Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Passing Tide 5: Deceased Artiste Wild Man Fischer

Larry “Wild Man” Fischer was a true original for whom the unwieldy and imprecise term “outsider music” is just too tiny in its implications. And let’s be honest: the “outsider” label is a term that cares less about the artist and more about the "expert" — thus the inclusion of insiders with major-label music careers in the “outsider” category.

Fischer was the real deal, though: a street singer who had an awful singing voice but who thought up and performed songs that were bizarre, oddly (sometimes scarily) honest, and, most important of all, catchy as hell. He was also was lucky enough to be “rediscovered” over the years by different groups of odd-music fans.

His obits sketched his tenure as (The New York Times) “a mentally ill street musician” and (The L.A. Times, being far more kind) “a disheveled troubadour.” His mental troubles were of course what made his music so compelling (or really irritating) to listen to. He was given the nickname “Wild Man” by Solomon Burke, but is best known for his short association with Frank Zappa, who produced the amazing two-record set An Evening with Wild Man Fischer. Fischer’s highs and lows were recounted in the documentary Derailroaded, where the reason for the break with Zappa is revealed — Larry throwing a bottle in anger, nearly hitting baby Moon Unit in the head.

After the Zappa connection had died out and everyone forgot his sole appearance on Laugh-In (presumably booked in order to find “another Tiny Tim”), Larry went back to roaming the streets of L.A. singing for dimes and quarters. His recording of a promotional song for the Rhino Records store provided him with a “second act,” as he became a favorite on The Dr. Demento Show with “My Name is Larry” and went on to release three LPs for the newly created Rhino label. Those albums didn’t sell very well, and he went back to being a street singer. He was reclaimed from obscurity by the “outsider” business, and then made a final appearance in public on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, thanks to a very smart producer on the show being a fan of his work.

Derailroaded is essential viewing for those who know Fischer’s songs and others who just like strange music. It is thorough and very moving, but sadly left out the Kimmel appearance and thus ends on a down note, with Larry entering an assisted-living facility, in which he lived until his death two weeks ago of heart failure at the age of 66. Unlike the Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston documentaries, Derailroaded leaves us with the sad notion that the thing that made Larry special, the “pep” that he claimed was his impetus to write and sing songs on the street, was gone when he went back on medication for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Let’s remember the Wild Man at his creative, utterly bizarre best, first with the song he was hoping would be a hit single, for which Zappa provided a full production:

His most anthemic song, which you WILL NOT be able to get out of your head, is the one he performed on Laugh-In, “Merry-Go-Round.” Here is the album version, with Larry lapsing into a British accent on one of the verses — again, he wrote this hoping for a hit single, but instead crafted a tune that is all hook and nothing more, which seems to be the product of both his obviously voracious AM-radio listening and his childlike ear for sound:

As an example of Fischer’s influence on later generations, I offer Alexei Sayle’s cover of “Merry-Go-Round,” which seems just a bit more menacing than Fischer’s version:

A true rarity: Wild Man performing with the Mothers of Invention in late ’68. Here he performs “I’m a Meany,” his song about Yellow Submarine:

Even stranger, one of the creepier and more revealing songs from the Zappa-produced double abum, “The Wild Man Fischer Story,” performed live with the Mothers at the same show:

The song that ushered in the second phase of “Wildmania,” his promotional 45 for the Rhino store, “Go to Rhino Records”:

An invaluable little intro to Larry on the street, courtesy of an early Eighties “news magazine” show:

A rare concert appearance by Wild Man, with one of my fave bizarro musical acts, Barnes and Barnes:

Fischer recorded a duet with Rosemary Clooney (yes, you read that right) called “It’s a Hard Business.” That isn’t on YT, but you can hear similar sentiments in the sad and cynical “Don’t Be A Singer”:

The trailer for Derailroaded offers a capsule view of his life:

And the film’s creepiest scene offers animation for what is surely Larry’s scariest tune, “The Bouillabaisse”:

Larry’s last public performance, to my knowledge, his stint on the “Future Talent Showcase” on the Kimmel show:

Why not end with a sigh? Wild Man, with the help of Mark Mothersbaugh, covers “The Way We Were”:

Saturday, June 25, 2011

In Pod We Trust: five podcasts to which I am addicted (entries 4 & 5)

4. As It Occurs to Me: Richard Herring remains one of Britain’s busiest standups and also one of its most prolific podcasters. In my profile post on Herring, I discussed his other endeavors, but in this “short list” of recommended podcasts I had to include his sketch comedy show As It Occurs to Me, since it is, by turns, the most ambitious, the silliest, and, yes, the most imaginatively vulgar program I’ve heard in the decades since one could actually hear “the seven dirty words” on listener-sponsored Pacifica radio in NYC.

