Northern Italy? Southeastern France? Switzerland? At what point in the war was he even in the Alps? I don’t recall hearing a vignette like this mixed in with his war stories. I need to re-listen to what I did record a few years before he passed away. For now, though, take this as a tribute to a hell of a guy on the centennial of his birth.

On the outside chance that this post does somehow find the eyes of anyone who knows something that I don’t about that picture, please get in touch with me. Falls man kennen mehr Informationen über das Bild (besonders mit dem Mann, der steht Rechts im Bild, oder der Standort des Bildes), bitte rufen Sie mich an, oder schicken Sie ein Nachricht bei Email/Sozialen Medien. [Thanks to Mimi Thomas for the translation.]

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Ben Irving Visits Historic Westwood Tomorrow (9/15) at Noon

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I’ll be bringing my presentation about the life and somewhat-unintentional legacy of Ben Irving (and our collective digital heritage) to Knox Heritage tomorrow for their ‘Lost & Found Luncheon’ series. This will be my first time presenting about Irving in Knoxville since I presented a (heavily truncated) version of the talk at Pecha Kucha last November, and my first time presenting the full version since Western MA last Thanksgiving. I’m very excited to bring this to Historic Westwood.

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More info on the event is available at their website, which I’ll paste below. You can also RSVP to the Facebook event, which I found just now.

Lunch is available on a first-come, first-served basis at 11:30 a.m. The talk will begin promptly at noon. Please RSVP to Hollie Cook at hcook@knoxheritage.org or at 865-523-8008. FREE. ALL ARE WELCOME.

…Supergeil

In August 2015, I left Paris after a month of fieldwork to do some travelling in the low countries. One of my best college friends and her husband, who was in the German Air Force, were living in Bedburg-Hau, a pastoral Rhineland community outside Kleve. I had a couple of days to spend out in the country with them before returning to Amsterdam to fly back to the States. This turned out, by the way, to be a wonderful coda for a month of work abroad, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

In order to get to Kleve (where my friend’s husband, whom I had never met, was planning to pick me up, I needed to take one train from Amsterdam to Nijmegen, then quickly transfer to a bus that crossed the border, rode through some suburbs and into Kleve’s small bus depot. Because I had no cell phone service outside of France, and there were no evident sources of WiFi in the plaza where this stranger had apparently (hopefully) been dispatched to pick me and my bags up, I stood around on the curb next to Kleve’s quiet railroad depot. I debated going into a bar full of elderly locals to try to get a WiFi signal or use their phone to call my friend, but I didn’t speak any German and I was worried my ride would roll by, not see me, and return home to the countryside. So, I waited there, occasionally pacing around the traffic entry, naively hoping that every car that approached was the one sent to get me. I don’t remember how much time passed, but it felt like an eternity. ‘This is how our parents used to travel,’ I figured, wondering how many hours people whittled away waiting for rides in foreign countries in the twentieth century.

I eventually got restless and wandered over to the opposite side of the street, trying to get a read on whether this bar was worth trying to drag myself and my massively heavy suitcase into, hoping someone wouldn’t start yelling at me in German. As I would find out later, this pocket of the Rhineland had little use for English. They didn’t entertain many tourists from the UK or USA. Right as I was about to step inside, I saw a car roll up with a young man in a Red Sox cap on. “Are you Tyler?”

We got acquainted on the drive over to pick my friend up from her new job (the reason she had to send her husband to come pick me up). My friend and I shared a big hug and the predictable platitudes about how many years it had been since we had last hung out in Boston or Syracuse or wherever our paths had last crossed (probably Syracuse). We excitedly caught up as we got back to their gorgeous duplex house in Bedburg-Hau, both of them telling me about the sleepy life in the Rhineland. I asked my friend how she had adjusted to German life, and what was so different from that of the US.

What happened next is up for debate, as I don’t remember exactly how it happened. The important element was that it happened.

My friend’s husband interjected, “you should show him the video!”

