Oh, that

by Kevin Uhrich, Pasadena Weekly, Dec 28, 2006

Think of this old joke while you’re reminiscing about the past 12 months: “Other than that, Mrs. Kennedy” so goes the darkly funny one-liner, “how did you enjoy your stay in Dallas?”

The that in the case of 2006, of course, is the war in Iraq, which is a tragedy on an ever-widening global scale that’s only getting worse by the day and isn’t remotely funny in any sense.

For the third year straight, the war has dominated not only headlines but anxious thoughts and prayers from people in every corner of the world, so far claiming the lives of perhaps hundreds of thousands of enemy combatants and civilians alike, as well as nearly 3,000 American military personnel — and all without a clear end in sight as American lawmakers now contemplate drafting college-age men and women to do the fighting for a volunteer military that is nearing exhaustion.

Journalists, Editor & Publisher recently reported, also hit some new tragic highs, with 55 reporters dying while on the job this year, 32 of them in Iraq — the highest number since the Committee to Protect Journalists started tracking such grim facts in 1981.

Other than that, though, 2006 was just packed with exciting, enriching, uplifting, enlightening, life-changing, world-turning and sometimes bewildering events, which, unlike the war, were at times a wonder to witness, and for mostly all the right reasons — unlike Iraq, the reason for which remains a mystery to even the lawmakers who have been bankrolling this flaming mess with our hard-earned tax dollars.

OK, so rain on the Rose Parade for the first time in nearly 50 years wasn’t so great. And USC losing a squeaker to Texas in the national title game at the Rose Bowl last New Year’s wasn’t such a hot experience, especially if you had any money on the up-till-then unbeaten Trojans. This year, AP’s No. 8 USC is up against the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines (the BCS has USC as No. 5). It’s not the national championship, but the game should still be exciting to watch nonetheless.

But, hey, there was a lot more happening than wet parades and heartbreaking football games to stimulate, titillate and engage people living in the Greater Pasadena area — in the arts, politics and news — throughout the past year.


Most people had long-forgotten about the Trojans blowing the Big Game by a score of 41-38 by the time diminutive Wen Yu Shen took to the stage at the Pasadena Auditorium and put on a dazzling performance as part of the annual Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition. Russian rival Evgeni Mikhailov filled out the program card with Shen for a benefit concert a day prior to competing. Russians, as many people who read classical literature know, are keen on issues of crime and punishment, and Greater Pasadena had more than its share of police action and courtroom drama, with charges of unlawful sex with a minor leveled against a respected former Glendale cop and arrests made in the brutal slaying of popular Pasadena teen Frank Mitchell. On the education front, residents of unincorporated Altadena finally started getting fed up with how schools were being run by officials in neighboring Pasadena, so some folks, led by 20-year-old Town Council member and part-time PW writer Justin Chapman, took it upon themselves to start the process of seceding from the Pasadena district.


As all that was happening, Pasadena City Council members were expressing concerns about how local schools were being run. In the meantime, though, some of those same council people were having some problems of their own at the administrative level, with a special task force headed by former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp convening to help the city implement Measure B, the anti-public corruption initiative that had been approved by voters, shamelessly ignored by the council, then validated by a judge. On the war front, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan started making demands of the Bush administration, among them a feasible outline for success in Iraq, full funding for the under-equipped Department of Veterans Affairs, health insurance for all military personnel and accountability from our leaders. Not surprisingly, they and we are still waiting for some answers. In the arts world, Southwest Chamber continued enjoying national acclaim with its third Grammy nomination in as many years. And in Alhambra, citizens were treated to some answers after investigative reporter Chip Jacobs started digging into the still unsolved murder of former Mayor Steve Ballreich, who was gunned down on a city street nearly 15 years ago.


Early in the month, tragedy struck when Pasadena police Officer Kyle Ballard died of natural causes while training at the Rose Bowl for an upcoming marathon. Also that month, Graham Nash and David Crosby lent their considerable talents to a fundraising effort for the Grace Center for battered women, and Jackson Browne joined Cindy Sheehan at All Saints Church for a rally against the war in Iraq. Then we learned that PUSD Superintendent Percy Clark was looking for a new job in Cleveland, and the Sheriff’s Department formally re-opened the Ballreich murder investigation based on some of the information uncovered by Jacobs.


With the beginning of spring came questions about the sustainability of life on Earth as concerns about global warming took center stage. Also that month, the Chavez brothers were brought to trial in the then five-year-old murder of store owner Olivia de la Torre, and hundreds of thousands of people converged on downtown Los Angles to demonstrate for immigrant rights in what came to be known as the Gran Marcha. We also learned for the first time about some of the people involved with bankrolling ultimately failed attempts to lure the NFL to the Rose Bowl.


Things started heating up on the national and local political scene with Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” hitting theaters and Percy Clark committing plagiarism in a column that he wrote for this newspaper, a transgression the led to Clark being asked to take a hike by the Board of Education. May also saw the local debut of Hector Aristizabal’s intensely personal and painfully prescient theater art, which features re-enactments of his own torture while living through US-backed fascism in Colombia.


By now, City Council members were looking for ways to play a bigger role in managing the local school district, and in Glendale owners of the venerable A Noise Within theater announced plans to move to Pasadena. Glendale businesses were recovering from the financially draining but long overdue makeover of Brand Boulevard, and some city officials considered doing away with that city’s Commission on the Status of Women. Also in June, we kicked off Deputy Editor Joe Piasecki’s meticulously researched and reported five-part series on the deplorable state of the state’s foster care system. And months before Michael Richards liberally spewed the N-word during a routine at the Laugh Factory, frequent PW columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson was condemning that word’s use, particularly among African Americans. We were also way ahead of the curve on use of eco-friendly fuels by publishing the dirty truth about coal-fired power plants, an issue that would come back for consideration at the local level by the end of the year.


