TURN IT UP Harry Shearer

Talking paeans to
patsies, tunes for tools, and Sarah Palin’s big bottom.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

In Spinal Tap, Harry Shearer (as Derek Smalls) lampoons rock
bands and the music industry. It’s satire, the comedic equivalent of the Pixies’
loud-quiet-loud dynamic, but not nearly as voluble and justly vicious, as when
he’s targeting the misfit toys that run our country. On Songs of the Bushmen, Shearer publicly flays the “stars and bit
players” in the tragedy of errors that is George W. Bush’s America. And even
if Spinal Tap took a page out of the Cannibal Corpse playbook and wrote violent
scenes about the rent carcasses of Karl Rove, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Donald
Rumsfeld, et al, it still wouldn’t measure up to the skewering Shearer serves
up, which is rooted in the reality of these government figures’ own words and
deeds.

 

And so, speaking with Shearer shortly before the 2008
presidential election when America
will choose between Hope and McSame, we learn that sometimes satire isn’t so
funny. And neither are candidate buttocks.

 

***

 

BLURT: So, uh… Got
hope?

 

SHEARER: [laughs]
I don’t think hope is what satirists are in business for. I have to say, just
on the level of a professional performance, I admire Obama’s performance over
the last 20 months. What that translates into for the future, I don’t know. As
I say, I’m a professional skeptic, so I’m not sure hope is in the equation. I’m
also a New Orleanian and it did not escape our notice that the largest manmade
engineering disaster ever to befall a major American city was totally
unmentioned throughout the presidential debate. So if that’s what hope’s made
of, it’s pretty thin gruel these days.

 

 

This bunch provides so
much good material for satirists, yet the point is clearly lost on them. Is satire
just a balm to soothe the choir to whom you preach?

 

Well, hopefully I’m preachin’ to more than the choir-I once
had George W. Bush say, in a sketch on my radio show, “preachin’ to the chorus
girls.” Early on, somebody asked me how to describe this record. I said, “It’s
a musical impeachment ‘cause we won’t get any other kind.” It’s for the
entertainment and edification of the audience, having these folks do a musical
perp walk. It’s sort of the same twisted joy most people got when they saw O.J.
bundled off to prison after this most recent trial: Finally, we got him. Clearly there was never any hope that it would
have any effect on any of the people themselves-I mean, the targets. I don’t
think satire can really accomplish that.

Every once in a great while, if ridicule is persistent and
ubiquitous enough, the target will shrink off the stage, a la Dan Quayle. But… that
was for stuff that didn’t have that much to do with his real role in politics
or the administration. When ridicule has its greatest effect, the bad news is
it’s normally because the target has been hung out there as bait…

Getting back to the New
Orleans experience, [FEMA director} Mike Brown was the
target of great and effective ridicule. But his boss-the guy who really ran Homeland
Security and who should’ve been here, Mike Chertoff, is still in office. He
escaped any ridicule at all… So sometimes the job of satire is to go past
ridicule to just try to figure out who’s really doin’ what and make usable fun of it, as opposed to just
turnin’ it into a tarring and feathering expedition.

 

 

You’ve experienced
censorship with this album over the cover, which depicts Bush with a bone
through his nose. Interestingly, this comes from the same people who complain
when their own First Amendment rights are violated. And cry “fair use,” like
when Foo Fighters, Heart, Van Halen protested the McCain campaign’s
unauthorized use of their music.

 

Mmm-hmm. Well, the idea that Clear Channel, which owns those
billboard companies that were censoring my ads, is also in the broadcasting
business and hoists the banner of free speech whenever anybody talks about
regulation of broadcasting in the public interest. So you don’t even have to go
outside that company to find how blatantly hypocritical this is. But, big news:
Large corporations and political figures are hypocrites. This just in!

 

 

There were so many
people you could have nailed on this album. How did you narrow it down?

 

I took the best-known people, like Rumsfeld, Cheney, Condi
Rice, Colin Powell, Karl Rove. And then I took people that just pissed me off.
Like Wolfowitz and John Yoo. I just thought that Yoo was about to escape any
kind of public obloquy for his role in writing some of the torture memos, some
of which are still secret to this day. And I just thought, if nobody else, the
kids at Berkeley who have to have him for a law
professor should know [who] they’re dealing with: A guy who may be well-advised
not to travel outside the borders of the United States for the next few
decades, lest he be subject to war crimes prosecution.