The show grew out of Herring’s twisted-history BBC program That Was Then, This Is Now, but it is a vast improvement on that show, in that AIOTM (as its title indicates) has no hard-and-fast concept behind it and is subject to no censorship whatsoever. It’s an exploration of the ideas and events that have occurred to Herring (and his cast) in the week prior to the program.

One warning: it might be quite puzzling to listen to the later episodes in any given series of the show before the earlier ones, so it might be best to start with the earliest shows. Herring is a master at crafting utterly absurd in-jokes and taglines that range from the sublime (I still salute him for referring to people’s children as their “sexcrement”) to the ridiculous (one season later, AIOTM still contains gag references to a skit that fell very flat a year ago, a goofy motorcycle-clothing store sketch).

Herring is ably abetted by his small cast of two actors (Emma Kennedy, Dan Tetsell) and a musician (Christian Reilly), but the show does seem to rise and fall on the twists and turns of his own fertile and warped imagination, and his ability to toss off lines and concepts that are better than some lesser standups’ entire acts. He also does this on the much more informal and quite often directionless podcast he does with TV/film critic Andrew Collins called Collings and Herrin.

As for the “dirty” side of the show: I have a pretty low tolerance for comedy that is obscene for the sheer sake of being obscene, but I do revere “dirty” humor that is surreal (as with Frank Zappa) or fucking brilliant (as with Cook and Moore’s inspired “Derek and Clive” LPs). Herring regularly plays with the notion of being puerile in his humor, but somehow keeps AIOTM and his standup from ever descending to the Howard Stern/Opie & Anthony level of unimaginative scatological humor.

Herring’s stage persona in his standup is often that of a chubby schlemiel, but in his podcasts and in certain of his themed standup shows, he is an agent provocateur who takes things just one step too far — and then muses about why he’s never on “the telly” anymore….

UPDATE: The only trouble with trying to chronicle any part of Richard Herring’s career is that the guy moves so damned fast. In the time that it took me to write and upload this blog entry, I found that he had recorded what he claims is definitely the very last AIOTM episode. He said that twice before, so perhaps we will see a return of the show, but he already has another short-term podcast he’s developing for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and he continues the sometimes hysterical, sometimes not-so-much, Collings and Herrin ’cast.

Available: Here
Price: free

Frequency of podcast: a “season” of six episodes annually

5.) Atoms, Motion and the Void: The preceding five podcasts in this survey are all rather easy to discuss, but the last one is such a special case that I’ll first refer you to a piece I wrote on it back in 2008, then I’ll describe it again briefly and talk about its latest “cycle” of programs.

AMV offers superlative storytelling in a literary vein — wait, stop, don’t mentally tune out! By “literary,” I mean entertaining and exceptionally well-constructed, not dry and over-intellectualized. The podcast is the creation of writer-performer Sean Hurley, who plays the lead character, one Sherwin Sleeves. Sleeves is an unflappable old gent living in the woods of New Hampshire who inhabits a universe that is by turns extremely realistic and magical.

The show is in fact a unique fusion of disparate elements, the main one being modern lit and old-time radio. The clever plot twists and self-awareness of the former mingle with cliffhangers and subtle “reveals” of the latter in the best AMV episodes. The stories are so well-written that I frequently scratch my head and wonder why Hurley hasn’t had a short-story collection or novel published yet. Besides the fact that the publishing world is bleeding to death on a gurney in the corner of the emergency ward, I think it is because Sean has unwittingly staked out his own terrain, and his work needs to be performed more than it needs to be read.

Making AMV even more a “one-man band” effort is the fact that Sean scores the show himself. In the earliest episodes, he played songs by other artists that perfectly fit the mood of the piece — in this capacity he actually got me to enjoy Rammstein and perfectly accomplished a Funhouse-like leap of culture with an episode that featured songs by both the Velvet Underground and Eddie Cantor. In recent years the songs in the shows have all been Sean’s own, thus fully integrating Sleeves as the sole “voice” of the universe he inhabits.

