Wednesday, December 31, 2014

TMFW 69 - Bob and Doug 'Take Off' up the Charts

 
[Happy New Year to everyone!] 
 
Last week's TMF Thursday featured a Bonus Fact with a link to Bob and Doug McKenzie performing an over-the-top-stereotypical Canadian version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  I am a fan of stupid comedy in general, and of the McKenzie brothers in particular, and thought that their origin story would make a good TMFW in its own right.
 
But first, because of the M in TMFW, let's get some music facts (as they say in Canada) "covered off."  Bob and Doug were a pop culture phenomenon in the early 80s, hitting their crescendo in 1983 with the release of the classic movie Strange Brew. The film was a (very) loose adaptation of Hamlet (if you can believe that - they've even written papers about it) in which the McKenzie brothers contrive to place a mouse in a beer bottle so that they can complain to the beer store and get some free two-fours.   But before Strange Brew, the McKenzie Brothers had a comedy record called The Great White North.  Released in 1981, the record featured comedy skits and songs, including the aforementioned "Twelve Days of Christmas" and a track in the "hit single section of [the] album" featuring Geddy Lee from Rush called "Take Off."  The Great White North was a hit in the US, spending 12 weeks on the album charts and reaching number 8.  It was an even bigger hit in Canada, where it was triple-platinum and made #1 for six weeks.  
 
OK, there were your music facts.  Back to Bob and Doug's origin story.  The McKenzie Brothers sketches started on SCTV, which itself grew out of The Second City improv club.  The Second City started in Chicago in 1959, and in 1972 it opened a club in Toronto.  In time, the Toronto location amassed a talented group of performers in its main troupe that included John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, and Dave Thomas.  In 1976, that group - along with Catherine O'Hara and Andrea Martin - made the first cast of SCTV.  The show was able to find a production and distribution arrangement in part because of "Canadian content" regulations, which require that television broadcasters in Canada must air a certain percentage of "cultural and creative content that is Canadian in nature."  For the first two seasons, the show was recorded in Toronto for a small regional network.  
 
By season 3, Rick Moranis had joined the cast and the CBC network picked up the show for national broadcast.  Production moved to Edmonton, and the show started syndication in sporadic places in the U.S.  Here's where it gets interesting: due to less commercials in Canada, the Canadian version of SCTV was two minutes longer than the syndicated version.  To satisfy their duties under the content regulations, the CBC required those two extra minutes of the show to be specifically Canadian material.  
 
At the time of the CBC's request, Dave Thomas was the head writer of SCTV.  He and his colleagues bristled at the idea that a show recorded in Canada, with a Canadian cast and Canadian writers, somehow created content that was not "Canadian" for the purposes of broadcast regulations.  So as a shot at the network they came up with the most stereotypical, offensive caricature of Canadians that they could - dimwitted guys in parkas and toques, sitting in front of a map of Canada drinking beer, calling each other hosers and saying "eh" over and over again - and made that their submission to the CBC.  As Thomas recalls, the skits were very loose: "the rest of the cast would go home after a hard shooting day and Rick and I would stay an extra hour and just shoot some Bob & Doug McKenzie. They were all exactly two minutes long so we'd have the floor director count us in and we just improvised. If we shot 10 and two were good, that was a pretty good shooting ratio compared to the rest of the show to get four minutes of programming in one hour."
 
The rest, of course, is history.  Canadian audiences loved Bob and Doug; they quickly were the favorite and most-anticipated bit of each episode.  When the show started including "The Great White North" skits on the American syndicated broadcasts, they were similarly well-received.  By time SCTV ended, Bob and Doug had made over 40 skits together, in addition to their hit record and cult movie.  Not bad for an idea that started as a middle finger to network suits.  
 
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BONUS FACT:  Though Rush has enjoyed great success in North America - 40 million records sold, 24 gold and 14 platinum albums - they have amazingly had only four (!!!) top-20 singles in Canada, and none on the US Hot 100.  Geddy Lee's only top-20 hit on the Hot 100 was for "Take Off," which hit number 16 in March 1982.  Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
 
(OBSCURE, THROWAWAY) BONUS FACT 2:  If you have ever wondered about the voice of Geddy Lee, and how it got so high, and wondered "if he speaks like an ordinary guy," my fact-checkin[g] cous[in] knows him, and he does.
 
BONUS FACT 3:  After his time on SCTV, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas's castmate Joe Flaherty was brilliantly cast as the dad to Sam and Lindsay Weir on the excellent 1999 TV show Freaks and Geeks.  Mr. Weir's principal job seemed to be telling his kids about various cautionary tales in the hopes of steering them straight.
 
CORRECTION:  Last week's Bonus Facts included a bit about my friend Ross's dad.  I reported that he played flanker at the University of New Brunswick, when in fact he played for the Thunderbirds of the University of British Columbia.  TMFW regrets the error.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

TMFW 68 - Pro Football's Lost (and Found) Holiday Records



[NOTE - DISASTER!  The holiday week has me all messed up and I only realized just now that today is Thursday!  So let's call this a Special Holiday Edition of True Music Facts Wednesday, brought to you totally-not-accidentally on a Thursday.]

[NOTE 2 - Merry Christmas to those readers who celebrate it!]

Last week, TMFW-favorite deadspin.com had a long feature about now-forgotten NFL-themed holiday records.  You can read the whole story at the link - and if you have 15 minutes, you should; it's a lovely read - but the principal details are pretty straightforward to recount.

In 1970, an ad-man named Mike Tatich was making his living producing cheesy, quick- and cheap-to-make "[Celebrity] Sings the Hits" records, which were advertised on TV and sold by mail.  He got the idea that he could make sports-themed records - with a built in geographic audience for each one - and approached the NFL.  Because in those days the League was less established and the players' contracts were less rich, and because the AFL-NFL merger was just becoming official and the league was looking for PR help wherever it could get it, the NFL and the player's association agreed to take part.  According to the article, Tatich paid a grand total of $0 to the NFL for their approval and assistance; under the deal, only a portion of the profits would go to the players' association.

There was to be one album per NFL team, so when the deal was made Tatich suddenly had 26 records to make (this was pre-Buccaneers, Seahawks, Panthers, Jaguars, Ravens, and Texans).  Tatich and his partners went to Yugoslavia, where they avoided the cost of the American musicians' union and had the backing music recorded on the cheap.  (I'm sure the NFL players union would have loved knowing that.)  The music was identical for each record - 8 "classics" including "Frosty and Snowman" and "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth," and 1 original song called "A Tropical Winter." Then, with the instrumental tracks in hand, they booked time at recording studios around the country and went to every single NFL training camp to convince players to come sing after their days' workouts were through.  Tatich lured them with promises of beer and pizza, and amazingly enough it worked.  All 26 teams sent players, and all 26 records were recorded before the regular season kicked off. 

Though he had no record company or distribution network to speak of, Tatich thought he was sitting on a sure-fire hit and decided that he would self-release the records.  Printing them on the label "Manlius Records," a made-up imprint that apparently never released anything but 26 NFL-themed holiday records in 1970, he promoted the album with media appearances and even got a chorus of NFL players on The Ed Sullivan Show.  But - again, because he had no record company or distribution network to speak of - the records found only a (very, very) limited audience, and most ended up in a storage warehouse.  The bulk of the records were ultimately sold to scrappers for the value of the vinyl. 