            And then
Karen Hughes is a longtime Bush advisor who, it just seemed to me to me, symbolize
the pugnacious hubris of this crowd. She was going to take on this job as head
of public diplomacy and make the Arab world love us. And actually, when she
finished her tenure in that job, she did everything but hang up a “Mission
Accomplished” banner on the way out. And the hubristic nerve of thinking that
we’ve done anything but engender incendiary feelings against this country in
the last seven or eight years was just mind-boggling. So I thought that had to
be documented.

            So
basically, the stars and the bit players that got my ire up.

 

 

Did the subject of
the song have any bearing on the musical style?

 

Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah. The Colin Powell song-I knew, sort of,
the story of the guy and my feeling about him. Which is, shall we say, if I
were Barack Obama, I wouldn’t be flattered that he’s just endorsed me…

I knew what I wanted to say about him, but not how to write
the song until I got into a car on my way to the Grammy Awards last year. I was
in sort of a foul mood and the driver had turned on smooth jazz. Just before I
snapped at him to turn it off, I realized: smooth jazz-Colin Powell. Then the
refrain came to me: “smooth move.” That’s sort of the way he gets through all
this. So yeah, the musical form there had a lot to do with it.

            I cheated a
little bit with Karl Rove. Obviously he doesn’t come from bluegrass country-he
comes from Texas.
But his nickname from Bush having been “Turd Blossom,” I couldn’t resist, you
know, a twist on “Orange Blossom Special.” Karen Hughes is from Texas, so a country
ballad seemed appropriate for her.

            For
Rumsfeld-most of those lyrics are, of course, actual quotes from his press
conferences-but I just thought I’d use the music from the time when he was a
kid… You know, the Sinatra/big band era.

John Yoo, the form of that came more from the idea of the
title and what it suggested: echoes of another angry rock song [The Who’s “Who
Are You?”]. And “935 Lies” just always felt like an angry swamp blues. That
just seemed to be where it lived.

 

 

That song really does
capture the anger many of us feel…

 

Yeah. That was one of the songs we recorded in New Orleans. And I had
this great guitar player, Shane Theriot, who plays with the Neville Brothers
among other people. He just brought that deep, kind of midnight swamp feel to
it, which seems yeah, very appropriate to the anger of the song.

 

 

Speakin’ of guitar
players, how did Jeff Skunk Baxter [Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan] respond to the
songs? He’s a conservative, a weapons consultant…

 

Jeff played on “Who Is Yoo?” When the producer, Jeffrey
Foskett, who is Brian Wilson’s musical director and a wonderful guy, suggested
Skunk, I thought, really? He said,
“No! He’ll be fine.” And I know Skunk, he sat in with Spinal Tap a few times
and he’s been nothin’ but nice to me, so I thought let’s leave it up to him. He
just set to work sayin’, “Maybe you could use a little of this? How about
this?” He just tore through a
ferocious couple hours of playing…. We knew how good this guy is, but he was on fire. And he was listening to a
playback with the lyrics, no wool was pulled over his eyes. He never reacted to
it at all, just said, “Man, I wanna get back to playin’ full-time.”

 

 

How would you
immortalize Sarah Palin in song?

 

I already have on MyDamnChannel.com. I just couldn’t help
myself. I wrote a song called “Bridge to Nowhere”… It suggested this dreamy,
kind of late-fifties exotica approach. She’s singing this wistful song to the bridge, itself.

 

 

Weren’t you at least
a little tempted to do a retread of
“Big Bottom?”

 

[laughs] No. Not
at all. I haven’t even seen her bottom. You sound more knowledgeable about
that-

 

 

-I don’t wanna brag…

 

Were you a judge at the Miss Alaska pageant? No, I find that
even with Sarah Palin, I tend to make jokes about things other than the anatomy
of the people involved.

 

 

Well, of course. Now,
considering the Pod Incident in This Is
Spinal Tap
, it seems that Derek Smalls could give advice about extricating oneself
from a predicament. What wisdom would he impart to the new president, who’ll
inherit Bush’s foul wind?

 

I don’t even think Derek could be of assistance. Whoever is
elected is inheriting maybe the biggest shitpile to ever fall upon a new
American president. The joke going forward is gonna be a guy with this unbelievable weight of crap, of two wars that we’re losing, an economy
that’s in the toilet, an energy crisis looming again, an environmental
calamity… He’s basically bent under the weight of this stuff saying ‘follow me’
when he can barely stand up straight.

        I think
Derek’s advice, about how to survive that, would be very much like his advice
about most everything. Which is just, “Turn
it up.”

 

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