A Birthday Trifecta For Lovers Of Oddball Music
Dwight Frye, aka Fritz, in James Whale's Frankenstein (1931)
Today is George Washington's birthday, so there's that. However, February 22 is also the birthday of some truly bizarre figures in American history, and those figures have been the inspiration to a great many musicians. For instance, if he were still alive, Dwight Frye would be 112 years old today. Who is Dwight Frye? Frye was basically the Lon Cheney of henchmen and lunatics. His most famous role is that of Renfield in Tod Browning's Dracula. That's the Lugosi one for the culturally impaired. Frye also played the lab assistant Fritz in the original Frankenstein. When people talk about Igor, they're really talking about Fritz. "The Man of a Thousand Deaths" was a great inspiration to shock-rock legend Alice Cooper, who wrote a song called "The Ballad of Dwight Fry," from what he considered Renfield's point of view, for the album Love It to Death.
Cooper used an alternate spelling in order to avoid a possible lawsuit, but the reference is unmistakeable. In concert, Cooper usually sings the song secured in a strait jacket, only to break free and strangle his nurse, who has been played onstage in the past by his daughter.
Legend goes that to get into the proper mood while recording the track, Cooper lay down on the concrete floor and had the band pile plastic chairs on top of him to get the proper claustrophobic tone for the line "I've got to get out of here! I've got to get out of here." Frye died of a heart attack at the young age of 44, during a bus trip. He'd just landed yet another great henchmen role, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker in a Woodrow Wilson biopic. In addition to Cooper's love letter, Wind-Up Entertainment, Inc. houses one music-publishing concern called Renfield Music Publishing, and another called Dwight Frye Music, which publishes Evanescence (Yay!) and Creed (Boo!). Towering over many of Frye's hunchbacked and deranged character, as well as every one else who has ever lived, was Robert Wadlow, "The Alton Giant." Wadlow is recognized as the single tallest human being who ever lived - when he died, he was 8 feet, 11.1 inches tall and still growing.
Wadlow (far right) would have been 93 today and, like Frye, died young at age 22. His massive height was the result of hypertrophy of the pituitary gland. As he passed any semblance of normal height, he began to lose feeling in his legs and feet and was forced to wear leg braces. A faulty brace caused a blister on his foot, the subsequent infection of which was the cause of his death. He traveled widely over the world making circus appearances. Wadlow was the subject of a 1998 song called "The Giant of Illinois" by Chicago alt-country band The Handsome Family. Like Rasputina, The Handsome Family - whose guitarist, Brett Sparks, is originally from Texas - is known for working historical figures, including Natalie Wood, Amelia Earhart, and Nikola Tesla, into their music. "The Giant of Illinois" was also covered by fellow Chicagoan Andrew Bird. Bird himself likes him some references. One of them, off his his album The Mysterious Production of Eggs via "Measuring Cups," is to late gothic artist Edward Gorey. Gorey, who would be 86 today, was a master of spooky art and the author of the critically acclaimed Gashlycrumb Tinies. He was largely self-taught, spending only one semester at art school, but his designs have gone on to influence a wide variety of musicians, as well as a great deal of the goth subculture in general.
No less a goth icon than Trent Reznor utilized a set designed based on Edward Gorey's art in the music video for "The Perfect Drug." Director Mark Romanek used some of Gorey's staples like oversized urns, topiary sculptures, and sullen characters in Edwardian costume, although it's entirely possible Reznor just showed up on the set looking like that. Gorey contributed to the music industry himself when he designed cover art for Boston punk band The Freeze's album One False Move. Gorey was friends with front man Clif Hanger, and in addition to the drawings, co-wrote the lyrics for the band's song "Alien Heads." One of our favorite quotes ever comes from Gorey, and references one of our favorite emo-kid classical composers, Franz Schubert, to boot. Gorey was asked how he felt about being labeled gothic. He said:
If you're doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there'd be no point. I'm trying to think if there's sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children - oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, "there is no happy music." And that's true, there really isn't. And there's probably no happy nonsense, either.
So happy birthday to all you freaks and weirdos out there inspiring strange music. We appreciate it.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.