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23 June 2017
Morning Sedition

Sixteen Tons… of Lies

Company Store in Mining Town

Company Store in Mining Town

Just about everyone knows the song "Sixteen Tons." It's about an angry coal miner railing about how no matter how hard he works he can't get ahead. (You can listen to it here.) The most famous part is:

I loaded sixteen tons and what do I get
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don't call me cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

"Sixteen Tons" by George Davis

The phrase "company store" comes from the practice of mining companies of setting up towns that were owned lock, stock, and barrel by the mining company. Workers were paid in "scrip" basically monopoly money created by the mining company and spendable only at the company-owned stores, which could charge whatever they wanted. This allowed the mine owner to pay the workers with one hand and take it back with the other, an effective tool in controlling profits, and thus, prices:

Miners resented the company store for three reasons: prices were much higher than those charged by independent retail stores, their grocery and supply bills were checked off their earnings even before they received their pay, and trading was compulsory. It hurt the miner's pride to know that he was being robbed in the "pluck-me,'' his term for the company store. Responsibility for budgeting family income was shifted from the housewife, where it was in normal households, to the company store manager. Moreover, the debts which a miner piled up in the store bound him as securely to his employer as miners were bound to feudal barons in medieval Scotland....

Many coal corporations issued their own money, which for all purposes took the place of United States currency. This phony money, called scrip, took various forms such as pasteboards, coupon books, paper bills called shinplasters, brass checks, and metal discs with holes through them like Turkish piasters.... In states where the law barred the issuance of scrip, coal companies distributed wage advances or store orders, but the miners regarded them as just another form of scrip.... Chronic layoffs, part-time work, and low wages made the ground fertile for scrip as its purpose was to tide over the miner from one payday to another.

When an operator was unable to expand his mining capacity or the volume of his sales, he would increase the number of his miners. This would so cut each man's working time and earnings that it left no surplus to spend outside the camp. Because of monopoly, there was no limit to the height to which a company store could hike its prices. John McBride, president of the United Mine Workers of America (1892-1894), related how an Ohio coal operator of his acquaintance worked two mines for thirteen months and made a profit of only $287. During the same period his store, which without the mines would have been worth nothing, earned him a net profit of $22,000.

An unscrupulous store-keeping coal operator who sought to undersell the market could do so simply by cutting the price of coal below cost and making up his operating losses out of company-store receipts. It was a competitive device often resorted to, especially in the South, where non-union operators thereby were enabled to take business away from Northern operators.

"Coal Dust on the Fiddle," by George Korson 1965, pp. 72-73

Merle Travis

Merle Travis

So much for the song's meaning, which most people sort of know. Fewer know, however, that the song was allegedly (yeah, you've spotted the direction of this entry) written by Merle Travis, a record company employee, in August of 1946:

In August, 1946, Cliffie Stone, then an assistant producer and talent scout for Capitol Records, called Merle Travis (a Capitol hitmaker at that time) about recording a 78 rpm album (four discs in a binder) of folk songs. Capitol, seeing the success of a Burl Ives album, wanted their own folk music album. Merle told Cliffie he figured, "Ives has sung every folk song." Stone suggested Travis write some new songs that sounded folky, and to do so quickly; the first four-song session was scheduled for the next day. Travis recalled the traditional Nine Pound Hammer and wrote three songs that night about life in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky's coal mines, where his father worked. One was Dark As A Dungeon, the other, Sixteen Tons.

The song's chorus came from a letter Merle received from his brother lamenting the death of World War II journalist Ernie Pyle, killed while covering combat in the Pacific in 1945. John Travis wrote, "It's like working in the coal mines. You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt." Merle also recalled a remark his father would make to neighbors when asked how he was doing: "I can't afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store. " This referred to coal-company owned stores where miners bought food and supplies with money advanced by the company, called "scrip"."

"Sixteen Tons - The Story Behind The Legend" on ErnieFord.com

Travis apparently ran into trouble with the FBI because any song promoting workers rights must be promoting communism. And so the good boys working for Jane Edgar Hoover told radio stations to not play the song; that's a difficult thing to do with a hit, and many ignored the directive. Here are Travis' lyrics:

Some people say a man is made out of mud
A poor man's made out of muscle and blood
Muscle and blood, skin and bones...
A mind that's weak and a back that's strong

(Repeat Chorus)

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store (Repeat Chorus)

(Repeat Chorus)

I was born one mornin' and the sun didn't shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal and
the straw boss said, "well bless my soul!"
.....you loaded...

(Repeat Chorus)

I was born one mornin' it was drizzlin' rain
fightin' and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in a cane-brake by an old mama lion
can't no high-toned woman make me walk no line

(Repeat Chorus)

If you see me comin', better step aside
A lot of men didn't, a lot of men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don't get you, then the left one will

(Repeat Chorus)

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter don't you call me, 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

— "Sixteen Tons" by Merle Travis

I put together some notes explaining the lyrics:

  • A "straw boss," according to Wentworth & Flexner's Dictionary of American Slang, is "the boss attended to the grain going into the thresher; the second-man watched after the straw coming out and hence had little to do."
  • The term "script" or "scrip" refers to a piece of paper printed by employer and used to pay its workers in lieu of money. The script is, naturally, only good at the company's stores, allowing it to charge whatever it wants.
  • The term "cane-brake" is derived from the term "brake," for bracken swamps, that surrounded cane fields. (This is why the crotalus horridus atricaudatus rattlesnake is often called a "cane breaks;" it lives in these lowland swamps.)
  • The term "number nine coal" was a little trickier to track down. "For some time, miners had followed the custom of naming the main pay zones of minerals, and numbering the splits, as in "Pocahontas Number Nine Coal" or "the Great Gossan Lead" for example. This method seemed to allow more flexibility, so it worked its way into use by the scientific community, and is now known as the Geological Time Scale." (Friends of Roan Mountain Newsletter, Volume 5, No. 1, Winter 2001) All sorts of coal gradations exist.

Tennessee Ernie Ford

Tennessee Ernie Ford

Once allegedly written by Travis, it became popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford as a B side. What's interesting is that nobody remembers the A side, and "Sixteen Tons" became the best-selling single in the country. The famous finger snapping at the beginning was a happy accident:

It had a good solid beat to begin with. In addition, I snapped my fingers all through it. Sometimes I set my own tempo during rehearsal by doing that. The orchestra leader asks me, "What tempo do you want, Ernie?'' I say, "About like this,'' and I begin to snap my third finger and thumb together. After I was through rehearsing that song, Lee Gillette, who was in charge of the recording session for Capitol Records, screamed through the telephone from the control room, "Tell Ernie to leave that finger snapping in when you do the final waxing.''

Interview with Tennessee Ernie Ford by Pete Martin, Saturday Evening Post, 28 September 1957

George Davis

George Davis

There's one tiny problem here. Travis didn't write the song. He stole it from George Davis, a man known all over Kentucky for singing songs about mining, who wrote it circa 1930. The real lyrics are:

I loaded sixteen tons and what do I get
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don't call me cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

(Chorus)

I was born one morning, was a drizzling rain
A fussing and fighting ain't my middle name.
Well they raised me in a corner by a Mammy hound
I'm as mean as a dog but I'm as gentle as a lamb.

(Chorus)

Well I got up one morning, the sun didn't shine,
I picked up my shovel and I went to the mine,
I loaded sixteen ton of that number four coal
The face boss said, ''Well bless my soul!"

(Chorus)

I loaded sixteen tons, I tried to get ahead,
Got deeper and deeper in debt instead.
Well they got what I made, and they wanted some more,
And now I owe my soul at the company store.

