Why do parachute jumpers yell "Geronimo"?
Is it aerodynamically impossible for bumblebees to fly?
Will watching too much TV ruin your eyes?
Fresh from the popular newspaper column by CECIL ADAMS!
WHAT IS CECIL ADAMS'S IQ?
"Do you want it in scientific notation? Little Ed, get out the slide rule."
For more than a quarter of a century Cecil Adams has been courageously
attempting to lift the veil of ignorance surrounding the modern world.
Now, in his fifth book, he takes yet another stab, dissecting such classic
--If you swim less than an hour after eating, will you get cramps and die?
--What's the difference between a Looney Tune and a Merrie Melody?
--Can you see a Munchkin committing suicide in The Wizard of Oz?
--Was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre based on actual events?
--Did medieval lords really have "the right of the first night"?
And much more!
THE CRITICS: STILL RAVING AFTER ALL THESE YEARS!
"Trenchant, witty answers to the great imponderables."
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Cecil Adams is author of The Straight Dope, More of the Straight Dope, Return of the Straight Dope, and The Straight Dope Tells All. All of Cecil's dealings with the public are handled by his editor and confidant, Ed Zotti, author of Know It All!, who has been sworn to secrecy. Consequently, little is known about Cecil's private life.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Just what does "colitis" mean? In the song "Hotel California" by the Eagles the first lines are, "On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, warm smell of colitis rising up through the air." I remember I tried looking it up at a university library years ago and couldn't find the answer. I know songwriters sometimes make up words, but I didn't see a Dr. Seuss credit on the album.
--Wendy Martin, via the Internet
Uh, Wendy. It's colitas, not colitis. Colitis (pronounced koe-LIE-tis) is an inflammation of the large intestine. You're probably thinking of that famous Beatles lyric, "the girl with colitis goes by."
As for "Hotel California," you realize a lot of people aren't troubled so much by colitas as by the meaning of the whole damn song. Figuring that we should start with the general and move to the particular, I provide the following commonly heard theories:
1. The Hotel California is a real hotel located in (pick one) Baja California on the coastal highway between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz or else near Santa Barbara. In other words, the song is a hard look at the modern hospitality industry, which is plagued by guests who "check out any time [they] like" but then "never leave."
2. The Hotel California is a mental hospital. I see one guy on the Web has identified it as "Camarillo State Hospital in Ventura County between L.A. and Santa Barbara."
3. It's about satanism. Isn't everything?
4. Hotel California is a metaphor for cocaine addiction. See "You can check out any time you like but you can never leave." This comes from the published comments of Glenn Frey, one of the coauthors.
5. It's about the pitfalls of living in southern California in the 1970s, my interpretation since first listen. Makes perfect sense, and goddammit, who you going to believe, some ignorant rock star or me?
6. My fave, posted to the Usenet by Thomas Dzubin of Vancouver, British Columbia: "There was this fireworks factory just three blocks from the Hotel California ... and it blew up! Big tragedy. One of the workers was named Wurn Snell and he was from the town of Colitas in Greece. One of the workers who escaped the explosion talked to another guy ... I think it was probably Don Henley ... and Don asked what the guy saw. The worker said, "Wurn Snell of Colitas ... rising up through the air."
He's also got this bit about "on a dark dessert highway, Cool Whip in my hair." Well, I thought it was funny.
OK, back to colitas. Personally, I had the idea colitas was a type of desert flower. Apparently not. Type "colitas" into a Web search engine and you get about 50 song-lyric hits plus, curiously, a bunch of citations from Mexican and Spanish restaurant menus. Hmm, one thinks, were the Eagles rhapsodizing about the smell of some good carryout? We asked some native Spanish speakers and learned that colitas is the diminutive feminine plural of the Spanish cola, tail. Little tail. Looking for a little ... we suddenly recalled a (male) friend's guess that colitas referred to a certain feature of the female anatomy. We paused. Naah. Back to those menus. "Colitas de langosta enchiladas" was baby lobster tails simmered in hot sauce with Spanish rice. One thinks: You know, I could write a love song around a phrase like that.
Enough of these distractions. By and by, a denizen of soc.culture.spain wrote: "Colitas is little tails, but here the author is referring to 'colas,' the tip of a marijuana branch, where it is more potent and with more sap (said to be the best part of the leaves)." We knew with an instant shock of certainty that this was the correct interpretation. The Eagles, with the prescience given only to true artists, were touting the virtues of high-quality industrial hemp! (See page 129.) And to think some people thought this song was about drugs.
