Remembering Scott Timberg
By Tom Zoellner, Lynell George, Stanton Hall, Richard Thompson, Charles McNulty, Janet Fitch, Steve Wasserman, Ted Gioia, Andy Hermann, Joe Donnelly, Bill Holdship, Tony Ortega, Tim Appelo, Dean Kuipers, Alissa Quart, Robert George, Willis Peter Bilderback, Jeff Turrentine, Dana GioiaDecember 16, 2019
After departing the Los Angeles Times during a wave of layoffs in November 2008, Timberg channeled his deep reservoir of knowledge and his worries over the health of American artistic life into a well-regarded book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. He argued that economic trends favoring wealth consolidation and corporate mergers were an imminent threat to the “mid-list” artist — the kind of person who does not enjoy widespread fame but nevertheless acts as a stabilizing and uplifting force in local life.
“Timberg puts a human face on the statistics with portraits, scattered throughout the book, of poets, artists, moviemakers and reporters who had been doing good work and making not great but decent livings, when all of a sudden the rug was pulled out from under them,” wrote Ben Yagoda in The New York Times.
The struggle for economic and creative equilibrium was also a theme in Timberg’s own life up until recently. He had been looking for permanent work, though he kept up a vigorous schedule of freelancing for magazines and websites, including The New York Times, Vox, The Guardian, and Los Angeles Magazine. He did regular artist interviews for Live Talks Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Among his recent large scale projects was a book co-written by the guitarist Richard Thompson entitled Beeswing: Britain, Folk Rock and the End of the 60s.
“He was shaken by losing his job, and how hard it was to survive as an arts journalist,” said his brother Craig Timberg, a writer for The Washington Post. “A lot of people have talked about how degraded and undermined they feel today.”
Scott Timberg was born on February 15, 1969, in Palo Alto, California, the son of Jane Timberg and father Robert Timberg, a veteran of the US Marine Corps who had gone to to Stanford University to acquire a master's degree in journalism after suffering an injury from a landmine in the Vietnam War that required 35 reconstructive surgeries.
The family moved to Severna Park, Maryland, where Scott Timberg attended high school and chose Wesleyan University for college. His brother described those years as the happiest of Scott’s life. “He was always animated by smart people and books. He felt like he had joined his tribe. He engaged in a word of ideas.”
After attaining a master's in journalism at the University of North Carolina, Timberg took a job as an arts reporter at The Day in New London, Connecticut, before moving to Los Angeles for a job on the now-defunct alt-weekly New Times.
He dated a bit, and then, as he later wrote, “I met a different girl — an LA native — at an indie-rock show at the Troubadour, and we moved in together within sprinting distance of Canter’s and the old Largo. We hiked in Joshua Tree, drove to remote, tree-shaded wineries in Santa Ynez. We were married in an old stone church in Pasadena, bought a small house in the Verdugo foothills, and brought our son home from Cedars — our room was next to Jack Black and Tanya Haden’s — one spring day as the roses in our front yard burst forth.”
In 2002, he joined the Los Angeles Times, which became an ideal perch to watch the ongoing circus of creative life in a city he always believed was misunderstood by the outside world, and to document it in joyous terms.
He wrote about the opening of Disney Hall, the behind-the-scenes frenzy at the Emmy Awards, traveling authors who came for book readings, quirky community theater shows, a Japanese-American graffiti artist who painted racy innuendo but could also be mistaken for “a cheery advertisement planted by the city’s boosters,” and a trend among classical musical promoters to emphasize the pulchritude of the musicians, and seemingly every trend in turn-of-the-millenium music. Of the laconic “shoegazing” school, he wondered: “Why aren’t the Pale Saints, Slowdive and Creation Records as well known as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Sub Pop?”
It was a typical question for Timberg, whose passion for arcane subjects and tendency to go on impromptu disquisitions earned him the nickname “Tangential Timberg,” and underscored one of his prime talents: making friendships across seemingly all societal lines, and keeping them infused with conversation that hummed with curiosity, erudition, and well-defended opinions. He was also generous with his insight, encouraging of his friend’s own literary ambitions, and a devoted husband to his wife, Sara Scribner, and father to his son, Ian, now 13.
