What Does The Viper Say?

Early this past April, I met with 3 grades worth of musicians from the Lake Zurich Middle School North Orchestra program as part of my time with them as a composer-in-residence. We worked on things old, things new, things borrowed, and some yodels blue, and it was a great pleasure to hear some things I’d written brought to life in their capable hands and under the inspired direction of their teacher, Riley Broach.

I’ll be meeting with them again tomorrow, May 11, to start polishing up the pieces we’ll be performing together at their Spring Concert on Thursday, May 19. I’ve got some questions for them.

But first they’ve got some questions for me, which Mr. Broach was kind enough to pass along. So let me take a stab at answering some of them:

Why do you call yourself the “Viper”?

Ah… the age-old questions. Here’s the quick answer:

The story of The Viper

Do you call yourself “the viper” or “viper”?

Definitely “The Viper.” Otherwise I’m likely to be confused with the 80’s Brazilian heavy metal band “Viper.”

viperband.jpg

What instruments do you play?

I mostly play plucked string instruments: ukulele, guitar, mandolin. But an instrument’s an instrument: and if I can make noise on something, I like to play it — trumpet, clarinet, suitcase, ceramic jug, piano, washtub bass, harmonica, wax-paper-and-comb. The one thing I’ve found I pretty much can’t do is make any noise that sounds good on a bowed instrument. So I really envy all of you your talent!

How did you learn how to yodel?

I learned from my Mom, who learned from someone that she worked with in a cheese factory in Sheboygan, Co., Wisconsin in the early 1960s. When she’d drive my sisters and I around in the car when we were little, we’d beg her to sing “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” until I’m sure she was quite sick of it.

How do you yodel?

You’re really just going back-and-forth between what trained singers (which I’m not) will call your “chest” voice (the one you use for speaking) and your “head” voice (the falsetto one you use to sound like Michael Jackson or Prince).

By thickening or thinning your vocal cords as you sing, you change the speed at which the air vibrates as you force it past your epiglottis, which is the valve in your throat that controls whether your air passage or food passage is open. If the column of air vibrates more slowly, the pitch is lower; if it vibrates more quickly, the pitch is higher. (This is the same way you change pitch on your instruments: a thinner string vibrates the air around it more quickly when bowed. And if you make that string shorter by putting your finger on it along the neck, then it will vibrate even more quickly.)

Then there’s something else that happens when you yodel that I don’t really understand but that involves the epiglottis opening and closing that gives the yodel that distinctive  “click” effect as it goes from the chest voice to the head voice. So at that point, we’ll just say it’s magic.

For more on the technique and history of yodeling, I recommend Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, by Bart Plantenga (New York: Routledge, 2004), or this how-to video.

How to yodel

What’s your favorite music?

Well, the music made by the students in the Orchestra program of Lake Zurich Middle School North, of course!

Beyond that, I really listen to a little bit of everything, with a particular affection for the popular and vernacular music of the early 20th Century: the jazz of Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, or Slim Gaillard; the American Songbook writing of George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter; Bob Wills’s Western Swing; jug band and skiffle music by the Mound City Blue Blowers and the Spirits of Rhythm; and the crash-and-burn approach to “serious” music by people like Spike Jones and Carl Stalling (who did the music for Bugs Bunny cartoons).

In fact, I’d say Bugs Bunny was my most important early music influence — you can ask Mr. Broach about the time we performed a version of the classic Chuck Jones take on Richard Wagner, “What’s Opera, Doc?”

Are you a professional performer? Why or why not?

I’m a professional performer in the sense that sometimes I get paid to perform. But mostly I see music as something that I do as a healthy part of a well-balanced life! There aren’t many people who can make a living just making music. But everyone’s lives can be enriched by the challenges, socializing opportunities, and creative outlet that making music provides.

Who have you performed with?

A gentleman named Riley Broach, who I hear is a pretty decent fellow.

But besides my current band, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra, some of the other bands I’ve played with were named (and this is roughly in chronological order): The Terrestrials, The Generics, Phlegm, Enzymatic Fly Vomit, My Cousin Kenny, Kissyfish, The Lovebirds, The Andrew Hipp Trio, The Beatles (really: that’s what we called ourselves), Gentlemen Prefer Hank, Half Slab, The Kennett Brothers, The Corn Likkers, The Prairie Mountaineers, The G.E.O. Brass Band, The Ancient Jazz Quartet, The Paint Branch Ramblers, and The Reds and The Blues.

That’s a lot of bands! And I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of them.

Why the ukulele?

Why a duck?

Groucho and Chico Marx say why

What did you do in middle school? (Musically)

From 4th grade to 9th grade, I played trombone. Don’t hold it against me.

Where did you grow up?

My Dad was in the Navy, so I grew up in a few places: Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Great Lakes, Illinois; Newport, Rhode Island; and Libertyville, Illinois.

Do you have kids/are you married?

Yes and yes. My wife is named Ann and she’s a librarian. My daughter is named Irene, and she’s a Sixth-Grader who plays a mean violin. I used her to test out the parts I wrote for all of you! Here’s what she sounds like:

Irene Vipersdottir

Have any pets?

A really horrible little dog name Louisiana, aka Loup Garou, or just Loup for short. Here’s what she looks like.

Loup Garou and friends

I also have a tank full of platys, neon tetras, zebra danios, algae-eating shrimp, and snail-eating “assassin” snails. But no one else in my family but me considers those pets.

Has your stage name always been “the viper”?

For about 20 years now. But in my high school band, The Generics, I was known as “Guitar.” In the Beatles, I was “John Lennon.” And in The Kennett Brothers, I was “Earl Wayne Kennett.” I hope to start a honky tonk band some day called Earl Wayne Kennett and the Rural Electrification Project.

Why did you write heartbreak?

The basic melody you all play in “Heartbreak for Beginners” is from way back in the early 1990s, and I originally imagined it being played with a slide on an electric guitar. But I couldn’t figure out what to do with this little melody until a couple of years ago when I had the idea of writing a song that would be a kind of a play in which the singer, feeling heartbroken and stuck in his own head about it, would be offered words of comfort by his band, and just the fact that they were there would make him feel better about it. And it really does make me feel better when I sing it with other people. So thanks!

There’s a songwriter named Jonathan Richman who has these little funny conversations-in-music with his band (and the rhythm and chord changes of “Heartbreak” are very Jonathan Richman-y).

But even more, I was probably thinking of the routine that the great soul singer James Brown would do at the end of his set. He’d pretend to be exhausted, and one of the people in his band would come out and put a robe on him and gently try to lead him off stage — but J.B. would just keep shaking off the robe and going back to the mic to sing. You have to see it! The routine starts about 50 seconds into the clip below, and goes on for the rest of the 6 minutes. It will change your life!

Jonathan Richman, “Down in Bermuda”

James Brown, “Please Please Please”

Have you met any famous musicians?

I suppose it depends what you mean by famous. But the musician I was most excited to meet was a drummer named Mo Tucker who used to be in a group called The Velvet Underground, who had played at Andy Warhol’s Factory “happenings” in the 1960s. My college band opened for her band, and I brought my trombone — don’t hold it against me — and had her paint her name on it at the show. She seemed a little confused by the request, but she was gracious enough to do it, and it still makes me feel great to see it.

