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Behind the Lyrics: The Inspirations for 6 Famous Songs

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You know the songs, but do you know what they're really about? Here are the stories behind some popular tunes.

1. "Hey Man, Nice Shot"

In the late 1980s, Pennsylvania was embroiled in a bit of an accounting crisis. Employees of the Commonwealth had overpaid millions in FICA taxes and the state legislature began to search for an outside accounting agency to calculate the appropriate refunds. Harrisburg native John Torquato, Jr. eventually won the $4.6 million contract for his Californian-based firm, Computer Technology Associates, through a series of well-placed bribes.

A few months and an investigation by the US Attorney later, the trail led back to Budd Dwyer, State Treasurer, who was indicted for receiving $300,000 in kickbacks to help Torquato secure the business. Dwyer vehemently denied the charges, refused to step down from his post, and even passed on a plea bargain that would have carried a relatively light sentence. In December of 1986, he was found guilty of racketeering, bribery, fraud and conspiracy. After the verdict, he continued to proclaim his innocence and even wrote President Reagan asking for a pardon.

The day before his sentence was handed down, Dwyer called a press conference. After reading a prepared statement, he handed a series of sealed envelopes to staffers, pulled out a .357 Magnum, placed it in his mouth and shot himself on live television. While most of the local and national TV stations debated how much of the suicide to air (some played it in its entirety, others with only the audio), Filter used it as the inspiration for "Hey Man, Nice Shot," which garnered a fair amount of radio play in 1995.

2. "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"

Turns out 1986 was an interesting time for musical inspiration. Early that year, newsman Dan Rather was assaulted on the streets of New York by a man who kept yelling "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" as he pummeled the shocked anchorman. At the time, no one could quite explain the attack.

In 1994, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe wrote "What's The Frequency Kenneth?," a song exploring the effects of the media, deliberately written in slightly unintelligible lyrics. The track became a huge hit off R.E.M.'s album Monster. But what happened to the strange man who inspired it?

The assailant was later identified as William Tager. He was arrested nine years after battering Rather when he murdered a stagehand outside The Today Show studios. Tager was a mentally disturbed individual who believed television networks were beaming secret messages into his brain using a specific frequency. Convinced if he found the correct frequency he could stop the incoming transmissions, he jumped Rather.

Dan Rather later appeared with R.E.M. on Letterman to help belt out the song.

Meanwhile, Tager is currently serving a 25-year sentence for manslaughter in Sing Sing.  He is eligible for parole later this year.

3. "Creep"

Thom Yorke was born with a paralyzed left eye and underwent a series of surgeries before the age of six, the last of which left him with a drooping eyelid. Due to his condition, during the majority of his childhood Yorke wore an eyepatch. This series of events left him awkward and shy around members of the opposite sex.

While at school, Yorke and his classmates eventually formed a band called On A Friday, as Friday was the only day of the week they could rehearse. The band continued to rehearse together as they earned university degrees, with Yorke enrolling at Exeter College.

While at Exeter, Yorke began to follow around an attractive female. Not exactly in a binoculars-from-a-tree way, just sort of admiring from a distance. However, the tables were turned one night when this girl he had been psedo-stalking showed up at one of the bands' shows. Yorke was truly unsettled.

You've probably heard his tale, because the song about it became the band's first major hit. In 1991, On A Friday changed their name to Radiohead and released it under the title "Creep."

4. "How Could She Do This To Me?"

Often considered to be one of the first concept albums, The Beatles spun out Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.  Appearing as the sixth song on side one is "She's Leaving Home," a track about a young girl who slips away from her comfortable life in the dead of night, leaving her parents stunned and grief-stricken.

Turns out the song had a very real inspiration; 17-year-old Melanie Coe.  Paul McCartney saw the news of her disappearance on the cover of The Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, and wrote the verses (with bandmate John Lennon crafting the chorus).  In the article, Coe's parents confess they simply couldn't understand why Melanie would leave.  "She has everything here," her father said.

Although McCartney took some liberties with the story, Coe later confirmed the majority of the details.  Coe, who was pregnant at the time, was found ten days after her disappearance with her boyfriend (who was not the father of her child) in a nearby town.

Oddly enough, Coe and McCartney had crossed paths before.  Melanie appeared on a show called Ready, Steady Go! in which Paul was a judge.

