Sunday, March 30, 2008

Quite Contrary

In Chuck Eddy's Accidental Evolution of Rock 'n' Roll, the determinedly contrarian rock critic makes the outlandish claim that Paper Lace more or less invented rap on "The Night Chicago Died." "The latter," Eddy writes, "by five happy hacks from England, has the distinction of being the first rap record ever to top the charts" here in the U.S.

Now, I have no problem with contrarianism. I can't quibble with Eddy's skepticism toward Bruce Springsteen, or his downright disdain for U2, as long as he can make the case. I am glad to see artists like Debbie Gibson and the Kingston Trio get taken seriously, although Eddy pushes his luck when he tries to resuscitate Stacey Q.

The real problem with such contrarianism is that is leads him to disregard what is as plain as the nose on Pete Townshend's face, such as the fact that "The Night Chicago Died" is not a rap record. It's got very little melody in the verses, and the lyrics are a bit staccato, but they don't have the cadence and flow and internal rhyming of rap. Frankly, they don't sound like rap at all, and if anybody is going to be making or defending outlandish claims on behalf of Paper Lace, you've gotta figure it's going to be me.

This discussion occurs when Eddy is ruminating over rap lyrics in white pop songs, and what really tips his hand here is that he never mentions Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." He has room for "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haa!," and "Gimme Dat Ding," and even Steve Martin's "King Tut," but not the song that Run-DMC covered.

I suspect it's the desire to ignore the obvious that also leads Eddy to leave off "You May Be Right" in his list of songs with breaking glass in them, or in his discussion of songs with partying noises going on in the background, to never even once mention Johnny Rivers. If that - and constant invocation of Def Leppard, who, despite Eddy's fawning over them, are neither especially good nor bad enough to be interesting - is what contrary wisdom gets you, I'm happy to run with the herd.


The Internet has now reached full maturity with its ability to reproduce a paperless version of Al Jaffee's Mad fold-ins.

Friday, March 28, 2008

And You're Sick of All of This Repetition

Which pop song repeats a single phrase the most number of times? I thought about this question after hearing Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," in which Billie Joe seems to keep running out of things to say so he just decides to say "I walk alone" one more time. If the lyrics I found online are correct, and I make no claims that they are, the phrase "I walk alone" repeats in that song 14 times. An impressive amount, but by no means a record.

The song that people usually think of in regards to this question is the Trashmen's brilliant "Surfin' Bird," an agglomeration of two earlier Rivingtons songs ("Papa Oom-Mow-Mow" and "Bird Is the Word") that went to Number Four back in 1964. Pee Wee Herman's cover, from the 1987 film Back to the Beach, inexplicably failed to chart. Nevertheless, the song repeats the phrase "Bird is the word," by my count, 21 times.

That's only tied for third on my little survey, though, with the Rolling Stones' "She's So Cold," which repeats the title phrase 21 times. It's pretty much the same idea as "Shattered," though not nearly as good, but "Shattered" falls outside the parameters of my research, since the title is a single word, and I don't want to get started counting how many times a single word appears in a song.

"Hey Jude" repeats its own title 26 times: seven times during the main body of the song, and 19 times during the extended codas.

Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" far outdistances that, using the phrase "Are you okay" - either in the form "Annie, are you OK" or "Are you OK, Annie" - a whopping 40 times. Until I researched this post, I thought he was saying "Eddie, are you OK," which suggests that maybe Michael should have repeated the phrase a few more times for clarity. Or rather, that he should have used the phrase fewer times, rendering the song less annoying and me more likely to listen to it closely.

Near as I can tell, for a song that made the pop charts, that's the record, although I assume it shares that distinction with the cover by Alien Ant Farm.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


According to Casey Kasem, John Hartman, the original drummer for the Doobie Brothers, once owned a shirt whose sleeves were made of human hair. (Casey's description made it sound as if the hair had been freely given.) Hartman had purportedly spent $150,000 on clothes in the previous year, which would be the year prior to when "Black Water" was on the charts.

I bet he wishes he had that $150,000 back now.

A Happy Idiot

I can't believe Jackson Browne made it all the way through "The Pretender" without ever using the word "gender."

If he had written it ten years later, he could have included the line "Making his way through Goth kids of indeterminate gender."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Smells Like Team Spirit

Doesn't it seem like there ought to be a lot of overlap between nicknames of professional sports teams and rock bands or singing groups? The formats (and often, the images wishing to be projected) are very similar, but I guess musical groups seek a bit more originality than sports teams. Thus we have a Dell-Vikings, but no Vikings; a Thompson Twins, but no Twins; both a 5 Royales and a Royal Teens, but no Royals; They Might Be Giants, but no confirmed Giants.

Near as I can figure, these are the only true overlapping names:

The Eagles
The Jets
The Orioles
The Kings
The Cardinals (as in Ryan Adams and the)
The Mavericks
The Hawks
The Penguins

I'll give half credit to the Sonics, but not to the Famous Flames. What am I missing?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Deep in the Vault

The big news in the world of the Internet, or at least in the corners of it that I inhabit, was Sports Illustrated's opening of what it calls the Vault last Thursday. This presents every page of every single issue of SI for viewing, including all those glorious cigarette and bourbon ads. It's like having those big green bound library volumes right on your own home computer.

