Friday, December 30, 2011

The game of autograph authenticity

When Q+PR were scheduled to play the MGM Grand a few years back, my wife and I flew down to Vegas so I could check them out with a few other Queen fans while she went shopping. Being on a Queen high after the show, we wandered into Antiquities International at the Forum Shops in Caesar’s Palace and discovered this autographed The Game album which wasn’t framed. After some negotiation with the sales rep — and feeling comfortable with the certificate of authenticity that came with it — we flew back home with the single most expensive Queen item in my collection to date.

While Brian’s autograph on this cover was slightly different from what I recall seeing on the sleeve of my Starfleet album, I chalked his and the other band members’ signatures up to the spontaneous scribble that may have resulted after their Seattle show in 1980, as the handwriting on the back of the album implied.

I only have two other autographs by musical artists that would revival my new Queen collectible: Billy Joel’s, who I personally met and witnessed his signature being written; and Neil Diamond’s, which was a result of some back-and-forth correspondence in 1988 with Diamond's personal assistant, Alison Zanetos.

It required me to send my original fingerprint portrait of him down to Arch Angel Productions (his production company) and she would hold on to it until he stopped into the studio after his current concert tour was over. My patience was rewarded a few months later when my portrait was mailed back with a clever message on the bottom right: “Pat, you really know how to put your finger on the subject. Good luck, Neil Diamond. 4/88. LA.” This Neil collectible has been hanging on the wall of my parents’ house ever since.

A few weeks ago, I was doing an Internet search for “Alison Zanetos” to see if she is still his personal assistant — Diamond is scheduled to be here in Calgary in July 2012, so I was thinking that if I could gain access to him through Zanetos somehow, I might have the opportunity to ask him personally if he remembers signing my fingerprint portrait 24 years ago.

The problem is, though, I came across a Neil Diamond discussion group and she was the subject of controversy regarding Neil’s autograph:

What!?? You’re telling me that the showpiece of my mom’s kitchen has a fake autograph on it? I’m not sure on what grounds Mr. Ross has for such accusations, but now that I’m in armchair autograph sleuth mode, I came across this statement from a BBC news article that seems to support his assertion:

Perhaps the hardest signatures to verify are those that have been faked freehand. In the days before autopen, Walt Disney and many other Hollywood glitterati had their secretaries sign photos for them, says [Antiques Roadshow expert] Clive Farahar.

Now this whole authenticity thing is annoying me. From what I can see, my Neil autograph is pretty close to another Diamond collectible I found online, as I compared the two signatures here:

Sure, there are some differences, but I think the handwriting gestures in his first name are the same as is the “D” in Diamond. But if Alison could sign a mean Neil Diamond signature, maybe she did both of these?

So what about my autographed Queen album? Are they fakes? Well, I took another look at the evidence and compared the autographs from my purchase (labeled “1” from 1980) with the autographs from a cover of ANATO that Jacky Gunn from the Queen fan club claims are authentic (labeled “2” from 1975), and finally with a set of autographs from (labeled “3” from an unknown year). There are considerable differences, as you can see:

The “B” on Brian’s name is quite different from 2 to 3 as is the “R” in Roger’s name; and even John’s first name is almost completely different. So how do you know a signature is fake if their own handwriting changes over time and you weren’t there to witness it firsthand? That is a problem, according to Clive Farahar:

Human error – the fact real handwriting varies over time and in different circumstances - can make real and fake signatures extremely hard to validate or dismiss. Autographs by the Beatles are notoriously hard to authenticate. “You can’t recognise a lot of signatures done at stage doors. It looks like John Lennon but it could be anybody. If you walked out of a theatre as you signed your name, it would look dodgy,” says Mr Farahar.

So back to my Certificate of Authenticity issued by the Las Vegas dealer . . . 

It claims the signatures are authentic (signed at the Seattle concert) and my discussion with the sales rep included the integrity of their suppliers, so did I end up with an album of fake autographs? I’m not sure either way at this point. I’ll still go ahead and get my Game album framed up along with some other Game-era paraphernalia I’ve got kicking around. Whatever the authenticity, it is now part of my collection with a history of its own. 