A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday, December 17, 2019, at All Saints Episcopal Church at 132 N. Euclid Avenue in Pasadena.
A fraction of the many people he befriended through the years remember him in the essays below. The dominant themes are love and anger. Beyond the loss of a treasured friend, Scott’s death seems to have uncorked so much inchoate unhappiness about those trends in which he was our loudest and most prescient village crier.
Tom Zoellner, LARB Politics Editor
Lynell George, journalist and essayist
There’s a singular intimacy to the old bullpen newsroom set-up. You may share an adjacent partition with your neighbor, but that barrier is really pro forma: in your “pod,” you’re sunk deep into each other’s world — eight, 10, 12 hours a day, depending on how the news breaks on a particular day. I don’t remember how long Scott Timberg and I sat adjacently at the Los Angeles Times, but we fell into a fast friendship. The paper’s Calendar section had recently moved into a brand-new space on the second floor of the old Spring Street headquarters: beige wood, gray floors, stark fluorescents. But Scott brought a specific inquisitiveness and dynamism to our stark surroundings.
We both covered the arts: books, music and visual art, theater and performance. We shared sources, swapped galleys and CDs, and shared favorite sinewy saxophone solos drawn from old LPs. His far-ranging enthusiasms were contagious. Our days could be long — interviewing and researching by day and then on our separate ways out for the evening covering a late-night jazz set or perhaps a gallery opening in stories that had an overnight turnaround. Scott would breeze in in the morning with his cup of hot tea and his leather messenger bag slung over his shoulder, and after his chin nod greeting would quiz me about the morning headlines, as if we’d already been in conversation for hours (“So, did you see…? What’s your take?”) Then he’d get down to it. He loved the collaborative nature of journalism, and in those intersections and adjacencies, he thrived.
His desk, like his mind, was an explosion of possible story fodder: newspapers, press releases, stacks and stacks of files, and a bookshop worth of paperbacks and hardcovers competing for real estate along the shelves and floor. But he knew exactly where to go in the tangle, just where to place his hand and pull up very piece of information he needed the moment before he had to dash off for an interview.
Not infrequently, we’d both be at it late, tying up a last-minute phoner, pecking away at a complex deadline story. In these moments, Scott, often out of nowhere, might start reading out loud, testing out his lede with me to make sure he’d nailed it — not just to see if it tracked, but if it challenged or enticed. Just because you were banging it out, didn’t mean it shouldn’t be beautifully turned and nuanced.
As the day-to-day atmosphere of the paper became noxious, with an endless stream, it seemed, of brutal layoffs and budget cuts, the work itself — the reporting, research, uncovering beguiling aspects of the city — kept his spirits up even in the uncertainty and the ceaseless emotional grind.
After our layoff from the paper in 2008, and with our pod’s official dismantling, I know that he felt unmoored and craved that same kinetic sense of activity and camaraderie. He’d travel to be in a “place” to be in the thick of people and ideas — cafés and libraries; he made sure to check in on friends. He was a colleague in the purest sense.
Writing is lonely. It requires that you be with and inside yourself in ways that can push you to your limits. But reporting allows for a balance. It puts you into conversation with your sources as well as the community of readers. For Scott, being in the midst of the noise and press of deadline made him come alive in a way that seemed essential to his being. Which is why this is difficult: I’m not ready to write about him in the past tense, because I’ve already been missing the daily news quizzes, the spirited analysis, the shared conversation over the barrier that really never was there.
Stanton Hall, musician
Scott was one of those people who could and would talk for hours, seemingly never losing steam — he was endlessly curious and passionate about discovering new things and talking to people. Professionally, this made him a great interviewer. In his excitement, it's possible he had a tendency to steamroll more reserved people in dialogues, but I think he appreciated that I could keep up with him. We voraciously texted and messaged each other, feeling absolutely free to indulge in our nerdiest, most pedantic tendencies about shared interests: culture (especially music, books, and film), politics, Los Angeles, and the highs and lows of being married dads on a collision course with middle age. Whether by electronic devices or over beers, we yapped happily to our hearts' content.