Coe was crowned the winner of a mime contest.  This was three years before she would inspire McCartney to pen "She's Leaving Home."

5. "Fire and Rain"

James Taylor's beautiful, haunting and personal song "Fire and Rain" is composed in three parts, each with a separate story. Furthermore, the track as a whole is a tumultuous autobiography chronicling Taylor's struggle with depression, substance abuse and fame.

During his later years in high school, Taylor began to experience clinical depression. He didn't go to college (though he did later earn a degree), instead checking himself into McLean Hospital, a renowned psychiatric facility in Belmont, Massachusetts.

The first section of "Fire and Rain" describes Taylor coming to grips with the sudden death of a close friend, Suzanne Schnerr ("Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you"). At the time of her death, Taylor had just signed to The Beatles' new label, Apple Records, and was working on his first album. However, Taylor didn't find out about her death until months after she had passed away. His family and friends kept the information from him, worried he would slip back into depression.

Part two describes Taylor's struggle with alcoholism, drug abuse and depression. After checking himself out of Belmont, Taylor moved to New York to pursue a music career and became addicted to heroin. During this time, he formed a band named The Flying Machine, a short-lived project that was derailed because of his addictions. Broke and depressed, his father eventually flew in to NYC and drove him back to North Carolina, where Taylor entered a drug rehab center.

The final stanza is a retrospective on how far Taylor had traveled. Many people falsely believe the line "Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground" somehow refers to a plane wreck. However, it actually references Taylor's previous band The Flying Machine and his regret at their demise.

6. "I Don't Like Mondays"

The Boomtown Rats song "I Don't Like Mondays" is more than an anthem about struggling through the start of the week. It is a song laced in tragedy.

On January 29th, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer was staring out of a window inside her San Diego home while holding a semiautomatic .22 caliber rifle her father had given her as a Christmas present. Immediately across the street was Cleveland Elementary School, where children were arriving for the day, waiting for the principal to open the front gates. Inexplicably, Spencer opened fire.

In the aftermath of the attack, eight children and a police officer were injured. Additionally, two people died: Principal Burton Wragg, who had been trying to protect the children, and a custodian, Mike Suchar, who attempted to pull the principal to safety.

Spencer then barricaded herself inside the house for seven hours. During the standoff, she was asked by police why she chose to open fire. She replied: "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day. I have to go now. I shot a pig, I think, and I want to shoot more. I'm having too much fun [to surrender]." Eventually, Spencer gave herself up to police and was convicted and sentenced to a California correctional facility, where she currently resides.

Bob Geldof, lead singer of The Boomtown Rats, was working at Georgia State University's on-campus radio station when the news came in. He used the event as the inspiration for "I Don't Like Mondays," which hit #1 in the UK during the summer of 1979.
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Tell us your favorite behind-the-lyrics story in the comments, or let us know if there's a particular song you've always wondered about.

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Pop Culture
Take a Sneak Peek at the Brooklyn Museum's Upcoming David Bowie Exhibition
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Photograph by John Robert Rowlands. © John Robert Rowlands

David Bowie was born in London, and spent his final years in New York. Which makes it fitting that an acclaimed traveling retrospective of the rocker’s career will end at the Brooklyn Museum in 2018, five years after it first kicked off at London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

Following a whirlwind global tour, “David Bowie is” will debut at the Brooklyn Museum on March 2, 2018, and run until July 15, 2018. Curated by the V&A, it features around 400 objects from the singer’s archives, including stage costumes, handwritten lyrics, photographs, set designs, and Bowie’s very own instruments.

Together, these items trace Bowie’s evolution as a performer, and provide new insights into “the creative process of an artist whose sustained reinventions, innovative collaborations, and bold characterizations revolutionized the way we see music, inspiring people to shape their own identities while challenging social traditions,” according to the Brooklyn Museum.

“David Bowie is” has received nearly 2 million visitors since it left the V&A in 2013. Due to its overwhelming popularity, the show is a timed ticketed exhibition, with priority access reserved for Brooklyn Museum members and certain ticket holders.

Tickets are on sale now, but you can take a sneak peek at some artifacts from "David Bowie is" below.