I suppose the money-back guarantee offered by Antiquities International is always an option but I’d need to find a licensed and certified handwriting expert, pay between $50 and $400 for an analysis, and then pay to send the original cover back to Vegas. For the $600US I paid for the cover, I’ll settle for whatever the authenticity happens to be, which is a mystery at this point.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

The White Man With the Yellow Hat

I know, I know . . . you’re wondering why I’ve posted a commentary about White Man on Christmas Day. Well, with a toddler around the house, Christmas takes on a much more innocent tone with an emphasis on what’s good and right with the world. And Santa Claus, our favourite, dependable pop culture icon once again becomes a symbol of white, capitalist Eurocentrism (all courtesy of Haddon Sundblom and Coca-cola).

I must admit, however, that Curious George, another timeless pop culture icon featuring a white guy (in a yellow hat), was a story I didn’t read growing up as a kid. Now that I have a child of my own, however, my wife and I decided to pick up an anthology of his first six stories, and after reading the stories ad nauseam — and watching the two animated movies — I must admit I take issue with the colonialist overtones to the story.

So how do I go from Curious George to White Man from Queen? The notion of an imperialist mentality is the central parable in Brian’s song. The white, European colonialist arrives, conquers, and/or selfishly converts without any regard to the interests or indigenous well being of the local inhabitants or their ecosystem.

What motivated Brian to be so politically outspoken about the civil injustice being perpetrated on the Native American? Surely, the oppression of the “red man” was not an issue in Europe. Was Brian tuned into the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the events unfolding at Wounded Knee that were going on in the United States in the early to mid-70s? If he was, he certainly wasn't the only show business personality to speak up about it — The Eagles recorded The Last Resort (from Hotel California) about colonialism and the “red man’s way” and even Marlon Brando boycotted his Oscar win for The Godfather as a protest to the Wounded Knee stand-off.

Any lingering doubts I may have had on the negative impact of European colonialism on Canadian society were replaced with shame and empathy after I participated in a cultural field study to Alert Bay, a Native coastal fishing village off the Northeast coast of Vancouver Island. The village boasts the world’s tallest totem pole but is also home to St. Michael’s, one of three remaining Indian residential schools still left standing across Canada (photo by the author above).

From a paternalistic, imperialist point of view, aboriginals found in the uncouth Canadian wild were to be forcibly integrated into Canadian society, even though they had been here first. The extent to which Natives were oppressed is astounding, as this Wikipedia excerpt explains:

“The system was designed as an immersion program: children were prohibited (and sometimes punished) for speaking their own languages or practicing their own faiths. In the 20th century, survivors of the schools claimed that officials and teachers had practiced cultural genocide and ethnocide. Because of the relatively isolated nature of the schools, there was an elevated rate of physical and sexual abuse. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and a lack of medical care led to high rates of tuberculosis, and death rates of up to 69 percent.”

As a parent to a four-year-old, I can’t imagine government agents descending upon my house, taking my child at gunpoint, and then not allowing me to see him for eight to ten months out of the year so he can be indoctrinated by a Church. Hard to believe? That’s exactly what happened to aboriginal families in Canada in the early part of the 20th century.

I know it’s easy to criticize the unsavoury actions of a past government and there are no easy solutions to repair the damage that’s been done. This recent chalkboard message (photo by the author) from inside St. Michael’s at Alert Bay speaks volumes about the lasting effect colonialism has had on their community.

After 36 years, I wonder what Brian thinks of the current state of aboriginal affairs around the world. There are hints of social injustices in We Believe, so I think he’s still in tune with such matters. He’s obviously gotten more politically active since Queen proper ended in 1995 as his Save Me campaign will attest to.

Looking at the vinyl 45s at the top of this blog entry, I’m struck by the irony that White Man was the B side to Somebody to Love . . . they paint two very different pictures of how humans interact with each other.


Friday, December 2, 2011

For Brian, the stars aligned in Tenerife

Back in the summer of 2011, Brian flew over to Tenerife in the Canary Islands to join Tangerine Dream for a one-off space-themed concert and to participate in a panel discussion on the future of space. No doubt, the stars aligned on that trip in such a way that he was able to indulge in and converge his two passions through one event, the Starmus Festival.

His appearance at this “most spectacular science outreach event” also set him up for a series of media interviews including one with Russia Today correspondent, Sophie Shevardnadze, grand-daughter of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former president of Georgia. Multi-talented in her own right, she has a background in classical piano, is fluent in five languages, has competed as a dancer, but still gets called out as a socialite. 