Despite their rarity, it seems that the records did leave a legacy.  The author of the deadspin.com article linked above speaks eloquently about the Raiders' version, which tradition required to be played on repeat as his family decorated the tree each year: 

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"I think that I [insisted on traditions like that] because a small family like the one I described above, my family, is also a fractured one. Maybe some part of me understood that Christmas isn't quite the same for families that don't have fathers, uncles, grandparents, and cousins all gathering around the tree at Nana's house. I think I obsessed over all those dumb traditions—the Raiders' album chief among them—because it was the clearest way for the four of us to remind ourselves that, yes, this is a family that doesn't make much sense, but it's still a family. Haven't you noticed all of these traditions? We are still here."

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Similarly, in this blog post from 2008 about the Cowboys' version, there are comments from a Packers fan who says "The Packers version was a Christmas music staple & tradition in my household when I was a little boy growing up in Wisconsin during the Vince Lombardi Packers era...I still covet & play my copy of this LP each Christmas when my kids decorate our Christmas tree."  Here's a fellow who discovered the Chiefs' version at garage sale, and eBay has you covered for the Rams ($20) or the Colts ($60).

It's amazing to think that there was a time when (a) the NFL would license their team names and lean on their players to make carbon-copy holiday records, all for free, and (b) you could build a chorus of willing pro football players to give up a night at training camp and sing "All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth" with just the promise of free beer and pizza.  Those were the good old days.

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BONUS FACT THAT IS ALMOST AS LONG AS THE MAIN FACT:  What drew me to today's TMFW (other than that it was easy, and fun, and Christmas related) is that it was not the only "lost and found pro football record from the 70s" story that I am aware of.  There's an even stranger one from our friends up north.

In 2009, a musician named Henry Adam Svec announced that, during his work for the National Archives of Canada, he had discovered a set of recordings made by Canadian Football League players in the 1970s. Because the recordings were "rough" and "deteriorating," Svec did not try to restore the original recordings but instead worked with a composer to recreate and intrepret the songs with additional instrumentation and "contemporary orchestrations."

Unfortunately, the method of recording the music in the 70s prevented Svec from sharing much about the songs.  As he explained on a website devoted to archiving and celebrating the music and in lectures that he gave about the project, the recording sessions were lead by a mysterious Canadian folklorist named Staunton R. Livingston.  Livingston's "folklore method involved not writing anything down.  He didn't write down the author, the performer, location or...date."  This is because, according to Svec, "he didn't think it mattered; he thought music belonged to everyone and so [identifying information] would actually violate the songs that he was trying to share."  Livingston initiated the sessions in 1972 and unfortunately died in Quebec in 1977, so he is no help for the reconstruction of historical details. 

Without the names of the players or even the song titles themselves, Svec was left to interpret much of what he found.  He called the project "The CFL Sessions"   The track list for the resulting record reads like a too-good-to-be-true picture of life in a modest Canadian professional sports league in the 1970s:  songs like "Song Written Upon Getting Cut by the Argos," "Linebacker Passing Through," "'E' for Endzone," and "Life is Like Canadian Football."  That last one is my favorite; lots of wisdom there.  At the lecture linked above, Svec presents at a symposium at the University of Western Ontario about the process of discovering the recordings and plays the song he calls "On Discipline."  As the first lines make clear, the song is written by a CFL player who is abstaining from sex because he fears it will inhibit his play: "You're so pretty and you're so young / I'll mess around with it but I can't cum / I need my legs, I need my energy / If that's superstitious, well then superstition is a part of me."

If the story about a trove of CFL-inspired songs written and recorded (and then forgotten) in the 1970s - and rediscovered 30+ years later by a budding musician who gave them the attention and reworking that they deserved - seemed too good to be true, it turns out that it was.  Svec had fully invented the backstory to give himself a theme to work around for a record.  As someone who had chosen to believe the tale, I was disappointed when I learned the truth.  But the record is still fun to listen to; when I do, I like to imagine those CFL guys getting their feelings onto tape all those years ago. 
 
BONUS FACT 2:  If we are talking about The Great White North and it is Christmas, I hope you will indulge a link to Bob and Doug McKenzie's classic rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  I love that song; the line "good day, and welcome to day 12" gets me every time.
 
BONUS FACT 3:  The dad of early TMFW reader and former TMFW neighbor Ross played Canadian Football at the University of New Brunswick, where he was (maybe) a flanker or a fullback.  After college, he had a tryout with the mighty BC Lions of the CFL (6-time winner of the Grey Cup), but sadly his knees did not cooperate.  
 
BONUS FACT 4:  I am not sure whether Ross inherited any of those football skills from his dad, but he makes some of the finest ribs you've ever tasted and he's the best turkey carver I have ever met.  So that's something.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

TMFW 67 - Ice Cube's Good Day

 
[Note: today's TMFW deals with an Ice Cube rap song from the early 90s, and as such uses some crude language and themes.  If you are of delicate sensibilities, you might choose to sit this one out.]
 
Before he was the star of heartwarming movies like "Barbershop" and "Are We There Yet?", before he hung out with Elmo on Sesame Street, and before he was engaged in a battle over "who's colder" with a bottle of beer, Ice Cube was an influential hip hop artist.  A principal contributor to the commercialization of "gangsta rap," Cube (do we call him "Cube"?  Didn't we have this same issue with Kenny G in TMFW 38?) wrote the lyrics to Eazy-E's song "Boyz-n-the-Hood" (audio NSFW) and wrote most of the lyrics on N.W.A.'s breakout record Straight Outta Compton.  After royalty disputes - what's more gangsta than that? - Cube left N.W.A. and started a solo career.

Ice Cube released his third solo album, The Predator, in 1992.  The record went double platinum, lead by the single "It Was a Good Day" The song tells the story of, well, a good day for Cube.  The lyrics detail everything that happened:

Cube woke up to a day with no smog in LA, ate breakfast cooked by his mother, and then headed out in his convertible.  He "got a beep" from a woman named Kim, who told him that she "can fuck all night," then joined some friends at a park for basketball, where he "freak[ed them] like MJ."  He drove home, unmolested by the police, and then headed to his friend Short Dog's house and watched "Yo! MTV Raps."  At Short Dog's they played craps and dominoes. Cube performed well at these games, as he notes that he "picked up the cash flow."  He left Short Dog's and picked up a woman who he had been pursuing for some time.  He supplied beer and she supplied marijuana, and that night the LA Lakers beat the Seattle SuperSonics in basketball.  Cube and his lady friend had relations, to the point that his efforts put the young lady to sleep.  He woke her up to bring her home, and she complimented his physical prowess by calling him "top gun."  After dropping his friend off at her home, he went to a Fatburger drive through at 2 a.m.  Though he was "drunk as hell" he did not throw up.  Cube also notes that he saw the Goodyear Blimp, that nobody he knew was murdered, and that there were no police helicopters flying that night.  Finally, he notes that he did not have to use his AK gun, and concludes that the day "was like one of those fly dreams" and was a good day.

