Boom Times for the End of the World
I pay tribute to culture writer Scott Timberg (1969-2019) whose posthumous book is published today
My dear friend Scott Timberg took his own life back in 2019. I think about him every day.
Scott was an exemplary journalist who covered arts and culture with deep knowledge and acute insight. If he had lived, I would have tried to enlist him as my partner on The Honest Broker. In fact, Scott was the first person I told about my concept of an honest broker as a role model for journalists—long before Substack existed.
Scott not only grasped the significance of honest and independent voices in arts journalism, but demonstrated it constantly in his own work. He influenced my vocation, and in the best way possible—by the integrity and dedication with which he pursued his own.
He deserves to be far better known, and that just might happen now. Today is publication date for a posthumous collection of his writings, aptly entitled Boom Times for the End of the World.
I wrote the introduction to this book, which I’m sharing below with the permission of Steve Wasserman of Heyday Books. Steve championed Scott’s work during the difficult final years of his life, and continues to do so after his death.
We both believe that Scott is an important and emblematic figure of these difficult times in our culture. His work addresses many things, but especially the creative spirits left behind in our digital economy. Sad to say, Scott knew their plight all too well.
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Boom Times for the End of the World
An Introduction to Scott Timberg
by Ted Gioia
When someone close to you takes their own life, your first reaction is not just pain, but also denial and disbelief. Especially when it’s someone younger than you—vibrant, healthy, blessed with so much talent and smarts. This can’t be real, you tell yourself. You want an explanation, but the tragedy defies any attempt to find meaning in it.
That was the case with Scott Timberg. Years have passed, and I’m still reeling in the aftermath of his suicide on December 10, 2019. But in the midst of the grieving, a kind of larger significance to his death emerged in the days following the event. I felt it, and others who knew him—either personally or through his writing—felt it too.
For many of us, Scott’s death revealed uncanny and disturbing connections with his professional life over the last decade, when he emerged as our leading chronicler and champion of creative professionals who had been squeezed and displaced in the “culture business.” This large and growing demographic included, as he saw it, everyone from journalists like himself all the way to the film lover who once worked at the local video rental store (before it closed) or the minimum-wage clerk at the defunct indie bookstore.
They had all been part of a healthy cultural ecosystem, and he had watched it collapse over the course of just a few years.
And then it happened to him too.
Scott lost his job at the Los Angeles Times shortly before he turned 40. In a final ironic twist, he had just received a glowing performance review a few days before the round of layoffs that left him unemployed. He never really recovered from this. It may sound glib, but I absolutely believe Scott would still be alive today if the Times hadn’t let him go.
I know how tough the newspaper business can be. Even so, I was mystified by this turn of events, because Scott was one of the finest arts and culture writers in the country, engaged and passionate and capable of delivering insightful articles at short notice on almost any subject. In a fair world, Scott Timberg would be competing for a Pulitzer Prize in criticism, but instead he was shut out in the cold.
He never recovered his bearings after leaving the Times. Thrust into the turbulent freelance economy, he continued to do outstanding work, but with fewer opportunities and smaller rewards.
But there was one consolation: Scott found a new vocation as champion for other creative professionals who, like himself, had been marginalized in the shrinking arts economy. He drew on his own experiences in writing a book on the subject, the harrowing (even more so after his death) Culture Crash, published by Yale University Press in 2015.
In his death, Timberg got turned into a kind of martyr, a patron saint for all the forgotten writers, artists, musicians, and other victims of the gig economy—and his personal tragedy became a commentary on both his life and theirs. It’s easy to criticize this way of packaging a death that (for me and others) will never lose its sting. But there’s a large dose of truth in it too. All the pieces fit together, almost too well.
I never met anyone who loved journalism more than Scott Timberg.
For him, the newspaper business was more than a vocation, it was almost his destiny—at least that’s how he saw it. You might even say it was in his blood.
His father Robert Timberg was a celebrated journalist who had started out as a soldier in the US Marine Corps during the Vietnam era. An exploding landmine had left him with serious injuries, requiring 35 reconstructive surgeries. Yet the elder Timberg somehow managed to reinvent himself as a writer—although he had never previously published anywhere, not even a school newspaper—after earning a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University.
That was where Scott was born, in Palo Alto on February 15, 1969. Like his father—and brother Craig, a writer for the Washington Post—Scott wanted to work for a newspaper. So after graduating from Wesleyan, he got a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina, then plunged headfirst into the newspaper business, still in boom times during those pre-Internet days.
In our conversations I would often make some cynical remarks about the state of US newspapers, but Scott vehemently defended the journalist’s life. He believed it was a noble profession. And the way he practiced it, it was just that.
I often felt chastened by his idealism. He was almost like a news reporter in one of those movies or TV shows you’ve seen. Somehow he combined a deep earnestness and total dedication to his craft with a childlike innocence. Perhaps I’m still too cynical, because I can now see how inevitably he would be punished for that pure faith in the goodness of his chosen vocation.
But at first there were successes. After working for The Day in Connecticut and the alt-weekly New Times in SoCal, Scott got hired by the Los Angeles Times. This was the ideal job for him, and again and again he delivered remarkable articles on tight deadline, never losing his enthusiasm for the next concert, the latest art exhibition, the forthcoming book, the hot new film, and anything else that came his way.
What made the LA Times gig so perfect was that Scott loved Los Angeles almost as much as he loved the newspaper business. 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 blog (The Misread City) or his Twitter handle (@TheMisreadCity). If you didn’t love LA as much as Scott loved it, you were just misreading it, and he would soon set you straight.