As an interviewer, however, she had some of the most intelligent questions prepared for Brian which elicited answers that I have not heard him give before. I think even he was surprised at the breadth of her knowledge about Queen and himself and how she tied it all back to his interest in space. Here is a link to the 12-minute interview on YouTube. To save time, however, here are the paraphrased quotes from Brian that appeared on the screen during the interview:

Three things struck me during the interview: 

1) He is amazingly articulate in his answers. He avoids colloquialisms and idioms but employs the occasional metaphor when it’s appropriate for the topic.

2)  Whoever strung together the graphics and supporting video clips for this interview got many things wrong. First, Freddie’s name is spelled incorrectly (as seen above) and when they cut to a Queen video clip during Brian’s answer, it is almost always of Freddie. That was the wrong association to make, in my opinion.

3) Brian mentioned that back in the early days of Queen, his dad was secretly tracking their concerts and such by mapping them onto bar graphs. That would be the ultimate collector’s item for me — an infographic based on Queen done by the co-builder of the Red Special. I wonder if Brian still has them . . . hmmm.

Bottom line, I learned more about Brian in these 12 minutes than I have in all the biographies or interviews I’ve seen of him through the years.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The ultimate artifact collection

Just when I thought the Sutcliffe book couldn’t be topped in terms of distilling the Queen history down to a single publication, along comes this ultimate box set of artifacts and reproductions from their 40-year career. (In Sutcliffe’s defence, however, even he couldn’t compete with the private collections of Brian and Roger.)

The tactile quality of this book reminded me of my kid’s books on dragonology, piratology, Greek mythology, UFOlogy, and the myriad other esoteric themes that have been packaged up in book form to cater to a sensory-deprived readership who seem to be acquiring their knowledge through digital means only. 

Someone who was born into this digital generation is Sarah L., one of my information design students. For a young adult surrounded by the likes of dub step and NKOTBSB, she’s developed a remarkable appreciation for classic rock and analogue technology, as her LP collection and USB turntable will attest to.

While she and I have had lengthy discussions about bands from my era — The Who, Rainbow, Zeppelin, Meat Loaf, Floyd, Boston, etc. — she admits her musical taste is due to her dad’s influence. His Queen CD collection — primarily his Greatest Hits disc — piqued her interest in the band and she began scoping out their other tunes on YouTube. The GH disc, as she discovered, is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the appeal of the band’s oeuvre goes.

Her own Queen collection now includes her first book, the 40 Years of Queen box set that she is holding here. It’s the same collectible I picked up about a month before she emailed me to say she found it at a local bookstore for cheap. The fact that it features reproductions of actual Queen paraphernalia is something that she values more than just a book with photos and text . . . she’s also a designer who finds inspiration in posters, tickets, backstage passes, and such.

When I asked her what her favourite Queen song currently is, I was surprised when she responded with Fight From the Inside, a tune she even nominated for her high school’s grad song. Coincidentally, this was the song that drew me into the world of Queen back in 1977-78 when I heard it on my friend’s dad’s 8-track player.

It would seem that this particular Roger song is responsible for at least two Queen adherents.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Twenty years before Freddie’s death, November 24th was an anniversary of a different kind

One is famous for giving and the other for taking. 

On November 24th, 1971, Dan (D.B.) Cooper, an American aboard Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 hijacked the plane, pocketed $200,000 in ransom money, donned a parachute, and jumped into the history books as one of the most popular unsolved crimes in America.

On November 24th, 1991, Freddie Mercury died less than 24 hours after the world learned he had AIDS.

For the twenty years between Cooper’s escape and the end of Mercury’s life, one could assume Cooper spent the $200,000 on Queen collectibles over those two decades.

That would explain why no one has heard from him. Like a crazed fan, he no doubt isolated himself in a remote cabin the American Pacific Northwest and immersed himself in a mystery more far-reaching than his own . . . how Farrokh Bulsara, born in East Africa, rose to become arguably the most celebrated Asian entertainer in popular culture. 

