A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective – Pt. 2: Love the One You’re Occasionally With

Pt. 2 of 3. For pt. 1, go here.

Previously, on A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective…

  • Synth-pop with a heart
  • Sez-you schlockabilly
  • Blues with the blues hammer down

And now, November 4, 2013

At our first Kneel to Neil in 2011, we explored some of the odder and less loved avenues within the Neil Young multiverse. Some of that unlove we brought back for 2013. But for new material, we turned toward Young’s collaborations with other musicians, most especially with the guy who played on more hit songs from the 1960s than any of us could possibly realize, Booker T. Jones from Stax Records’ Booker T and the MGs.

At least I think that’s what we did. I don’t have any video, or audio, or anything approximating a set list from that night, so I’m kind of faking it here. But I think this is basically how it went down.

“Pound It Out”

This is probably my favorite thing we ever did with Neil Young’s music, and it’s going to be a centerpiece — if we every get around to finishing it — of our EP of Neil Young material we plan to title Hello, Young Lovers. Technically, it’s not Neil Young song. Instead, it’s a piece that Booker T. wrote and to which Neil Young contributed some pretty distinctive guitar work for the 2009 album Potato Hole by Booker T. Jones and the Drive-By Truckers.

I wish we had some audio to show you how we took this Hammond-and-guitar rave-up and made it into a revivally piece for trombone, stylophone, and banjo ukulele. Failing that, I’ll just direct you to the original

“Pound It Out”

“Transformer Man”

We brought this Trans song back from our 2011 set, as described in the previous post. But it’s the prettiest song I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing, and I’d do a whole set of 15 back-to-back performances of it if you’d let me.

We did record ukulele and bass backing tracks for this, as produced by John Peacock. So here’s what I’d like you to do. Find the song, learn to sing it, come back here, and sing it along with the track below. Good luck! And tell me how it turns out.


Not a Neil Young song. But when we played on Nov. 4, 2013, the song’s writer, Lou Reed, had just recently passed away. Aside from a shared love/hate relationship with pop songcraft and a shared dialectic understanding of the interrelationships among terms normally understood as binary oppositions —  pretty/ugly, sweet/sour, noise/music — the two performers didn’t have much of a direct connection with one another (though Young played along on a Velvet Underground song at his own Bridge School benefit concert that week!).

Following the lead of another performer earlier in the evening, who did a whole VU medley, I pulled this one out for solo banjo ukulele, in part because the unexpected absence of our regular suitcase player, Edward Burch, had left a whole in the set where one’s heart should be. “Dirt” (as in “you’re just cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap uptown dirt”) is one of the songs on 1978’s Street Hassle that isn’t “Street Hassle.”

I don’t have any video or audio footage of this song, but here’s the instrument I played it on!


“Two Old Friends”

This is an awesome song, from the Are You Passionate? album that Neil Young did in 2012 with Booker T. Jones and Duck Dunn from Booker T and the MGs. It’s kind of an uneven album, with this song a real stand-out, in which a preacher dies and goes to meet God, tells him “I’m dreaming of a time when love and music / Is everywhere,” asks “Can you see that time coming?” and God, seeing all the evil and hate of our time, tells him, “No, my son, that time has gone,” and the two agree to have an amicable parting of ways.

Neil Young’s version is a soulful slow rocker that we re-imagined as a country waltz in the “Farther Along” vein. Riley played fiddle! And now you can, too! Play along!

Two Old Friends (violin part). Play with a slight swing and snap.
Two Old Friends (violin part). Play with a slight swing and snap, using open string drones where possible or desirable.

“Vampire Blues”

Back from the dead from our 2011 set, and I’ll invite you to sing along with this one too.

For that purpose, here’s some video that Riley Broach surreptitiously captured while we recording the banjo uke and washtub bass backing tracks for this one, again produced by John Peacock, who you’ll see sitting in the lower right corner of this video, NOT playing along with wire brushes on the washtub. He’ll dub that in later (you can see him air-drumming on the washtub at the three-minute mark). But you can dub your vocals now. The lyrics are below the video (guess which verses we made up ourselves!). You’ll start singing after an 8-bar intro in 2/4.