Any other hobbies?

Right now, in my spare time I’m learning how to do linear regression, logistic regression, and classification and regression trees. Does that count as a hobby?

Do you play a sport?

When I was your age, I played a lot of soccer — outdoor and indoor, though just in recreational leagues. Now, I ride around on a bicycle a lot. That’s not really a sport, except when I pretend all the potholes on the streets of Milwaukee are really an obstacle course and I can win it.

What other places have you lived?

You already heard about Sheboygan, Great Lakes, Newport, and Libertyville in my answer to the where-did-you-grow-up question. After growing up — sort of — I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin and then graduate school in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. That’s where I met Mr. Broach and the rest of the Famous Orchestra.

Then I abandoned them and moved to Ankara, Turkey for a few years while I was teaching American Literature at Bilkent University there. After that, I lived for a while in Washington, D.C., and Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland before I finally came to my senses and came back to the Midwest to live in Milwaukee.

This is where I plan to stay; and it’s a good thing, too, because it means I can get to Lake Zurich in time for 9:05 orchestra rehearsal on Wednesday. See you then!

Shows in May & June, 2016

A couple busy weeks ahead for the normally pretty lazy Viper & His Famous Orchestra, across four towns in two states: Lake Zurich and Chicago, IL, and Milwaukee and Westport (basically, Middleton), WI.

Here’s what you can expect.

Thursday, May 19, 2016 (7:00 to 8:00 p.m.)
Lake Zurich Middle School North
LZMSN Cafetorium
95 Hubbard Lane
Hawthorn Woods, IL 60047
(847) 719-3600

The Really Big Shew!!! The Viper performs his material with the Lake Zurich Middle School North Orchestra under the direction of Riley Broach as the culmination of his time with them as Spring 2016 Composer in Residence. The evening will include the world premiere of a piece written especially for the LZMSNO, a concerto gross for ukulele and orchestra titled “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas.” Read all about it here. Open to the public.

Saturday, May 21, 2016 (7:00 to 10:00 p.m.)
The Coffee House
1905 West Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53233 | (414) 534-4612

The Viper & His Famous Orchestra with Andy Jehly, Mississippi Sawyer, Bill Murtaugh, Paul Smith, Sweet Diversity, and host Jym Mooney to close out the 49th season of The Coffee House. $10.00 cheap! suggested donation.

Saturday, June 4, 2016 (7:30 to 10:00 p.m.)
Parched Eagle Brew Pub
5440 Willow Road #112, Westport, WI 53597 | (608) 204-9192

Google Maps will tell you this is in Waunakee, but if you’ve got a date with The Viper & His Famous Orchestra in Waunakee, we’ll be waiting in Westport — here! At the Parched Eagle! And Edward Burch will be there with us. Westport/Waunakee is right on the other side of Lake Mendota from Madison, and in good old Madison-area fashion, there is no cover. We play for your tips, just like we did at your Bris.

Sunday, June 5, 2016 (7:00 to 10:00 p.m.)
The California Clipper
1002 North California Ave., Chicago, IL 60622 | (773) 384-2547

The Viper & His Famous Orchestra bring their hog-butchering style to a city that really appreciates it, in the fancy digs of this Humboldt Park neighborhood classic space. It’s a beautiful bar! Plus DJ Lawrence Peters, who’s a stand-up guy and drummer, too. In fact, The Viper first premiered “Big Headed Small Minded Man” some years ago with Mr. Peters on the snare. I believe it’s a $5 cover, which, in Chicago money, is about what it costs to convince someone to give you their already-been-chewed gum and then punch you in the gut.

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If you come to our shows, the Viper will break out that shirt again.

Lake Zurich, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Come Wednesday morning, while hale Helios wends his way across dawn’s sky-road, I’ll be shanksnagging it down highway 45 to Lake Zurich, Illinois for a 9:05 rendevous with destiny.

so_fly_cover-rotated.png
Amn’t I?

Why, you ask? Why not, I answer? With a question, even.

Why not? When it means I’ll get to meet for the first time Lake Zurich Middle School North’s Chamber Orchestra, Intermezzo Orchestra, and Prima Musica ensemble as their Spring 2016 Composer-In-Residence (under the direction of Riley Broach, bassist for another, more Famous Orchestra)?

It’s a great chance to workshop and then perform Viper music with some young musicians who can teach me a thing or two and, maybe, even lend a little class to the organization.

Up until this point, that burden has fallen largely on Mr. Broach, who has been coaching the students in learning some existing melodies by ear — “Last Call Waltz,” “Heartbreak for Beginners,” “Hotzeplotz Calls” — then transcribing them onto paper and working out some basic orchestral arrangements.

Heartbreak for Beginners

Heartbreak for Beginners (detail)
Play along!

The “learning outcome” is that these long-hairs get a taste of how most music in its vernacular form gets put together: “head arrangements” of a songs learned hand-to-hand.

When I meet with them, we’ll put it all together, polish it up, and get it ready for performance on May 19, 2016. (See more info here, along with Riley Broach’s take on the whole thing.)

I’m also pretty excited to hear something new I’ve written just for these students, played for the first time by humans, rather than the midi’ed “oohs” and “aahs” of my composing software that I’m used to hearing in my waking nightmares.

That’s right, y’all: it’s the world premieres of “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas”: a meditation on the fleeting nature of time, the seasons, life on this mortal coil, and proper pet care. And Lake Zurich gets to hear it first!

Tomorrow, I’ll talk with the students about how this piece came together, and we’ll use it to explore the idea of how music tells a story: not the lyrics, the music itself — sometimes (as is the case here) telling a story quite different than the one the lyrics would have you believe.

Wait. YOU want to hear my little ol’ story? Well, all right. Settle in, and I’ll tell it like it happened.

What had happened was this. It all started last Summer, shortly after Riley had talked to me about a plan to have The Viper work with his Middle School ensembles. Aside from having a string player or two join us onstage now and then, I’d never “written” for an orchestra. So I was feeling a little out of my element.

That week, I happened to go an outdoor performance of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen from 1692 (a mini-opera-slash-masque-slash-who-knows-what adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream). This was a really cool and interactive production put on last June in Milwaukee’s Lynden Sculpture Garden by the Danceworks Performance Company and the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, performed by an all-ages, all-sized, all-skilled cast who led us into the woods, over hill, dale, and stream, and in and around the sculptures to different “stations” where scenes would be played to an audience who could stand, sit, or lie down anywhere they wanted to watch, and who could take in the scenes and the play’s overall chronology forward or backward! It was awesome!

Dance 1 (1)
See more photos from this production at Lynden artist in residence Eddee Daniel’s Arts Without Borders blog.

 

As is my usual process, I take my inspiration where I can find it. That is to say, I steal it, and then get it wrong: voilà! New song.

At this performance, one song opened with what I thought was a line that went “Let not life far from these fingers flee.” It didn’t, and I’ve searched in vain for the real lyrics (though my best guess is it was a song from Act IV called “Let the Fifes and Clarions”). Then the scene launched into a masque bit where performers from 7 to 77 years of age presented a song for each of life’s four seasons.