(Chorus)

Well I went to the office to draw some script
The man, he told me -- was a wreck in the dip.
To clear the tracks would be a week or more
But your credit's still good at our company store.

(Chorus)

If you see me coming, step aside.
A lot of men didn't and a lot of men died
I got a fist of iron, I got a fist of steel,
The left one don't get you then the right one will.

— George Davis, circa 1930

Here's the real story behind the song:

When I first met him [George Davis] at the Hazard radio station in 1959, he was very hesitant about doing any recording because of his previous bad experience with the records business. He claims to have composed "Sixteen Tons" during the 1930s, and feels that Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford capitalized on his song through changing the chords somewhat. George's original version is on this record....

According to George Davis, this song was first called "Nine-to-Ten-Tons,'' and he wrote it in reference to "this particular mine (which) had what is known as a Clean-up System. This was before the days of the UMW. In a clean-up system you either cleaned up your place every day, or brought your tools out (quit ? ). An old expression the operator used then was, 'We've got a barefooted man waiting for your job.' Here's the catch -- each place would make nine or 10 tons, but where you loaded this coal was very low; most of them had water in them -- as much as three or four inches -- and they had no pumps. On top of this you might have a cut of draw rock from 8 to 12 inches thick, 14 feet wide, and up to 9 feet long. All the coal, rock, and anything like wrecks, tore up track. All that was 'dead work' and it always had to be cleaned up, even if it took you 18 or 19 hours to do it.

John Cohen, liner notes for "When Kentucky Had No Mining Men," 1967

This is the key point: the mining company, like many large corporations today, forced workers to work off the timeclock for no pay. Americans, in some sense, still work for the company store, except now it's made from plastic and charges workers 18%, compounded daily.

Screeeech!

Fran Drescher: The Only Sound Worse than Fingernails on a Chalkboard

Fran Drescher: The Only Sound More Irritating than Fingernails on a Chalkboard

Marry,
And I am glad of it with all my heart:
I had rather be a kitten and cry mew
Than one of these same metre ballad-mongers;
I had rather hear a brazen canstick turn'd,
Or a dry wheel grate on the axle-tree;
And that would set my teeth nothing on edge,
Nothing so much as mincing poetry:
'Tis like the forced gait of a shuffling nag.

— Hotspur, Henry IV, Part I, Act III, William Shakespeare

Bad poetry is up there, but it can't compare with fingernails on a chalkboard for sheer obnoxiousness. I've seen various explanations — such as how the sound is similar to that of a child in distress or the cry of a macacque monkey which preyed on our primate ancestors — but none of them were particularly convincing. Then I came across this one.

In "Psychoacoustics of a Chilling Sound," the authors describe their study using two dozen adults served as guinea pigs for rating sounds on a pleasantness scale. My personal favorite has to be how they created a standard — much like how there are standards for the meter, liter, second, etc. against which unknown quantities are compared — for the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. (Just thinking about it makes me cringe.) They constructed a "True Value Pacemaker" using a three-pronged garden tool dragged over a slate surface. (Aieeeeee!)

Macaque

Macaque (Not a member of the Bush Administration)

Now that's what they should have used to get Noriega out of that church he was holed up in, instead of Barry Manilow. (Then again, I think I'd much rather listen to nails on a chalkboard, or even Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music than Barry Manilow. Hell, I'd even rather listen to Fran Drescher's donkey-bray laugh than to Barry Manilow.) It's really amazing what researchers can get funding for, isn't it? Anyway, here's a summary of the whole issue from the Straight Dope.

In the aforementioned scientific paper (which appeared in a publication sternly entitled Perception & Psychophysics, and is not to be confused with a vulgar and sensationalized, if entertaining, article that appeared subsequently in Psychology Today), the authors note the antiquity of human curiosity on this subject. No less an authority than Aristotle acknowledged the "aversive quality" of scraping sounds. Our heroes even dug up the archaic English verb gride, which means to make godawful noises by means of scraping or cutting.

Getting down to business, Halpern and friends subjected 24 adult volunteers to various noises with a view to determining whether blackboard scraping was really as excruciating as it was made out to be. Generally speaking, they found, it was. (For purposes of reproducibility, the scraping was conducted not with fingernails but with a three-pronged garden tool, solemnly described as a "True Value Pacemaker model.") Interestingly, "rubbing two pieces of styrofoam together," the sound that results when you pry two styrofoam cups apart, came in second.

Next, by means of the magic of high tech, the researchers filtered out the most high-pitched portion of the scraping sound. To their great surprise, what remained was as unpleasant as ever. However, when they filtered out just the lower frequencies (particularly 3.0 to 6.0 kilohertz, for you weens), they found that what was left was relatively bearable--"quaint" or "tinkly," in Blake's description. In other words, it was the low-to-middle frequencies, not the high ones, that really set people's nerves on edge.

"Why is the sound of fingernails scraping a blackboard so annoying?," The Straight Dope

I tried to track down the original Halpern paper online, but didn't have any luck. It was, after all, published in 1986 when dinosaurs walked the earth. (Perception & Psychophysics doesn't have issues this old online yet.) I did, however, find a nice summary, even if it is one giant paragraph (I guess whitespace costs more in the Netherlands. Must be some Euro or VAT thing.):

Halpern et al. (1986) examined the unpleasantness of a chilling sound. Although this study investigated the unpleasantness of a sound instead of the human ability to perceive properties of the sound source, it is included because of the very similarmethod and unexpected results. In a first experiment, subjects had to judge the unpleasantness for a number of different sounds, such as jingling keys, a blender motor, and scraping metal. The sounds were matched in duration (3 s) and amplitude (equal maximum value). The results showed agreement between subjects regarding the unpleasantness of the sounds. The sound judged to be most unpleasant was that produced by slowly scraping a three-pronged garden tool over a slate surface, a sound very similar to the sound of fingernails scratching across a blackboard. The spectrogram of this chilling sound revealed several prominent harmonics, the lowest at 2.8 kHz. The amplitude waveform showed an aperiodic temporal structure with a rapidly fluctuating amplitude envelope. To investigate the contribution of spectral content to the sound’s unpleasant character, the authors removed energy from different frequency regions by either highpass or lowpass filtering. The sounds were matched in amplitude by equalizing their RMS value. Subjects had to rate the unpleasantness of the filtered sounds and were told how the stimuli were created before listening. Results showed that decreasing the lowpass filter cutoff frequency from 8 to 3 kHz had no effect on the unpleasantness ratings. Increasing the highpass filter cutoff frequency from 2 to 6 kHz, the sound lost some of its unpleasantness, with a large drop in unpleasantness between 3 and 4 kHz. Apparently, removal of lower frequencies, not of the highest ones, lessened the sound’s unpleasantness. In this experiment the sounds were matched by their level, but still may be perceived as not equally loud. A third experiment tested the possibility that unpleasantness had been confounded with loudness. Subjects listened to a selection of stimuli from the previous experiment, presented at two sound pressure levels 10 dB apart, and had to judge the loudness. An intensity decrease of 10 dB resulted in an estimated loudness drop between 41% and 50%, confirming that subjects were estimating the loudness. Sounds presented at the same sound pressure level showed no difference in the estimated loudness, indicating that loudness differences could not have influenced the unpleasantness ratings. In a final experiment, the contribution of temporal fine structure was evaluated by presenting subjects with four different stimuli: the original sound, a demodulated version of the original (the original sound divided by its temporal envelope contour), an unmodulated synthesized sound (sum of three sinusoids corresponding to the first three prominent harmonics of the original sound), and a modulated synthesized sound (the sum of three sinusoids multiplied by the temporal envelope contour of the original sound). The subjects’ unpleasantness ratings of the original sounds were much higher than those of the synthesized sounds, indicating that the latter did not mimic the original chilling sound very well. No differences were found between the original and demodulated original sounds and between the unmodulated synthesized and modulated synthesized sounds, indicating that temporal envelope structure did not contribute to the unpleasantness of the sounds. It is still unclear why this sound is so unpleasant for human listeners. The authors wonder “whether it mimics some naturally occurring, innately aversive event” (p. 80), and think of warning cries or vocalizations of some predator. But, “regardless of this auditory event’s original functional significance, the human brain obviously still registers a strong vestigial response to this chilling sound” (p. 80).

