Tag: Liverpool

Day 998: Crossing Abbey Road

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This Friday marks the 45th anniversary of what I believe to be the greatest album of all time.

Before you flick lint in my beer or pelt me with wads of Big League Chew for not designating this title to Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn or Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Too-Rye-Ay, allow me to point out that there are many albums that are flawless – sometimes in spite of a number of actual flaws. Nary a wayward note blemishes Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, and Paul Simon’s Graceland is among the few utterly perfect slabs of 1980’s vinyl. For me, “the greatest” combines not only artistic and technical brilliance, but the subjective distinction of having served as the soundtrack to many of the most fantastic moments of my life. Your results may (and probably do) vary.

The story of Abbey Road is one of pure, primal mirth, flecked with auburn specks of encroaching melancholy. It is the last glorious and romantic trip to Maui for an otherwise doomed marriage. It marks the greatest rock band in history (an assertion I’ll stand by as wholly factual) producing one final brushstroke upon their legacy before heading their separate ways.

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This is not a happy group.

In January of 1969, the Beatles were moving in four different directions, and had been for over a year. Their plan was to return to the studio, record a back-to-their-roots album, perform their first concert since the summer of 1966 (the Pyramids in Egypt were a proposed locale, as was a barge adrift in the Atlantic), and film it all for posterity. This attempt to reconnect resulted in a cavalcade of arguments, the grandiose concert reduced to a noon-hour gig on the roof, and the temporary quitting of George Harrison. Read more…

Day 962: Moriarty, Unmasked

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What can be said of a criminal mastermind? I’d always been deterred from a life of misdeeds by my utter conviction that I’d be lousy at it, and that the inevitable consequences of such a career are either prison, demise by the hand of the swarthy hero, or if one is lucky, a paranoid, skittish retirement. With my luck, I’d be foiled by some cartoonish gaggle of meddling kids and their talking stoner-dog.

Some of history’s most capable crooks have piqued my interest throughout this project, more out of my fascination at the tenacious longevity and the sometimes-cinematic flair with which they’d plied their trade. While I don’t aspire to join their ranks, I do envy how they have crafted their own good fortune.

The key here is that the criminals about whom I’ve written are famous – or at minimum, famous enough to warrant at least a brief Wikipedia page. But shouldn’t the truly successful master-crooks still be anonymous to us, even after the final curtain of death has ushered them off the mortal stage? Perhaps. But I believe a case can be made for the exquisite professionalism and enduring evil genius of those bad guys whose names nonetheless appear in print – even those who have risen to become legends. Take, for instance, the near-perfect vocational aptitude of the 19th-century criminal genius, Adam Worth.

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Adam turned to a life of crime as soon as he’d been kicked off the grid. Raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Adam ran away from home at ten, then at seventeen he lied about his age so he could join the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. After getting wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Adam learned he’d been listed as Killed In Action by accident. He took advantage of his premature death and disappeared.

He found easy work as a bounty jumper; he’d be paid off by citizens to sign up for the army in their name, then after he’d collected his army paycheck he’d flit back to the shadows. Adam pulled this off several times, never getting caught, though he did attract some attention. Local law enforcement was in no position to help out the armed forces, but a new type of heroic protagonist had emerged on the scene in the form of Allan Pinkerton and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton’s was the first private investigation firm in American history, and they were happy to chase after Adam Worth and the other bounty jumping scum who were profiting from military desertion.

Curiously, Pinkerton PI went for the exact opposite of Magnum PI's swarthy mustache.

Curiously, Pinkerton PI went for the exact opposite of Magnum PI’s swarthy mustache.

The war ended, and Adam settled into the pickpocket business in New York. He was an entrepreneur, however, soon acquiring his own gang of pickpockets, and working his way up to little robberies and heists. Well-known criminal fence Marm Mandelbaum took Adam under her wing, helping him plan more elaborate capers. At Mendelbaum’s request, Adam helped to tunnel under the soil outside the White Plains jail in order to liberate safecracker Charley Bullard. Charley and Adam became close friends and partners in their nefarious deeds. Read more…

Day 946: The Unfillable Stomach Of Charles Domary

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Thankfully for us disciples of feckless fact and impractical information, the human body does not always cater to the limits of logic and science. We can always gawk upon the fortunate – or unfortunate – whose innards form their own rules, leaving their mark in the lore once mined by Ripley and Guinness and Barnum and other protectors of the peculiar. Immersing myself as I have in a mandated one thousand topics across the spectrum of mind-piquing knowledge, I was bound to run across a few of these folks.