My friend lit up; “Oh god, the video! Ty, have you ever seen ‘Supergeil?'” I hadn’t. Apparently, ‘supergeil’ is German slang for cool/hip/fun/etc. We sat down in their living room, they turned on their TV, and this was what happened next:

After the commercial ended (and I had taken a moment to compose myself), I told my friends “If I ever get to teach a class on the Geography of Europe, that’s what I’m going to start with on Day One.” Last week, I got to make good on this promise to a class of 40+ at the University of Tennessee, and now I have shared this with you. YOU’RE WELCOME.

If you’re interested in the story/demystifying what you just saw, you can read up on Friedrich Leichtenstein here.

California Excursion Part IV: Extra Words on Long Beach

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I wrote this about three weeks ago and somehow forgot to publish it. It began as an extra chunk to Part III of my LA writings, but I separated it into its own entry because, like I write below, Long Beach deserves to be so much more than just a footnote to LA. Enjoy! More updates this week on my Fall and Spring teaching schedule. – Ty

It’s difficult for me to write about Los Angeles without abbreviating it as LA/LB, because for most of this decade, Long Beach has felt like my Western home rather than the juggernaut dwarfing it from up the 405 and 710. Despite one legendary Long Beach poet’s references to “so much drama in the LBC,” the city’s actually a subdued counterpart to Los Angeles. If Long Beach were located anywhere outside of LA’s orbit, it would be considered a major city and maybe even have its own NBA team (seeing as how Anaheim has an MLB team and an NHL team with about 200,000 fewer people). All that being said, anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time in Long Beach is reticent to consider it as part of Los Angeles. “Greater Los Angeles,” perhaps, mostly because the red blotch in so many atlases I grew up reading enveloped both cities and the Metro Blue Line does connect the two efficiently (or, as efficiently as possible… you try to get from Downtown Long Beach to Downtown Los Angeles in under an hour for the grand total of $1.50).

So, whenever I told anyone where I was the other week, I said “LA/LB,” because I was spending quality time in both cities and taking advantage of what they respectively had to offer. Los Angeles has taco trucks and delicious street dog stands on every corner, Amoeba Records, the Hollywood Bowl, not to mention Western epicenters of North American comedy, film and theater. Long Beach has a better bus system, fewer taco trucks (that are still delicious), Fingerprints Records and Cafe, the biggest port in North America, and the single most beautiful urban place to see a sunset (I lived off of 4th Street for a year and it never got an iota less wonderful).

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Long Beach has gone a long way over the past two generations to establish its identity. Before World War II, it was viewed by outsiders (and many insiders) as a weekend getaway for Los Angeles’ swelling petite bourgeoisie. At least until the city erected a massive breakwater (which may very well come down soon depending on the results of an Army Corps of Engineers study), it resembled other blown-out mid-Century party harbors like Ocean City, Coney Island, and (shudder) Atlantic City. Of course, this depiction of the city belied the growing indigenous population (not to mention the actual indigenous population of Gabrielino Indians). The Long Beach items from the Ben Irving postcard collection, particularly this one above, shows off how the city prided itself back during Wartime. Irving sent this one home to my grandmother in Brooklyn on August 16, 1940. You can just see the Pike off in the back left of this image, Long Beach’s response to the Santa Monica pier, which had been devised around the turn of the century as a way to disguise sewage dumping but quickly turned into a fishing and amusement pier (more detailed history here).

The Pike was, for generations, an amusement park that stuck out into Long Beach’s own chunk of the Pacific, nestled next to the port and to the sea of oil refineries. Today, The Pike is perhaps better known to young Long Beach as a restaurant and bar near 4th and Cherry where DJs spin tunes by Social Distortion (for whom the owner Chris Reece, in the hat, used to play drums), burlesque troupes perform, and Hot Rod lovers converge. The area where the Pike pier sat has become a weird simulacrum that’s still tourist-friendly but filled with a convention center, a P. F. Changs, and a walkway decorated with lights that make it feel like the ghost of the roller coaster from last century. When I lived there, I barely ever went down there, other than to occasionally catch special events at the movie theater.