"It Was a Good Day" was released February 23, 1993.  It reached #1 on the Billboard rap chart and #7 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, and is now seen as a classic. 

All of that is a nice backstory, but what makes it a TMFW entry is that, in January 2012, a blogger/comedian named Donovan Strain announced that he had calculated the precise date that Ice Cube had a good day.  Using the clues left in the song - "Yo! MTV Raps" was on, the Lakers beat the Sonics, it was a clear day with no smog, Ice Cube had a pager so they were at that time commercially available, he saw the Goodyear Blimp, he got a Fatburger at 2 a.m., etc. - Strain systematically narrowed down the options and landed on January 20, 1992.  He therefore dubbed January 20 "National Good Day Day."

Predictably, the internet reacted with glee.  A clearly amused Ice Cube played it cool when asked about it, saying only "nice try." But others fact-checked the claim, and with one exception - was it November 30, 1988 instead? - January 20 has become the agreed date.  In fact, this year Ice Cube celebrated National Good Day Day by helping to raise $25,000 for a south central LA charity and watching as the Goodyear Blimp took to the sky and flashed "Ice Cube Says Today Was a Good Day" in lights.  Goodyear even invited Donovan Strain along to the festivities.  He gladly went, and had a good day.
 
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BONUS FACT: The "Kim" who pages Ice Cube in the song - the one who "can fuck all night" - is Kimberly Woodruff.  She and Ice Cube have 4 kids together, who are between the ages of 13 and 25.  They have been married for 22 years. 

BONUS FACT 2:  This is only tangentially related, but I enjoy this picture of someone's creative, friendly graffiti at a soda fountain.

BONUS FACT 3:  The late 90s and early 2000s saw a wave of "ironic" covers of rap songs by white artists.  The most famous is perhaps The Gourds' cover of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice," but apropos of today's fact Dynamite Hack does a solid cover of NWA's "Boyz-n-the-Hood" (audio NSFW on both of those).   I am not sure how to feel about the cultural-appropriation-as-a-
gag nature of the songs, but they are fun to listen to and they sound good.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

TMFW 66 - Why Tommy Plays Pinball

 
 
The Who's Tommy was a groundbreaking record, and is a favorite of mine.  A self-described "rock opera," the album tells the story of a boy who endures a series of traumatic experiences - from watching the murder of his father, to torture at the hands of his cousin, to sexual abuse from his uncle (that song is so creepy that I almost always have to skip it).  The trauma turns him inward, to the point that he effectively becomes non-responsive to the outside world.
 
But right in the middle of the record, it is revealed that Tommy - despite at that point in the narrative being "deaf, dumb, and blind" - is an excellent pinball player.  "Pinball Wizard" is a terrific rock song, but even for a weird story like Tommy it is an incongruous addition. 
 
The reason "Pinball Wizard" feels out of place is that it is. Pete Townshend, who was the principal architect of Tommy, wrote it in waves between September 1968 and March 1969.  In the midst of recording, Townshend played a rough assembly of the unfinished record for an influential rock critic named Nik Cohn.  Cohn was only 22, but he wrote record reviews both for London's The Observer and for the New York Times.  He was also "an avowed pinball maniac."
 
Cohn was not a fan of the record he heard.  "It's a bit po-faced, all this spiritualism," Townshend recalls him saying. "You need something to make it more fun."  Townshend took the advice to heart and, to coax a good review, he gave a wink to Cohn's love of pinball by making Tommy a master at the game.  Then, as he describes it, he "wrote all the other pinball references into the story sideways."
 
The rest is history.  Tommy was certified gold in the US just three months after its release in May 1969, and is now double platinum.  It has been made into a film and adapted for opera performance and for Broadway.  It has sold over 20 million copies worldwide and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (for records with "historical, artistic, and significant value") in 1998. 
 
Now, of course, "Pinball Wizard" is the most famous part of Tommy, and it's hard to imagine the record without it.  So here's a toast to Townshend's shameless pandering.  
 
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BONUS FACT: The, Spanish tennis player Tommy Robredo - ranked 17 in the world - is named after Tommy.  Per his bio on the ATP's website, his dad was a big fan of The Who and gave him the name in tribute to the band.  It paid off: in 2007 Robredo and his dad got to meet the band at a show in London.
 
BONUS FACT 2:  A few years ago, a YouTube user uploaded isolated tracks of each member of The Who doing their part of a live version of "Pinball Wizard."  They are not for everyone - my wife asked "what is that?! It's AWFUL" as I wrote this - but I love them.  I am partial to Keith Moon's drum part (starts at 0:49) and John Entwistle's bass line (starts at 0:36).  
 
BONUS FACT 3:  Being a rock journalist in the late '60s, Nik Cohn reviewed some of the most famous records of all time.  In his take on Abbey Road for the New York Times, Cohn rightly praises the medley on the back half of the record, but says that "the rest of this album is unmitigated disaster" and that "[t]he badness ranges from mere gentle tedium to cringing embarrassment."  He dismisses George Harrison's contributions to the record (those would be "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something") in two words - "mediocrity incarnate."  Wow.  
 
BONUS FACT 4:  My high school band did a mean rendition of "Pinball Wizard."

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

TMFW 65 - Tangled Up in Swedish Academic Journals



Stupid old Real Work is interfering with my True Music Facts writing, so today's entry is short.  But it's charming, I think.

In 1997, Professors John Jundberg (or maybe Lundberg, as he is credited in the paper) and Eddie Weitzberg published a scientific paper in Nature Medicine titled "Nitric oxide and inflammation: The answer is blowing in the wind."  Jundberg and Weitzberg were colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.  The abstract of the paper promises a discussion of a "novel, minimally invasive technique" for the "detection of mucosal inflammation." 

Because this is True Music Facts Wednesday and not True Mucosal Inflammation Detection Technique Facts Wednesday, we will focus on the latter part of the paper's title.  I should expect that TMFW readers recognize that "the answer is blowing in the wind" is from the Bob Dylan song "Blowin' in the Wind," from the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

After inserting that first Dylan lyric into their journal article, the Swedish scientists decided to keep up the effort.  In 2010, they published "The biological role of nitrate and nitrite: the times they are a-changin'" in the official journal of the Nitric Oxide Society.  That one of course references the song of the same name.

The pair of professors learned recently that two other of their colleagues - from the same institute in Stockholm - had published an article in 2003 titled "Blood on the tracks: a simple twist of fate?"  That paper questions whether "non-neural cells can generate neurons in mice and humans," and more importantly it features both a Dylan album name AND a Dylan song in the title.  So they decided to make a contest of it.  The four have wagered that whoever can rack up the most Dylan references in scholarly papers before retirement will earn a free lunch.

(It will no doubt feature lingonberries.)

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BONUS FACT:  As described in the last link above, a new book from May of this year titled The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob discusses a number of works from which Dylan has allegedly "appropriated" (or if you are feeling less charitable, plagiarized) material.  Dylan's inspiration covers everything "from American classics and travel guides, fiction and nonfiction about the Civil War, science fiction, crime novels, both Thomas Wolfe and Tom Wolfe, Hemingway, books on photography, songwriting, Irish music, soul music and a book about the art of the sideshow banner." 

