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How a Tape Recorder Mishaps Helped Create Johnny Cash's 'I Walk the Line'

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A few weeks after the song’s release, 24-year-old Johnny Cash performed “I Walk the Line” on The Grand Ole Opry, with Ben A. Green of the Nashville Banner in the audience. “The haunting words of ‘I Walk the Line’ began to swell through the building,” Green wrote (in a review later featured in The Man Called Cash by Steve Turner), “and a veritable tornado of applause rolled back. The boy had struck home, where the heart is, with his song that is Number 2 [on the Billboard country chart] in the nation today. As his words filtered into the farthermost corners, many in the crowd were on their feet, cheering and clapping.”

With its gradual boom-chicka rhythm, hummed verses, and words of vigilance against moral lapses, “I Walk the Line” (released on May 1, 1956) stood out among the fast and frisky songs on the radio. “It was different than anything else you had ever heard,” Bob Dylan once told Rolling Stone. “A voice from the middle of the Earth.”

Cash wrote the lyrics while touring in Texas. It was a promise to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, amid the temptations of the road, with the underlying spiritual theme that’s weaved through much of Cash’s work.

As for the melody, it’s older and came about in a more ghostly way. In 1951, Cash was a U.S. airman, stationed at a base in Landsberg, Germany. He and a few other servicemen played in a country and western band called the Landsberg Barbarians. In Cash: The Autobiography, the artist said that he purchased a reel-to-reel recorder “with savings from the eighty-five dollars a month Uncle Sam paid me to fight the Cold War.” Cash further recounts:

I was on the eleven-to-seven shift in the radio intercept room one night, listening in on the Russians, and when I got back to the barracks in the morning I discovered that someone had been messing with my tape machine. I put on a Barbarians tape to test it, and out came the strangest sound, a haunting drone full of weird chord changes. To me it seemed like some sort of spooky church music, and at the end there was what sounded like somebody saying "Father." I played it a million times, trying to figure it out, and even asked some Catholics in my unit if they recognized it from one of their services (they didn't), but finally I solved the puzzle: the tape had gotten turned around somehow, and I was hearing Barbarian guitar chords played backward. The drone and those weird chord changes stayed with me and surfaced in the melody of "I Walk the Line."

The melody was down, and Cash had the unique chord progressions when he first began recording for Sun Records in 1955. His original was slower, but, according to Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn, Sun Records owner Sam Philips coaxed him into recording an up-tempo version and released it without telling Cash. Cash was surprised to hear that version on the radio while on tour and phoned Philips.

“Give me just two weeks,” Philips replied. “If it doesn’t do what I think it’s going to do, I promise you right here, I’ll pull the record and we’ll release the slow ballad.”

He never released the slow ballad.

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Photograph by John Robert Rowlands. © John Robert Rowlands
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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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entertainment
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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