Wednesday, August 27, 2014

TMFW 51 - Almost Heaven, Maryland Backroads

John Denver is so associated with his song "Take Me Home, Country Roads," that he used "Take Me Home" as the name of his autobiography.  The song is a beautiful tribute to the Mountain State: in addition to specific call-outs for the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River, Denver notes that "all [his] memories gather round her," he recalls the "misty taste of moonshine," and he calls it "my home far away."  The chorus is even more on the nose:
"Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads"
Despite the clear suggestion, though, Denver was not actually from West Virginia.  He was born in Roswell. New Mexico.  Denver never lived in West Virginia, either: he was an "army brat" who grew up in Tucson, Arizona, Montgomery, Alabama, and Fort Worth, Texas.   In his adult years, he lived in Minnesota with his first wife Annie Martel (the "Annie" of "Annie's Song") and then in Aspen, Colorado.  In fact, when he made the song popular, it is alleged that Denver had never even been to West Virginia
So where did the song come from?  Well, as it turns out it was primarily written by the songwriting team of Bill Danoff and his then-girlfriend Taffy Nivert.  "OK," you are thinking.  "Now I get it.  Danoff and Nivert were from West Virginia and wrote the heartfelt tribute to the home they loved so much."  Well, that's not true either.  Danoff and Nivert had also never lived in West Virginia.  In fact, when they wrote the song, they themselves had never even been to West Virginia.
As the story goes, the two started work on the song during a road trip from D.C. to Maryland, where Nivert was from and where she was to attend a family reunion.  Inspired by the pretty backroads leading to the reunion spot, they crafted the refrain about "country roads, tak[ing them] home."  The two initially planned to sell the song to Johnny Cash, but after opening for Denver at a show in Washington, D.C., they played him the unfinished song.  Denver loved it and wanted it for himself, and the three set about finishing the song together.   
Understanding that Maryland had little in the way of wistfulness (viewers of The Wire can attest to this), they decided to dress the lyrics up.  Nivert had a friend (or maybe a fan - stories vary here) who was a resident and admirer of West Virginia, and used to write Nivert about the state's natural beauty.  Those writings inspired the lyrical location, and the rest is history.
So today's True Music Fact is that the most famous song about West Virginia and its beauty was written by three people who had never once stepped foot in the state.  For their part, the good people of West Virginia do not seem to mind that imposters wrote their signature song: earlier this year, it was named one of the "official state songs" of West Virginia.
BONUS FACT: As it turns out, Danoff, Nivert, and Denver's sense of geography was not that great.  The vast majority of both the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River are outside of West Virginia.  (The Shenandoah is in West Virginia for only 8% of its length and the Blue Ridge Mountains are not really in the state at all.)  A more geographically fitting lyric would have been "Appalachian Mountains, Monogahela River."
BONUS FACT 2:  On the subject of misleading personal lyrical connections, Barry Manilow has written a number of big hits, including "Copacabana (At the Copa)" and "Could It Be Magic."  But ironically, he didn't write his 1975 #1 hit called "I Write The Songs."  The song was written be Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys.
BONUS FACT 3:  After their songwriting success with Denver, Danoff and Nivert went on to form the Starland Vocal Band, who had a #1 hit in 1976 with the classic sex-in-the-daytime anthem "Afternoon Delight."  The group earned the 1977 Grammy Award for "Best New Artist," beating out (among others) future TMFW subject Boston.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

TMFW 50 - Dave Grohl's Solo Album(s)

