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Scaredy-Cats 

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Thursday at 2 a.m. my wife received an urgent phone call: “Don’t go anywhere, don’t do anything!” implored my Russian mother-in-law, Bronoslava, from Moscow. She’d just seen the afternoon newscast on Moscow’s National Television (NTV) news service (it was 1 p.m. there). Among its top stories was a report about an item on the al Qaeda Web site warning Muslims to evacuate New York, Washington and Los Angeles because of imminent terrorist attacks in those cities. “The truth of this warning will be proven in a few days,” the Web site was quoted as saying.

I immediately went online to check The New York Times — nothing. Then the Los Angeles Times — nothing. Then London’s The Guardian — again, nothing. Could this be yet another conspiracy of silence? All of the alleged warnings that went ignored just prior to 9/11 flashed through my mind. I looked out my kitchen window to see the lights of downtown poking through a haze, like Oz, and wondered: Will they be there tomorrow?

The next day at work I checked the NTV Web site, which came through in Cyrillic. My Russian is sketchy, so I called my wife, a native speaker, and read her the headlines. The top story was about Putin’s crackdowns on the oligarchs — skip that. Ah, there it is, item three: “Al Qaeda threatens America with new terrorist acts.” I clicked on that story, printed it and faxed it to our Hollywood living room. Five minutes later, my wife called back with a translation: “According to some sources, a prime suspect for the preparation of a new terrorist attack is al Qaeda activist Hamed Ali, an Egyptian, who was recognized from photographs in New York after 9/11, and who has been an active member of conspiracy meetings of terrorists inside the United States. NTV obtained the information from the American Fox Television News Network.” Huh?! The Russians are sitting around watching Fox?!

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“Other than be scared, what exactly are we supposed to do with this information?” one colleague asked me. The next day, another told me of a nightmare she’d had about a terrorist attack on Los Angeles, thanks to me. By Friday afternoon, Fox had buried the story (“American Muslims Told To Leave Major U.S. Cities”) deep inside its Web site (it took two levels of searching to find it). So I called Fox News to ask why they were diminishing the exposure of this absolutely terrifying story. Was it because they didn’t really believe it . . . or because they did? Fox failed to return my phone calls.

Finally, I called the FBI, and got someone who said that they’d heard about the story on Fox News, but since they had no corroborating intelligence, they were not passing it on to local law enforcement.

“In another words, you’re not concerned?” I asked.

“That’s another way of putting it,” said the spokesperson.

Saturday night’s local Channel 2 news carried a story about the vulnerability of cargo planes at LAX being used as bombs to be dropped onto American nuclear power plants and dams. The weather report was no less chastening: “Major storm headed south!” accompanied by the image of torrential rains and the sounds of sirens. Then a military-looking map filled the screen with green blotches (the storm) and a horizontal chalked line of attack drawn somewhere below Santa Cruz, with arrows pointing directly to Los Angeles. I looked out the window to observe the moon poking through a wisp of cloud. Turns out the rain tape was from San Francisco. The weatherman explained that the temperature up there was colder than here, inducing heavy rain, but by the time the storm would get to Southern California on Sunday, the raindrops — which would be very wet and potentially lethal — might not actually touch the ground.

Sunday turned out to be dry, though cloudy. From a hillside vantage, I was particularly relieved to see the Library Tower, still standing tall, despite all the suggestions of clouds bursting and skies falling.

—Steven Leigh Morris

Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings

Last week, the dapper and chipper Bob Merlis, who was once the head of publicity for Warner Bros. on the West Coast and now has his own PR concern, invited me down to the set of The Tonight Show to do a little interview with ZZ Top, who were booked that night as Jay Leno’s musical guests. Rock critics periodically get these sorts of requests, many of which are best ignored (15 minutes with the famous rarely gets you more than a few shallow lines that play best on E!), but Merlis got me on this one. I was right in the middle of a rather swooning swirl over the power and glory and lewd fuzz of the band’s newest album, Mescalero. If you haven’t heard it yet, I’d call it one of those “triumphant return to form” comebacks you hear so much about, except that, as far as I’m concerned, ZZ Top were always good. They never made a bad album; in fact, I don’t think they’ve even recorded one bad track.