Dylan has previously responded to plagiarism accusers: in a 2012 Rolling Stone interview, he offered the subtle opinion that "wussies and pussies complain about that stuff" and that "all those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

TMFW 64 - Adam Sandler's "Thanksgiving Song," Annotated


Happy Thanksgiving to my tens of readers!  I've got a turkey in the oven, and my research taught me that somebody has already done the work I was going to, so today's post is an easy one. 

In November, 1992, Adam Sandler appeared on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment, where he first performed his now-famous "The Thanksgiving Song."  Sandler was in only his second full season with SNL, and was not yet a full cast member. Though it's a little harder to remember after movies like Little Nicky, Jack and Jill, and That's My Boy - watch any of those trailers and marvel that they made over $150 million combined - at that point in his career Sandler's falsetto goofiness made him charming and loveable. 

The song was an instant hit, and appeared on Sandler's 1993 album They're All Gonna Laugh at You!, helping to drive the record to double-platinum status and a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Album.  It is an undeniably catchy song, and you can count on hearing it each year on holiday radio or from friends sharing it on Facebook.  It's a sure-bet for tonight's SNL Thanksgiving special.

Sandler's song is full of intentionally-forced rhymes and goofy pop culture non-sequiturs, and after 22 years many of them are pretty dusty.  So for the benefit of those born after 1992 (there are more of them every day, it seems like), both Rolling Stone and The Week had writeups this week annotating Sandler's tune to explain the references.  I like The Week's better, if you are inclined to follow one of those links.  

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BONUS FACT:  For those who are a bit more cynical, Loudon Wainwright III's "Thanksgiving" is perhaps a more appropriate song for the holiday.  Sample lyrics: "On this auspicious occasion /
this special family dinner / if I argue with a loved one, Lord / please make me the winner.

BONUS FACT 2:  Mostly for TMFW readers Danny and Greg, here's another SNL Thanksgiving dish: The Californians enjoy a Thanksgiving with romantic drama, sequoia seating arrangements, and traffic on the 101.

BONUS FACT/FUN FOLLOW-UP:  Last week's TMFW had a bonus fact related to Waylon Jennings earning his GED by studying videotapes made by the State of Kentucky while out on tour.  Loyal TMFW reader and grad school buddy Porgy wrote in to let me know that those tapes were hosted by his mother!  She is a Kentuckian and was a TV/radio/voiceover presenter in the 70s and 80s.  That's an excellent story, but Porgy was understandably a little bit ambivalent about his mother spending so much time with Jennings on his tour bus...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

TMFW 63 - The Outlaw Who Almost Wasn't



[[NOTE: today's TMFW may fall, like Eli Whitney and his cotton gin, into the category of "Trivia Everybody Knows."  But it's a good enough story to risk it.]]

Waylon Jennings is one of the most famous performers in country music history.  He's a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, a two-time Grammy winner (for his collaboration with the Kimberlys on "MacArthur Park" and his duet with Willie Nelson on "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys"), a singer on the first country album officially certified platinum, and he had 23 records that charted in the country top 10 (and 9 that reached number 1).  Country Music Television ranked him number 5 in their "Greatest Men of Country Music" series, behind only Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, George Jones, and Willie Nelson.

There are lots of things that could be said about Jennings' extraordinary career and his impact on country music:

** He was discovered in Phoenix by Bobby Bare, and was so popular there that a local businessman had designed his music club around Jennings' act.  Bare allegedly phoned Chet Atkins at RCA records in Nashville from a roadside payphone somewhere between Phoenix and Las Vegas to tell him about his discovery and demand that RCA sign Jennings.

**  When he moved to Nashville, Jennings' first roommate, by pure happenstance, was Johnny Cash.  The two became lifelong friends and frequent collaborators, including work with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in the country supergroup The Highwaymen.

**  Along with Willie Nelson, Jennings was the face of "Outlaw Country" in the 1960s and 70s.  The outlaw movement - in addition to being a good marketing gimmick - represented a sea change in how country music was written and recorded.  With Jennings and Nelson leading the way, artists took more ownership of their music, dealt with more realistic themes and a less homogenized sound than the whitewashed catalog of the major labels to that point, and enjoyed better control over what musicians played on their albums and how they were recorded.

All of the above are true music facts, but they are not today's True Music Fact.  Here it is: amazingly, Jennings would never have been able to have accomplished any of his remarkable career if The Big Bopper hadn't had the flu.

Jennings' career started as a DJ, and by age 19 he had a six hour afternoon radio show in Lubbock, Texas.  There, he met Buddy Holly, and the two became fast friends.  When Holly needed a backing band for a 1959 "Winter Dance Party" tour of the midwest, he hired Jennings as his bass player and they hit the road.

The tour was disastrous, with the groups traveling in sub-zero weather across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northern Iowa in a bus without working heat.  By the middle of the second week, the bands had played 11 cities in 11 days and tensions were running high.  The tour had gone almost 400 miles from Green Bay, Wisconsin on February 1 to Clear Lake, Iowa on February 2, and was headed another 400 miles that night for Moorhead, Minnesota.  Holly, hoping to get his band some much-needed rest and a break from the treacherous bus ride, chartered a plane to take them to the next stop.

The flight was to include Holly, Jennings, and their guitarist Tommy Allsup.  But before the plane took off, The Big Bopper, who was a co-headliner on the tour and who was suffering from the flu, asked Jennings for his seat on the flight.  Jennings graciously agreed.  (For his part, Allsup agreed to a coin flip with Ritchie Valens for his spot on the flight, with Valens "winning" and taking the seat.)

When Buddy Holly heard that his friend Waylon Jennings would not join him for the flight, he teased Jennings and said "well I hope your ol' bus freezes up."  Jennings replied in jest "Yeah? Well I hope your ol' plane crashes."  They were the last words Jennings said to Buddy Holly.

The rest, of course, is history: the plane crashed shortly after takeoff, all aboard were killed on impact, and the accident came to be known as "The Day the Music Died."  Jennings suffered a particularly acute case of survivor's guilt about the accident and believed for a long time that his comment somehow caused the crash.  Feeling disillusioned and depressed, he went back to his radio job but did not last long, and he briefly gave up music.  After family circumstances required a move to Arizona, he formed up a new band, caught the attention of Bobby Bare, and started his remarkable career in country music.  

It's amazing to think that, if The Big Bopper hadn't asked and if Jennings had not given up that seat, he likely would have died at age 21. He'd be known today only as a nameless member of "Buddy Holly's band" who went down with the singer, and country music history would likely be very different.

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BONUS FACT:  For non-southern men (and women) of a certain age, Jennings is likely most famous as the curves-straightnin', hills-flattenin' writer and performer of the theme to The Dukes of Hazzard.  For good measure, here's six minutes of the General Lee jumping stuff and being awesome.  I loved that show so much when I was a kid.   

BONUS FACT 2: Jennings preached the importance of education to his son, but was a 10th-grade high school dropout himself.  To demonstrate his sincerity, Jennings enrolled in a "GED on TV" course from the State of Kentucky.  After studying tapes on his tour bus and getting help from his son with fractions, he passed the test and earned his GED at the age of 52.  Here's a charming interview with a clearly proud Jennings on the day that he accepted his certificate.

