MGWCC #625

crossword 6:58 
meta 4ish 


hello and welcome to episode #625 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Sit Down for This”. for this week 4 puzzle, the instructions tell us that This week’s contest answer is a 68-Across lyric that sounds like it’s about solving meta-crosswords.. sounds intriguing. what’s 68-across? it’s {Two-man rock band from Akron} THE BLACK KEYS, straight across the center of the grid. and … well, i certainly don’t know any of their songs, let alone lyrics from said songs, but the name of the band is intriguing, especially in light of the title, and especially especially in light of the play on words we did two weeks ago here with alicia keys.

with that in mind, let’s look at the other theme answers, all of which are made-up phrases that are exactly 11 letters long:

  • {Wild cat seen in upstate New York?} LYNX OF UTICA.
  • {Electric car owned by singer Lennox?} ANNIE’S TESLA.
  • {Security problem at a kitchenware store?} CROCK THEFTS.
  • {Climbing plants in Conan’s garden?} O’BRIEN IVIES. i think the most notable o’brien ivy is harvard, where conan went to college and was president of the harvard lampoon.
  • {Send positive thoughts to the Western Pacific?} PRAY FOR GUAM.
  • {Nun’s duty?} BEING CHASTE.
  • {Punishment for acting up in the army?} NO LEAVE EVER.
  • {2000 presidential candidate shaking in his boots?} AFRAID NADER.

it’s not that hard to piece together now, even though there is one big leap. 8 theme answers x 11 letters each = 88 total letters, exactly the same as the number of keys on a piano, so we could just associate each one with a piano key in order. then the name of the band tells us where to look:

i actually made this a little harder on myself than i needed to, just because i didn’t quite realize that i could string all eight themers together like that and lay them on top of a keyboard. instead i went hunting around for things i could spell out of selections of letters that could represent the black keys in a set of consecutive keys, and found YOU early on in LYNX OF UTICA. once i got as far as YOU CAN SEARCH, google was able to do the rest for me. (“you can search”, indeed!) anyway, the full lyric here, as you can see from the image above, is YOU CAN SEARCH FOREVER / YOU MIGHT NEVER FIND, from a song called eagle birds. and i suppose that can describe the experience of trying to solve a tough meta, but it certainly was not my experience of this one.

still, it’s a great idea for a meta, deftly executed. 88 letters in theme answers <=> 88 keys on a piano is a nice association, and then using THE BLACK KEYS as an extraction mechanism is inspired. finding a relevant lyric of the right length is peachy. i have one very minor quibble, which is that it’s a bit inelegant to hide the letters of NEVER in NO LEAVE EVER. but that’s a very small complaint.

the grid, of course, is extra-large to accommodate all that theme. at 20×19, it’s quite an unusual size, but the width has to be even because of the presence of the even-length THE BLACK KEYS in the middle. i thought the whole grid was very smooth. AQUA crossing SEA BREEZE in the southwest was a lovely little whiff of caribbean beach air.

that’s all i’ve got this week. looking forward to week 5—it feels like it’s been a while since we’ve had a 5-meta month. how’d you all like this one?

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42 Responses to MGWCC #625

  1. Wayne says:

    Trying in vain to back solve, I read a lot of Black Keys lyrics, so I was very happy to come across this sick burn from :

    “Albums…seem to be judged on a criterion of attitude, atmosphere and that nebulous catchall imprecisely referred to as “production.” This sort of negligence not only allows artists like the Black Keys to get away with writing lyrics that would make an ESL teacher wince, but also threatens to shortchange the few remaining songwriters who exhibit a genuine talent for lyrical verse by asking them not to try so hard”

  2. pannonica says:

    That’s a pretty amazing meta.

  3. sps says:

    Such a cool puzzle. There’s some amazing, elegant stuff/possible red herrings in there, too. Like the hidden IVORIES at the overlap between 40A and 44A and ASHARP at 89A&93A, and the number of “notes” in the made-up answers (A-G) is 36, the exact number of black keys on a piano.

  4. Laura E-D says:

    I was very glad to have the long weekend to work on this one! That final click (88 keys on a piano) was so satisfying!

  5. john says:

    Didn’t get this one. I was thinking piano keys but didn’t think about applying all the letters to a keyboard. With Black Keys in the middle, the great lyric link with searching (sometimes fruitlessly), and the 88 theme letters worked in, its, again, masterful. So great to do these even when you fail.

  6. Hector says:

    The “eight eleven-letter entries” insight was the “key” for this one. Elegant meta.

    • Dan Seidman says:

      Same here. It was the fact that the themers were all the same length that drew my attention. If they had been different lengths I probably would never have thought to add up the lengths.

  7. This one was brilliant.

    The big rabbit hole I fell into after spotting the 11-letter theme pattern:

    Of all the Black Keys albums, one of them (“Magic Potion”) is 11 letters long. That album has exactly 11 tracks. There are a few songs on it with 11-letter titles, so that was confusing, but the 11th track (“Elevator”) starts with the letters of ELEVEN and even has a meta-adjacent lyric to boot: “I was blind for a time / Now I find.”

