Lenny & Squiggy – “Lenny and the Squigtones” (1979)

Two girls grew up in the Bronx, only four months in age separating them. I don’t know if their paths ever crossed, the Bronx and New York City as a whole being a massive place and teeming with people when they were growing up in the 1940s and 50s, but there’s a decent chance that at the very least they were in the same place at the same time at some point. On a bus or a subway, in a store or a movie theater… or maybe just passing one another on the sidewalk. Both girls were named Carole, and both spelled it with an “e”, the extra letter something that one of them always mentioned when telling someone her name to ensure her name was spelled correctly. The Bronx hadn’t fallen into the arson-ravaged squalor that would overtake it in the 1970s, but parts of it were still pretty rough and poor. One of the girls grew up and became an actress, and later a director, won some awards and even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The other went to work for a sugar company, met a guy, got married, and later became a hair stylist and managed an entire region’s worth of hair salons. She also had a kid who, in his 40s, started a vinyl blog.

My mom and Penny Marshall had something else in common, besides both being girls named Carole who were born in the Bronx in the mid-1940s (“Penny” is actually Marshall’s middle name). They looked a lot a like. A LOT. Plus of course there was that Bronx accent, and they had pretty much the same hairstyle. So when Penny Marshall’s show Laverne & Shirley became a big hit in the late 1970s/early 1980s some of my mom’s friends just started calling her Laverne. Needless to say I always had a certain attachment to that show, a show that also spawned another significant acting career, that of Michael McKean who played the goofy neighbor Lenny and later became recognizable to rock fans everywhere as lead singer and rhythm guitarist David St. Hubbins of the band Spinal Tap. McKean and I have an odd connection in that we both attended Carnegie Mellon University (though he graduated from there, while I did not). McKean and his Laverne & Shirley partner-in-crime David Lander (a.k.a. Squiggy) put out an album in 1979 as their show personalities Lenny & Squiggy (♠), an album that also included Christopher Guest, who later joined McKean in Spinal Tap as Nigel Tufnel. Oh, and did I mention I saw McKean perform live with Spinal Tap as part of the Break Like the Wind Tour in the early 1990s? It all comes full circle.

Lenny and the Squigtones is a live performance, a blend of music and comedy done entirely in character. Musically it’s early-style rock ‘n’ roll with a bit of rockabilly thrown in for good measure, and “King of the Cars” could be a lost Beach Boys classic. The lyrics are funny and at times absurd, but what’s notable is how good the band sounds. I get it, it’s a comedy record to some extent, but these guys know what they’re doing much in the same vein as the Blues Brothers (the keyboardist on this album is none other than Murph Dunne, who played keys for said Blues Brothers). The show is recorded in front of a live audience and the sound quality is surprisingly good. My guess is it will be more enjoyable if you actually remember the characters from Laverne & Shirley, but if you’re down with some goofiness you’ll probably find yourself smiling from time to time.

As far as I can tell this was never re-released, and given that it’s a bit of a period piece that isn’t a surprise. Some copies come with a fold-out poster – mine includes a stick on the front noting this. So if you pick one up, looking inside to see if you’re getting the poster as well.

(♠) The pair actually came up with and performed as Lenny & Squiggy prior to being cast in Laverne & Shirley.

Weird Al Yankovic – “In 3-D” (1984)

Weird Al appealed to me in 1984. Not only was he funny and witty, but he was also clearly someone who embraced his nerdiness. I was definitely someone who would have been described by many if not most of my classmates as a nerd, and this was a time before nerdiness had become cool. Sure, Revenge Of The Nerds came out that year, but that didn’t really help. Throughout my grade school years I was pretty much always the second smallest (but oddly never the smallest) kid in my class, woefully un-athletic, and got good grades. I also liked role playing games and lacked even the remotest comprehension of what was cool when it came to clothes. So I kind of related to the image that Weird Al portrayed, one that doesn’t appear to be entirely separate from the person he actually is.

I can’t recall if I bought In 3-D or his self-titled debut first, but I had them both and played the hell out of them. I haven’t listened to either in decades, but as soon as I saw this great copy of In 3-D last weekend I knew I was going to buy it even before I looked saw price. It’s the perfect trip down memory lane.

