Wednesday, July 29, 2015
(NOTE: today's TMFW is about a rap song that has some mature themes and lyrics. Reader discretion is advised.)
As of today, TMFW's got 99 entries, but so far Jay Z ain't one. Let's rectify that.
For the uninitiated, Jay Z (born Shawn Carter) is one of the most famous hip hop artists in the world. His Wikipedia introduction rattles off the accomplishments: a net worth of over $500 million, 100+ million records sold, 21 Grammy Awards, 3 records listed in Rolling Stone's 500 greatest list, more #1 albums than any other solo artist (passing Elvis Presley a few years ago), Beyoncé as his wife and partner, and a host of investments including a clothing line, record label, and real estate ventures. That's pretty good.
One of Jay Z's most famous songs is "99 Problems," from The Black Album. The song's lyrics are heavily autobiographical, and deal with some of the issues that Jay Z has faced. Much of the attention given to the song is to the second verse, which describes in detail a "Driving While Black" traffic stop in 1994. Jay Z was 24 at the time and was involved in selling drugs; he has said in interviews since (go to 33:09 for the relevant part, or watch this one) that the stop was real and happened in New Jersey while his car was in fact concealing drugs that he was transporting. So the stakes were high.
Jay Z and the trooper engage in some back-and-forth, with the trooper asking "do you know why I'm stopping you?" "are you carrying a weapon?" and "do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?" Jay Z for his part asks "am I under arrest," and declines to authorize a search, saying "my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back, and I know my rights, so you [are going to] need a warrant for that." The officer is temporarily defeated, but orders a drug dog to the scene. And then the verse is over. Though we do not learn the outcome of the stop, it seems that Jay Z gets away without trouble.
Because the verse details the stop so vividly, it has been the subject of much discussion, and in 2012 a law professor named Caleb Mason took that discussion to another level. That year, the St. Louis University Law Journal published a 19-page law review article that was a line-by-line, heavily-annotated legal analysis of the second verse. It's a very well-written and easy-to-read account, and it describes in plain language the legal reality of what is and is not allowed during a traffic stop.
Professor Mason finds at least two inaccuracies with Jay Z's account of the story. First, the officer ordered him out of the car, but Jay Z declined. That's a no-no. Professor Mason quotes in the paper a Supreme Court case that makes clear that - during any traffic stop - an order to exit the vehicle is per se lawful and must be obeyed. So by refusing, Jay Z may have given the officer a basis for arrest (failure to obey a lawful request by a law enforcement officer), which would have given the officer a right to search the car and he would have been toast. Second, Professor Mason describes that in fact the police don't ever need a "warrant" to search the glove box or the trunk of a car during a traffic stop. Instead, they need either "probable cause" or affirmative consent, each of which the cop tried (and failed) to bait Jay Z into with his questions. Other than that, though, the song was an excellent primer on how to behave during a stop; much respect to Jay Z for that.
So there's your TMFW for today: a song that features a repeated refrain of "I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one" inspired a 19-page, 93-footnote, unironic, published law journal article by a professor. That's a good gag.
BONUS FACT: Other songs considered for this week's edition: Nena's "99 Red Balloons" (or "99 Luftballons" if you are a stickler for authenticity and/or speaker of German), TMFW 31 subject Prince's "1999," TMFW 23 subjects Toto's "99," and the sing-on-a-bus favorite "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." Perhaps one of those will be a candidate for TMFW 199 (if not sooner).
BONUS FACT 2: As noted in the interview links above, in the real-life traffic stop the police officer who pulled Jay Z over eventually gave up on waiting for the drug dog and - without the ability to search the car legally - sent him on his way. Shortly afterwards, Jay Z saw a K-9 unit speeding down the other side of the highway, apparently on its way to sniff the car but just a few minutes too late. So quite literally, Jay Z had 99 problems but the K-9 bitch was not one. (Of course, if the dog had made it in time, it's likely that Jay Z's multi-million dollar career would have been over before it ever started.)