    I’m wondering if others fell into this same unintended trap?

  8. lkeigwin says:

    The big leap was too much for me.

    The long DOWNs crossing theme answers was one rabbit hole. CAPE/ACCESSORY, AQUA/SEABREEZE, SPCA/PUPPYDOG. Couldn’t make one work for LONGTERM.

    Links of Utopia was another distraction. Also, I wondered if TESLA/steal, CHASTE/cheats (chased?) might somehow tie to CROCK THEFTS.

    But it seemed likely the whacky clues and theme answers alone held the solution.

    I wish there had been a little more help re piano. THE BLACK KEYS was wickedly tricky.

  9. Mutman says:

    I loved this meta! Made the 8×11=88 connection, but had problems when I spelled LYNX wrong (thought ELI was correct). I-O-U-C?? Made no sense. But when I started from the final themer and saw ‘F-I-N-D’, it all came together.

    My Hail Mary lyric was “My mind is ramblin’ from place to place”, but fortunately cracked the meta before that became necessary.

    Great work Matt!

  10. The rabbit hole I fell into was noticing that O’BRIEN IVIES contains the letters for both EBONIES and IVORIES in it, and you only need an extra OES to spell them both. But that of course led nowhere.

  11. Matt Gaffney says:

    Thanks, Joon — 220 right answers this week.

    Awesome graphic! I will steal that for my writeup on Friday, if you don’t mind.

  12. Garrett says:

    I’m not versed on the piano, so even though I saw 8 x 11 all I could think of is, “that has to be intentional, and important.”

    Initially I was looking to tie these seemingly loopy answers to TV shows or movies, because of the title.

    Then I thought about backsolving, but the number of songs by this group was too daunting for that. However, one Google with the band’s name yielded the factoid that there are 36 black keys on a piano, and 52 white, and voila — 88!

    This is after solving the WSJ and Fireball metas.

    So I went to bed last night, noodling this around and woke up at 7:30, and started working on it. I got as far as You Can Search Forever, You M… and googled for it, sent a message about that to a peep, and then realized it had gone nine…

    Pretty awed by this one. Hard to imagine ideating this concept, let alone encoding it, and then turning it into a crossword.

    • C. Y. Hollander says:

      It’s a great concept, but given the random nature of the theme entries, I don’t expect that encoding the message was very difficult. I’ll give the first one a stab…

      Here: “Feature of some garden statuettes?”
      EYES O’ PUMICE. That took me a couple of minutes. For a pro like Matt, it was probably even easier.

      • Matt Gaffney says:

        You’re right — the grid itself was not very challenging to write. It probably took two hours; last week’s took maybe seven.

  13. Cyrano says:

    Wow I was frustratingly close. Pretty immediately tried looking at each themer as an octave, in order to just grab the black keys. Problem was an octave has 12 notes, not 11, so I ditched the whole approach. Great meta.

    • cyco says:

      I came to it similarly, thinking of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. But if you think about it, the last note is just a duplicate of the tonic, so that wouldn’t matter if the goal is extracting certain letters (a typical meta mechanism).

      Joon’s method was much more elegant, but I managed to get it by assuming the first theme entry started at C major, putting them all in a row, and only highlighting letters that match where sharps/flats would be in a chromatic scale. Somehow I didn’t even think of the 11 x 8 = 88 keys = piano connection.

      • joon says:

        this is not true. there are 12 distinct chromatic notes in the octave, and it’s only the thirteenth that duplicates the first. one way to quickly see this is that there are seven named “natural” notes (A through F) corresponding to white keys, plus five more corresponding to black keys (C#, D#, F#, G#, A#, or the corresponding enharmonic equivalents). or if you’re familiar with the circle of fifths, you know that there are 12 different steps.

      • C. Y. Hollander says:

        How did you manage to get it by assuming the first theme entry started at C? That would place accidentals at the second, fourth, seventh, ninth, and eleventh positions of that entry, spelling the meaningless YXUIA, as Seth noted in a comment above. The first (leftmost) key of a piano is not C, but A.

        • Ben says:

          Huh, in retrospect I must have started at A, not C.

          And @joon – this is what I get for trying to use half-remembered music theory from high school. All I can say is my method somehow worked well enough despite some fumbling around.

  14. Bill Katz says:

    I really liked this one – perhaps because I saw the mechanism right away, but still had a bunch of work to do to keep things straight. While solving, I thought the 11 letter keylength was just to have something different than the 12 half-note pattern of keys in an octave, so I had to offset each 11 letter word by one space to extract the black keys. It was only days later that one of my friends pointed out that 8×11=88, the number of keys on a piano making the solution so much more elegant.

    • pgw says:

      > I really liked this one – perhaps because I saw the mechanism right away,
      > but still had a bunch of work to do to keep things straight.

