Many people think they get the "joke" of Rod McKuen. Do you?
It's easy to feel superior to McKuen: schlockmeister extraordinaire... self-made poet laureate of a sanitized Haight Ashbury... author of innumerable gift poetry books that line the walls of America's Salvation Armies, their raw-nerve ball-point inscriptions a source of minor amusement to you and your post-sentimentalist pals. Well, I've got news for you, buddy: Rod McKuen could wipe the floor with you when it comes to sardonic cultural criticism and natural cool, to say nothing of manly good looks. The evidence is clear; you're just too busy cracking yourself up to see it. Take a deep breath and another look. And consider this...
It's early 1958, and the theme of THE BEATNIK (coinage via S.F. Chronicle columnist Herb Caen's inspired fusion of Kerouac's "beat" with Kruschev's "Sputnik") is blanketing the American scene. And why's that? Because sloth, dirt and self-conscious "hipness" is really funny. Sure, an argument could be made that the Squares choose to laugh at the Beatnik because they were threatened by the implicit criticism of mainstream values he embodied, but the fact remains that not since the stumblebum drunk or the backwoods hayseed had there been an American icon better suited for parody.
For a bit of light entertainment, and to quickly delineate the role that they occupied in the popular imagination, here are a few Beatnik jokes, guaranteed original and of the time:
Did you hear about the wealthy beatnik who hired a maid to keep his pad dirty?
It was a gay, mad party in Greenwich Village. The women were mad because the men were gay.
There was the East Village couple who had three children -- one of each.
Those beatniks are really something -- hairy, smelly, wearing the same sweater for weeks on end -- and the boys are even worse!
Everyone has seen those "Guess your age" and "Guess your weight" stands at the fair. In Greenwich Village they have a guy who's introduced a new version. For a quarter, he'll guess your sex.
Before there were Beatniks, there were Beats. These are the cats whose paperbacks and romantic brooding photographs are still held sacred by people who aren't from around these parts. The Kerouac-Ginsburg crowd were articulating things in their writing that they'd experienced in earnest in the immediate post-war years, largely in New York, occasionally in quasi-rural retreats like Texas, Mexico, Morocco, Big Sur. By the time Ti-Jean found a publisher for his speed-fueled butcher's wrap of prose and started making the rounds as TV's favorite wacky drunk guy, the original Beat Generation was settling into a discomforted middle age.
Thus the clichéd image of the 1950s Beatnik-- that black-clad, goateed, beret'd, ballet-slipper-wearing, be-boppin', pill-poppin', boo-huffin', work-shirkin', free-lovin', bath-avoidin' denizen of SF, Venice, the Village and the Universal lot -- represents something entirely apart from the original cast of characters. And while the literary output of the first Beats was certainly noteworthy, and continues to hold sway over credulous young folks to this day, the "Maynard G. Krebs" (cf. Bob Denver's memorable character on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) school of Beatnik has left us very little save some amusing greeting cards and highly-collectable decorative figurines. [note: There was however one place in which the Beatnik archetype managed to creep deeply into the psyches of girls born between approximately 1960 and 1970-- in the person of the "dud" date in the Mystery Date pantheon of masculinity. Ask any gal who has played this popular board game which fella she longed to find waiting at her door, and 9 times outta 10 the answer will be that rumpled schlub in the sweatshirt and jeans. Hell, some of us are still looking for him!]
A decade before San Francisco would serve as a beacon to a million smelly hippies, it was already attracting those who naively responded to the media's skewering of the Beat lifestyle and sought to make that life their own. These kids gravitated to North Beach, an old Italian neighborhood that had recently seen the opening of a number of nudie clubs, City Lights Books, and hep hangouts like the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, The Cellar, the hungry i, and The Place. It is this crowd that McKuen chronicles in his quietly parodic masterpiece, Beatsville (HIFIRECORD Album R419).
These neo-beats certainly lent themselves to parody. Whatever the reality, it appeared that individual interests were quickly absorbed into a vast amorphous wash of "cool" behavior. Naturally all good Beatniks wore black, dug jazz, were promiscuous, engaged in some creative activity--usually with minimal skill-- displayed nary a hint of race prejudice, avoided honest labor and soap and water, smoked reefer and owned at least one set of bongos.