Last December I wrote about Tarrare, an eighteenth-century Frenchman who ate his weight in food every day, and made his living on the proto-freak-show circuit, devouring live beasts before gaggles of open-jawed onlookers. The clinical term is polyphagia: an insatiable appetite, or a hunger that can’t be conquered. In Tarrare’s case, one can also account for a critical depravation of good taste, as anyone who eats a live snake before an audience is clearly disgusting as well as edacious.

Right around the time experts were prodding Tarrare with a stick, trying to figure out what made his insides work this way (and perhaps waiting to see if he’d eat the stick), another polyphagious man was making medical headlines. Charles Domery sold his patriotic soul and devoured everything he could find. He was a truly voracious eating machine.

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Charles Domery was born in Benche, Poland (sorry – I couldn’t find a better picture of the place) around 1778. He was one of nine brothers, all of whom – according to Charles – shared the same unquashable appetite. Having lived through feeding one male teenager, I cannot fathom what sort of pre-industrial job the Domery patriarch must have held to afford to feed nine with such an appetite. But if the dinner table was a battleground in Charles’ youth, it showed no ill reflection upon his temperament. Those who knew him said he was a good egg. Read more…

Day 790: Pissing Away The Profits – Worst Business Decisions Part 1

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The secret to business success lies in making good decisions. I have no doubt that thousands of qualified individuals could offer monumentally wiser business advice than this, but in that most general, inarguable, obvious-even-to-a-schmuck-like-me way, it all comes down to decisions.

Some culture-shaping decisions were outright brilliant, like JVC and Microsoft spreading VHS and Windows around numerous manufacturers while Sony and Apple kept the Betamax and Macintosh systems to themselves, leading to one’s demise and the other’s miniscule 1990’s market share. Other business decisions, like my choice to devote at least two hours of each of my days over this thousand-day period to producing articles for free public consumption online – not so much.

That’s okay, I can live with it. So what if this project floats gratuitously among the ether, leaving no significant residue upon my personal net worth? It’s art. Art that is smattered with Cliff-Claven-esque trivia and poop jokes, so the best kind of art. And besides, as far removed from savvy fiscal acumen as I may be, at least I can pride myself on not having made the bonehead decisions these folks did.

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Meet Dick. Dick was a successful producer in the 1950’s. By 1962 he was a proud A&R man (that’s ‘Artists & Repertoire’ – the guy who screens potential acts) at Decca Records in England. On a blustery New Year’s Day, Dick sat in the studio as a hopeful young quartet from Liverpool tried to dazzle him with their sound, one which had already billowed many a swoon into excitable young women (and even men) in the northern towns. Those men were John, Paul, George and Pete Best, and they proceeded to make Dick famous.

Famous for flubbery, that is. Dick Rowe told the group’s manager Brian Epstein that guitar groups were “on the way out”, and he turned them down cold. It would take a few months for the Beatles to become the biggest group in the country and years before Dick was able to scrape away all the solidified egg from his face. Read more…

Day 771: On Tonight’s Show… History.

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Once the collective click of a few million TV sets shutting off had resonated throughout North America in the shadowy hours of February 9, 1964, the pentimento of American culture as it existed before that day was almost invisible. This is the news blurb that kids – and I include here many in my generation, those who played their opening number on this earthly stage some years after the 60’s had taken their bow – will gloss over and ignore. Precisely one half of a century has elapsed since the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Trying to rationalize the significance of this broadcast to my children is a fruitless endeavor. Even in my limited history, the only television “events” that embedded a rusty touchstone in our shared timeline were series finales (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Seinfeld), sporting events or news stories. The first two would get us talking, but eventually they’d meander under the covers of the past. And while the scope of our world might have shifted after we all watched O.J. race through the arteries of Los Angeles in a Ford Bronco or after we saw the towers fall a few years later, television was merely the window through which we’d all observed a salient chapter in history. When the Beatles splashed down into 74 million pairs of eyeballs for the first time, it was culture announcing through its own mouthpiece that everything was about to change.

