Exploring the Strange Byways of Rock
Of all the bands I've ever met, the one most fully committed to the absurdity of rock 'n' roll was probably the Darkness. And considering that I once interviewed Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean, staying in character on the phone), that's no small praise. But the Darkness bring a lot to the party: catsuits, an insane falsetto, and a video where a pterodactyl humps a spaceship.
This was the philosophy of lead singer Justin Hawkins: "Less is more? That's bollocks. More is more. That's why it's called 'more.' If it was actually less, it'd be called 'less.' "
There's something about rock 'n' roll that brings out the smoke machines, secret backward messages, and other strange experiments. Hawkins, unsurprisingly, has a philosophy about such matters. He told me, "My favorite catchphrase is 'If something's worth doing, it's worth overdoing.' Even subtlety. If you're going to be subtle, you should really fucking be subtle." I heard that Stevie Wonder lost his sense of smell. Is that true?
Yes--but he got better. Blind since infancy, Wonder was in a serious car accident on August 6, 1973, while on tour in North Carolina. (No, he wasn't driving.) His cousin John Harris was chauffeuring him from Greenville to Durham on Interstate 85, heading for a concert to benefit a black radio station. Wonder had his headphones on and was listening to the two-track mix of Innervisions. When the logging truck they were following hit its brakes, Harris tried to swerve around it but didn't quite succeed. A log from the truck smashed through the windshield and hit Wonder in the face. Wonder was in a coma for four days; his associates knew he was feeling better only when he started grabbing at nurses. Only twenty-three years old at the time of the accident, Wonder had lost his sense of smell and gained a scar on his forehead. He simultaneously lost his sense of taste--which some would say explains the existence of "I Just Called to Say I Love You." Fortunately, Wonder largely recovered. "I lost my sense of smell a little bit, my sense of taste for a minute," he said. "But I'm pretty straight. I came out at the end of it with the blessing of life." What's an MBE, anyway? Why did John Lennon give his back?
The MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) was an award invented by King George V in 1917 to commemorate services to the war effort by people who weren't at the frontlines. All the Beatles received the medal in 1965, which entitled them to a payment of forty pounds a year and free admission to the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul's Cathedral (ordinarily about a shilling). The Beatles were somewhat mystified as to why the Queen was honoring them, but they were generally cheerful about the notion. As Ringo Starr put it, "We're going to meet the Queen and she's going to give us a badge. I thought, 'This is cool.' " Lennon later said that the Beatles had gotten stoned at Buckingham Palace before the ceremony, smoking a joint in the bathroom; George Harrison said it was just tobacco. When the Beatles finally met Queen Elizabeth II, they thought that her majesty was a pretty nice girl, but she didn't have a lot to say. (Really.)
The Beatles' parents were pleased by the awards. The group members themselves largely forgot about their medals, although Harrison and Paul McCartney later used theirs as jacket decorations at the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band photo shoot. Lennon, meanwhile, gave his to his beloved Aunt Mimi, who hung it over her mantelpiece. But as the years went by, he had second thoughts about his implied endorsement of the British government and the royal family, so on November 25, 1969, he sent the medal back to the Queen, seizing on whatever excuse seemed handy. His accompanying note read, "Your Majesty, I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against 'Cold Turkey' slipping down the charts. With love, John Lennon." (When the region of Biafra attempted to break away from Nigeria in the late '60s and a civil war ensued, Great Britain provided the ruling party with air support. Lennon's solo single "Cold Turkey" peaked on the U.K. charts at number fourteen.) Lennon said at the time, "The Queen's intelligent. It won't spoil her cornflakes." Why does Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters chew gum when he sings and plays live? Is there a reason for this, or is it just a bad habit?
"It's just to keep my throat and mouth lubricated," Grohl has said. He's decided that masticating a wad of gum lets him scream better: "I don't choke and vomit." Grohl, who favors Dentyne Ice, has joked, "Onstage I need a minty-fresh microphone." Chewing gum is an easier way of achieving that winter-fresh aroma than dipping all the Foo Fighters' equipment in Listerine, of course, but sometimes his gum habit results in technical complications. At a live performance in 1997, Grohl got his sugary saliva all over the microphone, attracting the attention of a bee; for the rest of the show, whenever Grohl tried to sing, the bee would chase after him. In the movie Moulin Rouge, Kylie Minogue is credited as "The Green Fairy," but Ozzy Osbourne is credited as "Voice of the Green Fairy." Can you clear this up?
In the movie, after Ewan McGregor drinks absinthe for the first time, he has a vision of a small emerald sprite, who announces, "I'm the Green Fairy!" She flies about, sprinkling pixie dust and warbling, "The hills are alive with the sound of music." The fairy is clearly played by Kylie Minogue--and sounds like her, too. If these vocals came from Ozzy, he must've been sucking down helium before the Foley session. At the very end of the hallucination, however, Kylie's eyes turn red and she screams--and that scream sounds like the Prince of Fuckin' Darkness. "I feel that Kylie's contribution to the film is certainly undercredited," Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann told me via email. "The high, clear 'Sound of Music' in a quasi-operatic style is Kylie--who, I have to say, has more vocal dexterity than people could imagine. The scream at the very end is in fact Ozzy Osbourne. The story behind this is that at one stage I had a much more complicated sequence where the innocent Green Fairy metamorphoses into its darker demonic alter ego. With the ever-helpful Sharon Osbourne, we recorded Ozzy doing 'The Sound of Music' for that sequence--but we ended up cutting down his incredible vocal to a brief scream." What are all those initials in the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K."? MPLA? UDA? WTF?