I went straight to the first issue I ever received, reporting the results of the 1975 Kentucky Derby. I was nine years old at the time, and this was the first magazine I ever subscribed to, so I felt honor-bound to read the thing cover to cover. I thought that's just what you did when you got a magazine. Reading the issue now, what first struck me was how poorly designed it was, or rather, how little designed it was. Except for the bonus article in the back, all the headlines were the same black all-caps font, and even the same size. The designs were all very modular, with every photo rectangular. Many pages were just sheets of black type, without even a pullquote to break the monotony.

Even the fabled photos - the magazine's raison d'etre - were surprisingly weak at times. For my third issue, the cover story was on Filbert Bayi and his record-setting mile run (I don't think such things make the cover of SI any more). Bayi's run took place at night, in Jamaica, so in each of the photos he's surrounded by endless blackness. It's as if he had run a mile in a coal mine. Yet SI didn't blink and anointed him their cover boy anyway.

This is a problem when seen in light of those gorgeous ads. Warmly lit snowbound photos of people enjoying Christmas and Old Grand-Dad. Black-eyed Tareyton smokers who'd rather fight than switch. People disembarking from their sailboats at dusk to go enjoy some Cutty Sark. And my favorite, the New Yorker-style color cartoons of people on the brink of disaster whose insurance company was "New England Life, of course. Why?"

For a preteen living in the suburbs, this was the height of sophistication. Sure, there were great articles about Billy Martin and Steve Stone by the likes of Pat Jordn and Roy Blount Jr., and headlines with knotty puns like "Playing Ketchup Out West" (for a piece on the San Diego Padres, who were then owned by Ray Kroc of McDonald's). But man, those ads were really transporting. Would that the magazine had measured up.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Further Adventures of Gino Vannelli

Speaking of Gino Vannelli, which we were a few days ago, his Web site is a trip. There is a lengthy biography, I assume written by Gino himself, that includes the following passage: "In the midst of such a heady maelstrom, a handful of artists such as Gino Vannelli and Steely Dan [!] opted to buck all the trends, writing and producing sophisticated jazz-inflected pop."


But let's not speak ill of the man. It turns out that at Boston Celtics games, when the boys in green are closing in on another victory, the scoreboard at the Fleet Center shows a video from "American Bandstand" with a bunch of uber-70s teens dancing to disco (I've seen it accompanied by both the Bee Gees' "You Should Be Dancin'" and KC and the Sunshine Band's "Shake Your Booty"). The biggest cheers erupt when a bearded gentleman in a skintight Gino Vannelli T-shirt (a souvenir from Gino's Gist of the Gemini tour) comes on the screen.

Although Vannelli seemed rather skeptical at first (and openly wondered whether the Celtics were stealing his intellectual property in making knockoffs of the Gemini shirt), he's now taken to selling the shirts himself, and donating a cut to the Boston Celtics Shamrock Foundation, which does something for kids.
Good on you, Gino. Here's the ersatz Gino in action:

Sick in the Head

When I founded OPC, just over a year ago, it was with the firm conviction that this should not be a spot for me to lay out my personal travails. I have read too many bloggers who decide that people are reading the blog because they really want to know what's going on in the author's personal life, whether or not that has anything to do with the subject matter of the blog. I'm not always sure what the subject matter of this blog is, but whatever it is, it certainly is not my personal travails.

Fortunately, my pal Larry Smith has set up a site that is nothing but personal travails, so I have posted some of mine over there. It's totally up to you whether you pop over there to read it, though.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


In the movie Little Miss Sunshine, the Hoover family's oldest child, Dwayne, is a sullen boy with black hair, straight but messy, and very pale skin. He doesn't say a word until the movie is nearly over.

In the movie Horton Hears a Who, the mayor of Whoville's oldest child, Jojo, is a sullen boy with black hair, straight but messy, and very pale skin. He doesn't say a word until the movie is nearly over.

The two characters look and act so much alike that I have no doubt that the resemblance is intentional. A better question is whether anyone was supposed to notice. Little Miss Sunshine and Horton Hears a Who do in fact share a certain audience: parents.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Straight Down

Badfinger was cursed, as anyone reading this blog probably already knows. They seemed charmed for a while in the early 1970s, when in addition to their four exquisite hit singles, they backed up Ringo Starr on "It Don't Come Easy," and John Lennon on several tracks for Imagine, and George Harrison and friends at the Concert for Bangla Desh. In 1972, Harry Nilsson turned "Without You," originally on Badfinger's 1970 album No Dice, into a Number One hit.

Then everything fell apart. In 1973, their final album for Apple, Ass (nice name, guys), failed to yield any hit singles. Their first album for Warner Bros., Wish You Were Here (which would also soon prove to be a bad choice for a title), similarly stiffed in 1974. By the end of the year, guitarist Joey Molland had quit.

Then things got even worse. Founding member Pete Ham, who had written "Baby Blue" and "Day After Day" and "No Matter What," took his own life in June of 1975, in part because of the criminal mismangement of the band by the sleazy Stan Polley. (Ham's suicide note concluded: "P.S. Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.") Pete Ham was 27; his daughter Petera was born a month after he died.

The last album recorded with Ham, Head First, would not be released until 2000 because of legal difficulties. After dissolving following Ham's death, Badfinger reconstituted itself under the leadership of Tom Evans (the original bassist and the co-writer of "Without You") for 1979's Airwaves and 1981's Say No More, neither of which spawned any hits. Molland returned, but he and Tom Evans fought, and ended up leading rival versions of Badfinger on tours in the early Eighties. In 1983, Tom Evans hanged himself from a tree in his backyard.

