One of a Kind: The 2005 John Marshall Commemorative Silver Dollar

It seems hard to believe that, in the entirety of American history, only one Supreme Court justice (who wasn’t previously President of the United States) has ever been on a government-issued coin.

Given his outsized judicial legacy, it’s only appropriate that said justice was John Marshall.

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Career Killers: “Switch” by INXS

Plenty of bands choose to soldier on after the death of an iconic, seemingly-irreplaceable lead singer.

Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen went with established singers, touring and recording with Paul Rodgers of Bad Company fame before moving onto “American Idol” alum Adam Lambert. AC/DC took the opposite approach, hiring then-unknown Brian Johnson to replace Bon Scott. The Eagles did a bit of both, replacing Glenn Frey with country superstar Vince Gill, as well as Frey’s son, novice musician Deacon. Bands such as Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Sublime, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and even the Grateful Dead have carried on in some form, with mixed results.

Other bands chose not to try and replace the irreplaceable. Nirvana broke up after Kurt Cobain died by suicide – as did Mother Love Bone following Andy Wood’s fatal heroin overdose (although two members of the band ended up forming Pearl Jam). Joy Division never replaced Ian Curtis, instead guitarist Bernard Sumner moved into the frontman’s role and the band became New Order, one of the most acclaimed and popular synth bands of the 80s.

Then there are some bands that give it a go with new singers, only to flop badly, ruin their legacy and confirm to everyone that they should have just let their band die with their late vocalist.

INXS was one such band.

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The Folly of Collecting Chinese Coins

The phrase “buyer beware” may not have been invented for people shopping in China, but it might as well have been.

After all, China is infamous for its pirated products. Whether its movies, software, watches, luxury goods, or toys (and at one point, music – but that seems to be changing – although that’s only because they haven’t figured out how to pirate Pandora or Spotify yet), Chinese counterfeiters make fake versions of almost any consumer good imaginable. In fact, some enterprising Chinese pirates have moved on from the consumer goods market, setting up things like fake Ikeas and Apple stores, and even fake law firms. Thanks to lax copyright law enforcement, pretty much the only thing in China that hasn’t been illegally copied and then passed off as the real thing has been the Great Wall (and give them time – someone will probably figure out how to do it). That’s why, when a hoax story about fake pork buns with cardboard inside made the rounds on the Internet a few years ago, everyone believed it.

All of this is just a roundabout way of saying: “Don’t buy coins from China – because they’re probably fake.”

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Career Killers: “The Final Cut” by Pink Floyd

When we think of the most accomplished and popular rock bands, they tend to have one or two people in charge – usually the songwriters. Glenn Frey called it “song power” and used it to explain the power dynamics in The Eagles:

“A rock band is not a perfect democracy. It’s more like a sports team. No one can do anything without the other guys, but everybody doesn’t get to touch the ball all the time.”

Glenn Frey, History of the Eagles.

History tells us that, at some point, the other guys in the band will often get fed up with being in the background and either leave the band or raise such a stink that they get some concessions. Stu Cook and Doug Clifford forced John Fogerty to let them write songs for a Creedence Clearwater Revival album with disastrous results. Jason Newsted quit Metallica. Alan Wilder left Depeche Mode while Dave Gahan threatened to unless he was allowed to write songs for the band’s albums. As for the Eagles, Frey and Don Henley may have been happy in their roles as was benevolent dictators, but others in the band, particularly Don Felder and Joe Walsh, resented being underlings and this underlying tension was one of the main reasons why the band broke up.

Pink Floyd was no different, and when things finally came to a head in the early 1980s, it touched off years of litigation, decades of inconsistent artistic output from all parties involved, and sustained personal enmity and hatred that not even the promise of a triumphant one-off reunion at the biggest charity concert of the 2000s could fully fix.

This is the album that started all of that.

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All About the Benjamins

This was my gateway coin.

I was in middle school when I happened to see it in an old bowl of change in my parents’ room and was immediately intrigued. I had seen half dollars before, but only ones with John F. Kennedy on them. I had never seen one with Benjamin Franklin’s face on it. Yet, here it was, forgotten about and collecting dust in a bowl so dirty that the amount of effort it would take to make it suitable for food consumption again wouldn’t have been worth it.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated (by the coin, not the bowl) and asked my mom if I could have it. “Sure,” she said with a shrug – never imagining that it would lead to a lifetime of coin collecting on my part. Or maybe she was just happy I was interested in something besides baseball cards or Garbage Pail Kids. After all, coin collecting is the hobby of kings. Literally.

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Career Killers: “Van Halen III”

September 4, 1996. The MTV Video Music Awards are in full swing and the evening is full of historical moments. 2Pac, in his last televised appearance before his death, announced the formation of Death Row East – a provocative incursion onto rival turf at the height of east/west tensions in the hip hop world. A then-unknown No Doubt rocked the pre-show, serving notice to the musical world as to what was to come. A reeling Smashing Pumpkins gave one of their first performances since touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin and died the previous July. 

But the moment that had everyone talking was a reunion over ten years in the making, and one that fans, music executives, MTV personnel and fellow musicians had been dying for. When David Lee Roth walked out on stage with the other members of Van Halen, it was the first time he, Eddie Van Halen, Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen had stood together on stage in over a decade. The four had made magic together, establishing Van Halen as one of the greatest and most loved bands of its era. In 1985, at the height of its popularity, Van Halen and Roth parted ways amidst plenty of recriminations and bad feelings. Sammy Hagar had taken over and had done great business for Van Halen. But Roth was the one that we all wanted to see again (heck, in the weeks leading up to the show, MTV ran a 45 second spot featuring some of Dave’s greatest music video moments set to the “Welcome Back Kotter” theme). By appearing together at the VMAs, the classic lineup was surely going to let the past be the past and record a kick-ass record that would restore them to supremacy in a musical world increasingly dominated by alternative music and hip-hop.

