Wednesday, September 30, 2015

TMFW 108 - The Great One Babysits (and "Abandons") a Future #1 Artist

Like TMFW 89's story about young MC Hammer hanging out with Reggie Jackson, today's entry is a surprising pairing of famous singer and superstar athlete.  And it's a good reinforcement of the stereotype (referenced in this great Molson commercial) that all Canadians know one another.

Wayne Gretzky is the greatest hockey player of all time, and as such he was and is a giant star in Canada.  Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers were a dynasty in the 1980s, and while he was an Oiler he won 8 consecutive Hart Trophies as the NHL's Most Valuable Player.  So it was a huge shock when, just months after they won their 4th Stanley Cup, the Oilers traded Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.  "The Trade" was a Big Big Deal for hockey, and is sufficiently famous that ESPN made a documentary about it as part of their 30 for 30 series.  That brings us to today's TMFW, which deals with the odd circumstances of how Gretzky heard and dealt with the news of the trade. 

As detailed in this extensive oral history of the trade from The Hockey News, Gretzky was semi-living in LA during the summer of 1988, as he had just married the actress Janet Jones.  But Gretzky and Jones did not yet have a house in LA, so he was staying at the home of the famous Canadian actor Alan Thicke.  (Thicke is a huge hockey fan and was at that time the star of Growing Pains, which was a top-10 show in the 1987-1988 season.) 

The night before the trade, Gretzky, Jones, and Gretzky's Oilers teammate Craig Simpson were all staying over at Thicke's house.  Thicke himself was on vacation in Norway with his oldest son Brennan, so Gretzky was babysitting Thicke's youngest: the 11-year-old Robin.  When he got word that evening that the trade would be announced the next day in Canada, Gretzky had to catch an early morning flight back to Edmonton, and he "abandoned" Robin to the care of Jones and Campbell.  They too were caught up in the trade news, and had to leave shortly thereafter.  As Alan Thicke recalled in a 2012 interview, "[Gretzky] got the call at about 9 p.m., and he was gone by 6 the next morning.  So we had to find a substitute nanny instantly..."

As TMFW readers surely know, young Robin overcame the trauma of being left by Wayne Gretzky and grew up to be an R&B singer.  His song "Blurred Lines" (pretty NSFW video) with Pharrell was a #1 hit in 14 countries and was inescapable for several weeks in the summer of 2013.

So there's your TMFW for today: the greatest hockey player ever babysat the skeevy guy who sang "Blurred Lines" on the day he was very famously traded. I love that.


BONUS FACT:  Like the Justin Bieber story in TMFW 104, I've had this fact in my drafts folder for several months, waiting for a week where it made sense.  Needing a fact today, I wrote it up and went searching for a suitable bonus fact to tack on.  Frankly, I wasn't sure what would fit with a story of "famous celebrity used to babysit other famous celebrity."

I should have known that US Weekly would have me covered.  TMFW's dogged commitment to research allows me to share with you the slideshow "Celebrity Babysitters: Stars Who Babysat Other Celebs."  Among the list: Alice Cooper babysat Keanu Reeves, Michael Bolton babysat Paula Abdul, and Cher babysat (and was observed undresssing by!) Anthony Kiedis. Your day is now complete.

BONUS FACT 1.5:  While we are talking about my Bieber story, the Dredd soundtrack composer who is the subject of that entry said nice things about it on Facebook and Twitter last week.  That was way cool.

BONUS FACT 2:  Of the over 250 sets of brothers that played in the NHL, the highest scoring pair in league history (by a good margin) is Wayne Gretzky and his brother Brent.  For his part, Brent contributed 1 goal and 3 assists. 

BONUS FACT 2.5:  Here's an acknowledgement to know-it-all hockey fans that the father-son combo of Bobby and Brett Hull did slightly better if you count Bobby's Winnipeg days, as did the six-brother Sutter family.