It's an alphabet soup of civil-war references from '70s headlines: either a suggestion of what could happen in the U.K. itself (that's the United Kingdom, of course) or a lyrical holiday in other people's misery. The IRA and the UDA were the largest paramilitary armies in the conflict in Northern Ireland; the heavily armed IRA (Irish Republican Army) were on the Republican (anti-British, pro-unification) side, while the thousands-strong UDA (Ulster Defence Association) were on the Loyalist (pro-British, anti-unification) side. The MPLA were farther away: They're the political group that took control of Angola, formerly one of Portugal's African colonies, in the 1975-76 civil war there, and they still run the country today. (The initials stand for Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola, or the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola.) Be grateful that Johnny Rotten didn't rattle off the competing Angolan factions, the FNLA and the UNITA. One other acronym you may have missed: When Rotten sings, "I use the enemy," it's a deliberate homonym for "I use the NME," or New Musical Express, the British weekly music newspaper. No civil war there, unless you count their rivalry with Melody Maker. Who is the dude with the umbrella in OutKast's video for "The Way You Move"? I think I am in love with him.
He's Farnsworth (also "Fonzworth") Bentley, arguably the most dapper man in hip-hop. "It's a tradition in my family that when a gentleman turns twenty-five, he gets a fedora," he told me. "In another twenty years, my generation's going to be passing down velour jogging suits--that's not stylish." He added, "If you don't know how to tie a bow tie, that's like not being able to drive a stick." In addition to the OutKast video, Bentley has appeared in videos for Usher and P. Diddy, and in the movie Honey. He was also featured in MTV's Making the Band 2. "Half the things you see me in, I sneak into," he said.
Bentley is the alter ego of the extremely sharp Derek Watkins, who grew up in Atlanta with Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000 of OutKast) and graduated from Morehouse College in 1997. When he moved to New York, he became known on the hip-hop scene for being impeccably dressed; in 2001, P. Diddy hired him as his assistant and dubbed him "Farnsworth." Watkins said, "I set out to create buzz for my brand. I wanted to turn myself into a character like Fire Marshall Bill or Mork from Ork." It paid off when he was photographed holding an umbrella over P. Diddy in St. Tropez, and was identified as Diddy's butler. "It was all a big hustle," he confided.
Watkins is currently working on various media projects and developing his own line of umbrellas. "I eventually will hire an agent and a publicist," he said, "but I want to see how much I can hustle for myself." What does that guy say at the end of Radiohead's video for "Just"?
In case you've never seen the video--from Radiohead's excellent second album, The Bends--it's got two components. One is the band, looking misanthropic and unwashed, giving it their all as they pantomime rocking out in an apartment. The other is a narrative, filmed in a style reminiscent of director Douglas Sirk: A well-dressed man, an archetypal businessman, suddenly lies down in the middle of the sidewalk, curled up as if he wants his blanket. Someone trips over him, and then discovers that the man doesn't want to get up. He says he's not drunk or crazy, but despite the entreaties of a gathering crowd, he won't
get up and won't explain why he's on the pavement, although he denies that it's cheap nihilism or fear of death. (This dialogue is all communicated through subtitles; Radiohead provides the subtext with the song's chorus of "you do it to yourself.") Finally, he tells the crowd why he's lying down, at which point the subtitles are abandoned and the editing becomes choppy enough to prevent effective lip-reading. The band members gaze down from a window as the people below all lie down.
In case you haven't figured it out by now, the whole point of the video is not what the man says, which is meant to be as much of a mystery as whatever it is Bill Murray whispers into Scarlett Johansson's ear at the end of Lost in Translation. The band remains resolutely silent on the issue; Jamie Thraves, the director of the clip, has said, "To tell you would deaden the impact, and probably make you want to lie down in the road, too." You want a real mystery? Why does the crowd on a British street include an American police officer? So how tall is Bono, anyway?
Not very. For decades, the only official word on this matter was a questionnaire filled out by somebody at the U2 World Service, where Bono was listed as five-foot-eight. Let's just say that measurement was optimistic, presumably based on the theory that if Bono kept drinking his milk, he'd grow up real tall one day. According to the online U2 FAQ, Bono's pal Gavin Friday has recently given Bono's height as five-foot-six-and-a-half.
So how do we double-check that height? In New York City, where I live, it's not hard to find women who have literally bumped into Bono at an airport, stood next to him at a party, or passed by him on the sidewalk outside the restaurant Balthazar, to pick just three female friends of mine. (And he macked on only some of them: The friend outside Balthazar got treated to a long, up-and-down leer. "He was like a construction worker," reports an eyewitness, "only with expensive eyewear.") At any rate, gauging against their own heights, and taking into consideration the fact that Bono was sometimes wearing visible heels, all three agreed that Bono seemed to be five-foot-six.
Excerpted from Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton's Little John? by Gavin Edwards. Copyright © 2006 by Gavin Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.