BONUS FACT 3: Before he got clean in the mid-1980s, Jennings had a $1500 per day cocaine habit.

BONUS FACT 4:  You can't write about "The Day the Music Died" without linking Don McLean's "American Pie." 

BONUS FACT 5:  The name "The Beatles" was inspired by Buddy Holly's band the Crickets.

BONUS READING MATERIAL 1: Here's a nice appreciation of Jennings for The Onion's AV Club that I came across while researching today's entry.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

TMFW 62 - They Wanted the Highway



On July 2, 1997, reporter Denise Gamino filed a story for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.  Appearing on page B1 under the headline "Elderly Salado couple missing on road to nowhere," the story opened up dramatically: "Lela and Raymond Howard are on a four-day road trip into thin air. The Central Texas couple, in their 80s with diminishing health,
somehow have turned a 15-mile journey for a cup of coffee and a party into a 500-mile-plus misadventure with no known destination."

As the story went on to explain, the couple left their house four days earlier on June 29, apparently bound for a festival in the town of Temple, 17 miles straight up I-35 from Salado. Mrs. Howard was 83 and was likely suffering from Alzheimer's disease; her husband was five years older and was "impaired from brain surgery."  The couple made it to a Wal-Mart for their coffee - they were regulars there and the greeter remembered seeing them first thing that morning - but from there they kept right on going.  Headed northeast, by that night they'd made it as far as Logan County, Arkansas, (look at that gorgeous courthouse!), a not-easy-to-get-to place where they were pulled over by a sheriff's deputy for driving without headlights.

The deputy described Mrs. Howard as "polite" and "gentle," and said "she acted just like my grandmother.''  Though they were headed the wrong way when they told the deputy that they were going toward Texas, though Mrs. Howard kept driving for two miles before pulling over for the flashing lights behind her, though she could not answer a basic question about where they lived in Texas, and though they were driving at night without headlights, the deputy sent them on their way.
 
Not less than an hour later, the Howards were pulled over by a different sheriff's deputy in Yell County (look at that gorgeous courthouse!), the next county east.  This time, instead of no headlights Lela Howard was driving with her high beams on. Like his counterpart in Logan County, the Yell County deputy sent the Howards on their way.  Then they disappeared.
 
The story described how the Howards' cat Happy was waiting for them at home, and how Lela's son and daughter-in-law were looking after the house waiting hopefully for their return. They turned on the porch light at the house "so it wouldn't look so lonely over there.
 
Over the next two weeks, Gamino followed the story.  On July 3, she reported on page B3 that the couple had been spotted at a farmer's market in Arkansas, and that authorities in 11 states were on alert.  On the 4th, page B7 told readers that authorities had narrowed their search to a three county area in Arkansas.  By the 9th, the Howards had been missing for 11 days.  The story had been reported on CBS's morning news show, and it had made it to page A1.  Under the headline "Couple's home holds no clues," the newspaper reported that the couple had laid out several changes of clothes on the bed, and that the television had been unplugged from the wall.  It also included some sad details about the couple's mental decline: for example, one day Lela phoned her son, explaining that they had just been to Wal-Mart for their coffee and breakfast but were concerned that the sun was not yet up at 10:30.  It was 10:30 p.m.
 
The Howards story came to a conclusion on July 12th, when two teenagers hiking in the Ouachita Mountains just north of Hot Springs, Arkansas (look at that gorgeous courthouse!) found the Howards' car in a ravine at the bottom of a 25-foot cliff off of Arkansas State Highway 7 (a bit less than 100 miles west of Searcy (look at that gorgeous courthouse!)).  There were no skid marks at the road above, and officials estimated that the Howards had gone off the cliff at 50 miles per hour.
 
The details of the Howards' death were heartbreaking: Raymond's body was still in the car, while Lela's was about 20 feet away.  She was holding her purse and car keys; after the accident she had put the car in park, turned off the headlights, walked around to the passenger side and opened Raymond's door, and then had apparently crawled for a few yards before collapsing in the ravine from her injuries.  The car was in an area that had been searched by both Arkansas officials and by the Howards' family, but it was filled with lush forest and steep cliffs that obscured the vehicle.  A deputy sheriff in Yell County, in perhaps the most Arkansas quote in history, explained: "You can get lost up here mighty easy...Flying is your only chance of finding them in this terrain unless a coon hunter goes in there and finds them.'' After autopsies confirmed that their deaths were an accident, the Howards' bodies were returned to their family in Texas for burial.  
 
I hope that you found that interesting, but (unless you figured it out from the title or you already know today's fact) you are likely wondering where the True Music Fact is in the Howards' sad story.  Here it comes: among the people who followed Ms. Gamino's reporting in Austin was a local musician named Tony Scalzo.  Inspired by the story - and according to him before they found the missing couple's bodies - Scalzo wrote a song that imagined the couple making a choice to leave their house for the open road, where they became immortal and lived happily ever after.  His band Fastball recorded the song, called "The Way," and released it as the first single on their album All the Pain Money Can Buy.  The song reached number 1 on the Modern Rock chart, number 1 in Canada, and number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it propelled All the Pain Money Can Buy to platinum status.  Knowing the real story, the chorus of the song is bittersweet:
 
Anyone can see the road that they walk on is paved in gold
It's always summer, they'll never get cold
They'll never get hungry, they'll never get old and gray
You can see the shadows wandering off somewhere
They won't make it home, but they really don't care
They wanted the highway, they're happier there today
 
The excellent biographile.com has a comprehensive write-up of today's fact, with quotes from Scalzo about the song and from Ms. Gamino about the Howards' story.  It's a nice read.
 
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BONUS FACT: There's a reason the newspaper reports referenced above were so oddly specific (other than for some dramatic build-up): to research this story, I paid SIX BUCKS for a day pass to the archives of the Austin American-Statesman. Because that's the kind of intrepid fact gathering you've come to expect from TMFW. 
 
BONUS FACT 2: While researching today's TMFW , I discovered that Ms. Gamino's reporting on the Howards' disappearance also inspired a chapter in the new YA novel Evidence of Things Not Seen by Lindsey Lane.  Five stars on Amazon!
 
BONUS FACT 3:  "The Way" was covered by Alvin and the Chipmunks for their 2007 video game.  I am a-ok with the Chipmunks, but their version is just terrible.
 
BONUS FACT 4:  Inspiration for today's entry came from TMFW subscriber #1: my friend Jinx.  A couple of months ago, he posted to Facebook some lyrics to the song "You're an Ocean," from Fastball's second record The Harsh Light of Day.  That reminded me of this story and set me down the path.  There's no fact here, I guess, other than that "You're an Ocean" is a terrific song.
 
BONUS FACT 5:  Another great song from All the Pain Money Can Buy is "Warm Fuzzy Feeling," which starts with the lyric "I got a warm fuzzy feeling, when I saw you on TV.  You were wearing a piece of me."  When I first heard the song, I heard that last part as a mondegreen: "when I saw you on TV, you were wearing a piece of meat."  12 years and one Lady Gaga "meat dress" later, it seems that Fastball were soothsayers.
 