Anyway, between the EmoGeo conference and quick trips back and forth to LA, I didn’t have the chance to re-frame any of the Ben Irving Long Beach postcards. That was no excuse to omit some personal/professional reflection on the city, though, because I miss it an awful lot these days.

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Bret, me, Abel. An impromptu reunion of The Casual Geographer at The Pike Bar in Long Beach in June. We took about 15 of these, most of them blurry.

 

California Excursion Part III: Revisiting Los Angeles

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OPENING SIDETRACK: THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL

As I plan to return to Los Angeles at least once a year for the foreseeable future, I’ve started to build a mental list of landmarks to see that I never had the chance while I was living out there. Believe it or not, I’d never been to the Hollywood Bowl until my visit a couple weeks ago. Also believe it or not, I had never seen The Specials either (I’ve been a ska fan for well over half my life now; Dick Hebdige would either be proud or pity me). Fortunately, the Hollywood Bowl’s Reggae Night on June 18th helped me check off both of those bucket list items. Here is a fuzzy photo that accurately reflects my thoughts on the matter:

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You can’t make out the details in that photo, but Lynval Golding, 65, was rocking out after loudly declaring that Black Lives Matter, a true testament to Rude Boys everywhere. My longtime friend Kat, my new friend James, and I saw them play a slew of classics, including “Gangsters,” “Monkey Man,” and the eternal crowd-pleaser “A Message to You Rudy” as the sun set over the Hollywood Hills. It was euphoric. Here are a couple of better pictures…

 

The Hollywood Bowl is a true marvel of landscape architecture and engineering; I wonder if it gets enough credit as such. We had to leave a couple of songs into Ziggy Marley’s headlining set in order to get me to LAX in time for my flight, but it was still a night I won’t forget anytime soon.

Now that I’ve gone off on my musical tangent, I’ll rewind to earlier in the week and get to the focus of this entry: the Ben Irving Postcard collection and depictions of wartime Los Angeles to now.


ACTUAL INTRO: REPHOTOGRAPHING LOS ANGELES

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On Tuesday night before heading down to Long Beach for the start of EmoGeo, I had the rare opportunity to talk about Irving on Modern Vaudeville, a weekly variety show held at the Lyric Hyperion Theater in Los Feliz. It was a rare opportunity because not only did it represent my professional and performing life intersecting, but I was also on a bill with a number of great comedians, including Scott Thompson (doing a new Buddy Cole monologue) and the always-delightful Sklar Brothers (don’t miss their Netflix special). Despite the broken A/C and my own lack of time to prepare and refine the 8-minute set, it was well-received and the crowd joined in to sing one of his songs, the first time it had probably been performed in over 70 years. Thanks to Christy Coffey and Ian Abramson for the opportunity.


THE HOTEL ALEXANDRIA / PERSHING SQUARE

One of the DTLA landmarks I featured in my presentation was the old Hotel Alexandria, located at 500 S. Spring Street. Though I was in the area for over a week, I did not get a chance to visit the site, which I’m pretty confident I’ve walked by dozens of times without knowing Irving had once stayed there. I Sweded an image via Google Street view, commenting on how a once-upper-grade hotel had turned an SRO by the time that Tom Waits or Charles Bukowski could have lived there in the 70’s. The message on the back of the postcard that he sent on August 15, 1940 read “Hotel Alexandria: Where you meet America’s most famous people.” It may have been a bit of a stretch then; now, you might luck out if one of them’s filming something in there, but probably not.