“Vampire Blues (backing track)”

I’m a vampire, baby: sucking blood from the earth
I’m a vampire, baby: sucking blood from the earth
I’m a vampire, baby: I’ll sell you twenty barrels worth

I’m a black bat, honey: knocking on your window pane
I’m a black bat, honey: knocking on your window pane
I’m a black bat, honey: I need my high octane

[Yodel chorus]

I’m a nodding donkey, with a five-mile boom
I’m a pump jack, mama, with a five-mile boom
I can drink your milkshake, from across the fracking room

I’m a coffin kitten, mama: and I play for Edward’s team
From Alberta down to Texas, laying pipe while you dream
And if you’ll invite me in, I’ll lick your tar sands clean

[Drummer solos on washtub]

Good times are coming: you hear it everywhere you go
Good times are coming: you hear it everywhere you go
Good times are coming, but they sure come slow

I’m a vampire, baby (I’m a vampire, baby)
I’m a vampire, baby (I’m a vampire, baby)
I’m a vampire, baby (I’m a vampire, baby)
I’m a vampire, baby (I’m a vampire, baby)
I’m a vampire, baby: I’ll sell you twenty barrels worth

And that’s our show! Thanks for coming out. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.


Next time, on A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective…

  • Hangmen, careless brothers, sultans, and global environmental collapse
  • Archer Daniels Midland, with and without the farm
  • The death rattle of Rock and Roll!

A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective – pt. 1: Not So Easy to Love

Like a bad penny, and like clockwork — provided you keep a very slow clock, and we’re talking like a Long-Now-style 10,000 Year Clock — The Viper and His Famous Orchestra show up every two years at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn in Milwaukee to take their merry part in the annual WMSE/Bridge School benefit show and Neil Young tribute concert known as Kneel to Neil.

Clockwork, on a very Viper scale.

What this means is that when we do our bit this upcoming Saturday night (November 14, 2015 — come and see us!) it’ll be our third time doing it. That’s a lot of pressure. What’s left to be done? How much deeper can we possibly kneel to Neil? If we kneel first, will the faith come? To answer these and other questions, we’ll have to go back to the first two times we played… back in time! Back to the future! Let’s wind up the wayback machine and set it for November 11, 2011. We were younger then. We were all so much younger then. Were any of us ever so Young?

November 11, 2011 — Not So Easy To Love

When organizer Chris DeMay et. al. invited us to play Kneel to Neil show our first time, I was thrilled but, frankly, kind of paralyzed. I’ve been trying to cover Neil Young since I was in high school and figured out how to use my parent’s double tape deck and a Radio Shack microphone to “multi-track” myself harmonizing with “Harvest.” This involved some literal kneeling as the stereo was on the floor and the mic chord was only about two feet long.

But in 2011, what could the Orchestra do that everyone else who knew this was nowhere wouldn’t already be doing, and louder? The answer:

“Tonight’s the Night I’m Going to Rock You Tonight”

We decided to embrace this particular icon’s deeply ingrained iconoclasm. No one is less likely to kneel to Neil than Neil himself, and we went ahead with that foggy notion as our guiding light. Seafarers, beware.

Now, it just so happened that the date of the show — 11/11/11 — also made this date Nigel Tufnel Day. And, it also just so happened that Neil Young’s dark, sublime, and majestic “Tonight’s the Night” made for a perfect mash-up with Spinal Tap’s decidely un-dark, un-sublime, but still pretty fricking majestic “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight.” We couldn’t help ourselves, and we went to eleven.

If you’ll forgive the odd dimensions of this footage, this is what that looked like (thanks to Sue Peacock for filming and posting this).

“Tonight’s the Night I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight”


We knew there was some heartfelt musical gold to be mined in some of the more unbeloved crevasses of the Neil Young multiverse. (Probably some pumas, too.) And there was a nice long stretch in the early 1980s where our hero seemed to be releasing records designed to alienate all but his most devoted fans and piss off his record company. Exhibit A: Everybody’s Rockin’. This 1983 quasi-rockabilly album found Young working with a proto-Jersey Boys outfit called the Shocking Pinks and is only 25 minutes long, apparently because the record company pulled the plug on it midway through. In fact, Geffen Records sued Young for $3.3 million after this one for pulling out album after album — like the electronica experiment Trans and the straight-up country AND western of Old Ways — that, in their words were “musically uncharacteristic” of Neil Young’s work.