Scott was a late-to-the-game guitar player who had a garage (literally, they played in a garage) band of friends called the Subterraneans, which played cover songs of exquisite taste that weren't too hard to play. I guested on bass and vocals on one visit to LA, and after that Scott kept semi-seriously asking me to fly down for "Subs" rehearsal. He sometimes posted to Facebook about jazz guitar songs he was trying to learn, picking the brains of his many musician friends.
For my birthday in 2017, Henry and I flew to LA for the weekend and stayed with Scott and Sara and Ian, and the grown-ups packed a picnic basket and went to the Bryan Ferry concert at the Hollywood Bowl. One of my favorite, and oh so typical, moments was when we were admonished by people sitting next to us after Scott and I started too loudly arguing, mid-song, about whether Siren or For Your Pleasure was the best Roxy Music album, a question we had already debated in the past. (Scott, I know you knew it was For Your Pleasure and you were just being difficult for the sake of the argument.)
While we conversed on Facebook almost up to the end, the last time I saw Scott in person was April 25, when I had a nine-hour layover in LA coming back from my Vietnam trip. Because no human should be forced to spend that much time at LAX, Scott drove out to pick me up and go back to his place. We had lunch, hung out in the back yard, and did what we always did: talked. Scott showed me the proposal for his next book, which was a great idea that I think would have made for fascinating reading. Before my Lyft showed up to take me back to the airport, we made vague plans for the next get-together, one that would never happen.
I knew of external pressures on Scott and his family — the Great Recession hit them hard (and inspired his signature work, Culture Crash), but as far as I knew, they, and he, had weathered the storm. Whatever terrible internal agony he dealt with was shared with more intimate company — I had no idea of it, and was thus completely blindsided by the news.
My heart breaks for Sara and Ian and the rest of Scott's family, as well as those who considered Scott a friend. From the outpouring of grief and tributes I've seen today, the number of people who respected and loved Scott was a large one, and I expect this community will do whatever we can to help make things better. I love this guy. Goodbye, friend. You won't be forgotten.
Richard Thompson, guitarist
Scott was working on a memoir with me — he had been pushing me for a couple of years to write something about the ’60s and ’70s. We were almost at the end of the process when I heard the devastating news about his passing. I had known Scott for a couple of decades — he had interviewed me, and we had run into each other at various musical events around LA. Working more closely with him on the book gave me the opportunity to know him better. He was a fine writer and a fine human being, and I am so shocked and saddened that he will no longer be among us.
Charles McNulty, theater critic
The last time I ran into Scott Timberg was at the November 24 opening of Jitney at the Mark Taper Forum. We talked briefly about August Wilson and where this play stands in the cycle. He was his usual engaging self. He asked me to name my favorite Wilson play, and I told him without hesitation Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. He perked up, making a silent note to himself to see this play next time it’s in town. Books mattered to Scott. Plays mattered to Scott. Music mattered to Scott.
And, most especially, people who dedicated themselves to such things mattered to Scott. To be on the receiving end of that interest was powerfully validating. Scott continued to place high value on the cultural life no matter what the job market said. His liberal arts education at Wesleyan University and his years as a cultural writer at alternative weeklies had formed his character. He was open to aesthetic experiment and innovation, but the classics called to him and he appreciated their eternal radicalism.
Scott was an intellectual journalist, a literary journalist – he was bookish but he belonged in a newsroom with peers and regular deadlines and conversation. He managed to do so much since he was laid off from the L.A. Times, including his book Culture Clash: The Killing of the Creative Class, a title that now seems disturbingly prophetic. But it couldn't have been easy for someone unwilling to compromise on the work that gave him purpose and meaning. He called me last year to inquire about jobs at the L.A. Times. I had hoped that he would have found a place in books under the new regime. But a new book editor hasn't yet been announced. And journalism these days is more impressed by hot takes than by considered appraisals. To freelance as a literary journalist, even an impressively credentialed one, is to swim against the current. Drowning isn’t an if but a when.