BONUS FACT 5.5: "Lady Gaga's Meat Dress" has its own Wikipedia page, with over 1500 words dedicated to the fashion statement. (It was turned into jerky afterwards so it could be preserved!) (It went on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!) (Apparently it was about gay rights?)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

TMFW 61 - The Grateful Dead as Performance Art


[NOTE: Today I am in New York City doing some work.  I had an ambitious entry planned out but it will have to be punted to a future week.  So today's entry is quite to the point.  But I think it's a good gag.]

When I was in college, there was a fellow in our dorm who was a "tape trader," specializing in old Grateful Dead shows.  He had a little party trick where he would ask you where you were from, and then would name a Dead show that was near your town, with dates and setlist highlights.  He could often pull out a tape of the show if you wanted to hear it, too.  (In true Deadhead devotion, you often ended up hearing it whether you liked it or not.)

I can still remember being sort of amazed that he had such an attention span for audience recorded - and then redubbed several generations over - tapes of shows that sounded pretty bad and were largely the same.  But as I have met more and more people who get in for jam bands, I have come to accept that there are a number of oddballs in the world who get something from that.
 
Recently, I learned of a Grateful Dead recording that is at the extreme end of silliness (and as a result is one that I can get behind).  Called "Tuning '77," it is described by its creator as "a seamless audio supercut of an entire year of the Grateful Dead tuning their instruments, live on stage. Chronologically sequenced, this remix incorporates every publicly available recording from 1977, examining the divide between audience expectation and performance anxiety."  Put bluntly, the project is an hour and a half of continuous tuning sounds from Grateful Dead concerts in 1977.  That's it.  You can hear "Tuning '77" at the link above; it's surprisingly enjoyable to listen to and anticipate a song that never, ever comes.
 
While researching this week's TMFW entry, I found an interview with the editor/creator of Tuning '77; he is an artist and offers the tongue-in-cheek opinion that "listening to it is an act of performance art."  Or you can see him talk about the project on "Good Day Sacramento" here.  He seems like a cool dude. 
 
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BONUS FACT: In the digital age, tape trading has gone the way of the dinosaur.  Those people who used to mail Maxell XL-IIs in cushioned envelopes and wait for weeks to hear a show can now go to the Live Music Archive at archive.org and hear it instantly.  There are currently 9,889 Dead shows available, completely free and with no loss in quality.
 
BONUS FACT 2:  There is a commercially-produced Grateful Dead compilation that is similarly-focused as Tuning '77 called "Grayfolded."  It's a 2 CD set with two one-hour long versions of the Grateful Dead epic "Dark Star."  Each version was layered and edited together using over 100 different recordings of the song between 1968 and 1993.  Allmusic reviewed the record and gave it 4 out of 5 stars.   The world is a strange place.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

TMFW 60 - Soviet Music You Can Hear On Your Bones


In post-war Russia in the mid 20th century, the leaders of the Soviet Union sought to control the population's access to western music.  Such music was seen as an instrument of capitalist propaganda and a threat to the state, and was banned.  But the soviet people were keenly interested in jazz (and, later, rock and roll), and ironically the market found a way to make supply approach demand.
 
Because vinyl was too expensive, and in any event could not be commercially produced without detection, the black market record producers had to seek out a cheaper and more steady supply of raw material.  They found it in used x-ray plates from hospitals - which were virtually free because the alternative disposal means was the garbage.  The market was born for roentgenizdat (one of the rare times I can link to urbandictionary.com in a TMFW!), which is a portmanteau of "roentgen," meaning x-rays and "'izdatel'stvo," meaning publisher.   
 
Like samizdat copies of underground literary works, roentgenizdat (or "bone records") were  made by hand.  After cutting the film into a circular shape with scissors, the creators used modified phonograph equipment to reproduce the source material on the x-ray film.  This Wikipedia-esque post from NYU's Department of Media, Culture, and Communication and this detailed blog entry from Kevin Kelly tell the story well: the records were of very crude sound quality and sold for 1 or 2 rubles each - about the cost of a small bottle of vodka and easily affordable to most Russians.  They would last for a few months and then would become too worn to play.  Bone records started with music from the 30s and 40s like George Gershwin, and migrated in the 1950s to early pop and rock artists like Tennessee Ernie Ford, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly.  
 
By the late 1950s, the market for bone records was allegedly in the millions of copies, and the state stepped in to disrupt it.  They flooded the market with false copies and cracked down on the largest traders with jail time and public shaming.  In the late 50s and early 60s, the Komsomol (the youth organization of the communist party) lead music patrols where they sought out illegal western music and ratted out offenders.
 
If you want to hear and see some bone records, this Russian livejournal entry (Google's translation here) has a number of cool pictures and mp3s, including recordings of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" imprinted on a close-up of a heart and W.C. Handy's "St. Louie Blues" on a skull.  The blog writer recalls seeing some of the records as a younger man, saying "I vaguely remember my bewilderment [at] the piety with which they were stored - wrapped in a soft flannel and a newspaper on top. Although, maybe it was [a reflection] of their eternal disguise - in the event of a search." 
 
As reel-to-reel and cassette recording became more available in Russia starting in the early 1970s, albums were dubbed in endless chains and traded between friends.  It was peer-to-peer in the truest sense, and bone records became unnecessary and obsolete.   
 
If you still haven't purchased my Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice gift, here is a good selection of roentgenizdat available for purchase. What once was disposable media sold for pocket money is now a collectors item worth $100+.  
 
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BONUS FACT:  Another great story of "Russian ingenuity meets youth rock-and-roll culture meets Soviet censorship" is this one of homemade electric guitars made with pickups from the receivers of Soviet payphones.  In a certainly-exaggerated-but-I-choose-to-believe-anyway claim, the article states that "[b]y the late Sixties, it was impossible to find a working public phone in all of Moscow. Every receiver was vandalized, harvested for parts that were necessary to build a primitive guitar pickup." 
 
BONUS FACT 2:  The Leningrad band Aquarium was one of the most famous underground Soviet rock bands of the '70s and '80s. In an overview of the group - written for western audiences - from 1986, the author explains that the band does not officially exist in the Soviet Union.  They had never been played on state radio, they were not permitted to play at official concert halls, and each of their seven records to that date had been unofficially released via dubbed cassettes shared from person to person.  The lead singer of Aquarium was a night watchman; his bandmates included a weed cutter for the railroad, a furnace stoker, and a roadside watermelon salesperson. You can hear one of their their early 1980s songs here; the crude sound quality comes through and almost adds something to the track.  One can imagine how exhilarating it must have felt to listen to. 
 
BONUS FACT 3:  After glasnost softened Soviet censorship, Aquarium was finally signed to a state music label in 1987 and released an official record.  It was a watershed moment in the USSR.
 
BONUS FACT 4:  One of the most robust reproducers of western music was the cooperative "Golden Dog" out of Leningrad, Russia (see that link for a 1963 Spokane, WA newspaper report of their bust by a "Russian vice squad.")  That name was chosen in tribute to Nipper, RCA Victor's famous dog logo
 
BONUS FACT 5:  I can't read W.C. Handy's name without getting "Walking in Memphis" stuck in my head. 
 