Don’t believe me? Esteemed and revered ’70s rock critic Lester Bangs had it right when he wrote, “You can talk all you want about the Clash, the Sex Pistols and blah blah blah, but one thing’s certain: Not a one of ’em can hold a candle to ZZ Top.” I’m paraphrasing pretty loosely here, but that was the gist of it. At the time, those were real fightin’ words. Basically, he was dismissing the entire punk revolution circa ’77 to ’78 to praise ZZ Top.

ZZ Top? That little ol’ band from Texas? Boogie? Beer drinkin’/hell raisin’? Buncha 10-gallon-wearing cowboys growling about hot rods, whores and BBQ?

Now, weren’t they just a little bit out of step with the way things were moving, music-fashion-wise? Wasn’t it sort of reactionary to be all jazzed about that kind of thing? Or just plain ignorant?

I think not. Time and the vagaries of fashion and sundry Tinseltown rebellions have clearly demonstrated that Billy F Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, with their deep-fried trashy trucker blues, are not only the most consistently, stompingly great rock combo in the USA, they’ve been the only real rock band in the entire damn country since 1969.

Merlis and I check through two high-

security zones to get to the overly air-conditioned, world-famous set of The Tonight Show. I’m a little nervous, but Merlis strolls onto the scene and gets busy shaking hands — he seems to know everybody.

The band is due for a sound check so we plop down in the front row to wait and I gawk around the set. It looks just like it does on TV, but kind of smaller, but then kind of bigger, too. Hard to explain. There must be at least 20 monitors scattered about the room, several tech or coordinator types who smile a lot and wear sneakers. Everybody looks pretty darn upbeat and happy. I mean, now you know, NBC is a happy place. They must have a good benefits package or something.

But here come the boys, ready to do their thing. I see the beards. I see the shades. I notice they’re all a bit smaller in real life. No biggie. Billy’s playing the red Gretsch that Bo Diddley gave him and told him to trash. They run through their signature tune, “La Grange,” a couple of times, and Billy and Dusty rehearse some nifty shticky little choreography. Frank the drummer is a bit taciturn and businesslike, especially later in the dressing room, where he utters not a peep, preferring to let Billy do all the talking. Anyway, the song sounds great, considering they must’ve played it about a million times by now. They look like they’re having fun — well, Dusty does anyway; he’s all grins (might be ’cause he recently got married). I find myself whomping my head up and down and slapping my thighs — most unprofessional, but they seem to appreciate it.

Shortly after, in their dressing room, I tell the band that today I’m not a reporter — I’m a fan. And I’m serious. “Mescalero is,” I say, “a triumphant return to form.” I ask them things like how do they like it on the road after all these years, etc. I note that the album was recorded in their own new private studio in Houston, and Billy, all low-key and pleasant, talks about how they had the luxury of time and a zillion electronic devices and a young eager-beaver engineer to concentrate on really delivering the goods, not a bunch of flab. The band is quite taken with the vivid clarity and sheer volume of current hip-hop productions, says Billy, and that’s one reason why their new record sounds so huge and lowdown and mean.

Suddenly, Jay Leno pops in to say hi. There are handshakes all around; I stick out my hand but Leno doesn’t seem to see it . . .