We didn't overlap that long at the L.A. Times. But our desks were next to each other and when I first arrived he made me feel welcome and respected. He had a special rapport with the former Sunday Calendar editor Bret Israel – both exceptionally smart, both somewhat old school in their contrarian enthusiasms. Scott appreciated newsroom characters, the crankier the better, if they were sharp and maybe had a prop flask tucked away in a drawer. If he could have set up a shrine at work, the collected works of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan would have been set beside tattered paperbacks of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Yeats.
Scott talked a lot about his father, Robert Timberg, who was a legendary journalist at the Baltimore Sun. But it wasn't until his father's death that I learned of his father's harrowing story. He was badly disfigured in the Vietnam War and wrote a memoir on the experience. He led a brave life after his unspeakable trauma. But Scott knew things about the world, about what can and cannot be suffered, from his father's story. He was part Irish and would bring his background up with me, as though I would understand his temperament. I think he was describing a literary sensibility more than anything -- of Beckett, booze and brooding poetry. But there was light too. I remember him walking proudly next to his precociously bright young son, Ian, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts to see one of those sportively performed educative British theater offerings intended both for youngsters and adults. Ian, so full of life, gave Scott life in those years that the culture and the economy kept failing him. My prayers are with Scott's lovely wife, Sara, their son, Ian, and for Scott's soul to be at peace. If there's another world, I hope he's up there with his dad throwing back a whisky after meeting a deadline in knockout prose.
Robert George, editorial writer
Jeff Turrentine, environmental journalist
Scott and I shared so many favorite books, writers, and bands that we often joked about being "twins in taste." But one band in particular, an English indie-pop band called The Clientele, was the band that we could (and would, and did) obsess over and talk about constantly. Over the years they've become my favorite band of all time … and I first learned of them from Scott, of course, who almost certainly introduced them to me on one of the mix CDs that he would routinely burn for me containing music that had recently gotten him excited. He happened to know the lead singer and principal songwriter, Alasdair MacLean, casually. One of my most treasured items is a chord chart for one of their songs, complete with instructions for alternate tuning — and literally written on the back of a cocktail napkin — that Scott texted me from a bar where he was sitting one evening with Alasdair. He knew I had been having trouble figuring out the song … and so he kindly asked the songwriter to write down the tabs. Then he sent it to me. He knew how much it would mean to me.
Willis Peter Bilderback, film historian
Scott is one of my oldest friends. We met as fellow disaffected outsiders (some might say nerds) at Severn River Middle School in Annapolis and were practically inseparable in seventh grade. This was the only year we were at the same school, but our shared experiences there bonded us for a lifetime.
Meeting Scott was such a revelation for me. Here finally was someone who understood my jokes, who had read all the same books as me (and more, Scott was a voracious reader), and liked (and disliked) the same type of music as me. Scott's lifelong dedication to the arts and culture that we initially bonded over led him to a career as a journalist, and I was entirely unsurprised when I started seeing his byline in the Los Angles Times. At the time the LA Times was arguably the best newspaper in the country, and Scott was among the best at his job.
Our paths crossed many times over the years. One of them was when we both moved back to Annapolis after graduating from college and before moving on to graduate school. At the time Scott worked at Tower Records, a job I kind of envied. We got together occasionally and discussed all the new music we had discovered during college, as well as our plans for the future. Scott’s plan was to attend UNC's School of Journalism, mine graduate studies at NYU for Cinema Studies. I think about those days a lot now. This was 1991-92. Neither of us could possibly have foreseen that Scott was making a decision to train for an industry that would soon virtually collapse due to technological, economic, and social changes.
In 2008 the Times was purchased by billionaire real estate investor Sam Zell, and Scott was among the many employees laid off. After being laid off he mostly did freelance arts and culture criticism. This is a difficult way to make a living, and I know it took a toll on him. Scott chronicled the difficulties faced by what he called the "creative class" in the 21st century in Culture Crash, a book that has proven to be both on-target and prescient. I was honored that Scott chose me as one of the people to read an early draft and offer feedback.
Living on different coasts, Scott and I only saw each other in person every few years or so, but we constantly exchanged ideas, first over email, and later on Facebook. Scott had a vibrant community of smart, thoughtful friends on Facebook, and I always enjoyed the robust and intelligent discussions that followed his posts.