BONUS FACT 3:  The iconic (to my generation, anyway) theme song to Growing Pains was performed by B.J. "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" Thomas and Jennifer "(I've Had) the Time of My Life" Warnes.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TMFW 107 - A "Bonehead" Is Born and the Cubs are Champions

[NOTE:  Today's fact is much more a True Baseball Fact Wednesday, but I learned about the story from a great folk song that is linked below so I am counting it as an appropriate entry in TMFW annals.]

Tonight, I am headed to Wrigley Field to watch the Chicago Cubs play the Milwaukee Brewers.  The Cubs are having an excellent season. They are poised to make the playoffs for the first time in seven years, and as a result there's some outside hope that they could win the World Series.  Inevitably, stories about the Cubs' chances note that the team has not won a championship since 1908.  That's a 107 year drought; the longest in professional sports by a lot.  (By comparison, my hometown St. Louis Cardinals have won 11 since that time.)

The Cubs' last championship season brings us to today's TMFW.  It's the story of one of the most famous "mistakes" in baseball history, and it happened 107 years ago today.  To satisfy the "music facts" requirement, my favorite folk singer Chuck Brodsky tells the whole story nicely in his song "Bonehead Merkle."  You should listen to it.

It was September 23, 1908, and the Chicago Cubs were in New York to play the Giants at the Polo Grounds. 1908 was one of the closest seasons in baseball history, and the two teams were in a hot pennant race.  They were separated by one game (the Giants were ahead) with two weeks left in the season.

To set the scene: the game was tied 1-1 with two outs in the bottom of the 9th, with the Giants batting.  There were runners at the corners: Moose McCormick of the Giants (who represented the winning run) was on third base and Fred Merkle was on first.  Merkle was a 19-year-old Giants rookie and the youngest player in baseball at the time.  Al Bridwell was the batter.

Bridwell drove the ball into the left field gap for a hit, and Moose McCormick trotted in easily from third and scored.  The Giants had just won the game to extend their lead in the standings, and their fans rushed the field.  It was reported at the time as “a scene of wild riot, the like of which has never been seen on any baseball field in the world.”

In all of that mayhem, Merkle ran straight for the clubhouse door without touching second base.  This was a common reaction at the time for a "walk off" hit.  But in response, the Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers - famous for being part of the double play combo Tinker to Evers to Chance - fought the crowd to retrieve the ball and touch second for a belated force out.  As he was doing this, a Giants coach figured out what was happening, grabbed the ball away from Evers, and threw it into the stands.

Evers appealed to the umpire, who called Merkle out by rule for not touching his base.  Technically, that meant that the force out ended the inning and the winning run did not count, so the game was still tied.  The game should ordinarily have continued to extra innings.  But contemporary accounts note that the ump heard “catcalls and hisses and threats of violence” until he was taken off the field by police.  With no umpire, and a riotous crowd on the field, and impending darkness, the game was declared a tie.

The Giants protested that the rule had never been enforced - in fact, it hadn't - but the National League president Harry Pulliam upheld the decision.  In doing so, Pulliam announced that if the season ended in a tie for first place, the teams would have to replay the game to decide the pennant.  Sure enough, that's what happened.  The Giants lost six more games in the next two weeks to end the season tied with the Cubs for the National League pennant. They replayed the contested game and the Cubs won.  They went on to win the World Series, and undue blame and derision was heaped on Fred Merkle.  He was dubbed a "bonehead" by the New York press, the play became "Merkle's boner," the verb "merkle" became a slang word meaning to screw something up, and taunts of "bonehead!" or "don't forget to touch second!" followed Fred Merkle for the rest of his career.

The sting stayed with him until 1950, when he returned to the Polo Grounds for an old-timers’ game and the fans treated him to a long ovation. He died 6 years later, and his obituary predictably noted in the first sentence that he "was best remembered for a 'boner' that cost the New York Giants the pennant in 1908."  

Fred Merkle saw the rules change right in front of him, and became one of sports' most famous goats.  Some say the Cubs are cursed not by black cats or billy goats or Bartman, but by the ”Bonehead” whose sad technicality handed them their last World Series.  I think of him every September 23.   