And there let us leave this tale, and return to the glory days. Here are the boys introduced by none other than Kenny Rogers, back when his hair and beard were still the color of a well-roasted chicken, on his early Seventies variety show "Rollin on the River." Note that despite the success of the band, Pete Ham still couldn't afford a shirt:

Friday, March 21, 2008

Grin and Bear It

You guys remember Edward Bear, right? The artist who did "Last Song" ("This is the last song/I'll ever write for you..."), which went to Number Three in 1973? I always assumed it was a dude - maybe somebody who grew up with the guys in Redbone, or had escaped from some lavishly illustrated Victorian picture book.

But no, it was a group. How could you be so lame as to give your band a name like "Edward Bear"? It turns out that they were indeed christened after Winnie the Pooh's purported "real name." And they were, of course, Canadian, which explains a lot.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Camera Obscura

In today's paper, there was a review of a brand-new sitcom on ABC called Miss Guided that describes the lead, an actress named Judy Greer, as "an Irene Dunne-ish blond." Wait, did I wake up this morning in 1947? I would gather that I have more awareness of these things than at least 95 percent of the Denver Post's readership, yet I have only a vague sense of who Irene Dunne is, and none at all of what she looks like.

Oh wait, there she is now.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sleazy Listening

On Casey Kasem's American Top 40 from March 10, 1979, there appeared a long-distance dedication from a high school girl in Maine to a boy who was now away at college, in memory of a seven-hour bus ride they had taken together on a school trip to Montreal, wherein, apparently, sparks flew. You can see where this is going: There is only one late-Seventies song that celebrates a romance in Montreal, and that song, regrettably, is Gino Vannelli's awful "I Just Wanna Stop."

You wish, for this poor kid's sake, that Paul Simon had included a song about Montreal on Still Crazy After All These Years. Or Anne Murray could have done a song about Montreal; she's even Canadian, for Pierre's sake. Anything would be better than having your first love forever connected with Gino Freakin' Vannelli. As they used to say back in the Seventies, bummer.

Always Be a Good Boy

"Folsom Prison Blues" is so closely identified with Johnny Cash that most people think he wrote it as well as sang it, and indeed, on the original Sun single, Cash is credited as the only songwriter. Cash conceived of the song in West Germany when he was in the air force, after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, then cut it at Sun Studios on July 30, 1955. But after Johnny recorded it live at Folsom Prison in 1968 - it was the biggest hit in all of country music that year - Gordon Jenkins noticed that he had written it 15 years earlier. He sued for credit, and won $75,000.

Gordon Jenkins is kind of an odd figure to play a part in the legend of Johnny Cash. He is best known today as the guy who succeeded Nelson Riddle as Frank Sinatra's arranger and conductor, the one who really laid the schmaltz on Ol' Blue Eyes. Before that, though, he wrote and recorded songs under his own name, and in 1953, he made an experimental record called Seven Dreams, which included a track named "Crescent City Blues." I haven't heard the song, so I don't know how closely the melody tracks "Folsom Prison Blues," but if you read the lyrics, they're a bit, uh, familiar:

I hear the train a-comin, it's rolling 'round the bend
And I ain't been kissed lord since I don't know when
The boys in Crescent City don't seem to know I'm here
That lonesome whistle seems to tell me, Sue, disappear

When I was just a baby my mama told me, Sue,
When you're grown up I want that you should go and see and do
But I'm stuck in Crescent City just watching life mosey by
When I hear that whistle blowin', I hang my head and cry

I see the rich folks eatin' in that fancy dining car
They're probably having pheasant breast and eastern caviar
Now I ain't crying envy and I ain't crying me
It's just that they get to see things that I've never seen

If I owned that lonesome whistle, if that railroad train was mine
I bet I'd find a man a little farther down the line
Far from Crescent City is where I'd like to stay
And I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away

Johnny Cash, standup guy that he was, owned up to the borrowing. "I was in the U.S. air force stationed in Germany in 53," he said in 1996. "While I was there I also had that album by Gordon Jenkins with the song 'Crescent City Blues,' which was a great inspiration for 'Folsom Prison Blues' as well.

"At the time, I really had no idea I would be a professional recording artist. I wasn't trying to rip anybody off. So when I later went to Sun to record the song, I told Sam Phillips that I rewrote an old song to make my song, and that was that. [It was apparently Phillips' decision to list only Cash's name on the label as the sole songwriter; there probably would have been some burdensome paperwork to get Gordon Jenkins involved as well.] Sometime later I met up with Gordon Jenkins and we talked about what had happened, and everything was all right."

Cash did not explain, however, why a guy who killed someone in Nevada would be doing time in a California state pen.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

That Demon Life

Yes, I too have been wondering whatever happened to Mick Taylor after he quit the Stones in a huff back in 1974, right after recording It's Only Rock 'n Roll. He was only 25, and knowing what cheap bastards Mick and Keith are, they'd probably been paying him a flat 100 quid a week or something, so I doubt he was set for life. Yet we've heard astonishingly little from him over the years, despite the fact that he's an awesome guitarist.

Keith Richards was most upset at the time, saying the only way anyone should ever leave the band is "in a pine box." But by all accounts, Keith was never very nice to Taylor, and although he apparently co-wrote several songs during his tenure, the only songwriting credit he ever got was on Exile on Main St.'s "Ventilator Blues." I assume that means that Taylor wrote every note, every chord and every word; that's the only way Jagger-Richards would ever award so much as a co-credit.

