Wednesday, November 25, 2015

TMFW 116 - The "Tom's Diner" Doggie Bag

 
Last week, TMFW brought the long story of Suzanne Vega's surprise hit "Tom's Diner."  As that entry got longer and longer, I realized that I couldn't stuff everything I had learned into one entry, and I ended the post with the promise that "there's enough good stuff that I found that next week's TMFW will continue down the 'Tom's Diner' rabbit hole just a little bit..."  So today's TMFW is two more cool stories about "Tom's Diner" and its legacy.  Both of them are included in this nice New York Times rumination by Suzanne Vega about the song; it's worth a read.
 
Our first item for today is the story of Tom's Album.  As Vega describes in her essay, shortly after she and DNA released the "Tom's Diner" remix, "[o]ther versions came flooding in from all over the world. People made them up and mailed me cassettes."  With a box full of adaptations - some sincere, others silly - and with the fresh memory of finding success by celebrating creativity rather than suing it into oblivion, Vega decided to work with an audio engineer and put some of her favorites together onto an album.  A&M Records agreed to release it, and the result is an album with one new DNA/Vega remix song ("Rusted Pipe," from her then-current album Days of Open Hand) and 12 versions/adaptations of "Tom's Diner."   As Vega describes it on the liner notes, "A small song about eating breakfast became a song about accidental pregnancy (Daddy's Little Girl – Nikki D.) and the recent war in the Gulf (Waiting at the Border). One version incorporates forgotten bits of pop culture (Jeannie's Diner). All of them surprised me; a couple made me wince. I include them anyway."
 
A funny thing about Tom's Album is the copyright law reality that Vega and her record label needed to clear all of the rights to the songs they included, even though the songs were first made by borrowing Vega's.  As she described the process: "it was a logistical nightmare to administrate. I had to go back to all the people who had taken the song without permission, and ask their permission . . . to use their version of my song!"  
 
Today's second item(s) are the technological legacies of "Tom's Diner."  First, it has an analog legacy in that the song is often used to test the sound quality of high-end audio components.  I had read that and intended to include it as a general item, but then TMFW neighbor and reader Clifton sent me a text this week that "[i]n the early 90s when I was shopping for a serious pair of speakers, the a cappella 'Tom's Diner' was one of the three cuts used to evaluate candidates."  That's pretty cool.  
 
The song has a cool digital legacy, too: "Tom's Diner" and Suzanne Vega are often called the "mother of the mp3."  (For TMFW readers who do not know that file format or its value - it is the compression scheme that allowed for digital music files to be made small enough that they could be easily transferred between computers and over the internet.  It lead to Napster and to iPods and to Spotify and to YouTube and to the modern music industry.)  Vega earned that title because her song - with its quiet-but-warm vocal - was used to perfect the mp3 encoding algorithm and "prove" the format.  The linked article quotes Karlheinz Brandenburg, the principal developer of mp3: "Suzanne Vega was a catastrophe. Terrible distortion...The a cappella version of 'Tom's Diner' was more difficult to compress without compromising on audio quality than anything else." So when they got the song to sound true, they knew they had succeeded.  
 
For his part, Brandenburg is still a fan: "I've listened to this 20 seconds [of Tom's Diner] a thousand times," he said. "I still like the music."
 
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BONUS FACT:  One of the tracks on Tom's Album is called "Tom's ?" by a band called "Bingo Hand Job."  You have probably not heard of "Bingo Hand Job," but it turns out you know them.  The band was a two-shows-only pseudonymous version of R.E.M. in March 1991, along with friends that included Robyn Hitchcock and Billy Bragg.  R.E.M. was in London promoting their album (and TMFW 74 subject) Out of Time, and did two shows at a small club there under the assumed name.
 
One of the Bingo Hand Job shows was later released as a bootleg CD, you can find several videos from the show on YouTube, and the band released the version of "Toms Diner" (credited to themselves, this time) as a b-side to their woefully underrated song "Near Wild Heaven."
 
Here's the video of Bingo Hand Job performing a verrrrry loose version of "Tom's Diner".  I will confess that it sounds pretty terrible to me, but I fully support the idea of a band having fun while making music, and they clearly are doing that.
 
BONUS FACT 1.5:  While we are on the subject of Robyn Hitchcock and R.E.M. and woefully underrated songs, here's Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians in 1991 doing "She Doesn't Exist," with background vocals from Michael Stipe. 
 
BONUS FACT 2:  I was first exposed to "Jeannie's Diner" from this Nick at Nite promo spot.  I always loved that line "it's kind of like Bewitched." 
 