Mid-summer saw the death of local civil rights warrior Michael Zinzun, and a San Fernando Valley jury convicted former Glendale cop Art Crabtree of seeking sex with juveniles over the Internet. A judge later sentenced Crabtree to more than seven years in prison. Over at Glendale Community College, reporter Carl Kozlowski wrote about still unidentified thieves stealing student newspapers from racks on campus, supposedly in an effort to squelch a story about suicides in the school’s nursing department. Over at Pasadena City Hall, Van de Kamp and company finished dressing up Measure B for another go on the fall ballot. By this time, the PW had won a slew of awards at the national, state and local level, some for writing, but most for   the outstanding work of Art Director Agnes Carrera and graphic artists Jay Cribas and Yvonne Guererro. And PW reporters André Coleman, Kevin Uhrich, Titania Kumeh and Vic Everett kicked off a two-part series on the connections between local prostitution and the global human trafficking trade.


The end of summer held out hope for Democrats trying to unseat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But when the time came for Dem candidate Phil Angelides to press the flesh in party hotbed Pasadena, Angelides never showed. Arts Editor Julie Riggott, who doubles as editor of our sister magazine Arroyo, and staff writer Tracy Spicer took us on a tour of the extra-sexy “Not for You” exhibit on South Lake Avenue, which put Pasadena at the center of the international arts world, not to mention an extra bounce in everyone’s step. August Wilson’s “Fences,” starring Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, did much the same thing at the national level for the historic Pasadena Playhouse. Longtime Altadena activist and Town Council member Jacqueline Fennessy passed away. Recently decriminalized comedian Tommy Chong found his way to Vroman’s to hawk his new book, “The I Chong,” and Vietnam vet-turned-Buddhist monk Claude AnShin Thomas showed Iraq War veterans and the rest of us the way from violence and toward inner peace.


Crime novelist James Ellroy talked with Verdugo Editor Nikki Bazar about his new book and the iconic Elizabeth “Black Dahlia” Short murder, and the Huntington Library acquired the collected works of drunker-than-life Charles “Hank” Bukowski. In other news, power couple Robin Salzer, owner of Robin’s Woodfire BBQ & Grill, and Ann-Marie Villicana, a former City Councilwoman, tried — ultimately in vain — to relocate an historic home built by famed African-American architect Paul Revere Williams to their upscale neighborhood in West Pasadena. Nice try. Meanwhile, KPFK radio host and Pasadena resident Sonali Kolhatkar and her husband Jim Ingalls released their book on the deteriorating state of occupied Afghanistan, “Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence.” Author Barry Zwicker became the latest in a growing list of people who have come to suspect sinister underpinnings to the Twin Towers tragedy of Sept. 11 with his book, “Towers of Deception: The Media Cover-up of 9/11.” By the end of the month, the Pentagon reported that 2,700 military personnel had been killed in Iraq, which, when added to the soldiers, sailors, Marines and other military people killed in Afghanistan, exceeds the number of victims killed in New York that world-altering day.


On a happier note, renowned Pasadena artist Syd Mead was honored with a National Design Award for his futuristic visions and a new documentary on his life was produced. A search firm was hired to find a replacement for long-gone but still-being-paid Percy Clark as Pasadena became the center of the Southern California arts universe once again with the three-day-long ArtNight Pasadena. Colleen Dunn Bates, Sandy Gillis, Mel Malmberg, Mary Jane Horton and Jill Alison Ganon proved too many cooks don’t always spoil the broth, especially when it comes to writing the first Greater Pasadena-area guidebook, “Hometown Pasadena: The Insider’s Guide.”   The Tournament of Roses announced “Star Wars” creator George Lucas will lead this year’s parade. And, just in case you hadn’t heard enough about disgraced former Florida Republican Congressman and suspected pedo-sex freak Mark Foley, we did everyone a favor and finally got him and his name entirely out of our systems. Foley Foley Foley. (Sorry, just couldn’t resist.)


We threw down the gauntlet for anyone else who’s fed up with business as usual in the local political realm by endorsing all the Green Party candidates running for major offices. Few accepted the challenge, proving once again that you really do get what you pay for. On the bright side, though, voters reaffirmed our early support for Measure B, and few people were prepared to have the NFL help repair and renovate the aging Rose Bowl. Voters also didn’t want to tax cigarettes or the oil companies to pay for better health and cleaner skies, respectively, in the General Election. Police, on the other hand, appeared to have had enough of another kind of smoking, as they and county officials cracked down on the Pasadena area’s only medical marijuana dispensary. And historic preservationists fighting plans to convert the historic Raymond Theatre into condominium units lost a key court battle that could have halted work on the project. An appeals court ruled that Pasadena city officials had not violated the California Environmental Quality Act or city procedures in approving work on the theater. But it may not be over yet. Friends of the Raymond Theatre founder Gina Zamparelli is thinking of appealing to the state Supreme Court.


The saga of beleaguered and belittled Percy Clark finally came to an end with the hiring of new PUSD Superintendent Edwin Diaz, all just after funding for the annual Turkey Tussle football game between the Muir Mustangs and the Pasadena High Bulldogs at the Rose Bowl stretched the limits of the city’s financial patience with a PUSD Board of Education in disarray. In Glendale, “Screamers,” a documentary featuring System of a Down, called attention to the Armenian Genocide, all just as a government study was showing more children and women than ever live in poverty in Los Angeles County, a fact that we’ve been reporting on for the past few years and the other guys only now seem to be catching up with. As of this week, American deaths in Iraq alone now exceed the number killed on 9/11. According to The Count on page 6, the minimum number of civilian deaths in Iraq is 51,814. A controversial study conducted by Johns Hopkins University puts that number closer to as many as 655,000 people killed.

Oh, yeah, that.

Happy New Year!

Food for thought

Oh Happy Days will screen the film ‘Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price’

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/21/2006

Following a hard-fought public battle over whether Wal-Mart could open a store in Rosemead -- one that spawned recall movements against a mayor and city councilman who supported the development -- the retail giant opened its doors in that city in September.

Is Wal-Mart a good neighbor? Does it help the communities it serves? Why are smaller cities like Rosemead and countless others around the country embracing the chain?

Find answers to these questions and more on Friday at a screening of the film "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" at the Oh Happy Days Organic Cafe & Market in Altadena.

Before the screening, Oh Happy Days will serve a meal including a vegetarian soup at 6:30 p.m. for a suggested donation of $5.

The film starts at 7:15 p.m. Friday. Oh Happy Days is located at 2283 N. Lake Ave., Altadena. Call (626) 797-0383.

