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.