Wednesday, March 30, 2016

TMFW 134 - Roundin' Third, Headed for Home / A Terrible Baseball Team Inspires a Great Band

Yo La Tengo is an indie group from Hoboken, New Jersey.  The co-founders and leaders of the group are Ira Kaplan and his wife Georgia Hubley; as Ms. Hubley's entry on Wikipedia notes, she and Kaplan got together after "finding a common ground in music, and sharing a love of New York Mets baseball."  It is that latter connection that is the subject of today's TMFW.  

In 1962, the Mets were a first-year expansion team.  They had a historically bad season, finishing 60.5 games out and racking up 120 losses.  (To add insult to injury, the NL pennant was taken by the San Francisco Giants, who had left New York just five years before, and the World Series was won by the stupid old Yankees.)  The Mets' centerfielder was future Hall-of-Famer Richie Ashburn, playing in the final year of his career.  Their shortstop was Elio Chacon, a Venezuelan player who spoke very little English.  

As the story goes, the language barrier between Ashburn and Chacon caused a handful of miscues in the field, with both players chasing a fly ball and running into each other instead.  So rightfielder Joe Christopher, who spoke both English and Spanish, had the idea to teach Ashburn a Spanish phrase to call off Chacon.  That phrase, of course, was "Yo la tengo!," which means "I have it!"

Allegedly, the phrase worked precisely as imagined.  Later in the season, a pop-up went to left-centerfield, and Ashburn called to Chacon "yo la tengo!"  Chacon backed off, but right as Ashburn was about the catch the ball leftfielder Frank Thomas mowed him down and the ball dropped in for a hit.  

Thomas, not understanding what had just happened, asked Ashburn "what the hell is a yellow tango?"  And with that, baseball (and indie rock) history was made.

BONUS FACT: Yo La Tengo are famously talented at playing cover songs, and for more than 10 years they have put that skill to use to help raise money for WFMU, the famous New York independent radio station.  During WFMU's annual pledge drive, Yo La Tengo has a marathon session where they hang out in the studio and play requests, like a live-action jukebox.  In 2006, the band put out Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics, a compilation of some of the covers.

BONUS FACT 2:  In an episode of the sitcom Parks and Recreation, the character Leslie Knope organizes a rock concert for the cities of Pawnee and Eagleton, Indiana.  One of the featured acts is "Bobby Knight Ranger," which is a Night Ranger tribute act in which each member dresses as the famous Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight.

Bobby Knight Ranger was played on the show by Yo La Tengo; each band member "got dressed up in red sweaters, khakis, and white wigs, and they played ‘Sister Christian’ in front of a thousand people."  That's a good gag.

BONUS FACT 3:  Most baseball fans know that in the olden days New York had three teams: the American League Yankees and the National League Dodgers and Giants.  Those latter two teams headed to California in the first wave of western relocation (each in 1957), and their departure paved the way for the expansion Mets.  The Mets' colors are a blend of the Dodgers' blue and the Giants' orange: a small but fitting tribute to New York City's baseball past.   (Thanks to TMFW reader and neighbor Clifton for this one.)

BONUS FACT 4:  Yo La Tengo has a thing for quirky sports-related titles: their 11th studio record is called I am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.  That quote came courtesy of New York Knicks forward Kurt Thomas during a 2005 NBA game; Thomas said it to his teammate Stephon Marbury as the two argued on the bench.
BONUS FACT 4.5:  The Wikipedia link above (at the album title's name) suggests that it was NBA player TIM Thomas who threatened Marbury rather than KURT Thomas.  But TMFW went back to contemporary sources to bring you the true facts.  (Both of those players were with the Knicks at the time, so the screw-up is understandable.)

BONUS FACT 4.75:  While we are (sort of) on the subject of great declarative album titles, I would be remiss if I didn't include the debut record from Philadelphia band Marah: Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight.  Marah's song "Freedom Park" (from a different record, but still) is on the TMFW all-time greats list.

BONUS FACT 5:  TMFW fans will surely recall that I teased in TMFW 113 about "TMFW 134 future subjects Yo La Tengo."  I have been saving up baseball stories to go with Opening Day.  And here we are!  It's the best time of the year.

BONUS FACT 5.5/TITLE NOTE: the first part of today's title is a continuation of lyrics from (TMFW 87 subject) John Fogerty's great song "Centerfield."  That song is not related to today's subject except through baseball, but lyrics were previously used in the Opening Day entries of TMFW 29 and TMFW 81 so I thought it appropriate to continue the theme.