After the Stones, Taylor's biggest problem was that he showed poor taste in the projects he chose. He worked, but his work was wasted on records that no one ever wanted to hear. First he joined former Cream bassist Jack Bruce's band on a tour; in fact, one of the reasons he gave for leaving the Stones was that he was so thrilled to be playing with Jack Bruce. Jack Bruce! Then he recorded with the psychedelic jazz outfit Gong. After that Taylor played on Papa John Phillips' never-released first solo album. Then, in 1979, Mick Taylor came out and went as high as Number 119 on the Billboard album charts (the review in Rolling Stone compared some of the songs to the Atlanta Rhythm Section[!]).

Finally, in the early 1980s, after touring with Alvin Lee of Ten Years After and playing some reunion dates with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Taylor did something worthwhile. Bob Dylan showed up at one of the Mayall dates at the Roxy in Los Angeles ,and Taylor ended up playing on Infidels, Empire Burlesque, and the live Real Live after going on tour with Dylan in Europe in 1984. That was basically it, though: After that Taylor did some session work, some solo club dates and not much else. He didn't play on Sheryl Crow's "If It Makes You Happy," although it sure sounds like he did.

Taylor's relationship with the Stones is rather complicated: He's not totally estranged from them, but they certainly don't go out of their way to be together either. He played on a track on Keith's solo album Talk Is Cheap, and on Ron Wood's Now Look; he played a show with the Stones in Kansas City in 1981, and Keith joined him at a Mick Taylor solo show in New York in 1986. I have a 1989 videotape called 25x5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones, featuring interviews with all five extant Stones but most pointedly not any with Mick Taylor.

The best quote on Taylor's departure from the Stones came from Mick Jagger, of course. "I'm sorry to see him go, but I think people should be free to do what they want to do," he said. "I mean it's not the army, it's just a sort of rock & roll band."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Lost in India

It would be fitting in a way, although also very sad, if Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World were Albert Brooks' last film, because it bookends so nicely with his first movie, 1979's Real Life. In both movies, Albert plays a filmmaker named Albert Brooks, although in Real Life he's actually making a movie, while in the newer one he's writing a report (500 pages long, as he frequently complains) on what makes Muslims laugh and constantly being reminded of Finding Nemo.

Albert certainly deserves to make as many movies as he possibly can, but Muslim World wasn't exactly a hit, and - hard as it may be to believe - it almost didn't get released at all, because its title was supposedly too controversial. But before it was even released in the U.S., it was shown at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2005. So some Muslims must have liked it.

Maybe it would help if Brooks wasn't so self-deprecating all the time. One of the State Department employees who goes with Albert to the Muslim world tells him that he kind of liked Lost in America, except that he found the ending a little tacked-on. Twice, he tells him this. He also does some of his legendary standup for a New Delhi audience (above right) and dies. Dies, dies, dies. Come on, Albert, we all know you're funny; it's OK if you act like you think so too.

Muslim World
is no Real Life, which is uproarious even if you dock it several notches for inadvertantly spawning reality TV. Brooks, as I said, more or less plays himself, directing a movie about a family in Phoenix, complete with cameramen wearing deep-sea divers' helmets with cameras built in. When the family doesn't produce the kind of drama Albert needs for the ending to his film, he simply burns their house down. Now that's funny.

Happy St. Patrick's Day

May your joys be large and your hangover small, and may you avoid the path of any vehicle driven by Colin Farrell. Here's that great son of the auld sod, the late Phil Lynott - there's a statue of him in downtown Dublin and everything - with Thin Lizzy performing that traditional Irish tune "The Boys Are Back in Town":

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Man Who Sang "Liberty Valance"

Both the movie and the song of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were big hits back in 1962, when Gene Pitney's record went to Number Four. But the song - one of the first collaborations between a composer named Burt Bacharach and a lyricist named Hal David - doesn't appear in the film, which seems a little strange since the song (actually titled "[The Man Who Shot] Liberty Valance") clearly couldn't exist without the movie. I mean, if Phil Collins' "Against All Odds" hadn't appeared in Against All Odds, no one would have noticed, because who would be surprised by Phil Collins titling a song with a cliche?

The bigger question is, why didn't Gene Pitney's song make it into the movie? I have found four distinct explanations:

1. John Ford, who directed Liberty Valance, hated the song and decided not to use it. I can buy this; it's not hard to imagine John Ford disliking contemporary pop music.

2. There was a dispute between the Paramount Pictures, which made the film, and the song's publishing company, Famous Music, over the rights to the song.

3. Pitney, Bacharach and David got the song done too late - the story goes that while he was in the studio cutting the track, Pitney heard that the movie had already been released. It's possible: The film was released on April 22, 1962, and though I don't know when the single came out, it entered the Top Forty on May 19, 1962. Given the speed with which pop music was created back then, I could believe Pitney was in the studio less than a month before the single crashed the charts. But I doubt it.

4. The song was never intended to be used in the movie, but was just intended as kind of a synergistic way to promote the film, as the film would simultaneously promote the record - just like Will Smith's terrible "Wild, Wild West" theme song, which went to Number One in 1999 despite being nothing more than a commercial for the equally lame film. Except that one did actually get played in the movie, because you know the Civil War era was just a hotbed for pop rap.