Here, too, Scott was a wide-eyed innocent. After all, the rest of us know how shallow the cultural waters are in SoCal. Hollywood is almost an emblem of phoniness. In LA, commerce squeezes out artistry—it always has and always will. If you’re a creative person with integrity and love LA, you need to do it like Randy Newman in his song of that same name: with a heavy dose of skepticism and dark humor.
But Scott didn’t see it that way. He had met his future wife, Sara Scribner, at the Troubadour, the quintessential LA club, and that was almost a symbol for the romance he had with the entire city. It might be sprawling, congested, cruel, and uncaring. But he saw only its beauty and endless promise.
As a result, Scott had a knack for finding the best in the cultural scene on the dream coast. We would have long, rambling conversations about California—which for him was a rich tapestry in which the threads, on any given day, might include West Coast jazz, Lew Archer mysteries, Spike Jonze’s movies, Ed Ruscha’s pop art, Robinson Jeffers’s Hawk Tower, sci-fi from Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick, La La Land, the California history books of Kevin Starr, the photos of William Claxton, L.A. Confidential, or Gustavo Dudamel’s latest performance. Some of those turned up as subjects in his published writings, but the surviving articles and essays only begin to sketch out his endless curiosity and passion for his adopted home state.
Over the course of many years, Scott sometimes seemed like an adopted member of my own extended family as well, and even in this connection he revealed the breadth and depth of his intellect. Long before I met Scott, he had struck up a friendship with my older brother Dana, a well-known poet, and they would discuss literary matters by the hour. But when he spoke with my nephew Mike, an aspiring filmmaker, he would shift gears and converse about movies like a die-hard cinephile. When I chatted with Scott, we would focus on jazz and musical matters, which he knew well. He would even ask me to send him lead sheets for jazz songs, and get my advice on substitute chord changes and improvising modes.
I mention this because readers got only a small taste of how deeply he was immersed in creative pursuits. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that Scott’s greatest gift might have been for smart conversation. I wish everyone reading these words could have had the experience of talking to this devoted and caring polymath, even for just a few minutes.
Scott tried to leave LA, and for a time settled in Athens, Georgia. He writes about that painful decision in “Leaving Los Angeles,” one of his finest essays. I encouraged him in that move, and assumed that, like many of us, Scott would find it best to love the City of Angels from afar.
But he couldn’t do it. Like a jilted lover, Scott dreamed of rebuilding an intimate relationship with the city of his broken dreams. He returned to Los Angeles, and made one final attempt to get his life back on track as an arts and culture writer.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to view Scott Timberg as a victim, but that doesn’t do full justice to how hard he fought to reestablish himself in the shrinking journalism business. We spoke every few days, and he was always pursuing leads and opportunities. Even in our last conversation, a few days before his death, he was still brainstorming on ways to reinvent himself and relaunch his career. On a few occasions, it felt like Scott was on the brink of a big break, but the luck never ran his way.
In those final years, he continued to work the freelance circuit, and managed to write Culture Crash, a book that gets more sadly relevant with each passing year. He was scrambling and probably struggling financially, but you never saw it in the published work. He wrote brilliantly and with just as much insight as ever, maybe even more so. Only the paychecks were getting smaller and smaller.
I assumed it was just a matter of time before Scott found his place in the SoCal culture ecosystem. He was too talented, too good at his craft, to fall through the cracks. Maybe even the Times would bring him back one day—that seemed like such an obvious move. Who could they find better than Scott Timberg?
The one thing I never guessed is that he would give up hope.
But he did. I lost a dear friend, and Los Angeles lost its most devoted lover. And all we are left with is Scott Timberg, patron saint of the displaced creative spirit.
That after-the-fact canonization gives some tiny circumference of meaning to a death otherwise so meaningless. And, frankly, I suspect Scott would have no disagreement with such a framing of his life and times. He saw the challenges he faced echoed in the lives of so many others, and he cared deeply about all those who suffered in the same way he did. The notion that his abbreviated life might serve as a rallying point for the compassion owed to those squeezed by our culture shift would have given Scott a small bit of gratification. I know it provides me with some consolation.
But Scott would also want people to remember the joy and exhilaration he felt in pursuing his chosen vocation. His collected writings do just that. Here he still survives in the role he played best: the passionate and earnest culture writer who loved his misread city. I only wish it had loved him half as much in return.
You can learn more about Scott Timberg’s Boom Times for the End of the World, or purchase a copy, at this link.
What a beautiful tribute. When I was a young rock critic, I achieved all of my goals early, while still in college (Rolling Stone, Creem, Village Voice in its heyday). But I really wanted to be, and became, a "newspaperman," and lived that dream too. My paper was part of the LA Times once-benign ownership, and when I left after 20 years (through buyout), it took almost as long to recover my moorings, because, like your friend Scott, I was never suited for anything better than I was newspapers.
Hello Ted, I've just read your heartfelt and touching tribute to your friend Scott.
As a member of Badfinger in the 70's, this situation resonates with me on a deep level. My bandmates, Peter Ham and then Tommy Evans (writers' of Nilsson's 'Without You'), both commited suicide after the business of Music failed them. It's something of a curse if you are a passionate creative, but circumstances appear to dictate that you won't be able to continue. As with Scott, my friends also the lost their will and optimism and succumbed to that awful 'moment of madness.... I empathise with you..it never goes away.