SOCIAL MEDIA NOTE/UPDATE:  A couple of weeks ago, TMFW friend/reader Ben sent along this update to the TMFW 18 story of the "Amen Break" and wondered why TMFW didn't have a Facebook page where I/he could put stuff like that.  The reason was because I didn't know you could do that.  So last week I made one: it's at facebook.com/OfficialTMFW.  I will post each week's entry there, along with an old entry too.  Go and "Like" it if you want.  Or don't; it's really up to you.  This is America.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

TMFW 115 - Suzanne Vega Buys a Bootleg and Hits it Big

 
 
Today's TMFW is about the odd path to success for Suzanne Vega's biggest hit "Tom's Diner."   You no doubt know it; many of you probably already have the "duh duh DUH DUH // duh duh DUH DUH // duh DUH DUH duh // DUH DUH DUH duh" starting up in your heads.  
 
When it was released as a single in September 1990, "Tom's Diner" was a giant hit.  It reached #5 in the US, #2 in the UK, and #1 in three countries.  Interestingly, even though Vega wrote and initially released the song, the version that made it big was billed as being by "DNA featuring Suzanne Vega."  That's because the 1990 song was in fact the third version of "Tom's Diner," and was a remix of the original that was created (and initially even sold) by the DNA guys without Vega's knowledge. 
 
We'll get back to DNA, but the story is worth starting at the beginning.  Vega went to Barnard College in New York City; she graduated in the class of 1981 and stayed in the City to start her career.  While she was there, she frequented a restaurant at Broadway and 112th Street called "Tom's Restaurant."  
 
Vega was friends with a New York City photographer. who told her once that he "felt as though he saw the world through a pane of glass." Inspired by that thought, Vega set out to write a song where she was simply an observer.  She constructed the lyrics around sitting at Tom's Restaurant and watching life happen around her - the man behind the counter greets a regular, a woman outside uses the restaurant's window as a mirror to adjust her wardrobe, bells go off at a nearby church, etc.  
 
The song was finished in the early 1980s - Tom's Restaurant became Tom's Diner because it sounded better - but Vega did not commercially release the song until she made her second record Solitude Standing in 1986.  Recording the track, Vega initially thought that she would back it with piano.  But she "didn't play piano and didn't know anybody who did, so [she] kept it a capella" on the record.  
 
The a capella version of "Tom's Diner" opened Solitude Standing, and an instrumental "reprise" version closed it.  Vega would often open concerts, a capella, with the song, but it was not otherwise notable on first release and Vega's career went on.
 
While "Tom's Diner" was just an album track, Solitude Standing became a success for Vega. Driven by its second single "Luka," a brutally on-the-nose song about child abuse that hit #3 in 1987, the album went Platinum in the UK and Canada and Gold in the US (in 1997, it made Platinum here, too).  It was a top-10 album in eight countries and reached #11 in the US. 
 
So as of 1990, Suzanne Vega had a Gold record in Solitude Standing and "Tom's Diner" was just a quirky a capella song that she opened concerts with.  That brings us back to DNA.  Well, almost.
 
In March, 1990, Vega released her follow-up to Solitude Standing, titled Days of Open Hand.  The album was generally well-received by critics, but it lacked a "Luka"-esque single and was for those days a commercial disappointment, never rising above #50 on the album charts.  Vega toured to promote the album, and was having a difficult time replicating her success of just a few years before.  
 
Okay, THAT brings us to DNA.  The group that called themselves "DNA" was really just two anonymous electronic music producers from England.  Without ever consulting Vega or her record label - though they say they called and didn't get a response - the duo (a) took the a capella version of Tom's Diner, (b) brought the "du du DUH DUH" stuff front and center (it was originally just sung at the outro of the song), (c) mashed it up with the beat from Soul II Soul's 1989 hit "Back to Life," and (d) added some embellishments along the way.  DNA then pressed some copies, using a plain white label and calling the track "Oh Suzanne!", and they started to sell them in dance clubs.  The record became an underground hit in the UK, and in the summer of 1990 it found its way back to Vega and her record label.
 
You will recall from 2 paragraphs above that Vega was touring in support of her new album and not having much fun.  So when the unauthorized remix and release of "Tom's Diner" came to her, it would have been totally reasonable for her to just tell the lawyers to kill it.  
 
Instead, Vega liked the remix and worked with her label to buy it.  Working out a deal that paid DNA for their work and credited them on the song (but gave the rights to Vega), A&M Records released the remix as a single.  By all accounts, both Vega and the label had modest hope that it would find some small success on the dance charts.  And the rest is history.   
 