‘Oil on Ice’

All Saints’ Sustainable World Ministry will screen the film ‘Oil on Ice’

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/14/2006

With the end of Republican congressional rule, it seems less likely that Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife refuge will be open to oil exploration and drilling any time soon, but that doesn't make the issue any less serious. Some are predicting the Democratic majority won't be able to pass an ANWR wilderness protection bill, much like the Republican majority was too slim to open the refuge to drilling.

Tonight, All Saints' Sustainable World Ministry, the Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed and the Light Bringer Project are co-sponsoring a free screening of the film "Oil on Ice," which explores the environmental consequences of drilling in the Alaskan wilderness. A community discussion will follow the screening, which begins at 7 p.m. at the Metro Gallery, 64 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena.

For more information, call (626) 792-4941, or visit www.oilonice.org.


Growing pains

County officials move on police complaints about non-compliant medical pot dispensary just outside Pasadena city limits

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 11/9/2006

The San Gabriel Valley’s only medical marijuana dispensary is under fire from LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and Pasadena police who say the operation is out of compliance with recently passed laws banning new dispensaries.

Paul Novak, planning and land use deputy for Antonovich, said the supervisor “has directed our staff, regional planning, the sheriff, and county counsel to pursue code enforcement and take action against the property.

“He has directed our attorney to investigate what legal options are available to close them down. It’s a very high priority because this clinic did not apply for any permit from the county despite being legally required to do so,” Novak said.

Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian had expressed frustration because he said the county didn’t notify local police when the dispensary first opened in the last week of October, but Assistant County Counsel Richard Weiss said it happened the other way around. The county was first made aware of it by the Pasadena police.

One patient who works near the dispensary expressed disappointment at the prospect of the club shutting down. “It’s just so convenient and the next closest dispensary is in Silver Lake. Where am I supposed to go?” said Ryan Gerlin, who declined to say what illness he treats with medical marijuana.

After clubs were closed down in nearby Monrovia and Monterey Park, advocates and patients were closely watching how authorities would handle California Compassionate Caregivers, located at 3682 E. Colorado Blvd., just outside Pasadena city limits in unincorporated East Pasadena.

In order to comply with county regulations, the owners of the dispensary were supposed to file for a business license and a conditional use permit, which is a month-long process that requires notice, a staff report, an environmental review and a public hearing, said Weiss.

Weiss also said he doesn’t think there’s anything the operators of the dispensary can do to stay open and that they may ultimately face criminal prosecution.

“It’s our position that they are subject to this requirement and they have no legal authority to operate right now,” he told the Weekly. “I don’t believe the county’s inclined to allow them to operate. If they want to apply for a CUP, they have a right to do that, but I don’t think they can bootstrap their operation by shooting first and asking questions later.”

On Wednesday, the dispensary appeared to be closed. Although it’s not within city limits, the Pasadena police have jurisdiction if it affects the quality of life of people within city limits, according to department spokeswoman Janet Pope-Givens.

“We tend to work together with surrounding agencies on a myriad of issues all the time if it’s an interest to all of us and concerns the quality of life in our communities. Chief Melekian is on record as being adamantly opposed to medical marijuana dispensaries. He has contacted the LA County Board of Supervisors who are looking into the legitimacy of this operation,” she said.

“We only found out about this late last week and we’re evaluating it,” said Weiss. “One thing’s for sure; we will be vigorously pursuing them. Somebody who violates our zoning code like this is subject to both criminal prosecution and civil court proceedings.”

Jack says

Hear Pasadena Democratic state Sen. Jack Scott, chair of the Senate Committee on Education, discuss current policies and trends in public education

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 10/26/2006

Hear Pasadena Democratic state Sen. Jack Scott, chair of the Senate Committee on Education, discuss current policies and trends in public education at 7 p.m. on Nov. 2 at the Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena.

The event is sponsored by the Pasadena Education Foundation, which can be reached at (626) 577-6733.

The ‘Bedroom Secrets’ of Irvine Welsh

The Scottish novelist on drugs, politics, love and old people in Seattle

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 10/12/2006

Irvine Welsh is very busy these days.

The Scottish author of “Trainspotting” fame never lives in one place for more than two or three years. He’s in talks for almost a dozen projects in various mediums, including adaptations of some of his other page-turners.

On top of his modest 400-page novel, “The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs,” and its conjoined book tour, Welsh went to the Exit Theatre in San Francisco in June for the opening of “Babylon Heights,” a play about the purportedly drunk orgy-having, opium-smoking Munchkin actors of “The Wizard of Oz,” co-written by Welsh and Dean Cavanagh of Cottingley, Ireland. One of Welsh’s publicists, Sheryl Johnston, is in preliminary talks with the Pasadena Playhouse, among other LA-area theater companies, to produce “Babylon Heights.”

The play also premiered in Dublin, where Welsh and his second wife of one year, Beth, currently live and where Welsh workshops scripts with the Attic Studio Theatre Co.

Welsh and Cavanagh have worked on a number of projects together, including a video for the band Keane, a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts)-nominated drama called “Dose,” an adaptation of Dave Jones’ football hooligan gang novel “Soul Crew,” a black comedy for television called “Wedding Belles” and an adaptation of Welsh’s cop-bashing novel “Filth.”

Welsh is also trying out a bit of directing, including Keane’s “Atlantic” and a 15-minute short, practice for the upcoming feature he plans to shoot in March, an adaptation he did of Alan Warner’s “The Man Who Walks.”

An adaptation of “The Undefeated,” the third short story from Welsh’s “Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance,” begins shooting in October. Welsh’s film production company Four-Way Pictures, in which Welsh partners with Robert Carlyle, Mark Cousins and "Ravenous" director Antonia Byrd, is considering the "Filth" adaptation. Michael Winterbottom and, oddly enough, Rob Schneider have shown interest as well. Byrd will also begin filming Welsh’s body snatcher flick "The Meat Trade" in January.

The new book “Bedroom Secrets” is about a health inspector at the Edinburgh Council named Danny Skinner and his arch rival Brian Kibby, both in their early 20s and dealing with alcoholism and the loss or lack of their fathers. Their rivalry turns into a fierce obsession that drives them to physical and mental extremes. It’s an ambitious story that’s classic Welsh, with a powerful ending that wraps up an enthralling and provoking message of discovery, maturity and identity.