BONUS FACT:  Surprisingly, Chuck Brodsky's song is not the only folk lament about Mr. Merkle's misfortune.  Dan Bern's great song "Merkle" describes the famous event over a repeated lyric of "Merkle should have touched second base."

BONUS FACT 2:  The noted political blowhard and baseball historian Keith Olbermann has written and spoken (watch that one; it's really good) very eloquently about Fred Merkle and the broader life meaning of his "boner" and its consequences.  I quite agree with his take.

BONUS FACT 3:  Just a stone's throw from Wrigley Field, you can drink a beer at Merkle's Bar & Grill.  It is named in "honor" of Fred Merkle, and their website includes a short biography and description of the infamous play.

BONUS FACT 4:  1908 was a sufficiently wild baseball year that it inspired two books.  The first is Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Best Year in Baseball History.  It's got 4.5 stars on Amazon, and was favorably reviewed in the New York Times.  Here's author Cait Murphy talking about her book and about Mr. Merkle to NPR's All Things Considered.  The other is More Than Merkle: A History of the Best and Most Exciting Baseball Season in Human History (as opposed to dog history or something, I guess.)  That one has less enthusiastic reviews, but pulls off a respectable 3 stars.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

TMFW 106 - Aerosmith Bails Out Its Fans (Literally)

Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Aerosmith were formed in 1970 and signed their first record deal in 1972.    And they lived like rock stars did in the '70s: their leadman Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry were such heavy drug users that they earned the nickname "The Toxic Twins" (which even has its own Wikipedia entry.)  Over only four short paragraphs in his 2011 memoir - excerpted in Rolling Stone - Tyler casually references his then-regular use of cocaine, acid, speed, pot, alcohol, "red hash," "Thai sticks," and "Nepalese temple balls."  (I had to Google those last ones to see if they were even real.  They are.)

That backdrop brings us to today's TMFW.  In October 1978, Aerosmith were at an early high point in their career and were touring in support of their Live! Bootleg album.  October 3d found them in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at the Allen County War Memorial Colliseum, which you no doubt know as the home of the Fort Wayne Komets (hockey, since 1952!) and the Fort Wayne Mad Ants (basketball).

As this entry details nicely, during the show the arena was raided by police.  The cops cited a number of attendees for possession of marijuana and arrested other concertgoers for smoking (at a concert in the 70s!) and for underage drinking.  The disruption angered Steven Tyler, who called the police "scumbags" and "gestapo" from the stage. 

What makes the event today's TMFW is what happened next: the band was so bothered by the overbearing police response to some kids having fun at a rock show that they offered to bail out anybody that was arrested that night.  Somewhere between 30 and 63 people were arrested, and nearly 30 accepted the band's help.  The tour paid over $4000 in a later court appearance to get the kids out of trouble.    Respect to Aerosmith for that. 


BONUS FACT 1 - For music fans of a certain age, Aerosmith is famous not for their hard partying ways but for a trio of teenage-boy-fantasy MTV videos.  The videos - for "Cryin'," "Amazing," and "Crazy," each starred a then mostly-unknown Alicia Silverstone, with "Crazy" also introducing Steven's daughter Liv.  Ms. Silverstone and Ms. Tyler were 17 and 16 years old, respectively, at the time.  (Ms. Tyler is one month older than me and has been a crush of mine ever since.)

BONUS PERSONAL FACT 2 - TMFW reader, my old bandmate, and all-around superstar musician Jason is an Aerosmith superfan.  In our high school days, he wrote his big U.S. History paper on the story of the band.  His paper was surely the only one in the class with Guitar Player magazine in the bibliography.

