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9 Famous Artists Who Began as Street Performers

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The Spanish word buscar, which means to seek, gave us the term “busker.” The art of busking, or street performing, gave us these household names.

1. Rod Stewart

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According to the man himself, there are only two things Rod Stewart can do: play football (yes, soccer) and sing. When it came to doing one professionally, music became the only choice after he failed to make the Brentford F.C. team. While the fame, money, and model wives would suggest that it all worked out for Stewart, it didn’t always seem that way. After a disappointing experience with his first band, The Raiders, Stewart took his then undesired voice to the streets of London, where he teamed up with English folk musician Wizz Jones. Together, they traveled throughout Europe playing music and sleeping under bridges until Stewart was deported from Spain for vagrancy. Ultimately, that vagrant ended up selling 100 million records worldwide.

2. Tracy Chapman

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While a student at Tufts University, Tracy Chapman would sing and play her guitar in nearby Harvard Square—a place so desired by buskers for its heavy foot traffic that people have to obtain a permit from the Cambridge Arts Council to perform there. Through playing the streets and various coffee houses in the area, Chapman gained a fan in Brian Koppelman, a fellow Tufts student whose father, Charles Koppelman, was in charge of a record label. The elder Koppelman introduced her to influential people in the music business, including producer David Kershenbaum, and in 1987, right after graduating, she was signed to Elektra Records. By 1988, she had a critically-acclaimed album and was performing for Nelson Mandela at his 70th birthday tribute concert.

3. Robin Williams

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If Robin Williams seems like the kind of person you’d try and avoid while walking around New York City, that’s because, at one point, he was. While studying in an advanced program at the prestigious Juilliard School—only two students were accepted into it: he and Christopher Reeve—Williams worked as a mime outside of The Museum of Modern Art for some extra cash. Everything came up roses and giant bags of money for Williams though, as he’d go on to win an Academy Award, Emmys, Golden Globes, Grammys, all for projects that involved him talking.

4. Eddie Izzard

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British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard says he has known he wanted to be a performer since he was seven years old, but it wasn’t until he began studying accounting at the University of Sheffield that he tried his hand at comedy. Along with a school friend, he regularly performed in Covent Garden, a district in the West End of London. Their partnership didn’t last long, but Izzard would spend a great deal of the '80s performing on the streets of Europe. In the early '90s, he began to gain some notoriety in the British comedy community and in 2000 he won two Emmys for his one-man show “Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill,” which was produced by fellow former street performer Robin Williams.

5. B.B. King

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Before he was “B.B. King,” Riley B. King was just a kid playing his guitar on the streets of Mississippi for change. King would perform in up to four different towns a night. Eventually he made his way to Memphis, which was home to numerous blues and jazz legends, including his cousin Bukka White. While there, he performed amongst his fellow greats and landed a gig as a radio DJ. Needing a new name for the airwaves, King went with “Beale Street Blues Boy,” a nod to the music-filled Beale Street in downtown Memphis. That moniker was shortened to “Blues Boy” and then, simply “B.B.” Now, everyone knows B.B. and his guitar Lucille.

6. Pierce Brosnan

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Shaken and stirred by moving from Ireland to England in his youth, Brosnan couldn’t wait to get out of his London classroom—where his nickname was “Irish”—and into the art world. While training to be a commercial illustrator, he attended a workshop where a fire eater taught him the craft. Soon enough, he had one of the hottest acts on the streets and caught the attention of a circus agent. That stint let to classes at Drama Centre London, which got his acting off the ground and eventually into an Aston Martin.

7. Bernie Mac

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You can’t just wake up one morning and call yourself one of the “Original Kings of Comedy.” OK, you can, but you’d be living a lie if you didn't have the credentials to back it up like Bernie Mac did. Before the major motion pictures and network sitcom, Mac was telling jokes throughout the South Side of Chicago. The two years he spent playing the streets made the man fearless; you may remember him beginning his first set on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam by telling the audience, “I ain’t scared of you motherf***ers.” In 2012, a portion of West 69th Street in the Englewood neighborhood where he grew up was honorarily named "Bernie Mac Street."

8. Jewel

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The pride of Homer, Alaska, Jewel Kilcher had just finished her first semester at a fine arts school in Michigan when she decided to travel the country as a street performer. With her guitar, the four chords she knew how to play on it, and a skinning knife for protection, Jewel managed to make it as far as Mexico. After graduating, Jewel returned to drifting and lived out of her car. She played coffee shops around San Diego until she signed with Atlantic Records. Her debut album, Pieces of You, would go on to sell 12 million copies in the United States alone. Hopefully counting all of that money wasn’t too much for those small hands of hers.

9. Benjamin Franklin

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Author, diplomat, founding father, inventor, printer, postmaster, scientist, street performer—Ben Franklin was pretty much everything but president. As a youngster in Boston, Franklin would perform songs and read poems he wrote that commented on current events, which he'd then sell prints of to his fellow colonists. His meddling father didn't want his son busking around town so he put an end to little Ben's street act once and for all. After growing up under that regime, it’s no wonder he became such an advocate for free speech.

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When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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