The Weekly recently caught up with Welsh on the last day of his “Bedroom Secrets” book tour in Seattle. “I’ll try not to be too much of a cunt,” he says as we sit down inside the downtown Hotel Vintage Park.

Pasadena Weekly: You said you wrote “Trainspotting” for yourself. Was that the first piece of narrative you had written, or did you start writing before that?

Irvine Welsh: I had done sort of half-ass pieces before, but that was the first time I really sat down and said I’m going to finish this thing no matter what; I don’t care what it’s like, good or bad. Before that I sort of got self-conscious about things. I just got to the point with “Trainspotting” where I said I’m just going to write this thing and if it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Probably took me about nine months to finish it. I was working during the day as well, so it wasn’t like I was doing nothing else. I had a full-time girlfriend and I was doing deejay stuff. I mostly wrote in stolen hours, like in the morning and such.

Which do you like writing for more: stage, screen or books?

Books, screen, stage, in that order. With books you can do whatever you want. I’ve got to do other stuff as well; otherwise you spend all your time with people who don’t exist and you start to turn into a bit of a nut job if you just write books — it’s not a good thing to do. As much as I love it, I’ve got to do other stuff as well. Screenwriting’s great because you work with other people. I think theater is last because there’s no money in theater. It’s more of a critic’s medium rather than a consumer culture vulture or an artist’s medium. Not a feel-good medium. The critics really determine what works and what doesn’t, which is a shame because the audience can become quite disenfranchised by critics. There’s no money in it and it can be a hassle. But I always go back to it for some reason because I just like the idea of live performance.

Do you like writing with other people?

It’s a difficult thing to do. I couldn’t do it with anyone, but I can do it with Dean [Cavanagh]. It’s a good thing to be able to work with someone in that way and share ideas and such. It’s almost like a vampire, you know; you suck someone’s blood and take on their sensibilities as well as your own. It can help. Hopefully he thinks it’s helpful as well.

Dean is adapting “Filth”?

Dean originally adapted “Filth” for Miramax, and then they sold it to the UK operation. There was some confusion about who owns the rights to it. We kind of got the rights back now so I want Dean to be the principal writer and I’ll sort of work with him to get a good screenplay together and then we’ll see who wants to work on it. Winterbottom and Schneider have been interested in it. The guys who did “Football Factory” kinda wanted to do it, and also my own company, Four Way Pictures, has been thinking of a way to do it as well. I’ve got to look at the options and see who’s best to advance it. Also the filming of “Ecstasy” got pushed back from summer because the lead actor pulled out. I think they’ve replaced the lead actor and are going to shoot in October now.

I read a quote from Dean where he said, “Young people need more encouragement to develop their writing talents, that it takes years to find your voice.” Is that what you try to do in your writing course or even in your own writing?

Yeah, I think it does. I taught the BFA and MFA program in Chicago and I kind of have a problem with it. I think if you’re over 30 or 35 it’s a good writing program to get into because it gives you that structure and that encouragement. But for anyone under 35, I would say get a job, basically. Especially if they just got out of school, you know, I would say go travel or work. Get a degree in something that’s going to give you some knowledge — history or geography or social sciences or computers or business or something like that to give you a bit of background and experience.

What about an adaptation of “Porno” with the same actors 10 years later?

The same production company and Andrew MacDonald have the rights to it. They’re just trying to get the script as good as they can. I think Danny Boyle wants to wait until people perceive the actors as being a little bit older. It takes time to do it right. If you’ve got a big budget, you’ve got to have a good script to get the actors interested and involved. That way they feel there’s something in it for them instead of using them for exploitative financial purposes. We’re going to try to do the very best that we can, and if we can’t do the very best then we won’t make it. Simple as that. I think if we’re going to do it, it needs to keep the integrity of the thing intact, instead of just throwing something together that’s half-assed just to make it.

Do you enjoy directing?

Yeah, I’ve only done music videos. I’m doing a short and then I’m hoping to do a feature in March. I’ve kind of been learning a bit about myself. You do a video shoot in two days, basically, and everybody can enjoy that. It’s just good fun because you’re not doing it long enough to get pissed off. You know, if you’re shooting in the Highlands of Scotland with a huge crew, huge budget, keeping everyone happy in the cold and all that. I do enjoy it, I love working with people and being involved, but it’s easy when all I’ve done is pop videos. You know you’ll be able to get everything you need in a couple days.

Do you have plans to record with Primal Scream again, or do you like collaborating with different musicians?

I’m working with a friend of mine in Dublin on something for Channel 4. That begins shooting in September and we’re hoping to get a bunch of people doing different stuff for the soundtrack. I’ll be doing something on it myself. I’ll probably work with Primal Scream again; it’s a bit of a novelty. It’s fun and all that, but there are so many talented musicians: David Holmes, for example, or Andrew Innes from Primal Scream, who can work on scoring movies. I think they’d be great at that. Look at Clint Mansell, you know, he’s brilliant at that sort of thing. The only thing I can do reasonably professionally instrument-wise is bass guitar, but then again I’m not particularly brilliant at it. I’d rather get someone who’s really good at it. Nowadays you can sample a bass line so easily and there are so many brilliant musicians around so there’s really no point getting somebody half-assed like me trying to do something.

You recently went to Sudan and wrote a piece on that.

Yeah, I went to southern Sudan with a team of writers. I also went to Calcutta and Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. I was the first Western journalist in Darfur when I did a report for The New York Times when the whole thing kicked off, basically, the janjaweed and that. I’m planning to do some more of that stuff next year. I start to feel selfish working on just my own stuff again. It’s a great thing to do but it can get pretty hard. I do stuff for some other charities and organizations as well. You have to limit yourself otherwise you’re not doing anybody any good. The OneCity Trust in Edinburgh is one group I’ve started doing stuff with and I want to do more with them.

You have a new novella and short story collection coming out called “If You Like School, You’ll Love Work.” How did you receive school growing up?