Our Suspicions Confirmed
This E-mail just in from Eagles management honcho Irving Azoff: "In response to your [recent] memo, in 1976, during the writing of the song 'Hotel California' by Messrs. Henley and Frey, the word 'colitas' was translated for them by their Mexican-American road manager as 'little buds.' You have obviously already done the necessary extrapolation. Thank you for your inquiry."
I knew it.
Why did Charles Manson believe that the Beatles song "Helter Skelter" was about the upcoming race war? Are there any documents that you own that say why in hell he would think this, other than the fact that he is crazy?
--J.C. from MI
I'd say the fact that he's crazy pretty well covers it. "Helter Skelter," which appeared on the Beatles' White Album, was Paul McCartney's attempt to outrock Pete Townshend of the Who. Some Beatles fans describe the song as heavy metal, which is putting it a bit strongly. But it had more energy than most McCartney compositions of the period, and the descending refrain "helter skelter" lent it an edginess that made it stick in the mind.
The song's musical qualities had very little to do with its subject matter, however. "In England, home of the Beatles, 'helter skelter' is another name for a slide in an amusement park," Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi tells us in his book about the case, Helter Skelter. The Oxford English Dictionary further clarifies that a helter skelter is "a towerlike structure used in funfairs and pleasure grounds, with an external spiral passage for sliding down on a mat." Recall the opening line: "When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide/Where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride." It's a joke, get it? The Rolling Stones might do this faux bad-guy thing about putting a knife right down your throat, but the ever-whimsical McCartney figured he'd rock the house singing about playground equipment.
All this went over the head of Charles Manson. He thought Helter Skelter was the coming race war and the White Album was a call to arms. If you're in a certain frame of mind you can understand some of this--e.g., the "piggies" in the tune of the same name, who need a "damn good whacking," and the sounds of gunfire in "Revolution 9." But to think that the line "you were only waiting for this moment to arise" in the song "Blackbird" was an invitation to black people to start an insurrection ... sure, Charlie. Whatever you say. Now put down that gun.
In your book The Straight Dope you were asked whether John Wayne had ever served in the military. You said no--that though Wayne as a youth had wanted to become a naval officer, "during World War II, he was rejected for military service." However, it may be more interesting than that. According to a recent Wayne bio, for all his vaunted patriotism, Wayne may actually have tried to stay out of the service.
--Virgiejo, via AOL
John Wayne, draft dodger? Oh, what delicious (if cheap) irony! But that judgment is a little harsh. As Garry Wills tells the story in his book John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity (1997), the Duke faced a tough choice at the outset of World War II. If he wimped out, don't be so sure a lot of us wouldn't have done the same.
At the time of Pearl Harbor, Wayne was 34 years old. His marriage was on the rocks, but he still had four kids to support. His career was taking off, in large part on the strength of his work in the classic Western Stagecoach (1939). But he wasn't rich. Should he chuck it all and enlist? Many of Hollywood's big names, such as Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and Clark Gable, did just that. (Fonda, Wills points out, was 37 at the time and had a wife and three kids.) But these were established stars. Wayne knew that if he took a few years off for military service, there was a good chance that by the time he got back he'd be over the hill.
Besides, he specialized in the kind of movies a nation at war wanted to see, in which a rugged American hero overcame great odds. Recognizing that Hollywood was an important part of the war effort, Washington had told California draft boards to go easy on actors. Perhaps rationalizing that he could do more good at home, Wayne obtained 3-A status, "deferred for [family] dependency reasons." He told friends he'd enlist after he made just one or two more movies.
The real question is why he never did so. Wayne cranked out thirteen movies during the war, many with war-related themes. Most of the films were enormously successful, and within a short time the Duke was one of America's most popular stars. His bankability now firmly established, he could have joined the military, secure in the knowledge that Hollywood would welcome him back later. He even made a halfhearted effort to sign up, sending in the paperwork to enlist in the naval photography unit commanded by a good friend, director John Ford.