"The sound of rolling objects: Perception of size and speed" by Mark Mathieu and Jeanny Houben

The ranking for sounds from most pleasant to least pleasant is rather intriguing:

  • Chimes
  • Spinning Bicycle Tire
  • Running Water
  • Jingling Keys
  • Pure Tone
  • Pencil Sharpener
  • Shaking Metal Parts
  • White Noise
  • Compressed Air
  • Blender Motor
  • Dragged Stool
  • Metal Drawer Opening
  • Scraping Wood
  • Scraping Metal
  • Rubbing Styrofoam Pieces Together
  • Scraping Slate with Garden Tool (fingernail/chalkboard)

I never found styrofoam rubbing together to be particularly grating, no pun intended, though. Conspicuously omitted from the list, however, is the sound of MTA subway screeching. Now that's a sound that just about rips out one's spinal column and skull ala Predator.

Anyway, the interesting observation is that application of a low-frequency filter drops the annoyance factor measurably, demonstrating that lower frequencies are more annoying than higher ones. (I always found the higher tones in Fran Drescher's voice to be the most annoying, but I don't get paid to do psychoacoustic research, so what do I know?) I guess someone should ask William Tager about annoying frequencies. (Hint: he's the one who attacked Dan Rather for beaming thought waves at him, and this inspired "What's the Frequency Kenneth" from REM.)

But why should lower frequences be more annoying than higher ones? The answer seems to lie in the physiology of the human ear:

Having recently done some work on the pleasantness/unpleasantness of sounds (JASA 110(1), 380-390, 2001) I was somewhat curious to read that it was the low frequencies that produced the effect, since most of the literature I am aware of (e.g. see review in Vitz (1973) P&P, 11, 84-88) suggests the opposite. However, having got hold of a copy of the Halpern et al. paper I note that sound in question has a fairly strong harmonic structure with a fundamental at about 1.4 kHz. The fundamental is very weak and most of the energy is in harmonics 2,3,4 and 5, starting at 2.8 kHz. By most standards this sound would be considered to be quite high. So the term "low" should be considered in relative terms. Nevertheless, application of a high-pass filter to this sound suggested that it was frequencies less than 2-3 kHz which were predominant in the effect, and by implication the fundamental and possibly the 2nd harmonic, i.e. sounds between about 1 - 2 kHz. In the previous literature and my own work, sounds less than 1 kHz were considered to be least annoying or most pleasant. So why do sounds with frequencies between 1-2 kHz cause the effect? My guess is that the effect is produced by activation of various myogenic reflex responses including the stapedius response, the post-auricular response and responses of other muscles innervated by the facial nerve (and possibly the trigeminal nerve). It so happens that the tuning curves of stapedius motorneurons have their best frequencies between 1-2 kHz with a threshold of about 75 dB in the cat (see Kobler et al. (1992), J. Neurophysiol. 68, 807-817). (These should be distinguished from myogenic vestibular responses mediated by the accessory nerve, which responds to frequencies less than 1 kHz.) In order for this to work then the scraping sound would have to be above about 75 dB, but it's not clear from Halpern et al. what intensity they presented the sounds to the subjects. However, the proposed mechanism would account for why the effect appears to be reflexive. It can't be very pleasant having all those muscles twitching away!

"Re: finger nails on blackboard" by Neil Todd, todd(at)FS4 dot PSY dot MAN dot AC dot UK

Ok, let's put that into English. The stapedius is a muscle in the inner ear that acts to protect the ear from loud noise, including the sound of our own voice (Fox newscasters must have an overactive one to stave off deafness) and mastication (eating). Certain sounds in the 1-2KHz range have the effect of causing spasms in the stapedius. The exact mechanism is unknown, but may have to do with higher frequency harmonics arising out of the lower tones, perhaps because of the resonant frequency of the ear bones. The effect of certain frequencies is to cause pain in the stapedius which makes us cringe.

So how plausible is this? Well, consider that the distaste for screeching does not seem to be be universal among primates, which it really should be if the mechanism for distaste is one of avoidance of a predator. Tamarin monkeys, for example, don't seem to mind it much:

As a second test of whether tamarins might have acoustic preferences based on something other than amplitude or behavioral relevance, we attempted to generate two nonmusical stimuli with similar amplitudes that were expected to produce a large preference in humans. We began by generating a stimulus that is highly aversive to most humans—the sound of fingernails on a blackboard (Halpern, Blake, & Hillenbrand, 1986). The relationship between the responses that humans have to this stimulus and to musical stimuli is unclear, but it seemed conceivable that nonhuman animals might respond aversively to such a stimulus despite the lack of preference for consonance over dissonance.

...

When tested on the screech and control stimuli, however, the tamarins showed no evidence of a preference. We ran the tamarins for several consecutive sessions (NZ37 sessions) to see if a preference would emerge over time. As shown in Fig. 5b, there was no preference (t[36]Z0.89; pZ0.15). In contrast with humans, who show a pronounced preference for white noise over the screeching sound, tamarins do not exhibit a preference.

"Are consonant intervals music to their ears? Spontaneous acoustic preferences in a nonhuman primate" by Josh McDermotta and Marc Hauserb, Cognition, 94 (2004)

Now, just when you start to believe that it's all in the ear, I'll throw this into the mix:

Seth Horowitz is a neuroscientist who uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans of the brain to find how different sounds can trigger activity in the brain. Now he is working with a musician to create music incorporating sounds, in the hopes of triggering specific emotional responses.

...

Horowitz began to study whether sounds could trigger emotional states. For example, the sound of fingernails on a blackboard is an effective way to cause many people to feel uneasy. So Horowitz broke down the sound of fingernails on a blackboard to isolate exactly the sounds responsible for triggering uneasy feelings. He calls those sounds neuro-sensory algorithms, or NSAs. Then he analyzed sounds that trigger activity in the same region of the brain. He did the same for sounds that make people feel calm or happy or stimulated. By combing through the data, Horowitz was able to come up with dozens of different sounds that triggered emotional responses in the correct regions of the brain. NSAs all sound different. Some can be a very brief sound that immediately triggers activity in a certain part of the brain. Others can be complicated mixes of sound that last up to 30 seconds and trigger activity in different parts of the brain simultaneously.