So I don't know why "(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance" did not get played in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I do know that, as good as the song is, the movie is even better. If you haven't yet, I urge you to check it out.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff

Over the space of a year or so in the late Eighties, Terence Trent D'Arby, in rough order, released a handful of killer singles, proclaimed himself the greatest rock star in the universe, appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, and more or less disappeared from sight. (As these things happen, the singles were hits in inverse order of their quality: "Wishing Well" went to Number One, but "Sign Your Name" was even better and peaked at Number Four, while "If You Let Me Stay," the best of the bunch, didn't even make the Top Forty in the U.S.)

On October 4, 2001, at a time when, to be perfectly honest, few people in America were thinking about Terence Trent D'Arby, he changed his name to Sananda Maitreya, which supposedly came to him in a dream. Interestingly enough, he was born Terence Howard, which wouldn't really work after Hustle & Flow. He now lives in Milan, Italy; when he first came to prominence, he had been living in Germany after serving in the army there.

Terence Trent Howard, later Terence Trent D'Arby and even later Sananda Maitreya, was born on this date 46 years ago. We wish you all the best, Terry. Here he is even managing to make some Eighties fashion look decent in the great "If You Let Me Stay":

The Year of Living Trivially

Today, as MJN remarked in the comments to the previous item, marks the one-year anniversary of "One Poor Correspondent." Thanks to all who have read and commented here. I hope you have enjoyed participating with this blog as much I have enjoyed writing it. For those of you who are just joining us and wondering what all the foofaraw is about, I suggest you start with this post, discussing the origins of "One Tin Soldier"; it may not be the best post we've ever done, but it's pretty good, and it's certainly archetypal of what we're trying to accomplish here.

I thought this might also be an opportune moment to discuss how I chose the title for this blog. The original idea came from the fact that notions or pieces of trivia often popped into my head that I would then send around to certain of my friends via email, except I was very sloppy about actually making sure the emails got written and sent. So I set up the blog in recognition of the fact that I had indeed been one poor correspondent.

And of course, the title references "Sister Golden Hair," the best single from the Seventies pop group America. It's been written that the band was made up of army brats living in Europe, hence the name, but one of them, Dewey Bunnell, was actually British. They came blasting out of the box in the spring of 1972 when their first single, "A Horse With No Name," went all the way to Number One. "Horse" was often described as a Neil Young ripoff, but the country was in the mood for one at the time. It was directly preceded in the top spot by "Heart of Gold," Young's only Number One hit (and only Top Thirty hit, as it happens).

The band became big enough to lure Beatles producer George Martin into its fold; Martin produced the hits "Tin Man" and "Lonely People" before twiddling the knobs for "Sister Golden Hair," which was released in the spring of 1975 as the first single from America's album Hearts (the band was in the habit of titling all its LPs with words starting with H). On June 14, 1975, it became America's second (and last) Number One single, sneaking into the top spot for a lone week between John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" and the Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together." The opening guitar riff is based on George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," but of course Harrison had no standing to complain about the seeming plagiarism.

By that December, three years into their hitmaking career, America had enough material to release History: America's Greatest Hits (note the H), with cover art by a graphic designer then known as Phil Hartmann. Down one N, he would be later known as one of America's greatest sketch comedians.

And that's all I got. Hope the second year of OPC is as much fun as the first.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Pi Day Playlist

Here are a few selections to keep in mind for all the Pi Day parties that will be going on tonight:

"American Pie," Don McLean
"Honey Pie," the Beatles
"Will It Go Round in Circles," Billy Preston
"The Circle Game," Joni Mitchell
"Circles," Soul Coughing
"Black Math," the White Stripes
"Perfect Circle," R.E.M.
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken," the Carter Family
"Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie," Jay and the Techniques
"I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)," the Four Tops

City Slickers III: The Legend of the Foul Pop-Up

You've probably seen by now that Billy Crystal was allowed to play DH for the Yankees in a spring-training game yesterday. To even things up, next Wednesday in a special matinee, Jorge Posada will be performing 700 Sundays at the Belasco Theatre.

Happy Pi Day

...From America's number one pi boy.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Disappointment of the Month

The April issue of Vanity Fair has a big splashy article on three of the biggest female musicians of the late '60s and early 1970s: Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King. It's taken from a triography of those three women by a writer named Sheila Weller, and all of us here at OPC were pretty excited to see it, since we're fans of all three. We wrote about Carly here and here, and Joni here; we've yet to write about Carole King, but she's a tremendous songwriter who will always be emblematic of that moment in time when Long Island housewives began wearing caftans and getting divorced.

But hey boygie, this thing is badly written. From the first half of the first sentence - "Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon were born in the early and middle 1940s" - you know we're in trouble. Do you really want to start this out by talking about when they were born? If they weren't all born within an easily defined period, why try to force them into one? (They were actually all born during World War II, so it wouldn't have been hard to pigeonhole them.)

And it gets worse from there. Weller says "You're So Vain" "made feminism wickedly fun," which I don't even get what's supposed to be feminist about it. She says Al Kooper's organ on "Like a Rolling Stone" "had done much to make the song the marvel it was held to be." Way to go out on a limb, Sheila: Do you doubt "Like a Rolling Stone" is a marvel? To display proof of Joni Mitchell's continuing importance, she quotes Starbucks marketing copy ("A timeless voice challenges today's world"). Yoy.

