From Mulholland to Bean

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

On the LA Observed website, this has been a summer for obituaries about talented people.

Just in the music world alone, there's been Bruce Springsteen's pal Clarence Clemons. Wildman Fischer was a songwriter and compatriot of Frank Zappa's. Carl Gardner -- an original member of the Coasters.

And this weekend, of course, the British soul singer Amy Winehouse.

From Hollywood there was the creator of Gilligan's Island, Sherwood Schwartz. In business, the creator of Sport Chalet. In politics, [Ramona Hahn] the matriarch of the Hahn family, mother of the city's former mayor.

All led interesting, accomplished lives. Stopping a second to mark their passing tells us something about the world and the city we live in.

But the two life stories I've been struck by the most were not those of celebrities, or performers.

They were creators, though. And both are associated with the hemisphere of LA known as the Valley.

Catherine Mulholland grew up in the west end of the San Fernando Valley, when it was more dust bowl than landscaped suburb. Long before it turned into the melting pot of cultures it is today.

You probably recognize her last name if you have lived in Los Angeles for very long.

Her grandfather was William Mulholland the aqueduct and dam builder, the self-trained engineer who came to LA from Ireland by walking across the Isthmus of Panama.

He helped invent LA by bringing the city water it didn't have. His methods were sometimes controversial, and marked by one singular tragedy – the collapse of the St. Francis Dam that took more than 500 lives.

His granddaughter lived in an LA when she could take the Red Car from Canoga Park through sugar beet and lima bean fields all the way into Hollywood.

She went to Berkeley and stayed away from LA for awhile, partly to get away from people whose brows would fret at the mention of her family name.

But then she came back and wrote books -- about her mother's family in old Calabasas, her own childhood, and finally a biography that sought to set the record straight about Granddad Mulholland.

Her legacy is a valuable and readable record of an important time in the formation of modern Los Angeles. I have them on my shelves.

At the other end of the Valley, in Burbank, Travis Bean was a child of the postwar suburbs. A baby boomer who, like most boomers, bonded with rock and roll.

In the 1970s he invented a guitar with a solid aluminum neck, instead of the wood that most everybody else used. His instruments had a certain quality about them, and they became the favorites of bands like the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead.

Even after his company stopped making Beans, they were embraced by later generations of guitar players and bands like Sonic Youth.

A documentary in the works on Bean's life says the guitar was born of Burbank's motorcycle and hot rod culture, and fused from gear head sensibility and rock and roll creativity.

That Travis Bean's guitars can get people talking about Burbank hot rod culture is another good reason to mark his passing, in my book. His guitars are pretty good too, I hear.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.