"Mood Music" The Osgood File (CBS Radio Network), 26 January 2005

Anyway, the next time some brain-dead creationist tells you that the human body is an example of intelligent design, I suggest you scrape your fingernails across a chalkboard. (Or a piece of slate with a gardening tool.) Get them to explain the "intelligent design" behind that for you.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Psychoacoustics of a chilling sound." by D. Lynn Halpern, Randy Blake, Jim Hillenbrand, Perception and Psychophysics, Vol. 39 No. 2, February 1986, Pages 77-80
  2. "Why is the sound of fingernails scraping a blackboard so annoying?," The Straight Dope
  3. "The sound of rolling objects: Perception of size and speed" by Mark Mathieu and Jeanny Houben
  4. "Re: finger nails on blackboard" by Neil Todd
  5. "M109: Reflexes and/or associations" (more discussion on Neil Todd's comments)
  6. "Are consonant intervals music to their ears? Spontaneous acoustic preferences in a nonhuman primate" by Josh McDermotta and Marc Hauserb, Cognition, 94 (2004)
  7. "Mood Music" The Osgood File (CBS Radio Network), 26 January 2005

Cartoon About Fingernails on Blackboard versus Celene Dion

"Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine"

Record Albums

When I were a lad, and humans hadn't yet evolved opposable thumbs, we listened to music on eight-tracks and vinyl. Sad, but true. Now, one of the interesting things you can do with vinyl that you can't do with a CD is play it backwards, ruining both vinyl and needle in the process. (Ok, ok. One can now buy scratch CD players which allow you to do this, but Joe Sixpack doesn't have this specialized gear.) There was what amounted to a cult following for which albums contained secret messages only audible to the faithful. Mostly idiotic mumblage about how Paul McCartney was dead and had been replaced by a robot, or how various songs really were tributes to Satan. As anyone who doesn't live in red-state America knows, these alleged "messages" are really nothing more than artifacts created by our brains:

The human brain with all of its capabilites and control has difficulty with one thing: time. It can only understand it when it goes in one single direction. To us it's forward; to other particles in the universe it's sideways, or tangential, or even crooked. When we are presented with something where time has been changed more than just slightly - reversed, for example - it seems nothing but completely foreign and incomprehensible. Only in the past 50 years has man even been able to hear sounds in reverse. These new sounds are not based in our reality, and to the uninitiated, quite scary. It's no wonder reversing of sound in popular culture has been linked with Satan or other devilish conduct - that's how most cultures deal with things they can't comprehend.

Sofanic Messages in Frank Zappa's Music revealed

The technique of laying down reversed audio on top of a normal piece of music is called "backward masking". This is a different technique than choosing words that will sound out the proper message when played in reverse. The latter is much more interesting — and harder — than the former. The key to a message audible only in reverse is picking the proper forward phonemes — phonemes are the discrete sounds making up each spoken word — so that the reverse phonemes yield the desired message:

The combination of reversed phonemes in English results in yet more complication. In most cases the end result cannot be estimated from the initial sounds, because of many factors.

1. Slang - in most English phrases, words are strung together for ease of speaking. Certain consonants are lost, vowels shortened, etc. Phonetic analysis of the word as it is properly spoken usually has very little in comparison to how it is spoken in real life, and can even depend upon how the word is used in the phrase itself.

2. Pitch - The English language uses pitch to designate ends of phrases, emphasized words, etc. When these are reversed, the whole sense of the phrase is misdirected - the emphasis goes to a certain syllable (or combination of phonemes) which when reversed adds to its unusual rhythm.

3. Human experience - the most undefinable of the result of combined reversed phonemes is how they are combined in the human mind to form something discernable. Correlations with known slang words, changing vowels, and numerous other things are added or removed in order to interpret the vocal sound to something understandable. As we will see, this factor plays almost the biggest role in 'secret message' finding...

Ev: Audio Reversal In Popular Culture

Ok, so what does this mean in practice? Let's consider a famous example:

The simplest of examples (and one of the most popular) comes from The Beatles' "Revolution 9". Throughout the piece is a spoken phrase repeating "number nine" in a slight British accent:

nUXmbUXnAOIHnUX

Note the removal of the 'r' in number , the deep swell in vowels in 'nine', from 'au' to 'i' sounding more like 'nauighn', and the addition of the vowel sound at the end. The pitch of the voice is very important as well - the note stays nearly the same throughout 'number', but rises quickly in 'nine', and ends on a high pitch for the final vowel sound.

When reversed at the phonetic level, the result is:

UXnIHAOnUXbmUXn

The heavy pitch drop at the beginning stretches out the first vowels, which come across as two words because of the different vowel sounds from the British accent, and the reversed consonants in 'number' separate the words as well:

UXn IH AOn UXb mUXn

...which has been loosely translated in the English language to "Turn me on dead man".

By loosely I mean that many of the consonants are dropped (which is usual for this phrase in slang): the starting "t" is dropped, the "r" is dropped (normal for British accents), the "m" is dropped, the first "d" in "dead" is dropped (usually combined with the preceding consonant anyway), the "b" changes to "d" (a very close relation as well), and the vowel sound for "man" changes from "AE" to the lazy-sounding "UX".

Ev: Audio Reversal In Popular Culture

Turntable With Hand

So who's used this technique? Just about everyone.

Led Zeppelin's epic "Stairway To Heaven" creates possibly the most amazing phoenetic accidents known in popular music. To further the mystery around the song, a little background is necessary.

Led Zeppelin had it's popularity in the 1970s mostly in the grass-roots rock and roll community. Influences for the band included J.R.R. Tolkien books, mystical folks stories, and the like - most of which had paganistic overtones, easily interpreted by the public as closely satanic. The growth of Led Zeppelin seemed mystical in itself - though minimal promotion was done by the group's record company Atlantic Records, the group's popularity spread by word of mouth, something not usually expected or calculated.

The song "Stairway To Heaven" became a legendary song in rock and roll music culture. Stranger than the fact that it was the most-played track in radio history, stranger than the fact that the song's length was nearly 8:00 (most radio stations played nothing over 4:00), stranger than the fact that it is a staple of rock and roll guitar players everywhere, was the way the lyrics were written. Robert Plant, the lead singer and lyric writer described it: "I just sat down next to Pagey (Jimmy Page, guitarist) while he was playing it through. It was done very quickly. It took a little working out, but it was a very fluid, unnaturally easy track. It was almost as if - uh-oh - it just had to be gotten out at that time. There was something pushing it, saying 'you guys are okay, but if you want to do something timeless, here's a wedding song for you."

What makes this song truly amazing on another level is that in a stretch of nearly one minute, you could find 7 different consecutive phonetically reversed "phrases" seeming to refer to the same subject: Satan. Never in the history of popular music has this happened before or since.

Ev: Audio Reversal In Popular Culture

There are many examples in Frank Zappa's musical output that were recorded at higher or lower speeds or backwards. In addition, there are many examples of conceptual continuity where musical themes in one piece can be found in another context somewhere else. The purpose of this Web page is to decode some of some of these puzzle pieces using some of the frightening little techniques science has made available. What was sped up is slowed down. What was recorded backwards is reversed. Themes that are found in entirely different musical contexts are recorded side by side -- version one on the left channel and version two on the right.

Sofanic Messages in Frank Zappa's Music revealed

Another One Bites the Dust
Queen, The Game

Rumor: When played backward, the lyrics say, "It's fun to smoke marijuana."

Findings: There is something that sounds like "It's fun to smoke marijuana" in the reversed music. It is repeated over and over. It might be rendered no less faithfully, however, as "sfun to scout mare wanna." This "message" is the reversal of the song title, which is repeated a a line in the song.

Big Secrets by William Poundstone, 1983

But that's just a few of the many examples. Other bands claimed to use backwards masking include Jefferson Starship. Electric Light Orchestra, The Cars, Pink Floyd, etc.

Digital Voiceprint

Religious fundamendalists then mounted a campaign to label every album with backward masking to protect children:

Phonograph Record Backward Masking Labeling Act of 1982 - Makes it unlawful for any packager, labeler, or distributor to distribute in commerce phonograph records containing "backward masking" without a label bearing a specified warning.