BONUS FACT 3: In response to Professor Mason's article, a law professor from Canada named Emir Crowne wrote an analysis of the verse from a Canadian law perspective. He found that the verse was more or less correct when applied against that standard.
BONUS FACT 4: 99 Problems is famously identified with Jay Z, but in fact it was originally done by Ice-T on his 1993 Home Invasion album. In the original (NSFW, language), though, the lyrics boast of Ice-T's various sexual partners rather than the more serious subject matter of Jay Z's version.
BONUS FACT 5: According to the producer Rick Rubin, the idea to remake the song as a more serious one by focusing on the "99 Problems" reference in the chorus came from the comedian Chris Rock.
BONUS FACT 6: For President Obama's first term, Jay Z performed at a post-inauguration ball for Obama campaign staff. During the concert, he did a version of the song with the modified chorus "I got 99 problems, but a Bush ain't one."
BONUS FACT BIBLIOGRAPHY: Vulture.com did a long and detailed writeup of 99 Problems last year that is the source of bonus facts 4-6 above.
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Last month, I went to see the excellent band Dawes. Watching from the back of the crowd (I am now too old and too fat to wiggle my way to the front) I was struck by the number of cell phones in the air throughout the show. Many of the concertgoers - quite literally, in some cases - watched the show through the screen of their phones, as they video recorded or took photos throughout the show.
Being an old-ish fellow, the overwhelming videography and photography at shows these days is jarring. In the olden days, taking photographs during a concert would get you thrown out.
Or, in the case of a Guns n' Roses show in 1991, it would start a riot.
The show in question was in my hometown of St. Louis. Guns n' Roses stopped there on July 2 during their Use Your Illusion Tour to play the Riverport Amphitheatre. The venue (now the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre) had just opened two weeks prior and had hosted only three shows to that point.
Both the crowd and the band were a powder keg that night. The crowd allegedly became more intoxicated and unruly as the night went on, and the security at the brand new facility allegedly took a laissez-faire approach to enforcing drink limits and good behavior. For his part, GnR's lead singer Axl Rose was already famously loutish: just that summer, he had compared his home state of Indiana to a concentration camp during a tour stop in Indianapolis, and only a couple weeks before the band started a performance in New York almost three hours late.
The show in St. Louis went off for most of the setlist without major incident. Then, an hour and half in and during the song "Rocket Queen," Rose saw a guy taking pictures from close to the stage. Rose pointed him out mid-song to security saying "hey take that, take that now, get that guy and take that." Not getting an immediate response, he said "I'll take it, goddam it" and dove into the crowd to wrestle the camera away and get a few punches in for good measure. As contemporary MTV News footage reports, when Rose started fighting the audience member, "venue security jumped in to pull Rose off of the fan, then Guns n' Roses security jumped in to pull them off Rose." All the while, the band played on. Rose returned to the stage a minute or so later, cut off the band, blamed the "lame-ass security," slammed his microphone down, and stormed off stage. The band followed him.
The house lights stayed down for several minutes while the crowd booed and the band talked to venue staff to figure out what was next. Eventually, they called it a night and took off. When the lights came back up and it was clear that the show was over, a riot began almost immediately. Several thousand fans rushed the stage, where they wrecked or stole the band's gear, fought with security and police and each other, and tore up the place. All told, the riot caused 60 injuries, 16 arrests, and somewhere between $250K and $1 million of damage.
Because their gear was trashed, the band had to cancel its next tour stop at the World Music Theater in Chicago (oddly enough, now also known as the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre). Rose was charged with inciting a riot and was very publicly arrested and booked, but was not ultimately convicted.
After the show and his arrest, GnR held on to their grudge against St. Louis: the band included the note "FUCK YOU, ST. LOUIS!" in the liner notes to their next album and Axl Rose sported a custom made "St. Louis Sucks" shirt at a show (or maybe shows) afterward.
The "Riverport Riot" is still a well-known piece of local history in St. Louis; it has its own Wikipedia entry and the local rock station KSHE-95 made a pretty good mini-documentary about it. Thanks to GnR's tour photographer Robert John, the whole show was captured on video. You can watch it here; the incident starts near the very end (click here if you want to go right to that part).