After a layoff of several months, Hurley has returned with a new series of episodes that he is offering by subscription — the original 35 shows are all still available for free. So far the new tale is engrossing and properly trippy, as Sherwin moves through a landscape of woods and water that is the mirror image of the one he normally lives in. Again, AMV functions with the homespun charm of A Prairie Home Companion, but as if written by a writing staff composed of Borges, Hesse, and Vonnegut (and perhaps, for good measure, my all-time fave Richard Brautigan).

No one is going to subscribe to something they’re not familiar with, so I hereby reproduce from my last blog post the list of episodes that supply the best introduction to the show.

The fact that there are well over two dozen episodes [now there are 35 – ED] may seem daunting to newcomers, but I suggest these shows: episode 2 as an amusing intro to the character and his ramblings, episodes 4 or 6 as door-openers to the larger tapestry that Sleeves winds up telling; 5 or 7 for uniquely touching tales (and I am not into the sloppy sentiment that ordinarily surrounds the telling of stories involving kids), and episode 18 if you just want to jump the gun, and experience Hurley’s mindwarpingly good writing.

AMV was the first podcast I got hooked on, and it remains a personal object of addiction.

Available: Here
Price: The older episodes are all free online. The new cycle of shows is available in the form of a subscription, with the episodes coming in the mail as limited-edition CDs, plus membership to the “Stalwarts” site, which celebrates all things AMV and features related downloads. Subscriptions are $12.96 a month, three months for $38.88, or six months for $77.76. I chose the download-only option (with Stalwarts membership), which is $45.00 for the series of six eps as MP3s.
Frequency of podcast: the show appears at intervals and has always been well worth the wait between eps.

I’m glad to share my recommendations for the preceding quintet; please feel free to add your own nominations in the comments field below. The five shows I included in this post are all very different, but they all share two things: they relate to audio genres that were formerly a staple of commercial radio (no more!), and it’s evident that their host-producers all put in a helluva lot of hard work to create them. I close out with two instructions: download and listen!

Friday, June 24, 2011

In Pod We Trust: five podcasts to which I am addicted (entries 1-3)

Commercial radio is deader than Marconi, and so those of us who listened to the medium all our lives have three options: listener-sponsored stations, satellite radio, and podcasts. In NYC, the first option has never come in on portable radios (“college radio” signals have never had enough strength; NPR is informative, but more often than not makes me doze). The second is a manifestation of the “niche” factor in American culture (hide the good stuff in niches that cost dough, while the mainstream garbage is free). And thus a few years ago I moved to the third option, which is thoroughly dependent on you knowing that the show exists.

Like trees in the forest, a veritable swarm of podcasts compete for your time and attention (and in some cases, for your dollars), but you could easily overlook the best ones on the journey to read another bite-sized piece of text on the Net. Since this past weekend I turned “another year older and deeper in debt,” I figured my gift to you, the reader of this blog, would be a short discussion of the five podcasts I most eagerly await. Four of them I’ve written about before on this blog; only two charge a subscription fee, and both of those have ample archives of older material available for free. Four of the five hosts began on radio, and all of the programs have their own individual charms and addictive qualities. I would've linked to the downloadable version of one of my favorite remaining radio programs, Idiot's Delight with Vin Scelsa, but that is available only as .asx files, which can't be carried around on an MP3 player.

1.) Lionel Media: Lionel, whom I wrote about here, is a former radio talk-show host who was on both liberal and conservative stations, and always seemed to stake out his own turf. His only book to date labeled him a “contrarian,” but I’d prefer calling him a skeptic, which, given the extremely bored yet dogmatic way in which Americans view both politics and religion, is a valuable thing.

If you want to sample what Lionel is like when he’s in his hyper-kinetic mode, check out his wonderful three-minute commentaries on local WPIX news. On his website, he currently offers an audio podcast on which he goes into depth on the same issues as the PIX commentaries, and also ponders a host of others.

Although I disagree with him on some issues, and there have been a few times when I’ve felt that 30-45 minutes would’ve sufficed on certain topics (his podcast usually runs an hour), the best episodes have found him carefully deconstructing some statement or action made by the government. That is when he is at his best as a “decoder” (his own term) of the mainstream media’s coverage (and blind acceptance) of the government’s pronouncements. My personal favorite episodes of the ’cast have been more personal ones, where Lionel (in perfect Henry Morgan mode) tells us about people who annoy the hell out of him. Examples of this from his WPIX commentaries are here and here.