Defines "backward masking" to mean an impression upon a phonograph record which makes an audible verbal statement when the record is played backward.

Makes any violation an unfair or deceptive act or practice under the Federal Trade Commission Act.

H.R.6363, "A bill to require that jackets in which phonograph records containing backward masking are packaged bear a label warning consumers of such backward masking.", Sponsored by Representative Robert K. Dornan (CA), 12 May 1982

Which the Congress wisely referred to the "Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism" where it was allowed to die a peaceful, and unreported, death. But groups other than fundamentalists were fascinated, as well. The lunatic fringe weighed in, saying the wonders of the universe are contained in backwards music and speech:

The pioneer and 20 year veteran of this field, Australian David John Oates, describes Reverse Speech as another form of human communication. He states that language is bi-level, forward and reverse. As the human brain constructs the sounds of speech, it forms those sounds in such a way that two messages are delivered simultaneously. One forwards, which is the conscious mind speaking, and the other in reverse, which is the unconscious mind speaking.

The applications of this discovery are exciting. On the surface level, it can act as a sort of Truth Detector as Reverse Speech will usually correct the inconsistencies of forward speech. If a lie is spoken forwards, the truth may be communicated in reverse. If pertinent facts are left out of forward speech these may also be spoken in reverse. It can reveal hidden motive and agenda and other conscious thought processes. At deeper levels, Reverse Speech can reveal thought patterns that are unconscious, including reasons behind behaviour and disease. This information can be used to greatly enhance the therapeutic and healing processes.

TalkBackwards.com - Backmasking & Reverse Speech

Yeah, I know. They are at least forty cards shy of a full deck. Who could make this nonsense up? Anyway, if Geraldo or Jerry Springer aren't satisfying your need for satanic messages, you can make your own. That's right, boys and girls, the lunatics over at TalkBackwards.com have a page where you can upload a .wav file and have it reversed:

Upload an audio file to our server, wait a few seconds for it to be reversed, and then you will hear it played backwards. No download or special software required.

Talk Backwards

And if you claim to hear secret Satanic messages in speeches from Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld, well, all I can say is, I hear those same evil messages when their words aren't reversed.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Ev: Audio Reversal In Popular Culture (includes audible example)
  2. Sofanic Messages in Frank Zappa's Music revealed (includes audible examples)
  3. Talk Backwards
  4. Excerpts from Big Secrets by William Poundstone, 1983

"It Was the Stubble that Gave it Away."

Album artwork for "Lola vs. the Powerman & the Money-Go-Round, Part One"

Album artwork for "Lola vs. the Powerman & the Money-Go-Round, Part One"

"Lola" by the Kinks is a song so overplayed that probably shouldn't be allowed on the radio again for at least a decade. But it's interesting that the vast mass of people don't know it's a lovesong about a man and the transvestite he met in a club. (I wonder if it would have been fourteen weeks on the charts in 1970 if they had.) Ray Davies apparantly penned Lola about his experiences dating Candy Darling, the famous — or, more precisely, infamous — transsexual associated with Warhol's factory.

Yeah, I can you saying. Riiiiiight. But it's all absolutely true! Don't believe me? Consider the evidence from the lyrics:

Lola

I met her in a club down in old Soho
Where you drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca-cola
C-o-c-a cola
She walked up to me and she asked me to dance
I asked her her name and in a dark brown voice she said Lola
L-o-l-a Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola

Well I’m not the world’s most physical guy
But when she squeezed me tight she nearly broke my spine
Oh my Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola
Well I’m not dumb but I can’t understand
Why she walked like a woman and talked like a man
Oh my Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola

Well we drank champagne and danced all night
Under electric candlelight
She picked me up and sat me on her knee
And said dear boy won’t you come home with me
Well I’m not the world’s most passionate guy
But when I looked in her eyes well I almost fell for my Lola
Lo-lo-lo-lo Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola
Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola

I pushed her away
I walked to the door
I fell to the floor
I got down on my knees
Then I looked at her and she at me

Well that’s the way that I want it to stay
And I always want it to be that way for my Lola
Lo-lo-lo-lo Lola
Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola
Lo-lo-lo-lo Lola

Well I left home just a week before
And I’d never ever kissed a woman before
But Lola smiled and took me by the hand
And said dear boy I’m gonna make you a man

Well I’m not the world’s most masculine man
But I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man
And so is Lola
Lo-lo-lo-lo Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola
Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola lo-lo-lo-lo Lola

"Lola", Lola vs. the Powerman & the Money-Go-Round, Part One, The Kinks, 1970

Now, here are some specific lines in song to examine:

  1. in a dark brown voice she said Lola
  2. when she squeezed me tight she nearly broke my spine
  3. she walked like a woman and talked like a man
  4. She picked me up and sat me on her knee
  5. And said dear boy won’t you come home with me
  6. Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
  7. And said dear boy I’m gonna make you a man
  8. I’m glad I’m a man / And so is Lola

The last one is, of course, a clever double entendre. Still don't believe me? Here's what Rolling Stone had to say:

The real Lola? Perhaps transvestite Candy Darling, whom Davies dated. "It was the stubble that gave it away," Ray said."

Rolling Stone: 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, 422 Lola, The Kinks, 1970

Candy Darling photographed by Gerard Malanga, circa 1971

Candy Darling photographed by Gerard Malanga, circa 1971

Here's some more about Candy Darling:

Candy's first "drag" name was Hope Slattery. According to Bob Collacello, Candy adopted this name sometime in 1963/64 after she started going to gay bars in Manhattan as well as making visits to a doctor on Fifth Avenue for hormone injections. (BC79) Jackie Curtis had told Andy that Candy had got the name Hope from a girl named Hope Stansbury who Candy lived with for a few months in an apartment behind the Caffe Cino so that Candy could "study" her. (POP244) According to Holly Woodlawn, Candy was first Hope Dahl, then Candy Dahl, and then Candy Cane. In her autobiography, Holly Woodlawn recalled that Candy had adopted the last name of Darling because a transvestite friend of hers named Taffy Tits Sarcastic "used to drag Candy all over the West Village and say, 'Come on, let's go, Candy, darling.' And Taffy called Candy 'darling' so often that it finally stuck." (HW68) According Candy's friend Jeremiah Newton, she adopted the first name of Candy because of her "love for sweets" (CD12)

Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar

You've encountered Candy before, even if you don't remember it. (Trust me, the girl got around.) Lou Reed's 1972 song, "Walk on the Wild Side", is all about the transvestites and hustlers at the Warhol factory:

Candy came from out on the island
in the backroom she was everybody's darling
But she never lost her head
even when she was givin' head

"Walk on the Wild Side", Transformer, Lou Reed, 1972

The "out on the island" refers to Candy's living in Long Island with her parents. The "backroom" refers to the back room of the nightclub Max's Kansas City, frequented by Warhol and friends:

In the Back Room Warhol presided at the famous Round Table, vastly different from the one Dorothy Parker's crowd had traded jibes over at the Algonquin, while superstars, speed freaks, and transvestites vied for attention, drenched in the blood red of Dan Flavin's fluorescent light sculpture. "Showtime" - Andrea Whips (Andrea Feldman) singing on the tabletops - was a regular, yet spontaneous, exhibition. The gossip circulated violently, but sometimes words failed. "I met Iggy Pop at max's kansas city in 1970 or 1971," recalled David Bowie. "Me, Iggy, and Lou Reed at one table with absolutely nothing to say to each other, just looking at each other's eye makeup."