Photograph from the David Bowie album cover shoot for "Aladdin Sane, 1973

Photograph from the album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973

Photograph by Brian Duffy. Photo Duffy © Duffy Archive & The David Bowie Archive

Striped body suit worn by David Bowie during his "Aladdin Sane" tour in 1973

Striped bodysuit for the Aladdin Sane tour, 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto 

Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita © Sukita/The David Bowie Archive

Cut up lyrics for "Blackout" from David Bowie's album Heroes, 1977

Cut up lyrics for "Blackout" from Heroes, 1977

Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Original lyrics for “Ziggy Stardust,” by David Bowie, 1972
Original lyrics for “Ziggy Stardust,” by David Bowie, 1972
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

A 1974 Terry O'Neill photograph of musician David Bowie with William Burroughs.
David Bowie with William Burroughs, February 1974. Photograph by Terry O'Neill with color by David Bowie.
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Original photography for David Bowie's 1997 "Earthling" album cover

Original photography for the Earthling album cover, 1997

Photograph by Frank W Ockenfels 3. © Frank W Ockenfels 3

Print after a self-portrait by David Bowie, 1978
Print after a self-portrait by David Bowie, 1978
Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

One of David Bowie's acoustic guitars from the “Space Oddity” era, 1969

Acoustic guitar from the Space Oddity era, 1969

Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

An asymmetric knitted bodysuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto for musician David Bowie's 1973 "Aladdin Sane" tour.

Asymmetric knitted bodysuit, 1973. Designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane tour.

Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum
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8 Musicians With Incredibly Brainy Side Gigs
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The Pink Floyd line “we don’t need no education” might hold true for some musicians, but for others that couldn’t be further from the truth. The musicians highlighted below didn’t just swing by a university to pick up an honorary diploma only after finding musical success. Nope, they put in the long hours to earn doctoral degrees and then picked up jobs with outfits such as NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense. Because as cool as having “rock star” on your Wikipedia page is, having “rocket scientist” follow it is just that much cooler.

1. BRIAN MAY

British guitarist Brian May could have easily called it a day when Queen’s recording career came to an end following the death of Freddie Mercury in 1991. While May continues to play live with his remaining bandmates, he has also embraced his interest in astrophysics.

May had abandoned his doctoral studies at the Imperial College of London in the mid-1970s to live the rock star life, but returned to complete his PhD in 2007. Since then, May has co-authored two books on the cosmos, and in 2015 collaborated with NASA as the New Horizons space probe passed by Pluto. If that weren’t impressive enough, May can lay claim to compiling the first high-quality stereo image of the dwarf planet. Not too shabby for a guy who had already made his mark with arena rock staples like “We Will Rock You” and “Stone Cold Crazy.”

2. MILO AUKERMAN

Punk rockers the Descendents weren’t joking around when they named their first album: 1982’s Milo Goes To College. Frontman Milo Aukerman put all those punk rock lyrics about binging on coffee to serious use, earning a doctorate in biology from UC San Diego and a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For many years, Aukerman split his time, leading the Descendents while working as an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware and plant researcher with chemical company DuPont. The two chosen fields of study, punk rock and biochemistry, might not seem to have much in common, but Aukerman found many similarities. In 2011, he told The Scientist that in both fields, he was “always looking for discoveries that challenge current thinking.” Fans shouldn’t expect Aukerman to get too geeky with his lyrics though: “I will probably never ever write a song about DNA,” he said. In a 2016 interview with Spin, Aukerman shared that he's now dedicating his full-time life to music. “[Science has] gotten less and less interesting to me,” he said. “Also, working in a corporation has become a misery of sorts. As I was discovering this and realizing maybe I should just do music full-time, lo and behold, [my job] laid me off anyway.”

3. DEXTER HOLLAND


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Orange County, California punk rockers The Offspring have been regularly touring and putting out albums since the mid-1980s. What fans might be surprised to learn though is that in between writing songs like “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy),” the band's lyricist and frontman Dexter Holland was working on HIV research.

In May 2017, Holland earned his PhD in molecular biology from the University of Southern California, completing a 175-page dissertation titled Discovery of Mature MicroRNA Sequences within the Protein-Coding Regions of Global HIV-1 Genomes: Predictions of Novel Mechanisms for Viral Infection and Pathogenicity. Lengthy scientific jargon thesis titles aside, Holland told Rolling Stone his focus was on the molecular dynamics of the HIV virus. "I am interested in virology and wanted to contribute in some small way to the knowledge which has been learned about HIV and AIDS,” Holland said.

