Song of the Day: War in Music (Day Four). “I’ve Got My Spine, I’ve Got My Orange Crush”.

Orange Crush, the first single taken from REM’s sixth album Green (1988), takes its inspiration from the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, manufactured by Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemical for the US department of defense.  It was used in the Vietnam War (1st November 1955 – 30th April 1975) as part of the USA military’s herbicidal warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, between 1961 and 1971.

Orange Crush is one of REM’s most political songs.  Singer Michael Stipe explained in an appearance on the TV show Last Call with Carson Daly that the song is about a young man from America who played football but left to serve in Vietnam.  During the Green Tour to accompany the album, Stipe often started the song by singing “Be all you can be … in the army”, a reference to the US Army’s recruitment slogan from 1980 to 2001.

REM were already no strangers to producing overtly political songs.  Take for example, the song Exhuming McCarthy from their previous album, Document (1987), which makes an explicit parallel between the red-baiting of Joe McCarthy’s time and the strengthening of the sense of American exceptionalism throughout the Reagan era, particularly in the Iran-Contra affair.

The Iran-Contra affair was a political scandal which occurred during the second term of the Reagan administration (1983 – 1988), in which senior administration officials secretly facilitated the sales of arms to Iran, which was the subject of an arms embargo.  It was hoped that the sales of arms would secure the release of several US hostages and the money would fund the Contras in Nicaragua.  Contra militants based in Honduras were waging a guerrilla war to topple the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) revolutionary government of Nicaragua.  Under the Boland Amendment, the name given to the US legislative amendments between 1982 and 1984 aimed at limiting the US government assistance to the Contra’s militants, further funding of the Contras by the government had been prohibited by Congress.  Another motivation on the part of some officials was to press for renewed ties with the Islamic Republic. The argument for developing ties with Iran was based on the traditional Cold War concern that isolating the Khomeini regime could open the way for Moscow to assert it’s influence in a strategically vital part of the world.

In 1950, McCarthy had become the most visible face of a period of intense anti-communist suspicion inspired by the tensions of the Cold War.  McCarthy made claims that there were large numbers of Communist and Soviet spies and sympathisers inside the federal government and elsewhere.  The term ‘McCarthyism’ was coined in 1950 in order to refer to McCarthy’s practices and was soon applied to other anti-communist pursuits.  The song includes a sample from Joseph Welch’s rebuke of McCarthy from the Army-McCarthy Hearings on the 9th June 1954:  “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator … You’ve done enough.  Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?  Have you no sense of decency?”

The Vietnam War was highly significant in the Cold War.  Neither the United States of America nor the Soviet Union could risk all-out war against each other, with the nuclear military of each nation being too great.  However, when it suited both, the United States of America and the Soviet Union had client states which would carry on the fighting on their behalf.  In Vietnam, America actually fought, meaning that in the Cold War ‘game’, the Soviet Union could not.  However, to support the Communist cause, the Soviet Union armed China, a fellow Communist state.  In turn, China would equip the North Vietnamese who fought the Americans.

Other REM songs to deal with the subjects of communism, war and politics include The Flowers of Guatemala from the band’s 1986 album Life’s Rich Pageant.  In the song, the flowers cover the graves of the people killed by the US-backed military regime in Guatemala.  In 1954, the US government backed the Guatemalan coup d’etat which overthrew the democratically elected government.  This government was then replaced by a fascist dictatorship.  The coup d’etat laid the foundations for the Guatemalan Civil War, which ran from 1960 to 1996.  The Civil War was fought between the government of Guatemala and various leftist rebel groups supported chiefly by ethic Mayan indigenous people and Landino peasants, who together made up the rural poor.  The government forces of Guatemala have been condemned for committing genocide against the Mayan population of Guatemala during the Civil War and for widespread human rights violations against civilians.  The Flowers of Guatemala is about the violent right-wing government in Guatemala and the devastating effect it had on the Guatemalan people.  In The Flowers of Guatemala, “Amanita” refers to the genus of several exceptionally deadly mushrooms, including one commonly known as the ‘Destroying Angel’, serving as a metaphor for the US as a destructive force, a ‘destroying angel’.

For the Green album, the band explored political matters and their condemnation of the US government still further.  The album’s opening song, Pop Song ’89 sets the scene for the political subject matter incorporated into the album with the lines, “Should we talk about the weather?  Should we talk about the government?”

The song World Leader Pretend uses war imagery as a metaphor for the war of self-doubt that the singer wages on himself:  “I sit at my table and wage war on myself, It seems like it’s all, it’s all for nothing, I know the barricades, And I know the mortar in the wall breaks, I recognise the weapons, I’ve used them all”.

On Orange Crush, the theme of war on the Green album takes a literal turn and further explores the subject of Communism first addressed on Exhuming McCarthy.  The US government viewed its involvement in the Vietnam War as a way of preventing a Communist takeover of South Vietnam.  This was part of a wider containment policy, with the stated aim of stopping the spread of communism.  The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were fighting to reunify Vietnam under communist rule.  They viewed the conflict as a colonial war, fought initially against forces from France and then America, and later against South Vietnam.

Of Orange Crush’s lyrical content, the song opens with its chorus and the reoccurring motif “Follow me, don’t follow me”, referring to the frequent situations in the Vietnam War where one soldier was sent ahead of his troop in order to check for danger or ambush.  “Follow me”, therefore, is a cue for the troops behind the leading soldier to advance on his position.  Alternatively, the command “don’t follow me” means to cease movement and observe.