And they were right! In 2015, of course, we know from hearing 36 albums of Neil Young that nothing’s more musically characteristic of a Neil Young album than something musically uncharacteristic of a Neil Young album. As Young later told Mojo’s Nick Kent, “there was very little depth to the material obviously. They were all ‘surface’ songs. But see, there was a time when music was like that, when all pop stars were like that. And it was good music, really good music… Plus it was a way of further destroying what I’d already set up. Without doing that, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now. If I build something up, I have to systematically tear it right down before people decide, ‘Oh that’s how we can define him.'”

This video for “Wonderin'” got played a lot in the early days of MTV if I’m remembering it right. Or maybe it was just that a clip from it was in an MTV station promo that got played a lot. Anyway, it’s a really funny video for a great song, and Neil Young only looks about half as sleazy as the California automotive hellscape he keeps popping up in.


MTV promo

“Speakin’ Out”

This is the second song we did from the 1975 album, Tonight’s the Night, which is a great archive of grief, muddling through, and the sound of things falling apart in general. It’s an album especially about exhaustion, and musical exhaustion in particular. As Neil Young sings in one cut called “Borrowed Tune,” a weed-and-tequila-infused take on the Jagger/Richards song “Lady Jane,”

I’m singing this borrowed tune
I took from the Rolling Stones
Alone in this empty room
Too wasted to write my own

And in “Speakin’ Out,” Young pulls a similar job on a more unlikely source. He writes about about going out to see a show, eating popcorn, getting lost in the cartoon, and watching a movie whose plot “was groovy — it was outta sight!” The song uses part of a melody from a pretty obscure Doc Pomus / Mort Shuman tune called “Doin’ the Best I Can” (everybody’s dropping those g’s!) from my favorite Elvis Presley movie soundtrack, G.I. Blues.

It’s a deep cut. And Young’s pastiche/parody is pretty, funny, sweet, and pretty damn powerful, pretty damn moving, like a popcorn movie-inspired performance should be. And then there’s this great guitar solo by Nils Lofgren (you can see him doing a backflip in the MTV promo I just posted above).

This song stayed in our own set for a while. Here’s us doing it live on WMSE 97.1 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin back in February of 2014.

“Vampire Blues”

A fun one, from 1974’s On the Beach. In re-animating this ode to the life-sucking power of crude oil, we made everybody’s job at Linneman’s a lot harder by asking them to figure out how to mic our washtub bass that we were also planning to use simultaneously as a drum — for one song! In the middle of the set! In the middle of about 20 other bands!

But it sounded great, and we added a new verse of our own (see part 2 for yet another new verse for the “Vampire Blues”).

I’m a pumpjack, mama, with a five-mile boom
I’m a nodding donkey, with a five-mile boom
I can drink your milkshake from across the fracking room

“Transformer Man”

Our set was really centered around this song, from the 1982 Trans album that’s probably the most difficult Neil Young album for fans of “musically characteristic” Neil Young albums to embrace: light on guitars, long on electronics, vocals filtered through a Sennheiser Vocoder, etc. But Young has talked about this album in a context of learning to communicate with young Ben Young, whose cerebral palsy meant that communication was largely non-verbal, and whose routine at the time involved a pretty intensive regimen of repetition and technology-assisted interaction, including a model train he was able to track switch with a remote control, directing the action with the push of a button. “Transformer Man” is a lovely father-to-child tribute to the transformative power of that relationship. And in that relationship, technology mediates: it distances, but it also bridges. The Bridge School started in part by Ben’s mother Pegi Young — and the occasion for these Kneel to Neil shows — similarly grew out of this context.

Plus it gave us a chance to introduce the Orchestra to John Peacock’s 1970s-ear retro-futurist stylophone — a palm-sized keypad played with plastic stylus, and an addition to our skiffle sound entirely in keeping with the spirit of Trans.

Here’s a great live version from a 1982 show in Berlin. More Nils Lofgren dancing.

“Transformer Man”

“This Note’s For You”

The Neil Young who writes with such bracing directness about emotional states and life stages we didn’t know we all had until we heard it in one of his songs (“doesn’t mean that much to me to mean that much to you,” right?) also writes with bracing directness about cellulosic ethanol, genetically modified organisms, the lossy quality of mp3s, impeaching the president, government sponsored violence, and corporate sponsored rock. Not for everyone! But definitely for us! And in “This Note’s For You” — the video for which was both banned from MTV and then won MTV’s video of the year award in 1989 — that anti-corporate message gets wrapped in some very corporate sounding 80s blues rock. (I always imagine the band Blues Hammer from the movie Ghost World doing this song.)

