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Music History #1: "One Night in Bangkok"

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Editor's Note: This is the big debut of Bill DeMain's new column, where he explores the real historical events that inspired various songs. "Music History" will appear twice a month. Try it. You'll like it!

“One Night In Bangkok”
Written by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice (1984)
Originally sung by Murray Head

The Music

With its perky chorus married to stiffly rapped verses about a chess grandmaster scoping out the city of his latest match, this was one of the strangest hits of the 1980s. Written by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and lyricist Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), it was part of Chess, a musical based on the 1972 “Match of the Century” between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Chess had a troubled run both in London’s West End and on Broadway, but “Bangkok” charted worldwide, reaching #3 in the US. The song was covered by Mike Tyson in 2011, for the soundtrack of The Hangover II.

http://youtu.be/P9mwELXPGbA

The History

It seems unfathomable now, the entire world hanging on every move of a chess game. And the players – a flamboyantly brilliant American and a quietly intense Russian – grabbing headlines like celebrities. But the match that pitted Bobby Fischer against Boris Spassky was more than a game. It was twenty-five years of cold war rivalry between the Americans and the Russians brought to a head.


For the Soviets, chess was serious business. “Gymnastics of the mind,” Lenin had called it. Subsidized by the government, it was prescribed for all citizens. Its champions were national heroes. And those champions ruled the international chess world for over fifty years.


By comparison, the US was indifferent to chess. It was the game played by your nerdy brother, or by old men in the park. But then along came Bobby Fischer. In 1966, the 13-year old prodigy from Brooklyn turned heads when he became the US champion. By 1972, he’d defeated twenty international contenders and was ready to challenge Boris Spassky for the world title.

The two would meet for twenty-four games. With a win equaling one point, and a draw a half a point, the first player to twelve and a half points would be the winner. The winner would be awarded $78,125. The loser would receive $46,875. The setting for the match was Reykjavik, Iceland, a neutral zone halfway between the US and Russia.

Cold War Games

But the match almost didn’t happen. After Spassky arrived, Fischer remained in New York, making outrageous last-minute demands. On top of prize money, he wanted 30% of the gate receipts and 30% of the film and TV rights. After a week of stalled negotiations with the Icelanders, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stepped in, urging Fischer to play. Hours before the deadline for a match forfeit, Fischer arrived. In the middle of all this drama, the world got hooked on the story.

Fischer started poorly, losing the first game. He forfeited the second game, saying the noise from the TV cameras was distracting him. Two down, he seriously considering fleeing Iceland. But a member of his camp tampered with his car engine so he wouldn’t be able to drive to the airport. Spassky conceded to Fischer’s demand that game three be moved to a side room of the large exhibition hall, with no cameras. Fischer won. Games four and five were draws, then Fischer took game six. Once he settled in, he gathered momentum. By game 17, it was Fischer 10, Spassky 7.

Each game lasted an average of five hours, with the two men seated across from each other in a silence bristling with strategies and superstitions.

Prior to the match, Fischer had fillings removed from his teeth because he was sure that Soviets had devices that could interact with the metal fillings to read his brainwaves. Spassky was equally paranoid. The fruit juice he was served in Reykjavik was flown back to Moscow to be tested for drugs. And Fischer’s chair was x-rayed because Spassky believed there was a generator within it directing invisible thought-scrambling rays at him.

Checkmate

The match went on, and in game twenty-one, Spassky finally surrendered his title.

The outspoken Fischer crowed about how good it felt to “break the ego of his opponent” and tear down the propaganda of the Russian chess elite. Spassky was personally blamed for the defeat, then shunned by the government. He now lives in France, and is still active in the chess community. A month after the loss to Fischer, the Russians were grooming a new master, Anatoly Karpov, to reclaim the crown. But Fischer refused to defend his title, and was stripped of it in 1975.

