David Bruce: 250 Music Anecdotes

Here are the first five anecdotes from my book 250 Music Anecdotes:


Mary Garden was a celebrity soprano and diva, and people enjoyed spreading gossip about her — which is a form of advertising for a diva. One story was about the long golden blond hair she needed to play the role of Mélisande. Gossipers said that she sent people throughout France to find a woman with long golden blond hair. When the right woman was found, Ms. Garden paid her hundreds of dollars for her hair and had it made into a wig. Another story involved a donkey that appeared with her in one of Massenet’s operas. Gossipers said that Ms. Garden had trained the donkey to look interested and prick up its ears whenever she sang but to look bored and let its ears droop whenever anyone else sang!

One of Ramones lead singer Joey Ramone’s early jobs was passing out advertising fliers for West Village massage parlors; however, he wasn’t a good employee. He used to throw away the fliers and use his pay to buy himself beers instead of doing the work he was supposed to be doing. When Joey was 13, he taught his mother how to smoke marijuana. She used to let him and his brother smoke marijuana in the basement because she worried that they would be arrested if they smoked it outside the house.


Even as a kid, Debbie Gibson loved music and soon knew that she wanted to be a singer and musician. When she was a two-year-old toddler, she wanted a present: a guitar. However, because her hands were too little to play a guitar, her parents got her a ukulele instead. When Diane, Debbie’s mother, bought a piano later, Diane was not able to learn to play it. Instead, the Gibson daughters, including Debbie, played the piano for hours each day. Debbie remembers, “It got so bad, especially after [the fourth and youngest Gibson daughter] Denise started, we had to get two pianos. Between the four of us, there was at least eight hours of practicing a day.” At age four, Debbie played a song that she had learned by ear: “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” by Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods. Debbie wrote her very first song while she was in kindergarten. Her teacher gave the little students some advice that Debbie turned into a song: “Make Sure You Always Know Your Classroom.” (Her sisters had to write down the lyrics she had created because Debbie didn’t know how to write yet.) Also while she was in kindergarten, Debbie made an Easter bonnet along with the other children. But Debbie went home and created another Easter bonnet that she wore to school the next day. Her teacher, Mrs. Murray (no first name given), remembers that it was “three times the size of the hats the class had made. And she’d pasted everything she could find on it — everything, it seemed, but the kitchen sink!”

On the WWW is the “Bikini Kill Archive” in which fans of Kathleen Hanna’s riot grrrl group Bikini Kill are invited to do this: “Please add your Bikini Kill story to this blog! It can be totally off the top of your head and doesn’t need to be fancy. Maybe it’s your reaction to a song we wrote, something weird that happened at one of our shows, a personal anecdote or just WHATEVER. Feel free to send images too!” A young woman who calls herself Harriet Doorstop wrote about discovering Bikini Kill’s music as a 14-year-old growing up in rural southeastern Minnesota. Ms. Doorstop wrote, “All I ever remember doing after that was smiling. Smiling as I read about Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Hole, and Bratmobile. Smiling as I listened to Rebel Girl on youtube. Smiling as I ordered an album called Pussy Whipped (‘Pussy Whipped’??? Holy sh[*]t!) off the internet. Smiling as I started learning how to play the guitar…. Smiling was never something that I did a whole lot before. I never felt like I was entitled to. Now I know that I am, though.” She also wrote that she intended to start a band. Of course, Ms. Hanna reads the Bikini Kill Archive. She posted this message for Ms. Doorstop: “Your band is gonna change the world. Don’t delay, start it now!!! xoxoKathleen.” Kathleen Hanna could very well be right. It could happen.


Sam Andrew played guitar in the bands Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Kozmic Blues, both of which backed up vocalist Janis Joplin. He remembers that a critic once wrote, “Janis Joplin has true melisma in her singing.” She looked up the word “melisma” and discovered that it was a technique used in much Gospel and choir music. According to the online Free Dictionary, melisma is “A passage of several notes sung to one syllable of text, as in Gregorian chant.” Mr. Andrew remembers, “After she had learned what it meant, Janis didn’t stop saying the word ‘melisma’ for a week. That’s the way she was about praise. She couldn’t get enough of it.” Not everyone enjoyed her singing. Early in her career, the police showed up as she was rehearsing with Big Brother because they had received a report about a screaming woman. Of course, some of Janis’ life was wild and crazy; after all, she died of an accidental heroin overdose and alcohol. She was often photographed with a bottle of Southern Comfort in her hand, and she frequently mentioned the brand in interviews. She told the New York Times Magazine, “I had the chick in my manager’s office photostat every god*amn clipping that ever had me mentioning Southern Comfort, and I sent them to the company, and they sent me a whole lotta money. How could anybody in their right mind want me for their image? Oh, man, that was the best hustle I ever pulled — can you imagine getting paid for passing out for two years?” In addition to giving Janis money, the company gave her a lynx coat. Janis also told the New York Times Magazine, “Man, I’d rather have ten years of superhypermost than live to be seventy sitting in some godd*mn chair watching TV.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

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