Plus, whenever I can find an excuse to break out my electric Konablaster ukulele played through the pocket-sized battery-powered Marshall stack I hang on my belt, I take it! This note’s for you!

Riley Broach and John Peacock with The Viper & His Famous Orchestra, Kneel to Neil (Young) benefit for The Bridge School and WMSE, Linneman's Riverwest Inn, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photograph by Sue Peacock.
John Peacock offers up this note — for you! Photograph by Sue Peacock.


Next time, on A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective…

  • Booker T., with and without the MGs!
  • The “Dirt” on Lou Reed!
  • More vampires!

Show announcement: Kneel to Neil benefit at Linneman’s in Milwaukee, Saturday, November 14

If, like me, you need a fix every two years or so of The Viper and His Famous Orchestra at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn in Milwaukee (1001 E. Locust St. | (414) 263-9844), then you’re in luck. We’ll be there again on Saturday, November 15, 2015 as part of the all-night, all-singing, all-playing Kneel to Neil show going on that evening.

This is annual event — the eleventh one! — of local Milwaukee stalwarts, upstarts, and icons doing their best to take on the fugitive, classic, and anti-iconic music of Neil Young, and to do so for the greater good. And by “greater good” I mean benefiting the folks at WMSE who keep local Milwaukee radio weird and also benefiting the Bridge School. The Bridge School is a California-based non-profit that works with alternative technologies and modes of communication to enable children with severe speech and physical impairments to participate more fully in their schools and communities. It was started, along with few others, by Pegi Young — mother of transformer man, Ben Young, and wife of Neil Young (provider of Ben Young’s blue jeep rides).

Sure, Neil Young himself plays at the annual benefit concert that happens in Mountain View, California. But if you want The Viper, you’ve got to come to Milwaukee!

I don’t know if a start time has been set or the order of performers, but last time it started at 7:30 and we went on about four or five acts in. Here’s what it looked like the first time we did it back in 2011 (though we didn’t look nearly as squatty as this footage makes it seem):

Shot and posted by Sue Peacock

Show announcement: Sept. 26, 2015 at The Coffee House in Milwaukee


Though it’s hard to believe, The Viper & His Famous Orchestra will be playing our first full-length show of the calendar year on Saturday, September 26, at The Coffee House in Milwaukee (1905 West Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53233 | (414) 534-4612). Opening will be singer, wry songwriter, and clawhammerer of banjos, Bob Druker (see a clip of him playing below).

The Coffee House is a venerable venue just west of the Marquette University campus: a borrowed stage space in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, and the home of “Acoustic music and poetry since 1967.” The last time we played there, Jamie Lee Rake wrote this perspicacious and funny review for the Dec. 13, 2014, Shepherd Express, calling attention to our “mélange of pre-1940s U.S. pop incorporating various retro-futuristic elements,” played “(mostly) acoustically with scads of cleverness, giving even their most politically vehement numbers a dose of humor. One could call them the Rage Against The Machine for sophisticated Hoosier Hot Shots or Spike Jones fans.”

Rag against the machine we do, indeed. Read it and weep. And then come see us play!

Bob Druker and Lileah Kroening perform “The Days Are Brief”

Viper Holiday Playlist

I have no gift to bring, except the gift of a history of Viper holiday recordings of heterogeneous provenance & widely varying sonic quality.

If you’re a “lay back” consumer of mass culture, then just click on the playlist above and let the sounds carry you off on their Valkyrie wings, like you’re listening to a Maxell cassette tape. Or just crank up the following YouTube playlist for a somewhat abridged version of this list.

But if you’re a “lean in” listener, then lean in, Macduff, and read about, listen to, and (if you like) download the songs in the rest of this post.

The Yodeler’s Christmas

Still something that the band considers a “new” song — and I guess it is, given the geological timeframe in which The Viper & His Famous Orchestra lives and breathes — this song actually had debuted at Nino’s Steak & Seafood, on December 21, 2010, at a solo gig that my Mom booked for me playing at the annual Christmas luncheon of the American Association of Retired Persons, Sheboygan (Chapter 338).