The lyric “I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush” refers to the assurance that soldiers fighting in Vietnam were given that Agent Orange would have no effect on them.  However, on returning home, the soldiers experienced an array of illnesses ranging from several forms of cancer to their wives suffering miscarriages.  Another effect of Agent Orange was Spina Bifida in the children of soldiers exposed to the chemical.  Therefore, in this line, the soldier says “I’ve got my spine”, believing that he is unaffected by the chemical and that his children won’t be affected either.  With the lyric “I’ve got my orange crush”, the soldier may also be referring to the ability to call upon air attack measures in the event that whilst being sent ahead of his troop, he runs into trouble.

The following line, “Collar me, don’t collar me” is a further reference to Spina Bifida.  The deformation of their spine caused by their fathers’ exposure to Agent Orange meant that they were often required to wear a special brace, or “collar”.  This line refers to the uncertainty of deformation and the fact that the father of the deformed child was unsure about the negative effects of the chemical.

“We are agents of the free” is a play on the word ‘agent’ in Agent Orange but also alludes to the American ideology of spreading democracy throughout the world.  The Vietnam Conflict was a war against Communism and this line finds the soldier taking the stance of somebody freeing the Vietnamese from the evils of Communism.

In the line “I’ve had my fun and now it’s time to serve your conscience overseas”, we find the soldier telling of how after having his fun playing football whilst living in Suburbia and living the American Dream, he now feels it is his duty to serve his country in the war.

Following this, “Over me, not over me” finds the soldier on the battlefield intoning that he hopes the pilot of the aircraft above him to drop the Agent Orange further ahead of him as opposed to on top of him.  The next line, “Coming in fast, over me” refers to the aircraft about to deploy the chemical flying quickly above him.

After two choruses, the first line of the verse, “High on the booze, In a tent” tells of how the soldier and his comrades pass the time in their tent drinking, whilst the following line, “Paved with blood” adds a dark twist, with the tent most probably being covered in blood from the fighting.  In this verse, the soldiers repress the atrocities that they have seen on the battlefield by finding enjoyment in alcohol.  The “Nine inch howl” that the soldier refers to is the sound of artillery firing, with “nine inch” being the artillery barrels.  In the following line, “Brave the night”, the soldier is hoping to make it through the night as the Viet Cong were known for setting traps and ambushes, whilst “Chopper comin’ in, you hope” refers to the soldier hoping for a helicopter (“chopper”) to come in and take him home, away from the battle.

The songs middle section is spoken by Stipe through a megaphone, an element of the song which worked to great effect when played live.  The singer has said that this part of the song is merely a series of random thoughts sewn together.  Despite Stipe’s assertion that these lines are nonsense, they do have significant connections to war, and specifically Vietnam.

Trying to make some sort of sense of the middle section, these lines appear to tell the story of the soldier arriving in Vietnam and being lost in a strange land (“We would circle and we’d circle and we’d circle”); fixing the army vehicles ready or warfare (“Stacked up all the trucks and jacked up and our wheels”); enjoying the beauty of Vietnam whilst not fighting (“It’s just like heaven here”) and finally heading home in the helicopter (“Then this whirlybird that I headed for, I had my goggles pulled off”), realising that after so long in Vietnam, he now knew the place like the back of his hand (“I knew every back road and every truck stop”).  Alternatively, If we were simply to see these lines as nonsense as Stipe suggests, they could be seen to denote the soldier suffering from shellshock, which is likely to cause him to have random flashbacks and mutter random occurrences.

The megaphone used in Orange Crush could be seen as significant to the subject matter of war in the song, perhaps being an allusion to the amplification of commands given over the noise of the battlefield or, more likely, to the way in which if negotiations between countries or parties are held through press releases and announcements, they are termed ‘megaphone diplomacy’.  The aim of ‘megaphone diplomacy’ is to force the other party into adopting a desired position.

Therefore, the use of the megaphone may refer to the war announcements made by the US and Vietnam through the media and the pivotal role that the media played in the Vietnam War.  At the beginning of the Second World War, television had gradually become familiar to the public but by the end of the war, it began to be manufactured on a large scale.  In the 1950s, only 9% of American homes owned a television, a figure which rose dramatically to 93% by the mid-sixties at the height of the Vietnam War.  A survey conducted in 1964 suggested that 58% of respondents received their news from television, making the medium the most important source of news for the American people during the Vietnam Conflict.

Additionally, the idea of the use of a megaphone is also addressed on the song Hairshirt, a song of self-repentance which compliments both Orange Crush and World Leader Pretend.  A hairshirt was a scratchy woolen undergarment worn by religiously repentant people between the 13th and 15th century, who believed that suffering brought you closer to God.  In Hairshirt, the lyric “I can swing my megaphone, And long arm the rest, It’s easier and better, To just beat it from the chest, Of desire” finds the singer pondering over the importance of the messages that he delivers in his lyrics and his significance as a songwriter.

Linking Hairshirt to Orange Crush, the use of music in war and other political matters has been highly significant over the years.  During the Vietnam War, music and particularly the protest song, was highly important, with artists such as The Doors (take for example, The Unknown Soldier from Waiting for the Sun, 1968) …

… and John Lennon (take for example, Give Peace A Chance, 1969) using their music to express their disdain for the conflict.

Orange Crush was obviously written long after the Vietnam War ended but deals with the after-effects of the conflict and the continuing damage caused to those who fought and their families.  Thus, Orange Crush proudly takes its place in the pantheon of songs addressing the conflict and of anti-war songs in general.

