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.  


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.


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 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.
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. 
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 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.