Andrea Feldman Other than the waitresses, who are now among max's greatest chroniclers, the women were dicey; some were real and some were fake, and sometimes it made no difference. As Zsa Zsa Gabor said of transvestite Candy Darling, "She was one of the world's most beautiful women." Yet max's really was a macho scene. Here, in the back room, producers recruited the extras for the film Midnight Cowboy. Here, Andy Warhol met his match in the butch Valerie Solanis, who later shot him.

Max's Kansas City Web Site

Interestingly enough, "Walk on the Wild Side" wasn't banned by the radio censors because they didn't know what "givin' head" meant. (Go figure.) They did force Lou Reed to change the line "And the colored girls go..." to "All the girls go..." (Again, go figure.) If you care about the rest of the song, there is an annotated version. I remember hearing this when I were a lad and it first came out; I had no idea what the lyrics meant, but I really didn't like the slow, trippy beat.

Another trivia bit. The name "Coca Cola" on Lola had to be changed to "Cherry Cola" because the BBC's censors decided this pop culture reference was advertising and its censors refused to allow the song to be played. Nowadays, Coca Cola would pay for that placement and the radio stations would be getting bribed to play the song. (How times have changed.) And by the time the BBC or US censors realized what the song was about it was too late; they had a hit on their hands. Funny how that works.

The Annual Mugging of Americans

IRS Form 8302: Electronic Deposit of Tax Refund of $1 Million or More

IRS Form 8302: "Electronic Deposit of Tax Refund of $1 Million or More"

We don't pay taxes. Only little people pay taxes.

— Leona Helmsley

When I were a lad — and we walked uphill to school both ways, in the snow, while dragging hundred pound cinderblocks and fending off ravenous sabre-tooth tigers and rabid voles — there were virtually no enterprising capitalists extorting money, I mean, soliciting donations from their fellow students using the threat of dire consequences if a suitable contribution was not made. Most, instead, went after the less-risky, an immensely profitable, upscale market by providing substances that were, shall we say, unavailable at Deliah's Liquors. (Deliah's was the place in town to buy if you were, ahem, underaged. I'm revealing no secrets here as they sold the business many years ago and the statute of limitations has long since run out.) But back to extortion.

Not that I'm complaining about the lack of regular muggings, of course, but the funny thing is that if more outright coercive theft had been committed in school it would have better prepared us for the joys of dealing with the IRS. For what is the IRS but a big bully that siezes our assets and puts us in jail if we don't cough up our lunch money? (Oh, wait. The breakfast, lunch, and dinner money. These days the average American works for the IRS until April 17th.)

The form above — "Electronic Deposit of Tax Refund of $1 Million or More" — is absolutely, 100% genuine, by the way. You can see it at www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f8302.pdf if you don't believe me. I'm uncertain which disturbs me more; that the Bush tax cuts have returned such vast sums or that so many are receiving them that a special form exists to receive the largess as quickly as possible.

Oh, sure, taxes are the price we pay for civilization. Except, as we know, rich people don't pay taxes. And neither do the red states; they get back vastly more than they send to Washington. The report from the National Tax Foundation has all the gory details. It seems, in short, that we in the blue states subsidize the bad behavior and fiscal irresponsibility of the red states. But isn't that what compassionate conservatism is all about?

Federally Favored States

“During fiscal 2003, taxpayers in New Mexico benefited the most from the give-and-take with Uncle Sam,” said Sagoo. New Mexico received $1.99 in federal outlays for every $1.00 the state’s taxpayers sent to Uncle Sam. Other big winners were Alaska ($1.89), Mississippi ($1.83), and West Virginia ($1.82). (See tables below).

The District of Columbia’s Special Status

Though not comparable as a state, the District of Columbia is by far the biggest beneficiary of federal spending: In 2003 it received $6.59 in federal outlays for every dollar its taxpayers sent to the U.S. Treasury.

“The District’s share of federal largesse amounted to $60,109 for every man, woman and child,” said Sagoo. “That’s more than ten times the national average.”

States That Help Others

If some states are beneficiaries, then naturally some must be benefactors—those states where so much is collected in federal taxes that any federal spending they receive is overwhelmed.

New York has often been the biggest payer in the Tax Foundation’s annual comparison of taxes to spending, which inspired Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the Kennedy School of Government to launch their annual reference book comparing state taxes with spending (www.ksg.harvard.edu/fisc99) more than 25 years ago. In recent years, however, other states have eclipsed New York for the “blessing” of being the state that gives far more than it receives.

Combining the third highest tax burden per capita with the ninth lowest federal spending, New Jersey had the lowest federal spending-to-tax ratio (57¢). Other states that had low federal spending-to-tax ratios in FY 2003 are New Hampshire (64¢), Connecticut (65¢), Minnesota (70¢), Nevada (70¢), and Illinois (73¢).

"Federal Tax Burdens and Expenditures by State", National Tax Foundation, Report No. 132, December 2004

Hard to believe it was forty years ago that the Beatles complained about the 95% marginal rate — no kidding! — that forced many successful people into tax exile. That's the meaning of the line "There's one for you, nineteen for me." in Taxman — the Beatles were able to keep only five percent (one part in twenty) of their income above a certain level. Revolver was the Beatles' seventh album, so they were, by this point, rolling in filthy lucre. The "Mr. Wilson" and "Mr. Heath" in the song refer to Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister (Labour Party) and the opposition leader Edward Heath (Conservative). The Labour Party had just won the 1966 election; the mess they made of the country would later lead to Margaret Thatcher's election.

Taxman

One, two, three, four...
Hrmm!
One, two, (one, two, three, four!)

Let me tell you how it will be;
There's one for you, nineteen for me.
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Should five per cent appear too small,
Be thankful I don't take it all.
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

if you drive a car, car;
I’ll tax the street;
if you try to sit, sit;
I’ll tax your seat;
if you get too cold, cold;
I’ll tax the heat;
if you take a walk, walk;
I'll tax your feet.

Taxman!

'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Don't ask me what I want it for,
(ah-ah, Mister Wilson)
If you don't want to pay some more.
(ah-ah, Mister Heath)
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Now my advice for those who die,
(taxman)
Declare the pennies on your eyes.
(taxman)
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

And you're working for no one but me.

Taxman!

"Taxman" by George Harrison, Revolver, The Beatles, 1966

"You have to be fucking kidding!"

The Velvet Underground, 1966

The Velvet Underground, 1966, by Lisa Law

When I were a lad, growing up in New Jersey suburbia, I first heard the Velvet Underground on an album my brother bought. I don't know how he found out about them. (I think he still has that 33 tucked away somewhere.) What made it particularly interesting was the bit of folklore that the VU had played a gig at the local high school the year I was born. Now hold that thought for a moment while we flash forward to today.

And so earlier this year, with flickering expectation, Warren Hill picked through some old records at a yard sale in Chelsea, New York. They seemed out of place compared with the rest the junk, like a box that had been forgotten in the attic and left untouched by a string of disinterested tenants. He pulled out a soggy copy of the Modern Lovers' first LP and then he saw it, a record with no sleeve and only a few hand-written words on the label: "Velvet Underground... 4/25/66... N. Dolph." He bought it for $0.75.

...

On a single day in April, [Columbia Records sales executive Norman] Dolph sat behind Scepter's mixing boards as the band recorded what they thought would be their first record. Dolph had an acetate (a metallic "master" record) pressed after-hours at Columbia and sent it to the executives at the label. He still has the handwritten response he received when the acetate was returned, one he has paraphrased as, "You have to be fucking kidding!"