The Green album was both commercially and artistically a turning point for the band.  In a 1988 interview with Elianna Halbersberg for East Coast Rocker in November 1988, Peter Buck described Green as an album which didn’t feature any typical REM songs.  He described the band’s previous output as “Minor key, mid-tempo, enigmatic, semi-folk balladish things” and said for Green, the band “wrote major key rock songs and switched instruments”.   In conversation with the band’s biographer, David Buckley for the book Fiction:  An Alternative Biography (2003), Michael Stipe stated that he told his band mates to “not write any more REM-type songs”.  This was an experiment that REM would later repeat on the 1994 album Monster, a move away from the sound of the albums Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), which following the embryonic commercialism of Green, gained the band even further commercial success.

With the change of direction on Green, it is no surprise that REM’s war anthem Orange Crush was given the full rock treatment.  Orange Crush is an upbeat pop song full of jangling guitars which sound like the artillery fire talked about in the lyrics, complete with that middle section which places the listener in the centre of the battlefield and further compliments the images of helicopters deploying Agent Orange in the song and the intensity of battle.  Orange Crush, and the rest of the Green album, finds REM exploring sonic directions in order to paint pictures to accompany Stipe’s increasingly cinematic lyrics.  Bassist Mike Mills, in conversation with David Buckley, said of the Green album in conversation that it was an experimental record, resulting in an album which was “haphazard, a little scattershot”.  This haphazard and scattershot approach though is exactly what makes Orange Crush so wonderful and one of the many highlights of an often underrated and overlooked album in REM’s canon, with the, at first nonsensical sounding lyrical content conjuring up images of the confusion and mayhem on the battlefields of the Vietnam War.

When it came to producing a video for Orange Crush, REM turned to director Matt Muhurin, who is also responsible for videos for singles by U2, Queensryche, Metallica, Tracy Chapman, Tom Waits and Alice in Chains.  The video for Orange Crush won REM their first VMA award for Best Post-Modern Video.  Orange Crush was the first song to win in the category.

Orange Crush was later covered by Editors and used as the B-side of their Blood single in 2005.  The Editors cover version is fairly faithful to REM’s original in terms of its musical content but starts with a stripped down piano led interpretation of the line “I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush” and adds the band’s own lyrics “High on the roof, Thin the blood, Another one on the waves tonight, Comin’ in, you’re home”.  The latter change to the song not only links the cover version with A-side of the Editors single with the use of the word “blood” but also adds an extra-dimension and shows the malleability, longevity and brilliance of the song’s composition.

Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day Seven). “The Day of the Death of a Matinee Idol”.

“I would rather quit while I was ahead.  There’s no need in overstaying your welcome”.

– River Phoenix.

It was the night of the 31st October, 1993 on a West Hollywood street outside The Viper Room.  Around 1am, the stage door of the club opened.  Actor River Phoenix, most famous for roles in films such as Explorers (1985), Stand By Me (1986), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), was carried out of the club by his film actress girlfriend, Samantha Mathis and Phoenix’s younger brother, Joaquin (aka Leaf) Phoenix.  River Phoenix’s younger sister, Rain Phoenix followed.

Many present at The Viper Room that night had thought River Phoenix was drunk, but as the night air hit him, River Phoenix fell to the ground and began to have a violent seizure.  Some reports suggest that the seizures started inside the club, where Johnny Depp, co-owner of The Viper Room, was playing guitar on stage with Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass and Gibby Haynes of The Butthole Surfers on vocals, together with other assorted members of Depp’s short-lived band P.  River Phoenix, an accomplished guitarist, was due to join them on stage for a jam later that night.  The Viper Room’s doorman had previously ordered River Phoenix’s friends to take him outside earlier on during the night.  There are many stories surrounding what happened prior to the actor being taken out onto the pavement.  Some say he was shouting and vomiting inside the club and in one particular newspaper report, he was said to have screamed “I’m gonna die dude” as his entourage took him outside.

As River Phoenix began to have his first seizure, the doorman shouted, “Do something, call 911!” to which his brother looked back and yelled, “He’s fine, he’s fine, he’s fine”.  Following the first seizure, there was a pregnant pause and then a second seizure.  By this point, River Phoenix’s eyes were rolling back into his head, he was shaking violently and his arms were shaking around.  Leaf Phoenix rang for an ambulance but was already unable to determine whether his brother was breathing.

In total, River Phoenix had five seizures outside the club, arms flailing and head banging on the pavement.  Rain Phoenix laid on top of her brother in an attempt to suppress the movements.  Following the final seizure, River Phoenix went still.  His sister laid next to him on the pavement, lifted up his shirt, rubbed his stomach and said, “Can you hear me, can you hear me …?” She attempted to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation.

By the time the ambulance arrived, River Phoenix had no pulse, was not breathing and up close, his complexion was dark blue.  Basic life support was given but it was already too late.  River Phoenix was loaded into the ambulance.  As it was preparing to pull away, Flea, who had abruptly left the stage after news of the events unfolding outside had filtered through the club, ran outside and tried to climb in the back of the ambulance but was told to sit in the front.  River Phoenix was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.  Further unsuccessful resuscitation attempts were made.  River Phoenix was pronounced dead at 1.51am PST on the morning of October 31st, 1993.  He was just 23 years old.

The following day, The Viper Room became a makeshift shrine to the actor, with fans and mourners leaving flowers, pictures and candles on the pavement as well as graffiti messages on the walls of the club.  A sign was solemnly placed at the club’s window, reading:  “With much respect and love to River and his family, The Viper Room is temporarily closed.  Our heartfelt condolences to all his family, friends and loved ones.  He will be missed”.  The club remained closed for a week.  Each year on the anniversary of River Phoenix’s death, Johnny Depp would close the club in respect until selling his share in 2004.

