15 June 2017

Lemmings Lament [2009]


[Originally posted 15 June 2009]
Are you put upon by powers?
Are you restless for release?
Death just might be that final rush you crave.
We all believe in flowers
And we all believe in peace;
There’s endless peace and flowers in the grave.
Freud, Marx, Engles, and Jung
Somewhere during my high school years, the late sixties maybe, I had a vision of a sort of parody pop album, an anthology that would do for the excesses of the day’s music what Rejected Addresses had done for Wordsworth and Walter Scott. I called it something like Plastic Sole in my mind, and I wrote a Bob Dylan parody, a Simon and Garfunkel parody, a Doors parody, and a Rod McKuen parody for it. I think maybe I had a Bobbie Gentry-style ballad planned for it too. The Dylan was particularly mean-spirited, as I recall; I had him attacking a Mr. Jones-like character who (it becomes obvious) the singer is sponging on, the singer finally ordering him to get the hell out—but only after he’s forked over all his spare change.
Of course I never did anything with it; it was just something to occupy my mind when I should have been coloring maps for Contemporary World Problems. I would have loved it if somebody else had done something like that, however, especially if it was done well. But as far as I knew, nobody else even seemed to be thinking in that direction.
Had I but known a group of jokers at the Harvard Lampoon were thinking along the same lines, maybe a bit diagonally from my take. In June of 1969 an album appeared entitled The Surprising Sheep and Other Mind Excursions and it was an album at least superficially matching the general description of my own mind excursion, Plastic Sole. I wonder what I would have thought of it if I’d stumbled on it at the time.
I think I would have liked the Bob Dylan parody, “Seventeen Miles from Waukegan My Cantaloupe Died.” The takeoff focuses on the surreal aspects of Bob Dylan’s imagery; my main objection now would be that while it is surreal enough, it just isn’t that Dylanesque. “In the Palm of My Hand” is a very broad parody of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” though taking the imagery in quite another direction. “Little Miss Muffet” reworks the nursery rhyme as a Wilson Pickett track, with a touch of Otis Redding thrown in. (I doubt that this one would have meant anything to me at the time, to be honest—though years later when I first heard it on the National Lampoon Radio Hour box CD set I instantly got it.) “Recipe for Love” targets Dionne Warwick, and I see by it that that same instrumental riff that irritated me also irritated its composer. I might have got a kick out of it.
But the one piece I feel fairly confident I would have liked is something called “Welcome to the Club,” a Lovin’ Spoonful parody written by Christopher Cerf. This one took that ghastly scene that unfolded in 1968 Chicago and turned it into a light-hearted “Daydream” spoof, with pun-filled lyrics:
If your life is a bore
And you’d like to get more
Of a boot out of people you meet,
Well forget your self-pity
And come down to a city
Where the folks will positively knock you off of your feet
With the police riots in Daley’s Chicago fresh in our minds, the clubbings and stompings and gassings and all that, this piece would have had a special poignancy then, or so I imagine now.
On behalf of each judicial
And executive official
We promise you a smashing good time.
On the whole I think I would have been disappointed, though. Too many performers crying out for parody were missing, and the execution was distinctly on the sloppy side. And Bob Dylan—the guy is ripe for parody, and yet till this day the best efforts fall short. Maybe Paul Simon’s “Simple Desultory Philippic,” or John Lennon’s untitled takeoff come the closest, but, well, I’m sure it’s possible to do better. Well, the moment has passed, I suppose.
But Bob Dylan (played by Christopher Guest) was featured on the next major excursion in that direction, a record entitled simply Lemmings, featuring a show put on by the National Lampoon. The first act was a series of sketches somewhat in the style of the future Saturday Night Live, and none of that appeared on the album. But the second act was a stunning parody of Woodstock, complete with takeoffs on Wavy Gravy and Max Yasgur. This is what appeared on the album, slightly abridged. (A Joan Baez parody that had already appeared on the album Radio Dinner was omitted, for example. And later incarnations of the show featured parodies of Donovan and Joni Mitchell that had yet to be created at the time of this recording. Anyway.)
The opening track, “Lemmings Lament,” sets the stage by parodying Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” as performed by CSN&Y. It sets out the theme later made explicit by Farmer Yassir—“This here mass suicide of all you young people may just be the best goddamn thing ever happen to this country.” Next up Bob Dylan casually repudiates the protest movement he helped to launch:
You say I was your leader,
You say I turned you on,
You’re starting to suspect now
That it was all a con.
Then, after an excursion into early 1960s death rock that seems a bit out of place here, there’s the stunning John Denver takeoff, “Colorado.” Chevy Chase did Denver about as well as he did Ford, but the song is funny enough to survive even that, with lines that came back to haunt me when I did spend a winter or two in Colorado:
Oh, Colorado’s calling me
From her hillsides, to her canyons, and her rivers and her trees;
When blizzards snap the power lines, and all the toilets freeze
In December in the Colorado Rockies.
The song has moments of lyric intensity, usually followed by a thumping anticlimax:
The wind sang us a lullaby;
The snow was thick as cream,
And icicles were chandeliers
Like crystals in a dream,
And the streams were strips of diamonds,
And the hills were white as snow
And a bear ate all our soybeans in the night.
The James Taylor parody, “Highway Toes,” had previously appeared, at least as far as the lyrics went, as part of Sean Kelly’s “Swan Song of the Open Road,” which featured takeoffs on Walt Whitman, Richard Brautigan, and Pete Seeger (not “Well-Intentioned Blues”) as well. The music, by Christopher Guest, however, sounds more like Gordon Lightfoot than James Taylor. But the Joe Cocker (John Belushi) parody is dead on, if a little overlong.
The basic idea of linking musical parodies by framing them with a Woodstock satire was absolutely brilliant, and even if the “Festival of Death” thing is a bit over-obvious, the execution is solid. To quote Farmer Yassir again, “Long hair, short hair—what’s the difference once the head’s blowed off.”
If I still had my files and notes I probably would have pulled out my old high-school outline for Plastic Sole (or whatever I really called it) and looked it over one more time. There wasn’t anything in it worth saving, probably, but I did enjoy planning it so many years ago, and I probably would have enjoyed the recollection. The Rod McKuen parody, for example—I remember working on it gleefully (I detested Rod McKuen for whatever reason)—but I don’t remember anything else whatsoever about it. I imagine it was embarrassingly bad—but I don’t know, and now I’ll never know. It’s not important, but it’s irritating.
Bear with me folks; I’m having a difficult time adjusting. But I should be off this black nostalgia kick in a day or so. I hope so, anyway.

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