There are two kinds of mediocre talents: the untruthful and the truthful. First, the untruthful: You know the type.
Better Than the Beatles: The Shaggs
You're at a party and you overhear someone talking about their A) novel, B) art, or C) band. They have a slight humility about them, but it is clear that they themselves brought up the subject. They'll tell you that they are working with so-and-so, that so-and-so asked them to do this, and usually they will throw in this phrase: "At this point I just want to get the damn (book/art show/album) over with! I'm exhausted!" When we divide the span of time they spend in conversation about said artistic artifact with the hypotenuse of the actual output, we get one thing: mediocre. Good people don't talk about their shit. Actually, good people are usually totally unsure of themselves. Did Emily Dickinson wear her own band's T-shirt? Nope. The other sort of mediocre is that which stems from the genuine; this is the truthful mediocrity, and it has a glow all its own. Consider, for instance, Florence Foster Jenkins, an sup3operasup2 singer during the first half of the 20th century. She stank. She sounded like two cats fucking. But she thought she was great, and every night she moved herself, if not the audience, with her own brand of glorious caterwauling.
As the myth surrounding Jenkins is usually told, she was hit by a taxicab and, like Gilligansup1s hit on the head with a coconut, felt that the force of the collision had imbued her with extra powers. Now believing she was the worldsup1s leading soprano, Jenkins dressed herself in a long flowing gown with gigantic wings attached, her hair up in a dramatic, operatic swoop. Her loving husband, deciding theworld must share in this blessing, financed her career, which culminated in a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall in 1944. Standing in the middle of the stage, dramatic and somber, she sang her heart out. And she stank. She was so roundly jeered at the concert that she died of a broken heart just one month later.
That's the myth. The truth is a bit sweeter: Florence Foster Jenkins, it seems, always had an unflagging idea that she was great. The boos and jeers she heard at her shows she simply chalked up to jealousy. As for her devoted husband -- well, it turns out he dumped her in 1902, but she inherited a chunk of money from her banker daddy after his death. Her shows were indeed sold out -- who wouldn't pay to see someone that sincere make a total fool of herself? Jenkins really did die one month after her grand Carnegie Hall show, no doubt fantasizing on her deathbed about the deep mourning with which the opera world would mark her passing. This is the kind of mediocrity that people respond to; however deluded the person might be, there is a real genuineness that people react to. It's cute. It's truth.
Which brings us to the Shaggs, this generation's Florence Foster Jenkins. A lot has been written about this homely trio from Fremont, New Hampshire. Frank Zappa famously referred to them as "better than the Beatles." Other critics have described them as lobotomized Trapp Family Singers. In the '60s, Betty, Dot, and Helen were pretty much forced by their father to be in a band; he'd been told by a palm reader that he would have daughters who would go on to great things. He gave them their vaguely sexual name, made them practice several hours a day, and forced them to adhere to a regimen of calisthenics (just like their contemporaries the Beatles and the Rolling Stones!). They played at nursing homes and at the local town hall, and eventually recorded an album.
The result leaves most listeners dumbfounded, and oddball music lovers in ecstasy.
In short, they stank. They created music in a complete vacuum, with no knowledge of beat, rhythm, meter, or signature. And the lyrics. Wow. Songs about their cat Foot Foot, and Halloween. Their answer to Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People" was "Philosophy of the World" (featuring the lyrics "Oh the rich people want what the poor people's got/ And the poor people want what the rich people's got/ And the skinny people want what the fat people's got/ And the fat people want what the skinny people's got"). Yep, el stinkerooni. But so, so sincere.
So a tribute to the Shaggs has just been released. Called Better Than the Beatles, it features the Thinking Fellers, Deerhoof, and the Danielson Famile. What the world doesn't need now is another tribute CD. But the Shaggs just seem to invite such treatment, and it's fascinating to see what other bands did with their songs. Some groups injected a little melody where it was sorely needed, like Bauer with "We Have a Savior." Both Ida and the Double U covered "Philosophy of the World," and both attacked it in slow, moody ways that seem to venerate the song's universal truths. Yep.
Fittingly, footnote weirdo musician R. Stevie Moore also appears on the album, covering "My Companion." Moore is a cult figure who emerged in the '60s making oddball music and tweaking conventions. He was one of the first and most vocal proponents of self-recording, that is, putting out a record without a label -- something that ain't so odd these days. The coolest thing about this guy is that he was there for the Shaggs the first time around, and even owns one of their original albums (only 100 were released). How he feels about "his girls" remains "beyond words," according to the tribute album's liner notes. Planet Clair tracked him down in New Jersey to get the deets, asking him about his notes, which read, "I consider myself one of the luckiest Shaggs fans, in that I was privy to them early on."
"I guess what I meant by 'lucky,'" he says, "is that I never got 'turned on' to them, like most others. Quite the contrary; I was always the one turning the others on to the Shaggs." (It was Moore's uncle, who'd gone to see them play live, who introduced him to the band.)
Moore does seem to have a sixth sense for underground culture. But like Florence Foster Jenkins and the Shaggs' father, he also has a healthy ego about his contributions to the world. "My whole life has been one of early music discoveries," Moore says. "[I have been an] arbiter of taste, an 'I-was-there-first' [kind of guy] through the decades, [discovering] new movements, bands, and styles." Hmmm. "Pardon my modesty!" he adds.
"Well," poses Clair, "Since you get lumped in the 'outsider' musician camp, perhaps you have a different ear than others. When you first heard the Shaggs, what went through your head?"
"God," he sighs, "I don't know. It was unavoidably instant gratification, that's for sure! None of that 'It's got to grow on me' or 'I don't quite yet understand it' or 'They can't be serious' stuff. It was always a genuine devotion I had, no question. That something so over-the-edge on the surface possessed something so profound underneath -- on every song!"
Moore has tried to dub bass into the girls' recordings, but the task has proved very difficult. "It's much harder than it seems," he says. "When I [play] bass along with it, amazingly it [elevates] it to another level. Public Image Ltd backs the Raincoats!"
So, were the Shaggs mediocre? Surely they were truthfully mediocre, at least. "I can't stress enough the brilliant pop sensibility in those grooves," says Moore. "The bad tunings and the topsy-turvy anti-rhythms notwithstanding, there's a fresh girl-group, Brill Building, British Invasion mastery in the melodies, uncannily sung and played in unison. Such ingenious innocence, blissfully pure '60s AM-radio composition and arrangement, accidentally filtered through a rural insane asylum. How decadent is that?!"
Decadent all right. And sincere.Planet Clair