River Phoenix’s autopsy, signed November 15th, 1993, reads, under the second ‘Opinion’:  “Toxicology studies showed high concentrations of morphine and cocaine in the blood, as well as other substances in smaller concentrations”.  The cause of death was stated as “acute multiple drug intoxication”.

During his lifetime, River Phoenix’s image had been squeaky clean, something that he continuously moaned about in interviews.  This image of River Phoenix stems from his reputation as firstly a child star and then a ‘teen sensation’ and his public dedication to many social, political, humanitarian and dietary interests that were not always popular during the 1980’s and early 1990’s.  His death caused much media interest, with some circles calling him “The James Dean of our time”, making comparisons between the youth and sudden deaths of both actors.

Amongst the many tributes made to River Phoenix, he has inspired a large number of songs, many of which have been written by his musician friends.  Despite his reputation as a truly gifted actor, River Phoenix had actually wanted to be a full time musician.  He had his own band, Aleka’s Attic, and loved to spend time with bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, who all became close personal friends after he and Flea met when they were both cast in My Own Private Idaho.

It is no wonder then, that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have recorded a number of tributes to River Phoenix, notably the song Transcending from 1995’s One Hot Minute album, which includes lyrics such as “Smartest fucker I’ve ever met” and “I called you a hippie, you said ‘Fuck off’”.

Whilst he was still alive, the Red Hot Chili Peppers dedicated a whole verse of one of their biggest hits, Give It Away, from the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991), to the actor.  The verse reads:  “There’s a river, born to be a giver, Keep you warm, won’t let you shiver, His heart is never gonna whither”.

Another artist profoundly affected by the death of his close friend was Michael Stipe of REM, who was so devastated by the loss that he could not write songs for five months afterwards.  After his recovery, REM made the album Monster (1994) which the band dedicated to River Phoenix.  Monster featured the single Bang and Blame, which had backing vocals performed by Rain Phoenix.  Following the death of his friend, Stipe bought the rights to Aleka’s Attic’s recordings from Island Records, which River Phoenix had under contract.

Incidentally, whilst River Phoenix laid dying outside The Viper Room, Johnny Depp, Flea and co were playing a song entitled Michael Stipe.

Rufus Wainwright was another friend of the actor deeply affected by his death.  His debut album Rufus Wainwright (1998), written over a period of several years, included the song Matinee Idol.  Matinee Idol is about the rise and fall of an entertainment figure and was directly inspired by River Phoenix’s death.  Set to a 1920’s cabaret style musical backing, the lyrics of the song tell of River Phoenix laying dead on West Sunset Boulevard as the angels come down for the actor:

“Still so beautiful as the angels

As the angels came down from on high

So sweet and so soft

So charmingly daft

So young was the matinee idol

Lips of crimson slightly open

As the flash and all fame put to rest”.

Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day Two). “Andy, Did You Hear About This One?”

“I am not a comic, I have never told a joke … The comedian’s promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him … my promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can … They say, ‘Oh wow, Andy Kaufman, he’s a really funny guy’.  But I’m not trying to be funny.  I just want to play with their heads”.

– Andy Kaufman, New York Times interview, 1975.

Have you ever wanted to see what Michael Stipe’s vision of heaven looks like?  Then look no further than Man on the Moon from REM’s multi-million selling 1992 album Automatic for the People.  On an album that features even darker themes than the band’s previous releases, songs such as Drive, Sweetness Follows and Monty Got A Raw Deal are immediately brought to mind, Man on the Moon seems quite jovial and uplifting.  Here, we find Stipe writing about Andy Kaufman, a comedic actor and Stipe’s hero.  Strip away the fact that this is a song about a comedian and the fact that Stipe even makes a few jokes in the song’s lyrics though and we are left with a dark puzzle.  For under the veneer of fun and hilarity, there was a much darker side to Andy Kaufman.  What Man on the Moon is really asking is: Did Kaufman, renowned for his elaborate pranks and ruses, really die?  It is a mystery that, as Stipe rightly sings in the song, is right up there with whether the first moon landing was a hoax.  First, let’s take a look at the life and bizarre career of Andy Kaufman.

“While all the other kids were out playing ball and stuff, I used to stay in my room and imagine that there was a camera in the wall. And I used to really believe that I was putting on a television show and that it was going out to somewhere in the world”.

– Andy Kaufman.

Born in New York on January 17th 1949, Andy Kaufman was a popular and eccentric American entertainer, actor and performance artist.  Whilst often referred to as a comedian, Kaufman detested this tag, preferring to be known as a ‘song and dance man’.  Today, he is widely known as a cult artist and is well respected in some circles for his highly original material, unique performance style and an unwavering commitment to the characters that he created.

“When you go through a tunnel- you’re on a train – you go through a tunnel, the tunnel is dark, but you’re still going forward. Just remember that. But if you’re not going to to get up on stage for one night because you’re discouraged or something, then the train is going to stop. Everytime you get up on stage, if it’s a long tunnel, it’s going to take a lot of times of going on stage before things get bright again. You keep going on stage, you go forward. Every night go on stage”.

– Andy Kaufman in recorded phone conversation with friend Elayne Boosler.

After graduating from the now defunct Grahm Junior College in 1971, Kaufman began performing stand up comedy at various small clubs across the East Coast of America.  He first caught public attention with a character simply known as Foreign Man, who claimed to be from Caspiar, a fictional island in the Caspian Sea.  As Foreign Man, Kaufman would appear on the stage of comedy clubs, play a gramophone recording of the theme from the Mighty Mouse cartoon.  He would stand perfectly still, lip-syncing only the line “Here I come to save the day” with over the top levels of enthusiasm.  He would then continue to perform a number of impersonations in a deliberately dead pan manner, still using the voice of Foreign Man.  These impersonations famously included Presidents Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon and the television character Archie Bunker.  The Mighty Mouse routine and his various impersonations were performed on Saturday Night Live in 1975.

