31 October 2009

Riding Out On a Rail

Take a sniff of this
Then play a little riff
Don't be afraid to try
Don't need no airplane
To get off the ground
There's more than one way to fly
Have a little taste, baby,
Don't hesitate,
Every hit don`t have to be a song
Gonna take you to the cosmos, baby,
And boogie with you all night long.

...Riding out on a rail, feels so fine
Talking about that cocaine express mainline,
Taking a midnight cruise.
Never lived up in the northlands,
But I've been snowblind
Out in San Berdoo
Snowblind in San Berdoo.
Gr-t-f-l D--d (Tony Scheuren)

On 10 August 1974 I was living on the Oregon coast sharing house space with my mother, step-father, and a step-brother whom I will call for the purposes of this narrative Bill, as that happens to be his name. It was an interesting moment in time; President Nixon had just resigned and the fellow that was taking over, Gerald Ford, was largely an unknown quantity. Bill and I had marked the occasion of the resignation by eating all the frozen fish in the house; this because Bill had asked what a large red button on the refrigerator did, incautiously pushing it at the same time. Well, what it did was send the refrigerator into its defrost cycle, which on a hot summer day meant that the frozen fish had to be eaten...

We only got two stations on the radio then—I'm not totally sure why, now, to be honest—but one of them was a free-form rock station from Eugene, and I remember it playing away in the background as we frantically wrapped fish in newspaper and tried to get the refrigerator through its defrosting cycle before deciding we had to cook what we had. They had one of the best radio news people ever—I wish I could remember her name—Melinda something maybe—and I remember her dispassionate rundown on Nixon's entire career, complete with excerpts from his famous speeches—running as a counterpoint to our battle with the frozen food.

Bill and I had the house to ourselves at the moment for whatever reason, but our folks returned on Saturday, 10 August, bringing with them Aunt K, and things were festive. It was a Saturday, and on Saturdays the Eugene station played The National Lampoon Radio Hour. It was a favorite of mine at the time; I'd already discovered the albums Radio Dinner and Lemmings, and I liked the humor. I particularly enjoyed the song parodies. Burlesques were fairly common in that era; parodies were much rarer, and some of their efforts were pretty damn good. So that hot August day we all gathered around the radio and listened to it.

The episode was the one known as The Canada Show, and it started off with a lukewarm parody of something called "The Americans," a recording of an editorial written by a Canadian who was damn sick and tired of hearing the Americans being kicked around by the foreign press. To be honest I thought the original was pretty lame at the time, and the takeoff didn't impress me that much, though there were a couple of good lines: "I, for one, am damned glad the Americans had the generosity to invade Canada three times or we'd never have found out who our real friends are" for instance. And my stepfather laughed over the adventures of a Canadian library official after the nation's only copy of the Kama Sutra, now months overdue in the frozen north. And then came the moment that I, personally, have never forgotten.

There was the familiar guitar work, and then the voice—was that really the "sensitive whining of Neil Young"? He sang of his search for the ideal woman—the girl who would "keep my bed warm, and keep my shorts clean. I need a maid to give for free, ooo-ooh, and sew patches on my jeans." I was entranced. I was savagely depressed at the time, and the song suited my mood perfectly.

Gonna go home now, where I can grow old
With the cowgirl of my dreams.
Gonna stayed stoned now,
Just stare out my basement window and scream
Aa-aaa!

When the final words faded into the sunset—"Topanga Canyon freaks, you won't see me around no more..."—my stepfather remarked, "I knew Topanga Canyon way back when it was still Topanga Canyon."

The Neil Young parody was both written and performed by a relatively young singer-songwriter named Tony Scheuren. He'd been in the band Chamaeleon Church in the late sixties, along with Kyle Garrahan, Chevy Chase (yes, that Chevy Chase), and Ted Myers, and he'd been part of the final lineup of Ultimate Spinach. By late 1973 he'd joined the cast of National Lampoon's Lemmings, working alongside John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Rhonda Coullet, Nate Herman, Bob Hoban, and Zal Yanovsky. (This is not the cast that appeared on either the album or the videotape, by the way.) None of his compositions appear to have been featured in the show, however, which seems amazing to me, as he was one of the most gifted song-parodists of all time.

As Johnny Cash he mused about the true unsung heroes of the world—receptionists, locksmiths, and reupholsterers—and all black men who polish brass spitoons.

'Cause without invisible menders
And deep-fried donut tenders
Our country wouldn't stand a chance of getting by.

As James Taylor he looked forward to the coming of his methadone maintenance man; as Cat Stevens he mused over his S&M lover; and as the Grateful Dead he celebrated that "cocaine express mainline". Both music and lyrics were dead on. It's instructive, perhaps, to compare his work to others in the field—his Johnny Cash parody to Neil Innes' for example, or his James Taylor to Christopher Guest's and Sean Kelly's. In each case Scheuren is truer to the original, and cuts closer to the bone in his takeoff. Only Philip Pope comes as close musically, and maybe Liam Lynch lyrically, though that last is a tough call.

One Tony Scheuren parody I've never found a copy of is his Bob Dylan "Hurricane Carter" parody, celebrating the exploits of Patty Hearst. Ted Myers wrote about it in a piece I can no longer find, except as quoted by a Scheuren fan on YouTube:

Tony and I drifted apart for a number of years when I moved out to California in April of 1969. I didn't see him again until around 1977 when he was in Los Angeles working for the touring company of National Lampoon's show, Lemmings. He showed me his new songs, and we even did some recording together when he was in LA. But what really impressed me were these parody tapes Tony had made for the National Lampoon's radio show. They were brilliant: perfect vocal impersonations of people like Dylan, James Taylor and Neil Young. What's more, the songs they sang were completely original, new songs, with rippingly funny, satirical lyrics, and in the exact style of that artist. For instance, there was a Dylan send-up called 'Queen Of the S.L.A.,' chronicling the exploits of Patty Hearst in the style of Dylan's Hurricane Carter song, or there was a biting James Taylor parody called 'Methadone Maintenance Man' where he would nod out before the song was over.

For whatever reason Tony Scheuren's work has been neglected since his untimely death on Halloween, sixteen years ago. I wish I could have let him know how much I personally enjoyed his work, but he might not have appreciated it. I read somewhere (probably that same Ted Myers piece I can't find) that he regarded his parodies as throwaways, something to pass the time while working on more serious stuff. Maybe so—but it's a rare talent nonetheless.

His family has released an album of his solo (serious) work on Wham! records in 2003, which appears to be still available. When I wrote to Beacon Agency (which represents him) a while back, I was informed that an album of his parodies is in the works, and I personally am looking forward to it. For the moment, however, it is possible to enjoy his James Taylor and Neil Young parodies, courtesy of uploaders at YouTube. They should appear below this paragraph, always assuming I managed to embed them correctly.



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