Just this morning I had one of those "Facebook Memories" pop up in my feed. I had posted the cover of an obscure record six years ago, and sure enough, Scott was the only person who had liked it. I'm really going to miss him.
Ted Gioia, author and music historian
If you had any doubts how much Scott Timberg cared about Los Angeles and its messy, complex cultural riches, you merely needed to look at the name of his former blog (The Misread City) or his Twitter handle (@TheMisreadCity). If you didn’t love LA the way Scott loved it, you were just misreading it, and he would soon set you straight.
I consider myself a champion of Los Angeles too. I devoted years of my life to researching and writing a book called West Coast Jazz, and when I briefly ran a record label, I made a point of only signing artists from California. Scott and I bonded over our shared advocacy. Yet even my passion was outstripped by Scott’s and when, for example, I complained about some new sign of deterioration in Western living, he would inevitably take a more forgiving, compassionate stance. Like a doting father (which he was at home), he only saw the best in what he loved when he was out in the city at large.
Then again, that was how Scott dealt with everything. He was idealistic, caring, open-minded, deeply principled—I’d even call him a role model in these respects. His curiosity took him everywhere. You could talk to him about virtually any subject and he would have some intriguing firsthand experience or arcane information to share. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who combined earnestness and enthusiasm (typically opposed traits) in such a high degree.
We spoke often, and he was always ardent about his latest discovery — whether it was a movie, or a writer, or a musician, or sometimes just the chord changes to a song. Our last conversation, just a few weeks ago, was typical. The ostensible reason for talking was Scott wanted to ask my advice about a project. But, as so often was the case, we ended up discussing a dizzying range of subjects, and when it was done I realized that (once again) I was the main beneficiary. Scott had a way of doing just that: treating you as the teacher when, in fact, you were getting educated.
Although he had a huge impact as a writer on arts and culture, Scott never got his due. That’s my view, and it will be a lasting source of sadness for me. He was one of the very best, and deserved the largest platforms and the widest audience for his work. I now look at that Twitter handle, and feel compelled to say that Scott Timberg was the misread man. He gave us his best, and we didn’t do enough to deserve it.
Janet Fitch, novelist
Whenever I spotted Scott Timberg — in a crowd, at a party — you could always find me edging in his direction, guarding my drink, hoping to spend another few precious minutes listening to his opinion of the latest concert or book or some irksome development in Los Angeles politics or national culture. I could always count on Scott for informed enthusiasm for the good, incisive critique of the lousy, and brilliant deflation of the ersatz. I thought of him as a savage realist, a sort of cultural rōnin.
His book Culture Crash was like a visit to the optometrist, where things I’d blurrily sensed — the attack on culture workers, the draining of our ranks, the weakening of the middle class — came into perfect focus. But that kind of clarity and passion carry their own risks, and the phenomena he described were not just things he thought but blows he suffered. There will be a Scott–sized hole in our community from now on. It is my hope that each of us will pick up a piece of his enthusiasm and his outrage, and carry it on.
Steve Wasserman, publisher and critic
I'm devastated by the news that my friend and author, Scott Timberg, whose fierce, ground-breaking book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, which I, among others, encouraged him to write, and acquired and edited and published at Yale University Press in 2015, has committed suicide. After being sacked along with a third of the staff at the Los Angeles Times when a brutal real-estate mogul bought the place in 2008 on the back of the employees' pension plans and then ran it into the ground, Scott never regained his footing. Toppled into the so-called gig economy, he never again found a steady job. Possessed of eclectic curiosities, he dipped his pen into the inkwell of his own blood. It is usually a category error to mistake one's personal predicament for a general condition. In Scott's case, he was entirely right and while suicide is inherently an unfathomable act, I hold the toxic and philistine corporate culture that has been steadily immiserating the middle class responsible for rendering this brilliant writer obsolete.
His admirable avidity for ideas, his deep empathy for others, his steadfast refusal to get along by going along were abundant virtues which he generously shared with all who were lucky enough to fall within his orbit. That he found himself in so desolate and desperate a place as to kill himself delivers an unforgiving and terrible verdict on our larger society. Oh Scott, I am so sorry. Words fail but they are all we have.