Dave Grohl was, for four years, the drummer of Nirvana. Grohl started with the group when he was just 21 years old, after they had released Bleach (see TMFW 32 for the story of album cover subject Jason Everman) and just before the band signed with DGC records (see TMFW 42 for the story of David Geffen's early-career subterfuge).  Grohl was with the band for the recording, release, and subsequent youth culture freak-out over Nevermind, and stayed with them until the band's break-up after Kurt Cobain's death.
But Nirvana was, by and large, Kurt Cobain's band.  Though Grohl was a songwriter, he mostly kept his work to himself while he was a part of Nirvana.  He had only a few songwriting credits on  the group's records, and only one Nirvana song was written by him alone (that would be "Marigold," the B-side to the "Heart-Shaped Box" single.)
To scratch his songwriting itch while he was with Nirvana, Grohl made an album in which he wrote all of the songs and played all of the instruments.  Recorded over two days in December 1990 and July 1991 and titled Pocketwatch, Grohl released the record on a limited-run cassette under the pseudonym "Late!"  You can listen to the whole album on YouTube; it's decidedly lo-fi and heavily instrumental but not bad at all for two days' work.
Grohl's release as Late! is an interesting story, but the larger True Music Fact is that later in his career, Grohl repeated the "write all the songs and play all the instruments" arrangement.  After struggling to play music following Kurt Cobain's death, Grohl decided that he would work on a solo project as "some sort of cathartic therapy, to go out and record these songs that I'd written by myself."  He reserved six days all alone (but for the recording staff) at a Seattle recording studio, and emerged with a record.  Calling himself "Foo Fighters," he dubbed the songs to cassette and gave copies to friends.  The cassette sparked interest from major labels, and it was later professionally mastered and distributed by Capitol Records as Foo Fighters, the "band's" self-titled debut release.  It wasn't until he set out to tour - it's a little difficult to play all of the instruments at a live show - that Grohl recruited other members to join the group. 
The band that started as Dave Grohl's "cathartic therapy" solo project has gone on to release seven albums and sell over 11 million records.  Six of the seven records charted in the top 10, four reached the top five, and the latest record reached number 1.  Not too shabby.
BONUS FACT:  Among his fans, Dave Grohl is revered for being the "nicest guy in rock and roll" - see this Buzzfeed list of "26 Things That Scientifically Prove That Dave Grohl Is the Coolest Dude in Music," this Spin article listing "10 Reasons Why Dave Grohl is 'the Nicest Dude in Rock", or this Tumblr titled "Reasons Dave Grohl is Awesome." 
One great example of that comes from the 2006 mine disaster in Tasmania, Australia.  After a small earthquake caused a collapse, two miners were trapped underground.   Rescue workers were able to communicate with them after only a few days, but had to work carefully over the next week so that they could safely extract them.   The rescue workers were able to build a small pipe to deliver food and supplies to the trapped miners, and to keep their spirits up they sent down iPods for them to listen to.  One of the two miners requested Foo Fighters songs for his iPod, and when Dave Grohl heard of it he sent along a letter to the miners.  The letter read, in part: "Though I'm halfway around the world right now, my heart is with you both, and I want you to know that when you come home, there's two tickets to any Foos show, anywhere, and two cold beers waiting for you."  The miners were safely rescued in May, 2006, and in October of that year Grohl kept his word, treating one of the miners to a show and meeting him for beers afterward.  In fact , Grohl went one step further: he wrote a song called "Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners" that he debuted at the show and later included on the Foo Fighters' album Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace.  Pretty cool stuff.       
BONUS FACT 2:  After becoming famous in the oddly-named trio Ben Folds Five, Ben Folds played (almost) all of the instruments on his first solo album Rockin' the Suburbs. Here's the title track of that album; the video does a nice job playing up the "all the instruments" gimmick.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

TMFW 49 - The "Vogue" Curse, Sadly Complete

People who write stuff on the internet are not always the most rational and reasoned bunch.  So when they call the singer Madonna a witch (45,000 Google results for "madonna is a witch") or even the devil (351,000 results), you can take their claims with some skepticism.  But one song by Madonna has been followed by some pretty spooky stuff.

Near the end of Madonna's terrible song "Vogue," (starting at 3:41 in that video) she includes a spoken-word "rap" that namechecks a number of "Old Hollywood" stars.  It's fun to awkwardly sing along on the dance floor as she calls out 16 famous names: 

Greta Garbo, and Monroe,
On the cover of a magazine

Picture of a beauty queen,
Ginger Rogers, dance on air 

They had style, they had grace,
Rita Hayworth, gave good face,
Bette Davis, we love you
It's a harmless little rap....or is it?  At the time of the song's release on March 20 1990, 9 of the 16 stars - more than half - were alive.  But then, one by one, the remaining actors started to die!  The "'Vogue' Curse" was almost immediately effective: less than one month after getting the song's bad juju, Greta Garbo died in April, 1990.  She was followed by Marlene Dietrich in 1992, then Lana Turner and Ginger Rogers in 1995, Gene Kelly in 1996, Joe DiMaggio in 1999, Katherine Hepburn in 2003, and Marlon Brando in July, 2004. 
The curse thankfully went dormant for more than 10 years, and it looked like maybe the last remaining star - Ms. Lauren Bacall - would be spared.  Sadly, Sadly, just yesterday Madonna's hex caught up with the onetime-Mrs.-Bogart.  May she rest in peace, and may Madonna be brought to justice.     
BONUS FACT:  For those who can't get enough Lauren Bacall in their lyrics, give a try to the yacht rock classic "Key Largo" by Bertie Higgins.  I love that song.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

