By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Wearing a WWI-style helmet, a black robe and a Zorro mask, "Eman Laerton" sits on a wooden crate outside the Nickelback show at the Greek Theater, patiently enduring a cop’s lecture about using a megaphone without a permit. Laerton agrees to not use the megaphone, and then ensnares the talkative cop in a debate.
"What type of music do you listen to?"
"I like Christian music," the cop says.
"What do you like about it?"
"It makes me relax, and there’s no bad lyrics, so . . ." the cop shrugs. "I like Kenny G, too."
"I need to inform you, sir, that you have bad taste in music."
The cop is confused. Isn’t that subjective? Laerton urges him to pick up Scientific Proof Magazine, "where scientific studies show which bands have been proven bad."
Even more baffled, the cop sputters, "Hey, I’m no Scientologist."
Scientific Proof Magazine isn’t a spinoff of Scientology. In fact, the magazine doesn’t exist. The cop has just been schooled in the purist philosophy of Laerton, a masked crusader on a mission to stop the cancer of "bad" music. Not because it promotes loose morals that corrupt our youth, but because it’s "shitty homogenized corporate rock."
Armed with his megaphone, costume, soapbox and rotating crew of cameramen friends, Laerton badgers the will-call lines and outdoor smoking sections of L.A.-area concerts, including Hoobastank, Justin Timberlake/Christina Aguilera, Evanescence and Linkin Park. He counsels the concertgoers to leave immediately and delivers his rants in an official monotone. Despite his seriousness, Laerton is gregarious, calling his potential converts "bro" as he cites statistical, fictitious evidence proving why band X is bad, to the curious amusement and sometimes disgust of the crowd. When the occasional humorless fan threatens him, he coolly stays in character. All of the interactions are filmed and then posted on his Web site, Youhavebadtasteinmusic.com.
On a more recent and brisk Thursday, Laerton targets Alter Bridge (the remnants of Creed, with new front man Myles Kennedy), playing at the House of Blues. Laerton often bases his performances around a theme, and tonight’s is street theater, which he discovered is a popular form of social education in India. He’s given his play a Hindi title and will also be delivering his trademark deathblow in the language. As we pull up in his fancy SUV, a holdover, he says, from his dot-com days, Laerton is pumped. "Tonight is going to be a good one," he grins, and then hands me his script.
If you didn’t know Laerton, you might assume him to be little more than a pious fan of "good" music. He won’t reveal his preferences because he doesn’t want to limit the appeal of his project: "Cool people have never been able to agree on what’s cool, but they can all agree on what’s shit." It goes a little deeper than that, though. Read his script and it’s rife with inside jokes spouted by industry pocks like Hilary Rosen, the lobbyist who vehemently pounced on Napster and music piracy. Other characters include Ted Nugent and "pawn" Pat Boone, who laments his limited powers by saying things like "I can only attack at a forward angle."
Laerton isn’t just lambasting bands, but an entire industry, a monolith he once had stakes in. He reluctantly admits that he worked in A&R and publicity at a couple different mainstream labels, and was a DJ at a prominent rock station. "Before Clear Channel came along, we could play someone like PJ Harvey 10 to 12 times a week, but now, it’s only ‘The Hits,’" he says. "I would reveal my identity, but the problem is I know a lot of these people."
As dusk settles, Laerton is having a hard time finding participants, despite the fact that he’s offering customized trucker hats adorned with the characters’ names in gangster-gothic lettering. He flits around, waving the hats in the air, calling, "Pat Boone? Who wants to be Pat Boone?" A large fellow ambles by, shakes his head and pronounces, "This guy makes Wally George look funny." Finally, someone cracks, a guy in a gray short-sleeved shirt over his requisite black concert T-shirt. Soon enough, Laerton is assigning parts left and right. The actors dutifully read their lines; some painfully ham it up for the camera.