BONUS PERSONAL FACT 3 - When I was in college, a group of friends and I were convinced that we could make our fortune as sitcom writers.  Our idea was a show called Fort Wayne, which would be a sort of bizarro-Friends.  Instead of dealing with attractive young people living mostly carefree lives in unrealistically-large New York City lofts, Fort Wayne would focus on regular old people living a mundane existence in a nondescript apartment building in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  But there would be hijinks aplenty!  It was a pastime of ours to drink beers and, with several down the hatch, start to riff on plot ideas.  They were all terrible and we loved them very much. 

BONUS CONTENT 4 - My mother loves the song "Janie's Got a Gun."  So here's the video, mom.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

TMFW 105 - Madonna's "Mystical and Sensual" Slice of American Pie

Don McLean's magnum opus "American Pie" is about as good as it gets.  As this Atlantic piece suggests, the song inspires a "ridiculous reverence" among listeners of a certain age (though my kids love it equally), and it has more than one website entirely devoted to deciphering the 8+ minute tune.  Going further, Google results for "American Pie meaning" are rife with content, including entries on and, a detailed writeup by the Southern Wisconsin Railcar Group (?!?) and even a video essay by the once-ubiquitous blowhard commentator Glenn Beck.
On its initial release in 1972, the song reached #1 in the US and stayed there for four weeks.  But it only hit #2 in the UK.  That brings us to today's TMFW: 28 years after Don McLean failed to achieve a UK #1 with "American Pie," Madonna covered the song and got there herself.
(NOTE: maybe you will say "a cover song is not a sufficient subject for TMFW."  But (1) screw you man, it's my blog, and (2) did you honestly know that Madonna covered this song, much less had a #1 hit with it?  I had no idea!)

Madonna's dance-club version of the song comes in at only 4:30, and cuts out three and a half of the six original verses.  Though TMFW typically refrains from saying mean things about its subjects, I will make an exception to offer the opinion that the cover is terrible, horrible garbage.  Ms. Ciccone - who has no shortage of good music in her catalog - sounds like she is bored out of her mind, and the lyrics just rumble right on by, in one ear and out the other.  Given the source material, it's actually quite remarkable how bland it is.

Notably, Don McLean disagreed with that assessment: a contemporaneous article reports that Mr. McLean considered her version to be both "mystical and sensual" and "a gift from a goddess."  And as noted above, though the song hit only 29 on the US Hot 100, it was #1 in the UK for a week in March 2000 and hit #1 in an additional 7 countries.

There's no accounting for taste, it seems.  This week's TMFW is proof.


BONUS FACT:  Today's fact was inspired by TMFW 103's "third time's a charm" story of "Take on Me."  That's because Madonna wasn't the only artist to hit #1 in the UK in 2000 with a watery cover of a classic song.  The Norwegian-British boy band A1 did a cover of "Take on Me" that reached #1 in September of that year.  (Though it was #1 in 12 countries, the original by A-ha only made it to #2 in the UK.)  As we saw in TMFW 46's story of the girl group Vanilla, the late '90s/early '00s was a weird time for British pop music. 

BONUS FACT 2:  One more data point for what a strange year 2000 was for British music: the #1 selling single of the whole year was a blown-up version of the cartoon character Bob the Builder's theme song "Can We Fix It?"


BONUS FACT 2.75:  After their big chart success, the Bob the Builder people put out a whole record of music.  The follow-up single to "Can We Fix It?" was a re-written version of (TMFW 43 subject) Lou Bega's "Mambo #5."  I almost literally cannot believe this, but that song also hit #1.  Bob the Builder had two #1 songs in the UK.

BONUS FACT 2.875:  Bob the Builder was not the only cartoon character to make an adapted cover of "Mambo #5."  Lou Bega himself did a version of (and video for) the song built around Disney characters.  (The song changes the "liquor store" around the corner to the "candy store," swaps out "gin and juice" in favor of "ice cream," starts the refrain with "a little bit of Minnie in my life, a little bit of Mickey by her side," and features the not-forced-at-all line "Huey, Dewey, Louie, can't go wrong.")