Everyone of course remembers this album for “Eat It”, the magnificent cover of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (Eat it / Eat it / Get yourself an egg / And beat it) that arguably launched Weird Al into the mainstream. But my favorite was always one of Al’s originals (♠), “Nature Trail To Hell”, a song about a fictitious teen slasher flick. We’ve also got songs about game shows, supermarket tabloids, sandwiches, TV shows, infomercials, and, of course, polka. Styles include pop, new wave, reggae, adult contemporary, and, of course, polka. Because you can never have too much polka.

I forgot how good some of these songs are. The way Al combines the actual words to the Brady Bunch theme with the music for “Safety Dance” is tremendous. “I Lost On Jeopardy” has some great references to the game show (I took potpourri / For one hundred…) with the added benefit of Don Pardo, arguably one of the great all-time game show voices, throwing down a litany of insults. And “Polkas on 45”? We get a medley of lyrics from Devo, Deep Purple, The Beatles, The Doors, Iron Butterfly (!), Jimi Hendrix, Talking Heads, Foreigner, The Police, The Clash, Rolling Stones, and The Who, accompanied by accordion, polka style.

In 3-D feels like a comedy album, but it’s also pretty damn legit musically. And if I see it’s predecessor, I guarantee you I’ll be picking that one up too.

(♠) While we rightfully think of Weird Al as a parody performer, only five of the album’s eleven songs are comedy covers – “Eat It” (Michael Jackson – “Beat It”), “The Brady Bunch” (Men Without Hats – “Safety Dance”), “I Lost on Jeopardy” (Greg Kihn Band – “Jeopardy”), “King Of Suede” (The Police – “King Of Pain”), and “Theme From Rocky XIII (The Rye or the Kaiser)” (Survivor – “Eye Of The Tiger”). The others are all originals.

Bob & Doug McKenzie – “Great White North” (1981)

How’s it goin’, eh? You hoser!

I had a lot of fun spinning a George Carlin record the other day, and decided I needed to pick up a few more old comedy albums for kicks. And at the top of my list is one I used to have on cassette and quite literally wore out, Bob & Doug McKenzie’s Great White North.

I discovered Bob & Doug’s “Great White North” comedy sketches on late-night playings of SCTV sometime around 1983-84. Back then I’m pretty sure these were coming in on UHF – they weren’t even on cable, I had to use an antenna on my tiny TV to try to tune in. In general I wasn’t a huge SCTV fan, so it would be quite disappointing if I stayed up late to watch and they didn’t run a Bob & Doug segment. Fortunately I had the album.

If you’re not familiar with Bob & Doug McKenzie (played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas), the characters were a couple of overly stereotypical, rural Canadians who smoked, drank beer, fried up back bacon, and were complete and total idiots. Sometimes the segments were awesome… and sometimes awful. You never quite knew what you were going to get, and all of them completely ad libbed. But they were popular enough to spawn an album of the same name, which made it to #1 in the Canadian charts and peaked at #8 on Billboard, selling over a million copies in North America and resulting in an utterly amazing movie entitled Strange Brew. Sophmoric? Check. Stereotypes? Check. But say what you will – the Bob & Doug characters were popular on both sides of the border.

I was stoked to find a pristine copy of this at Amoeba down in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. I almost decided to crash out in my hotel room after having my flight home cancelled, but figured what the hell and braved the traffic into Hollywood. And finding this thing made the whole trip worthwhile.

I haven’t listened to Great White North in probably 25 years, though their skit “Twelve Days of Christmas” still gets played on the radio every year. And frankly I forgot how ridiculous it is. Skits about playing Russian roulette with shaken cans of beer (“Beer Hunter”)… musings about black holes… and song called “Take Off” featuring none other than Geddy Lee of Rush fame (Take off, to the great white north… It’s a beauty way to go…). It was also educational, back in the day teaching me the old “double it and add 30” rule for converting Celsius and Fahrenheit (which I still use today). Hearing these two goofballs, one voice out of each speaker, brought back a lot of memories. I’m not going to say it held up great, and I probably won’t go back to it often, but it was still fun to hear it all again.

George Carlin – “Class Clown” (1972)

It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in the US, which means eating turkey, watching football, going absolutely insane over “deals” at the stores, and arguing about politics with relatives you only see once per year. It’s also a time for reflection and specifically for giving thanks for the good things in your life. Even during a tough year Thanksgiving reminds us to look at the positive aspects of our lives and recognize them. It’s a powerful sentiment – it’s so easy to get caught up in both your day-to-day existence and the things causing you stress, and we can all use a little reminding about the important things and people who are in our lives and make it even a little bit better every single day.