There had never been an equivalent in the world of popular music. And given the splintered state of our popular tastes and the three-block buffet of media options at our disposal, such a singular jarring of our culture is not likely to ever occur again.

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First of all, there is no parallel to Ed Sullivan today. Sullivan’s show was a weekly stage for performers to hurl their skills at a national audience in hopes the exposure will crank their success meter up to the next notch. You’d see plate-spinners and dog trainers, classically-trained actors and world-renowned singers. The late-night talk show circuit is the closest to an equivalent today, but Ed’s show was about showing off his guests, not interviewing them to hear pre-rehearsed stories about the time George Clooney pranked them in the studio commissary. Sunday nights were our culture’s window into the wider world. Read more…

Day 758: Who Buried Paul?

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It was a cold November night in 1966 – or maybe it was January of ‘67, depending on whose account you choose to believe – when a car crash fatality forever changed the course of popular music.

Or did it?

Okay, there’s no real mystery here. The reality is that there was no car crash, or if there was, the bass player and co-creative force of the greatest band in the history of recorded music was most certainly not decapitated. But there was a time when legitimate news outlets needed to point this out to an apprehensive world. And not only was there no fatal wreck, but that band didn’t surgically alter a look-alike to carry on in the artist’s place, fooling throngs of adulating fans for the ensuing 40+ years.

It was a hoax. Perhaps the most entertaining hoax our media has seen outside of a work of fiction, because the so-called evidence supporting it as truth had been seeping into the public’s eyes and ears all this time and no one had noticed. Photos and music that had not only become fully integrated with popular culture, but had come to define the very zeitgeist of the era. Album covers that were iconic upon arrival, songs that hundreds of millions could sing by heart.

And even once the dust of speculation had been billowed away by a cool gust of truth, that evidence remains as a perpetual quirk.

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On September 17, 1969, the above article appeared in the student newspaper at Drake University in Iowa. It speculates that Paul McCartney was indeed dead, that the Beatles had cleverly sprinkled clues throughout their music and album packaging, and states that these concerns were spreading rampantly around the campus gossip vine. Three and a half weeks later, Detroit radio DJ Russ Gibb was discussing the rumor over an hour’s worth of airtime, his listeners calling in to pick apart the clues. This continued at various American stations for another couple of weeks before Derek Taylor, press officer for the Beatles and their Apple Records label, issued a statement that insisted that the Paul McCartney in the band today was the same guy who’d been in the band three years earlier. Read more…

Day 634: Old London’s Cobblestone Creeps

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Nineteenth-century London was known for a few things: Dickensian gentlemen sporting all sorts of snazzy hat-wear, Poppinsian ladies singing songs about eating sugar with a spoon, and sexually deviant psychopaths wandering the foggy London streets. Needless to say, it’s that third group I find most fascinating.

Not all the smarmy shadow-huggers from this era carried the murderous bent of Jack the Ripper. Many were simply sexually repressed, frustrated, and lacking the imagination to play out their fantasies in their heads. These aren’t your dark-alley rapists or gore-craving sadists, but more the equivalent of today’s discussion forum trolls, subway trenchcoat wang-wagglers, or lonely men who load up their evening’s-worth of porn and say, “I wonder what sort of weird stuff the Germans are into these days.”

Sometimes these hormone-heavy hombres became the stuff of legend, even with a supernatural twist. Back then there was no TV, no radio, not even Snopes.com to fact-check the tall tales of seedy vermin like Spring-heeled Jack.

No, it's not Batman.

No, it’s not Batman.