Sometimes I do sense a slight “disconnect” between the high-energy commentator on TV and the soft-spoken podcaster, but in both roles Lionel is a talker who always forces his viewers/listeners to think about what’s going on around them. Plus, he’s extremely funny, especially when in an exasperated or annoyed mode.

Check out his WPIX commentaries on YouTube for an intro as to how the man’s mind works. I’m still surprised that a local news show is airing his radical (read: logical and well-argued) messages. He is well worth your time:

Available: Here
Price: $5.99 a month, but free “sample” episodes every few weeks
Frequency of podcast: 3-5 times a week.

2.) WTF With Marc Maron: Marc is the only podcaster on this list lucky enough to have commercial sponsors and to seemingly be making a profit from his Net-show. Ostensibly an interview show concerned with the world of comedy, I detailed in my last post about WTF how, pretty early on, the show started offering odd and fascinating “therapy sessions” for the comic figures interviewed.

I’m still not sure why the guests consent to talk in detail with Marc about their biggest fears, grimmest memories, and most tangled familial relationships, but it most definitely makes for a riveting listen. A few guests have indeed moved away from discussing anything too personal, and still others have acknowledged the fact that the show frequently goes in that direction (“I’m not gonna cry for you, Dr. Maron,” declared “the pitbull of comedy” Bobby Slayton).

As I mentioned last time, I have little to no interest in some of the people Marc has on (how many members of “The State” or “The UCB” can one honestly care about?). But it is a testament to his unique method of “sharing neuroses” and getting his guests to open up that I often wind up listening to these episodes anyway — developing a sympathy or simpatico for the individual, even though I still don’t find them funny or ever want to watch their work.

There are exceptions, though. While, for example, I already enjoyed the work of Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall) and standup Maria Bamford, and just wound up loving ’em a whole lot more after they opened up to Marc about their private lives (in minute detail), I found recent episodes (one posted today) with two major “name” comic personalities, Jimmy Fallon and Amy Poehler, to be shows one could avoid entirely. But I listened — yes, I listened, and have learned my lesson; I will spend no more time hearing reminiscences of SNL or UCB alumni. (Both institutions have crafted startling amounts of unfunny, unwatchable sketch comedy.)

Marc will frequently refer to the ghosts of Comedy Giants Past — Lenny, Pryor, Carlin, Hicks — and people who influenced the current generation of standups like Mitch Hedberg and Dave Attell (all of whom I enjoy very much). But one need only hear Fallon talk on WTF about Will Ferrell being the funniest man he’s ever met “in my entire life” and understand in a flash the “mediocritization” of American comedy. Steve Allen used to say Groucho was the most naturally funny man he’d ever met; Fallon points to Ferrell — why say more? (I've seen Fallon gush over top-notch British humorists like Chris Morris, the Pythons, and the Mighty Boosh elsewhere, but his taste in the American comedy of his own generation is as piss-poor as the "stupid human tricks" performed on his program.)

But I come to praise Marc, not to bury him with one of his more famous guests’ sadder statements. The single best example of what Maron is capable of with WTF was a recent episode in which he interviewed a comic legend who still dwells among us, Jonathan Winters. The last time I saw Winters being interviewed it was on Jimmy Kimmel, where he did a rather dazzling bit of improvisational material as a deranged scoutmaster for boys who dressed his charges in little dresses and bonnets. As Winters went on, the routine was alternately hysterical and then not funny at all (the sign of true improv). Around the time he reached a wonderfully Faulkner-ian image that wasn’t funny at all but was still wonderfully haunting (a flood that sent all the little boys’ dresses downstream…), Kimmel stopped him cold and asked, “Can I speak to Jonathan?” thereby ending the routine for good, and proving that however friendly and nice Jimmy K. is, he hasn’t the foggiest when it comes to playing straight man to the comic Force of Nature that is Jon W.

By comparison, Maron let the now-85-year-old Jonathan simply wail at points during their interview. Winters talks much slower now, but his mind still fires on all cylinders, and around the 1:05 mark of the interview — after having discussed his stays in mental institutions and his grim relations with his parents — Jonathan started riffing. What came out was a dark piece in which he played both a wimpering patient and his stern psychologist. The latter is so fed up with their sessions and his patient’s spinelessness that he begins to urge him to commit suicide, in graphic detail. The bit has no punchline, but it is Winters at his best, and it is incredibly dark (bringing to mind the much-circulated “Hee-Hee-Larious” unsigned party record that “JW” made made many years ago).