The research seems to be pretty good, although even I noticed mistakes. Weller calls "Wild World" Cat Stevens' first hit, which it was in the U.S., but he was already a huge star in his native England before then. She says Carole King turned down the cover of Life magazine in 1973, a year after that publication folded (although, to be fair, it's possible that she meant some other time, but it's too badly written to tell).

The one part of the story that was worthwhile was the last section, on the post-Tapestry King's third marriage, to an abusive, drug-addicted loser from Idaho. She eventually split one day after getting smacked around, and he promptly went to L.A. and OD'd. It's chilling, and little-known, to me at least. If you're interested in this article at all, I'd skip ahead to that final part.


For me, maybe the most fun part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies is seeing who presents each of the inductees. Sometimes they're obvious and satisfying, like Springsteen inducting Dylan, or Bono inducting Springsteen, or Springsteen inducting U2, and sometimes they're unexpected but satisfying, like Axl Rose inducting Elton John. My favorites are when a bigger star inducts a lesser star, like when Steven Tyler inducted AC/DC, or Keith Richards did the honors for ZZ Top.

Here are this year's presenters:

Justin Timberlake for Madonna
: A perfect choice, in oh-so-many ways. When she used to wear that Boy Toy belt buckle, Justin was the boy she had in mind.

Lou Reed for Leonard Cohen
: One literate non-singing songwriter does the honors for another, but this one feels a bit off to me. For one thing, I don't think Lou can hold Leonard's jock, but maybe that's just me. Let me just note that while Reed was trying so hard to be the coolest guy in New York, Leonard was sleeping with everyone from Joni Mitchell to Janis Joplin.

Billy Joel for John Mellencamp: Billy is becoming one of the go-to guys for this, like Springsteen or Eddie Vedder (who inducted the Ramones, R.E.M., Neil Young, and probably a few others I missed) or Kid Rock (who did Bob Seger and Lynyrd Skynyrd; don't know why they didn't have him do Van Halen). Joel inducted the Righteous Brothers a few years back.

John Fogerty for the Ventures: This was my favorite choice of the evening, a bigger star paying tribute to his influences.

Tom Hanks for the Dave Clark Five: An odd choice, but it works; Hanks is a huge star, and the DC5 are basically what the Wonders would have been had they had more than one hit.

Patti LaBelle for Gamble and Huff: They could have chosen the people who performed on their biggest hits, but Billy Paul isn't exactly a big name anymore, and nobody would recognize anyone from the O'Jays. I would have gone with Russell Thompkins of the Stylistics, but I'm funny that way. Patti LaBelle is a fine choice, although I don't think she ever worked with G&H - at least she's from Philadelphia, and she's a big star and a great live performer (I saw her at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater in the early 1990s). Jerry Butler had been announced as Gamble and Huff's inductor; I don't know what happened there.

Ben Harper for Little Walter
: Good choice. Ben Harper seems like the appropriate level of star for someone no one's ever heard of. “To pass through life you must pass through the blues and to pass through the blues you must pass through Little Walter.” Good job, Ben.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

New York City Serenade

Al Pacino in Serpico looks just like Bruce Springsteen on the cover of The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.

But probably half the dudes in the Tri-State Area looked like that in 1973.

Zero Effect

If you buy a ten-piece bucket from Kentucky Fried Chicken, you'll see emblazoned in big letters on the side of the bucket, "0 G Trans Fat." Then in tiny print underneath it says "Per Serving."

Now why in the world would you need to specify that a whole bunch of something with no trans fat also contains no trans fats in lesser amounts? It's been a long time since I took math, but zero divided by anything is still zero, is it not?

Perhaps the entire bucket has some small amount of trans fats, like 2 grams for the whole ten pieces, so that each piece has 0.2 grams, and KFC feels like it has the right to round down, but that doesn't seem very kosher. Maybe I should see if I could buy a 0.2 karat diamond ring for five bucks, since rounded down, there'd be zero diamond there.

The Pajama Game

Baseball season is mere weeks away, and to prepare you for its onset, let's go back to a scene from my childhood and the White Sox' lefthanded knuckleball specialist Wilbur Wood, wearing the infamous pajama uniform that the Sox wore from 1976 to 1981. The shot at right, taken, I'm pretty certain, at Fenway Park on April 18, 1976, comes to us from a remarkable site called Steve's Baseball Photography, which features many riotous full-color shots of mostly forgotten baseball players from the 1970s, which was of course the best time ever to be a baseball fan.

These uniforms were both mind-spinningly retro and entirely unique when they were introduced as part of baseball's bicentennial in 1976. We in Chicago loved them, and I still have a sand-knit version of it in a drawer somewhere. But we must be honest now: They stink.

The overall near-blackness, once so deliciously different, now looks dull. The promise of returning us to baseball of the 19th century is undercut by the silly logo on the cap. (The white caps, thankfully, only lasted a single year, to be replaced by solid navy ones.)

But most problematic is that - and I can't tell if this is because of the design of the uniform, or because Wood was just naturally slovenly - they look so sloppy. The bagginess in the uniform's gut area cries out for a belt to provide a bit of a blousing effect. And no one has bothered to knicker the cuffs of his trousers, which hang around Wood's ankles as if they were a pair of discontinued capri pants he bought at Zayre.