I hated it. It was shit. Fuckin’ horrible. I wasn’t good at anything except English and art. I didn’t have any desire to do anything else. I don’t know why; I wasn’t stupid. And now I’m interested in all that, like geography, history, science — math, even. I love all that kind of stuff. I wish I would have tried harder in school and applied myself more. I feel I’ve missed out on basic education in some areas that I should be a lot more proficient in. I don’t know why; it just didn’t interest me. I’ve never liked the nine-to-five thing, stuck in some place. I don’t know why that is; it’s just an attitude thing really, kind of temperamental.

Some of your novels focus on the interaction within a group of friends. Have you yourself had longtime friends in which you confided in or ripped off?

Yeah, I got married again last year and I had eight groomsmen. Two of them I’ve known since I was 6 years old. Grew up with them in the scheme in Muirhouse in Edinburgh. Another two or three were football hooligan pals from my teens and all that. Another couple of them were drug mates from my early 20s. I mean every one of them are sort of pre-me being a writer. That’s kind of a nice thing to realize, that my closest friends are the ones I’ve always had.

In the new book, “The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs,” you make a couple topical references, such as to Tony Blair and George Bush, and talk about them through the characters’ perspectives. Is that part of your personal politics that you wrote in there or do you think current world events are relevant and even critical to individual stories?

What I was trying to do is make a point in a way that Skinner’s obsession with Kibby because he’s a bit different, it’s that kind of immaturity that we get into in our teens and early 20s before we’re fully formed. We define ourselves by people who are not like us. Being obsessed with somebody in that way, hating somebody, is almost like being in love with them. It implies a relationship with that kind of responsibility. You’re always thinking about them; you’re obsessed with them. I wrote in the whole geopolitical thing about the Middle East: If you don’t get along with them or don’t like them, just leave them alone. That’s what I was trying to say there. Like Blair is apologizing to people in India and the Caribbean and all that now for imperialism. And it’s like what the fuck — why do that and then fucking bomb people in the Middle East? We’ll be apologizing to them in 50 years time and all that. It’s like an alcoholic, you know, “Oh, I’m sorry. I love you. I’ll never do it again. I promise; I promise.” It’s that kind of insincere fucking nonsense. I was trying to get that kind of culture that’s implicit in an immature individual and also in an immature political culture. And I think Western imperialism is an immature political culture. Our institutions have never been allowed to reach the kind of maturity in adulthood because of its imperialist legacy that’s regurgitating again and again. That was the reason for having that kind of stuff in the book.

Has love helped or hindered your writing process?

It’s difficult to say. I’ve probably only been in love three times in my life. One was pre-writing and the other two post-writing. The times when you’re in love are better for you because it’s so energizing, apart from everything else. When you’re in love you’re more curious about things, you’re looking at different things and you’re more willing to try different things. Bad things don’t get on your nerves so much. I think hate can teach you a lot as well, but when you’re in love you’re more positive about people and the world.

At the Edinburgh Book Festival you were accused of misogyny after reading a sex scene between an old witch and Skinner in the new book, which is ironic because you wrote your thesis on creating equal opportunities for women.

I told the woman concerned that you can’t really call it misogyny because the old woman in the scene is empowered, not the other way around. She’s sort of manipulated this young guy into doing something he wouldn’t normally have done. She actually came up later and said she meant misanthropist, not misogynist. Which, you know, it may be ageist. I think I’m probably ageist in a sense that I don’t think people should be treated badly, I think they are treated badly and should be treated a lot better. But we have to accept the realities of getting older are that basically you get fucking ugly to look at and boring to talk to. Simple as that, you know? Not in all cases, but gradually it happens. There are some very interesting old people, but that’s because they were exceptionally interesting when they were younger. As good as they may be, I don’t think they’re quite as interesting as when you see them back when they were younger. It’s not discrimination against the old; it’s just a misanthropic thing to the extent that it’s something everyone goes through; it’s part of the life cycle. It’s not punishing old people because they come from a certain generation or that they’re superior to the next generation of old people who right now are young. It’s just a natural thing.

What keeps you writing, for instance through writer’s block?

I don’t really get writer’s block. I don’t believe that, I think it’s a lot of shite. It never really bothers me. What keeps me writing is I don’t feel I’ve written what I want to write yet. Aside from volume and all that, I know I can [write] better than what I’ve done. My whole sort of philosophy has been to accept in myself that writing’s a valid career choice, not so much accept that I’m a writer, which took me a long, long time, but to accept that that’s what I am, that’s what I’m doing, that’s probably what I’ve always been. Instead of saying I’m some kind of cultural activist or some kind of iconoclastic figure. Everyone writes from different cultures. The one I write from is just another culture; it’s not necessarily superior or inferior to the next. Different cultures of society produce good and bad writers. We live in a multicultural world, we should have multicultural art.

How do you respond to people who say you accurately depict the relationship between humans and intoxication compared to those who say you glorify drug use?

The people who say “glorify drug use,” that’s the kind of thing people who have never taken drugs would say. That’s people talking outside their own experience. When “Trainspotting” came out, all the health education stuff in Britain at the time was “Just say no.” Now all the health education stuff is out of “Trainspotting,” you know, most people know that’s not the case at all. There’s nothing glamorous or glorifying about fucking come downs or getting sick on heroin and I depicted that just as relentlessly as I depicted the highs. People do it because it feels good, and you’ve got to show that reality. And then it fucks them up and it starts to feel bad, and you’ve got to show that reality, too. You know, to not show these realities is just nonsense. You’re only showing half the picture. How dumb is it to say this is what happens when you take heroin, and you show them ODing on the couch or something, and then someone takes heroin for the first time and they have this euphoric rush and all that, you know. How irresponsible is it for the health education people to say that’s what happens when you do heroin? That is what happens to your health when you do heroin. If someone’s in great pain they’re going to shortly dismiss the second half of that message, which is the most important half of that message. You’ve got to show the whole package. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, to be honest in that way. I don’t want to encourage people to take drugs. I don’t want to encourage people not to take drugs. That’s not my business. All I’m doing is showing the reality of every kind of drug and its lifestyle.

Have you had any sort of serious life-threatening encounters with drugs?