As a local reporter noted at the time: "all this because Axl Rose didn't like his picture being taken."
BONUS FACT: My friend, bandmate, and TMFW reader Jason worked for one summer during our youth at Riverport Amphitheatre. From him, I learned that when Janet Jackson came through (likely during her "Janet" tour on July 9, 1994), one of her demands was that the toilet seat in the green room must be brand new, and must have the cellophane packaging still attached to prove it. The Riverport crew - always consummate professionals, I am sure - obliged, but they took advantage of the situation to create a unique souvenir of the tour stop. When Ms. Jackson moved on to the next city, the crew put the old toilet seat back on, and hung the new one - which ostensibly had been soiled by only one famous set of cheeks - on the wall of the crew supervisor's office. I sincerely hope that it is still hanging there.
BONUS FACT 2: A nice benefit of the ubiquity of cell phone videographers is the abundance of concert footage out there on YouTube. Here are two videos from the Dawes show I referenced above - "When My Time Comes" and "Most People." I love that band so much.
BONUS FACT 3: Another great, recent example of experiencing life through the screen of a cell phone is this Sports Illustrated cover capturing American Pharoah completing the Triple Crown. I can't imagine that a blurry, poorly-framed cell phone photo of the horse was worth missing the run in real life.
BONUS FACT 3.5: My autocorrect lit up when I wrote the word "Pharoah" above, as the real word is spelled "Pharaoh." The odd spelling was not intentional: by all accounts, the owners just didn't get it right when they submitted the name to the Jockey Club for registry. Oops.
BONUS FACT 4: The original cover of Guns n' Roses's famous album Appetite for Destruction was a painting by Robert Williams of the same name that "depicted a robotic rapist about to be punished by a metal avenger." After several music retailers very predictably refused to stock the record, the label moved the painting to the inside of the album and replaced the cover with more straightforward graphics. The band claimed that the art was "a symbolic social statement, with the robot representing the industrial system that's raping and polluting our environment." I'm sure it was.
BONUS FACT 5: This is almost certainly NOT a true fact, but here's a fun legend about the Geffen Records A&R man who fought like hell to get GnR on MTV and claims to have saved their career as a result. The gist of the story is that MTV very, very reluctantly agreed to play the "Welcome to the Jungle" video one time, in the middle of the night on a Sunday, and that the resulting telephone demand for more literally caused MTV's switchboard to catch fire.
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Today's TMFW comes to you from Whitefish, Montana, just west of Glacier National Park in the northwest corner of the state. We are here on our summer vacation, having driven 1600 miles from our home outside of Chicago. The last several hundred were on US Route 2, a mostly 2-lane, mostly empty old road that runs east-to-west across the top of the country. Driving it, I was struck by all of the tiny little blink-and-you-miss-them towns that we passed through on our way out. I guess in the pre-interstate, pre-Wal-Mart, pre-Amazon, pre-chain hotel, pre-mega gas station, pre-corporate farming, pre-modern days, the towns supported themselves. These days they are mostly empty buildings and brief speed limit slowdowns as you buzz through on your way to the next "real" stop.
I tried to think of a Montana-themed TMFW for today, but couldn't settle on anything fun. So instead I moved a little further west down US-2, where 60 miles northwest of Spokane you will find the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Fruitland, Washington, and the story of Donnie and Joe Emerson.
As told well in articles from the L.A. Times, the New York Times, and The Guardian, Donnie and Joe Emerson grew up in the 1960s and 70s on the family farm in Fruitland, where their dad (and their granddad before him) worked as a farmer and a logger. Fruitland is so small that it didn't support a school; instead, the brothers went to a K-12 public school 10 miles north. Joe's high school class graduated 16 kids; Donnie's had just 14.
The brothers - Donnie, especially - loved music, and each of them could play. Donnie played guitar and piano and Joe played the drums, and the two of them spent a lot of time making music together. But because they were out in the middle of nowhere, for most of their childhood they had no real way of hearing new stuff. That changed in 1977, when their dad bought a new tractor that had a radio built in. Tuning into KJRB AM 790 out of Spokane, Washington, as the brothers worked the fields they were exposed to Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson, and Hall & Oates, and Motown, and 70s prog rock. It influenced the songs that they played and that Donnie wrote for them.