“I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de President of de United States … Hello, I am Meester Carter, de President of de United States.  T’ank you veddy much”.

– Andy Kaufman as Foreign Man, 1975.

After the unsuspecting audience had grown used to Foreign Man’s inability to perform his impressions, usually met with either silence or nervous laughter, he would then announce “And now I would like to imitate Elvis Presley”.  Kaufman’s Foreign Man would then proceed to turn around, take off his jacket to reveal an Elvis-style jump suit circa the Vegas years, slick his hair back and launch into a highly credible Elvis Presley impersonation.  As Elvis often did, Foreign Man would throw his jacket to the audience but then immediately ask for it back again.  After his Elvis impression was over, Foreign Man would return to his ‘normal voice’ to say “T’ank you veddy much” and bowed to the stunned audience.  Elvis Presley once even described the impersonation as his personal favourite impersonation of him.

Kaufman’s Foreign Man persona was later adapted for the character of Latka Gravas for the ABC situation comedy Taxi, which ran from 1978 until it’s cancellation in 1983.  Kaufman detested situation comedies but was encouraged to take the role by long time manager, George Shapiro, convincing him that playing the crazy break out character in a prime time show would gain him instant stardom, earning him enough money to put back into his own act.  Begrudgingly, Kaufman agreed to appear in 14 episodes per season but initially wanted four for Tony Clifton.  However, after Kaufman deliberately sabotaged Tony Clifton’s appearance on the show, this part of the contract was rebuked.

Tony Clifton was Kaufman’s audience-bating lounge singer alter-ego.  For some time, it was unclear that Clifton was actually just another Kaufman character.  News programmes even interviewed Tony Clifton believing him to be Kaufman’s opening act.  The mood would descend into ugliness every time Kaufman’s name was mentioned with Clifton saying that Kaufman was trying to ruin Clifton’s “good name” in order to make money and become famous off his back.  Much to Kaufman’s amusement, Clifton’s deliberate sabotage of his appearance on Taxi made several local newspapers.

Friend, fellow performer and writer Bob Zmuda also occasionally played Tony Clifton on stage and for television appearances.  In an interview in 2006, Zmuda told the Opie and Anthony Show that he performed the Tony Clifton character on Late Night With David Letterman and that Letterman did not find out until years afterwards.

In addition to the use of the Tony Clifton character, the character of Latka was said to have multiple personality disorder enabling Kaufman to randomly portray other characters at will.  These other characters included an impersonation of the show’s main character Alex Reiger and the serial womaniser Vic Ferrari.  It has been suggested that Kaufman actually did suffer from multiple personality disorder but this, apart from his ability and ease in dropping into his various character creations without notice, is unfounded.

“With Andy, it was a case of art imitating life.  Because before he’s get up on stage, or after he had finished performing, he kept in character.  He wouldn’t become himself, whoever himself was”.

– Phil Berger, The Last Laugh, 1985.

So loved was the character of Latka and so hated by Kaufman that Latka was his most widely known character, that when performing his own stand up act, Kaufman would fend off calls for him to perform the character by deliberately sabotaging his own act in numerous ways.  One such example, as seen in the partly-fictionalised biopic Man on the Moon (1999), was punishing the audience by reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in its entirety, usually accompanied with the voice of an upper class English gentleman.  Part way through the recital, he would ask if the audience if they would rather hear a record.  After the audience shouted that they would rather hear a record, Kaufman cued up a record of him continuing to read the novel.

In 1979, Kaufman appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall.  The show was full of Kaufman’s usual and by this time legendary pranks.  During the show he announced that his ‘Grandmother’ was watching the show from the side of the stage.  At the end of the show, his ‘Grandmother’ stood up and took off her mask to reveal that it was actually comedian Robin Williams in an elaborate disguise.

“Andy is the only comedian who could make you laugh, piss you off and make you laugh again”.

– Robin Williams, I’m From Hollywood, 1989.

In the same show, Kaufman also had an elderly woman named Eleanor Cody Gould appear to have a heart attack and die on stage.  After calling for a doctor, who appeared and pronounced the woman dead, Kaufman reappeared wearing an Indian headdress, danced over the old woman, bringing her back to life.  Following the show,Kaufman took the entire audience out for milk and cookies, using 24 buses, and invited anybody who was interested to meet him on the Staten Island Ferry the next day, where the show continued.

Kaufman also began performing wrestling during his act, but as with all of Kaufman’s stunts, there was a twist, he wrestled women proclaiming himself to be the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World”.  For this part of his act, he would take on an aggressive and ridiculous persona much like the professional wrestlers whom he was imitating.  He would offer women in the audience a prize of $1,000 dollars for any of them who could pin him.  He employed stooges, including, at one time, musician Laurie Anderson.  Kaufman’s use of wrestling in his act was derived from his admiration of the theatricality and staged nature of the sport.

“There’s no drama like wrestling”.

– Andy Kaufman.