I’ve been particularly reflective this year, because 2016 has been tough at the Life in the Vinyl Lane household. Not hard as in we couldn’t make the mortgage payment or couldn’t put food on the table, mind you, but things like job changes and tons of work related travel (I think I’ll end 2016 having taken about 26 business trips…), and also my dad facing some health challenges. The last of these, of course, is the most serious.

There comes a point in your adulthood when you come to grips with the fact that your parents are getting older and that chances are you will outlive them. You also come to accept the fact that you can’t be sure how or when that will eventually happen – will they have a slow decline, will someone get seriously ill, or will it happen suddenly and without warning? I’ve watched my friends grapple with these challenges, showing great courage when faced with heart-breaking situations. Well, 2016 was my year to join the club.

I was thinking the other day about the trips my parents and I used to take, most of which were by car (or to be more precise, by van). When we lived in the southeast, every summer we’d drive straight through in one day to Long Island to stay with my godmother. When we moved back to Seattle it was road trips to Lake Tahoe or Reno, once again driving straight through in one day with my dad doing pretty much all of the driving, taking maybe a one hour break for a nap. We even once offered to drive a friend’s Winnebago from Anchorage, Alaska to Lake Tahoe for them when they moved, and just so happened to do it at the same time that Mount St. Helens blew it’s top, the icing on what had already been a disastrous, Griswold-esque trip. The things I remember most about these endless drives are the van smelling like an ashtray, peeing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and listening to comedy tapes in the front seat with my dad.

Like all fathers and sons, dad and I tried to bond over a number of things over the years. Things like bowling and chess I enjoyed, but he was just so good at both that eventually I lost interest. The opposite was true for those early Atari video games, which he enjoyed but I was so much better than him that it took the fun out of playing. We did, however, land on two things as I reached my early teens – baseball cards and comedy. He later turned baseball cards into a full time business, but comedy always remained a simple pleasure, not one we indulged in often together, but when we did we could go for hours at a time. And on those road trips we’d dust off all of our comedy cassettes and play them one after the other in the car. And the one comedian we both loved equally was George Carlin.

I was lucky enough to see Carlin live a few years before he passed away, down in either Vegas or Tahoe. His show was highly political, so while not perhaps as much fun as his earlier stuff Holly and I were both glad for the opportunity to see him perform. Fast forward to Friday and we find ourselves at Easy Street Records for the RSD Black Friday event, and the comedy section of the used records caught my eye. I wondered if they have any George Carlin… of course they did! And for five bucks I couldn’t not buy his all-time classic, Class Clown. It’s hard to believe that we used to buy comedy albums, even more so that we bought them on vinyl. But we did. The last one I remember getting was Sam Kinison’s Louder Than Hell right when it first came out in 1986.

But back to Carlin. I was wondering if this 44 year old material would still hold up today. And the good news is that it does, at least it does if you’re of a certain age. Great comedy is about telling a story and Carlin was one of the all-time greats in this regard, giving you very real-life stories that have funny twists to them. There’s nothing crazy, no massively bizarre and improbable scenarios; it’s just stories of growing up in New York City and attending Catholic schools. There’s no shocking turn at the end of the story, or the need to scream or yell or be extreme, just a man on stage talking to you and making you laugh.

One of the things that strikes me as I listen to Class Clown for the first time in probably 30 years is that for a guy who is so famous for his commentary on obscene words, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” he doesn’t swear much during his routine – hardly at all, in fact. But that routine was actually very important in a legal sense, as a dispute between WBAI radio and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) about the station playing it on the public airwaves went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court determined that Carlin’s routine was “indecent but not obscene,” resulting in what became known as “The Carlin Rule” about words that you can’t use on public airwaves. Because the government needs to protect the children from hearing the word “piss”. I mean, after all, I’m sure they’ll never hear that word anywhere else…

Carlin resonated with dad and I in part because we both spent a lot of time in Catholic schools and Class Clown has some great stuff on side B about the Catholic experience. “I Used to be Catholic,” “The Confessional,” “Special Dispensation – Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and Limbo”… things that are funny in and of themselves, but a bit funnier if you grew up around this stuff. The side closes with what is undoubtedly Carin’s masterpiece, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” a combination of seemingly simple comedy that also acts as a biting commentary on society and government. Amazingly, and perhaps disappointingly, it still sounds fresh and relevant today, in part because we’re still worried about words.

Class Clown was a fun trip down memory lane. I may need to play this one again for dad and see if he still enjoys it as much as I do. Get well soon, pops.