After the initial rejection, the band would enlist another "ghost" producer, Tom Wilson, re-recording some of the songs and adding others. Eventually, all the master tapes would be re-mixed by Wilson and the final product would be released as The Velvet Underground and Nico.

...

Hill tracked down the phone number for Norman Dolph and, after verifying the serial number, the former producer confirmed that it was the record he had pressed for Columbia executives. Because the original master tapes of the Scepter session have been lost or destroyed, it remains as a one-of-a-kind testament to the band's first studio session, containing "lost" versions of "Venus in Furs," "I'm Waiting for the Man," and "Heroin." The last time Dolph saw the record, it was collecting dust in Warhol's estate. How it ended up in a Chelsea attic remains a mystery, as does its future.

"We're petrified and don't really know how to sell it" says Isaacson. "We got an offer right away for $10,000, but we turned it down."

Not bad for a $0.75 investment. It now seems likely that the record will become the most expensive ever sold, exceeding the sale of Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde acetate and topping $40,000. Like finding the U.S. Constitution behind a painting, it's the kind of event that will drive yard sale attendance for years to come.

"The Velvet Underground Play Portland", by Ryan Dirks, The Portland Mercury, Volume 5, Number 26, 25 November - 1 December 2004

Now we return to the past. It turns out that the first VU gig was not at Governor Livingston, but one town over, at Summit High School on 11 Dececember 1965. (We never liked Summit; pretentious, wealthy, and very stuck up. For years there was a fellow, somewhat potty, who walked around the town holding his nose because "Summit stinks.") The VU made $75 which, even in those days, wasn't enough to lure anyone to New Jersey without a very good reason. But, lured they were, and the story of their performance is amusing. Just picture all the shocked Wall Street and other professionals as you read this:

Towards the end of 1965 there was a lot of good music on the airwaves. But for us kids, High School was a real drag and life in our little suburban town (ONLY thirty miles west of Greenwich Village) wasn't too exciting. Except for one thing: a local band called the Myddle Class! To us, they were as good as the Rolling Stones ANY day and their concerts were the most exciting ones we'd ever seen. They were managed by a man who lived in our town -- Al Aronowitz. My friend Judy was the Aronowitz's babysitter and she would tell us the most amazing stories about the people who would call for Al or come home from New York with him to hide out in the suburbs: people like Brian Jones, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Carole King, who wrote songs for everyone including the Myddle Class. We would hide outside Al's house for hours at a time just to catch a glimpse of those stars. Al usually hired other local bands to open for the Myddle Class but for the December 11th concert at Summit High, he hired (for $80) a NY band called the Velvet Underground. Judy told us that the band was feeling low because they had just been fired from the Cafe Wha for being undanceable, so we were not expecting too much from them.

Nothing could have prepared the kids and parents assembled in the auditorium for what they were about to experience that night. Our only clue was the small crowd of strange-looking people hanging around in front of the stage. When the curtain went up, nobody could believe their eyes! There stood the Velvet Underground -- all tall and dressed mostly in black; two of them were wearing sunglasses. One of the guys with the shades had VERY long hair and was wearing silver jewelry. He was holding a large violin. The drummer had a Beatle haircut and was standing at a small oddly arranger drumkit. was it a boy or a girl? Before we could take it all in, everyone was hit by a screeching surge of sound, with a pounding beat louder than anything we had ever heard. About a minute into the second song, which the singer introduced as "Heroin", the music began to get even more intense. It swelled and accelerated like a giant tidal wave which was threatening to engulf us all. At this point, most of the audience retreated in horror for the safety of their homes, thoroughly convinced of the dangers of rock & roll music. My friends and I moved a little closer to the stage, knowing that something special was happening.

Backstage after their set, the viola player was seen apologizing profusely to an outraged Myddle Class entourage for scaring away half the audience. Al Aronowitz was philosophical about it, though, "at least you've given them a night to remember" and invited everyone to a party at his house after the show.

"I Was a Velveteen" by Rob Norris, 1979

There is another funny story about that performance. Turns out that Angus MacLise quit after being told the rules of the gig:

You mean we start when they tell us to start and we have to end when they tell us to? I can't work that way.

— Angus MacLise

So why the story about the Governor Livingston gig? Turns out that Al Aronowitz lived in Berkeley Heights — until he turned full-time manager for rock & roll groups and ended up losing his house in the process — so people just assumed that's where the infamous "suburban New Jersey gig" was held.

So there you have it.

Oh, and in the course of doing research for this entry, I found this commentary on Nico:

Now, at this time I have been crazy about Nico ever since we spent a night together in a motel stoned out of our gourds on LSD. She had just arrived from Europe with a bottle of the stuff, which she picked up in a Swiss lab. While sticking our pinkies into the bottle and sucking the LSD off each other's pinky, we decided to drive to the Delaware Water Gap. It was very romantic but after she took off her clothes and got into the motel bed, she wouldn't give me any. That's the night she told me she likes her lovers half-dead.

So, like a schmuck, I still had eyes for her, but she has been using my head for a doorknob. She keeps turning it any way she wants. Except there's one way she can't turn it. She wants me to manage her but I tell her I can't stand her singing. Not only does her singing sound like a harmonium stuck on one note, but her songs are so morbid she ought to be an undertaker. Still, she is one of the most gorgeous creatures ever conceived and I have had the privilege of seeing her naked. And would like to see her naked again.

— Al Aronowitz, The Blacklisted Journalist, Column 80, 1 December 2002

One final note. I'm not a really big VU fan. (I'm not a big Lou Reed fan either, my entry on Metal Machine Music notwithstanding.) I was just interested in finding out if the old story about the VU and GL was actually true.

"A Jack Hammer Riveting Into Your Skull"

For those of you wavering on the question of Miles' sanity, this clinches it. Metal Machine Music is an hour's worth of the equivalent of a dentist's drill drilling into an infected tooth, a jack hammer riveting into your skull. Except it's perhaps less melodic than that. Miles has officially gone over the edge. You know the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard? This is worse -- a lot worse.

— Andy Whitman

Album Cover for Metal Machine Music (front)

I was passing by a bar around lunchtime and heard what could only be described as pure noise. But it wasn't just noise; something was hauntingly familiar. Then I realized what it was: Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. (I think the only drink they serve at that bar must be EverClear straight up with an Oxycontin chaser.) If you haven't ever heard this album you're missing... well, absolutely nothing. Yeah, I know, there are those who swear by it, but they use jackhammers by day and say "what?" by night. This is music that could be used to torture Iraqi detainees. In all fairness, however, it isn't pure noise and it did take some creativity to introduce that feedback. Reed obviously did all of this in a studio using instruments, and not actual machinery. So it is an exercise in creativity, but that doesn't mean I want to listen to it. (If you don't believe me, you should listen to some short snippets.) Anyway, here's some commentary on Metal Machine Music:

The album was a two-record set titled Metal Machine Music and was met with much derision from the record-buying public, who went back to their respective record stores in droves and demanded refunds, claiming the album was "defective."

...

Along with Igor Stravinsky's La Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), which caused a riot at its 1913 debut, Metal Machine Music is one of a handful of compositions to elicit an almost universally negative response from the public.

...

But the idea that Lou Reed then left the studio is false --- or, at the very least, if Lou Reed did leave, then somebody stuck around --- because there is a lot happening on this album. It sounds like Lou took some basic recordings of feedback and subjected them to all sorts of electronic manipulation [...]

...

In other words, as Harry Dean Stanton put it in the film Twister [a film from ca. 1990, not the more recent blockbuster]: "I suppose you can acquire a taste for anything, but why do it?" Or something like that.