      Same – I got the pattern when my grid was half full, but then kept circling the wrong letters because I’d accidentally skipped over one or another of the theme entries or messed up the pattern in some way, and the entries near the bottom of the grid ended up so covered in circles of increasing darkness and attempts to cross out the wrongly-placed circles that I ended up just giving up on filling the grid and googling the lyric.

      • Bill Katz says:

        I copied things onto graph paper – about 4 times – after I saw a glimmer of success, leaving my grid clean. There are previous puzzles where I have run the finished grid through the copier before highlighting, so that I can start over if I head the wrong way.

  15. Pete Muller says:


    Wish I had thought of this one!

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      I have had that feeling so often on your metas (including “Piano Pieces”!) that I can feel no sympathy! :)

  16. Jon says:

    Amazing meta. For me, one of the most impressive constructions. I’d love to hear the origin story on it & also the approach on constructing it. My mind boggles just thinking about it.
    The rabbit hole I went down was seeing “Plates” as a down clue. Thinking that we had to fix the themer fill with an actual joke, and thinking the black keys are only ever sharps or flats, I looked for adding “flat” to make a joke. So the security problem at a kitchenware store, obviously the joke is “flatware,” another term for plates. The 2000 election joke I thought led to “Flatbush”; Lennox’s electric car: “flat bolt.” So when I was stuck at finding more, a solving buddy said to forget the sharps & flats. Had it not been for that nudge to look elsewhere, I might never have gotten out of that rabbit hole.

    • Matt Gaffney says:

      Origin story is kind of funny: my 2.5-year-old son is at a stage where he orders you to play with him and then when you try to he will not let you touch any of his toys. So I spend time just sitting among his toys in his room watching him play with them. Last week my eye settled upon his little lion-shaped piano keyboard, and the idea came right to me. No joke: the very first thing I did after working out the main idea in my head was run over to the laptop to make sure Pete Muller hadn’t done it.

      • Jon Forsythe says:

        So you thought about doing a 36-letter phrase to a Black Keys song? How long did it take you to find the phrase? And any phrases you liked but were sad to see ended up being not exactly 36 letters?

        • Matt Gaffney says:

          Well I thought that THE BLACK KEYS had to be in the grid (as opposed to in the contest instructions) so solvers might just think it was there to tell you whose lyric it was, perhaps not realizing that it was also the mechanism hint. Then I went looking for useful 36-letter phrases from their lyrics. Thought it might be hopeless but after 15 minutes I found an OK one, then after another 15 or so I found a better but not great one, and then another 15 or 20 later I found this one and said, that’s the one.

  17. Kristin says:

    Wow. Just wow. To have all the theme entries IN ORDER overlaying the piano keys is crazy in and of itself, but for the result — an entire lyric — to emerge on the black keys is incredible. Very well done! It’s like a piece of Crossword Art.

  18. CarlH says:

    Bravo, Maestro Gaffney. Your dazzling virtuosity and artistry make you the Vladimir Horowitz of metas!

  19. Bob F says:

    Unbelievably clever. Even to think it up. Then to find a phrase for all the black keys, then fill in the letters for the white keys, then break that into phrases for the crossword, then arrange it and do the whole rest of the grid? I do these half for the mental challenge and half because I have come to admire when one like this appears. No need to scour the Internet for obscure arcana; it’s all there, staring you in your (puzzled, mask covered) face.

  20. Seth says:

    Ahhh I was so close! I “knew” to look for the pattern of black keys, but I thought each themer represented its own scale, starting at C. So LYNXOFUTICA gave YXUIA, which is gibberish. I also was wary of the fact that the scale is 12 notes, not 11, but couldn’t finish it off. Great meta Matt.

  21. Streroto says:

    Once I realized the mechanism I was fortunate to have a piano in the house and figured it out on that. Joon’s graphic would have made it easier – I had to go back a bunch of times to make sure I got it right!

    Luckily I did this while everyone else slept. I think if they had seen me counting out letters on the piano they might have questioned my sanity.

    Amazing work from the maestro. Like others here I am simply in awe.

  22. RAD26 says:

    Just stunning concept and execution. One of my all-time favorites.

  23. jefe says:

    I got there eventually (6:30 this morning!) after being baffled all weekend, having fallen down every single rabbit hole mentioned above. Never made the connection that 11×8=88, so when I tried applying the white/black key mechanism I didn’t know where to start. Eventually saw “YOU” in the first themer and the rest fell quickly.

  24. Tom Burnakis says:

    LOVED this one, even if it did take a butt kick to make me go back and think. It was then and only then that something I noticed, probably subliminally, was that all the answers were exactly the same length and there were 8 of them. Even this musical ignoramus knows that there are 88 keys. I also ended up constructing a graphic to help solve. It was not as elegant as Joon’s but it did help me connect better.

    I should probably quit while I am ahead, but I’m girding myself for week 5.

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