But he didn't follow through. Nobody really knows why; Wayne didn't like to talk about it. A guy who prided himself on doing his own stunts, he doesn't seem to have lacked physical courage. One suspects he just found it was a lot more fun being a Hollywood hero than the real kind. Many movie-star soldiers had enlisted in the first flush of patriotism after Pearl Harbor. As the war ground on, slogging it out in the trenches seemed a lot less exciting. The movies, on the other hand, had put Wayne well on the way to becoming a legend. "Wayne increasingly came to embody the American fighting man," Wills writes. In late 1943 and early 1944 he entertained the troops in the Pacific theater as part of a USO tour. An intelligence big shot asked him to give his impression of Douglas MacArthur. He was fawned over by the press when he got back. Meanwhile, he was having a torrid affair with a beautiful Mexican woman. How could military service compare with that?
In 1944 Wayne received a 2-A classification, "deferred in support of [the] national ... interest." A month later the Selective Service decided to revoke many previous deferments and reclassified him 1-A. But Wayne's studio appealed and got his 2-A status reinstated until after the war ended.
People who knew Wayne say he felt bad about not having served. Some think his guilty conscience was one reason he became such a superpatriot later. The fact remains that the man who came to symbolize American patriotism and pride had a chance to do more than just act the part, and he let it pass.
Some Warner Brothers cartoons are called Looney Tunes; some are called Merrie Melodies. What's the difference between the two?
--Arnold Wright Blan, Sugar Hill, Georgia
My initial idea was to tell you that Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies reflected the dichotomy between the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses or, if you will, the classical and romantic modes of creative expression. However, even I couldn't keep up a crock like that. Then I figured, This is Hollywood, there's gotta be some mercenary angle to it. Sure enough. While there were differences between Tunes and Melodies, the main reason for having two separate series was that's the way they'd structured the deal.
At the outset, the two series were made under separate agreements between Warner Brothers and producer Leon Schlesinger, using different production teams. The Looney Tunes series, created by Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, was introduced in 1930. A blatant rip-off of Disney's Silly Symphonies series, each Looney Tune was required to have one full chorus from a song from a Warner feature film. The cartoons typically were run prior to the main feature at theaters, and the idea was that they would promote WB product. (Among other things, the company had various music-publishing concerns.) The schedule called for a new cartoon approximately once a month.
The Tunes were immediately popular, and the following year Warner commissioned Schlesinger to produce a sister series called Merrie Melodies, which also appeared monthly. (The volume of cartoons fluctuated in later years, but the two series were always produced in roughly equal numbers.) At this point Harman and Ising divided responsibilities, with Harman in charge of Looney Tunes and Ising handling the Melodies. Merrie Melodies also featured Warner songs, but where Tunes had regular characters, Melodies for the most part were one-shots, without continuing characters. Another difference was that Melodies were shot in color starting in 1934, while Tunes stayed black-and-white.
In my younger days I would have stopped right there. However, if there's one thing I've learned in this business it's that you can never overestimate the anality of film and animation buffs. Someone would inevitably have made the following observations:
1. By the late 1930s regular characters started appearing in Merrie Melodies, and by the 1940s the same characters were appearing interchangeably in both series.
2. Some of Schlesinger's production people switched freely back and forth between series.
3. Looney Tunes were shot in color after 1943.
4. Leon Schlesinger retired in 1944 and Warner Brothers began doing cartoon production in-house, after which time (and probably long before which time) there was no reason to maintain any distinction between Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. The two separate series titles persisted because, you know, there'd always been two separate series titles, and they had different theme music, and why rock the boat?
5. Nyaah nyaah nyaah nyaah.
So childish. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the difference between Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies was pretty much an existential thing. On a practical level it prepares us to deal with the many meaningless distinctions of life--e.g., Pepsi versus Coke, MasterCard versus Visa, and the Democrats versus the GOP. The Saturday-morning 'toons just a way to kill time? Please. They're Introduction to Reality 101.
While leafing through my Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock N' Roll, I came upon the horrifying fact that Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," the song that started rock, peaked at #8 in 1958. What seven forgettable songs were deemed better than this classic?--Tim Ring, Montreal, Quebec
Cecil loves the classics as much as the next guy, but let's not get carried away. "Johnny B. Goode" did not start rock. Even "Maybellene," Chuck Berry's first hit (#5 in 1955), did not start rock, although it was one of the earliest rock tunes to make it big. If you've got to pick one tune that put rock 'n' roll over the top, I still say it's got to be Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," which became--admittedly not right away--a monster hit, selling 22 million copies. And let's not forget the righteous contribution of Alan Freed, the Cleveland DJ who attached the ...
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