The unis were bad luck for Wilbur Wood: Seven starts into the pajama era, he was pitching very well for the White Sox (a 2.24 ERA, although with ten unearned runs, always a problem for knuckleballers) when Ron LeFlore of the Tigers lined a shot off Wood's kneecap, shattering his patella, ending his season, and more or less finishing his career: Although he came back the following year, Wood pitched poorly in 1977 and 1978, and he was done at the age of 36, which is when most knuckleballers are just kicking it into gear. I blame the PJs.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Ask Artie

Awhile back, when I was contemplating the origin of the mysterious third verse of "Wonderful World" that he found for his version with Paul Simon and James Taylor, I found that on his Web site, Art Garfunkel was actually fielding questions from his fans. I sent in my question, both because I really wanted to know and because the quality of question Artie was getting was, shall we say, subpar. Consider this one:

Do you ever play Sudoku and do you find it difficult or easy?
(Submitted by Marcia from Ireland)

* Don't play.

So don't you think he'd love to handle a challenging one like "Where'd the third verse of 'Wonderful World' come from?"? But no such luck. It appears that Artie has given up on answering his fans' questions, and Marcia's penetrating Sudoku query will have to stand as the last word from Garfunkel.

Art may have learned the craft of the non-answer from his old partner. I believe it was in Rolling Stone where the following exchange, concerning "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," was originally printed:

Q. What is it that the mama saw? The whole world wants to know.
A. I have no idea what it is.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Deep in the Heart of Texas

The way Ry Cooder recorded his spooky slide-guitar soundtrack for the 1984 movie Paris, Texas was this: He sat down in front of a huge screen showing the film, and he just played his guitar, improvising along with the emotion of the scenes in front of him. When he played something good enough to keep, he'd make a note of it, and maybe sweeten it later with a little extra instrumentation.

Ry Cooder isn't even the best reason to watch Paris, Texas, though: The best thing about it is Robby Muller's camerawork on location in Texas and the San Fernando Valley, which is some of the most gorgeous cinematography I've ever seen. If you get the DVD, be sure to listen to director Wim Wenders explaining how they got some of the more amazing colors and tricky photography in that movie. It's a real treat.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Slicing Up Eyeballs! Ha Ha Ha Ho!

"Don't know about you," Black Francis sings, "but I am un chien Andalusia." Or actually it's more like "I am un CHIEN Andalusia." "I am un CHIEN Andalusia," he then repeats helpfully on the Pixies' great but nonhit song "Debaser."

But that doesn't quite parse, does it? The reference is to Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel's scabrous 1928 short movie Un Chien Andalou, which is French for "the Andalusian dog." Francis has anglicized the Andalou but left the chien alone, giving us a mishmash of French and English (in its original Spanish, the name of the region in Spain is Andalucia).

Or maybe nothing about the song is supposed to be sensical, much like the film that inspired it.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Here Comes the Story of the Hurricane

Friend of OPC RS writes in with news of the death of Hurricane Smith, progenitor of "Oh Babe, What Would You Say," which RS calls "perhaps the most Nawrockian record ever made." I'm not thrilled to be forever linked with melodic, undercooked pop tunes sung off-key by middle-aged Brits, but such is life. Smith was 85.

Born Norman Smith, Hurricane's most important accomplishment was probably serving as the Beatles' engineer on all their records up through Rubber Soul. He was then promoted to staff producer at EMI, and was replaced in his old role by Geoff Emerick. Smith then went on to produce Pink Floyd's Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Saucerful of Secrets, and Ummagumma.

Smith adopted the name Hurricane (which I'm sure he pronounced ER-i-ken, being English and all) and began making his own records in 1971, at the age of 48, which is positively decrepit for a pop star. He cut a demo of "Oh Babe, What Would You Say" as a prelude to having someone else record it, but producer Mickie Most persuaded him to release the demo instead, which is why the record sounds so thin and chintzy. Nevertheless, it went all the way to Number Three here in the U.S. in the early part of 1973. Smith turned 50 while the song was still on the Billboard charts.

For the record, the song that best encapsulates my ethos - which is far different from my favorite song, or what I think is the best song - would probably be "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" by the Cowsills.

Here's a homemade video for "Oh Babe," featuring some shots of the Hurricane himself:

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

All About the Benjamins

This is absolutely true: There were some Girls Scouts out here in Colorado peddling their cookies in front of a grocery store, when a young couple came up and bought two boxes. The purchasers paid for their cookies with a hundred-dollar bill, but the Girl Scouts didn't bat an eye, giving them their Tagalongs and $93.50 in change. It was only later, when they took the C-note to the bank, that the girls discovered that the bill was counterfeit. (They should have gotten their first clue when the bill, rather than the customary engraving of Benjamin Franklin, had a picture of Joe Namath instead.) How degenerate do you have to be to rip off the Girl Scouts?

You'd think this would at least be an opportunity to educate the girls about the hard-knock life, about believing half of what you see and some or none of what you hear, about the old Russian saying "trust but verify." But when I stopped at my local grocery to buy some Thin Mints for my own self, I asked the girls if they were familiar with the tale of the bogus hundred, but only one of them had even heard the story.

I thought about pulling out a million-dollar bill to pay for my cookies, just to see if they'd give me $999,993.50 in change. But I didn't have one on me. (OK, I made up the part about Joe Namath.)

It's a Gas, Gas, Gas

In Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne," Donald Fagen sings, "Is there as in the cah?/Yes, there's gas in the cahhh!" The concern with sufficient gasoline references the fact that the drug dealer on whom the song was based, a gentleman named Owsley Stanley, who was also the longtime soundman for the Grateful Dead, was once arrested after being chased by the police when his car ran out of gas.