And I thought, a ha! I’ll write a nice little baroque-y song about what I thought that first line had said, stop time in its tracks by freezing it into the measured counterpoint of a potentially eternal song, and then perform it with some youths who will be amazed by it’s gravity and wisdom!

And then I thought, a ha! Again, a ha! What could be lamer than that! What could sound less wise to a 7th grader than some old Polonius (I know, wrong play) nattering on about the slide from cradle to grave and overcompensating for his ukulele-ness by trying to sound like a string quartet? Tempus fugit? Tempus fidgets! I’m fidgeting right now just thinling about it.

But there was one final a ha! yet to come. Taking note of the whole ukulele “fleas” and “fingers” connection (the name is Hawaiian, and “ukulele” translates roughly “as ‘jumping flea,’ perhaps because of the movement of the player’s fingers,” or so Wikipedia says), I realized we could make this a story about a story that falls apart in the telling.

While I’m getting all serious and playing my ukulele like a chamber instrument, the Middle School players would keep interrupting to turn their instruments to the side, strum them like ukuleles, and sing “My dog has fleas!” Yeah, we’re all going to be food for worms, and ain’t that a peach!

flee_lyrics-rotated
First shot at lyrics to “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas”

Over the next few days, I rode my bike to my job enough times to work out the melody and lyrics (a lot of songs get written while I’m on a bicycle, behind a vaccuum cleaner, under a shower head, mowing the lawn, or feeding pets). And then I went out and bought this “I’m So Fly” notebook you’re seeing in these images, and I more or less sketched out how the plot would work.

flee_plot-rotated
The plot – plus a couple of bonus fingers.

After that, it was on to the 99% perspiration part of the process. But THAT’S a story for another time.

The Viper leads workshops at Lake Zurich Middle School North all the livelong day on April 6 and May 4, and then joins the LZMSN Orchestra for their Spring Concert on May 19, 2016.

On the radio, pt. 2 – WMSE, Milwaukee, WI

Part 2 of 2. For pt. 1, go here.

Well, it must have fallen out of a hole in your old brown overcoat — true, they never said your name. But I knew just who they meant. Especially when they said it really loud, said it on the air, and said it on the radio. This’ll be the second part of a transcript I started many months ago (you can read the first part here) documenting a time in those blessed early days of 2014 when The Viper & His Famous Orchestra were broadcast over Marconi’s infernal wireless invention from the studios of WMSE 91.7. In the gathering place by the waters, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hosts Erin Wolf and Cal Roach welcomed us to their Local/Live program one evening of a February 11: we played, we talked, we spun some vinyl. On the radio.

You can stream the whole show below this paragraph, or download it as an mp3 podcast at this link. And below the really large picture, I’ve also broken out the songs we played into single-serving chunks, along with a text rendering of the interview half of the program. It gets pretty pretentious/portentous pretty quick, so if you’ve got a hat, hold on to it.

[VIPER’S NOTE: As of 2/14/16, neither this download link, nor the stream below, appear to be directing in the right place to WMSE’s archive. You’ll have to trust my typing, and enjoy the audio snippets throughout without their full context. Sorry!]

WMSE - The
WMSE – The “M” is for me!

INTRODUCING THE BAND

ERIN WOLF: All right! You have it here. That was “The Yodeler’s Christmas” from Viper & His Famous Orchestra, live here in the WMSE studios.

That was pretty great! We heard, going back, “Yodeler’s Christmas,” “Heartbreak for Beginners,” “Hotzeplotz Calls,” “Ukulele Rhythm.” And there you have it. The boys are gonna be in here in just a moment to chat about their music with us. So hang on tight: keep it tuned here to WMSE.

[Station promo plays]

EW: All right! We are back. And, ah, we have The Viper himself, and His Famous Orchestra here in the WMSE studios. How are you guys?

THE VIPER & HIS FAMOUS ORCHESTRA: (overlapping) We are good! Great. Yes. Rhubarb. Rhubarb. Thanks.

THE VIPER: Famously good!

EW: Famously good!

ROB HENN: Orchestrally good!

EW: Yes.

CAL ROACH: You guys want to go around and introduce yourselves for our audience?

TV: (to John Peacock) Sure. Why don’t you start up there…

JOHN PEACOCK: I’m John Peacock, and I play miscellaneous keyboards and percussion in the group.

John Peacock
John Peacock

RH: I’m Rob Henn, and I play trombone, and backup singing, and jug, and other things.

Rob Henn
Rob Henn

RILEY BROACH: I’m Riley Broach. I play bass, and violin, and sing sometimes.

Riley Broach
Riley Broach

TV: I’m the Viper; I just sort of take credit for what the rest of them do.

JP: Rides on our coattails.

The Viper
The Viper

TV: I should say we have one member who’s not with us today. John is our kind of utility infielder. He can play anything, and does.

JP: Marginally.

TV: We often have another, a fifth member of the band, who plays suitcase as well: Edward Burch. If you’re listening, Ed…

JP: We’ve left an empty seat.

RH: We’ve forgotten you utterly and we’re just… here.

CR: Tragic, really.

EW: Soaking it all in.

Edward Burch
Edward Burch

TV: So it means you don’t get to hear a lot of John’s handclapping skills, which are his real, his main instrument in the group.

JP: But it’s also difficult to see my dance moves over the radio as well. So it’s a loss all the way around.

TV: He and I are going to start learning — we’re going to learn tap, right?

JP: That is the plan, yeah.

TV: Incorporate some of that into the band — mad hot ballroom.

CR: Ooh! That’s exciting.

JP: These are things to look forward to.

EW: Yes!

RH: On the radio!

TV: Works very well on the radio.

CR: There’s a lot of sound coming from tap shoes.

TV: Yeah. Uh huh.

JP: It’s true.

THE VIPER — QU’EST-CE QUE C’EST

CAL ROACH: So…

THE VIPER: Thanks for having us in.

CR: Oh, absolutely. It’s our pleasure. Who is this Viper character? Where did that come from?

TV: The Viper comes from exactly where you wouldn’t want him to come from. So he comes from a Tiny Tim album.

CR: Ah…

ERIN WOLF: Mmmm…

TV: And it’s a routine that he does — which is actually an old joke, and you know it from G.I. Joe, or from camp. The Viper’s going to be here in seven days, then the Viper’s going to be here in seven hours, and he finally gets there and it’s the Viper: he’s come to vipe your vindows.

Tiny Tim does “The Viper.”

G.I. Joe does “The Viper.”

CR: Ah! Yes. I do recall that from summer camp years and years ago.

TV: And it’s also a bit of 1940s jazz slang as well.

CR: Oh, Ok.

EW: That is good to know.

CR: And knowing is half the battle.

JOHN PEACOCK: Well said.

AND WHAT ABOUT “SKIFFLE?”

ERIN WOLF: Yeah. Very cool. So, we want to know — for the audience’s sake too — what is skiffle, exactly? And are you guys trying to steal the term back from pre-British-Invasion-era UK revival, and are there any specific skiffle artists you would call major influences?