Kaufman took his new fixation with the world of wrestling one step further by attempting to turn himself into a professional wrestler.  He was challenged by professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler, an opportunity which Kaufman enthusiastically accepted, fighting Lawler in Memphis.  During the match, Kaufman taunted the audience by showing them how to use soap and proclaiming Memphis to be “the nation’s redneck capital”.  He also used the now infamous line, “I’m from Hollywood!” to debase the horrified audience.  The phrase “I’m from Hollywood!” became the title of a posthumous documentary film about Kaufman in 1989.  As a result of wrestling a now infuriated Lawler, Kaufman suffered a broken neck and later had a much publicised spat with Lawler live on an episode of Late Night with David Letterman in 1982.

“Whenever I play a role, whether it’s good or bad, an evil person or nice person, I believe in being a purist and going all the way with the role. If I’m going to be a villainous wrestler, I believe in going all the way with it and not breaking character and not giving away to the audience that I’m playing a role. I believe in playing it straight to the hilt.”

– Andy Kaufman.

After angering the audience by wrestling women live on Saturday Night Live, Kaufman made a pre-taped appearance on the show asking the audience whether he should appear on the show again, saying that if the vote was against him, he would never go back.  Saturday Night Live ran a phone vote and after the viewers voted for Andy not to appear again, he stopped appearing on the show.  However, a video of Andy thanking those who had voted to keep him was broadcast.  It has always been unclear whether this was just yet another Kaufman stunt.  During the end credits of the show, announcer Don Pardo was seen saying, “This is Don Pardo saying, ‘I voted for Andy Kaufman’”.

During his career, Kaufman used Transcendental Meditation, a skill which he learned at college in 1969, in order to keep him on an even keel and to build his confidence so that he could take his act on the comedy circuit.  He also trained as a teacher in the art in Majorca in 1971.

In 1983, at a Thanksgiving dinner on Long Island, family and friends expressed concerns about Kaufman’s persistant coughing.  Upon his return to Los Angeles a few days later, he was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of lung cancer.  The illness was made apparent to his audiences after many people remarked upon his incredibly gaunt appearance.  He told of how he hoped to find a cure with natural medicine, consisting of a diet of all manner of fruit and vegetables, amongst other means.  He received palliative radiotherapy but by this point, the cancer had spread to his brain. Kaufman died on May 16th 1984 of kidney failure caused by metastasised large cell lung carcinoma.

In the years since his death, there has been much speculation as to whether Kaufman faked his own death.  During his lifetime, Kaufman certainly made many allusions to the fact he would like to fake his own death, even at one point saying that if he were to do so, he would return twenty years later.  This would have been in May 2004.  “Tony Clifton” performed a full year after Kaufman’s death at The Comedy Store’s benefit concert in honour of Kaufman.  Bob Zmuda has said on several occasions that although Kaufman may have talked about faking his own death, he did not believe that he would be so cruel as to go through with it.  However, his girlfriend, Lynne Marguilles has stated that Kaufman was bisexual and that he may have died from AIDS some years later.  “Tony Clifton” would reappear again during the 1990’s, making several appearances in Los Angeles nightclubs, causing audiences to speculate that Kaufman was still alive and performing under heavy makeup.  Contrary to all rumours, Kaufman’s death certificate is on file at the Los Angeles County Department of Health.  The rumours surrounding Kaufman’s death are an enduring legacy to a performer who went the extra mile to entertain and shock his audience.  It would seem that he is as large as life in death as he was in life.

REM’s Man on the Moon is Michael Stipe’s homage to Andy Kaufman.  The song includes an array of references to the performer’s career, starting with lyrics about Kaufman’s foray into wrestling in the first verse: “Andy Kaufman and the wrestling match”.  The line “Mister Fred Blassie and the breakfast mess” is a reference to Kaufman’s film My Breakfast With Blassie” (1983), a mostly improvised parody of the film My Dinner With Andre (1981).  Later in the song, we find the lines, “Mister Andy Kaufman’s gone wrestling” and “Andy, are you locked in the punch?”, a line with double meaning as it implies both a ‘punch’ in a boxing sense and a ‘punch’ in relation to a punchline of a joke.  By introducing both Fred Blassie and Andy Kaufman, as well as Charles Darwin later in the song, as “Mister”, Stipe is alluding to the way in which Kaufman’s Foreign Man character would introduce his impressions.  You can almost imagine Foreign Man saying, “I would like to imitate Meester Fred Blassie …”

The bridge of the song makes reference to Kaufman’s Elvis impression with the line “Andy are you goofing on Elvis?” followed by Michael Stipe’s own Elvis impersonation on the following line, “Hey baby, are we losing touch?” or “Hey baby, are you having fun?” in the second bridge.

The song’s chorus of “If you believed they put a man on the moon …” alludes to the belief in some circles that the moon landing was a hoax, in the same way that some believe Andy Kaufman’s death to have been a hoax.  The second line of the chorus, “If you believe there’s nothing up his sleeve, then nothing is cool”, is a reference to the way in which Kaufman loved hoaxes and conspiracy theories, believing that life was much more interesting if you allowed yourself to believe in something.  With the references to Elvis Presley, the song also invokes the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Elvis.

The second verse details a number of things which were either disputed at the time or have been the subject of in scepticism in later years, just as Kaufman’s death has, including Moses performing miracles with his staff of wood (“Moses went walking with a staff of wood); the story of Isaac Newton being hit on the head by an apple and discovering gravity (“Newton got beaned by the apple good”); Cleopatra’s suicide by asp (“Egypt was troubled by the horrible asp”) and Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (“Mister Charles Darwin had the gall to ask”). The lyric “Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s” refers to both the many, and ongoing, reported sightings of Kaufman since his death and the way in which he met his girlfriend Lynn whilst she was working at a restaurant whilst he was shooting a film.