 

I hope to ground-truth this image the next time I’m in LA and take a proper photo that I didn’t need to hijack from Google’s server. That being said, another place I have clear memories of visiting is Pershing Square. My classmates at CSU Long Beach and I did a walk-through as part of Norman Carter’s encyclopedic tour of downtown LA in 2012, and then we revisited the block as the (Millennium) Biltmore Hotel was one of the venues for AAG 2013. Unsurprisingly, when Pershing Square became a watering hole for many of the city’s homeless, the Biltmore re-oriented their main entrance away from the park side. What’s funny about looking at an early-1940’s depiction of Pershing Square and the Biltmore Hotel versus seeing how it looks now (at least as it did in February) is how relatively little the Hotel façade has changed, but how drastically the park across the street has (post-)modernized. As much as I can’t blame the Google Street View car operator for driving in one of the middle lanes down Olive Street, I’m putting a re-photographing of this vantage point at the top of my priorities for the next time I’m in DTLA. Either way, I hope you find this interesting.

 

Here are some photos I found that I took in 2013, including one which is actually not far from this vantage point, on the park side of the street. It seriously looks like Fritz Lang and Salvador Dali got together and directed this park. Seeing these photos again after a few years makes me even more excited to go back to Pershing and see what changes (if any) the city has made, and if any tent cities have figured out how to appear.


THE HOLLYWOOD PLAZA HOTEL

When I did have opportunities to ground-truth sites depicted on the postcards, it often times didn’t work out due to the encapsulating site not existing anymore. This happened to me in two separate manner in Savannah last month (which I completely ran out of time to write about here, but I plan to soon). Earlier in the week, I found myself in Hollywood to see what kind of deals Amoeba had to offer,  and I wandered over to Vine Avenue to see what had become of the once-luxurious Hollywood Plaza Hotel. All I had was a postcard (mailed June 9, 1941) that depicted the lobby lounge, rather than anything on the exterior of the building:

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What I found at the site was a strange combination of nostalgia and blatant disregard: the large neon sign remained on the roof of the block (as designated an LA Historic-Cultural Monument), but it appeared that little of the actual building had been preserved or made accessible. The second level was actually beautifully adorned on the outside (and possibly on the inside, but I wouldn’t know), but the chocolate-centric cafe on the street level outside hung an imposing banner. A historic placard about the Hotel hung on the light post nearby. I walked inside the main office entrance, greeted by a security guard with (I gathered) pretty strict bosses. I wanted to make up a story about someone I had an appointment with, but I didn’t have time to spin anything. Also, my brain was fried from the Hollywood heat and traffic I had navigated to get there.

The conclusion here is that I have no idea if that Lounge still exists in any architectural form. The historical information I’ve found indicates that the hotel had gone derelict by the late 1960’s and was converted into a senior living facility. Also, in 1937 (a few years before Irving passed through there), Clara Bow opened up the troubled “It” Club off of the Hotel’s Lounge. It closed within a year, so I guess Irving never got to experience that piece of Hollywood Babylon. A real shame.

 


LANGER’S DELI AND WESTLAKE/MACARTHUR PARK

For every LA landmark within the touristic purview that I feature here, I like to feature one that has, for whatever reason(s), straddled or slipped off of it. On Saturday, after EmoGeo had wrapped up, I had the opportunity to take my Mom (who was in LA to visit family) to one of Jewish Los Angeles’ legendary eateries, Langer’s Deli. Somehow, I had never heard of Langer’s prior to this trip. I had been through MacArthur Park a couple of times, but had somehow never noticed this prominent deli at the corner of 7th and Alvarado Street. For similarly dubious reasons, my brother-in-law (who grew up in Los Angeles and lives there now with my recently-relocated sister and recently-born niece) had never mentioned the Deli to us, despite it being the best one in the city (high praise indeed).

It just so happened that one of the Postcards that my great-grandfather had mailed home from California featured Westlake Park, as it was known when he posted it in 1940.

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A bit of admittedly overdue background: During his life as a salesman, he visited California twice, once in 1940 and once in 1941. From what I could tell, Irving was pretty amazed at what he found out there. Obviously, pre-War Los Angeles and Long Beach were much different cities. Many of the nodal cities like Pasadena, Inglewood, and Carson which eventually bled together into modern Greater Los Angeles were still somewhat isolated yet well-connected by… you guessed it…

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via Museum of the City.

