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This week, The New York Times Magazine published an in-depth account of a 2008 fire on the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot that hadn’t previously been understood as the cultural calamity that it truly was. Thousands of masters of recordings by artists ranging from Al Jolson to Yoko Ono, Patsy Cline to Tupac Shakur, had been incinerated.
As Jody Rosen, a contributing writer to the magazine, put it in the piece: “Had a loss of comparable magnitude to the Universal fire occurred at a different cultural institution — say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — there might have been wider awareness of the event, perhaps some form of accountability.”
I asked Jody to tell us a little more about how the story came together:
The Universal fire was dramatic event, a story of flames consuming buildings, of precious artifacts going up in smoke, of historical loss on a vast scale. But the story first came to my attention in the most banal form imaginable: in the dry bureaucratese of legal documents and company reports.
About five years ago, I obtained a bunch of paperwork related to the fire. It took me some time to orient myself and begin to wrap my head around what those documents were saying. It took me even longer to find people who knew about the fire and the master recordings that were destroyed in it — and it took longer still to persuade those people to speak to me, both on and off the record.
[Here are the top takeaways from the piece.]
It was really those interviews that parted the mists for me. My sources helped me understand that the destruction of the Universal Music Group vault was a major cultural catastrophe, and they helped me to place that disaster in a larger frame, to understand the huge challenge of archiving and preserving the physical relics of recorded sound in the age of streaming media.
One of the people who agreed to speak on the record was Randy Aronson, who worked as UMG’s director of vault operations for years, both before and after the fire. Mr. Aronson was — still is — very emotional about the fire and the huge toll it took. He told me: “The way I felt in the months after the fire — the only thing I can compare it to is when my mother passed away.”
[Here’s what artists like Questlove and R.E.M. had to say about the losses.]
The first time I visited Mr. Aronson at his home near Los Angeles, we sat together and I showed him some of the documents I’d gotten. One of these was an internal UMG report that included a huge list of recording artists, page after page famous musicians, alphabetized by first names.
I went through the list with Mr. Aronson: “John Lee Hooker, did he have recordings in the vault?” “Yes.” “Joni Mitchell, did she have recordings in the vault?” “Yes.” “Judy Garland, did she have tapes in the vault?” “Yes.” I remember kind of staggering out of Mr. Aronson’s house that day, getting into my rental car and driving back to L.A. in a daze.
[Read the full story of the day the music burned.]
Here’s what else we’re following
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• The former Stanford sailing coach who became the first person to be sentenced in the sprawling college admissions fraud case will serve no time in prison. Questions loomed over the proceedings about how other defendants who agreed to plead guilty will be punished. [The New York Times]
• Margaret Hunter, who was indicted along with her husband, Representative Duncan Hunter, on charges that they misused campaign donations for years, was set to appear in federal court to change her not guilty plea. Experts said her move to change her plea almost certainly means she’s now working with prosecutors. [The San Diego Union-Tribune]
• A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who was shot in a brutal and seemingly random attack at a Jack in the Box in Alhambra has died. [The Los Angeles Times]
• In a report finding that Vallejo police officers acted reasonably in the shooting death of Willie McCoy, an independent use-of-force expert said the officers shot him 55 times in 3.5 seconds. Mr. McCoy had apparently been sleeping in his car at a Taco Bell with a gun in his lap. [The Vallejo Times-Herald]
• After weeks of sharp criticism (most visibly from Steve Lopez, a longtime columnist for The Los Angeles Times), Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles said he plans to treat the city’s homelessness crisis like a disaster on par with the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake. [City News Service]
• And Oakland, Vancouver and Washington, D.C., have already adopted vacancy taxes — penalties for keeping homes empty in tight, expensive housing markets. One council member is suggesting the idea could work in L.A. [Curbed Los Angeles]
• After Facebook declined to remove a doctored video of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, artists posted a fake video of Mark Zuckerberg on Instagram. [The New York Times]
• So, uh, why is it 100 degrees in San Francisco in June? Here’s an explainer. [The New York Times]
• The seventh hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links is the shortest hole most of the world’s best golfers ever play. It’s also gorgeous and wicked. [The New York Times]
• “Basketball is my biggest love and I wanted to be out there that night because that’s what I do.” Kevin Durant announced he got surgery to repair his ruptured Achilles’ tendon and it was successful. He’s likely to be out for at least eight months. [The New York Times]
• The Cleveland Cavaliers have hired Lindsay Gottlieb, U.C. Berkeley’s women’s basketball coach, to be an assistant coach. This makes her the first women’s collegiate head coach to join an N.B.A. staff. [ESPN]
And Finally …
Sea Ranch, the modernist coastal utopia in Sonoma County, is contending with climate change — just like other communities in the state.
The thing about Sea Ranch, though, is that one of the nature-forward planned community’s defining design signatures is a lot of wood.
So, as Diana Ketcham reported for The Times, newer residents and the architects of their homes are looking to newer materials, like concrete and cement fiberboard, to preserve the development’s unique feel.
Not familiar with the Sea Ranch? Curbed published this exhaustive oral history earlier this year.
And as a reader emailed me and The Press Democrat reported at the time, none other than Robert Mueller was at one point spotted sporting a Sea Ranch cap, sparking some chatter about the special counsel’s golf game.
California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here.
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.