He became ever more reclusive, chess’s own Howard Hughes, complete with the beard, wild rants and undisclosed locations. In 1992, he restaged the match against Spassky and won again. It was the only time in twenty years Fischer had played chess in public. The match was played in Yugoslavia, then under international embargo. Because Fischer had defied a warning by President George H.W. Bush, an arrest warrant was issued. Fischer never returned to the US, living in Budapest and the Philippines, before being granted asylum by Iceland. In 2008, he died in Reykjavik, city of his greatest triumph, at the age of 64.

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Pop Culture
Suspicious Minds: The Bizarre, 40-Year History of Elvis Presley Sightings
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On August 16, 1977, something momentous happened in Memphis, Tennessee. It was either the death of Elvis Presley at the age of 42, as more than 80 percent of Americans believe, or the start of the most spectacular disappearing act in the history of mankind.

This week, as fans mark the 40th anniversary of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s (alleged) passing, those who believe that Presley is still alive will have a golden opportunity to make their case. Or, rather, cases. “Elvis is alive” theories are as varied as they are plentiful, and they’ve been circulating since just after his death. He’s left the realm of popular entertainers and joined the ranks of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and to some, Jesus. What follows is a brief history of why some people refuse to let this American icon rest in peace.

THE FIRST SIGHTING

On the afternoon of August 16, 1977, a man bearing a striking resemblance to Elvis is said to have purchased a one-way ticket from Memphis International Airport to Buenos Aires. He supposedly gave the name Jon Burrows, a pseudonym Elvis used when checking into hotels. Patrick Lacy, author of the book Elvis Decoded, claims to have debunked this popular and wholly unsubstantiated story by interviewing airport officials and determining that international flights weren’t available from Memphis in 1977. There’s also the question of why the most famous man on the planet would risk going into a public place in his hometown in order to book airfare for the purpose of faking his own death. Maybe Elvis figured his acting skills would help him avoid suspicion.

THE FUNERAL

Ollie Atkins, Chief White House Photographer. The National Archives, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

A great deal of “Elvis is alive” intrigue centers on August 18, 1977, the day of Presley's funeral. Footage of the service shows pallbearers struggling to lift a 900-pound copper coffin. The King had packed on a few pounds in his later years, but there’s no way he was pushing a half-ton. One explanation: The casket was outfitted with a cooling system—the kind you’d use to keep a wax dummy of a beloved celebrity from melting on a hot summer day. Sound crazy? Presley’s cousin Gene Smith thought the body looked a little strange. “His nose looked kinda puggy-looking, and his right sideburn was sticking straight out—it looked about an inch,” Smith said in the 1991 special The Elvis Files. “And his hairline looked like a hairpiece or something was glued on.” Smith was also troubled by the smoothness of Presley’s typically calloused hands and the sweat on his brow.

Attentive fans were further spooked when they saw the King’s headstone. The inscription reads “Elvis Aaron Presley,” even though he’d been given the middle name “Aron,” possibly in memory of his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon. The theory here is that Elvis used the incorrect spelling to signal fans that he was still alive. Another one of Elvis’s cousins, Billy Smith, claimed the singer simply preferred the more common double-A spelling, as legal documents bearing Presley’s signature attest.

THE DEATH ITSELF

Traditionally, you can’t have a funeral without a death, and what killed the King is another major source of controversy. The medical examiner’s official cause of death was “hypertensive heart disease associated with atherosclerotic heart disease.” Elvis weighed at least 250 pounds in his final days, and one Baptist Memorial Hospital staffer told Rolling Stone, he had “the arteries of an 80-year-old man.” So a massive heart attack isn’t exactly far-fetched. But toxicologists found more than 10 drugs in Presley’s system, fueling speculation that “polypharmacy” played a role in his death.

The general confusion surrounding these and other jargony cause-of-death explanations has undoubtedly helped to foster conspiracy theories. So have issues concerning official paperwork. Elvis’s death certificate will remain under wraps until 2027, 50 years after his passing. While this may seem like further proof of a cover-up, it’s actually a matter of Tennessee law. As for Presley’s autopsy report: It’s a private family document unlikely to ever see the light of day.