It appears that to be a Beatnik required a certain level of commitment. Even in those economically healthy times, the purchase of the requisite equipment must have cost the newcomer dearly. While the girls were keeping their local drug stores in business with regular orders of rice powder and mascara, the boys were down at the art store stocking up on big tubes of oil paint (and sometimes vice versa). Abstract expressionism, baby: big canvases, big ideas, lots and lots of pigment. North Beach beat-doll Jay DeFeo's famed The Rose was so caked in paint they had to knock out a wall when it came time to move it out of her pad. This was the first generation to seek out second-hand clothing when they could have afforded new things --and a few years later the hippies would be raiding the thrift stores for "groovy" Edwardian morning coats and Victorian gowns, hand-painted '40s neckties to sew into skirts, tiny silver spoons that they'd bend into bracelets and rings, all of which they'd sport while dancing like retarded apes in the mud at rock festivals and be-ins, the crumbs... but I digress.
A fundamental change had occurred in America. The children of privilege suddenly saw all their parents had worked to give them as nothing more than a huge seductive rat trap. For a moment, at least, they rejected the birthright that had been so hard won on their behalf. (Most hurried back to reclaim it before long.) Certainly the Beatniks were not the first Bohemians in America; but theirs' was the first movement to be so widely disseminated through the mass media, almost instantly available for all to see and scoff.
Was there any truth to the clichés? Did there exist a single soul who betrayed all of the classic Beatnik attributes? Who knows? The folks that lived through it can't be trusted to be objective in their recollections, and such documentation as has survived paints an inevitably vague and biased picture. This is why Beatsville is such a valuable document. McKuen's madcap and poignant verses, carefully crafted to amuse both the locals and the slumming hoi polloi, have more truth in them than any attempt at a just-the-facts-ma'am reportage.
On the cover, Rod retreats to the gentlemanly background, where he broods on a candle-flame and tragically empty glass. Foreground's full up with a sloe-eyes Beatnik gal, black bangs over Cleopatra brows, pug nose betraying her freckly middle class origins. The backdrop is a vast, lousy painting, low-rent AbEx, traded, most likely, for a spaghetti dinner and a jug of dago red.
Take the weighty Hi-Fi vinyl out of its sleeve and put on "Co-Existence Bagel Shop Blues." Over a frenzied, nervous drum, Rod talks about some of the people he knows.
"I have a friend named Phyllis who likes truck drivers and garage mechanics she had a black eye when I saw her yesterday, but she said it was worth it that's all right baby, swing some things are better than sleeping pills."
Rough trade Phyllis is tame compared to the threesome that swiftly develops between a fire-eater (with sores in his mouth), a "colored boy," and some anonymously Beat girl. It isn't easy to be a Beat girl, either. Take the one with the mustache that Rod ran into one day on Jasper Place (around the corner from The Cellar) who told him she just came from St. Louis, and would he lend her a fin to get her furs out of hock, in exchange for some "decent company." He lent her his razor instead, and now she gets more work than anybody. (Poor chick.)
Nor is it easy to be a Beat boy, especially if you're sensitive and a little passive, like Rod. Check out "Haiku Poems," here quoted almost in its entirety for its striking view of the dark side of the lifestyle, and the surprising vision of redemption in the normalcy of getting up to go to work in the morning. Rod sounds a little nervous, but he plunges right in. For full effect, imagine hearing this read in a cellar club, surrounded by characters like those in the poem. The music shifts from tense, scary drums to sexy bass and sweet piano as the scene unfolds.
"Just for kicks we all went to the Self-Realization Cafe and had mushroom burgers and made up haiku poems. Then one of the others got the bright idea to roll somebody -- and I got panic and I didn't want them to know and I held onto the table so I wouldn't tremble and we went in this bar by the bus depot and waited for somebody to come out and they grabbed him and he only said "no no" and he didn't have a chance. They beat him up good. His face was bloody and his eyes were white and they left him in a little pile like a dung heap, and I watched it all. Going home, the one called Sailor said "Did you see his eyes?" And Dave passed me the bottle and said, "Whattsa matter kid, no guts?" and I felt like they were all coming up then. When I left them, I walked for a while and it was early in the morning and this big old water truck came by and sprayed the sidewalk and the gutter down and the water smelled good and the sun was just coming up above the few trees there are in our neighborhood, below Coit Tower, and through the fog it looked like an eclipse. Going to work were all the people I never see at night, including some waitresses in bandannas... and I went home and listened to the radio and made up haiku poems."