Yeah, you sort of laugh these things off. I almost drowned in a swimming pool and was rescued one time. I overdosed and went to a hospital two times. I’ve done all sorts of reckless things. It kind of makes my blood run cold when I think about it. I think that’s why a lot of people do it, to behave stupidly and irresponsibly. It’s about the human spirit. This whole notion of ceremony and celebration and intoxication is so much a part of celebration. It’s so engrained in the human spirit. Like anything, you’re going to have casualties on the way.

Did you ever have to get treatment?

Yeah, I tried methadone years ago and it didn’t work for me. Different things work for different people so I don’t want to dismiss it, but the only thing I could do is going it cold turkey. Just sweat it out and take it. Anybody can get addicted to drugs or alcohol or whatever, but you have to have either an incredible amount of stupidity or more likely an incredible amount of arrogance to keep it going because you’ve got to believe as your morals collapse around you and precipitate all this selfish behavior that everybody’s out of step except you. That takes an incredible amount of arrogance. Unless there’s some kind of mental thing driving it, it’s very difficult for most people after awhile to sustain the level of arrogance needed to maintain an addiction. That’s why people feel so fucking destroyed mentally.

Johnny Whitney of the Blood Brothers and journalist Justin Chapman in San Diego, April 2007

‘Riders of the Rat’

‘Young Machetes’ explores the Blood Brothers’ musical consciousness

By Justin Chapman, 10/5/2006

He’s been called the David Bowie of his generation, but perhaps he comes at a more critical time for music—one where “it’s all just degenerated into the same, watered down radio crap,” said Johnny Whitney, co-lead singer of the Blood Brothers.

The 24 year old’s two bands, the Blood Brothers and Neon Blonde, produce some of the most refreshing and original tunes in recent times. 

The Blood Brothers’ latest and most ambitious project to date, their new album “Young Machetes,” produced by former Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto of Blonde Redhead and John Goodmanson of Sleater-Kinney and the Gossip, is set to come out October 10, the same day the band will be playing a free show at Amoeba on Sunset. 

Along with …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead, the Blood Brothers are kicking off another U.S. tour this fall with two shows at the Henry Fonda in Hollywood and one at the Glass House in Pomona.

The fifteen new tracks on their fifth record, making it their longest, are “more melodically based, harking back to our first two records,” Whitney said, adding, “it’s the crown achievement of this band thus far.”

The album tries to go in different directions at once, with songs like “Rat Rider” and “Johnny Ripper/Stevie Ray Henderson” veering more towards a Mean Reds vibe while “We Ride Skeletal Lightning” and “Nausea Shreds Your Head” delve back into the structured chaos of their first two records. The band really shines when Whitney and the other lead singer, Jordan Blilie, wail out incredibly beautiful solo verses. “Lift the Veil, Kiss the Tank” is a hopeful anti-war track with a feel good ending: “A death’s just death no matter how you dress it up!”

The Seattle band took five weeks to record at Robert Lang Studios, or as they put it, “in a spirit cave north of Seattle,” in April and May.

Hear two new songs, “Laser Life” and “Set Fire to the Face on Fire,” at www.myspace.com/thebloodbrothersband

In an exclusive phone interview from Seattle, while finishing up the new album, Whitney spoke to journalist Justin Chapman about music, writing, and exploring human consciousness.

-Justin Chapman

Justin Chapman:  Were you surprised that the blood brothers took off like they did?

Johnny Whitney: Yeah, I was, actually. When things sort of started happening for the Blood Brothers was right around 2001. I was in school for creative writing and I was in another band. I was really into being in the Blood Brothers but I was also doing a lot of other things, and so was everybody else in the band. When we got the offer to do the record with Ross Robinson, we were all pretty surprised.

How was it working with Ross Robinson?

It was really great. I was pretty much fresh out of high school and we got to hang out in Venice Beach for two months and record a record with someone who has a lot of resources. It was an experience that I never thought I would really have.

What do you think it says about where traditionally underground music is going?

I really don’t know. I guess I stopped listening to a lot of underground music. I ask myself why the things that are popular and are on TV are popular everyday and I just, I don’t know. Right around when we were recording Burn, Piano Island, Burn, bands like Thursday and sort of the first wave of emo first started getting big. Before that point you could pretty much only hear Papa Roach and Korn and bands like that. So it seemed like there was a glimmer of hope around the time that we started getting big but over the past four years it seems like it’s all just degenerated into the same, watered down radio crap. 

What can we expect from the new Blood Brothers album?

Nobody really knew what to expect in our own band from this record. It’s hard to describe it. All the songs are a lot shorter and a lot more chaotic than the songs on Crimes, sort of harking back to our first two records. There are also some songs that are more song oriented, like more melodically based. We’ve almost been a band for ten years, so with this record and laying down all the tracks, to me it became really apparent that everybody relates to each other musically better than on any other record. I feel the instrumentation is the most on point it’s ever been. I wrote one song on guitar.

Can we expect a Neon Blonde album any time in the future?

Yeah, sometime in the future. Mark and I are going to start working on a new Neon Blonde record shortly after we finish laying the tracks for the Blood Brothers. Basically the Blood Brothers’ tour cycle is going to begin in October when the record comes out and it will probably last at least a year to a year and a half. So our hope is to record another record before that begins. We recorded (Chandeliers in the Savannah) almost a year and a half ago, so since that point we’ve written a lot of songs that are just kind of floating around. 

Has reggae been an influence with you?

Yeah, definitely. I think rhythmically. Well, I know for a fact that Morgan is very heavily influenced by a lot of reggae bass players. Obviously it doesn’t come out in the vocals as much but I listen to reggae all the time.

Do you write nonmusical writings, short stories, poems, that sort of thing?

I don’t right now. My loose plan is that I want to write something, either a large piece of fiction or several short pieces of fiction, in the time that the Blood Brothers start touring again. All of my physical energy has been devoted towards getting this record as good as possible for the last six months. But that’s something that I’ve always really wanted to do, music sort of just took the place of that.

I noticed you were nominated Sexiest Vegetarian 2006. Is vegetarianism a personal thing for you, or do you think it would benefit society as a whole to cut out meat altogether?