I would definitely love to hear Marc meet up in the future with more of the “old lions” of comedy who dwell on the West Coast, and continue to hold “therapy sessions” with his extremely tortured and very funny contemporaries. The talks with friendly but anemic (and boringly non-neurotic) sketch-comics aside, WTF remains a show for comedy fans to keep an eye on, if only to hear Marc “trauma-bond” with funny standups whose secrets and memories make for fascinating listening.

Available: Here
Price: Free, but a “premium membership” (with access to the older episodes) is available for $.99 for 1 month, $4.99 for 6 months, and $8.99 for a year.
Frequency of podcast: twice a week

3.) The Bitslap with KBC The NJ-based free-form radio station WFMU is a bastion of eclecticism that is listener-sponsored and, sadly, unable to be heard on any portable radio in NYC. Thus, the station’s podcasts provide a portable way to listen to the station, and the show I’m about to discuss can be heard only as a podcast.

Though he’s never been one of their “celebrity” DJs, a gent who simply goes by his initials has been on my short list of favorite air personalities since the dim, dark late Eighties. He left his regular berth on the station back in the 1990s (early? mid? I’m reaching the point where memories start to blend together….), but has been producing a weekly music podcast for the last two years for the WFMU website. It is mind-warpingly weird, and by that I mean wonderful.

KBC’s stated heroes on the program are Spike Jones, Stan Freberg, and the Firesign Theater, but there’s a lot more to his show than novelty tunes and “headphone comedy.” He cleverly blends rare singles with 78s and what are now called “deep album tracks” to create a mind-altering effect (without chemicals!) that calls to mind the best aspects of Sixties and Seventies free-form radio, as well as the strange vibe that permeated Seventies radio comedy (the best example being The National Lampoon Radio Hour).

He arranges most of the shows thematically and does a superb job of venturing down the “rabbit hole” of recorded comedy music to discover the catchiest, silliest, most hypnotic, and yes, at times even abrasive, music and vintage comedy sketches. The show is clearly a labor of love and, as an access producer, I can well understand KBC wanting to “give it all away.” (Remember, before YouTube, there were zines, public access and, most definitely, FM free-form radio.)

Check out KBC’s playlists to see the breadth of material he covers — and be sure that no one on the planet has a wider collection of rare, unique, and downright strange Xmas music than he does!

Available: Here
Price: absolutely free
Frequency of podcast: once a week

COMING UP: Two shows that have lengthier intervals between their episodes, but are well worth the wait!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Passing Tide 4: Deceased Artiste Dolores Fuller

Back in the days before reality shows ensured that everyone had a chance to prolong their show-business careers indefinitely, there were few “second acts” in entertainment. One of the actresses who successfully escaped the B-movie “underground” and scored a second career was Dolores Fuller, who died a few weeks back at 88. She was best known for her work in front of the camera, as the female lead in her then-boyfriend Ed Wood’s astounding Glen or Glenda? (1953), but she refashioned herself in the Sixties as a songwriter, contributing a dozen songs to Elvis movies.

I interviewed Ms. Fuller back in the mid-Nineties, and she was quite a sweet lady who was more than willing to talk about the highs and lows in her life. By that point, she was again working in front of the camera — she appeared in micro-budgeted genre pics like The Ironbound Vampire and The Corpse Grinders 2, directed by the only surviving no-budget auteur, the redoubtable (and unstoppable) Ted V. Mikels.

She began her career with a bit as a child extra in It Happened One Night (1934), and then returned to Hollywod in the early Fifties, appearing in uncredited roles in a few films before meeting and becoming the girlfriend of the legendary Edward D. Wood Jr. — who, as we all know, is not the “world’s worst director” he was labeled as, because his films are compulsively watchable, no matter how incompetent they got (his scripts were astounding too, especially in the later years).

Ms. Fuller did the convention circuit in the mid-Nineties, thanks to the resurgence of interest in Wood, which culminated in the extremely upbeat and touching Tim Burton biopic. In that film she was played by Sarah Jessica Parker, who publicly said (I believe it was on The Tonight Show) that it was hard to play Dolores because she was such a bad actress (SJP is capable of so much more as a performer — insert joke *here*). Glen or Glenda? does remain one of the most stunningly bizarre movies ever; just on the off chance you haven’t seen it (or want to be reminded of its angora genius), here is the famous finale, in which Dolores gives her sweater to Ed to complete his transformation:

Ms. Fuller was unabashed about all aspects of her B-movie career — when I met her for the interview, I was surprised to find that she was selling color nude sunbathing pics of herself from the Fifties, which she said were shot by none other than “Eddie” himself. She noted publicly that her relationship with Wood ended when he became a heavy drinker, but one has to assume it was also a function of her embarrassment over his transvestism (see the interview clip below).