That's the tough stuff. Rod knows to follow it up with something quick and funny. He calls this one "No Pictures, Please."
"I try to be a good beatnik, but it's hard! I mean, like, I don't dig turtleneck sweaters, I can't grow a beard, and I catch cold in sandals. But I got a pad with a torn Picasso on the wall and a dirty red tablecloth... and all the Lenny Bruce records. I even bought a book on Zen. And if you come home with me I'll give you a cheese sandwich and wine in a cracked porcelain cup. [long, sad pause] Oh... my white bucks gave me away."
San Francisco's a great town, but it's always been a little claustrophobic. Any smart Beatnik knows how to stick out his thumb over by the bridge to hitch a ride to Sausalito. Rod does, and gets picked up by a gloomy preacher who takes him along to Sally Stanford's club. That's a famous bordello, dig? The preacher's nearly cottoning to the idea of Zen when a cute little gal comes along and interrupts Rod's monologue. The preacher gets lucky and our Beat narrator hits the road, pausing to recall his own Sausalito gal:
"There was this folk singer chick I was hung on who was getting alimony from her first husband. Between her alimony and my unemployment checks, we had enough bread for steaks twice a week. [Sadly] No use looking her up, though... she's AC/DC now, and those kind aren't so hot."
You can learn a lot about Rod McKuen from listening to Beatsville. In the seemingly autobiographical "The Bird Boy," Rod confesses "I am unhappy unless I am in love, and unhappy." Later he ruminates on a cute blonde being leered at on the street, and wishes he too might get some extra attention for wearing too-tight dungarees. That's nerve, kiddo. Rod was also worried about the hangers-on that were buzzing around the North Beach scene, trying to find ways to make money off his friends. The freedom that had been so hard-won by his crowd must have seemed in real danger of being destroyed by an influx of clueless newcomers, their vision of Beat reality hopelessly skewed by the media's willful distortions. "Steer clear of that chick-- she's writing an exposé called "Beat Time U.S.A." and she plans to sell it to MCA for a television spectacular. They're already talking about June Allyson and Charlton Heston starring in it. Y'know, when the last article has been written, the last movie made, and the final rock and roll hit turned out about the Beat Generation-- somewhere around 1965 I should think-- will they finally let us out of the cage?"
'Fraid not, Rod. Guess you'll have to go to Paris and adapt some Jacques Brel songs if you ever wanna taste that free air again. Actually Beatsville does close with a suggestion that it might be a good idea to get out of town, although not quite that far out of town: "Whaddaya say for kicks we hop in your VW and tear off for Watsonville? I mean, can you imagine a more Out place for two In people?" It's a perfect image with which to close out a wonderful disk.
There's typically a built-in obsolescence to records that relate to a trend or fad. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Beatsville came and went in its season and represented nothing more than an amusing time-capsule. But there's just a wee bit more to the story, and it happens to be a hoot.
I will now introduce Exhibit B: Rod McKuen Takes a San Francisco Hippie Trip (Tradition/Everest Stereo recording number 2063 S-3446). This particular copy found late one night in the alcove outside the Saint Vincent de Paul on Haight Street among a group of some fifty different McKuen elpees, none of them interesting. Dumbass Art Nouveau cover art, Rod's freaky face mirrored in a swishy swirl of pink, lime, canary and peach. Vaginal badge between his two sets of lips; far out and psychedelic. The record, however, is nothing less than our old favorite Beatsville, re-sequenced and bowdlerized for a less-innocent time.
Yes, bowdlerized. The original version is actually more libidinous than the free-lovin' late-sixties re-issue. Here's much of the text of the centerpiece of both releases, the fabulous "R.S.V.P." (called "Kranko's Hippie Party" on the second version)-- the boldface lines are those that have been excised from the latter.