The abundance of references to games in the song such as “… The Game of Life”; “Monopoly, Twenty One, Checkers and Chess” and “Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk” allude to the presentation of Kaufman’s act and his playfulness with his audience, with most of his act being based around games.  Kaufman’s act was one a myriad of games within a bigger game, the act itself, continuously posing the question to the audience, is it real or is it a game?  Such was the game play in Kaufman’s act that even his illness and death were treated with suspicion, with even his closest confidantes wondering whether it was a hoax.  The “Mott the Hoople” mentioned in the opening line of the song is, contrary to popular belief, not a reference to the band but the literary character in Willard Manus’ book Mott the Hoople.  The eponymous character of the book, much like Kaufman, thought of life as a comedy and engaged in a number of japes.

“What I was doing with the lyric for Man on the Moon was pulling in various crackpot conspiracy theories of our time, like Elvis Presley was still alive somewhere. And, even more absurd and ourageous, that when they sent a man to walk on the moon that he actually went to a stage set up somewhere in Arizona and the moonwalk never really occurred. And these were the comparisons I was drawing to the people who were not able to believe that Kaufman was dead, that, to the end, he was pulling a prank. That that idea is just as outrageous as those other theories. That he, for me, as a fan of his, puts himself on that level by being such a prankster that people actually thought that.”

– Michael Stipe.

In addition to Man on the Moon, REM also wrote a second tribute to Andy Kaufman, The Great Beyond for the purposely part-fictional 1999 biopic Man on the Moon.  In the background of the song, Stipe can be heard singing, “Here’s a little agit for the never-believer” and “Here’s a little ghost for the offering”, both lines from Man on the Moon.  Stipe said of The Great Beyond in the companion notes to REM’s greatest hits album, Part Lies. Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage in 2011:

“My stab at an Ashes To Ashes, which I consider to be one of the greatest songs ever written.  Revisit a character that you’ve written a classic song about, and try to one-up yourself.  That is no easy task.  Bowie pulled it off for real.  I think live recordings of this song are more exciting than the studio version, but it’s a stunner.  All the imagery from the chorus is from real life, and references my version of Kaufman’s favourite joke by Laurel and Hardy”.

The joke that Stipe is alluding to is from Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box (1932), in which the comic duo and two of Kaufman’s heroes, push a piano up an huge staircase with disastrous results.

The music videos for both Man on the Moon and The Great Beyond feature ‘cameos’ from Andy Kaufman.  In the video for Man on the Moon, he can be seen on the television set in the truck stop, whilst in the video for The Great Beyond, images from the biopic Man on the Moon are featured together with the band throwing darts at a television set on which Kaufman appears.

“What’s real?  What’s not?  That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality”.

– Andy Kaufman

Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day One). “That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!”

It was the evening of May 12th, 1956.  Montgomery Clift, the 35 year old Hollywood heartthrob and major influence on actors such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, was in the prime of his career and well into filming the American Civil War melodrama, Raintree County.  He was already a three time Academy Award nominee and had changed the face of Hollywood forever.  Before Clift, Hollywood’s leading men were testosterone driven macho men such as Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and John Wayne.  Clift had brought an emotional depth and sensitivity to his roles, the likes of which had never been seen before.  This coupled with natural good looks which captured the hearts of women worldwide had made Clift an overnight success.  Earlier on in the evening in question, Clift had attended a dinner party hosted by his Raintree County co-star and close friend Elizabeth Taylor and her second husband, Michael Wilding.  Now, the star of such box office smashes as Red River (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953) was laid in a crumpled heap of metal after his car had veered off the road into a telephone pole.

Moments after the horrific accident, friend and fellow actor Kevin McCarthy, who had been driving in front of Clift on that fateful night, on realising that Clift was no longer following him, drove back to check on his friend to find the Hollywood star slumped in the twisted wreckage of his car.  “His face was torn away – a bloody pulp.  I thought he was dead”, McCarthy later said.  McCarthy ran back to Elizabeth Taylor’s home to fetch her, Wilding, Rock Hudson and Hudson’s wife, Phyllis Gates who all raced to the scene of the accident.

The events that followed have been subject to myth and mystery ever since.  One report suggests that Rock Hudson pulled Clift from the car and Taylor cradled him in her arms, Clift choking and motioning to his throat.  Two of Clift’s teeth had become loose and lodged themselves there during the accident.  Taylor opened his mouth, forced her hand down his throat and pulled out the teeth.  Whether this report is true or not, the longevity of this story is testament to the believed bond between Clift and Taylor, it being long rumoured by the Hollywood gossip machine that he and Taylor were an item.  Clift also suffered a broken jaw and nose, a fractured sinus and several facial lacerations which would require plastic surgery.  According to the report of what happened in the aftermath of the accident, when the photographers arrived, Taylor knew each and every one of them personally.  This would seem to be true as not one photo of Clift’s broken face following the accident exists.

After a recovery period of just two months, he returned to the set of Raintree County to finish the film.  Clift correctly predicted that the film would do well, despite the movie studio’s fears over profits, stating that movie-goers would flock to see the film just to see the difference in his facial appearance, particularly the right side of his face.  Considering the horrific nature of Clift’s injuries, the work carried out on his face was miraculous for the time but the accident had left his face partially immobilised and his right profile considerably altered to the point where he was unrecognisable, a mess of angles which could not possibly have been restored to their former glory.  Clift was already a heavy drinker.  It has been suggested that this was because of a long held secret that he was gay, something which at that time, particularly as a Hollywood star, would have been scandalous.  Following the accident, he became reliant on alcohol and pills for pain relief.  He had previously heavily relied on alcohol and pills for relief from a bout of dysentery which had left him with chronic intestinal problems, setting the wheels in motion for the destructive behaviour which has since vastly overshadowed his reputation as one of the greatest screen icons of all time.  Following the car accident that had nearly ended his life, Cliff’s health and physical appearance deteriorated beyond all recognition, bringing with it a change in behaviour which was at best highly erratic, until his death at just 45 years old on June 22nd, 1966.