Ironically, as the neighborhood around Langer’s Deli languished after the GM-led dismemberment of the Pacific Electric system by the early 1960s, it was the emergence of the Westlake/MacArthur Park Metro station that pumped new life into the block. Today, CiclaVia runs through there and gentrification bites at the area’s ankles. You can read more about it here at the restaurant’s official history.

What my Mom and I didn’t know as we drove down to MacArthur Park the other weekend was that we were about to stumble into a new moment in Langer’s history: its 70th anniversary celebration. The line of eager new customers and longtime regulars wound around a barrier by the entrance. Fortunately, much of the line was underneath an awning, with portable air conditioning units blasting sweet, sweet cool air on them, young women on Langer’s staff handing out “I ♥ Langer’s” pins and free bottles of water.

We headed across the street into MacArthur Park, passing by a large strip of Mexican street vendors and a series of encampments spread throughout the periphery. MacArthur Park, like Pershing Square, has clearly become a magnet for much of the region’s homeless population. However, the city has not taken as much of a scalpel to MacArthur Park, letting it serve its municipal function even if many people who planners find undesirable are populating it. The easily recognizable Elks Club Lodge building sat at the far corner of the park, which made it a cinch to locate the original vantage point depicted in the Irving postcard above. Below are a couple of results:

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That’s better. The highly recognizable old Elks Lodge (now the Parkview Hotel) made this one very straightforward.

After taking these pictures, we headed back to Langer’s to get in line. After about 30 minutes, several free bottles of water, and giving a completely useless sound-byte to a KNX reporter, we got seated at the counter inside. My mom quickly charmed the owner Norm Langer, who had passed by to say hello and thank you to customers for the special occasion. Because he was almost as old as the establishment (his father Albert opened it in 1947), we asked him what he remembered about Westlake/MacArthur Park from his youth. He was convinced that there had never actually been water on the East side of where Wilshire Boulevard bisected the park; it had always been a field and the actual lake had always been confined to the other side of Wilshire. This seemed odd, but not unbelievable considering the liberties that Curt Teich postcard artists took when trying to sell cities with controversial water histories. That’s my theory, anyway; it’s possible that Norm was thinking about his childhood in the post-War era and not in the 1930s when the postcard was first published. This may require more digging.

I’ll finish this mammoth series of CA reflections soon with a bonus entry on Long Beach. For now, I’ll finish this post with a quick dedication to my Mom – she was really nice to put up with me and buy me lunch. She did, however, fill my ears with her rendition of the hit song of her teenage years “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris, eventually giving up and playing it on her phone as we left Downtown LA. I’m not sure exactly how the park inspired Jimmy Webb to write the song, but I’ll link to this megapost about it and hopefully not regret that later. The song has an interesting history and and interesting cult, for sure. I can’t help but imagine a young Neil Hannon hearing it and having a light bulb appear over his head. Enjoy the majesty:

 

Catching Up with the Farragut Hotel

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I took this when I walked by the site on Wednesday afternoon, mostly because of the shiny new “Coming Fall 2017” Hyatt banner.

I can’t remember how much I’ve covered the Farragut Hotel and its intersection with the Ben Irving Postcard Project, but from what I can tell, he stayed there at least once in 1935 and then possibly again in 1940. That’s really all I could ascertain from the notes and the dates on the cards.

Regarding the development’s news, the Knoxville News Sentinel published this article last year about the official development plans, which stated their plan was to reopen during the summer of 2017. So, knowing the pace of development in Knoxville, I looked forward to being able to see their finished product in late 2019.

I was fortunate to be able to visit the project as it currently sits when Knox Heritage had a special event there last Fall. I took several pictures while wandering around the construction site and I never did anything with them in October, so I figured I would post some highlights here. Forgive any unintentional trespassing I may have done.

Knox Heritage has been teasing a follow-up event where their members will get a free preview of the hotel when it’s ready to officially reopen this fall. I’ll do my best to recreate these photos, but I can’t make any promises with the ones of gigantic death-hazard holes. I imagine they’ll patch those up.