"Kranko's having a party. At his pad on August Alley. With genuine imported Beatniks from Los Angeles and everything. Bring your own refreshments-- as long as they wear leotards. It should be a gas. The last time he had a party it was raided and they carted off two policewomen making it in the back room. Get there early though, because there won't be enough rollaway beds to go around. You might have to ball with somebody you've already balled. Kranko knows everybody-- including Frieda, who strips at the drop of a bennie, and Raffia the poet, who is not only an angry young man, but a dirty old man as well. I like Kranko-- he has wheels. He once told a proprietor of The Renaissance he was Woody Guthrie-- had him selling tickets for a folk-song concert.... The cat's not commercial or anything, it's just that even that hole he lives in costs money. Sometimes he lends his pad to people to ball in and hides in the closet to watch-- when he doesn't join in. Anyway, he's having a party and you're invited. If you've got any Leadbelly or Bird records you don't have to bring any wine."
Rod McKuen. Too earthy for the hippies. Too honest for his own good. Poet. Gentleman. Millionaire. Teenaged disc-jockey. Orphan. World-class character. Genius? He's strong, but he likes roses. He's not afraid to appear ridiculous, and he doesn't. But the kids who laugh at him look faintly absurd now, don't they?
Live!! From the Best Western Inn in Elko, NV, America’s Funnyman Neil Hamburger faxed us this exclusive interview! We're happy to share this preview of Scram #6 as a service to the whole wide world, which can certainly use a laugh. Thanks to Neil and to Manager Art Huckman for being such beatiful people! Scram: Now that you’re single again, is there any special lady in Neil’s life? Neil: Well, much as I hate to admit it, my ex-wife is still special to me. ‘Specially since most of my income goes to paying her alimony! Seriously, though, I meet so many nice people on the road that it is impossible to single one out for special merit. Scram: You spend most of the year on the road. Do you have any advice for our readers for getting the most out of your travelling food dollar? Neil: I’ve found that eating a couple of 50 cent candy bars right when you wake up can spoil your lunchtime appetite, freeing up the cash that you would’ve spent at lunchtime to be used for a more relaxed, enjoyable dinner. I do this every morning. I like to eat healthy on the road, so for dinner I often order off the breakfast menu— 2 eggs, ham, sausage, potatoes, and toast. It usually costs less than a traditional “dinner.” By following the above routine, I cut food costs down to $6 a day. Sometimes, depending on the venue, additional food is made available which, depending on the quality, I will usually eat. Scram: Many comics tell of painful personal experiences that shaped their funnyman personae, and you are certainly one of the most self-deprecating comics working today. Was your childhood a happy one? Neil: Well, it had its ups and downs. I spent most of it getting beaten up and knocked down. But seriously, today’s kids have it tough. Crime, welfare, drugs... things have gotten out of control. I like to think that a laugh helps ease the pain of growing up, and that’s one of the reasons I perform. Scram: How did you start your career as America’s favorite comic? And was it all wine and roses from the start? Neil: First of all, thank you, but I’m not yet America’s favorite comic. Not until the newspapers stop running “Peanuts,” that is! But seriously, I do believe that my drinking problem is a thing of the past. Scram: Would you ever date a fan? If yes, how should she approach you? And what do you look for in a lady? Neil: If you’ve seen my act lately, you’ve probably got a sore ear from listening to me talk about the foibles of dating. Is this a family publication?... There’s nothing wrong with dating a fan, in my opinion, as long as they understand from the get-go that the performer-fan relationship is not an equal one, and that there will always been an inequality there. I try to help bridge it, using my famous sense of humor, but that often makes things worse.... Dating! Scram: Have you ever had a problem with other comics stealing your material? Neil: Yes I have. I get letters from comedians all the time blaming me for stealing their jokes, and to them, I say “Pfui! I did it first!” Scram: I heard you got a personal call from Jerry Lewis recently. Is that so? Neil: I wish it were! The only personal calls I ever get are women star-69ing me after I call their numbers and hang up when they answer. Despite my on-stage persona, I can be very shy. But seriously, Jerry Lewis might have called... I was probably just on the road, as I am 350 nights a year. My answering service probably took the call. I’ll have to check on that. Scram: Can you give our readers a sneak peak at your forthcoming television spectacular? Neil: I finished filming my one-hour TV special quite some time ago. It should have aired by now, but there has been a problem involving one of our syndicators filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It is a charming special that