THE POOL HOUSE PHOTO

The second major Elvis sighting came in the form of a photo snapped on December 31, 1977. While visiting Graceland with his family, a man named Mike Joseph took some random pictures of Presley’s pool house. A few years later, while studying them with a magnifying glass, Joseph spotted a shadowy Elvis-like figure sitting in the doorway. Experts at Kodak verified that nothing had been doctored, so it seems someone was peering out the window. In an interview with Larry King, Elvis’s good buddy Joe Esposito suggested it was another Presley associate, Al Strada, in the photo. That explanation was good enough for Joseph, but not everyone is satisfied.

A similar case of mistaken identity led to some excitement a few years later, when sports agent Larry Kolb was captured looking uncannily Elvis-like alongside his client (and Elvis’s pal) Muhammad Ali and Jesse Jackson in a 1984 newspaper photo. Kolb came forward with an original color version of the image proving that it was him—not Elvis—in the shot, but that’s hardly laid the matter to rest. Asked in an interview to identify the man in the background, Ali reportedly said, “That’s my friend Elvis.”

THE KING OF KALAMAZOO

In the late ‘80s, the epicenter of the “Elvis lives” universe shifted to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a city Elvis played four months before his death. In 1988, a woman named Louise Welling from nearby Vicksburg claimed she had seen Presley standing in line at the local Felpausch supermarket. He was rocking a white jumpsuit, naturally, and purchasing an electrical fuse. Welling’s daughter later spied him scarfing Whoppers at Burger King. "What gives this account eerie credibility,” expert David Adler told the Los Angeles Times in an interview promoting his Presley-themed cookbook, “is that Burger King was by far Elvis's favorite fast food chain.”

BACK ON THE BIG SCREEN?

The Kalamazoo hullabaloo spawned a rash of late-’80s Elvis sightings, many of which involved the King doing un-regal things, like pumping gas or buying junk food. These were consistent with the notion that he’d faked his own death to escape the public eye (or the mafia, as one theory holds) and return to his humble roots. But Elvis loved movies—he starred in 31—and Christmas, so it almost makes sense that he would risk blowing his cover by appearing in the 1990 holiday comedy Home Alone.

Believers of this bizarre theory contend that a 55-year-old Presley turned up in the background of the scene where Catherine O’Hara’s character is stuck at the Scranton airport while trying to get home to her son. There’s a bearded guy behind her who looks a little like Elvis in Charro! (1969) and cocks his head in a manner that conspiracy theorists swear is identical to Presley’s onstage mannerisms. Curiously, director Chris Columbus went into Home Alone having just made Heartbreak Hotel, a 1988 flop about some kids who try to kidnap Elvis. Columbus and Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin laugh about the theory in the DVD commentary, but the identity of the extra remains unknown. Even if the real bearded man were to come forward, it probably wouldn’t kill the story.

GROUNDSKEEPER PRESLEY

In the summer of 2016, video of a Graceland groundskeeper purported to be Elvis got the internet all shook up. In the clip, a gray-haired dude in a baseball cap and Elvis Week T-shirt fusses with some wire and holds up two fingers—apparently some type of numerological clue—as he walks past the camera.

The video has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube—far more than the one where a clever Elvis fan debunks the whole thing by chatting with the actual Graceland employee, an affable gentleman named Bill Barmer. “I’m not really 81,” says Barmer, who then compares himself to a Pokémon Go character.

THE FUTURE

“Elvis is alive” theories can’t go on forever. The man would now be 82, and the oldest person on record only lived to 122. That means we've got maybe another 40 years of stories about the King chilling in Argentina or sipping coffee at Tim Hortons or doing whatever you do as an elderly man who’s been in hiding since the Carter Administration. Unless it turns out Elvis is immortal.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In an interview accompanying The Beatles Anthology DVD, George Harrison likens a brief 1972 encounter with Elvis at Madison Square Garden to “meeting Vishnu or Krishna or something.” His hair was black, his skin was tan, and his aura left the Beatle feeling like “a snooty little nobody.” Harrison may have been hinting at something Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper said rather deftly with their 1987 single “Elvis Is Everywhere.” Alive or dead, Presley is one pop culture deity we’ll never stop worshipping.