A quick look at their Facebook pages shows their relative popularity in contemporary terms:

Sure, Freddie kicks Cooper’s ass in Likes and people talking about them, but what about their respective popularity across the entire Internet? Here are some statistics I managed to pull from a variety of search engines:

  Mercury Cooper
Alexa (web traffic) 1,096 23
AltaVista (web search) 10,100,000 1,890,000
Bing (web search) 9,060,000 1,620,000
Blinkx (videos) 44,000 88
BlogScope (blogs) 626 284
BTJunkie (bit torrent items) 152 0
Gigablast (web search) 151,302 10,746
GOO (Japanese search) 2,440,000 194,000
Google (web search) 18,500,000 1,350,000
Google Books 23,800 24,800
HotBot (web search) 10,100,000 1,920,000
IceRocket (blogs) 11,061 717
IsoHunt (bit torrent items) 734 45
Lycos (web search) 10,100,000 1,920,000
OMGILI (forums) 832 33
REDIFF (Indian search) 1,510,000 258,000
Technorati (blogs) 7 0
The Find (shopping) 2,329 130
The Pirate Bay (bit torrent items) 65 0
Torrentz (bit torrent items) 127 3
Yahoo (web search) 8,660,000 1,650,000
YouTube (videos) 86,200 734

Again, no contest. One stat is not like the others, though . . . Google Books. Cooper is referenced in a thousand more books than Mercury, which is curious. Is it the nature of Cooper’s fame that has generated more written discourse and scholarly debate about what happened? I suppose if Cooper had twenty years of creative output and public spectacle like Mercury, we might see his Internet numbers correspond to his increased digital presence.

Nonetheless, for a guy whose identity is limited to a couple of FBI drawings and the evidence of his crime being a few bundles of $20 bills found in a river, he’s managed to generated an inordinate amount of cult-like attention. The likelihood that he died from the jump is the official FBI opinion, although his case has remained opened all of these years and the recent discovery of a French Canadian comic book that describes how a character named Dan Cooper hijacks a plane and absconds with ransom money has reignited the interest in his cold case after 40 years.

One other interesting parallel exists between Cooper and Mercury and that is a legacy of copycats. Cooper inspired at least 15 similar hijackings — nothing to be proud of, I’m afraid — but Freddie kicks Cooper’s ass here, too, with those countless musicians, singers, and performers he’s inspired.

Although I like the tune, it’s too bad Freddie didn’t write a song based on D.B. Cooper instead of Leroy Brown. If he did, November 24th would then be that much more aligned between the two individuals.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Queen’s reign over Antarctica

Media Moment: Happy Feet Two
Queen-related: Queen songs featured

I subscribe to Roger Ebert’s movie reviews and happened to catch his two-line RSS description of Happy Feet Two a couple of days ago where he briefly mentioned Queen. Not thinking much of it, I deleted the RSS message but discovered another Queen reference to HF2 just today when I was watching the iTunes trailers for the movie.

In addition to the official trailers for HF2, there were also a few teasers and featurettes with one that showed the cast performing their lines in a recording studio. With Brad Pitt as the voice of Will the Krill, one teaser shows him singing — rather poorly, I might add — the chorus of We Are The Champions, presumably as his krill character will sing it in the movie (below). 

Hey, maybe that’s the Queen reference that Ebert was alluding to in his truncated RSS review. I went to Ebert’s website, found his review for HF2, and he does indeed mention Queen a few times:

“Happy Feet Two” is handled as a musical with a startling range of tastes; we get numbers all the way from Queen’s “We Are the Champions” to a solo aria, “E lucevan le stele,” from Puccini’s “Tosca.” You wonder how these penguins found out about Puccini. Then you realize it’s just as inexplicable how they found out about Queen. No matter. Younger viewers, who have no idea what an aria is, may simply enjoy the music.

Because HF2 debuts today in most theatres, there aren’t many early reviews on IMDb. One external review by Kathryn Schroeder at Film Fracture, however, does mention Queen in its summary of the movie’s song choices:

“For adults the use of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” is a great inclusion for the finale…” 

Curiously, Schroeder doesn’t mention WATC in the song list. Maybe its appearance in the film is too short to warrant a full-on credit? Not so, according to the American iTunes store that is currently selling the soundtrack (I can’t get the soundtrack on Canada’s iTunes store just yet). There is definitely a full-length recording of WATC by John Powell, the film’s original music composer but no evidence of Pitt officially covering the song. So maybe his krill character has nothing to do with the song and he was just goofing off in the studio. That could say something about his personal taste in music.

Under Pressure, as sung by Pink’s character, is also on iTunes for this soundtrack although it’s mashed up with Rhythm Nation in the same track. 