THE VIPER: Umm, I think I discovered skiffle after we’d already been playing for a while. So it’s like calculus or photography: it was sort of invented twice.

[Laughs all around]

TV: Mostly skiffle, the idea of it is you make do with what you have. Right? And it’s sort of… you can see why it’d be a very post-War British style of music. And it led into rock: you know, a lot of the people that you think of as the British invasion bands started their careers as skiffle bands: The Beatles were the Quarrymen, and Jimmy Page was in a skiffle band, and things like that.

Jimmy Page a-skiffling along

It only, in Britain, lasted for about four years. And you can get every single skiffle recording on a two-disk set — I’m not going to tell you where to get it, you know, or encourage you to get it. I’m just saying you can get it. .

MI0002025904
Actually, you can get it right here! The compilation is a 2-volume set called Great British Skiffle: As Good as It Gets!

There wasn’t that much recorded. It included one American, a guy named Alan Lomax, who was a big folklore collector from the U.S. but he was, during the McCarthy era, was in England, uh, avoiding the hammer and had a skiffle group there, too, that did some recordings. I think Peggy Seeger was in his group and things like that.

But it basically: homemade instruments: suitcases, jugs, you know, then whatever else you had around. Banjos. It’s why John Lennon played banjo to start with, and why Paul McCartney had to teach him how to tune his guitar like a guitar instead of like a banjo when they started playing together.

Various things: it was sort of a loose amalgamation of things that British people thought sounded American and old-timey. Country, jazz, and folk. So things that we think of as very much separate strains were pulled together in this style because they didn’t know any better. They didn’t know that if you were country you weren’t supposed to also be jazz.

One of my favorite skiffle performances: here’s the Skiffle City Ramblers in a very strange Soviet-era clip. Watch for the amplified & muted mouth trumpet solo!

EW: So is the Beatles song “Honey Pie,” would that be considered skifflish?

TV: That’s… well, that’s more music hall. But we do that, kind of. I mean, really, I used to call us vaudeville, and then I used to call us music hall, and then I settled on skiffle, because less people knew what it meant, and then I could define it however I wanted.

EW: Ok.

TV: So, yeah, “Honey Pie.” Like, a skiffle would be something like “One After 909″…

EW: Yeah.

CAL ROACH: Sure…

TV: …right? Is, sort of, probably something that’s closer in that vein, if you can imagine it played on acoustic instruments.

EW: Totally.

TV: That kind of beat.

EW: Cool.

B-FLAT

CAL ROACH: Your bio says that you write songs in the Key of B-flat. What’s so special about B-flat?

THE VIPER: Well, Rob, you tell us that.

ROB HENN: It’s also the key that the trombone is in.

CR: Ah hah! Interesting. That’s key.

RH: But really, there’s nothing special about it whatsoever. Especially in our songs, there’s nothing special about it.

TV: It just sounds good in a description. We should all live in B-flat. If you can’t be natural, be flat.

CR: (sarcastic laughter) We’re all slapping our knees here.

ERIN WOLF: I thought you were just taking cues from Stevie Wonder, too. Songs in the Key of Life.

[VIPER’S NOTE: She’s right, of course, and isn’t she lovely to say so. The bio describes us as playing “well-crafted songs about love, theft, buildings, bus routes, life in the key of Bb, and the work of skiffle in an age of mechanical reproduction.,” and the “life in the key of Bb” reference was directly to the classic 1976 Stevie Wonder album.]

CR: B-flat is the key of life.

RILEY BROACH: Wasn’t Homer Simpson’s quartet the B-sharps?

TV & HIS FAMOUS ORCHESTRA: Yes!

WHY A SUITCASE?

ERIN WOLF: That’s awesome. So, the suitcase being played as a drum. And you have a stylophone. I mean, I have so many questions regarding these things. But the ultimate question is: How many suitcases have you guys gone through? Playing the suitcase as percussion, I can imagine it takes quite the beating.

suitcase-thumbnail
Sketch of typical vintage suitcase for percussive purposes.

JOHN PEACOCK: Yeah, I know when I started sitting in with the group… and the group has had several life cycles, but the most recent, you know, forming around Milwaukee. The Viper and I live on the same street now, and I think proximity is the closest thing to getting into a band. But, ah, yeah, I didn’t have a suitcase, at least one that, you know, was worthy of hitting. They were all modern technology, with little wheels on them and things like that, so…

THE VIPER: Yeah, you can’t play, like, the vinyl coating, those don’t work.

JP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then there’s got to be a hipness factor as well, you know. The guitar, you know, is 50-percent cosmetics, you know. But, ah… Yeah, so I don’t know. Edward is our sort of founding suitcase player. But there’s been various people playing suitcase in the band throughout time: Edward’s been the one constant.

TV: We’ll mention Kevin Carollo; we’ll mention Victor Cortez.

JP: And at times, we’ve had as many as three people playing suitcase onstage. And we’ve talked about getting an entire luggage set, perhaps, for the group.

ROB HENN: We had a song called “The Suitcase Boogie” — R.I.P.

JP: But, yeah, there have been many, many suitcases in the band, and many things that have struck them as well.

TV: Yeah, normally people… I mean, John plays them with wire brushes like a jazz drummer would. And other people play them with whisk brooms that can get you a thumpier sound. And that’s, sort of, where it comes from. I mean, it’s an old way of playing. And it’s not…

I first saw it, I think, in the Dustin Hoffman movie, Lenny, the Lenny Bruce bio-pic. And there’s just one scene that lasts about two seconds, where they’re in a hotel room at a party, and there’s a jazz band playing, and the drummer is playing on a suitcase with some whisk brooms and a piece of newspaper over the top of it to give it more of a snare sound. And I thought: A ha! So that’s a thing!

And then I found — same with skiffle — I found afterwards that this was a thing. That there were… there was great band from the 30s called The Spirits of Rhythm, who played tiple, which is a ten-string ukulele, and then they also had a suitcase player who was quite good.

SpiritsOfRhythm
The Spirits of Rhythm, with Virgil Scoggins on the suitcase (interestingly, turned on its end, with what looks like a piece of newspaper tied or taped to the top)

JP: It’s great showing up to a gig and just having to carry a suitcase. You know, especially as a drummer, you know, not having to lug eight trips to the car with hardware and things like that. So I can haul the suitcase and have my stylophone and other miscellaneous toy instruments inside of there. So it’s a good deal for all.

WHY A STYLOPHONE?

CAL ROACH: Can you give a little description of how the stylophone works, exactly?

JOHN PEACOCK: Well, it’s… the common reference that we’d often use is already antiquated now, which would be it’s like a palm pilot, you know, that plays music. But, ah, that’s early aughts that I’m dating myself to there, so…

tumblr_m90v59NyZf1qeoqe0o1_500
The Stylophone – as promoted by Australian folk hero Rolf Harris

But yeah, ah, about ten, fifteen years ago there was a warehouse that was found that had a bunch of new old stock so I read an article about it and that’s what got me into the stylophone. But it’s a little metallic keyboard and you have a little stylus that’s connected with a little wire. It looks like I’m playing a DS or something like that.

THE VIPER: Or a transistor radio. That’s what it kind of looks like to me.

JP: Sure, yeah, yeah…

TV: Very 70s…

JP: What kind of people do you think are listening to this show, Ryan?

But, ah, yeah and so, I have all these kind of weird instruments that never really get used for much. And so when I get called to a Viper rehearsal, which would usually be about fifteen minutes before the gig, I would just show up with a tub full of stuff. And the stylophone sound really spoke to Ryan, so it was great for me to bust out my stylophone collection.

RILEY BROACH: We didn’t bring the bass stylophone, though.

[VIPER’S NOTE: Riley Broach is the band’s bass player. He’s very protective of that range of frequencies.]

TV: That one is nice. It has a very kind of Farfisa organ sound to it. And it can play the part of the trombone, it can play the part of a steel guitar.

JP: Well we’re working Ryan out… we’re working Rob out of the band. But, ah, by a bit it’ll be all stylophone. It is the future!

TV: And, like I said, the song people will know it from is [David Bowie’s] “Space Oddity.” You know, I think. And there are people that play it now. You can find plenty of people who play it on YouTube and things like that.

JP: But none quite like this.

TV: Don’t necessarily go there. I’m just telling you that they’re playing their stylophones. Rolf Harris, the Australian folk superstar, the guy who wrote “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”…  I think you have some of these records, right? He did instructional…?

JP: Well, I think he was more of a…

TV: Popularizer.

JP: You know, it’s like putting your name on the box of something — I’m trying to think of a modern reference of that.

TV: He was serious though. He did, like, four-piece stylophone songs…?

See the four-piece stylophone song! With Rolf Harris!

JP: Right. I think he was often credited with inventing it, or something like that, and he was more of a spokes…

ROB HENN: The popularizer.

JP: But, yeah, his face is on all the old boxes.

PUTTING IT ON THE WAX

CAL ROACH: So I read that your first album was produced by Jay Bennett.

THE VIPER: Right.

CR: And how did you connect with him, initially? How did that come about?

Jay Bennett mixes Everything for Everyone while The Viper and His Famous Orchestra look on.
Jay Bennett mixes Everything for Everyone while The Viper and His Famous Orchestra look on.

TV: Jay Bennett, from Wilco — he was the guy in the movie who gets kicked out of Wilco, right? — he was a roommate of our other suitcase player, Edward Burch. In fact, they’ve recorded together as Jay Bennett and Edward Burch. I’m not saying you should look for their album, but…

CR: It exists.

TV: It is out there, right? It’s quite good.

So, he’d seen us play. And it’s very different from what he does. He’s known for, in Wilco, being the guy who tweaks everything and gets in and does bits and pieces and constructs these soundscapes out of little bits and things. And I think it was a nice vacation for him to just set up a couple mics in front of us and record us, and then just sort of work afterwards to try to figure out what he wanted it to sound like as the kind of soundspace.

And so, yeah, so he worked on that with us on that, and it was fun, and we got the visit the Wilco loft and got to see all the…

RILEY BROACH: Hundreds of guitars.

…hundreds of guitars that they hoarded and drove up the price of vintage guitars, you know, throughout the early aughts with.

ROB HENN: He does play on the album, too. A little Farfisa…

JOHN PEACOCK: a little Hammond solo on…

RH: Hammond. It was a Hammond. Yeah. Which one is that on?

Not the organ Jay Bennett played on "Pretty Is as Pretty Does." Photograph stolen from Rachel Leibowitz
Not the organ Jay Bennett played on “Pretty Is as Pretty Does.” Photograph stolen from Rachel Leibowitz

TV: Yeah, on Everything for Everyone, on a song called “Pretty Is As Pretty Does,” which is by a Champaign-Urbana songwriter named Angie Heaton, he plays some Hammond organ on that, and it’s quite lovely.

ERIN WOLF: That is really cool.

CR: Yeah.

BEHIND THE MUSIC #1 – “DAS KAPITAL”

ERIN WOLF: All right. We wanted to both ask you about a two separate covers, or songs that you do. This one in particular, it’s not really a cover, but it’s a take, it seems like, on something from The Music Man, the song “Das Kapital.”

THE VIPER: Uh huh.

EW: Is it just a convenient tune to parody, or do you feel a particular connection to the narrative.

TV: Yeah. I think I started doing… a lot of my songs that I write come out of just learning another song, and then deciding  – why bother to cover this, I could just write one pretty much like it. And so, this goes… I played at my mom’s 40th high school reunion in 2002… No, that must have been 1992. When was… I don’t even know. Doesn’t even make sense.

ROB HENN: Careful there! I don’t know if your mom wants this out.

[VIPER’S NOTE: First of all, Rob, I should live so long. Second, on further reflection, this must have been her 35-year reunion, and must have happened in 1997. Just so you know. Other songs from 1962 that became part of the Viper’s more permanent set included “Desafinado,” “Teenage Idol,” “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “When You’re a Jet,” and “Song of the Shrimp” from the Elvis movie, Girls! Girls! Girls!]

TV: So I learned all these songs from 1962. And, know,  The Music Man came out that year, I think, as a movie. And so I learned “Trouble” — I love that song, I’d been in The Music Man as an eighth-grader, in the barbershop quartet. And then I also happened to be reading Marx’s Das Kapital that same summer, and I thought: this would be a good book to boil down to its three-minute version, and then put in the mouth of a shady character who speaks truth despite himself. And so that’s what that particular mash-up is doing.

capital
The viper’s well-worn copy of Karl Marx’s Capital, vol. 1. Just look at those fat cats!

CAL ROACH: Match made in heaven!

[VIPER’S NOTE: Sure is, Cal! And since we didn’t end up performing this one at the radio station, here’s an earlier performance of “Kapital” as performed by The Viper and his Second String at the Coffee House in Milwaukee in May 2010, fat finger and all.]

BEHIND THE MUSIC #2 – “DANCE OF THE 7 VEILS”

CAL ROACH: One of ’em, the one that really struck me was… opens the album, the cover of “Dance of the 7 Veils” by Liz Phair.

THE VIPER: Uh huh.

CR: What was the inspiration behind that one?

TV: I wanted to be able to say “that” word…

CR: Ahhh.

TV: …without getting in trouble for it.

CR: And if you want to know what “word” that is, you’ll have to look up that album up, folks, I’m sorry we can’t say it on the air, but…

TV: Actually, I think that came out, I was doing a show where I decided I wanted to do the whole Exile in Guyville album…

CR: Wow!

TV: …which I did, and a few of the songs stuck around for awhile, and that was one of them. I really liked it. And I like the way it sort of… A lot of ukulele players run as far as away from Tiny Tim as they can, but I love Tiny Tim, and I love the work he does with Richard Perry and the sort of… the collage of cultural elements that they throw together and make work, I think,  in really interesting ways. And I like… that was sort of my homage to Tiny Tim’s way of doing things like “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles, or “I Got You Babe.” So that’s the closest thing we do to sounding like Tiny Tim. And I thought it was nice in the context of a Liz Phair… very dirty Liz Phair song.

[VIPER’S NOTE: We report, you decide. Here’s our “Dance of the 7 Veils” from Everything for Everyone, followed by an amazing version of “I Got You Babe” by Tiny Tim with Eleanor Baruchian from The Cake, as filmed for Peter Yarrow’s 1968 movie, You Are What You Eat. That’s the Band (then, the Hawks) providing backup.]

ERIN WOLF: It’s a refreshing version.

CR: Ever hear any feedback from Liz?

TV: No, I have not.

CR: No? That’s too bad. I’m sure she’d enjoy it.

ROB HENN: We’re out there trying to promote her. And is she grateful? No!

CR: Unbelievable.

TV: Not “promoting her,” promoting her.

RH: No! Just, you know…

CR: She does exist. She does exist. She’s out there.

RH: …spreading the word of her existence.

THOSE WHO CAN’T DO, TEACH. THOSE WHO CAN’T TEACH, TEACH UKULELE

ERIN WOLF: So I was doing a little bit of reading up on you. You are a professor. You’ve written things about history, of our musical history, jazz musical history.

[VIPER’S NOTE: See…

  • Jerving, Ryan. “Early Jazz Literature (And Why You Didn’t Know).” American Literary History 16, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 648-674.
  • Jerving, Ryan. “Jazz Language and Ethnic Novelty.” Modernism/Modernity 10, no. 2 (April 2003): 239-268.
  • Jerving, Ryan, “An Experiment in Modern Vaudeville: Archiving the Wretched Refuse in John Howard Lawson’s Processional.” Modern Drama 51, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 528-555.

…because, honestly, who else is going to see these?]

EW: And also, you teach ukulele. I guess I wanted, since we’re a little bit short on time, more so, want to talk about you as a teacher of music. Because I’m curious to know, how long, generally, does it take someone to learn the basics of the ukulele?

THE VIPER: Ukulele is a very easy instrument to learn the basics of. And you can, within a few weeks, be playing well enough to strum along and accompany yourself on “Iko Iko” or “Jambalaya” or some other two-chord song like that.

jambalaya-lesson
Q.E.D.

TV: The kind of music that’s written, that’s sort of written for ukulele, or special for ukulele, all the Tin Pan Alley and stuff like that, turns out to be kind of surprisingly complicated. There’s a lot of chords, right?

EW: Right.

TV: But if you want to stick to just sort of playing nice little folk songs and stuff like that, it comes quick. Because you can use all your fingers: there’s only four strings

EW: Yeah.

TV: You don’t have these leftover strings to try to figure out what to do with like you do with a guitar.

EW: Right, and I’m imagining, like, between, you know, that and teaching mandolin, which has, you know, a few extra strings, ukulele’s probably more popular with giving lessons, because of its ease?

TV: Yeah, because mandolin is a more melodic instrument, so people who play that want to sound like a bluegrass player, right?

EW: Right.

TV: But ukulele you can really just kind of strum and sing, and it’s great instrument for that.

EW: Yeah.

TV: And that’s why it was as big as it was in the ’20s and why it was as big as it was in the ’50s, because it was very much an at-home instrument.

EW: Easy to pick up.

TV: You can play it laying down.

EW: After a big meal.

JOHN PEACOCK: Play it all over YouTube.

ROB HENN: Put some gasoline on it, light it on fire, do the Jimi Hendrix kind of thing.

TV: Well, actually, I started playing ukulele because I wanted to smash things on stage, and I didn’t want to smash my guitar. And I smashed about four ukuleles, and stopped. I tried to burn one on stage, but it’s treated with some kind of chemical — hard to do that with.

EW: Yeah, they’re usually pretty shiny.

TV: So I started playing that one.

RILEY BROACH: While it was burning?

CR: Ukuleles are cheap. Hooray!

RH: They were.

TV: They were then. Honestly, ukuleles were $20 when I  was smashing them. That’s not the way it is anymore.

EW: No.

ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH

CAL ROACH: Before we send you guys back out to play another set. Just wondering: you haven’t… It’s been since 2004 since you guys have put any recordings out. Any plans for anything any time soon, as far as recordings?

THE VIPER: We were so inspired by playing the WMSE-related Kneel to Neil couple — we played a couple of the events — that we decided we’re going to do a whole album of, or EP at least, of Neil Young songs to be titled, Hello, Young Lovers. In fact, the next song we’re going to play is from that set. John’s working hard at laying down, getting some tracks together for us, and…

JOHN PEACOCK: Making the band sound like they’ve never sounded before, and never will again.

ROB HENN: Which is to say: good!

CR: Uh, that’s exciting!

ERIN WOLF: Cool. That inspired you. I mean, honestly, that was the first time I’ve seen you, and you kind of blew my mind, too, with the Violent Femmes cover that you threw in there. Um, did you?

TV: I think if you saw the most recent one, I did play a Lou Reed song…

EW: Lou Reed!

TV: Because he had just died.

EW: Why did I think it was Violent Femmes?

TV: It’s a sim… It sounds like a Violent Femmes song…

EW: No. There’s no excuse for that mistake! But…

TV: They were big, you know, I was in high school in the ’80s, they were a big influence on me, they’re why I like drummers who stand up and play things that aren’t drums.

EW: It made an impression, nonetheless. And I was, like, “where did these guys come from?” So that’s exciting to hear that you’re taking that Neil Young experience and making a recording with it.

[VIPER’S NOTE: To date, Hello, Young Lovers has joined our McCarthyist musical, Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been… Blue?, my palindromic solo debut, I Love Me Vol. I, and our follow-up to Everything for Everyone, The Sharp Vinegar of Truth, as a project more in theory than in fact. But watch this space for any changes to that situation!]

EW: So aside from recording, you guys are playing… the next gig you have – you recently played the Sugar Maple – you’re playing… is it at a library?

TV: Yeah. Well, actually, the next show we’re playing is at a house show in Springfield, Illinois. According to advanced sales, there may be as many as 7 people there.

EW: Awesome.

JP: I will not be one of them.

TV: The next time we’re playing in Milwaukee will be at the Anodyne Coffee Roasting Company, the Walker’s Point location. That’s going to be on…

RH: March 7.

TV: March the 7th. It’s a Friday night.

EW: Awesome.

CR: Cool.

EW: What time does that…?

TV: It’s a beautiful space.

EW: Oh, it is. Yeah.

TV: We’ll start at, I think, 8:15.

EW: Ok. Cool. So, that, it’s an amazing stage, too. So, I think, many people might not know that the Anodyne in Walker’s Point does have a stage.

TV: Yeah, I think that they’ve only recently started having music.

CR: I didn’t know that.

EW: Yeah, so, they’re on Bruce Street. So 8:15, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra will take the stage there. Are you going to… I think they have a piano. Are you going to utilize any of the accoutrements?

TV: I tested it out. It’s pretty out-of-tune in a pretty awesome way. So I’m hoping John’ll jump back there, and…

JP: Salivating.

EW: Excellent.

TV: …add some Fessnicity to the proceedings.

1795494_10202672972081520_1750401060_n
Riley Broach gets in his Anodyne mental space.

EW: All right. Cool. Well, looking forward to it. Well, we’re going to send you back out, and you guys are going to kick it off with “Speakin’ Out.” So we’ll let you get to it.

JP: Thank you much.

EW: All right. The Viper and His Famous Orchestra on their way back out to the studio. We’ll be right back with them again, live.

[Station promo plays]

SECOND SET

ERIN WOLF: Well, thank you once again to Ryan Jerving, The Viper, and His Famous Orchestra for coming in today to talk about the music and play some tunes, live. And, again, their next show here in Milwaukee is at the Anodyne on Bruce Street, and that is March 7th, at 8:15. And they’re going to play three more songs for us. I’m going to let ’em get to it without further ado. From the Bob and Genie Friedman live studios here at WMSE: The Viper and His Famous Orchestra.

[The Viper & His Famous Orchestra play “Speakin’ Out”]

Right click to download the mp3.

THE VIPER: Rob Henn, I’d like you to pick up that jug over there,. and play on it a little bit. This song is called “I Got the World in a Jug (and the Stopper in My Hand).” Radio listeners at home, you all know how to play the jug, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow, and it sounds something like this.

[And The Viper & His Famous Orchestra finish up with “The World in a Jug (and the Stopper in My Hand”]

Right click to download the mp3.

ERIN WOLF: All right! That was The Viper and His Orchestra. Very, very cool stuff. “Stopper In My Hand” was the name of that track, featuring music from the Viper, and jug playing, and some trombone, and what have you.

[VIPER’S NOTE: I’ll have quite a bit, thank you!]

EW: So they’re going to come back in, and we’re going to get into the “This Is Your Song” segment. We’ll be right back.

And with that, we come to the end of Part 2. There is a short coda-like pt. 3 to come, featuring The Viper’s DJ song pick and some closing thoughts. Stay tuned!

 

A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective – Pt. 3: Blasphemy!

Pt. 3 of 3. For pt. 1, go here. And for pt. 2, go elsewhere.

Erstwhilishly, on A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective…

  • Music “musicially uncharacteristic” of Neil Young…
  • Neil Young as heard by someone also hearing someone else (here’s looking at you, Transformer man, Lou. And at you, too, Drive By Truckers. And then at you three, Booker T.)…
  •  Vampires with long straws, vampires with a tar sands thing…

Having had twice already taken to the stage at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn in Milwaukee for the annual WMSE/Bridge School benefit show and Neil Young tribute concert known as Kneel to Neil, and having had once already played Neil Young songs that weren’t much like Neil Young songs (Nov. 11, 2011), and then having had once already played Neil Young songs that were half someone’s else’s songs (Nov. 4, 2013), we knew that in 2015 it was time to have had taken our charge to Kneel to Neil to its fully aporetically alogical conclusion: we would play Neil Young songs that weren’t Neil Young songs at all.

We knew we were playing with fire in taking under such an undertaking. And when baby plays with fire? Sometimes baby gets burned.

November 14, 2015

It was Kneel to Neil, n’est-ce pas? So we figured all those gold heart searchers would be okay with it if The Viper and His Orchestra revived a few songs Neil Young had covered and made his own, even if he hadn’t written them. And we figured that among all the resident cowgirls in the sand, Cortez killers, and sleepless rusters hanging around Linneman’s bar, some might even be kind of excited if we resuscitated some surf-rock curio juvenilia from the Squires, the Winnipeg, Manitoba band with whome a teenage Neil Young learned his way around the guitar.

I mean, Manitoba’s, like, the Wisconsin of Canada, right? Or is that Alberta? I guess it’s Alberta:

Frank Gari’s “Hello, Milwaukee!” Vocal by Frank Gari.

Frank Gari’s “Hello, Calgary!” Vocal by Florence Warner.

But we didn’t know how to figure on how those finding it hard to make arrangements with themselves might take it if we were to up and write some Neil Young songs of our own.

We definitely didn’t figure on the full-throated and whiskey-sized cries of “Blasphemy” coming from the guy in the back of the room, then sadly muttering to himself: “I just really like Neil Young.”

But that’s what happened! We think! Because Liz Hirsch told us!

I hope it’s true, because it’s my favorite live review of our music since the time we played a song called “The Monsters Are Coming” at a kids show in Urbana, Illinois and a mob of distressed children surged toward the front to call us “liars!”

And that’s only one of the many odd happenstances and misfortunes befalling us this time around on our long road to Linneman’s. But that’s all right. We like it nice and rough. Listen to the story.

The Backstory

Some time back, trombonist Rob Henn had posted on Facebook a link to a Newsweek listicle with the clickbait-y title, “The Top 12 Least Essential Neil Young Albums.” But noting that the list only included records Young had actually recorded, I proposed an alternative list of albums that Neil Young had not only not released or even recorded, but hadn’t even considered… yet. Here’s that list:

The Viper’s top 12 least essential not-yet-existing Neil Young albums.

  1. Neil Young Sings “Cha Cha Slide” and Other Party Favorites
  2. Out and About (We Canadians Love To Shout)
  3. The Discourses of Brigham Young, as Read by Neil Young (Namesake Series of Books on Tape)
  4. Archer Daniels Midland: Also Not So Great
  5. There’s a Town in North New Brunswick, Too
  6. Why I Think The Exorcist Could Never Actually Happen (spoken word)
  7. A Ghost Is Born
  8. Heart of Gold II: The Golder Heart
  9. A Man Needs a Maid (This Gun’s for Hire) (Arthur Baker 12-inch remix)
  10. Sleep Apnea Study: Raw Sound Files. Subject # N.Y.636
  11. Ivanhoe
  12. Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone: A Tribute to Glass Tiger

Now, having done the heavy lifting on the album titles, the only thing left was to sit down and write the songs that could go with them. So we got to work.

But first…

“The Gallows Pole”

Not a Neil Young song, true, but not not a Neil Young song either. We wanted to ease folks in to our not-yet-Young concept, and “The Gallows Pole” is a great tune from the collection of drunks, wrecks, and breakdowns that Young covered with Crazy Horse in 2012 on Americana. It asks the musical question: Are you – are you? – coming to the tree? No? Oh. And it turns out no one else is either. Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.

Hey, it’s Child Ballad #95! It even shows up in Béla Bartók’s collection of Hungarian Folk Songs as “Fehrer Anna”! In Young’s liner notes to Americana, he says the source is probably Finnish. But the truth is, he probably learned it from a) Lead Belly or b) Led Zeppelin. In either case, someone’s getting the lead out.

Here’s what it sounds like, scratch-track style. Go on yourself and take the trombone solo when I yell “Ready, Rob?” We’re in G minor.

“Gallows Pole,” practice scratch track

This would be the first song we worked on as a band for this year’s Kneel to Neil. And it came pretty easy. But at a price, as it turns out. (Cue Chopin’s “Funeral March” at this point). We thought we saw our suitcase player a-comin’: Edward Burch, riding many a mile. But we were mistaken. A week out from the show, Burch told us that neither train, nor plane, nor automobile would bear his weary frame Northward from downstate Illinois to the surf-kissed shores of Lake Michigan.

It’s just like what happens in our version of the song. In most versions, the narrator gets saved: neither father, mother, sister, nor brother arrive with the goods needed to bribe the hangman into slacking his rope for a while, but a sweetheart does manage the job.

But when we sing it, The Viper asks, and the Orchestra answers:

Didn’t bring no silver
Didn’t bring no gold
We came to see you hang, Viper
By the gallows pole.

So there’d be no Burch. And the Kneel the Neil world would be the poorer for it.  The universe was speaking – pouring endless rain into a paper cup – but were we listening?

“ADM: They Bought the Farm”

Our first invented Neil Young song of the night: this one from the never-released, never-recorded, never-considered sequel of sorts to Neil Young’s 2015 release, The Monsanto Years – a follow-up album that, in my dreams, is titled, Archer Daniels Midland: Also Not So Great.

The song we devised, “ADM: They Bought the Farm” (not “Cardamom Woman,” as many have thought, forgivably so, given the lyrics), pulls together musical bits and pieces fro “Tonight’s the Night,” “Cinnamon Girl,” and “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Lyrically, it’s one of not-yet-Young’s most withering critiques of the global food economy, inputs-driven Big Agribusiness, and the prices that we pay, personally and politically, for monocrop culture.

Plus, it lets me play an electric guitar with the distortion on in a drop-D tuning!

Here’s the demo version for the band to hear that I recorded at the same desk at which I’m typing this now.

“ADM: They Bought the Farm” (demo)

Or, if you prefer, a video version of the same wankiness:

ADM: They Bought the Farm (staircase version)

I have to assume this is the song that provoked the “blasphemy” charge. And I can’t say the guy was very far wrong.

“I Wonder If I Care As Much”

We moved back out of not-yet-Youngland for a visit to an early song by Phil & Don Everly that had been covered by Neil Young and Jack White for the 2014 album, A Letter Home.

It’s a really lovely record, all of it recorded on White’s own vintage 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine, which you can see demonstrated here:

This part of our Viper and His Famous Orchestra set was a pretty straightforward bid at a shot for me to sing in one of my favorite ways: with Edward Burch, in our all-but-patented band-of-brothers (Everly, Louvin, Osborne, Monroe, Nelso) style. Say it with me, Edward!

Edward: I’m Charlie Kennett…

Viper: And I’m Earl Wayne KENNett…

Edward: And we’re the Kennett Brothers. Who wants to hear a song about gentrification?

This kind of song was our meat. But in Edward’s absence, trombonist Rob Henn valiantly rose to the challenge to harmonize in a slightly-behind-the-beat and melancholy way that would have made Phil and Don (and Charlie and Earl Wayne) proud.

The Everly Brothers, “I Wonder If I Care As Much”

“Out of the Blonde on Blonde”

And now we approach the truly awful part of our story.

Our second not-yet-Young song was, in fact, the first one I wrote. This had been purely an exercise to see if I could write a song to order for the non-released, non-recorded, non-considered Neil Young album Heart of Gold II: The Golder Heart.

To write it, I literally just took Young’s line “Rock and roll will never die,” and sang it over and over to myself – making breakfast, drinking coffee in the shower, ironing a shirt, with me little ukulele in me hand – until the alchemy of love & theft, laughter & forgetting, law & order turned it into something else. In this version, an ode to unplanned obsolescence, rock and roll decides it’s better to fade away!

“Out of the Blonde on Blonde” (demo)

But how to tell what I needs next must tell. I suppose I’ll begin with writing the first
sentence – and trusting to the spirit of Kneel to Neil for the second.

This song was supposed to have been a duet – a return of the stylophone that John Peacock had wielded like Thor’s mighty hammer in our past years’ performance of “Transformer Man.” Here’s a taste of that sound:

The Viper and His Second String play “Transformer Man” at a John Peacock birthday party

We’d worked it up, and John sounded great. So great that we invited him and his family over for dinner on the night of the show to celebrate his great sound. So great that, as dinner was wrapping up, I commenced to running around the circle connecting dining room to living room to kitchen to dining room, with John’s young son Lowell chasing right behind. So great that Lowell went faster and faster, like a tiger ’round the tree ready to turn into butter. But instead of turning to butter, he was suddenly tripping on a rug, and falling in terrible slow motion toward a coffee table, and hitting his mouth on its corner, and piercing his lip with a tooth, and sending all three Peacocks off to the emergency room for the rest of the evening.

Now, you should know that, with a few stitches, everything was fine for Lowell, and he had the night of his life at the hospital. (When John asked him what his favorite part was, Lowell told him that all the parts were his favorite parts.)

But it sure spooked the rest of us, and suddenly, our Orchestra, once a five-full throng, was down to three.

“The Sultan”

Absent suitcase and stylophone, we were pretty ill-equipped to tackle what we had thought would be the dark and stormy sonic centerpiece of our night: manoeuvering in the dark with our Orchestral take on the surf rock of “The Sultan,” one of Neil Young’s earliest recordings from his teen Winnipeg days with the Squires.

Let’s let Neil Young explain, this to Mojo writer Nick Kent in a December 1995 article.

Q. You started playing at 14. What was your first guitar?

A. My first was this little plastic Arthur Godfrey ukulele…

I knew there was something I liked about this guy!

…then I seem to remember a baritone “uke,” then I had a banjo. So I had all these different-sounding instruments which I played the same way. I played electric lead guitar first. Then I started rocking out in a community-club teenage band. First we were called The Esquires. Then we changed it to The Stardusters. And after that we settled on being called The Squires. Kinda like Spinal Tap’s early days!

Here’s what that sounded like. Turn it up to 11, because tonight’s the night Neil Young is gonna rock you tonight:

Neil Young with the Squires plays “The Sultan” (1963)

Without the stylophone, we were left wordlessly humming the melody. And without the suitcase, we were reduced to stomping our feet as a poor substitute for that big surf backbeat. Blasphemy!

In hindsight, we might have been better off just playing “Vampire Blues” again.

“Four Degrees” aka “After the After the Gold Rush”

And that takes us almost to the end of our story: Edward and his suitcasery stuck in Springfield with the non-mobile blues again, John and his stylophonery stuck in the emergency room with a head full of worry, and Rob, Riley, and I stuck on a stage in the middle of holy war.

So let’s play a last waltz!

When Neil Young wrote about Mother Nature being on the run in the 1970s, I’m not sure he could have known how dire things would be by 2015. His recent and very entertaining memoir of his life with cars, titled Special Deluxe, is largely about his coming to terms with his own complicity as a lover of car culture – and big gas-guzzling cars like 1940s Buicks in particular – with the realities of climate change. Every long drive in the book comes with an accounting of exactly how much poundage of CO2 it put into the atmosphere.

Our own not-yet-Young take on the subject imagines that, pace “After he Gold Rush,”  there’s no silver spaceship coming to take us away to a new home in the sun and that, instead, when the mercury shoots up 4 degrees, and everywhere from Hawaii and Tuvalu to Miami and Perth are submerged under water, our whole species will die off and give the natural order a chance to recover from the failed experiment that was human being.

Enjoy!

The Viper and His Famous Orchestra, “Four Degrees.” Aloha, goodbye, adiós, and hooroo!

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