Then Billy — head honcho, chief songwriter and arguably the best electric guitar player in contemporary American music — launches into a very detailed and totally improbable explanation of how they get their sound. Up to this point Billy has been thoughtful and articulate — not much of a beer drinker or hell-raiser, I’m thinking. And I’d been wondering how they create that ever-wickeder wall of wide-flanging fuzz and deep, deep mud. Well, Billy explains, you take the output off the back of a newfangled transistor tube amp, and you split the signal and you run two lines into another speaker and the delay somewhere between the two signals hitting that big speaker and that speaker woofling back wildly sets up a resonating buzz that’s pushing the air back and forth and vibrating, and the density of the air between the two is . . . Round about this time I think I see a little twinkle in Billy’s eye. I look at Frank and Dusty and they’re checking me out real close to see the gullible expression on my face.

“John,” Merlis says, “time’s up.”

—John Payne

Live Wires

Jeff Hartline and Kammy Lennox have shared a lot of things over the years as brother and sister, from joint birthday parties to matching (now capped) missing front teeth — Jeff lost his skating; Kammy lost hers on a beer bottle. Now they share an art space. For the past year and a half, their Jeff Electric Gallery in Silver Lake has attracted a growing crowd of local artists and neighborhood celebs like John C. Reilly, Tatiana von Furstenberg, Ione Skye, model Kirsty Hume and Lost in Translation costume designer Nancy Steiner. Tonight’s opening is for photographer Darcy Hemley, who makes a living shooting stars like Scarlett Johansson for glossies.

“It wasn’t like I ever said, ‘Jeff, let’s start a gallery,’ ” says Lennox, as she lights votives in the gallery’s back yard, 30 minutes before guests are scheduled to arrive at Hemley’s opening. “My husband’s brother needed a place to have a show, and Jeff’s front space was empty.” Hartline, who is an electrician, lives and works out of the storefront that doubles as Jeff Electric Gallery.

“Typically, you have to have had a show to get a show,” Lennox continues. “We created this as a launch pad for artists in the neighborhood. People we know and love. People who we feel deserve a show like this.”

And,” Hartline inserts, “we have so much fun doing it.”

So far, most of the artists who have shown at Jeff Electric Gallery have been friends.

Friend and photographer Amy Fleetwood (Mick’s daughter) makes her living producing shoots for magazines like Vogue, but had been shooting images on her own for years without showing them. As a result of Fleetwood’s second show at Jeff Electric last month, she is now being courted by some of L.A.’s larger galleries.

Lennox, who has pixie-length bleached blond hair and perfectly dimpled cheeks, finds it hard to describe the aesthetic behind the paintings, drawings, collages and other artworks she and her brother show — except, she says, it has always been “beautiful and sometimes humorous.”

And always, there has been a chandelier. At every opening Hartline and Lennox feature a different handmade chandelier in the window from Silver Lake artist Meredith Clark; her Chandi line of lighting pieces sell at Shabby Chic and Anthropologie, and she just completed a massive chandelier for J.Lo and Ben’s Georgia mansion. She is by far the highest-priced artist in the space.

“A lot of the artists we bring in are priced for the neighborhood, so their friends can buy a piece of art and feel good about it,” says Lennox. “That was the point with the back yard, to have an area where people could talk about the art and talk to the artist. Where we could celebrate what the person has just done. Like a party, basically.”

Tonight’s party isn’t just about art, however. Hartline has just bought a new 1957 Streamline trailer, which he has parked in the back yard and covered in Christmas lights.

“I got it on eBay,” he says enthusiastically as the first guests start to arrive. After some restoration, the trailer will serve as a bedroom. “I was sleeping in the loft for two years, and it was time for a change.”

Hartline’s eagerness to move into his back yard has a lot to do with the noise that comes from living on one of the last remaining ungentrified stretches of Sunset Boulevard. A few doors down from the popular Club Los Globos, Hartline’s storefront has seen a lot of action since he’s been here. One night he chased a tagger down the street in his boxers. Another time a shootout left bullet holes in his ceiling. And once, he says, “someone took a dump” in his doorway.

That said, he loves the space and is proud to mention that he is “totally the neighborhood electrician.”

Besides, the Cafe Tropical is just up the street.

—Seven McDonald

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