In the mostly male crowd, Laerton realizes at the last minute that he has neglected to assign the part of Rosen. A guy with long curly hair who’s been quietly observing now volunteers. Fitting the pink hat onto his head, Laerton thanks the Alter Bridge fan. "You’re the best, bro. Now just read your lines into the camera." With a smile, the fan obliges.
Greetings From Echo Park
"I’m not saying it isn’t safe, but, please, promise me you’ll buy pepper spray." So said my sister as she stepped into her minivan and headed back to safe, white Newbury Park where she lives surrounded by mountains and Christians. I had invited her to see my new apartment in Echo Park. I knew she’d be concerned about the neighborhood, but I’d hoped to win her over with a pleasant stroll in Elysian Park, the lush, tree-laden valley beneath Dodger Stadium, just behind my new apartment. But as we began our ascent of the 200-plus stairs at the end of Baxter Street, she noticed things I’d never seen.
"Used syringe," she said with pursed lips, pointing.
"Drowned rat," she said, stooping to observe a very large rodent lying dead in the gutter.
"Gang graffiti — EAT THE RICH," she continued, reading aloud.
"Good thing I’m not rich," I joked.
My idea was backfiring. Instead of changing my sister’s idea about my neighborhood, she was changing mine. I hadn’t wanted to leave my last apartment, an amazing little pad oozing with charm, but I’d had no choice. Ironically, I was producing a radio piece on affordable housing in Los Angeles at the time. Guess what I discovered? There isn’t any. So when I scored what seemed to be the last affordable place in L.A., I jumped.
A few days after my sister’s visit I went for another walk, determined to recapture the appreciation I had for my hood. At the base of the sprawling staircase, I took a few preparatory breaths, then huffed my way up two at a time. Heart pounding, cheeks flushed, I stopped at the top to take in the view. Like a perfectly balanced painting, the scene was divided into thirds — bright blue sky, billowy white clouds and green, crushed-velvet hills.
I strolled down Park Street, lined on one side with houses where dogs were sunning themselves in front yards, and massive eucalyptus trees on the other. Ducking under a low branch, I made my way toward the wide dirt path that runs above the park. Surrounded by nature, I hoped to leave the city and my worries behind. Then I saw some clothing strewn under a tree and my mind began to spin an elaborate tale of murder and worse, with imagined attackers leaping out from behind bushes.
I followed the path for about half a mile, trying to shake my head free of these thoughts, the sound of rustling leaves soothing and quieting my mind. After a few minutes, I reached a lovely, manicured grove — an unexpected bit of human intervention blooming with fragrant lavender, white and yellow daisies, flowering succulents, and red bottle brush buzzing with bees, all framed by curved tree branches resembling driftwood. I sat on the solitary green bench facing the downtown skyline and closed my eyes.
"Hello," I heard.
I had to strain to see him, sitting on the ground with a plastic bag, gathering leaves with his bare hands. He was short and squat, like a garden gnome. He had a bald, dome-shaped head and a face like a beaten-up pumpkin.
"Oh, hello," I said tentatively.
"Catching some rays?" he asked in a coarse voice.
"Just enjoying the day," I replied sincerely.
"It’s a great spot, isn’t it? The best in L.A., I think," he added.
"Definitely one of them," I answered.
His scraggy dog came over demanding attention. I gave him a scratch and noticed that his tag said "Lucky."
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Just cleaning up leaves. I help out here."
He told me that the garden had been planted 25 years earlier by a group of retirees.
"Gradually the women started dying off, and now there’s just one of ’em left. I saw her one day and asked if I could help. I’ve been volunteering for about 14 years now."
With that I knew my sister had been wrong. Echo Park was a warm and welcoming community of diverse people who create beauty for beauty’s sake. I was grateful I had found such a place to live. Any reservations I’d had about the garden gnome and my new neighborhood dissipated.
"Wow, that’s wonderful. I’m Karen, by the way."
"Hi, Eddie. It’s nice to meet you."
I was feeling open and peaceful.
Then he said, "Hey, turn around."
"Why?" I asked, slightly confused.
"So I can get a look at your ass."
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