follows “one day in the life of Neil Hamburger.” There are guest stars like you wouldn’t believe, songs, skits, fun... it is a great show and I had a lot of fun working on it. It will air soon. I’m worried that we may have to reshoot some of it due to the possible theft of some of the master tapes. Scram: Your hometown of Culver City is justly famous for two things: MGM Studios and a particularly horrific case of poltergeist-rape. Any comment? Neil: You forgot Al Jolson! He’s buried there! As for the poltergeist-rape... I never heard of that but it sounds like one of my ex-wife’s weirdo excuses to avoid marital relations after I wised up to “I have a headache!” I don’t live in Culver City anymore. My ex-wife still resides in the small house that I bought there in 1984. I stopped in one night in June, after a show in nearby Paso Robles, and picked up my belongings, which at this point mostly consist of a few boxes of memorabilia from my career, some unsold copies of my early 7” singles, notebooks with ideas for jokes, stage outfits, and the like. I am on the road right now, so my home is basically my 1989 Chevy Astrovan, damaged frame and all. But I have a week off in November, and I hope to find a permanent new residence then. Scram: When Neil Hamburger is “looking for laughs,” where does he go? Neil: On stage! That’s where I ended up looking the most, and believe me, some nights they are hard to find. Sometimes I feel like Columbus searching for the world is round. Scram: How’s your depression? Neil: It’s doing wonderfully! My depression has never been happier. Scram: Where do you get your wonderful stage wardrobe? May we print your clothing sizes in case any Scram readers would like to knit something for you? Neil: I had all my stage outfits selected for me back in 1984... I had just come into a small inheritance, and I decided to really make a “go” of my career. So, I went with the best. I hired Maria Socorro Vasques, a wardrobe consultant in North Hollywood, who had previously worked on television shows such as The New Beat the Clock with Monty Hall, Real People with Sarah Purcell, and The New Treasure Hunt with I don’t remember who. I think now she works with Greg Kinnear’s show. Anyway, she set me up with some very tasteful suit ensembles, which I still tour with today! In answer to your second question, sorry, no. Scram: Where are you playing tonight? Neil: Tonight is the first show in a three day stint at a small casino in Elko, Nevada. I’ve played here before. Nice place. Good breakfasts. They cook the pancake batter all the way through. Scram: Do you have a special rider that you demand each venue supply you with? Neil: My manager, Art Huckman, sets that up. He asked me what I wanted each night, and I told him: “A half a case of laughs and 3 lbs. of giggles.” He ignored me and asked for Tam-Tam crackers, pizza, hard-boiled eggs, Michelob, and Country Time Lemonade. It’s all for naught, however, we never get any of it. Usually it’s just a pitcher of water and a room key. Scram: Any recurring dreams or nightmares? Neil: I have a recurring daydream in which I arrive at the venue, it is large, clean, and classy. The audience is large, receptive, and enthusiastic about the show. I have a recurring nightmare in which the venue is dingy, the show poorly-advertised, and the audience drunk, lethargic, or nonexistent. Oddly enough, the nightmare takes place every night around showtime, and I’m seldom asleep when it occurs! Scram: Who is your idol? Neil: I have so many that it is impossible to name them all here. The great comedians of the past! Some of the new breed of comedians too— they are inspirational and really have a good thing going. Scram: What’s something most people don’t know about Neil Hamburger? Neil: That I have a new album out. It’s called America’s Funnyman, and is available at your local record store or directly from the label, Drag City Records, P.O. Box 476867, Chicago IL 60647. It’s my first full-length album, and I’m very pleased with it. Scram: Any truth to the rumors about you and Paula Poundstone? Neil: The rumors are true— I don’t know who she is. Scram: What should they put on Neil Hamburger’s gravestone? Neil: “Neil Hamburger— He’s Still Alive! This gravestone is not a gravestone at all, but a commemoration of a man who has successfully beaten death, and performs 350 nights a year, in top nightclubs worldwide! Would that he would share his secrets of long-life and good humor with us mortals.” Scram: You seem to keep your act pretty clean. Any chance of “raw” Hamburger? Neil: In the mid-’80s my act was much more geared toward the adult audiences... it was rated R, as opposed to my current PG style. Some of those shows were released as cassettes and sold at shows back then. Now I can only assume they are prized “collector’s items.” If you can find one, you can hear your “raw” Hamburger— but for now, I’m keeping it pretty clean, at the request of my manager Art Huckman— although you’ll still hear a “zinger” now and again. Incidentally, Art was a little touchy about my recent 7” record on the Planet Pimp label, “Bartender, The Laugh’s On Me”— he said some of it was veering towards PG-13.