 I suppose I shouldn’t be that surprised that a song or two by Queen makes an appearance in this sequel . . . the original, Oscar-winning penguin movie featured Somebody To Love which, in my opinion, was the highlight of the film’s musical numbers.

George Miller, the writer and director for both movies, is an Australian who’s worked closely with Brian May. No, not our good doctor but the composer from Australia who scored those Mad Max and B horror movies from the 80s and 90s.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Sing-off does more than Queen medley

Media Moment: The Sing-off 
Queen-related: Queen medley

Ever since the classic MTV reality series Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica went off the air in 2005, I’ve been so despondent that I can’t bare to watch Nick Lachey in anything else. So it wasn’t my intention when I unknowingly caught him as the host of The Sing-off the other night. I was hoping to catch a Queen reference during the reality show and got more than I expected. 

I fast-forwarded through Nick’s hosting duties and the preamble that led up to the actual performance of each team so I could test my theory about Queen being one of the chosen artists for a medley of their songs. I had to get to almost the mid-way point of the two-hour show before I stopped fast-forwarding a few seconds into the Dartmouth Aires set. I pressed play and heard the unmistakable lyrics of Killer Queen

There it is, I thought to myself. 

I rewound back to Lachey’s intro for this group so I could catch the footage of their rehearsal. Maybe I’d hear some further Queen references. Sure enough, a few of the members mentioned being huge Queen fans. One singer, in particular, stated that he grew up listening to Freddie due to his mother’s obsession. Interesting, coming from a predominantly R&B vocalist.

The group started with Killer Queen and then segued into the operatic section of Bohemian Rhapsody, and followed that with the last minute or so of Somebody To Love. I don’t know whether KQ added much to the performance but their rendition of BoRhap’s multilayered middle section was actually pretty good. One guy even nailed the high bits that Roger does in the original.

Rounding out the set list with STL gave them a strong finish as well. The dude that acknowledged Freddie as an influence in the rehearsal footage made the song his own and had a slightly different arrangement for the end solo (see right photo). All of the judges felt the group’s performance was remarkable given the complexity of the original material. The lone female judge, Sara Bareilles, claimed she was a huge Queen fan herself and thought their did the songs proud. (The fact that she’s associated with Maroon 5, whose lead singer did a Queen medley on The Voice a few months ago, probably speaks to that connection.)

There have been a couple of other Queen covers on The Sing-off. Here’s a run-down:
Season One: Under Pressure (opening song), Somebody To Love
Season Two: We Are The Champions (victory song)
Season Three: Queen medley (Killer Queen / Bohemian Rhapsody / Somebody To Love)

As an aside, I think Freddie is being channeled through more than the Dartmouth Aires. A quick glance through the group names made me wonder what’s really going on: Delilah (really?). Beelzebubs (hmmm). Or what about The Yellow Jackets? Surely that group wouldn’t have gotten punted at the end of this episode if they had all been wearing Freddie’s Magic Tour jacket.

The season’s not over yet, so maybe there’ll be more Queen to come.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dynamite is right...just not in a good way.

Wow. I picked up this assemblage of Queen tribute songs at our local second-hand record story over this past summer. I couldn’t play it, though, because I haven’t had a turntable for nearly 20 years when I threw out my parents’ old hand-me-down Sears stereo from the mid-70s — which had an 8-track player on it, I might add.

Not to be outdone, however, I purchased the songs from iTunes a little while later and gave them a listen, which was painful. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because it says right on the sleeve that the cover tunes get run through a meat grinder over at Three One G, which specializes in grind core and hardcore punk. Doesn’t exactly conjure up notions of a symphonic orchestra, right?

From what I could decipher, Ogre Battle and Death on Two Legs are probably the closest to the original, but even that’s probably stretching things a bit. And then there is Who Needs You and Vutan’s Theme (sic), which sound like a radio out of tune. Nothing more. Some songs would be better described as spoken-word songs or performance poetry. Calling it “music” could be debated.

In its defence, however, I did feel that Death on Two Legs actually sounds like it would be right at home in a Rodriguez or Tarantino exploitation flick shot in Mexico. Hey, maybe that should be the name of their next movie.

I also like the album packaging. Early 80s Freddie rendered as a gestural drawing is pretty cool. The all-pink vinyl is a nice touch, and the liner notes and photos are intriguing. Here are some shots I took of my copy:


I wonder if the inset photo of dude holding the 8-track of News of the World was Photoshopped or from someone’s family album?