Andy Hermann, journalist
Scott was one of my oldest friends in Los Angeles. We were classmates at Wesleyan University, where as fellow English majors we frequently argued about books and plays. After I moved to LA in 1999, we reconnected and spent much of the next 20 years arguing about music. Back then, he was arts editor for the New Times, and I was a failed playwright looking for a new path. I owe much of the career I’ve had since then to Scott’s advice and encouragement.
He was brilliant, funny, kind, an extraordinarily gifted writer and thinker, a great and sometimes exasperating verbal sparring partner. Almost every time I saw him over the past 10 years, he invited me to his semi-weekly guitar jam, even though I always protested that I only knew five chords and could barely play those. I should have gone.
During my stint as music editor at LA Weekly, I was able to lure Scott back to his alt-weekly roots to write a few articles for us. The last piece he filed, an appreciation of Ringo Starr, was classic Scott: a fresh, nuanced take on familiar subject matter, deeply researched and beautifully written. I’m sure he worked far harder on it than the modest rate I could offer him merited.
My heart breaks for Scott’s wife Sara and son Ian. And his parents, siblings, and everyone who knew and loved him best. And I’m saddened by what could have been. All the articles, essays and books he hadn’t yet written; all the arguments we hadn’t yet had.
I still can’t quite grasp the idea that he’s gone. That the next time I go see Spoon or Stephen Malkmus or The Clientele or the Los Angeles Philharmonic or any of the many, many others musical artists he loved with such intensity, he won’t be in the room. He was such a fixture on the LA concert scene for so many years. If you bumped into Scott at a show, you knew you were in the right place.
Scott was a tireless champion of arts journalism, and he loved this city and defended its overlooked intellectual history passionately to anyone who would listen. The LA journalism community will feel his loss for many, many years.
Dana Gioia, Poet Laureate of California
I knew Scott Timberg for over 25 years. He was not only a close friend and colleague — he was a constant presence in my life. For many years he emailed or phoned me nearly every day to discuss what he was reading or writing. In 2003 we edited a book together on the new literary Los Angeles for which Scott came up with the perfect title, The Misread City.
Scott was determined to give Los Angeles the careful reading that it deserved. I don’t think anyone covered LA culture so prolifically or omnivorously. He wrote about everything happening in the Southland — rock, poetry, fiction, film, theater, jazz, classical music, and the visual arts. He produced hundreds of articles, which had the special Timberg quality of being simultaneously open-minded and opinionated.
In an age of cultural specialization, Scott’s range was invaluable. His commentary reflected the needs of the general reader who explores the arts with curiosity but finds little intelligent guidance in the media. Scott provided this animated coverage for nearly thirty years at a variety of publications, mostly notably The Day in New London, New Times LA, Los Angeles Times, and Salon.
Thousands of musicians, artists, writers, publishers, and presenters profited from Scott’s meticulous attention and advocacy. He was not so fortunate. His professional career was slowly eroded by the economic and technological changes that transformed the contemporary media. Despite his immense productivity, he struggled to earn a living for himself and his family.
Scott combined his difficult personal experiences with his capacious knowledge of the arts and media to create a brilliant study, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (2015). This underrated volume remains the best diagnosis of our current cultural dilemma in a society where “information” corporations have become as large as nation states while the writers and artists whose work they exploit can no longer make a living.
Scott’s suicide was a tragic act. He was so greatly loved and so conspicuously talented. No one can truly know what despair or temporary madness motivated it. But his death makes at least one thing obvious to any attentive observer. There is something wrong with our culture when Los Angeles, which now has more artists than any other city in North America, including New York, cannot provide a living wage for such a hard-working and gifted critic.
In his death, Scott Timberg becomes a representative figure, a bitter symbol for thousands of other writers and artists who have been marginalized by our much-touted “creative culture.” I mourn him personally and publicly. His passing diminishes the California culture he did so much to honor.
Joe Donnelly, journalist
Scott was a preservationist of sorts, the best kind.