reviewed by Kim Cooper
There are those who look askance at people who buy records from the Salvation Army quarter bin. These are the same folks who buy Primus CDs new, so I don't really feel any need to be embarrassed over my grubby vinyl rooting fingers. They can look down their noses all they like, because they're stupid and would never understand. But you do. You know that the best records are the most fucked up records. That Black Oak Arkansas says more to you than Guns ‘N Roses ever could. That Word Records of Waco, Texas (feature story forthcoming) outshines Dischord for sheer consistence of creative vision. And that Andy Williams’ version of “God Only Knows” carries a cringe factor so high that root canal would almost be preferable to a second listen. But these are common discoveries; delightful, but not rare. There are also records so incredible that when you find one it’s like you’ve unearthed a ruby in a dung-hill. One such album was bought by Mister Grady Runyan in the Pacific Northwest. The name of that record is Side by Side 75.
The year was indeed 1975, and the Southland Corporation had just had the best year in its history. President Jere W. Thompson called his managers together for a gigantic blow-out convention. He wanted to thank them, and their families, for the fine jobs they were doing upholding the 7-Eleven standard of quality. As an extra special treat, Thompson commissioned The Stanford Agency to compose a live musical as the climax of the convention. The Stanford Agency gave Larry Muhoberac, a genius, the task of writing this musical.
Even if you’ve never crawled naked down Sunset Blvd. for a Coca-Cola Slurpee, this record will touch you in a special place. It elegantly spells out the unique attributes of America’s favorite convenience store with an insider’s perception that is probably new to you. So not only is the music great, but the record is also a learning experience. Admit it: you never gave much thought to what it was like behind the counter of a mini-mart. Or even if you did pull the midnight-to-six shift a few times in high school, you failed to get into the head-space of the store’s owner-manager. But maybe you should have, because to judge by the frantic overcompensation on Side By Side 75, the owner-managers--at least at this stage in Southland’s development--were ready to go on a mass killing spree at the corporate headquarters. The convention and musical were clearly meant to unruffle some seriously disordered tail feathers and to spread a corporate message of love and togetherness. Did it work? Let’s examine the evidence.
“Oh Thank Heaven”, the first number, is described in the liner notes as “a musical happening!” (Remember, this is 1975, not 1966.) And it really is a happening of sorts, with its oscillating electronic waves and inspired chants of “Everybody’s doing it”, “Save on everything”, “If it’s not around the house it’s just around the corner”, “Hot to go”, “Oh thank heaven for 7-Eleven”, and the ever popular “Drink cups, drink cups.” Sort of a nightmarish melange of all the advertising slogans you thought you’d forgotten, as performed by K-Tel’s version of Kraftwerk. If I had a reel-to-reel player I’d examine this song for subliminal messages: “You will sit quietly in your seat and not launch yourself at Jere’s throat...”
“What Would We Do Without You/Side By Side” purports to be “an exciting medley of two great musical numbers [that] sets the pace of the show as well as the theme for our 1975 Convention. The two song titles along with the lyrics really do say what we all feel...that we’re all in this together. What would we do without each other?” Probably have much lower blood pressure. A terrible, off-key male voice intones, “If we have a dis-a-GREE-ment/ You bring the CEE-ment/ I’ll bring the glue.” Because while “we’re gonna gripe/ And maybe complain/ Believing in each other/ That is our aim.” There follows a spoken litany of managerial complaints: “You know, sometimes these corporate guys do have some pretty nifty ideas...some times”; “For years I thought our merchandizing manager knew what he was doing.” “Where’d you get that idea?” “Beats me.”; “Talk about corporate ideas--the only thing good about Hot To Go is the name...but who's gonna eat the name?” And yet all gripes are just so much dryer lint in the wind as a cheery chorus pipes in with Southland’s credo: “Togetherness is what we’re after/ From now on we’ll just hear laughter/ Side by side by side.” The tap dance percussion is an especially welcome touch. Snork...yeah, this number always breaks me up.