VERY IMPORTANT UPDATE/CORRECTION:  In the first Bonus Fact of last week's TMFW, when listing each of the cities namechecked in Huey Lewis & The News' "The Heart of Rock and Roll," I omitted New York (where you can do a half-a-million things, all at a quarter to three) and Los Angeles (with its neon lights and the pretty pretty girls, all dressed so scantily).  TMFW regrets the error. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

TMFW 59 - Huey Lewis, Soundtrack Giant



This past weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Huey Lewis & The News, who I assume took a break from selling out arenas to come to the performing arts center at a small college near me.  (It was a middle-aged concert, to be sure: if you look at that link, the show was scheduled from 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. on a Sunday night.  Our skeptical babysitter assumed that it must have been a misprint, but by 7:55 the last encore was complete, the house lights were on, and hybrids and Subarus alike were carefully merging into the well-behaved traffic around the theater.)

Before getting into this week's TMFW, please allow a short appreciation of Mr. Lewis and The News. I have been a fan since Sports came out in 1983, and after 30 years they are still bringing it.  It was a terrific show.  If you haven't thought about the band for a while, dust off some of their stuff and give it a listen.  Here's a few to get you started: "The Heart of Rock and Roll," "If This Is It," "I Want a New Drug," "Stuck With You," "Perfect World," "Jacob's Ladder," and "Couple Days Off." 

Today's TMFW is a combination of a few shorter stories about the band's involvement in movie soundtracks.  Most people know well that the band had its biggest hit (and their first number 1) with "The Power of Love," a song on the Back to the Future soundtrack. That soundtrack also included "Back in Time," which featured direct references to the movie's plot.  But the music of Huey Lewis & The News also contributes memorably to three other famous movies.

First, the band is (maybe) featured (indirectly) in Ghostbusters.  When Ray Parker, Jr.'s song "Ghostbusters" came out in 1984, many people noticed a distinct similarity to the riff from "I Want a New Drug," which had come out earlier that year. (Here's a good mashup showing just how close the two songs are).  The band noticed, too, and sued for copyright infringement.  The case settled out of court in 1985. 

In 2004, an oral history of Ghostbusters in Premiere magazine included the revelation that the famous montage in the movie (starting around 1:00 in that clip) was originally set by director Ivan Reitman to "I Want a New Drug."  Reitman said "[w]e kept looking for a song for the montage in the middle of the movie. I was a big Huey Lewis fan, and I put in 'I Want a New Drug' as a temp score for screenings.  And it seemed to be a perfect tempo, and we cut the montage to that tempo."  One sentence later, Reitman strains credulity and says that Ray Parker Jr.'s track "was a totally original song, original lyrics, original everything."  Not so much.

Second, the supremely creepy Christian-Bale-as-serial-killer film American Psycho memorably features "Hip to Be Square" in one of the murder scenes.  The question "Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?" (that link probably NSFW) has sounded sinister ever since.

Finally, the 2008 film Pineapple Express was a loving tribute to 1980s action movies and "buddy films." Seth Rogen, who produced the movie with Judd Apatow, had the idea to commission an '80s-style "theme song" for the movie.  Because he was inspired particularly by "Back in Time," Rogen asked Huey Lewis to write it. According to the director of the film, they told Lewis that they "wanted a theme song that told the plot of the movie and said the title a lot."  Lewis agreed to do the song, which leads off the film's soundtrack and is aptly named "Pineapple Express."   Here is the band doing the song on Jimmy Kimmel Live; it's a good gag and a pretty good song.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to return some videotapes.

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BONUS FACT 1:  My buddy Jinx recently visited Tulsa, Oklahoma, which completed his list of visits to cities namechecked in "Heart of Rock and Roll" - D.C., San Antonio, the Liberty Town (Philly), Boston, Baton Rouge, Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City, Seattle, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Detroit.  For that feat, he has both my congratulations and respect.

BONUS FACT 2:  Everybody knows this one, but a Huey Lewis trivia entry would be incomplete without reference to his "too darn loud" cameo in Back to the Future.

BONUS FACT 3:  Last year, Huey Lewis paid tribute to the American Psycho scene by reenacting it with "Weird" Al Yankovic.

BONUS FACT 4:  The movie American Psycho was based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis, who you will recall from TMFW 53 named his first novel after an Elvis Costello record.
 
BONUS FACT 5:  For those with a prurient interest in rock and roll bands and their, um, "members": Huey Lewis is commonly regarded as a particularly "gifted" singer.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

TMFW 58 - Dan Rather's Attacker Inspires a Top-25 Hit

 
On October 4, 1986, Dan Rather (the then-longtime CBS News anchor) was accosted on his way home from a friend's house in New York City.  The attacker was well-dressed in a suit, and he greeted Rather by asking "Kenneth, what is the frequency?"  When Rather answered "you've got the wrong guy," the attacker punched him in the face and asked again.  Hearing no answer, he then punched Rather a second time, knocked him to the ground, and kicked him several times in the back, all the while insistently repeating "Kenneth, what is the frequency?"  The attack by that point had spilled from the street to the lobby of an apartment building.  Though Rather had money on him, he was not robbed: the attacker took off when the superintendent of the building came around to help.  
 
Two days after the incident, the New York Times reported on the story, calling it "bizarre" and noting that the police were "mystified."  The article speculated that it might have been a case of mistaken identity, as Mr. Rather was named "Dan" rather than "Kenneth." It also reported that Rather's on-air return was uncertain; he was scheduled to fly to Iceland to cover talks between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, but CBS wasn't sure that he'd be ready.  (Google teaches us that he ultimately made the trip, and that the talks ended in "great disappointment."
 
Following the attack, the bad guy was never caught, no motivation was ever determined, and the incident slowly faded into obscurity.  But (as most of you have long figured out by now), the persistent question "Kenneth, what's the frequency" inspired the band R.E.M. to write and record the song "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", which was the lead track and first single from its 20-years-old-last-month album Monster.  The song was a hit for R.E.M.: it peaked at 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was the first ever song to debut at number 1 on the Modern Rock chart.  
 
For his part, Dan Rather was pretty chill about his attacker's refrain becoming the basis of a pop song: he even joined R.E.M. on stage at Madison Square Garden during a soundcheck performance of the song.  The event, which was predictably awkward but charming, was broadcast on David Letterman's show the next night.
 
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BONUS FACT 1:  More than 10 years after the incident, the identity of Rather's attacker was determined to be a man named William Tager.  The mystery was solved after Tager was convicted of murdering a technician for NBC News outside of the set of the Today show in 1994.  Tager admitted to the attack on Rather and said that he had carried out both that attack and the murder because he was convinced that television stations were monitoring him and sending signals to his brain.  In that context, his desperate demand to know the frequency is a pretty sad detail.  
 
BONUS FACT 2: In addition to the song's namesake inspiration, there is another famous pop culture reference in "What's the Frequency Kenneth?".  In the second verse, Michael Stipe sings "Richard said 'withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.'"  The "Richard" that Stipe is referring to is Richard Linklater, the famous movie director who made the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, and most recently Boyhood.  In a scene from Linklater's cult movie Slacker, one of the characters offers an "Oblique Strategies" card to a passerby.  The card reads "withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy."
 