I remember one of the first big feature stories of his that I edited when we were at New Times. It was about the city’s Googie landmarks, which were rapidly succumbing to redevelopment. In lesser hands, the piece would have been a drive-by about architectural kitsch. Scott, though, saw the buildings as testaments to optimism and playfulness at a time when Los Angeles was the most optimistic and playful place on earth. The piece also served as a warning to think twice about what we discard and what for.
Not that Scott was sentimental, as anyone who’s read his poignant essay “Leaving Los Angeles” can attest. Change is inevitable and welcome when it improves things, but he drew the line at soul. That was the thing he wanted to preserve.
Scott always rose to the conversation. It didn’t matter whether it was on the phone or at a backyard party, or if the subject was urban theory or Elvis Costello, Scott gave great talk. It was always a bonus to spot him out in the world, smiling, arched eyebrow, sly grin, beer in hand, usually already engaged in a great conversation with interesting people that’d quickly invite you to join in.
We talked recently about how unaffordability threatens Los Angeles’ role as the lodestar for a progressive, inclusive 21st Century City. The existential role of Los Angeles was something we both believed in, perhaps too much, but I don’t think either of us was ready to surrender the future to Austin, or San Francisco or New York, for that matter.
Before we hung up, we pondered a Los Angeles whose carrying capacity is limited to a blithe aristocracy on top and an overstressed working class on the bottom with little in between. Where will the poets go? To some that may seem like a rhetorical question. To others, it’s a matter of life and death.
Bill Holdship, music critic
I met Scott and his soon-to-be wife Sara Scribner when we all were editors and writers at New Times L.A in the late '90s/early 2000s. New Times, as you've probably heard, was a difficult place to work at times. But there were always great people actually working in the office and they were two of them. Despite being much younger than me, Scott was someone with whom you could discuss any subject regarding the arts, be it the Velvet Underground and the Beatles or great world literature and film. He and Sara appeared to be soulmates, especially in that area. He was passionate about such things. And my memories of Scott when we actually could still interact in person was that he almost always had a smile on his face, despite his obvious intensity. I don't think we ever had a true disagreement.
He and Sara always seemed like such a perfect couple. And they both obviously loved their son, Ian, who, from everything I've read, is brilliant. My deepest condolences to both of them and all of Scott's family and friends, many who knew him better than I did. This is tragic. As someone who suffers, all I can say is that depression is a helluva terrible thing. Just awful. Overwhelming. We can never totally know or even understand what someone else is feeling, thinking or suffering. Everyone is suffering -- that's the only thing I've truly learned with age. Some more than others. The only thing I can say is pretty trite in the grand scheme of things. And the current zeigeist sure isn't all that open to it. But please try to be kind.
Tony Ortega, editor
In 1999, I moved back home to Los Angeles to a staff writer position at New Times. By then I'd been in the alternative weeklies for about four years, and I was used to the glorious grubbiness of it. It was heaven for hardworking misfits who wanted to raise some hell. And then there was Scott Timberg, who stuck out on the NTLA staff. What was this erudite, overeducated, young cultural genius doing in this ink-stained dump? I was in awe of him immediately and his ability to say something penetrating and smart on just about any subject. That newspaper died in 2002, but Scott escaped to an arts position at the L.A. Times, which he seemed born for. Others would know much more about his feelings on being laid off from that job, but I think it affected him deeply.
We kept in touch over the years, and we both commiserated over the sad fate of the alt-weeklies. Scott cared deeply about writers and their ability to be creative, and we both expressed despair about so many of our former colleagues having to leave the industry entirely. As long as Scott kept at it, however, it felt like there was some hope that genius still mattered in media. It's so shocking to lose him.
Tim Appelo, movie critic
When Scott and I served in the Hollywood Reporter trenches, we’d talk about all manner of things unconnected with our awards coverage: pop, art, Auden (man, did we yearn for a poetical valley where executives would never want to tamper!), L.A. Times and New York Times editors we liked, and the immolation of our profession and culture itself, the fact that laid-off journalists in 2011 outnumbered all the heretics burnt by the Spanish Inquisition.