Credit to Ms. Vega for seeing the potential in her/DNA's song, and going to market instead of to court.  
 
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BONUS FACT:  Ms. Vega has described writing her song sometime in the 1981-82 timeframe, and it is rife with specific details of what she encountered at the diner.  So, much like the detective work to discover the precise date of Ice Cube's "good day" detailed in TMFW 67, music sleuths used clues in "Tom's Diner" to determine the exact date it was written.  
 
In fact, only 2 clues were needed: (1) in the newspaper, there was "the story of an actor who had died while he was drinking," and (2) the narrator was "looking for the funnies" in the newspaper.  Only two New York newspapers at the time of writing featured daily comics, and on November 18, 1981, the New York Post (one of those two) featured on its front page the story of William Holden's death with the headline "Drunken Fall Kills Holden."  Holden - the star of films such as Network, Stalag 17, and Sunset Boulevard - hit his head on a table and bled to death at his home in California. 
 
 
BONUS FACT 1.5:  On November 18, 2011, Ms. Vega played "Tom's Diner" at a show in Pennslyvania and noted that it was the 30th anniversary of the song's composition.  She confirmed that, true to the song's lyrics, although Mr. Holden had been nominated for three Oscars he was indeed "no one [she] had heard of" at the time of his death.
 
BONUS FACT 1.75:  If you have not checked your calendar, TODAY is November 18.  So happy Tom's Diner Day to you.
 
BONUS FACT 1.875:  When I was a kid I too called the comics the "funnies."  My wife's beloved grandma did, too.  I like that we share that.  
 
BONUS FACT 2:    As it turns out, Tom's Restaurant is doubly famous: it was the facade used for Monk's Cafe, where Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer frequently ate on Seinfeld.  The restaurant's fame has even inspired a documentary.
 
BONUS FACT 3:  Early in their career, TMFW favorites (and sort of TMFW 75 subjects) The Lemonheads did a really good cover of "Luka." 
 
BONUS FACT 3.5: Here's a great reflection on "Luka" from Vega herself in the New York Times.
 
IMPORTANT UPDATE (!!!):  Last week, TMFW was all about the 40-year speculation over the subject of Carly Simon's song "You're So Vain."  The entry ended with the quip "it's totally Warren Beatty." 
 
And then today - only one week after TMFW chose to weigh in on this long-running story - the news is awash with stories that Carly Simon has just confirmed that Beatty was indeed the subject of the song's second verse. This sort of timeliness and relevance is why TMFW is your best value in once-weekly music trivia story blogs.
 
BONUS OBSERVATION:  When I got an idea to write about this song a couple of months ago, I started the entry as "song was originally a capella." That's all I knew about it: it was on an earlier album and then these guys remixed it.  All of the stuff that filled in the gaps was discovered along the way, and then I saw that November 18 was a Wednesday and I pegged the entry for today.  These are my favorite kind of TMFWs.  (In fact, there's enough good stuff that I found that next week's TMFW will continue down the "Tom's Diner" rabbit hole just a little bit...)
 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

TMFW 114 – He's So Rich, This TMFW is About Him


Today's TMFW was written on a plane, and so it is a topic that is pretty straightforward and plane-writeable.  It is the story of the (maybe) subjects of Carly Simon's big song "You're So Vain," and the one guy who knows for sure.

First, an observation (that upon Googling, has been observed by many other people too): the refrain of Ms. Simon's song taunts its subject, saying "you're so vain, you probably think this song is about you."  But whoever it is that she is singing about, the song actually IS about them.  So when that guy thinks the song is about him, he is totally right.  That doesn't really make him vain so much as a correct observer of fact.  Heavy stuff, man. 

Okay, now to this week's entry.  Carly Simon was 27 years old when she released "You're So Vain."  It was the lead single off of her third album, and Simon's career was on the rise.  She had won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1971, she had already had two top-20 songs – "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" and "Anticipation" – and her second album Anticipation was on its way to being certified Gold.   Just five weeks after its release in December, 1972, "You're So Vain" reached number 1 in the US, where it stayed for three weeks.  The song also hit number 1 in Australia and Canada, and was top-5 in the UK and Ireland. 

Shortly after the song's release, people started to speculate about its "so vain" subject.  (For fellow Gen-Xers or younger readers – this was for a time a real thing that people talked about.  Pop cultural literacy required one to at least know the candidates.)  The lyrics are cryptic but suggest that the fellow is arrogant and philandering – the first verse describes him "walk[ing] into the party like [he was] walking onto a yacht" and "watch[ing himself] gavotte" in the mirror in an apricot scarf, the second notes that he "had [Ms. Simon] several years ago when [she] was still quite naïve," but that he "gave away the things [he] loved, and one of them was [her]," and the third accuses him of being with "some underworld spy or the wife of a close friend." 