Joe Castleman

8-Track Tape for Metal Machine Music (front)

8-Track Tape for Metal Machine Music (front)

The waves of distortion are a bit to get through, and by the time that the record has ended you know that you have completed quite a task. Your ears, if the piece is turned up loud, feel as though they have been through a war.

Stylus Magazine

8-Track Tape for Metal Machine Music (back)

8-Track Tape for Metal Machine Music (back)

Except to add, "I think my ear canals are bleeding...", what can I say about Metal Machine Music Part III (16:13) that hasn't already been said; it's densely scrawled in the same violent frenzy as the rest.

David J. Opdyke

I bet if you need it for your 8-track collection you can find it on eBay.

At the end of the finishing assault, Metal Machine Music Part IV, Reed had engineers create a locked groove so that the record literally wouldn't stop playing its final wrenching seconds until someone manually lifted the needle (or pulled the plug).

— David J. Opdyke

What Song Is It You Wanna Hear?

Album cover for "Pronounced leh-nerd skin-erd"

If this were the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and you were going to die in 20 minutes — just long enough to play 'Freebird' — we still wouldn't play it.

— Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock quoted in "Rock's Oldest Joke: Yelling 'Freebird!' In a Crowded Theater" by Jason Fry, Wall Street Journal, 17 March 2005, page A1

There were a few superbands when I was growing up, but none held a candle to Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Hard to believe I was eight when this was released, and twelve when the plane crashed. Man do I feel old.) Just in case you've been living in a cave for the past thirty years, here's the official word on Freebird:

A towering rock anthem crowned with the mother of all guitar solos, Freebird almost never got made at all. When guitarist Allen Collins first brought it into rehearsals, volatile singer Ronnie Van Zandt was unenthusiastic, claiming it had too many chords. Eventually he relented, writing a lyric paying tribute to the late Duane Allman. Opening with a gospel-like organ flourish which flows majestically into Collin’s sweeping slide guitar hook, Van Zandt sings with sensitivity at odds with his band’s redneck image. The climatic guitar duel was added late in the day, but soon became a centrepiece of the band’s live shows. Freebird became the template for a certain style of southern rock showstopper – witness Green Grass and High Tides by The Outlaws or Highway Song by Blackfoot for songs with similar dynamics – and assumed even greater poignancy when Van Zandt was killed along with two other band members in a plane crash in 1977. When Skynyrd reformed in the late 80s it was performed as an instrumental, with an empty mic stand centre stage adorned with Ronnie’s trademark cowboy hat. To this day it continues to live on as a rock radio staple matched only by Stairway to Heaven.

BBC Top 100 - Number 33 - Freebird

Yeah, what he said. Anyway, Freebird has achieved what few songs ever do: it has become a meme.

One recent Tuesday night at New York's Bowery Ballroom, the Crimea had just finished its second song. The Welsh quintet's first song had gone over fairly well, the second less so, and singer/guitarist Davey MacManus looked out at the still-gathering crowd.

Then, from somewhere in the darkness came the cry, "Freebird!"

It made this night like so many other rock 'n' roll nights in America.

...

Yelling "Freebird!" has been a rock cliché for years, guaranteed to elicit laughs from drunks and scorn from music fans who have long since tired of the joke. And it has spread beyond music, prompting the Chicago White Sox organist to add the song to her repertoire and inspiring a greeting card in which a drunk holding a lighter hollers "Freebird!" at wedding musicians.

Bands mostly just ignore the taunt. But one common retort is: "I've got your 'free bird' right here." That's accompanied by a middle finger. It's a strategy Dash Rip Rock's former bassist Ned Hickel used. According to fans' accounts of shows, so have Jewel and Hot Tuna's Jack Casady. Jewel declines to comment. Mr. Casady says that's "usually not my response to those kind of things."

...

So what do the members of Skynyrd think of the tradition? Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie's brother and the band's singer since 1987, says "it's not an insult at all -- I think it's kind of cool. It's fun, and people are doing it in a fun way. That's what music's supposed to be about."

Besides, Mr. Van Zant has a confession: His wife persuaded him to see Cher in Jacksonville a couple of years ago, and he couldn't resist yelling "Freebird!" himself. "My wife is going, 'Stop! Stop!' " he recalls, laughing. "I embarrassed the hell out of her."

"Rock's Oldest Joke: Yelling 'Freebird!' In a Crowded Theater" by Jason Fry, Wall Street Journal, 17 March 2005, page A1

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be travelling on, now,
’cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.
But, if I stayed here with you, girl,
Things just couldn’t be the same.
’cause I’m as free as a bird now,
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can’t change.

Bye, bye, it’s been a sweet love.
Though this feeling I can’t change.
But please don’t take it badly,
’cause lord knows I’m to blame.
But, if I stayed here with you girl,
Things just couldn’t be the same.
Cause I’m as free as a bird now,
And this bird you’ll never change.
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can’t change.
Lord help me, I can’t change.

"Freebird" by Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant, Pronounced leh-nerd skin-erd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1973

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

Shotgun Shack of blues musician John Adam "Sleepy John" Estes

Shotgun shack owned by blues musician John Adam "Sleepy John" Estes

I was listening to "Once In A Lifetime" by the Talking Heads and was again struck by the line, "And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack." Now, I knew what a "shotgun shack" was, but the origins of the phrase intrigued me. And after yesterday's entry on William S. Burroughs creating art with a shotgun, well, it seemed somehow appropriate. First, an explanation of the shack itself:

The shotgun house, a folk architectural form is, prototypically, long and narrow with a gable-ended entrance, one-room wide, and two or three rooms deep. Some say the shotgun house is so named because one can fire a shotgun through the front door with all the shot exiting through the back door without ever having touched a wall.

From Mobile to Huntsville, there are literally thousands of shotgun houses scattered throughout Alabama. It is found in both rural and urban areas of Alabama, often in African-American communities and neighborhoods.

"Folk House Has African Roots" by Henry Willett, Alabama Arts, December 1994

Now, this is about the cheapest housing one could build which is why the Heads used it as the metaphor for poverty. (In New York this design is called railroad apartments.) The rural south is riddled with such homes; Elvis Presley was born in one. (The picture below is of the Presley ancestral home refurbished and transported to nicer location.)

Shotgun shack that musician Elvis Presley was born in

Shotgun shack that musician Elvis Presley was born in

Not all shotgun shacks were made from wood. Some were made from brick or scavenged materials; whatevever the poor owner could beg, borrow, buy, or steal.

Southeast shotgun house made from brick

Southeast shotgun house made from brick

The name makes no sense from a ballistics standpoint: shotgun blasts spread during travel unlike rifle rounds. (Excepting the sabot round, of course. The name of this shell derives from the French "sabot" meaning shoe. A solid shell instead of shot, it packs a serious whallop; this explains why it is commonly used by SWAT teams to blow the hinges off doors.) Now, one could put a choke on the shotgun to keep the spread tight — as one would do when hunting birds — but it still doesn't make any sense. Aside from the Menendez brothers and Steven Segal, who fires shotguns in homes? A rifle would be the more logical firearm to reference if one wanted to talk about straight lines. So why a shotgun?

As with a fair bit of etymology, the origin of "shotgun shack" is likely the corruption of a foreign word:

Most fascinating of all, the name of the house type, "shotgun," may be a corruption of "togun," the African Yoruba word for "house."

"Folk House Has African Roots" by Henry Willett, Alabama Arts, December 1994

So there you have it.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, 'Well... How did I get here?'

Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime", Remain in Light, 1980

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