TMFW 48 - Puff, The One Hit Wonder

Lenny Lipton is a Cornell physics graduate in the class of 1962.  He is "recognized as the father of the electronic stereoscopic display industry," and  "was the lead inventor of the current state-of-the-art technologies that enable today's theatrical filmmakers to project their feature films in 3D."  He holds over 50 patents, including whizbang-sounding inventions such as "electrostereoscopic eyewear," "synthetic panoramagram," and "autostereoscopic lenticular screen."  His inventions have been used by NASA and its contractors on the Mars rover and the Hubble Space Telescope.  The dude is way smart.
Lipton was also a prolific filmmaker in his younger days: from 1965-75 he made 25 short films.  His filmography is now a part of the Pacific Film Archive at the Berkeley Art Museum.  Lipton was also a successful author, having written several books about filmmaking technique including "The Super 8 Book," "Independent Filmmaking," and "Lipton on Filmmaking." 
But to the world outside of 3-D tech and independent film (I guess that's pretty much the whole world when you round down), Lipton is most famous as a songwriter.  This is true even though he wrote only one song in his life, and did so inadvertently.
While a 19-year-old undergrad at Cornell in the spring of 1959, Lipton made plans to have dinner with his friend Lenny Edelstein.  Having some time to kill before then,  Lipton stopped by the Cornell library.  He picked up a book of poems by Ogden Nash, and read his 1936 work "The Tale of Custard the Dragon."  The poem is about a girl named Belinda who lives with a small menagerie of pets, including a little dragon named Custard.  In the poem, a pirate attacks the house and Custard eats him. 
After reading the poem, Lipton continued on to his friend's house, thinking about Custard (and, according to the frequently copy-pasted story, about his own reluctant transition to adulthood).  When he found that his friend wasn't home, Lipton let himself in (this was the 50s in upstate New York) and decided to write his own poem.  He used the typewriter of his friend's roommate Peter, and knocked out the verses in just a few minutes.  Satisfied with his effort, he left the poem in the typewriter when he finished. 
That would have been the end of the story, but as fate would have it Lenny Edelstein's roommate was Peter Yarrow, Cornell class of 1959.  Peter was into folk music, and upon finding the poem in his typewriter he set the verse to music and began performing it.  Just shortly after graduation from Cornell, Yarrow moved to New York City, where he met his future bandmates Noel "Paul" Stookey and Mary Travers.  They called themselves Peter, Paul, and Mary and enjoyed almost instant success on the folk scene.  In January 1963, the group released their second album.  Among the tracks on that record was the song based on Lipton's poem: "Puff, the Magic Dragon." Prior to the release of the song, Yarrow tracked down Lipton to let him know about his poem's unexpected life, and gave him a songwriting credit for the lyrics. 
"Puff" was the third single from the record, and it was a major hit.  It reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the "easy listening" chart.  It has been a steady hit with kids and hippies since then, and was adapted into several animated programs in the 1970s. 
Given the prolific career Lipton has enjoyed, perhaps "Puff"'s biggest legacy is all of the technological achievement that it has funded.  In a blog post 45 years later, Lipton reflected on his poem, and noted with thanks that "Puff was my financier. Puff funded my work in electronic stereoscopic displays...He never grilled me at a board meeting, he never lectured me about having to make a profit, he never told me that I had to cut out projects I loved...Puff’s been a generous, forgiving and kindly investor – one who has never stopped giving."
BONUS (NOT REALLY) FACT (JUST A LITTLE OBSERVATION):  Today's write-up was inspired by my visit this past weekend to the Field of Dreams movie site.  The field and the farmhouse are still there, largely untouched.  It is free to visit, and you can bring your glove and play catch with your kids (or your mom or dad.)  We had a really nice time there; if you are ever near Dubuque Iowa it's worth a detour.  Whenever I watch the last few minutes of Field of Dreams, I cry like a little baby.  As a kid, "Puff, the Magic Dragon" had the same effect. 
BONUS FACT 2:  As Lipton's blog post indignantly declares, despite the names "Jackie Paper" and "Puff, the Magic Dragon," the poem was not written as a coded song about drugs.  Lipton writes: "[w]hen I wrote Puff I didn’t know from marijuana.  We’re talking about Cornell in 1958.  People were going to hootenannies – they weren’t smoking joints.  It was Pete Seeger and 'Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore,' not  'One Toke Over the Line Sweet Jesus.'"