I think it’s both. I definitely think that the effects of having this insane meat factory farming system in our country are really detrimental to the environment. That would help society as a whole but I don’t expect that to happen any time soon. I’ve been vegetarian just as a personal thing since I was 12, so it’s always been something that was pretty important to me. 

Tell me about your clothing company, Crystal City Clothing.

We started doing it around April of last year. I’ve designed t-shirts for Blood Brothers for about three years and it just seemed like a cool thing to do to make this company that makes shirts that sort of look like band shirts but it’s not a band. I personally have a hard time walking around with a band shirt. I’d be way more likely to wear a really cool design t-shirt that’s a clothing company rather than a band. That was the idea behind it and it’s been really fun.

Have drugs been an influence?

No, not really. I did drugs when I was about 13-14. I got suspended from junior high for doing acid in my math class. And after that I pretty much didn’t do drugs ever again. And that was before the Blood Brothers even really existed. There are people in the band that smoke pot but I don’t really smoke pot. We’re always looking; I think music is a really powerful tool to harness altered states of consciousness in a way without having to resort to substances.


by Andre Coleman, Pasadena Weekly, Sep 14, 2006

As school bells ring in the start of another year of reading, writing and arithmetic, the Pasadena Unified School District is dealing with a unique set of challenges unlike any other it’s faced.

Last month, the district was set to take action on outgoing PUSD Superintendent Percy Clark’s contract, a move that could see Clark replaced by an interim superintendent. That largely political situation, along with continuously declining student enrollment, a budget crisis that forced the district to shutter four school sites, with more closures likely, guarantees that whoever inherits the mantle of leadership from Clark will have myriad issues to deal with almost immediately upon taking charge of the PUSD.

Recently, the district has had to deal with a City Council that not only wants to get more involved, but also has begun questioning the style of district management and how board members are elected.

Things got so crazy that Clark himself even tried to leave the district in March and was one of the five finalists for the top schools job in Cleveland before being forced to withdraw his candidacy after officials there learned of a number of unsavory incidents that occurred during his tenure as superintendent in Lawrence Township, Ind.

Clark himself admits that this past year has been filled with so much turmoil that he was surprised when the recently released results of the California Standards Test showed dramatic improvement.

But while Clark and other district officials have spoken publicly about these events, they have had very little to say about one issue that could cause more turmoil than all of the others combined: Altadena seceding from the PUSD.

The Weekly first reported in December 2005 that unhappy Altadena residents want to see the 10 public schools located in their community placed in a separate school district. Residents there have been collecting signatures since March, after the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) approved maps of the proposed district and the language of the petition that is being passed around.

According to LACOE, 6,291 Altadena residents, or roughly 25 percent of the 25,163 registered voters in Altadena, must sign the petition before the county Registrar-Recorder’s Office will review the signatures and the proposed petition. As in most signature-gathering efforts, a citizens’ committee established a higher goal, 7,000 signatures, to allow for disqualifications.

So far, petitioners have collected almost 30 percent of the needed signatures and expect to complete the process by November.

According to the map of the proposed district and other documents filed with LACOE, the new district would include about 8,500 students and be governed by a five-person board. The district would be bound by Washington Boulevard to the south, the edge of the La Cañada School District to the west, extend into the Angeles Crest Forest to the north, and just beyond Eaton Canyon to the east.

Secession talks began after the PUSD Board of Education voted unanimously to shutter four schools. Three of those sites — Noyes, Linda Vista and Edison elementary schools — are located amidst some of Altadena’s choicest real estate. The decision to close those schools left area residents feeling like the district cared little about their concerns.

“I felt betrayed because we had been told last June that they were going to keep the schools open and if they were going to close them they would have a meeting with the parents and the staff. We never received that,” said Deborah Ann Francis, a former parent volunteer at Noyes who has one child in the district. “Then we were told we would be given an opportunity to speak at the board and we still have not been contacted.”

Another way

In the minds of many, Altadena has always been paired with Pasadena. Even its name, which at one point was thought to mean “Upper Eden,” actually translates to “Upper Pasadena,” according to “Altadena — Between Wilderness and City,” by Michele Zack, the community’s unofficial historian.

But many residents in the 8.7-square-mile unincorporated county area resent the connection and are quick to point out that Altadena is not part of Pasadena. Residents have voted down more than a dozen annex attempts by Pasadena to swallow up the community.

In the last school board election, Pasadena resident Scott Phelps defeated Sierra Madre resident and incumbent Susan Kane in a runoff after Altadena resident Gene Stevenson split the vote.

But Phelps’ victory indirectly ended geographic diversity on the board. None of the members of the current seven-member board live in Altadena or Sierra Madre and, according to some members of the Altadena Town Council, that’s a big problem.

“What we’re doing is a lot like that movie ‘Braveheart,’” said Walt Olszewski, who was recently elected to the 15-member Town Council, which has no spending or decision-making authority but advises the Board of Supervisors.

“All we want is freedom. There is no one on the school board from Altadena. We are not represented. So, in a sense, what we have is the reason America became America. We have no representation with our taxation. That’s really the issue.”

Over the past several years, PUSD officials have met with the residents in Altadena only two times. The last meeting was to

be with LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and Clark, who was supposed to explain the school closures. But days before the meeting, Clark decided to attend a tree-planting ceremony at an elementary school instead and sent a management team in his place to face the wrath of the angry Altadenans.

“I think an Altadena district is long overdue,” said Stevenson, who said he wants to be involved if a new district is formed. “What I see is that we have a leadership issue in the district. One of the things that points to it is that we have so much intellectual talent in Altadena, Pasadena and Sierra Madre [yet] we can’t form an infrastructure that can come up with solutions that are facing this district.”

One of the problems that district officials are struggling with is falling enrollment. This year district enrollment slipped below 20,000 students for the first time since a judge ordered the district to implement busing back in 1969. Many blame the declining enrollment on housing costs, or lowering birth rates.

Last year then-district spokesperson Janet Pope Givens told the Weekly that there will likely be more school closures this year.

One pro-AUSD teacher who works for the PUSD and did not wish to be named because of fears that the district will retaliate against her, said she thought parents of students in private school might be enticed back into public schools by a new district in Altadena.