Everyone expected the culture crash — but Scott depicted it in prose that will last. He sang of human unsuccess in a rapture of distress. In later years, we’d regularly run into each other at the aromatic Village Bakery in Atwater, often with the son and wife he adored above all, and we’d share tips on job prospects. In his last email, inviting me to split another Atwater chocolate chip cookie (too hugely rich to eat solo), he marveled, “Odd how many people are gone now from my 2011 THR adventure” and “All that tech money! If you are not part of that revenue stream, you’re a third-class citizen.”
I cannot fathom his final despair, since he always seemed livelier and more upbeat than I was, and more productive. His conversation was so stimulating, ranging so far beyond the Making of an Oscar Contender copy we were churning out, that he made me feel like we were showbiz versions of Blake and Coleridge (or he was, anyway), who, when they met, were overheard carrying on like “congenial beings of another sphere, breathing for a while on our earth.” Would that he were here a while longer.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start.
Dean Kuipers, writer and journalist
Scott and I were both hired into Calendar, the arts pages at the Los Angeles Times, in 2002. I was just filling in for an editor who went away for a year, and on my very first day, film critic Kevin Thomas roared at me across the newsroom that he didn’t know “who the fuck” I was, and after that I didn’t say boo. Not Scott. I sat by music critic Bob Hilburn and he would put his hand on my shoulder and ask what I thought of a new album and before I could mumble something, Scott would zip over there whisper-shouting that he just got the disk the day before and he had at least five highly developed ideas about it.
I had been writing about music for a decade, but for Timberg it was a throw-down. Even in the midst of a scrap, Scott was such a joy because he would actually listen. He cared about art and he cared about writing about art and he was kind enough to at least pretend that he would change his opinion if you had a better argument. Later I was part of a huge online crew at the Times when they laid him off and it was perfectly clear we were going the wrong way. His voice was what people were looking for when they read the paper. I’m still looking for it now.
Alissa Quart, writer and editor
Scott Timberg was an ace, ambidextrous cultural critic and reporter, whose understanding of other minds allowed him to review with an uncanny level of sensitivity. He was also my friend and colleague. I met him in 2003, after the 1990s, reliably a favorite decade due to its sterling indie rock and that a creative class could still afford to rent in major American cities. Scott was kind as well, with great taste and eager to talk about everything from alternative label taxonomies to housing patterns in major metropolises. I immediately chimed with his obsession with America’s fragile middle class, and with his related drive to keep independent cultural production in music and literature alive.
Scott was unlucky, as we all are, to live at a time when such capacities have been relegated to the margins of America, made no longer sustainable or even possible.
He even wrote a book about this, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. That title charted the economic dispossession of critics, bookstore owners, artists and record-store managers. It underlined what know to be true: that America is starving out its reporters, photographers, and reviewers. The villains are not only the metallic hand of automation or the premature death of newspaper advertising. The nemeses are also the greedy, ugly corporations (hello Sam Zell! hello Joe Ricketts!) that willfully and unnecessarily lay off and diminish so many journalists, demanding not just some profits from publications but maximal ones. This corporatized media eroded Scott too. He was laid off by the Los Angeles Times and struggled with the terrible freelance economy, all the while trying to afford to stay in his and his family’s beloved “misread city.”
Despite the fact that we had rarely met in person, Scott once wrote that our work had “an eerie connection." I felt the same way. Within the last month, he exchanged his thoughts about L.A. art venues downtown, the music of youth, and another creator gone top early, the Silver Jews' David Berman.
We can only hope that his struggle for independent culture, along with his stylish and acute sensibility, will continue on in others.
If you are contemplating harm to yourself, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, or visit the website of the American Association of Suicidology.
A guide for family and friends can be downloaded here.
A GoFundMe page has been set up for those who wish to donate to the college fund for Scott’s 13-year-old son Ian.
Janet Fitch is a Los Angeles native and the author of White Oleander and Paint It Black. Her latest novel is a two-part epic, The Revolution of Marina M. and Chimes of a Lost Cathedral.
Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, is editor-at-large for Yale University Press.
Ted Gioia writes on music, books and popular culture. His latest book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
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