“Ring Them Bells” is, simply, “a story about a guy who looked all over the world for his niche, a place to do his thing. And after all that searching he found it in the form of a little 7-Eleven store right back in his home town.” The young man’s adventures are rattled off at breakneck speed, with my favorite being the quite incomprehensible statement (with appropriate sound effects) that, “then he ran a cafe up in Washington state/ But then the blue plate special broke and so he broke the blue plate.” After failing in Washington he tries Alaska, and it’s there that he has a near epiphany upon seeing a bright red and green 7-Eleven sign looming over the tundra. Touching, ain’t it?
If there’s a hit single on Side By Side 75, it must be “I’m Not Getting Married.” Imagine, if you dare, the most shrill, irritating female voice you’ve ever heard. Something like Kate Smith’s bellow mixed with Phyllis Diller’s “wacky” enunciation and Charles Nelson Reilly’s staccato phrasing. Can you hear it? Is your spine twitching? Good. Now multiply that feeling tenfold and you have the effect of the singer of “I’m Not Getting Married”, who is either Lette Rehnolds or Nancy Meyers. The song alternates between saccharine sweet evocations of the holy bond between an owner-manageress and her store, and the cold-footed bride’s frantic attempts to talk herself out of the “marriage”. The male counterpoint effuses, “Bless this day woman joins the store/ Benefits galore.” But Lette-Nancy is having none of it, and spouts her distaste in no uncertain way. Since she doesn’t want to open a 7-Eleven, she is of course just another hysterical female, “Bless this girl totally insane/ Slipping down the drain/ And bless this swain in whose heart/ She has caused such pain.” Lette-Nancy spits back, “Go, won’t you go? Look you know I adore you all but why must I try for a wholesale ratio?...I don’t like ice cream, I hate cottage cheese, I don’t like kids, I hate green peas. Thank you all for the training school, thanks a lot but I’m no fool...I’M NOT GONNA DO IT!” But when the wedding bells chime in Lette-Nancy’s sentiment gets the best of her, “Well, I guess I’m gonna do it.” And a heavenly choir looks up from their chili dogs to bless the union...“Amen.”
Of course SBS 75 wouldn’t be complete without an interminable rock opera. “Another Hundred People Just Came into the Store” is “a ‘today’ statement about our stores and our company’s history.” It is also funky as an old pair of shorts, and sung to the tune of “Ode to Billy Joe”. The chain’s history is spelled out in verse: from Jody Thompson’s Texas ice dock of 1927 through the mass birth of identical 7-Eleven stores along the East coast and all across America. The best lyrics are in the “interesting business” section; let me share some with you. “A half a dozen kids who collected the cups/ They just happened by/ So they moseyed around/ Making that Slurpee sound/ Really slurping it down.” “It’s an interesting business/ Some come to leave some to stay/ And everyday/ The ones who stay are frolicking (?!) in the split pea soup and the dairy vault/ Selling hot to go with a pretty smile/ ‘Hey lady, where’s the salt?’/ The slurp machine’s broken and the bread’s not here/ It’s not my fault!” And, “I’m coming and going when I change the shift we meet at the door/ Then I hired a guy who was born to drift, left with half the store.../But I love the business anyway, now isn’t that great?”
The last two numbers are pretty disposable. An exceptionally irritating song called “It’s You” (“It’s not Judy Garland or Spanky McFarland/ It’s you!”) sounds like the kind of music they play in Farrell’s ice cream parlors, and the performance closes with that old campfire favorite “We’ve (?) Got the Whole World in Our Hands.” It doesn’t matter. The first five songs are enough to earn SBS 75 the title of thrift store find of the decade.
Side By Side 75 is insidiously catchy. If you ever hear it you’ll soon be singing its verses to the horror of anyone unfortunate enough to be near you. And yet, as connisseurs of bad taste we feel compelled to make this offer: if you really want to hear this unbelievable artifact, send us a blank cassette (a C60 is fine) and return postage and we’ll make you a copy. But don’t say we didn’t warn you about the brain damage that will result. If you’ve ever needed Tampax and a cream soda at 3 a.m., this record speaks to you. Indeed, it speaks to us all.
(this appreciation originally appeared in Scram #1, Summer 1992. Free tape offer no longer available-- god knows where the damn thing is today!)