BONUS OBSERVATION 5.75:  I can't believe we've been doing TMFW long enough that this is our third Opening Day.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:  Like the story of "Deep in the Heart of Texas" in TMFW 19 and The White Stripes' short(est) concert in TMFW 75, today's inspiration came from Dan Lewis' excellent newsletter Now I Know.  If you like TMFW's weekly entries, you will surely like Now I Know's daily ones.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

TMFW 133 - The Appliance Delivery Guy Who Inspired a #1 Hit

Your humble TMFW writer recently lost his job; our company has a new CEO in Boston and that is incompatible with having a chief lawyer in Chicago.  My last day is this Friday; I am drafting this week's entry from my sad, empty office. The only real thing left for me to do here is finalize the details of my severance.

So with that in mind, and with only a slight stretch necessary to get there, this week's entry is the story of the real-life inspiration behind "Money For Nothing."  (See what I did there?) The song, which reached #1 for 3 weeks in 1985, was the biggest hit for Dire Straits over its Hall of Fame-worthy (but not yet Hall of Fame) career.  It helped drive the album Brothers in Arms to #1 in 18 countries; that record has sold 20 million albums worldwide. 

The "Money for Nothing" video - which at the time was groundbreaking for its use of 3D animation - features a blue collar, hardhat-type guy watching and commenting on music videos that are playing on a wall of TVs behind him.  And it turns out that's pretty much exactly how the song came about.  In an interview with the late British rock journalist Robert Sandall, Knopfler told the story of his inspiration for the track:


Robert Sandall : "Money For Nothing" was reputedly based on an overheard conversation.  

Mark Knopfler: Yeah, I was in New York in one of the big appliance shops. Basically, the layout was quite simple, the kitchen display unit in the front, the table and chairs and drawers and everything were all there in the shop window. Then you go inside and they had rows of microwaves and all the rest of it and at the back there were big walls of TVs all turned to MTV.

It was like a stage set because there was this big Joe Six Pack figure with his checked shirt and he had a barrel of some sort - he had been pulling boxes of something through the back door and he was holding forth to an audience of one or two about the performances on MTV. But the kind of stuff he was saying was so classic that I just managed to eavesdrop for a couple of minutes and then I went and got this piece of paper and started writing down the lines of things he was saying. Lines like, "That ain't working" and all that, and "Maybe get a blister on your finger", made me laugh. He said all that stuff and "What's that, Hawaiian noises?", so in a sense it was just a piece of reporting. But again, it's one of those things when you are aware that the situation has possibilities to create something.


That's a great story, and it's your TMFW for today: Mark Knopfler overheard an appliance deliveryman bloviating about rock stars on MTV, and turned him into the narrator of a #1 song.


BONUS FACT:  Sting famously sings the signature "I want my MTV" background vocals on "Money for Nothing," and though that was his only contribution he is credited as a co-writer of the song. 

I can't believe I never realized this before, but Sting ripped off that melody from himself: "I want my, I want my, I want my MTV" is identical to "don't stand, don't stand so, don't stand so close to me."

BONUS FACT 2:  Mark Knopfler was previously featured in TMFW 45 for inspiring a group of paleontologists (and being rewarded with a dinosaur named after him).