As the brothers grew older and got better at playing together, they started to dream of a career in music. Being nowhere near a recording studio or professional resources, they asked their dad for help. Remarkably, he obliged, and piece-by-piece he built them a state-of-the-art (for the 1970s) home recording studio on the farm. Donnie and Joe set to recording a record, and in 1979 they completed the album Dreamin' Wild. The album was produced by the brothers, it was written by the brothers (Donnie wrote most songs with Joe co-writing a few), it was (but for some background vocals) performed by the brothers, and it was self-released by the brothers on their own label. The two were in their teenage years when they pressed 1000 copies on vinyl, and after that feat one might guess that success found them.
Not so much, it turns out. The album - a mix of rock, soul, R&B, and funk that sounds like it was recorded on a farm by two teenagers who got their music education from AM radio - fizzled and disappeared quickly. The recording studio was never used for another album. Joe joined his dad in the family business, and still lives on the farm where he and his brother recorded their record. Donnie didn't give up on music, but never hit it big. He got more help from his dad as he recorded an adult-contemporary album in the early 80s (it also fizzled) and he now makes a modest living playing music in and around Spokane.
That's not such a great story, and there are lots of bands that recorded forgettable albums that didn't hit like the musicians hoped. But what makes it today's TMFW is what happened 30 years later. In 2008, a music collector named Jack Fleischer spotted a copy of Dreamin' Wild at an antiques shop in Spokane. He bought it for $5, and upon listening he loved the album. He spread the word and shared the record, and it became an underground hit. The album attracted interest from the re-issue record label Light In The Attic, who contracted with the brothers and released the record in 2012. The typically-picky reviewers at Pitchfork gave the record an 8 out of 10, calling it "a godlike symphony to teenhood" and hailing the single "Baby" as a "stunning soul ballad." Allmusic gives it 3.5 stars, and the re-issue means that you can find it at Amazon (free, if you are a Prime member), at iTunes, and on streaming services like Rdio and Spotify. It's a charming record.
So there's your TMFW for today: in 1979, two brothers in a homemade studio on a farm in the middle of nowhere self-produced and self-released a record that got buried. It was unearthed in an antique shop and became a hit 30+ years later.
BONUS FACT: Jack Fleischer - the fellow who "discovered" Dreamin' Wild in 2008 - writes what looks like a super-cool blog where he spotlights obscure and overlooked independent music. I spent only a few minutes there and had to bail out for fear of getting sucked into the music and the stories.
BONUS FACT 2: The Emerson brothers' song "Baby" was covered by the California artist Ariel Pink on his record Mature Themes. Pink's version was used in the pretty-decent movie The Spectacular Now.
BONUS FACT 3: This has nothing to do with music, but on Sunday my buddy and I rode bicycles up a mountain on Going-to-the-Sun Road. Our route took us 16 miles up the hill, from Avalanche Creek to Logan Pass and the Continental Divide, and we climbed 3500 feet from where we started. It was freaking sweet.
Wednesday, July 8, 2015
In my music-buying, record-store-visting heyday, New Music Tuesdays were often a ritual. In summer months, I would ride my bike (and later drive the 1986 Crown Victoria that I shared with my sister) up to Streetside Records to see been released that day. For bands that I really really loved, I would seek out a late night store that stayed open past midnight so I could get my hands on a new album the first minute it was possible. I am pretty sure I would just go home and go to bed after that, so the gesture was kind of pointless. But it still felt good to be among other music lovers who were anxious to get the latest thing.
I always appreciated that it was New Music Tuesday, but never knew why they chose to release records on that day. So I decided to find out for today's TMFW. Are you ready? The reason for Tuesday releases is...um...well, nobody really knows for sure.