As to her “rebirth” as a songwriter, the story goes that she asked her friend Hal Wallis for a part in the Elvis picture Blue Hawaii (1961) and didn’t get one. Instead, she got to write the lyrics for a song Elvis sang in the pic, the extremely Presleyian (check out that classic finale) “Rock-a-hula, Baby”:

With her partner Ben Weisman (he wrote the melodies, she wrote the lyrics), Dolores went on to write a total of twelve songs for the Elvis movies. She also wrote tunes that were recorded by Nat King Cole, Shelley Fabares, and Peggy Lee. In addition, she started a record company named Dee Dee Records that launched the career of Johnny Rivers, and she is credited with getting Tanya Tucker her first break in the music industry.

Since I think she was prouder of her musical accomplishments than for having been Ed Wood’s angora-object-of-desire, I’ll include a few of her Elvis tunes here. First, a jumpin’ little tune, “I Got Lucky”:

Then “Steppin’ Out of Line.” At first I thought this fan-created bit of video (using a lot of anime images) was silly, but then I realized it’s sort of a welcome break from Elvis’ cookie-cutter movie musical numbers (which, aside from Viva Las Vegas, were rarely staged creatively):

Perhaps the silliest song Ms. Fuller co-wrote for the King, “Do the Clam” from Girl Happy (1965). The “Bo Diddley beat” is used to support this dance tune. And yes, Elvis does do the dance at the clip’s end. It is entertaining and ridiculous:

Ms. Fuller had a song in Elvis’ very last film as an actor, the stunningly campy A Change of Habit (1969), which I heartily recommend to everyone reading these words (it is up on YouTube in its entirety at this moment, and certainly can be discovered on DVD). Mary Tyler Moore is a nun, Elvis is a ghetto doctor, and they both try to cheer up an unhappy little girl in this scene. The film’s sub-theme is whether MTM will leave the nunnery for Elvis — at this point her gleeful single-shots are a little too weirdly orgasmic (especially in front of a kid on a merry-go-round). The song is pretty wacky too:

Since I’ve linked to the silliest, let me link to the best tune Fuller co-wrote for Elvis, this rewrite of the old North Carolina folk tune discovered by John Lomax called “Cindy.” The original is sung by Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo. The revamped version by Fuller, Weisman, and Fred Wise is reputed by Wikipedia to be the one covered by numerous artists (including Warren Zevon) in the last four decades. Then again, a nimble YT editor has matched up the Ricky Nelson version with the great duet by Johnny Cash and Nick Cave, and it appears they were singing the traditional version. In any case, Elvis' version does indeed rock, and belongs to the "comeback" period where he seemed to actually give a damn about his music again:

I have the feeling that while she was steadily working as a lyricist, she rarely thought about her ex-boyfriend Ed Wood (who was then writing, and occasionally appearing in, softcore pictures) and never dreamt that his movies would enter the mainstream decades later (does anyone remember that Warren Beatty’s name was somehow linked with the arthouse canonization of Glen or Glenda? back in the early Eighties?).

Whatever the case was, she was charming and gracious when I interviewed her at the Chiller Theatre convention in the mid-Nineties. I’ve always particularly liked her looking away in a dramatic fashion as I ask the question here. Like many of the older ladies I’ve interviewed, she was a class act.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Passing Tide 3: Deceased Artiste Randy "Macho Man" Savage

I haven’t talked much on this blog about my love for professional wrestling, which started when I was a kid and has been revived throughout the years whenever a master mic-worker has appeared. See, I’m not as interested in the matches as I am in the promos and in-between business when it’s amusing — which it only is when it’s in the hands of seasoned ranters or crazy people (and of course the best wrestling stars are both). “Macho Man” Randy Savage died a few weeks back, and I need to pay tribute to him because he was a mighty mic-worker, a guy whose promos at worst were vaguely coherent; at best they were, well… brilliantly, superbly insane.