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

TMFW 132 - What a Lucky Kid He Was

When I was 12 years old, I wrote my very first song, called "Rye Bread World."  (If that sounds familiar, I previously referred to the tune in TMFW 40.)  When I put it to music, I used the four chords that I could reliably play on guitar: E minor, G, D, and A.  The song repeats those chords over and over and over and over as it makes its way through three verses about how everything in the world is like rye bread.  (Remember that I was TWELVE.)
With that story in mind, it was with some delight that I discovered a couple of years ago that Greg Lake - he of the famous prog rock trio Emerson Lake & Palmer - wrote his first song the same way.  He too was twelve, and but for an additional minor chord (his is an Em and an Am vs. my Em and A) the idea was the same.  Verse-Chorus-Verse, with a never-changing chord progression.
Whereas "Rye Bread World" is all about how the world is like rye bread, Lake's song was an adolescent fantasy about a dude who lives a super-sweet (but seemingly short) life.  The first verse notes that the guy had "ladies by the score, all dressed in satin and waiting by the door."  The second talked about his Donald-Trump-worthy bedroom furniture, which was a gold-covered mattress adorned with lace and feathers.  In the third, we hear of the man's military prowess: he was so good at "fight[ing] wars" that all of his countrymen sang songs of his honor and his glory.  Finally, in the fourth, tragedy strikes and he dies in battle.  
If you read today's title or you know Emerson Lake & Palmer, you have likely figured out by now that the 12-year-old Greg Lake wrote "Lucky Man," which appeared on ELP's first record and went on to be the band's signature track.  As Lake explained in a 2012 interview, the song was not intended for production: "[There was] no intellectual thought involved in it…it was pure innocence. I mean, there was no thought of it becoming a record. There was no thought of me even becoming a professional musician. It was just for my own personal pleasure.”  
In fact, the song only appeared on ELP's record because the group needed some album filler. From the same interview, Lake noted "[n]ine years later, when it came to making the first ELP album, nobody wanted to [record "Lucky Man."]; it was only because we were short of one track on the record that it ever got made. Keith didn’t even want to play on it. I actually made it on my own, that record is all me except for Carl Palmer doing the drums and the solo right at the end with Keith. I’m all the voices, all the guitars; we just thought it was filler. We never had the faintest idea that it would become a hit record.”
Though "Lucky Man" reached only #48 on the charts, it has become a classic rock radio mainstay and its success helped launch ELP's string of seven gold records and a decade of famously self-indulgent performances in the 1970s.  Not bad for a four-chord, album-filler tune written by a 12-year-old.
BONUS FACT:  Today's entry was inspired by Keith Emerson, whose brilliant one-take Moog solo at the end of "Lucky Man" is that song's pièce de résistance.  I love it so much.  Emerson died last week of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 71.  RIP, Keith.
BONUS FACT 2:  ELP's fourth record was called Brain Salad Surgery, which was borrowed from a lyric in a Dr. John song and which apparently was a slang term for oral sex.
BONUS FACT 2.5:  The album artwork for Brain Salad Surgery was done by the Swiss fantasy artist H.R. Giger.  Giger is most famous for designing the Alien from the movie of the same name, which earned him an Oscar.
At the artist's website, there is the terrific story of how he made the album art.  Apparently, the record was initially to be called Whip Some Skull on Ya, which (theme alert!) was a slang term for oral sex.  When Giger learned this, he came up with a concept evocative of that theme.  But when he met the band and showed his work, Keith Emerson told him for the first time that the record's name would be changed to Brain Salad Surgery.  As Giger recounts, "I was dismayed until he explained to me that this expression, likewise, connoted fellatio."  What a moment of occupational relief that must have been.
BONUS FACT 3:  ELP were a shining example of true '70s stage excess: at its height, their rock spectacle of a tour required 10+ trailers of gear, with 60+ roadies to lug it around.
BONUS CONTENT 4:  Here's solo acoustic Greg Lake, chewing gum and performing the hell out of "Lucky Man" in 1974.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