If Spring-heeled Jack was in fact a person and not some shared hysterical delusion spotted by numerous people over a 67-year period, then he really wasted his talents. One of the unanimously accepted traits of this mysterious creature was his ability to leap ridiculously high, suggesting either modified footwear or an unusual super-power that could have been used for good instead of rapiness. Read more…

Day 562: Happy Centenarian, Lots Of Stuff

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Maybe it’s simply the distorted perspective of having a daughter who believes the original Teen Wolf film is ‘old’, the Woodstock concert is ‘ancient’ and Elvis Presley is ‘ancestor-esque’, but I think our culture is in danger of losing its sense of history. This is why we curators of trivia are necessary. Someone needs to remind the younger generation that phones and cameras used to be mutually exclusive, that paying for music and movies wasn’t always an optional thing, and that getting together with friends used to mean someone invariably had to leave their house.

So in the interest of trivia, I’m going to plant an easy landmark and turn the calendar back by a century, commemorating some of the creations that entered the world back in 1913.

This was the year L. Frank Baum introduced Betsy Bobbin to the Land of Oz, the year Fu Manchu first graced a novel with his chick-magnet facial hair, and the year Colorado began issuing license plates for vehicles. But I’m more interested in the inventions that changed little corners of our world, those which turn 100 this year.

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Elias Howe, who by inventing the sewing machine had already ensured his seat was taped off and reserved at the Table Of Awesome, came up with an ‘automatic continuous clothing closure’ back in 1851. It was more of an elaborate draw-string than anything else, but it got other inventors thinking. People like Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American engineer who found himself working at the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company in Meadville, Pennsylvania decades later. Read more…

Day 540: Be A Hip Cat, Be A Ship’s Cat, Somewhere, Anywhere

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I try not to pay close attention to how many sets of eyes look at my site every day. Sure, WordPress keeps track of that, and sometimes it’s interesting when a particular article causes a spike of interest, but for the most part I choose my topics based on what interests me.

Still, there are ways of attracting web traffic without sacrificing my desire for a good story. First off, there’s porn. I could write a good history of pornography, pepper it with photos of dinks and butts and boobs akimbo, but I have kids who read this site. I don’t want to trash my PG-13 rating, at least not until I hit day 950 or so. Then shit might get real.

The other sure-fire internet draw is cats. Cats are all over the damn web, like snot on a kindergarten class door handle. As a life-long dog person, I have learned to accept this. Besides, some cats are deserving of their fame. Like the great ship’s cats of history.

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Cats have been keeping humans company for the better part of 9500 years, and from the time the first ships dipped their curious wooden hulls into the waiting brine of nautical exploration, a feline presence was perpetually seen as a welcome thing. They kept the rats at bay, caught birds along the shore, and even spread themselves around the globe, populating newly discovered ports and just generally rubbing up against stuff. Read more…

Day 508: Erecting The Erasable – Worst Architecture, Part 1

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I enjoy writing about architecture. Not because I can pretend to know anything the subject, but because it gives me the chance to look at pictures. Letting my mind swim wildly through architecture books or drift free-form through a webpage filled with balustrades, mascarons and elaborate quartrefoils is an act of genuine bliss. I have styles I prefer (art deco) and styles that do nothing to stir my inner batter free from its natural state of lumpiness (international glass rectangle skyscrapers).

I have romantically prattled about the exquisite Chrysler Building and the sturdy Flatiron in New York. No doubt the mighty Empire State Building will be granted a thousand words of my time before the next 492 days have elapsed. I have a soft, melty spot in my heart for the buildings of New York City and the cloud-reaching triumphs of the early 20th century.

But I also have a penchant for things considered to be the worst – in fact, there’s an entire category of it here. But where I’ve often dug into movies and television that have scraped at the crud under the bottom of the barrel, I’ve never looked into objectionable architecture. Fortunately, Building Design magazine has, and they have created the Carbuncle Cup for the ugliest new buildings in Great Britain.

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The 2006 winner, and in fact the inaugural winner of the Carbuncle Cup was the Drake Circus Shopping Centre, located in the heart of Plymouth. A ‘circus’ by this definition is when several roads meet, and has nothing to do with elephants or murderous men in greasepaint, packed into a Volkswagen. Back in the old days, you’d see some classy Edwardian buildings and an iconic clock packed around this oval roundabout. Now you see this thing. Read more…