So who was the guy?  There were two immediate front-runners: Warren Beatty (with whom Simon was briefly involved in 1971) and Mick Jagger (who sings uncredited background vocals on the record, who allegedly had a fling with Simon (she denies it), and who was apparently interested in Angela Bowie, the "wife of [his] close friend" David Bowie). Other contenders were TMFWs 16 and 34 subject David Bowie himself, Cat Stevens (who Simon dated in the early 1970s and who inspired the song "Anticipation"), TMFW 42 subject David Geffen, her then-husband James Taylor, guitarist Dan Armstrong (whom she dated for more than two years and who was a cocky, "too cool for school" type of fellow), and even David Cassidy. 

No doubt appreciating the commercial and publicity value of the debate, Carly Simon has embraced the mystery.  She has alternatively obfuscated and hinted about it since the song came out.  To that end, all of the various clues and denials and answers and un-answers about who "You're So Vain" is really about could be the subject of a TMFW all by itself.  But it won't be – if you are so inclined, you can read about them all on this detailed Wikipedia entry for the song.

Instead, today's TMFW is that there's one guy who knows for absolutely positively sure who the song is about: the famous NBC television producer Dick Ebersol.  In 2003, Simon agreed as part of a charity auction to reveal the subject's name to the highest bidder.  Ebersol won, paying $50,000 for the answer.  After he was sworn to secrecy, Simon played the song for him in a private performance, then whispered the name in his ear.  Since then, Ebersol has honored his vow of silence, giving only the Carly Simon-approved and almost wholly unhelpful clue that the subject of the song has an "E" in his name. 

So there's your TMFW for today: Carly Simon and Dick Ebersol turned a famously trivial (in all senses) question into a $50,000 charity donation.  Credit to them.

(Oh, and it's totally Warren Beatty.)

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BONUS FACT:  At least two other people claim that Carly Simon told them the subject of "You're So Vain": radio DJ Howard Stern and…Taylor Swift.  At first glance Ms. Swift's claim might seem strange – why would Carly Simon even be hanging out with Taylor Swift, much less telling her secrets? – but Swift is an avowed Carly Simon fan and has brought her out during a tour show to sing together.  Here's an audience video of Simon and Swift singing "You're So Vain" together at Gillette Stadium near Boston; Swift's admiration for Simon is clear and it's a pretty decent cover.  I am perhaps overly-sentimental, but it makes me happy that the World's Biggest Pop Star does stuff like singing duets (and sharing her bright spotlight) with the now-70-years-old Carly Simon.

BONUS FACT  2:  Two of Ms. Simon's songs have been famously used in commercials.  First, her 1971 hit "Anticipation" was the soundtrack of Heinz ketchup commercials in the late '70s that featured the stuff pouring out really slow and sexy-like.  More recently, her Oscar/Grammy/Golden Globe winning song "Let The River Run" was used just after the 2001 anthrax scare in a really excellent U.S. Postal Service commercial.

BONUS THING ABOUT ME 2.5:  No joke, I would someday like to be a letter carrier for the Postal Service.

BONUS FACT 3:  Like the song-clue-sleuths who figured out Ice Cube's "Good Day" in TMFW 67 and (foreshadowing alert!) those who will be featured in next week's TMFW, some perceptive listeners clued in to Simon's lyric "you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun," and used astronomical data to figure out that the likely day Mr. Vain was up north was March 7, 1970.  That is pointless and a waste of time and I love it. 

BONUS FACT 4:  Researching today's entry, I found this short CNBC clip where Simon talks about how she put the song together from three distinct parts.  First, Simon thought of the phrase "you're so vain, you probably think this song is about you."  She jotted it down in her ideas notebook, but had nothing to go along with it.  Next, she was working on a song called "Bless You Ben," which created the melody, but with completely different words.  Finally, she saw Mr. Vain come into a party and catch a glance at himself in the mirror as he walked through the room, and a friend commented to her that he had come into the party "like he was walking on to a yacht."  Taking that as the first line, she stuck all of the parts together and the song was born.  

CORRECTION:  The title of last week’s Spinal Tap-themed TMFW suggested that Spinal Tap was “England’s loudest band.”  In fact, the film makes clear that they are merely one of England’s loudest bands.  TMFW did not mean to suggest Tap’s supremacy in this field; only its membership in the group.  We regret the error.   

