The recent discussion of the Abbey Road medley and my ability to slowly appreciate it thanks to the “communion” of seeing it performed by a lame, local Beatles cover band at my town’s annual July 4th fireworks extravaganza reminded me of this post. Feel free to think beyond issues of The Beatles and their cover bands, if you like. Feel free to think about the concept of Rock Communion. Wasn’t that a big part of the allure of the Dead? Have you ever taken Rock Communion?
This post initially appeared 6/22/07.
For my recent birthday my brother bought me 2 tickets to see The Fab Faux play at The Bowery Ballroom in New York. The Fab Faux is a Beatles cover band led by longtime, lanky Letterman bassist Will Lee and Conan guitarist Jimmy Vivino. My brother knows what makes me tick. Although he’s aware of my multitude of hang-ups, he rightly ignores them and helps steer me toward the path of pure pleasure now and then. So he had no worries about sending me off to see a show in which I’d be faced with the second- or third-most annoying member of the Letterman band. He had no worries about my fear that the whole thing would be as bad as I imagine that Cirque du Soleil thing must be. A pointy guitar or a strap-on synth never entered his mind. To him, this was about a Beatles fan and the music of The Beatles.
When I heard about this gift coming my way, I got myself in a very positive frame of mind, so much so that I was able to talk my wife, who can be as critical as yours truly, into a decent state of mind. For one thing, we’d get some time to ourselves in a favorite spot in New York, Soho. The theater was a mere few blocks away from our favorite restaurant, Balthazar, which we hit a few times a year. Traffic from Philadelphia to the Holland Tunnel complied with our mid-day departure plan, and we readily found street parking. The only thing that didn’t go perfectly right leading up to the show was my not seeing Kyle MacLachlan, who my wife spotted crossing a street. I got a look at him from the back, and his hair was long and dyed light brown. He must have looked a lot like his Ray Manzarek character from the front. Damn!
As we waited for the band to come out, I explained to my wife that this show could only be fun. A crappy Beatles cover band plays at our town’s July 4th fireworks each year, and we enjoy them simply because they’re playing the music of The Beatles. People of all ages and tastes feel good hearing the music of The Beatles on a warm summer night before fireworks shoot off. As we scanned the audience full of middle-aged Beatles dorks (myself included, although I think I was about the coolest guy there), I told her this would be like Wednesday night guitar mass, the only type of Catholic mass I could stomach during my rare visits to church as a boy. Wednesday night guitar mass was as hip as punching the clock would get.
During the long wait until The Fab Faux hit the stage we bitched about all the Harry Shearer’s Le Show-type Beatles covers that played over the sound system (ie, The Beatles as covered by artists sounding like Randy Newman, The Neville Brothers, and others who think it’s a good idea to make Beatles songs sound like they’re being performed by middle-aged white men in Louis Armstrong blackface) and tried to position ourselves safely away from all the big white collar guys who’d toked their first joint since 1992 and who were itching to elbow those around them while playing air guitar to the songs. It turned out to be impossible to avoid these types.
Finally, an Asian woman came out, and I thought, “Christ, they’ve got a Yoko Ono character with them?!?!” Turns out it was May Pang, perhaps rock’s premier one-trick pony, who has the audacity to bill her web site as “Official web site of a former girlfriend of John Lennon with news, biography, photographs, and FAQ.” (Sample FAQ: “What would you do to please John that Yoko wouldn’t?”) Pang then noted that Howard Stern sidekick Jackie “The Jokeman” Martling was “in the house.” Oh brother!
The Fab Faux then hit the stage, with Will Lee wearing a white, pouffy shirt, psychedelic bellbottoms, and a . Wisely, he ditched the hat after the opening number. As a huge Late Night With Conan O’Brien fan, I was psyched to see Jimmy Vivino up close. That guy always cuts on his 7-second bits on the show, and he was delivering on all those fantastic George Harrison 14-second guitar solos. After 2 songs, it was clear that these guys were actually very good. One of the things I figured would be pleasurable seeing this show was the musicians’ ability to hit all the key licks afforded by any Beatles arrangement, and they were scoring in the high 9’s and even some 10’s any time a memorable bass lick or drum or guitar fill presented itself for the taking. What was really a nice surprise was that all the guys could sing and sing well. It was also cool that they weren’t wearing Beatles costumes or playing the songs in chronological order. I saw Beatlemania in high school, and it was a lot of fun, but I had little desire to see it again.
Minor criticisms washed away with each spirited, note-for-note version of a Beatles song and with the good vibes exuded by the musicians. They didn’t have some reverant approach to doing the songs. They were celebrating each song, each key lick along with every middle-aged (and older) Beatles fan in the room. We were coming together. A version of “I Dig a Pony” hit just right tone for the faithful. I stood there and thought about how cool it was that The Beatles put so much effort into the guitar arrangements for a bizarre, silly, throwaway song in almost any other band’s hands – or a clunky piece of sludge. Think about how much effort and rock nerd knowledge it would take to like that song had it been done by an otherwise fine ’60s band like The Move or The Pretty Things.
Around this time the band announced that some special guests would be joining them tonight, and the first one out was Conan O’Brien! I love Conan, the audience loved Conan. Just a few days earlier I’d had a dream that Conan and I spent a night on the town, ’50s-movie montage style, on a wild coke bender. No joke. We were snorting up mounds of the white stuff, cracking each other up with our hilarious banter as we moved from one nightclub’s bathroom to the next. So, Happy Birthday to me. Here’s Conan joining in with this totally fun Beatles cover band, and he’s going to do “My Bonnie”: “Tony Sheridan,” he explains to the few in the audience who may not know the connection, “was Germany’s answer to a British Elvis.” Good stuff, coke buddy of my dreams! Then he sang lead and played guitar on that song and “Too Much Monkey Business”. Conan, Beatles fan; me, Beatles fan; big, middle-aged businessmen toking their first joint since 1992, Beatles fans.
Other guests would include Marshall Crenshaw, who was reunited with his 1978 Beatlemania cast-mate and Fab Faux stand-in utlitiy guy Glen Burtnick (Marshall was John to Glen’s Paul; they are Beatles fans too); Willie Nile; and The Big Beat author Max Weinberg, who did a fine job putting some aerosol cymbals into a couple of early Beatles numbers. The hits and album tracks kept coming, and I stood there thinking about the fact that no other band could provide talented musicians the chance to play so many tightly arranged styles over the course of one night. Imagine playing in a Rolling Stones cover band, as great as the Stones are. At what point does playing Keef’s one hammer-on chord become a bore? At what point does Mick’s tippy-toe, butt prance become a drag? Covering the music of The Beatles allows one to get all sorts of rocks off. Thanks be to The Beatles.
Thanks be to The Beatles, my brother, my wife, The Fab Faux, and the 400 other true believers in the club that night. It was a rare night out where I felt like a part of things, where I felt in tune with popular tastes. We need times like that now and then.