BONUS FACT 3:  As it turns out, the "Oblique Strategies" cards in Bonus Fact 2 have a fascinating backstory: the cards were invented by Brian Eno and the artist Peter Schmidt as a way to "help artists...break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking."  Each card contained a different phrase, and they were printed in a very limited, hand-numbered-and-signed production.  Original sets are now highly-prized collectables.  According to the linked source, Eno used Oblique Strategies cards to help both Coldplay and David Bowie record albums.     
 
BONUS FACT 4:  In the song, Stipe imagines that the phrase "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" is the attacker's "Benzedrine."  Benzedrine is an amphetamine that was sold starting in the 1930s, and its efficacy as a stimulant made it one of the first recreational drugs in the US.  It has a long history in pop culture and arts; having appeared in Kerouac's On the Road, in Ginsberg's Howl, in Burroughs' novel Junky, and in several different James Bond novels including Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and Moonraker. 
 
BONUS FACT 5:  Speaking of Allen Ginsberg and Howl, the first lines of that poem make up the opening lyrics of TMFW-favorite They Might Be Giants' song "I Should Be Allowed to Think," from the sincerely-underrated album John Henry.  
 
BONUS FACT 6:  The brightly decorated suit that Mike Mills wears in the "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" video (linked above, but here it is again) was first owned by Gram Parsons.
 
BONUS FACT 7:  The guitar that Peter Buck is playing in the first part of the "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" video (linked above and above, but here it is again) was owned by Kurt Cobain.  It is a Fender "Jag-Stang" guitar, which was designed by Cobain to be a hybrid of the existing Fender models the Jaguar and the Mustang.  The Jag-Stang in the video was one of the prototypes that Fender made specifically at Cobain's request.  It was a gift from Courtney Love to Buck after Cobain's death.  At 0:30 of the video, Buck is seen playing it upside down, which was necessary because Cobain was left-handed.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

TMFW 57 - The French Elvis


(Today's TMFW comes to you for Paris, France, where I am for a quick bit of business.  So today's TMFW is bonus fact free (boo), but it deals with a fun bit of French music trivia.)

Considering the worldwide market for pop music, and the fact that the industry is now 50+ years old, the list of 100 million album sellers is surprisingly short: there's less than 60 acts who claim that feat.  And the list of acts that are non-native English-speaking performers make up only three out of that group. 

The first two of those three are likely known to TMFW readers (or at least their parents): they are ABBA ("Dancing Queen," "Fernando," giant Broadway musical based on their songs), and Julio Iglesias ("To All the Girls I've Loved Before," father of Enrique Iglesias, and maybe father-in-law of Anna Kournikova).  The third is the subject of today's post: Mr. Johnny Hallyday of France.  You are excused if you have never heard of Mr. Hallyday: he's never had a single song chart in the US in his 50+ year career. 

Monsieur Hallyday was born in 1943 as Jean-Philippe Smet, in Paris, and started his career in 1960.  From the outset, he was unabashedly an American rock-and-roll act, but singing in French and to Francophone audiences. To be honest, the only things I knew about Hallyday before today were (1) that it makes young French people embarrassed when you bring him up, and (2) those same people admitted to knowing much of his catalog (and could usually pull up an impressive list of tracks on their iPod). But reading about him for this TMFW, he's had an impressive run, including the following:

*  The Jimi Hendrix Experience opened for Hallyday in 1966
*  He worked with Mick Jones of Foreigner as a producer, with Peter Frampton as a songwriter, and with Jimmy Page (!) as a session musician
*  In 2000, he played in front of an estimated 500,000 people at the Eiffel Tower
*  In 1997 he was conferred knighthood in France and became a chevalier in the French L├ęgion d'honneur.
He's had 18 platinum records and has toured extensively (over 175 "completed tours" according to Wikipedia) for over 40 years.
 
If you'd like to understand what all the fuss is about, try these two songs (though they probably won't help too much): "Je te promets" ("I promise," a top-5 song from 1987) and "Un jour viendra" ("The day will come," a top-10 in France and Belgium from 1999).

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

TMFW 56 - The Rock Superstar Named After a Hearing Aid Store



Paul Hewson was born in Dublin in 1960, and grew up in a suburb north of the City.  As a young teenager, Hewson was a part of a "surrealist street gang" called "Lypton Village," which also included his friends Derek "Guggi" Rowen and Gavin Friday.

As the story goes, the members of Lypton Village were keen on giving one another nicknames.  For example, Hewson's name was mutated to "Houseman," but it didn't stick.  One evening, the group was hanging out in Dublin near a hearing aid store called Bonavox - specifically, the one near the intersection of O'Connell and Earl Streets in the city center (map here)(Street View here) - and Gavin Friday suggested that Hewson should be called "Bono Vox," which in Latin means "good voice."  After initial hesitation, Hewson embraced the name. 

In 1976, at age 16, Hewson answered a school bulletin board posting from drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. that sought to form a rock band.  Adam Clayton and David Evans answered the same ad, and on September 25, 1976, the band got together for the first time in Mullen's kitchen.  First named "The Larry Mullen Band," they changed their name to "Feedback," then "The Hype," and then finally they settled on "U2."  David Evans became "The Edge," and Hewson became "Bono Vox," and then (of course), just Bono.  The rest - 13 studio albums, 150 million records sold, and 22 Grammy awards - is history.

For its part, Bonavox is still around, with 22 locations around Ireland.

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BONUS FACT:  108 years after his birth in Dublin, in 1990 the city placed a life-sized statute of James Joyce at the corner of O'Connell and North Earl Streets.  Perhaps in 2068, Bono will get his own.  In the meantime, if you are ever in Palm Springs, California, stop by the statute of Sonny "I Got You Babe" Bono.

BONUS FACT 2:  Bono was close to his mother, and lost her at the age of 14.  She died of a brain aneurysm that she suffered while attending her own father's funeral.

BONUS FACT 3:  During a U2 tour stop in Nashville in 2011, Adam Bevell was in the audience.  Bevell is legally blind, and his brother-in-law made him a sign that said "Blind Guitar Player / Bring Me Up!"  To his surprise, Bono took him up on it, and Bevell played "All I Want is You" with the band.  That's pretty cool.  Afterward, Bono let him keep the guitar, which is pretty cool too.  Adam tells his story in this video and this interview

BONUS FACT 4:  (TMFW is a feel-good service, so it feels impertinent to include this, but...) Despite Bono's frequent activism about corporate greed and the need for wealthy countries to help poor ones, his band's publishing company moved from Ireland to the Netherlands shortly after Ireland enacted a cap on tax-free earnings for artists.  The move cut the taxes on the band's publishing revenue in half.  Bono defended the move, saying "at the heart of the Irish economy has always been the philosophy of tax competitiveness," and "if you engage in that policy then some people are going to go out, and some people are coming in." But it's hard to reconcile the apparent hypocrisy

BONUS FACT 5:  U2 is the most overrated band in the history of Earth.