A little over a year ago, I played the role of narrator in a show called “Jugtown U.S.A.” The show concept was simple: Play a retrospective of the hits of early Motown on jug band instruments. Musical parts were reorganized to accommodate instruments from the hillbilly wedding party scene in the movie Deliverance, were there actually such a scene. Drummer Olaf Shiappacasse played a finely arranged pile of debris, including a washboard, cardboard suitcases, hubcaps, and pie tins. Matt Bohn built and performed on a more playable interpretation of the washtub bass, substituting a galvanized washtub for the usual curvy body. Along the front of the stage, ready to play the parts of strings and brass, stood an array of jugs, partially filled beer bottles, kazoos, and megaphones.
It was one of those “crazy but it just … might … work” ideas. I think it’s safe to say such a show had never been considered, much less accomplished. Eight talented musicians invested a huge amount of time in rehearsals, and I got pulled in to create a historical narrative of Motown (I didn’t get it all right. For instance, it turns out that Michael Jackson’s career didn’t really start when a band of brothers called the Jackson 4 purchased from an itinerant Gypsy puppetmaker a sophisticated marionette named Michael who yearned to be a real boy).
Why did we do it? It was a ton of work for everybody, and nobody expected to get rich or laid or picked up by a major label or acquired by Google. We did one very sold-out show at Don Quixote’s, and that was it. Mountain climbed. Mission accomplished.
The idea man behind the project was Rick McKee, a.k.a. Ukulele Dick. Rick is perhaps most lauded for his idea of putting together a live performance of the Beatles’ White Album, something even the Fab Four never did. I thought it sounded cool, but that nobody would come. But it turned out to be a huge hit. Shows what I know. So now, I now pretty much just go along with whatever he comes up with. His next project will be a collection of musicians who have no business performing Rolling Stones songs. I suggest you go, if only to see the bluegrass version of 19th Nervous Breakdown.
But even Rick, with all his persuasiveness and enthusiasm, could never get something like that off the ground without a local pool of talent willing to go along with interesting, kooky schemes largely for the sake of the joy of doing them. We live in such a community, and I love it. I get a lot of inspiration from the windmill topplers who work so hard to create something new under the sun: Rhan Wilson of Altared Christmas fame, keeping Santa Claus weird for six years now; composer Phil Collins of New Music Works, who for over 30 years has been producing cutting-edge “classical” music for a world that mostly doesn’t even know what New Music is; comedian Richard Stockton, keeping the Haight-Ashbury Home Companion dream dream alive for four years with the Planet Cruz Comedy Hour; choreographer Tandy Beal, who can take performing artists from any number of disciplines and weave them into a cohesive, beautiful whole; artist David Jackman’s nine year run with the eclectic 7th Sense Fashion Show; and chef Jozseph Schultz, who keeps food, art, and performance all mixed together on the plate.
These are all people who produce events that are difficult to describe, which in my mind gives them a fighting chance of being interesting. I know there are many more visionaries in town; these are just a few that I can vouch for personally. We’ve got the kind of artistic diversity and experimentation normally found in larger cities like San Francisco, Portland, or Seattle. That’s great, but that high artist-to-audience ratio also means it’s difficult to get the ticket counts needed to start leaving day jobs behind. Often, ticket income pays for little more than basic production costs, and performers are left with gas money if they’re lucky.
With an artistic culture like this, I’m not surprised that Santa Cruz is so well represented at Burning Man, a desert festival that’s often assumed to be all about boobs. For me, I appreciate Black Rock City because it embodies what I’m talking about here: people exercising their crafty, artsy side to create and share cool stuff just for the hell of it. Plus: boobs!
I’ve always wanted to see a live performance of the music of Spike Jones, the once-popular bandleader who satirized popular songs of the ’40s using an amazing array of musical and comedy props and sound effects, kind of like music from old Warner Brothers cartoons. It’s become clear, though, that if I want to see it I’ll have to produce it myself, and I have no local shortage of role models giving me courage to try. So, if you’re a musician and fan of Spike, or if you have a couple octaves of tuned cowbells or squeeze horns I can borrow, get in touch with me and I’ll see to it you get rich, or at least get gas money. Maybe a T-shirt.
Rick McKee is a 2011 Gail Rich Awards recipient. You can write Sven at [email protected]