The video above is a rehearsal track recorded at the Viper’s home in November 2013, and the audio track below is from our February 2014 appearance on Milwaukee radio station WMSE’s Local/Live program (entire show can be listened to here, with my textual transcript of the first half here).

download mp3 of “The Yodeler’s Christmas”

Feliz Meriton

Written by my daughter, then 6, in a language more or less of her own invention (“Feliz” excepted), this song has been performed live maybe only once: at the same AARP luncheon noted above, where I attempted to lead a sing-along — always best attempted with a song no one has heard before in a language that nobody knows.

But the audio below is the real deal: triple-tracked Irene Vipersdottir in a nicely spooky round with herself.

download mp3 of “Feliz Meriton”

Christmas Time Is Here

The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s theme music from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). The video above and audio below are both the same December 2010 performance from my lower flat rental on Hi Mount Blvd. in Milwaukee, but the audio version is juiced up with interface effects that seemed like a good idea at the time. Hope you like your Christmas music melancholy, because that’s what yer gettin’.

download mp3 of “Christmas Time Is Here”

Heyse Latke Kalte Latke

Play along with the bouncing music — right there on the screen! — in the video above, or just listen to The Viper & His Famous Orchestra playing this Hanukkah answer to the old-time classic “Hot Corn Cold Corn” live at Mike N’ Molly’s in Champaign, IL, in August of 2009 (recorded by Nick Hennies). The bowed bass solo is Riley Broach, the trombone is Rob Henn, and while the Viper plays cümbüş, he’s doubled on electric mandolin by Kip Rainey.

download mp3 of “Heyse Latke Kalte Latke”

The Christmas Waltz

Maybe my favorite Christmas song (by Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne), the video and audio were both recorded on probably the same day with the same banjo ukulele on the same staircase in the same rental house on 59th Street, right off Milwaukee’s great Vliet Street. I interpolate a little bit of the Pogues’ “Christmas in New York,” because my motto is: if it ain’t broke, break it!

download mp3 of “The Christmas Waltz”

The Hanlon Christmas Song

Every year in December, or November if it’s taking too long, my in-laws all get together to exchange gifts. Each adult is only responsible for one other adult, which is somewhat a necessity since my spouse is the oldest of 7. Last year, I drew the name of her brother Johnny, himself the father of an exceedingly large group of Hanlons. My gift was a song that I imagined as a Christmas song that the Hanlons might all get together and sing, called “The Hanlon Christmas Song.” It goes like this:

download mp3 of “The Hanlon Christmas Song”

Linus and Lucy

The other Vince Guaraldi song you probably know, also from the 1965 Charlie Brown Christmas special. But you’ve probably not heard it played on a thumb piano hacked to allow for a flatted 7th. Until now.

download mp3 of “Linus and Lucy”

Christmas Time Is Here (v. 2)

There are some songs you just can never get enough of. And then there’s The Viper’s versions of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” this time done in High German Schroeder-style on a toy piano.

download mp3 of “Christmastime Is Here”

Hermie Wants to Be a Dentist

Though unknown to The Viper at the time, he and His Famous Orchestra were recording this homage to elf individuation for a holiday compilation that Edward Burch pulled together called “Santa Is Real,” featuring a number of Champaign-Urbana resident or affiliated bands and musicians. It’s a cover of a John Papageorge-penned tune from my undergraduate Madison, WI band, Kissyfish. Here’s both versions.

download mp3 of The Viper & His Famous Orchestra playing “Hermie Wants to Be a Dentist”

download mp3 of Kissyfish playing “Hermie Wants to Be a Dentist”

Save Me a Krampus (For the Holiday)

One of the two songs for which I’ve created a piano/vocal/ukulele sheet music arrangement (available here), this song tells the tender tale of the St. Nicholas fellow traveler who stuffs naughty children into a sack and steals their oranges.

download mp3 of “Save Me A Krampus (For The Holiday)”

Jingle Bells

I wrote this song. Or I wish I did, since people seem to really like to sing it. And here’s Irene Vipersdottir doing it in her inimitable style at age 5. The “Chocolate Rain”-like thing you’ll see her doing with her fingers is measuring the distance I’d told her to keep between her mouth and the microphone.

download mp3 of “Jingle Bells”

And that’s it – happy holidays!

the kind of music your great-great-grandparents warned your great-grandparents about


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