BONUS FACT 3:  My kids have recently, to my great delight, discovered the music of "Weird Al" Yankovic.  Here's Mr. Yankovic's parody of "American Pie:" a 5+ minute retelling of the Star Wars: Episode I story called "The Saga Begins."

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

TMFW 104 - The Teen Heartthrob That Inspired a Dystopian Movie Soundtrack

[NOTE:  Happy 2d Birthday to TMFW!  I can't really believe that.]

Judge Dredd is a comic book character.  He inhabits a dystopian future where people live in mega-cities and are ruled by a police force of "judges" that instantly arrest, try, convict, sentence, and (occasionally) execute alleged bad guys right on the spot.  Dredd works in Mega-City One, which covers the entire eastern seaboard of the former United States and some parts of the former Canada.  The rest of North America has become a radioactive wasteland after a series of nuclear wars.  Dredd is a good guy, and uses his power to fight for justice, even for mutants.  

You could see how that story would make for a pretty cool movie, and in 1995 Hollywood tried just that with Judge Dredd.  The movie starred Sylvester Stallone, and had a big production budget, but it suffered from "creative differences" between Stallone and the director and the story veered away from the comic in some significant ways.  Ultimately, the movie flopped: it earned only an 18% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and it brought in less than $35 million on a production budget of $90 million.

Despite that failure, in 2012 Hollywood came back to Judge Dredd and made a completely different adaptation of the comic.  Called just Dredd, the movie did much better with critics, earning a 78% "certified fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Unfortunately, it flopped at the box office just as hard as the 1995 film did, taking in less than $14 million domestically versus a $50 million budget.

Okay, now that I've padded my word count enough for the week, let's get to the heart of this TMFW.  Dredd is a film about a future dystopian world that has been annihilated by nuclear war, and its soundtrack matches that mood with a mostly electronic, heavily distorted score.  But one song in particular - called "Ma Ma's Requiem" - sticks out from the rest.  That track, which accompanies a scene where the action happens in dramatic slow motion, is a more mellow, trippy, almost choral soundscape.  In a way, it's quite pretty.

So it will come as no surprise that it was inspired by...Justin Bieber.

In 2010, someone took the Justin Bieber song "U Smile" and slowed it down 800%.  The result was surprisingly good, and the song spread across the internet.  (The video has over 2.8M views!)  One of the people who heard and appreciated the track was the English musician Geoff Barrow, who is part of the group Portishead and more importantly who is a big Judge Dredd fan.

When a rough cut of Dredd was finished, the writer and producer Alex Garland showed it to his friend Barrow.  Barrow sent Garland the Bieber song as an idea for the slow motion scene, and Garland passed it on to the film's composer Paul Leonard-Morgan.  Leonard-Morgan loved the idea, and so he recreated the sound by recording his own pop music track and slowing it down dramatically.  The result was "Ma Ma's Requiem."  In fact, Bieber's track was so directly influential to the process that, like Huey Lewis' "I Want a New Drug" in Ghostbusters (explained in TMFW 59), it was initially used as a placeholder in some of the early edits of the film until the soundtrack song was ready.

So there's your TMFW for today: J  u  s  t  i  n  B  i  e  b  e  r made some surprisingly pretty music and inspired a movie soundtrack. 


BONUS FACT: I've had this TMFW in my drafts folder for several months, without a suitable bonus fact to finish it off.  Then last week, a story came along that fits perfectly.  "Where are Ü Now" is a song by Skrillex and Diplo that features Justin Bieber on vocals.  It is a big-song-of-the-moment: the video has over 132 million views so far, in less than 10 weeks.  The song's hook, which is repeated over and over throughout the refrain, is a very catchy synth-pop riff that sounds like a flute or the high notes of a keyboard.  

But in a fun New York Times piece about the song, it was revealed that the hook is actually Mr. Bieber's voice "pitched two octaves above the original, run through various distortion and equalization effects and given a very short tail of reverb, creating a digital sound with a human core."  Bieber, it turns out, inspires songs when he is both slowed down and sped up.  Respect to him.