Instead, we got Van Halen III.

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The 1982 George Washington Half Dollar: Commemorative Coins Make a Comeback

By the time 1981 rolled around, the following things were dead:

And so were commemorative coins. In fact, compared to those aforementioned deceased things, commemorative coins had been in the ground the longest, thanks to a glut of offerings with limited appeal that killed the market for much of the preceding three decades.

Everything changed when it came time to honor the 250th anniversary of the birth of the father of our country.

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Career Killers: “The Long Run” by The Eagles

Plenty of bands fail to follow up a career-defining album. Fleetwood Mac decided to experiment on Tusk and ended up selling only a fraction of what Rumours did. Hootie and the Blowfish rushed out their second album, Fairweather Johnson, and cemented their legacy as a “one album wonder.” Smile, the Beach Boys’ attempt to follow up Pet Sounds, broke Brian Wilson and sent the band into a long decline.

But none of those records caused the band, itself, to break up. None of those records saw a band crack so completely and thoroughly from the pressure of following up one of the most popular and critically acclaimed albums of all time. None of those records caused a rift so wide and so seemingly irreparable that, when it came time to release the contractually obligated post-breakup greatest hits compilations or live albums, band members wouldn’t even be able to be in the same state as one another, let alone communicate without going through lawyers. None of those records poisoned the well so thoroughly that band members said they’d reunite when hell froze over.

None of those records were The Long Run.

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Career Killers: “St. Anger” by Metallica

It’s been said that great art comes out of great suffering or adversity. Eric Clapton produced his masterpiece, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs while nursing a crippling heroin addiction and hopelessly in love with his best friend’s wife. Francis Ford Coppola had a nervous breakdown and allegedly threatened to kill himself multiple times while filming his classic film, Apocalypse Now. Ludwig van Beethoven composed some of his best and most-admired works after going deaf and while suffering from terrible health problems. Vincent van Gogh was, perhaps, the archetype of the tortured artist, battling mental illness for most of his career (including the infamous episode where he cut off his own ear) and produced some of the most beloved paintings in history.

Of course, sometimes, great suffering or adversity ends up producing crap – crap so bad that the artist is never quite the same afterwards. Case in point: St. Anger by Metallica.

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Nixon on Mt. Rushmore?

I enjoyed watching the Watchmen pilot on HBO last week. This little Easter egg caught my attention. Apparently, in the Watchmen universe, Watergate never happened and Nixon won the Vietnam War. As such, he was so beloved and successful that they repealed the 22nd Amendment so he could run for three more terms and then added his face to Mt. Rushmore during the 20-something year tenure of his successor: Robert Redford. No word on whether or not Nixon still served as public partner for a major Wall Street law firm in the Watchmen universe.

Fun fact: The firm that eventually became Nixon Mudge once had Charles Rushmore as a name partner – a man whose claim to fame was that he had been the namesake for the famous monument.

The Great Compromiser: Henry Clay Tokens (UPDATED)

It may not be in vogue anymore, but there have been several well-respected figures in American history who have lost a Presidential election as a major party nominee, only to come back and win the White House. Thomas Jefferson lost a razor-thin contest in 1796 and won four years later. Andrew Jackson prevailed in 1828, four years after he lost in a contingent election before the House of Representatives. Grover Cleveland attained his status as a trivia question by serving his two nonconsecutive terms between a losing effort in 1888. Heck, I wrote an entire book about how Richard Nixon survived losing the 1960 race to JFK only to prevail in 1968.

Of course, not everyone managed to pull off successful comebacks. Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan in 1896, 1900, and 1908 and he lost all three times. Democrats also trotted out Adlai Stevenson twice, losing two lopsided contests to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Republican Thomas Dewey looked set to win in 1948, four years after he lost to FDR, only to famously not defeat Harry Truman. And, during the days when Presidential elections were more regional in nature, men like Charles Pinckney, George Clinton, John Jay, Rufus King and others found themselves on the short end of multiple general election ballots, although their level of interest or involvement varied.

Then there’s Henry Clay.

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Career Killers: “The Spaghetti Incident?” and “Sympathy for the Devil” by Guns N’ Roses

When Guns N’ Roses announced they were releasing an album of (mostly) punk covers in 1993 to tide fans over until the next original album came out, it made perfect sense. The Gunners had always been a great covers band (for my money, their rendition of “Live and Let Die” was better than Sir Paul’s and their version of “Whole Lotta Rosie” kicks all kinds of ass) and this project promised to see them return to the kind of stripped-down, straightforward rock sound that had made them famous. Given their unsteady work ethic, any record from Axl and the boys was a good thing. Meanwhile, they were so popular and big at the time that they could have farted out an album of Osmond Family covers and it would have gone multiplatinum. Surely, whatever they did wouldn’t compromise their careers and lead to a spectacular self-implosion – of which the band still hasn’t fully recovered from, right?

Well…

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Vindicated by History: The 1893 Queen Isabella Commemorative Quarter

A few things I’ve picked up from researching early commemorative coins:

  • The people behind them always hope they can raise a ton of money for a pet project or monument or expo. They rarely do.
  • The designs usually get denigrated by the numismatic press – oftentimes with a venom critics reserve for Limp Bizkit albums or Michael Bay movies.
  • The mint melts down the excess/unsold coins. As a result, the ones that did sell end up becoming valuable decades later – screwing over collectors on a budget like yours truly.

Those issues were all in play for the 1893 Isabella Quarter.

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