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Pop Culture
Sparkle Moore: The Mysterious Rockabilly Pioneer You've Never Heard Of

In the mid-1950s, Sparkle Moore had a strong voice, killer songs, and a really cool look. She was sometimes called the “female Elvis,” but the Omaha rocker born Barbara Morgan wound up having a wildly different career than the King’s. That’s what makes her such a fascinating character.

Whereas Elvis made gobs of money and stuck around long enough to become a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame, Moore released just two 45 RPM singles before settling down to start a family. Neither of her records made the charts, but in a review of the first, 1956’s “Rock-A-Bop,” Billboard wrote, “Gal pulls a female Elvis Presley and belts out a catchy rock and roll ditty with style and drive."

The critic probably didn’t flip the platter to play “Skull and Crossbones,” the far more memorable B side. Addressed to a guy who Sparkle calls “a jinx to my soul,” the jaunty rockabilly jam was a precursor to “Killer” and “Tiger,” the A and B sides of Moore’s second and final single, released in May of 1957.

Written by Sparkle herself, the three songs form a kind of bad-boy trilogy that must have seemed pretty daring at the time. Compare “Skull and Crossbones” to "Will You Willyum,” the signature hit by Moore’s nationally acclaimed contemporary Janis Martin—the most famous “female Elvis”—and Sparkle is practically punk.

She certainly dressed the part. At a time when female singers only wore dresses, Sparkle sported men’s slacks and suit jackets. She was butch on the bottom and bombshell up top, with a platinum blonde pompadour that made her look like Sparkle Plenty, the Dick Tracy character for whom she was named. In a rare 1986 interview with the magazine Kicks, Sparkle remembered how she used to freak people out with her masculine stage wear.

“People would see me when I went to play somewhere, and they’d say, ‘Can’t you wear something more sexy, like a gown?’” Moore said. “And I never would. I always wore a playing suit, and I’d say, ‘This is as sexy as I get.’”

It was plenty sexy—just like her music.

On “Killer,” a showcase for her Elvis-style “hmmm” ad libs and hiccuping delivery, Moore sings, “I was a victim of the killer’s charms / I’m not a victim of the killer’s arms / I took my chance and ignored the alarms.” She tangled with this duck-tailed lothario, gave as good as she got, and lived to tell the tale.

Her performance on “Tiger,” all about a smooth operator who seduces with his record collection, is even stronger. This one ends on a tender note: Just as Moore starts crying about her crush packing up his 45s and going home, her mother reassures her, “Look his way / I think this daddy is a goin' to stay.”

That’s essentially where the story ends. The unreleased ballad “Flowers of My Heart” surfaced years later, but Moore’s discography is basically those four songs, all issued on the Cincinnati indie label Fraternity and subsequently repackaged on various rockabilly compilations.

Moore's career lasted less than two years—just long enough for her to tour with pill-popping rockabilly wildman Gene Vincent; hobnob with celebs like Sammy Davis Jr., who compared her to James Dean; and get booked at the Grand Ole Opry, a gig she had to cancel due to laryngitis. The bio on Sparkle’s official website also claims that she “takes credit for being the first hippie to hit California several years later with a guitar strapped on the side of a Harley,” but since she’s done virtually no press, it’s unknown what adventures she got into in Hollywood. (Interview requests sent through her site's “Contact” form yielded no replies.)

It’s also unclear to what extent Moore chose to walk away from show business to raise a child. For as sexist as the music industry is today, it was even worse in the ‘50s, when female rockers were very much a novelty and women in general were expected to stay home and keep house. It would be great if Moore was totally free to make the decision that was right for her, but the reality was probably more complicated.

Either way, her story didn’t quite end in 1957. In 2010, the same year she was inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Moore returned with Spark-A-Billy, a 22-song collection she wrote and self-recorded. With its hodgepodge of styles and homemade digital production aesthetic, the album is a detour from her old sound. Still, it’s nice to know that Sparkle continues to make music, and on her own terms.

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