TMFW 131 - Sarah McLachlan's Stalker Helps (?) Write A Song


Today's TMFW is about the Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan.  If you are like me, you know her for only a few songs that your college girlfriend played a lot in the car - "I Will Remember You," or "Building a Mystery," or "Ice Cream."   So before we get into things, I am compelled to note that (to my surprise) Ms. McLachlan has sold 40 million records.  That's a lot.  Her first six studio albums have all been certified gold or platinum, and the three studio records and one live record she made at the peak of her career are all multi-platinum in both Canada and the U.S.  Respect to Ms. McLachlan.  
Today's fact relates to McLachlan's 1993 song "Possession," which was the lead single on her record Fumbling Towards Ecstasy.  The song sounds (and the video linked above looks) creepy, and when you pay attention to the lyrics it becomes even more so.  The song tells the story of a person obsessed with another, who seems willing to do whatever it takes to be with her. The refrain fantasizes "I would be the one to hold you down, kiss you so hard, I'll take your breath away.  And after, I'd wipe away the tears.  Just close your eyes, dear."  One of the verses ends with the line "'cause nothing stands between us here, and I won't be denied."  Yikes.
Sarah McLachlan had a very personal inspiration for her song about a stalker: when she wrote the track, she had for several years been a victim. 
Though she had more than one, McLachlan's most famous stalker was a fellow Canadian named Uwe Vandrei.  Starting in 1991, Vandrei sent McLachlan "hundreds of letters and e-mails that were alternately impassioned and threatening," and for her own protection McLachlan obtained a restraining order and was forced to hire a bodyguard.  Though she was wisely careful for her safety, McLachlan was said to be "intrigued by the fact that someone could say such things to a complete stranger," and this lead her to write the song from the perspective of the obsessed.
All of that is a pretty good story, but what makes it today's TMFW is what came next: when Fumbling Toward Ecstasy and "Possession" came out, Vandrei thought that he recognized himself (and some of his writing) in McLachlan's song.  So naturally, he did what any wronged lyricist would: he sued McLachlan and her record label for a songwriting credit and $250,000 in royalties.
As it turns out, the "merits" of the case were never heard.  In November 1994, Vandrei committed suicide in the Manitock woods just south of Ottawa.  (At that link, you can see some of Vandrei's writings to McLachlan.)  It was a bizarre end to a bizarre story.
So there's your TMFW for today: Sarah McLachlan wrote a song about a stalker, which caused her own stalker to sue for a songwriting credit.
BONUS FACT:  In 2007, McLachlan appeared in a now-famous commercial for the ASPCA, where her sad music played over footage of sad dogs and she asked for money to help them.  According to the New York Times, the ad was obscenely successful - helping in one year to raise $30 million for an organization with an annual budget of only $50 million.  Since then, McLachlan has poked fun at herself in a Super Bowl commercial for Audi and has said that whenever she sees the ASPCA ad now "I change the channel; I can't take it."
BONUS FACT 2:  McLachlan was the founder of the short-lived-but-very-successful summer concert festival Lilith Fair, which famously focused on women in music.  Part of her inspiration was to stick it to concert promoters and venues that in those days resisted booking acts with women back-to-back for fear that it would not be commercially viable.
BONUS FACT 3:  Despite its blunt lyrics, McLachlan has noted that people often share with her that "Possession" was the song used at their wedding, saying "you wouldn’t believe how many people use that song for their wedding, And I just smile quietly to myself, like ‘oh, that’s nice.'" 
BONUS OBITUARY:  RIP George Martin, a brilliant producer and (one of the principal candidates for) Fifth Beatle.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

TMFW 130 - An Anthem From the Stormy Centuries

We've got three extra boys at our house this week, and life is a little bit overwhelming.  But I am determined to keep my TMFW streak intact.  So we've got an entry today, but it is a straightforward one.  It's the story of Hungary's crazy national anthem.  The song is called "Himnusz," meaning "anthem," and its subtitle was initially "A magyar nép zivataros századaiból," which means "from the stormy centuries of the Hungarian people."  You can hear it here (with lyrics to the first verse).
What makes the song today's TMFW is that, contrary to the idea of a national anthem being a celebration of a country's virtues, Hungary's is basically a recital of all the terrible things that have happened to the country through the ages.  The first verse previews the sorrow, with the lines: "Long torn by ill fate / Bring upon it a time of relief / This nation has suffered for all sins / Of the past and of the future!"
And it only gets worse from there.  The song laments that "for our sins / Anger gathered in Your bosom / And You struck with Your lightning / From Your thundering clouds."  It talks about "the plundering Mongols' arrows," and then "the Turks' slave yoke," and then references how the Ottoman Empire's soldiers sang a victory song "over the corpses of our defeated army."  
Then it tells the story of a lone fugitive who hides from the violence and roams the land, with a "sea of blood beneath his feet, [and an] ocean of flame above."  It references a castle that is "now a heap of stones," with "groans of death, [and] weeping" replacing the sounds of happiness and joy.  And for the big happy ending, the song's last stanzas assure the listener that life is still no better: "freedom does not bloom from the blood of the dead," but instead "tortuous slavery's tears fall from the burning eyes of the orphans."  The song's final plea is for God to "pity...the Hungarians," and to protect it "on the sea of its misery."  Good times, Hungary.  
So this summer, if you are watching the Olympics and a Hungarian takes gold (as they did 8 times in London in 2012, including golds for kayaking and for pommel horse), know that as they stand on the podium and their flag is raised, their victory song is a somber reminder of centuries of their countrymen's misfortune and sorrow.
BONUS FACT:  On the flipside of today's fact, Russia's national anthem is the freaking greatest: here it is with a choir and here it is with an even bigger choir.  
BONUS FACT 2:  Today's entry was indirectly inspired by the death last week of Tony Burton, who played Apollo Creed's trainer Duke (and the first guy to see the potential in Rocky Balboa) in the Rocky movies.  I was the exact right age for the over-the-top montages and over-the-over-the-top jingoism of Rocky IV to make an imprint on me, and I loved Duke's role as trainer/mentor/father to Rocky.  RIP Tony Burton.  
BONUS FACT 2.5:  As a combo of points 1 and 2, here's the Soviet National Anthem from Rocky IV, just before the big Christmas Day fight in Moscow.  It's the best.