4. JEFF “SKUNK” BAXTER

People fall into side gigs like dog-walking or crafting all the time. Finding yourself unexpectedly taking on a second job as a consultant in missile defense systems, on the other hand, is a little more out of the norm. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter spent much of the 1970s and '80s playing guitar with acts like the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, and Elton John. Since the mid-1990s though, Baxter has had a second job working with the Congressional Advisory Board on Missile Defense and consulting for General Atomics. And he landed those gigs almost entirely out of sheer luck.

Baxter credits his natural curiosity to look at technologies and how they can be improved upon as his springboard into the field of missile defense. The guitarist would regularly pick the brain of his next door neighbor, a retired engineer who had worked on the Pentagon's Sidewinder missile program. Baxter spent the next several years doing his own research and learning everything he could about the hardware developed for missile use. He would eventually submit his own proposal on how to improve the ship-based Aegis missile system to California Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher and the rest is history.

5. GREG GRAFFIN


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For more than three decades, Bad Religion has held a spot as one of the most respected punk bands in the genre, with vocalist Greg Graffin commanding the stage. Graffin’s politically-charged lyrics have helped the band maintain a healthy following, but music isn’t Graffin’s only passion.

Since 2008, Graffin has split his time between playing with Bad Religion and teaching evolutionary biology at several universities. Graffin earned a PhD in zoology from Cornell University and has returned to his alma mater to teach courses on the subject. The punk rocker has co-authored three books on the subject of evolution and religion and taught life science courses at the University of California Los Angeles. Like other musicians who dabble in the sciences, Graffin has found parallels in the two. “If I’m behind a lectern or onstage, I’m just trying to provoke people to use and expand their minds a little,” Graffin told the San Diego Tribune.

6. PHILIP TAYLOR KRAMER

The life of Philip Taylor Kramer was one filled with both exceptional success and horrific tragedy. Kramer first made a name for himself in the 1970s playing bass with psychedelic rock band Iron Butterfly. He went on to play with other groups into the early 1980s, but would later leave music and find success in the field of computer engineering.

The musician’s father was a professor of electrical engineering and after a career in music, Kramer co-founded a company that produced significant work in missile guidance systems as well as computerized facial reconstruction models. Tragically, Kramer’s life was mysteriously cut short in 1995 when he disappeared after making a frantic call to his wife from the Los Angeles International Airport and telling her to meet him at a hotel.

The musician/computer engineer then called the police and said he was going to kill himself before abruptly hanging up. He wasn’t heard from again until his burned-out van was discovered in the bottom of a ravine four years later. The death was ruled a probable suicide, though some of Kramer’s closest family and friends suspected foul play.

7. JOHN PERRY BARLOW


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Deadheads will probably best know the name John Perry Barlow from the liner notes of Grateful Dead albums as a co-writer on a number of classics like “Mexicali Blues” and “Cassidy.” Further exploration would reveal that there are many sides to John Perry Barlow besides Grateful Dead lyricist. Barlow can be credited as a pioneer in the digital revolution, leading the way to preserve and protect internet freedoms as a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990.

These days Barlow has shifted his focus to a new calling—pond scum. More specifically: algae. He is the vice president of Algae Systems, a company working to grow microalgae as a biofuel and convert sewage into a fertilizer.

8. TOM SCHOLZ

Rock band Boston had one of the best-selling debut albums in music history with their 1976 self-titled debut selling 17 million copies. Almost all of that success can be attributed to guitarist Tom Scholz’s background as a mechanical engineer.

Scholz had received both his bachelor's (1969) and master's degrees (1970) in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he had dreams of rock n’ roll stardom. To pay the bills, Scholz took a job as a senior product design engineer at Polaroid. The young guitarist and engineer spent his paychecks and nights building his own basement recording studio and creating nearly every sound, except for the vocals and drums, of what would be Boston’s debut album. The DIY process was unheard of at the time and Epic, the band's record company, demanded that the demos be redone in a proper studio. Scholz refused to budge with nearly all of his original recordings eventually making it onto the highly-successful album.

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