There's also a story that Walter Becker was once in a cab in New York City, and when the driver learned who he was, told Becker that the worst lyrics in the Steely Dan canon were "Is there gas in the car?/Yes, there's gas in the car."

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Mess You Left

I heard Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" on the radio today, for the first time in probably about five years - although it was the first hit off Jagged Little Pill and apparently the most popular (it's hard to tell, since it was never released as a single, although it still went to Number 13 on the pop charts), it seems to have been overtaken in popularity by some of the followups. And probably for good reason. Listening to "You Oughta Know," it struck me that the singer was - and I use this phrase only after much deliberation - literally insane.

I don't remember that being the impression back when that song was a hit in 1997. People were more concerned about the naughty lyrics, or about speculating which Canadian celebrity had been the object of Ms. Morissette's infamous bad taste in men. (The driving pop metal was helped along by Flea and Dave Navarro, which is odd, since up to that point Alanis had been sort of a Canadian Debbie Gibson, and I can't imagine those guys playing on a Debbie Gibson record. Maybe Morissette offered them a lot of money.)

Let's take a look at the words to the song, focusing only on Alanis' complaints against her one-time beau:

Every time you speak her name
Does she know how you told me you'd hold me
Until you died, till you died
But you're still alive

This is a cute conceit, but if Alanis is really perturbed by the fact that this dude at one time told her that he would love her forever, then changed his mind... well, grow up, Alanis. Everyone talks like that. It wouldn't be so romantic to say, "I'm going to love you until I stop loving you, probably around the time I meet someone who's not so gol-danged crazy as you." But that's what we really mean. Just ask Johnny Depp about that WINONA FOREVER tattoo.

It's not fair to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me

Who's denying her the cross she bears? She seems to wear it pretty proudly.

It was a slap in the face how quickly I was replaced

Was there supposed to be a period of mourning? One suspects that if Alanis hadn't been quickly replaced, she'd be gloating about how long it took for him to find someone who measured up to her.

And that's it. He lied about loving her forever, found someone new too quickly, and is sonehow denying her the right to bear a cross. If the song is supposed to summarize the evidence of his duplicity, and justify the singer's reaction, it fails. There's no cheating, no abuse, no meanness. Sounds like your basic romance that found its natural end.

The rest of the song is Alanis being nasty and threatening, right in the middle of the poor sap's dinner. It certainly doesn't justify her obsession with his new girlfriend's capacities as a mother. It seems like the story of a normal breakup - except that the jilted woman is stone nuts. The question isn't why he dumped her; it's why he hooked up with a lunatic in the first place.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Jeff Healey, 1966-2008

Jeff Healey, Canadian guitarist, dead at the age of 41. He died from retinoblastoma, the same type of cancer that had cost him his eyesight as a small boy.

Healey became famous from his role in the Patrick Swayze B-movie Road House, in which Healey played guitar at the film's eponym. (Healey did not appear in the 2006 sequel Road House 2: Last Call.) Like Fassbinder's Love Is Colder Than Death, Road House remains unseen by me.

The Jeff Healey Band also had one hit, "Angel Eyes," which went all the way to Number Five in the late summer of 1989. What was most notable about that song was its obsession with vision: in addition to its title, it was from an album called See the Light, and its opening lines were "Girl, you're lookin' fine tonight/I wouldn't know because I'm blind, no sight."

OK, just a little joke there at the expense of someone who is both blind and dead, which I'm certain I'll pay for one of these days. The song, which was written not by Healey but by John Hiatt, actually begins: "Girl, you're looking fine tonight/And every fella's got you in his sights."

Healey was also known for playing his guitar across his lap, like a pedal steel. I have no idea if his blindness had anything to do with that, but I doubt it. Jose Feliciano plays it normally.

Photo by Chuck Ivy, from the Web site

Il est un wanker

I liked Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers" a lot more when I thought they were chanting "She's so funky - yeah" at the opening of the song. Having a chorus sing your song's title in French is so pretentious, it sounds like something Sting would come up with.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Big Boy

I wish to draw your attention to this article concerning the onetime world's heaviest man, Robert Earl Hughes, a familiar figure to anyone who ever picked up a Guinness Book of World Records. Robert Earl - that's apparently what people called him - died 50 years ago this summer at the age of 32.

Hughes cleared 200 pounds by the time he was six years old, and went on to peak at 1,069 pounds. A family friend described him stereotypically as "jolly," but there was heartbreak for the jovial tub as well, as when a publicist arranged for him to go to New York City and appear on Ed Sullivan and other TV shows, but eventually just stranded him in a New York hotel.

Here's an amazing newsreel clip showing Hughes in action, such as it is, at the family farm, when he clocked in at a relatively svelte 720 pounds:

Saturday, March 1, 2008

My Time Is Wasting

On the DVD for Stephen Gaghan's 2005 movie Syriana, one of the chapter titles - for chapter 13, to be exact - is "Date With Ikea." This is of course also the title of a song on Pavement's 1997 album Brighten the Corners, or pretty close, as the song is actually called "Date W/Ikea." I'm pretty sure this is deliberate, since I didn't notice Ikea in that Syriana scene, just a parking lot.

I wonder how many people noticed that connection. I wonder if anyone else noticed that connection.