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Underground America: 7 Things You Could Be Standing on

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By Richard Faulk

You just never know what you might be standing on. We asked the author of Gross America: Your Coast-to-Coast Guide to All Things Gross to see what he could dig up.

1. ABANDONED BOATS TURNED BROTHELS

The Embarcadero, San Francisco  The Gold Rush of 1849 made San Francisco’s population explode. Many gold-crazed argonauts sailed in on wooden ships, and hundreds of these were abandoned in Yerba Buena Cove when fortune-seeking crews jumped ship to try their luck in the mining camps too. As the land-starved city expanded by filling in its marshy coastline, many of these abandoned vessels were converted to underground store-rooms, saloons, brothels, and even jails servicing the disorderly denizens of the Barbary Coast. Ever since, construction projects have periodically uncovered these ghostly remains. As recently as 2005, a ship was discovered beneath Folsom Street.

2. ANCIENT HUMAN DNA

Paisley Caves, Oregon — For decades, the 13,000-year-old Clovis spear points of New Mexico were thought to be the oldest traces of human life in the Americas. But, in 2002, anthropologists from the University of Oregon discovered 25 human coprolites—fossilized poop to the rest of us—in a network of prehistoric caves in south Oregon. Seeds, bone, and thread embedded in the fossils provide invaluable clues to the caveman culture and cuisine. Some are at least 14,700 years old, and scientists consider this to be the oldest evidence of human life in North America.

3. A SUPER-SWEET MISSILE-SILO PAD

Wabaunsee County, Kansas — Ever dream of living like Dr. No, in an ultra-modern under- ground lair with intercontinental nuclear capability? You could do what Edward and Dianna Peden of Topeka did and buy your own decommissioned Cold War–era missile silo (missile not included). When the Pedens acquired the home they now call Subterra Castle, it wasn’t exactly a supervillain bachelor pad. Decades of flooding and disuse had given the former launch control center the charm of a subway lavatory. Bought for $40,000, the converted living space now vibrates with an “eclectic spirit of peace.” At press time, there was a similar 2,300-sq.-ft. silo in upstate New York available for a cool $3 million.

4. 100 TONS OF FUNGUS

Crystal Falls, Michigan — Spread across 38 acres of north Michigan forest, and clocking in at up to 10,000 years old, the 100-ton colony of Armillaria bulbosa, or honey mushroom, is one of the world’s oldest and largest living organisms. It was discovered in 1988, but it took a 1992 article in Nature magazine to turn it into a sensation. Ever since, the enterprising folk of Crystal Falls have held an annual Humongous Fungus Fest. Would-be fungus spotters are inevitably disappointed that the bulk of the Armillaria are underground rhizomorphs—all that’s visible above the dirt are ordinary looking button mushrooms. But at least there’s a parade, pancakes, and an Elvis impersonator.

5. THE GOVERNMENT’S WORST-CASE- SCENARIO HANGOUT

South Pennsylvania — Surrounded by razor wire and guard posts, bristling with communications towers, and accessed via multiple concrete-faced, iron-doored tunnels, Raven Rock Mountain Complex is top secret but hardly inconspicuous. Conceived during the Truman Administration as a backup Pentagon, the hollowed-out greenstone mountain six miles north of Camp David is rumored to contain power plants, a reservoir, and five 3-story office buildings—the facilities could shelter 3,000 people in the event of a national cataclysm. After 9/11, it was one of several secret locations where Vice President Dick Cheney was sequestered.

6. AN EXTREMELY IMPORTANT PARKING SPOT

Arlington, Virginia — Between 1972 and 1973, reporter Bob Woodward met six times with a source known as Deep Throat, who provided inside information about the Watergate break-in, the scandal that would bring down the Nixon Administration. For 30 years, Deep Throat’s identity remained a mystery, until former FBI official Mark Felt outed himself in 2005. Woodward confirmed it—and also revealed where the two used to meet: space 32D on the lower level of an Arlington garage at Wilson Boulevard and Nash Street.

7. OUR UNFINISHED SUPERCONDUCTING SUPER COLLIDER

Waxahachie, Texas — Beneath the rolling prairie outside Dallas lies the Alamo of our nation’s grand ambitions in particle physics. Approved in the late 1980s with a budget of $4.4 billion, the Superconducting Super Collider was going to use magnets to accelerate protons around an underground ring 52 miles in diameter, and then smash them together with a force 20 times greater than ever before. Scientists planned to monitor the ensuing debris for exotic subatomic particles, like the highly sought Higgs boson. But in 1993, when projected costs grew in excess of $11 billion, Congress balked. The SSC was summarily terminated, but not before $2 billion was spent and 15 miles of tunnel were dug. In 2012, Geneva’s much smaller Large Hadron Collider discovered the Higgs boson, which led to a Nobel Prize in physics. Score one for Switzerland.

This piece originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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10 Facts About Aspirin
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Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

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How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.

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