There was a special on cable-access here in Manhattan years ago called “Professional Wrestling: The Spoken Word,” which simply intercut thirty minutes of the craziest interview segments from the more obscure federations (obscure to those of us up here in the North). Now that YouTube exists, you can readily find hours of this stuff, and when you watch it in sequence, you find that, yes, these guys are manic spoken-word artists, standup comedians, and even in some cases (the mute George “the Animal” Steeles and Bugsy McGraws), performance artists.

So we salute Randy Poffo, aka Randy Savage, who could wield a mic with the best of them (that’s why he became a cartoon voice-talent after his wrestling career was over). He came from a wrestling family (his father Angelo was in the business, as was his brother — "Leaping Lanny Poffo") and had a career as a minor-league baseball player before making his in-ring debut in 1973. Throughout the three decades he worked as a wrestler he was both a successful “heel” and a “face” — although he was FAR more interesting as a heel, it goes without saying.

Savage was diminished in WWE history since he left the franchise in 1994. Vince McMahon held a grudge over something — fans speculate on the Net over rumors that “Randy took Stephanie McMahon’s virginity” to “Randy gave Shane McMahon cocaine” to “he took Slim Jim's sponsorship with him when he went to WCW” to “there was a business deal that went sour between Randy and Vince.” Whatever the case was, McMahon has praised Savage since his death (including a few-paragraph statement in Time magazine), but was completely against him when he was around.

Sure, Savage had massive personal problems — he used drugs, was rumored to be extremely difficult, and sometimes the plot strands of his “storyline” (with women entering and exiting, and him punching out guys for lusting after them) mirrored what was going on in his real life. But I think the entertainment the guy afforded us playing a human cartoon (that he himself created, then lost control of, and then brought back to life as “the Madness” in WCW) compensates for whatever personal gripes people had against him. I offer in evidence the clips below.

The best way to start a very select survey of clips is to offer a solo Randy ramble, in which he notes that “history beckons the Macho Man!!!”:

Diehard fans have deep VHS collections. Here Randy is in 1980 in a fed called ICW that his father had a hand in founding. The joy of watching clips from the smaller feds is seeing how the mic-workers fill time (they sometimes had to fill large clumps of it in the clean-up between matches). The seeds of greatness lie in this insane rambling (the best bit: staring all night at a candle):

Randy’s brother Lanny was the poem-spouting wrestler “Leaping” Lanny Poffo. The two brothers made a music video set to an AC/DC song, but this beefcake-riddled, homoerotic item with the two set to “State of Shock” by the Jacksons and Mick Jagger is quite wonderfully nuts:

Looming large in Savage’s legend was his manager (and real-life wife) the “lovely Miss Elizabeth.” I never found her the least bit compelling in the ring or as a mic presence, but he had her in-ring with him for over a decade. Here he proposes to her, and here is her WWF debut, with the announcers trying to make her seem more glamorous than she was:

Here we hit the real mother lode, a feud narrative told in two frenzied interviews. The participants are the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair,” Mr. Perfect, Bobby “the Brain” Heenan, and Randy and Miss Elizabeth:

Randy informing us that he’s insane:

Sometimes you got double or triple the terrific mic-work. Here Savage is joined by the equally insane Ultimate Warrior, and here he is with Zeus (action movie perennial Tiny Lister) and “Sensational Sherri” Martel:

The King and Queen of Madness, Randy with his new manager Sensational Sherri, command the camera. Martel was everything Miss Elizabeth was not (a compelling presence on screen, an in-ring wrestler, a great villain):

And cross-promotion is important, so of course there had to be a cheeseball rap video for Randy (he did a later, mega-raspy-voiced rap album that is quite special). Here it is, with background singers praising what sounds like the "Matcho Man" (what do they care?):

Before I conclude with the best-ever period of Randy’s mic-work, let me flash forward to him doing a promo this year for Comic Con (and Macho Man action figures), looking much older (he died at 58), but still possessing a great raspy voice and capable of rambling ("that’s a secret, no it isn't…”) like nobody’s business:

I must close on Savage’s promos cut with the great “Mean” Gene Okerlund, a Howard Cosell-sounding announcer who was arguably the best straight man for wrestlers in the WWF. Take a look at Randy being interviewed by Jesse “the Body” Ventura, and then check out the condensed power of Savage cutting promos with Mean Gene:

My two favorite-ever Macho Man moments. First, he gives his hated opponent Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat a small respite with “a cup of coffee in the big time” (awesome):

And what must be one of the most kinetic, crazy-ass interviews he ever gave to, of course, Mean Gene: