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.
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
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 song 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!
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 its 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 thinking 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.
So, 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!
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.
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.
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!]
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!
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.
RH: I’m Rob Henn, and I play trombone, and backup singing, and jug, and other things.
RILEY BROACH: I’m Riley Broach. I play bass, and violin, and sing sometimes.
TV: I’m the Viper; I just sort of take credit for what the rest of them do.
JP: Rides on our coattails.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. .
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.
TV: So, yeah, “Honey Pie.” Like, a skiffle would be something like “One After 909″…
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.
TV: That kind of beat.
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.
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.
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…
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…
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?
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?
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.
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 MusicMan, 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’sDas 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.
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…
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…
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!
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.
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?
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
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?
TV: But ukulele you can really just kind of strum and sing, and it’s great instrument for that.
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.
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.
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: 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…
TV: …add some Fessnicity to the proceedings.
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]
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”]
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”]
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!
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.
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.
Neil Young Sings “Cha Cha Slide” and Other Party Favorites
Out and About (We Canadians Love To Shout)
The Discourses of Brigham Young, as Read by Neil Young (Namesake Series of Books on Tape)
Archer Daniels Midland: Also Not So Great
There’s a Town in North New Brunswick, Too
Why I Think The Exorcist Could Never Actually Happen (spoken word)
A Ghost Is Born
Heart of Gold II: The Golder Heart
A Man Needs a Maid (This Gun’s for Hire) (Arthur Baker 12-inch remix)
Sleep Apnea Study: Raw Sound Files. Subject # N.Y.636
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.
“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.
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.
The Viper and His Famous Orchestra, “Four Degrees.” Aloha, goodbye, adiós, and hooroo!
Pt. 2 of 3. For pt. 1, go here. For pt. 3, try this.
Previously, on A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective…
Synth-pop with a heart
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”
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!
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
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.
END OF PART 2
Next time, on A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective…
Hangmen, careless brothers, sultans, and global environmental collapse
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.
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.
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
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.
“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!
END OF PART 1
Next time, on A Very Viper Kneel to Neil Retrospective…
Booker T., with and without the MGs!
The “Dirt” on Lou Reed!
the kind of music your great-great-great-grandparents warned your great-great-grandparents about