“I think some of those people who have left the district would be willing to give us a look,” the teacher said. “Most people who don’t send their kids to school in Pasadena see some of the dysfunction. They go around and look at different schools and they are looking for certain things. If they don’t see it they don’t think their child is going to get a whole education in every area, like the arts and the sciences, so they’re not interested. That’s what’s missing in Pasadena; we don’t give kids a whole education. It’s not enough to just do Open Court and Saxon Math. You have to stress everything. I don’t think a district in Altadena will be as dysfunctional.”

Save our schools

Steve Lamb sips on a coffee at the Coffee Gallery Backstage. Located down the street from Eliot Middle School, the site of the last battle between Altadena residents and the district after PUSD officials proposed the site be turned into a continuation school for problem students, the Coffee Gallery is one of a handful of places where folks gather to share news and discuss local politics.

The school closures and even the idea of placing continuation schools at Noyes and Eliot were widely considered slaps in the faces of Altadena residents, Lamb said.

“They closed these schools because the sites are in Altadena,” said Lamb, a longtime Town Council member. “And that’s because they have a long-range plan to sell off the sites for housing. That plan existed in the ’80s when I was on the [Town Council’s] Strategic Planning Committee, and they talked about it openly then.”

The three Altadena sites are on prime real estate. The 7.3-acre Noyes campus, for instance, sits on seven acres of land that is easily worth several million dollars. However, Board of Education member Bill Bibbiani denies there are plans to sell that or any other site.

“There is no plan to sell any sites that I am aware of,” Bibbiani said. “I get tired of conspiracy theorists that say there are. Selling the property does not generate any money we can use. I’d like to figure out a way to reopen those sites.”

But even if there is not a plan to lease or sell the sites for housing, there still has not been a dialogue concerning the sites. One Altadena resident sits on the board-appointed 7-11 committee, which is determining the future use of those sites and considering the possibility of selling them.

But even with all that’s transpired, there still has not been any official open discussion between the Town Council and the school board.

“There is nothing that says they have to consult with us,” said Justin Chapman, former chairman of the council’s education committee. Chapman, a student at Pasadena City College, is also a freelance writer for the Weekly. “It’s disrespectful on some level that they don’t at least have a dialogue with us.”

Past is prologue

The PUSD began after it seceded from the San Pasqual School District in 1878 and eventually would govern schools in Monrovia, Temple City, La Cañada Flintridge, Sierra Madre and Altadena, along with several other unincorporated areas. At that time, Pasadena itself had not yet incorporated into a city.

For nearly 100 years the district remained unchanged. Then in March 1953, Temple City schools seceded to form their own district. Ten years later, La Cañada Flintridge residents followed suit, establishing their own school district, ultimately changing the racial demographics of the PUSD and contributing to a chain of events surrounding school desegregation that influences district decision-making to this day. A year after Temple City left, Monrovia also seceded from the district.

“We have had a colonial structure in the PUSD for over 100 years,” Lamb said. “Everyone else has gotten free. It’s time for us to get free. Pretty much all of them were told that they couldn’t make it. Especially La Cañada , the PUSD board was absolutely convinced that La Cañada would not survive. Altadena is the last part of the empire that has not decolonized itself.”

Altadena resident Jerry Rhoads, who runs the Web site www.AUSDnow.org, admits that during the 100-plus degree weather of the summer signature gathering slowed down.

“It’s hard to collect signatures in 105-degree heat,” he said. “It’s picking up again now.”

After the signatures are collected and authenticated, they will be forwarded to LACOE. From there, public hearings will begin and a feasibility study will be generated.

But after the hearings, there are no guarantees. Once the signatures are verified, the issue will definitely go to LACOE for review and a vote to send it to the state Board of Education in Sacramento. If approved, Sacramento will determine who will vote on the issue.

If the board decides to put the issue before the people, it could be just an issue decided by Altadena residents, or all residents living in the PUSD district.

“We are determined to get it to Sacramento,” said Rhoads. “After that it’s out of our hands.”

But signing the petition will not automatically bring about a separate district.

“It would bring about a county feasibility study,” said Chapman. “Signing the petition only means that we would get more information, and that information could only benefit Altadena, Pasadena and Sierra Madre.”

According to Rhoads, that study could reveal flaws in the way the district is run.

“We have never followed the money in PUSD. [There has never been] a real audit by a true private firm that goes in and figures out where the money is going and does not do the bidding of the board,” Rhoads said.

“If you had that, I think everything that is wrong with this district would come falling out in an avalanche,” he said. “The review done by the LA [County] Office of Education that this petition drive will trigger will not go into the same depth as a Big Five accounting firm audit, but I think it will begin the process of peeling some of that information out. Not only will Altadena end up with a better district, but indirectly Pasadena will also.”

Naturally, the current administration is not happy about the secession efforts. Clark did not return multiple calls for this story.

“I believe it’s far more complicated than the advocates assume,” said Bibbiani, who has called for a thorough management audit of the PUSD multiple times. “I think it is highly unlikely that the state and the county will approve this. Certainly the folks in Altadena are justifiably upset about the school closure process.”

PUSD Board President Prentice Deadrick said the goal of the board is to represent all students, regardless of which city or town they live in.

“The governing body is responsible for representing all children in the district,” said Deadrick. “It is impossible for one person to live in three cities to represent all children in the district. At different times elected school board officials have lived in Altadena and Sierra Madre and hopefully newcomers in the next election may come from those cities. Children in Pasadena attend schools in Altadena and Sierra Madre. Children from those two cities attend schools located in Pasadena. The school facilities in those two cities have been modernized and you will not find evidence of disparity in school facilities in those two cities versus Pasadena.

“What the citizens in all three cities deserve is representation on a board that has equal concern for successful achievement for all students regardless [of] where they live or attend school,” Deadrick continued. “This statement does not really make sense to me unless Altadena just wants Altadena residents going to Altadena schools. If that is the case, the new school district will have to face the daunting task of deciding what schools to close since there are not enough Altadena school-age children to fill all of the schools located in their city.”

“The people who live in Altadena think differently and act differently,” said Olszewski. “It’s a different mindset. Sometimes to protect a tree, you have to trim a tree, but you don’t have to destroy a tree. There is a big difference.”