There are lots of writeups about why new music comes out on Tuesdays, with lots of explanations offered (including some that seem totally wrong). Basically, the story seems to be this:
At first, in the olden days (i.e. pre-1989), there was no such thing as a universal release day. Instead, music retailers put their new records on sale as soon as they got them. But because of differences in warehousing and shipping and logistics, that meant that one store might get a shipment on Saturday morning while another down the street might not get theirs until Monday afternoon. Word would get around that the groovy new record could be had at one store and everyone would go there to buy it, leaving the other retailer upset that he missed his chance.
So, faced with unhappy retailers who didn't want to gamble on their shipping company's efficiency, the record industry made a universal release date and set it on Friday. But they found that the records had to compete with movies that came out that day, including both press reviews and newspaper advertising space (remember those days? When availability and pricing for newspaper advertisements were a business consideration?), so Friday was quickly out.
So, not wanting to compete with the movies, the record industry moved the date to Monday. But the day before Monday is Sunday, and shipments are not typically delivered on Sunday, and workers are usually lightly staffed on Sunday. So getting the album, putting it into inventory, and getting it on the floor for the big release day was mostly a Monday morning job. And if your supplier didn't show up first thing Monday morning, you ran the same risk that you originally had of getting the product after your competition and losing sales.
So, not wanting to staff their stores on Sunday and (again) not wanting to bet on shipping times, the record industry moved the date to Tuesday. This leveled the playing field for retailers, who could all receive the shipment on Monday and spend the slow sales day getting the new stuff ready for release. It gave more prominence to the records themselves, as reviewers could devote more time and column space to a Tuesday review than they could to a Friday review. And it had the extra bonus of boosting "first day" numbers because the industry could count on the whole entire day for sales instead of partial days lost to receiving, inventory, and stocking.
For all those reasons above, Tuesday makes perfect sense.
Which is probably why the record industry just changed it.
After 25 years, last Tuesday, June 30, was the final "New Music Tuesday" as we know it. Starting this week, the universal release date has been changed to Friday, citing global piracy concerns (because other countries release on Friday and a pirated album in Australia is - digitally speaking - a pirated album everywhere) and the increased purchase of music digitally. In other words, nobody is really getting up and riding their bike to Streetside Records anymore. They are just going on iTunes, and they would just as soon do that on a Friday than on a Tuesday. Not everybody is happy with the move, saying that it will hurt indie music and favor the big labels. The industry's response has been, basically, "deal with it."
I haven't gone to the store for a CD in 10 years, I bet. But I will surely miss the Tuesday release date. Stupid old music industry.
BONUS ANECDOTE - When I was a younger man, I worked at Blockbuster Video for a summer. Each Monday night, we would unpack and make shelf space for the New Releases. And each Tuesday morning, a small but devoted group of tapeheads would be there at 10:00 a.m. to get the new releases that day. I wonder if nowadays they wake up early on Tuesday and queue up at the Redbox outside of CVS.
BONUS ANECDOTE 1.5: In 2008, when Blockbuster was still struggling to make a go of it in the face of Netflix and digital movie distribution, The Onion made a brilliant video that highlighted the "Blockbuster Video Living Museum" and spoofed the business model of driving to a store to rent a movie. I still get a kick out of it.
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Tonight's TMFW comes to you from a hotel room in St. Louis. I'm here with my family because earlier today, I lost my sister. For much of the last decade, she battled her demons, and today they finally won. They messed with her pretty good along the way, too. She was only 40 years old, and leaves behind two young sons. My sister and I weren't especially close in her final years, but she was my only sibling and I loved her a lot. She was smart, and funny, and generous. I will miss her.
Apropos of TMFW, I owe much of my taste in music to her. She introduced me to a host of bands that I still love, and she took me to my first all-ages show (They Might Be Giants at Mississippi Nights, 10/2/1992). So in tribute to her, here's a link to the terrific song "My Sister" by the Juliana Hatfield Three. And to cover off the "Facts" in True Music Facts Wednesday, here's a fun "oral history" of the song, which was an alternative hit for Ms. Hatfield - who actually didn't have a sister - in 1994 and landed her on the cover of Spin.