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On the Glories of Mardi Gras and Trump's Inaugural Just Desserts

I suppose sometimes a cake is just a cake, but more often than not, it’s not.

I think I especially miss living in Louisiana during the winter, as Mardi Gras begins to roll around. This year it’s toward the end of February. Though it was born out of the Christian tradition, there are many fine secular ways to celebrate Mardi Gras, including second line parades and king cakes. If you’ve never had king cake, you’re missing out. At its simplest, a king cake is just a cinnamon roll that’s been twisted in the shape of a giant donut and then iced with yellow, purple and green frosting. Sometimes they’re filled with cream cheese or pralines. Sometimes you can find chocolate or strawberry king cakes, and sometimes you can find them around other holidays like Christmas or St. Patrick’s Day. They’re always bright and delicious at any time or day, whether you’ve got a beer or a coffee in your hand.

These cakes came to the Gulf Coast during colonization, when the Spanish and French brought with them the celebration of Carnival. The root of those celebrations is the January 6th Epiphany, often called the Twelfth Night. That’s when the three wise men came to give baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and the symbolism of those three gifts dictates the colors of the icing on the cake. Gold was a symbol of power, that became yellow frosting. Frankincense was a symbol of faith, that became green frosting. Myrrh was a symbol of justice, that became purple frosting. More recent tradition is to bake a tiny, plastic baby Jesus into the cake. Tell you what, nothing beats the look on your friend’s face when he’s just bit down too hard on a surprise baby Jesus figurine. Imagine when they used to make them out of porcelain!

"Finding" the figurine is supposed to bring you good luck, but go on and tell that to your dentist. Some places bake the cake without the baby in it. They just rest it on top because it’s a choking hazard, but where’s the fun in that? Nabbing the tiny Jesus also means you’re on the hook for buying the next round of king cake. Although Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday”, the celebration isn’t just one day long or even just one weekend long. For some Mardi Gras carries on for most of the month, between church stuff like Ash Wednesday and party stuff like building the parade floats. There are lots of get togethers during this festive period. After Epiphany comes Lent. That's when you swear you’ll never eat king cake again.

King cake is so loaded with symbolism that most people in New Orleans will tell you it’s bad juju to eat one outside of Mardi Gras season. I suppose sometimes a cake is just a cake, but more often than not, it’s not. This brings me to King's, excuse me, President Trump’s inaugural cake.

Let’s get the facts out of the way. On the night of any presidential inauguration, there are big parties. At many of the parties, there's a cake. The new president generally cuts an official cake in a flashy way so that the press can get good celebratory photos. These galas are a kind of publicity junket. They are carefully manufactured early moments for the incoming administration to showcase its preferred symbolisms and set a particular tone.

Trump’s inaugural cake was a replica of Obama’s 2013 cake. Trumps cake was made by a small-time baker who didn’t know that it's duplication was unauthorized by the original celebrity baker. The baker of Trump’s cake then donated all profits from the cake to the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization whose president referred to Trump the day after his election as “a man who stands opposed to our most fundamental values.” In the parlance of our times, the optics of this incident were not good.

First question: Why would the Trump people want a replica of Obama’s cake? Answer choices:

A. They are lazy or incompetent, so busy devoting brainpower to other, obviously more important and longterm elements of the transition that they didn’t care what kind of cake they got, and hey, everybody knows the Obamas have good taste. If that’s true, why didn’t they use the same baker? Is that the art of the deal, or did they want to avoid endorsing a liberal baker? Hopefully not the latter, because that original baker still gets credit for the cake’s design and the new baker is a loudmouthed liberal, too.

B. They wanted to reclaim the cake’s meaning or somehow insult Obama by reproducing it. Well, we know that Trump stayed in the Obamas’ room at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow, though it’s not yet confirmed whether he frosted it yellow or not. I suppose he might get some kind of trollish delight out of having the same cake as Obama, but how petty and inarticulate, if so.

C. Obama just had the absolute best cake. Because Trump is happy to admit that Obama’s was the cake of all cakes, truly tremendous, an exceptionally excellent cake made by the very best and very nicest people.

Trevor Noah asked another important question about this cake on The Daily Show, which acquired the cake after it was presented at the party the night before: What should we make of the fact that it is full of styrofoam? Yeah, only about three inches of the lower tier or the cake is actually cake, because that’s the piece they cut into and then make a big show of eating. Answer choices:

A. As Trevor Noah said, "it’s all styrofoam. Just like Trump’s administration, this cake is bad for the environment." The symbolism of its fakery is so clear, as abrasive as the squeaky noises of styrofoam itself.

B. Ah ha, this is a trap of contradiction! This is proof the cake is not a replica of Obama’s because Obama’s cake was not filled with styrofoam. It was authentically a cake. “Ace of Cakes” Duff Goldman, the original baker and television star at Charm City Cakes, made actual tiers of red velvet, lemon poppyseed, pineapple coconut, and pumpkin chocolate chip cakes with layers of Swiss buttercream in between. Goldman said it was a long process of paperwork to be chosen to bake the inaugural cake, as opposed to Trump’s baker, who said that “the order came in while she was out of town and that the client had brought in a photo of the cake from Obama’s inauguration, asking her to re-create it. ‘They came to us a couple of weeks ago, which is pretty last minute, and said ‘We have a photo that we would like to replicate.’” Obviously, she was not vetted.

C. All that fondant is probably still edible. I have often dreamed of a cake that is nothing but frosting. Look at how good it looks. Who cares if styrofoam is a human carcinogen?

Third and final question: What does the new baker’s $1,200 HRC donation mean? Answer options:

A. The two bakers and general manager of Buttercream Bakeshop are three tough broads and LGBT allies making the best use of what resources they have. Who says a cake is just a cake?

B. They’re going to make a fortune in gay wedding cake orders thanks to this publicity. At the time of this writing, their HRC post on Instagram logged 1,500 likes and 100 comments. Their post giving credit to Goldman for the design and announcing the upcoming donation logged 4,800 likes and 1,100 comments. Totally worth the short term sacrifice of $1,200. You can’t buy that type of press.

C. Whether they’re liberals or just nasty women, poking Trump in his thin skin is so easy, why wouldn’t you if you had such a clear shot at it? Thank you for your service, ladies.

I doubt very much this will be the last cake-related publicity fail on the part of President Trump. It’s been less than a month since he took office, and this isn’t actually even the first cake to come up! Want to see a video of Donald Trump’s head as a cake being wheeled through the streets to the Trump Tower? At least that one, word has it, was a real cake. Perhaps next, he’ll be caught eating it with a spoon. I mean, this is a man who eats pizza with a fork. As they say in Cajun French, laissez les bons temps rouler.

Last year, there was a pro-Trump parade float at Mardi Gras depicting him as a king. But if I know anything about Louisiana, it giveth as easily as it taketh away. Mr. President, if you’re reading this, watch out for the baby Jesus.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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