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

TMFW 113 - Life Imitates England's Loudest Band



Today's relatively short TMFW comes to you from Boston, where we are celebrating my wife's 39th (for the first time) birthday.  Thinking about Boston, I was reminded by the great throwaway line from the all-time great movie This is Spinal Tap, where early in the tour the band's manager Ian Faith reports that their Boston gig has been cancelled.  The band is not happy, but Ian reassures them by saying "I wouldn't worry about it though, it's not a big college town."  So two little This is Spinal Tap facts are the subject of today's TMFW.

I am a sucker for stories where fiction inspires real life. For instance, after the high-flying game quidditch was a staple in Harry Potter novels and was exhaustively explained by J.K. Rowling, some enterprising college students adapted the rules so that the game could be played on brooms that don't actually fly.  Today, U.S. Quidditch has over 300 teams and hosts events throughout the year.  It looks like a real live sport.  (But players still run around the field with a broom between their legs.)

Similarly, the Christmas alternative holiday of Festivus - celebrated by George Costanza's family on Seinfeld - has inspired adherents around the world.  You can get your own 6 foot tall aluminum Festivus pole online for the low price of $39, and there are several books to help you understand the "traditions" associated with the holiday. 

On that note, let's get to the music facts.  First, in This is Spinal Tap, the band tours the country and plays at a number of delightfully-named venues that includes the Xanadu Star Theater in Cleveland and Shank Hall in Milwaukee.  Those sound like fake places, and they are: they were made up for the movie. 

But in Milwaukee, fiction inspired reality.  In 1984, the appropriately-named Peter Jest booked Spinal Tap (then on a real live tour) at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin Ballroom.  Talking to the band, he shared with them his dream of opening a club, and promised that if he did he would name it Shank Hall.  Five years later, he did just that.  Shank Hall has been open for more than 25 years, and has hosted Smashing Pumpkins, Wilco, Guided By Voices, Drive By Truckers, TMFW 134 future subjects Yo La Tengo, Bob Mould, Dead Milkmen, and a host of other great acts.  Its logo is a tiny little Stonehenge.  And in a case of "life imitating art imitating life," Spinal Tap held a press conference there in 1992.  I love everything about that. 

Separately, perhaps the most famous scene in the movie features lead guitar player Nigel Tufnel showing off his guitar collection.  Nigel ends by showing off his Marshall amplifier, which has volume knobs that go to 11, so that if you are playing at 10 and "you need that extra push over the cliff," you can make it "one louder."  The volume plates for that amp were a one-off prop for the movie, but since the film came out there have been a number of audio devices that do in fact go to 11.  That includes several amplifier models, some mixing and audio consoles, and even the stereo on Tesla cars.  Just as Shank Hall has become a real venue for Spinal Tap to play, "one louder" has become a real option on lots of stuff you can buy. 

So there's your True Music Fact(s) for today; two stories of Spinal Tap silliness becoming reality.

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BONUS FACT:  Separate from those who celebrate the holiday purely for the whimsy, Festivus poles have been used as a political point for liberally-minded people who wish to reinforce the separation of church and state that is established in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  In some places where civic leaders insist on Christian holiday displays - for example, the Wisconsin and Florida state capitols - activists have succeeded in similarly insisting on an adjacent Festivus pole display.

BONUS FACT 2:  There's a fun little "easter egg" on This is Spinal Tap's IMDb page: the film's rating goes to 11.

BONUS FACT 3:  In one of the most famous scenes from This is Spinal Tap, the band has difficulty navigating the labyrinthine backstage of a venue in Cleveland.  As they struggle to find the stage, bass player Derek Smalls works to keep up his enthusiasm, at one point exclaiming "Hello Cleveland!" several times.

Since then, "Hello Cleveland" has become ingrained as a rallying cry.  Aside from obvious uses (e.g. a video promoting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland), YouTube features videos of several different bands wandering backstage and noting the inspiration, the R&B singer Sade got her bass player to holler it at a show in Cleveland, it has inspired the name for (at least one) band, it is the name of a record label in Australia, and it's the title of several songs, including one by the instrumental UK band Mono.  An old bandmate of mine used to greet our audience with "Hello Cleveland!" at each of our shows (which were never in Cleveland).

BONUS FACT 4:  Several years ago, my wife bought me this wonderful Nigel Tufnel t-shirt. The few times anyone has commented on it, I have relished the chance to say that it was my "exact inner structure...done in a t-shirt."