On their classic 1979 album London Calling, The Clash paid tribute to Montgomery Clift on the song The Right Profile.  During the recording of London Calling, producer Guy Stevens lent Joe Strummer a copy of a 1978 biography of Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, suggesting that Strummer might write a song about him.  It has been suggested by some that Strummer saw a link between the alcohol and drug problems endured by Clift and the alcohol and drug problems that their producer was suffering at the time.

The title of the song refers both to the change in Clift’s looks following the accident, his ‘right profile’ being the side of his face most disfigured in the accident, and also to the way in which in films following the accident, Clift’s face had to be shot in ‘the right profile’ to avoid showing his facial disfigurements.

The song’s lyrics centre on his unrecognisable appearance and decline in the years following the crash.  “Say, where did I see this guy?” asks Joe Strummer in the song’s opening verse, “In Red River?  Or A Place in the Sun?  Maybe The MisfitsFrom Here to Eternity?”  The song goes on to tell a sad story of a sighting of the once revered Hollywood actor on 42nd Street in New York, “He ain’t got no shoes and his clothes are torn”, with people asking “Is he alright? … He sure look funny”, after catching a glimpse in his alcohol and painkiller induced disorientated and slurred state with his damaged ‘right profile’.  On realising that the person in question is Montgomery Clift, Strummer tells the person either showing concern over or ridiculing the actor’s appearance (depending on which way you look at it):  “That’s Montgomery Clift, honey!”  During the filming of the post-crash film The Misfits (1961), Marilyn Monroe described Montgomery Clift as “The only person I know who is in worse shape than I am”.

Incidentally, the “42nd Street” mentioned in The Right Profile is an area of New York, near Times Square, which was home to activities considered unsavory, including peep shows and the like.  A comedian, who’s name has long since been forgotten, once said of 42nd Street, “They call it 42nd Street because you’re not safe if you spend more than forty seconds on it”.

“I see a car smashed at night, Cut the applause and dim the light, Monty’s face is broken on a wheel, Is he alive?  Can he still feel?” sings Strummer before detailing the dual addictions which would eventually kill the former film legend:  “Nembutol numbs it all, But I prefer alcohol”.  The song paints a sorry picture of Montgomery Clift, a former star tortured by his misfortune, obsessing over his dramatically changed appearance and looking back on his glory days:  “He said, go out and get me my old movie stills, Go out and get me another roll of pills”.

In his films, Montgomery Clift had beautifully depicted characters that were desperate, drunk or deceived but his life was more tragic than any of his screen portrayals.  Nowadays, we see Montgomery Clift as the archetypal embodiment of human suffering:  The unfortunate Hollywood actor who had it all, changed everything and lost everything.  The Right Profile is The Clash’s summary of the slowest suicide in Hollywood history.

In addition to The Clash’s The Right Profile, REM also wrote a song about Montgomery Clift, Monty Got A Raw Deal, featured on their 1992 album Automatic For the People.  Monty Got A Raw Deal also centres around Clift’s crash and decline but is also thought to be about the way in which his homosexuality was repressed for the sake of his career.  This seems fitting as Michael Stipe came out as gay in 2001 after years of speculation.  Incidentally, the title of the song is also a reference to an American game show called Let’s Make A Deal hosted by Monty Hall from 1963 to 1976.  The song draws parallels between Let’s Make A Deal audience members making arbitrary decisions about picking random doors or containers which may have contained either valuable or worthless prizes depending on the participant’s luck and Montgomery Clift’s luck (his “Raw Deal”) in the last years of his life, addicted to alcohol and painkillers and in agony because of injuries sustained in his crash, as well as being haunted by his inability to live an openly gay life.

Further to this, Morrissey, a long time fan of classic Hollywood, is thought to make a more subtle reference to Montgomery Clift on his song Let Me Kiss You, from You Are The Quarry (2004).  The opening lyric, “There’s a place in the sun for anyone who has the will to chase one …” could be considered to be a nod to one of Clift’s most famous films, A Place in the Sun, using Clift’s disfigurement five years after A Place in the Sun, to tie in with the idea of physical repulsion in the chorus, “Close your eyes and think of someone you physically admire”.  If we were to see the aforementioned lines in Let Me Kiss You as a reference to Montgomery Clift, they could also be suggestive of a gay relationship.  Similarly to Stipe, there has also been much speculation surrounding Morrissey’s sexuality.  It has been reported that Morrissey has admitted to being gay on a few occasions, although this is sometimes later rebuked by the singer.  For example, in 2013, following the release of his autobiography which details a fondness for photographer Jake Owen Walters (although it never explicitly says they were lovers), he released a statement through his semi-official website True To You reading, “Unfortunately, I am not homosexual. In technical fact, I am humasexual. I am attracted to humans. But, of course … not many”.

Montgomery Clift’s career consisted of eight years of outstanding cinematic work followed by a full decade of terminal decline but the songs that he has inspired are testament to his ongoing appeal.  This appeal may often lay in the fact that he represents the tragic hero; unfulfilled desires; the repression of one’s true self; battles with demons; undeniably brilliant ability struck down at it’s zenith by misfortune and unforeseen events; the worst case scenario of what happens when things go horribly wrong and the thought of what could have been:  All more than worthy subject matter for inspiring great music.