Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Shaggs: The only true "teenage" music I've ever heard

The Shaggs: (from l to r) Betty, Helen, and Dot Wiggin

One of the great ironies/injustices of popular culture is that the music specifically marketed to teenagers is getting progressively more polished and "perfect" with each advance in technology, while the teenagers themselves remain -- as always -- bumpy, lurching, and awkward. There's an odd disconnect between the relentlessly smoothed-out, robotic, studio-crafted pop being released by a group like One Direction and the messy, utterly human vulnerability of that group's fans. Teenage music, then, bears no resemblance whatsoever to teenage life. A hopeless chasm exists between the two.

Mick: Handsomely un-handsome
This gap is nothing new, exactly. Past teen idols, like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley,  must have seemed superhuman to their fans, too. But Frank and Elvis both exuded a raw, quite human sexuality which largely eludes today's teen pop stars, who are "sexy" only in quotation marks and present a only a sanitized abstraction of carnal appeal to their fans, without any of that messy fluid exchange ruining it. It's interesting that during the 1960s, the British Invasion allowed a new type of entertainer to capture the teenage imagination. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were not conventionally handsome in the Sinatra/Presley tradition. They had big noses, big lips, bad teeth, and cheekbones which jutted in at odd angles. I was just watching a documentary about the Stones last night called Crossfire Hurricane, and it was fascinating to see the Stones in their 1960s prime via newsreel footage. They looked sort of gawky and malformed, with carelessly floppy hair and sallow complexions, and yet they were driving their female fans into a state of erotic frenzy. At last, the weirdos had won! But it didn't last. The 1970s brought a new generation of generically handsome, neutered teenage idols (David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman, Donny Osmond) who set the precedent for those to come. And now, I guess, we have Justin Bieber, the platonic ideal of the safe, boring, utterly harmless pop star, a kind of life-sized Ken doll for the girls of Young America to play with for a few years. Kind of a pity.

All of this brings me back to the topic of the Shaggs.

I couldn't possibly tell you the entire saga of this astonishing all-female 1960s singing group composed of sisters from a working class New Hampshire family. You'll have to rely on this bizarre but affectionate New Yorker article by Susan Orlean for the details. Here's an overview for the newbies: in 1968, a Fremont, NH mill worker named Austin Wiggin decided that he must fulfill the deathbed prophecy of his mother, who proclaimed that Austin's then-teenage daughters would be famous. Austin pulled the girls out of school and forced them to become a rock band, even though the girls had no musical inclination whatsoever and definitely did not want to become performers. Only one of the daughters, Dot, had any enthusiasm whatsoever for her dad's dream, so she was elected to be lead singer and songwriter of the resulting group, dubbed The Shaggs in honor of the Wiggin sisters' shaggy hairdos (and supposedly, the shagginess of the family dog). Despite their total lack of aptitude and success, The Shaggs soldiered on for 7 years, playing local gigs for audiences who either tolerated them politely or heckled them outright. The band finally ended in 1975 when Austin died, and the Wiggin girls -- no longer kids by then, of course -- went on to lead very ordinary, non-musical lives.
The Shaggs' lone, infamous LP
Before the group's sad, drawn-out death, however, The Shaggs recorded and (barely) released one extraordinary album: 1969's Philosophy of the World. Though only a handful of copies were originally pressed, the utterly bizarre LP went on to become a cult favorite with avant garde rock musicians (including Frank Zappa and NRBQ) and influential critics who discovered it years after it was recorded. The album has been reprinted several times over the years and has also been released on CD and MP3. For completists, there's even a collection of Shaggs rarities, live recordings, and outtakes called The Shaggs Own Thing, plus a hip indie-label tribute album called Better Than the Beatles. Even better, the strange, vaguely sad story of the Shaggs was the basis for a charming off-Broadway show, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, which I have seen and enjoyed. The musical tours quite a bit, and I was fortunate to catch it at Chicago's Lookinglass Theater a few years back.

But what about the original music itself? What's it like to listen to The Shaggs? I won't lie to you, dear reader, you  will probably find it torturous, verging on unlistenable. For three demure New Hampshire girls, The Shaggs make a powerful racket, clanging away at their out-of-tune instruments with abandon. In particular, drummer Helen Wiggin seems to be in a world all her own. Throughout the album, there are lots and lots of what music teachers would call "wrong notes," and the three ladies cannot seem to agree on a collective tempo, key, or time signature. Susan Orlean was right when she described their melodies as "squashed and bent." The album sounds like it was left out in the sun on a hot day and melted. If it weren't from 1969, you'd guess it to be some kind of primitive punk music, but the rawness of the music is at odds with the sweet simplicity of the lyrics. The Shaggs sing about looking for a lost cat ("My Pal Foot Foot"), the importance of obeying one's parents ("Who Are Parents?"), praising Jesus ("We Have a Savior"), and how nice it is to have a radio ("My Companion"). Austin Wiggin seems like he was a dictatorial parent who did everything in his power to keep the world away from his girls and vice-versa, so maybe the transistor radio was one of Dot Wiggin's few links to the outside world. Another recurring theme on the album is the foolishness of straying too far from one's home. "Little Sports Car" ends with Dot and her sisters singing, "I learned my lesson never to roam, never to roam, never to roam."

The late, great Crow's Nest in Crest Hill, IL
The main appeal of Philosophy of the World, to me, is that it provides a rare glimpse into the brain of a genuine teenager, without the interference of grown-up producers or executives. It's like an adolescent's diary brought to musical life, and for once the lurching, awkward bumpiness of the music matches the emotions of the singer. Nowhere is this more true than on the album's title cut, which is the first Shaggs song I ever heard. "Philosophy of the World" was included on a 2000 compilation of so-called "outsider music" I purchased at a great, now-defunct record store called the Crow's Nest near my home in Joliet, IL. As I drove home from the Crow's Nest, I popped the disc into my car's CD player, and that song came blaring out of the speakers. I was entranced. I was hooked. I knew I had to get every last bit of Shaggs music out there. Fortunately or unfortunately, there's not much. Once you own Philosophy of the World and The Shaggs Own Thing (both of which have been combined onto a single CD simply called The Shaggs), there's not much to get, other than the tribute album. Although most people would struggle to get through even a single Shaggs song, I've listened to their entire catalog many times -- and none more so than this track:

P.S. - The rarities compilation is well worth checking out, too. It contains some later studio recordings by the group, some of which demonstrate that the Wiggins had been indeed practicing their instruments at least a little. One song in particular I love is "You're Something Special to Me," which contains a lyric which summarizes a lot about my own personal mindset: "Please don't speak unkind words to me. That would make me unhappy." Very simple, of course, but very true as well. If that last song was too much for you, maybe this will be more your speed.

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